Saturday, January 31, 2009


Apparently I can post in Japanese.

The above title (translation: What I Talk About When I Talk about Reading) is a play on the title of Murakami's most recent book, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running 走ることについて語るときに僕の語ること, which is itself a play on Raymond Carver’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Love. Note that we use different characters for "I". He uses one that's typical of men and especially boys, , and I use the standard, .

For decades Murakami has been a committed long-distance runner, having run marathons all over the world. Released in October 2007, I'm waiting for the paperback (Japanese) version of this to come out.

2008 Reading List, 10-13

10 Corelli's Mandolin- Louis De Bernieres
When the film version of this came out (with Nicolas Cage in the lead), it was summarily panned by critics. Another example of a rich, complex, much-loved novel being ruined by Hollywood. I was never all that keen on reading the book, but I eventually saw so many copies of it in used book stores and it came so highly recommended that I didn't feel I had much choice.
It turned out to be just my cup of tea. History, love, totalitarianism, the brutality and futility of war-- great themes, and complex, well-drawn characters. The story revolves around actual historical events, the Italian occupation of the Greek island of Cephallonia and subsequent massacre of Italian forces by the German.

11 Until I Find You- John Irving

I've read quite a few Irving novels over the years, starting with The Hotel New Hampshire back in high school. Upon review, I see that this is the fifth (or possibly sixth) I've read in the past 25 years. There are many recurring themes in Irving's work, notably wrestling, prostitution, deadly accidents, Vienna, bears, New England, etc. All of these, with the exception of bears, appear in this novel. Another common element of Irving's fiction is fairly heavy sexual content and variation. I found this aspect of UIFY to be quite disturbing. The main character is sexualized at a frightfully young age, and as a child he becomes the victim of abuse at the hands of women and older girls.
But discomfort aside, Irving knows his craft. The book is divided into two parts, childhood and adulthood. In the childhood section, the main character, Jack, is raised by his tattoo artist mother. He never meets his father, though his mother drags him around Europe for several months (ostensibly) in pursuit of the man. As an adult, Jack slowly discovers that much of what he learned about his absent father as a child was false. At 848 pages, it's too long. I don't think I'd recommend this book.

12 A Long Way Down- Nick Hornby
Like numbers eleven and thirteen, I found this book at my guest house in Chiang Mai. I've read most of Hornby's books, and recall the buzz (radio/print) surrounding the 2005 release of this novel. (I should note, as I did with the 2007 List, that Hornby's Polysyllabic Spree was the inspiration behind my decision to keep track of the books I read.)
I liked this book. It's about a disparate group of people that fate brings together on a rooftop on New Year's Eve. Each intends to commit suicide, but after running into all the other would-be suiciders, none are able to go through with it. They share their stories, and even afterward continue to meet. One thing I liked about the book was that a set-up like this could easily lead to a story about overcoming adversity and personal growth wherein, when faced with the problems of others, each of the characters is somehow inspired and learns to value the positive aspects of their own lives. At the end of the book the characters are, for the most part, somewhat better off than they were at the start. But there's no major transformation, and it's not at all inspirational.

13 Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance- Robert M. Persig
A surprisingly dull re-read. The last time I delved into this book, I was still in my teens. At that time, I found the ideas it explored to be genuinely interesting. Twenty years later, I found the philosophy less stimulating and the narrator to be a bore.
I do recall an embarrassing anecdote connected with my first reading of this book. I was about half-way through it when I was hanging out with my pal EVR and the guys from Bomb. The bass player (I think) was talking about riding a motor cycle, and I said that while I hadn't spent much time on a bike, I liked the idea of experiencing the passing world without the windshield or framing of the windows of a car. To which he said, you mean like he says in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance? I was so busted.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

I Heard it Through the Grape Vine

by Marvin Gaye was the number one song in the US on this date in 1969. In the UK it was Marmalade's Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da (?).

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

At Last I Can Remove that Canadian Flag from my Backpack

My earliest memories of presidential events are probably of Watergate. I was five and a half and getting ready to enter the first grade when when Nixon finally resigned, so I suppose that's not too surprising. I have much clearer memories of the '76 presidential campaign, particularly the big, toothy grin caricatures of Jimmy Carter. Then there was John Anderson. The Eighties were a dark time for my father. For various reasons, he found it difficult living in a world where Reagan was elected president. Twice. I was reminded of this after GWB became my president.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Killing in the Name

Tonight on the ride back from San Francisco I heard Rage Against the Machine's* Killing in the Name. The song always reminds me of an incident that happened while I was living in Tokyo in the mid-nineties. I'd gone out with my housemate, Miwa, and beau, Evil Dave, and we'd ended up at the notorious Gas Panic. Located in Roppongi district, it was a particular sort of meat market. This was my first and only visit, and looking around, I felt oddly out of place. The crowd was composed entirely of white men (by the look of them, mostly American military) and Japanese women. While my companions broadly fit into these catagories, I did not.

The place was already pretty lively, but when Killing in the Name came on, the guys went wild, fist pumping, waving their drinks, and singing along. Watching a bunch of military guys shouting lyrics like:

Killing in the name of!

And now you do what they told ya, now you're under control
And now you do what they told ya!

Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me! (15x?)

well, it was precious. The irony of this seems to have been lost on all but me and my friends. (Full lyrics here. Or better still, watch this video.)

*While not a big fan of the music, I've had a certain fondness for RATM since I heard the band interview Noam Chomsky on the radio years ago.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

2008 Reading List, 6-9

6 Out- Natsuo Kirino
Kirino is an award-winning crime/mystery writer from Japan, and I suppose it was her nationality that initially attracted me to this book. Once I'd started, however, I was quickly pulled into the world of the four women who narrate the story in turn. It begins with one woman impulsively strangling her no-good husband. The other three women are her co-workers on the night shift at a factory that makes boxed lunches. They each have problems of their own, and the grim depiction of the women's struggles is worlds away from the comfortable middle class folks who populate the Japanese novels I usually read. Colleagues turn accomplices, helping to dispose of the body in a rather grizzly fashion. The description of the dismembering is quite graphic, so much that I had to skim over some passages. I have come close to fainting twice in the past while reading similar things: the scene where a man is methodically skinned alive in Murakami's Wind-up Bird Chronicles, and the bloody description of a man struggling to saw through a human torso in Ian McEwan's The Innocent.

7 The Night Watch- Sarah Waters

Another wonderful Waters novel, this one set around the Second World War. Divided in three parts, it opens a couple of years after the war has ended, with the characters still struggling to piece together their lives. Subsequent sections travel backward to 1944 and 1941, revealing details that shed light on events of previous (though chronologically later) sections. This unfolding and discovery (which peaks in the brief but perfect final section) is one of the pleasures of reading this book. Another of course is the characters themselves, whose rich emotional lives are the heart of the narrative.
Two of the novel's four main characters are lesbians, as is Waters herself, but to categorize her work as Lesbian Lit would be sadly reductionist.
Again Waters has done her research brilliantly, creating a strong sense of time and place. Whether it's the post-war period of rations or London of the Blitz, one feels transported.

8 Vernon God Little- DBC Pierre

Another disappointing recipient of the Man Booker Prize. It's possible that the hyper-absurd characters/storyline and Tex-Mex setting was amusing to the British judges, but the story failed to draw me in. I simply never grew to care for any of the characters, not even the eponymous main character.

9 Japanese novel (?)

In March, I spent some time at the Tree House on Ko Chang's Lost Beach. Lost beach is fairly isolated, with only one van daily to drop off new blood and return others to civilization. After finishing the disappointing VGL, I found a hard cover Japanese book laying around. It took only a few days for me to plow through this impossibly stupid story of a girl who falls for her high school teacher. I never bothered to write down the author/title, so you'll just have to take my word for it.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Guess Who Came to Dinner?

My closest sibling was five years my senior, and off at school all day from the time I can remember. As I believe is fairly common of only children, I had several imaginary friends. I can still remember the three most popular: Doc Osmond, who wore a white smock and one of those reflective headbands in his afro; Johnny Kingee, who was cool and always wore denim; and Goo Goo, a white dog who walked upright and looked a bit like the professor from that old cartoon.

I was speaking about my old friends with my mother a few years ago, and I when I described them to her, she was shocked. "Goo Goo was a dog?? But we used to set a place for him at the dinner table!"

Sunday, January 04, 2009

2008 Reading List

Last year around this time, I began posting my 2007 Reading List. This was my attempt to briefly document the forty-some books I'd read in 2007, in groups of five. I never made it past #15. As is often the case, I found it difficult to keep it brief. Or I spent too much time struggling to write on books I no longer cared about.

This year I've decided to try again. I read fewer books in 2008, so I should be able to compete this in six or seven posts.

1 Alice in Wonderland- Lewis Carroll
Though I've never read this before, nearly every scene was so familiar to me (the tale having so permeated popular culture) that I felt as though I were re-reading a well-loved book from childhood. Reading it in Japanese was quite fun, particularly in recognizing the more quotable lines. It has been pointed out to me that Carroll (real name Charles Lutwidge Dodgson- whew,) was a logician. He must have had great fun writing the Wonderland characters' twisted logic that so infuriates Alice.

2 The New Life- Orhan Pamuk
Pamuk won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006, which of course peaks ones curiosity. A blurb on the back of this book mentioned The Usual Suspects, and I found the post-modern-ness of the description intriguing. It's the story of a young man, a university student in Istanbul, who reads a book that changes his life.
TNL was an enormous success in Turkey. The opening line is "I read a book one day and my whole life was changed." It's not at all clear initially why the book is able to have such a profound impact on him. The details of the novel-within-the-novel are revealed very slowly, interwoven with our hero's own story. Ultimately, we discover that what makes the book so powerful is that it is, in a sense, our hero's story. The ending is therefore deliberately predictable.
I don't know if the translation was poor or if Pamuk's prose is awkward as well, but I had a hard time getting into this novel. Though told in the first person, I felt distanced from the main character. Plot-wise, it takes a long, meandering time to get to the interesting bits. That said, I would consider reading one of Pamuk's later novels.

3 Fingersmith- Sarah Waters
I came across a reference to Waters' celebrated debut, Tipping the Velvet, some years ago, and have been looking forward to reading something by her ever since. I can't say why it took me so long, but when I finally got around to it, I was not disappointed.
Waters writes period novels, and Fingersmith is set in Victorian England. The story revolves around two girls, both orphans, whose fates are linked from birth. Sue is raised among thieves by her adopted mother, Mrs. Sucksby, while Maud grows up with her uncle in decidedly more affluent circumstances. Of course, all is not as it seems.
This novel has got it all: an intricately woven plot with delicious twists, and a brilliantly detailed Nineteenth Century English setting populated by unforgettable, Dickensesque characters. Indeed, if you have exhausted your library's collection of Dickens and (Wilkie) Collins, by all means check this out.

4 Black Dogs- Ian McEwan
I'm pleased to write that I haven't been disappointed by a McEwan novel since Amsterdam.
Black Dogs is about a man's preoccupation with his in-laws, a couple whose wildly divergent paths in the search for meaning (he in the public sphere, she in personal spirituality. The classic reason/emotion dichotomy) led to decades of estrangement. I suppose there is a certain heavy-handedness in McEwan's exposition of this theme, but he is so masterful that his prose is nevertheless a pleasure to read.
The title refers to an encounter the mother-in-law had with two feral beast years ago. For her it was a successful encounter with evil that subsequently came to define her life.

5 Black Swan Green- David Mitchell
I've read Mitchell's three earlier novels, fascinating books with wildly diverse characters, geographies, time periods. Each employs a creative method of storytelling. In comparison, BSG is much more conventional, more personal. It follows Jason Taylor from the time he turns thirteen in January, 1982 until the following January. Each chapter is a scene from one calendar month. The narrative voice is spot-on, as is the often squirm-inducing depiction of what it is like to be thirteen years old: the awkwardness, the casual cruelty, the simultaneous attraction and repulsion of girls.
Mitchell was born the same month as me, and though his British childhood was an ocean away from my American one, the common time period (references to Thatcher, the Falklands War, popular music) drew me in along with the more universal themes.