"Miss Jane" by Brad Watson

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Brad Watson presents the story of Jane Chisolm, born in Mississippi in the early part of the 20th Century, in Miss Jane. Delivered at home by a country doctor, Jane comes into the world with a birth defect that complicates her bodily functions, and which the doctor believes would put her at perilous risk during a pregnancy, if such is even possible for her. If Jane is unique, this narrative treats her with reality, candor, and honor.

The book opens with Jane’s birth, the doctor’s concerns, and her superstitious parents’ doubts. During her childhood Jane only spends a few months going to the one-room school, but learns how to read in that short time. She learns her numbers watching her dad sell items and make change in his roadside store. But she learns to trust and love the avuncular doctor who takes an interest in her growth and development, in her life.

At length it is the doctor, Ed Thompson, who becomes her most important mentor and confidant. He researches possible cures for her physical abnormalities, but given the time period, the first half of the 20th Century, these will not pan out for Jane. The doctor visits frequently during her infancy and babyhood, and as she grows up, his visits become more those of a devoted and caring neighbor. When Jane travels socially to the doctor’s home, she encounters the peacocks with which the doctor has populated his property. These unique creatures give piercing calls, and keep insect numbers under control, but most importantly allow Jane and the doctor to consider some of life’s essential questions. 

Dr. Thompson introduced peafowl to the area early in his practice, and they become part of the story as his and Jane’s years pass. She becomes familiar with them during her visits, and at length the doctor shares his thoughts about them. He sees them as magnificent and proud creatures, who make extravagant display at no slight cost to themselves. The very illogic of it is a wonderment to the doctor, and generates thoughts on creation, life, and the apparent lack of reason to it all. He explains to Jane that, like her, the birds do not have apparent outward genitalia, but must procreate through a small puckered opening called a cloaca. Thus does her communicate his opinion of Jane’s grace, beauty and uniqueness in the world. It is a beautiful moment in a book rife with them.

Mr. Watson has placed in Jane’s life the wonder and unsolvable riddle of life. Jane is no scholar, but her wisdom and ability shine through. In Jane’s dotage, the peafowl have colonized Jane’s property, and the reader is moved to admire Jane’s resilience, and the author’s wondrous though very plainspoken skill in showing it to the world.

"Norwegian Wood" by Haruki Murakami

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When his debut novel Norwegian Wood put Haruki Murakami “on the map” when released, it launched a career for a writer of some very speculative fiction, featuring other-worldly plots and settings. Norwegian Wood however, takes place in very down-to-earth terms with very realistic people, events, and settings. Protagonist Toru Watanabe pursues his college career in the late 1960s and with its inevitable romantic attachments, with typically mixed results. This book took me on a voyage and surprised me with its constant allusions to popular songs of the times, including the Beatles’ song of the title.

Watanabe has few friends while living at a dormitory in Tokyo. He simply doesn’t find the young wastrels who are his fellow students very interesting. His one friend from high school killed himself when he was 17. In this bereft and unforgiving world Watanabe turns to his friend’s girlfriend Naoko, and she looks to him. This vulnerable and enigmatic girl doesn’t necessarily return Toru’s affection, but needs him nonetheless. He remains steadfast in his friendship, visiting her at the sanatorium where she tries to recover some emotional strength.

Toru, working and studying, cannot see her often at her remote hospital in the mountains, and captures the eye of Midori, a pretty and vivacious young girl who wears her skirts too short. Midori leavens this story with her wit, audacious flirtation, and her worldly-wise take on all situations. She deflates egos, spots a sham a mile away, and is out for herself, in pretty teen-age girl style. Toru catches her eye, and the interactions between these two characters is a definite highlight. Toru’s dense and slow reaction to her overt affection and effort at seduction is hilarious. Typical nineteen year-old guy.

This has the very strong flavor of memoir. The tribulations of becoming an adult affect us all, and this book is a bittersweet journey for anyone who has gone through it. If you happen to be of Toru’s age, a time when the Beatles absolutely ruled pop culture, this book captures that moment superbly. But even more noteworthy, Murakami captures a timeless, sympathetic, and beguiling path for his hero. This was a wonderful diversion for me, and I treasure it. While is doesn’t represent an attempt by the author to capture any of the alien and fantastical worlds of some of his other work, this is wonderful in its own right.