The Strange Library – Book Review

Title – The Strange Library

Author – Haruki Murakami

Original language – Japanese

English translator – Ted Goossen

Illustrator – Chip Kidd

Genre – Fantasy fiction

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“Ever since I was little, my mother had told me, if you don’t know something, go to the library and look it up.”

Like most of us who have grown up on books, our unnamed narrator decides to visit the town library to issue some tomes. But strange things happen at the strange library. In spite of reaching almost near closing hours, the librarian insists that he read the books there itself, since those particular books are for reference only and cannot be issued. The narrator follows the librarian to the “reading room” – a long-winding walk through a labyrinth of corridors in the basement, where he is promptly locked up and told he can’t leave until he finishes reading all the books the librarian has given him.

The only other presences in the reading room are a talking sheep and a mysterious girl who bring him three meals a day. On questioning his fellow captives, the duo reveal nobody ever leaves the reading room. Once they finish reading the books he has given them, the librarian cuts off their heads and eats their brain, thereby consuming all their knowledge.

A quirky story with dark undertones, that takes you into the surreal world Murakami is known for. Past and present merge, as do reality and fantasy. Perfectly quipped by the mysterious girl who turns transparent at night, “Just because I don’t exist in the sheep man’s world, it doesn’t mean that I don’t exist at all“, Murakami gets the reader to think about how real reality really is, and which world is fantasy when the two collide.

As the narrator laments, “All I did was go to the library to borrow some books“, it is not just the characters sucked into the nightmarish library, but the reader who is also drawn into the peculiar world of Haruki Murakami. The book is printed in typewriter font, giving it an old world charm. Chip Kidd’s illustrations are vivid and brilliantly carry the story along, with bright colors contrasting the dark theme. This one is sure to have book lovers thinking strangely about libraries and suspiciously about librarians by the end of the book.

My rating – 3/5 for the story, 5/5 for the illustrations

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Sea Prayer – Book Review

Title – Sea Prayer

Author – Khaled Hosseini

Illustrator – Dan Williams

Genre – Fiction

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Finally got my hands on Khaled Hosseini’s long-awaited book – a combined creation with illustrator Dan Williams, to bring to life a story about Syrian refugees. The epistolary book is written in the form of a letter from a father to his child on the eve of their journey out at sea. Rather, it can be called more of a poem or letter, instead of story. The narrator is a father cradling his child, as they wait for the break of dawn when a boat will arrive to take them to a new home. As they stand waiting in the dark night, the father reminisces about the summers of his childhood at his own grandfather’s house in the city of Homs. He speaks to his son, Marwan, about the time when he was a young boy himself, the same age as Marwan. “The stirring of olive trees in the breeze, the bleating of goats, the clanking of cooking pots” seem like another life altogether; a life before the skies started “spitting bombs”. That life is now a dream, a long-dissolved rumor. All Marwan and children his age know now are protests, sieges, starvation, burials. They can identify shades of blood and sizes of bomb craters. They will never know the country of their birth as a place without bombings or ruin.

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As they wait, impatient for sunrise, and dreading the uncertainty of a world that might not invite them in, they still hope to find home. The father assures his child that nothing bad will happen if he holds his hand, but he knows these are only words. The sea is deep and vast and indifferent, and he knows he is powerless in contrast. And that is why he prays. That is the essence of his “Sea Prayer” – that his most precious cargo is protected, and the sea delivers them safely to a new land.

Sea Prayer” was inspired by the incident of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian refugee who had drowned in the Mediterranean Sea and whose body was washed ashore on a beach in Turkey in 2015. In the years after Alan’s death, thousands more died or went missing at sea while attempting to flee their torn country. Hosseini’s response to the current refugee crisis is an attempt to remind us that an incident is not isolated. This is not the story of one child or one parent, but the lives of many more – names and faces we might not always be told about in our corners of the world. The watercolor illustrations are fabulous and stay true to the text – beginning with bright colors as the father thinks fondly of a time long gone by, to dark and dreary shades of greys and browns reflective of the current situation in the country. The transformation from home to war zone is powerfully depicted in both words and sketches, and heartbreaking as you flip through the few pages of this slim volume. A light book which weighs heavily on the reader.

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Sea Prayer” was created as an effort to raise funds to help refugees around the world who are fleeing war and persecution. Proceeds from the sales of this book are said to be donated to UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and The Khaled Hosseini Foundation. A short but powerful book – the text says a little, the illustrations show a lot, and much more is conveyed in the background, beyond what one is reading. Having read Hosseini’s other works, I had hoped for this one to continue for longer. Nevertheless, it is impactful and evocative in it’s own way.

Rating – 5/5

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This photograph of September 2015 made global headlines. Taken by Nilüfer Demir, a Turkish photojournalist based in Bodrum, Turkey, three-year-old Alan Kurdi became a symbol of the plight of those fleeing conflict in Syria. This haunting image compelled Hosseini to write “Sea Prayer” .

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