Recommended Read: Nocturnes

Some say the short story collection is a dying form, unsellable and therefore unpublishable. The money’s in the novel, those people say. Nevertheless, countless writers over the course of literary history have pulled off the waning form and broken into the literary mainstream by bridging the gap between collections of independent narratives and what we call the “novel”—notable examples being Maxine Hong Kingston with her debut Warrior Woman and pre-Pulitzer Junot Díaz with Drown. Both books are collections of stories, but the stories in each collection, when compared with each other, construct distinct emotional worlds—representing to the reader more than the scene-exposition basics of a traditional narrative and more than character- or plot- or setting-based narratives; rather, a rounded and comprehensive glimpse into the mechanism of humanity itself. It’s in these connections and mergers that literature grows, develops, and thrives—the connections of narrative forms, aesthetics, and thematic underpinnings is what drives the world of reading and writing into the future.

A writer that steps up to the plate of merging the short story collection with the novel is Kazuo Ishiguro, whose most recent book Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall pushes how we think of connection by presenting five pieces of varying length that all deal with music and the conflicted individual. Ishiguro connects these five stories, however, with more than just thematic similarities. For example, a minor character in “Crooner” is the unhappy wife of a has-been famous singer; in “Nocturnes,” she is a major character that shares a mischievous adventure in an expensive hotel where she stays next door to a struggling jazz saxophonist after they both undergo facial cosmetic surgery.

The strongest characteristic of Nocturnes is the complex stories that Ishiguro crafts and the complex manner in which he crafts them—he continuously moves in and out of a linear narrative, seamlessly drifting between the real-time plot and reminiscence. In this manner, he effectively reconstructs a sense of nostalgia that echoes the jazz music he writes about and plagues the characters he creates. His composition is witty, precise, and honest, his dialogue is authentic, and his characters are familiar. Ishiguro has long ago proved himself a contender, and this simple, extraordinary collection is Kazuo Ishiguro at his finest.

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Recommended Read: Sputnik Sweetheart

A decade ago, Haruki Murakami had broken out to American audiences and was learning to live the high life of authorial superstardom, as The Wind-up Bird Chronicle captivated readers worldwide and proved the Japanese writer to be a heavyweight in the world of contemporary literature. Following this novel, which was at that time his longest, Murakami returned to his roots with Sputnik Sweetheart, which debuted in Japan in 1999 and released in the United States in 2001 as translated by Philip Gabriel. Clocking in at little over 200 pages, Sputnik Sweetheart captures the novella-feel of his early work, specifically, Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973. Unlike his first two short novels, however, Sputnik Sweetheart saw publication in the United States and brings the short novel form in which Murakami started writing to meet his complex character development and plot structure. As such, Sputnik Sweetheart serves as a tribute to Murakami’s early writing days, but is a textbook example of his characteristic somber-sentimental, smooth, heart-wrenchingly beautiful prose.

“In the spring of her twenty-second year, Sumire fell in love for the first time in her life. An intense love, a veritable tornado sweeping across the plains–flattening everything in its path, tossing things up in the air, ripping them to shreds, crushing them to bits. The tornado’s intensity doesn’t abate for a second as it blasts across the ocean…”

Sputnik Sweetheart starts out as a simple enough story narrated by a mid-twenties elementary school teacher referred to only as “K” who is in love with aspiring novelist Sumire, who he knows will never love him, as she has her heart set instead on a mysterious older businesswoman with a history and a head full of snow white hair. As such, when Sumire disappears on a small island near Greece, “K” joins the search and discovers that while he thinks he is looking for Sumire, he is actually searching for himself. Equal parts love story and suspense novel, Sputnik Sweetheart exemplifies the best of Murakami—the nostalgia of Norwegian Wood, the dream-like scenes of The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, and the complexity of narrative of Kafka on the Shore.

Whether this is an introduction to the writer or the next step in a reader’s survey of Murakami’s world of coffee shops, record collections, and city streets, Sputnik Sweetheart is sure to please. The novel is Murakami at his agonizingly best.

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