Friday, February 23, 2024

Book Review: A Bakeable Feast: Bread. Sex. Honor. poems by Klecko (2023)

The cover of A Bakeable Feast, by Klecko. (Photo by Mark C. Taylor)

Klecko, baker and poet.

Danny Klecko, known by the mononym Klecko, would
probably make fun of me for using the word “mononym” in the first sentence of this book review. Klecko is a poet and a baker, and his most recent book, published in December of 2023, is
A Bakeable Feast: Bread. Sex. Honor.  

A Bakeable Feast is a collection of 211 poems and taken together they offer insightful glimpses into humanity. Klecko’s poems are sometimes sweet, sometimes crusty, but they are always bursting with the flavor of real life. It’s hard to pick out specific lines I like from Klecko’s poems, because I just want you to read the whole poem.  

Some of my favorite lines are in “Baking Memory #64” 

“People are flawed—People are stupid 

They disappoint 

And seldom deserve trust 

But if you stand outside an airport 

When people send those they love away 

It might be just enough to give you hope” (p.68) 

There are many humorous moments through A Bakeable Feast. Klecko is Saint Paul, through and through, and every Saint Paulite will appreciate these lines: 

“Because I was tired, Because I was lazy 

Because I have money to burn 

I stopped at Kowalski’s 

Knowing they would allow me the pleasure 

Of paying 40% more than their competitors” (p.138) 

One of my favorite poems is “Baking Memory #131.” Klecko tells us about his attempts to work with young men who had recently gotten out of jail. They all ended up going back to prison. Klecko tells his wife that he has failed, and she offers him the wisdom: 

“None of us has the power to grant healing 

But we can offer moments worth remembering” (p.204)  

Moments worth remembering, I love that. Marcel Proust would appreciate “Baking Memory #146,” Klecko’s ode to the madeleine. After Proust read Klecko’s poem, it would probably spur Proust to write another volume of his memoirs.  

“Baking Memory #171” is another favorite of mine, as Klecko describes “The Quiet Man,” an owner of the bakery that Klecko didn’t always get along with at first. Over time, Klecko came to appreciate him. 

“At times I thought he might be an angel 

When I found out he shared a birthday 

With Elvis and David Bowie, I had my answer.” (p.272) 

That’s proof enough for me.  

“Baking Memory #185” is a beautiful poem in which Klecko relates Tempe Debe’s story of meeting JFK in Duluth, eight weeks before his assassination. Tempe Debe was 24 years old then, a Native American woman working in downtown Duluth, and in their brief interaction, JFK made her feel heard. 

“He told Tempe... 

After she graduated college 

He’d find a place for her 

We need people like you 

Then he left, as he crossed the street 

He turned around and waved goodbye” (p.291) 

Even if you think you don’t like poetry, you need to read A Bakeable Feast, there will be something in it that will grab you and touch your heart.  

Monday, February 12, 2024

Book Review: First Person Singular, stories by Haruki Murakami (2020, English translation 2021)

The cover for the English translation of First Person Singular, stories by Haruki Murakami. English translation 2021. 

The Japanese novelist and short story writer Haruki Murakami.

The Japanese author Haruki Murakami is best known for his novels, but he’s also published several collections of short stories. His most recent collection of short stories is
First Person Singular, released in Japan in 2020, and in English translation in 2021. True to the title, all eight stories in the book are written in, well, the first person singular.  

The narrators of these 8 stories sometimes have quite a bit in common with the real-life Haruki Murakami. Sometimes they are even named Haruki Murakami. Does that mean that these stories are true? Well, I doubt that Haruki Murakami actually met a talking monkey, as the narrator does in “Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey.” But you never know.  

The stories detail some of Murakami’s obsessions, like jazz, classical music, and baseball. Western pop culture is another recurring theme as well. I enjoyed all of the stories in the book, and my four favorites were “On a Stone Pillow,” “Charlie Parker Plays Bossa Nova,” “With the Beatles,” and “The Yakult Swallows Poetry Collection.”  

Describing the plots of Murakami short stories seems superfluous, as it’s less about what happens in the stories and more about the writing style. Murakami’s style is straightforward and easy to read, even as the events he’s describing might take a turn towards the surreal.  

In “On a Stone Pillow,” the narrator has a one-night stand with a woman who is afraid that she might yell out the name of another man during sex. She suggests that he can stuff a towel in her mouth so she can bite down on it at the moment of supreme passion. When that moment arrives, she does yell out a name, and even though her voice is muffled by the towel, the narrator can understand the name. “All I recall is that it was some nothing, run-of-the-mill name, and that I was impressed that such a bland name was, for her, precious and important.” (p.38)  

The woman also writes tanka poems, and she later sends him a collection of her poems that she has self-published. He ruminates about them, and wonders what they reveal about her personality.  

“Charlie Parker Plays Bossa Nova” is a humorous story about the narrator writing a satirical review of an album that never existed, titled Charlie Parker Plays Bossa Nova. The satirical review tells us that this album was released in 1963, as bossa nova was becoming known outside of Brazil and taking the jazz world by storm. Of course, this album never happened, because Charlie Parker died in 1955. The narrator even went so far as to invent a track listing for the album. Much to his surprise, many years later, he finds a copy of a record titled Charlie Parker Plays Bossa Nova in a small record store. He doesn’t buy it, and then of course he never finds it again. Moral of the story: buy weird albums when you find them, because maybe you’ll never see them again. Even if it’s a weird album that your subconscious mind dreamed up and that doesn’t even exist in reality. Because you never know.  

“With the Beatles” has little to do with the album of that name. A memory of a girl holding that album triggers a reminiscence of the narrator’s girlfriend in high school. She wasn’t much of a Beatles fan though, as she preferred easy-listening music like Percy Faith and Ray Conniff rather than the Fab Four. The narrator recounts an odd encounter he had with his girlfriend’s older brother. It’s a melancholy story, and it also references the Japanese author Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s short story “Spinning Gears.” 

There’s a beautiful part in the story where the narrator tells us about his high school girlfriend: “It’s hard for me to say this now, but she never rang that special bell inside my ears. I listened as hard as I could, but never once did it ring. Sadly. The girl I knew in Tokyo was the one who did it for me. This isn’t something you can choose freely, according to logic or morality. Either it happens or it doesn’t. When it does, it happens of its own accord, in your consciousness or in a deep spot in your soul.” (p.119-20)  

The Yakult Swallows Poetry Collection” is a great short story about my favorite sport, and also Haruki Murakami’s: baseball. Murakami paints a picture of what it’s like to be a baseball fan. When Murakami was a young man the Sankei Atoms (later to change their name to the Yakult Swallows) were a pretty lackluster team. “I’d enjoy it when the team won the odd game, and when they lost, I’d console myself with the thought that it’s important in life to get used to losing.” (p.207) When you’re following a team over a 162-game season in the US, or a 144-game season in Japan, even the best team will lose about one third of their games. You’d better get used to losing if you’re a baseball fan. As Murakami writes, “It’s true that life brings us far more defeats than victories. And real-life wisdom arises not so much from knowing how we might beat someone as from learning how to accept defeat with grace.” (p.208)  

The Haruki Murakami who is narrating the short story tells us that he wrote a book of poems about baseball called The Yakult Swallows Poetry Collection. The narrator Haruki Murakami also wrote novels titled Hear the Wind Sing and A Wild Sheep Chase, just like the real-life Haruki Murakami. But to add to the confusion, the real-life Haruki Murakami did not write a volume of poems titled The Yakult Swallows Poetry Collection. (The narrator fooled me, as I went searching through Murakami’s bibliography.) And I suppose that’s the point: to make something sound like it might be true, even though it’s not. Because I’m a baseball fan, I love the idea of the real-life Haruki Murakami writing a book of poems about his favorite baseball team, even though it’s something only the fictional Haruki Murakami has done. If I ever meet the real-life Haruki Murakami, I’ll tell him I like his baseball poems. And maybe we can watch a baseball game together over some dark beer.  

First Person Singular is an absorbing collection of short stories, and a look into some of the obsessions and preoccupations of Haruki Murakami.