Sunday, December 07, 2008

Cathedral : Raymond Carver

Raymond Carver

I had read somewhere on the web that Raymond Carver is apparently one of Haruki Murakami's favorite authors, so much so that the title of Murakami's book/memoir What I talk about when I talk about running, was inspired by Raymond Carver's book title What We Talk About When We Talk about Love. I'm always curious to see who influences my favorite "artist's family trees," so I decided to check out Carver's Cathedral, a collection of his short stories.

While on the most part, the short stories were mostly about disappointments and were kind of depressing, I rather enjoyed them. These short stories describe everyday men and women and the issues they face, such as a father's feelings before a reunion with an estranged son or a woman's perspective on her husband after he has been laid off. Carver sticks to a very realism-based tone, only describing what's going on in the scene and what the protagonist is thinking, unlike Murakami, who frequently departs into the abstract and surreal. It's never overtly stated, but these stories focus on American characters.

It was interesting reading one story after another, as each story has such a distinct situation and accompanying set of feelings. On some level, it seemed like Carver understood the different levers of disappointment, sadness, and embarassment and was methodically going through situations that covered each distinct permutation.

These feelings aren't ones that I think about on a daily occurrence either. Rather, these are thoughts and feelings that fade into your subconsciousness and I think subtly shape your personality and outlook on life.

Anyways, I recommend this little book of short stories.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Million Little Pieces : James Frey

Million Little Pieces
James Frey

This memoir got a bit of negative publicity a few years ago, after The Smoking Gun uncovered some falsehoods about events in the book and Oprah denouncing Frey, after she had selected the book for her book club. (Wikipedia has the whole story)

My first reaction after finishing this memoir was that it read like fiction or at least a guy's sugared-up version of his life. All of the characters just came across as 1-dimensional movie characters, each with their differing motivations. The whole time I was thinking that it was blend of a more-mature version of Catcher in the Rye (the whole smart protagonist-angry-at-the-world thing) and the movie version of Girl, Interrupted (glossification of mental issues).

And umm, maybe I've the advantage of perspective, but I don't get the outrage. Seriously, this dude was in rehab for some hard-core drugs and alcohol abuse. Do you really expect him to have the discipline for memoir truth?

So I read this with the perspective that it was fiction. And I would say that I might recommend this to say college age readers, folks who have matured beyond Catcher in the Rye and who would benefit from reading a sugar-coated storyline of how badly drugs can mess you up. But for me, I just didn't get very much out of it. I enjoyed certain parts - his interactions with his parents, his descriptions of his pain (cringe-inducing in parts) and his love story. But in the end, it just felt like a somewhat generic movie that I'll forget about soon afterward.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

What I talk about when I talk about Running : Haruki Murakami

What I talk about when I talk about Running
Haruki Murakami

This is a non-fiction book by Haruki Murakami, describing his lengthy experience with long-distance running (having run almost 1 marathon a year for 25 years) and its effect on his writing. I will be the first to admit that I'm a prime "target reader" for this novel. I'm a big Murakami fan, have lived in Cambridge, MA (where Murakami also lived and talks about in the book) and am a runner to boot, so I found this memoir to be quite interesting on several levels.

A few thoughts:
1) I really liked some of Murakami's insights on running. In particular, he thought that unlike athletes of other sports, a lot of non-elite runners aren't driven by competition with others, but rather are self-competitive. They are most happy when they accomplish the goals that they set for themselves and are driven by self-improvement. This is a spot-on description for me and particularly for my running.

2) Murakami hints at his aging and particularly on its negative effect on his recent marathon performance. For those already familiar with Murakami's other works, his narration here doesn't differ too much from some of his main characters in his fictional works. Like how his characters seem to be very okay with going with the flow in some very odd situations and interacting with odd characters, Murakami comes across as pretty accepting (or perhaps resigned) to his aging.

3) Murakami mentions that he's comfortable with having a difficult and generally "unliked" personality as a writer. This strikes me as particularly strange as he seems like he'd be a generally well-liked person in real life...

Anyways, I suspect for existing Murakami fans, it shouldn't take too much convincing to check out this book. You definitely get some insight into Murakami as an author and I must say that the things he says aren' too far off than what you'd imagine.

But for newbies to Murakami, I would still recommend some of his fictional works, such as Wind Up Bird Chroncile or his short stories floating around the web.

Friday, November 28, 2008

NYTimes 100 Notable Books of 2008

Update Here is NYTimes Top 10 books of 2008.

NYTimes's 100 Notable Books of 2008

Just plowed through a couple of books on my Thanksgiving break. Will post thoughts on them soon.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Diving Pool - Yoko Ogawa

Diving Pool
by Yoko Ogawa

These stories are still rattling around in my head.

A few notes. Perhaps it's just the short story format, but it seemed like Ogawa has a very compact way of writing, such that if you read a sentence too quickly, it's very possible that you'll miss the whole point of a paragraph or a page.

Secondly, her characters are simultaneously normal and sadistic in a way that makes you rethink which average jane (the characters are female) who you thought were normal might in fact have some not-so-comfortable thoughts bouncing around in her head.

Definitely recommend a read. I'd be interested to see what her full-length novels are like.

[Found via Mefi]

Thursday, August 07, 2008

China: Humiliation & The Olympics

Interesting (although perhaps an overly simplified) article on why the China government reacts the way it does:

NYTimes Out There (Michael Phelps)

Reading articles on Olympic athletes is always fascinating, but at times it feels like I'm reading a mix of erotica and superhero comic books adapted for sports. Here's the NYTimes article on US swimming phenom, Michael Phelps:
Phelps had other attributes, too, that would help him develop into the rare amphibious creature he would become. His joints were unusually flexible. Lying on his back, he could stretch his legs and point his toes far enough so that they would brush the ground. His shoulders had a similarly outsize range of motion, giving him the potential for great power and fluidity in his strokes. Even his spine proved particularly amenable to balancing in, and slithering through, water. “Michael,” Bowman says, “had everything.”
The full article.

Friday, August 01, 2008

NYTimes The Trolls Among Us

NYTimes article, Trolls Among Us interviews the uber trolls of the internet. Why do these personalities remind me of A Clockwork Orange?

Monday, July 14, 2008

Spain grants rights to great apes

NYTimes writes about Spain's decision to grant some rights to the great apes.
If the bill passes — the news agency Reuters predicts it will — it would become illegal in Spain to kill apes except in self-defense. Torture, including in medical experiments, and arbitrary imprisonment, including for circuses or films, would be forbidden.
I've always thought the ethical issue of how we treat other animals to be a fascinating one. Here's the full article:
When Human Rights Extend to Nonhumans.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Itch

A fascinating New Yorker article describing a lady, whose itch was so terrible that she scratched a hole through her skull. The article gets at medical issues that we don't have a clear picture of, such as itching and phantom limbs and in this respect, some of the examples they give are rather perturbing.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Wind Up Bird Chronicle : Haruki Murakami

Wind up Bird Chronicle
Haruki Murakami

I think this is my favorite Murakami book so far. There's a maturity and depth to this book that is not in his other books that I've read so far. You've still got Murakami's usual crisp and hopelessly addictive writing style. And there's a number of classic recurring Murakami themes: music and pop culture references, a female character disappearing and bizarre/surreal/semi-mystical powers at play. But here, he's able to sink his teeth into more powerful subjects, like issues affecting marriage as well as the Japanese involvement in World War II. (How many novelists can say that they pair those two subjects together in a novel?)

As a result of this more expansive nature, a number of secondary characters get more coverage than his other novels. This is not to say that there are multiple main characters. Murakami's books usually have one strongly defined protagonist, which he seems to return to again and again (in fact, in my mind, all of his books have the same main character) and all of the secondary characters really are thrown in to guide the protagonist through his odyssey. However, in this novel, Murakami can more leisurely go into some stories of these secondary characters, such as a military character's secret mission experience.

Finally, unlike a number of Murakami's other novels, which end rather obtusely, this novel felt like it had a specific and realistic closure.

I must say that it's been a bit eye-opening reading a Murakami novel after so long. I don't think Murakami is exactly weighty serious literature that changes your perspective on life. But it is writing that is well done and is consistently interesting. I look forward to the next time I get some time to read another Murakami.

Friday, February 22, 2008

The Enigma of Amigara Fault

The Enigma of Amigara Fault is a rather creepy story by Junji Ito about mysterious human-shaped holes that perfectly match a person's shape. Really interesting read...

[via Mefi post]

Monday, January 28, 2008

What is the What

What is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng
By Dave Eggers

I really liked this. I think as an American, it can be hard to learn more about other cultures and countries. Much of the world news doesn't register more than a blip in the daily (television) news here, and many regions of the world don't even get that coverage.

As a result, Africa has always remained a enigmatic continent, with my exposure to it being limited to the "help the starving Africans" commercials, the Nigerian 419 email scams, and a jumble of "third-world" keywords like starvation, widespread AIDs and lack of access to clean water.

What is the What does a phenomenal job at giving an ignorant reader (like me) a keen understanding of 1) what someone from Sudan had to go through to survive physically, emotionally and spritually and 2) some of the global political reasons for why things are the state they are in Sudan. What is the What is essentially an autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, a Lost-Boy survivor from Sudan, with Dave Eggers just lending his knowledge of the English language to tell (and promote) the story.

Some issues in the book are simply quite unsettling. It's one thing to think about foreign policies in the abstract from a comfy chair, but yet another to hear how it affects Achak's and others lives. How it can split up families, kill best friends and lovers, etc.

It's also quite uncomfortable thinking about how in moving from Sudan (later Kenya) to the US, Achak no longer has to constantly worry about war, diseases, starvation, but still has to deal with a system and a culture that is insiduously emotionally difficult and inequitable. That the culure of my country can be so harsh on immigrants was very thought-provoking.

I highly recommend this book.