Monday, November 30, 2009

Lost in Translation

When I left for Turkey, I was 2/3 of the way into Murakami's running book, which I had borrowed from the library. I didn't fancy lugging it around for two weeks, so rather than renewing it and letting it sit at home unused, I returned it. Today I went to the library, found a copy of the English translation, and sat down to finish it off.

The translation was awful: the narrative voice is off and the prose is poor. (It read like something I might produce.) There is a manner of vagueness (for lack of a better expression) that is perfectly acceptable in Japanese, but which, when rendered artlessly into English, is perfectly abominable. This was extensively detailed in Goeff Dyer's review in the NY Times:

On Page 25 he tells us that the “kind of” jazz club he used to run was “pretty rare” and served “pretty decent food” and that he was “pretty naïve.” Moving on, we learn that he was “pretty surprised” when his first novel was “fairly well received,” that his Cambridge apartment was “pretty noisy,” that his new running shoes have been “pretty well” broken in, that he is “pretty easygoing” and had “a pretty good feeling for the pace” he would need to maintain in the New York marathon.
Ugh. Dyer dryly remarks that Murakami's is "the type of prose I would call sort of pretty poor." He goes on to say that "Either he’s the kind of writer who’s a pretty poor editor of his own stuff or this kind of lazy repetition is deliberate." I don't recall getting that impression while reading the original (Japanese) version, but it's possible that I'm less discerning when reading in my second language.

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Sunday, November 22, 2009


I'm wrıtıng from Turkey, where I have hıtherto been unable to connect to Blogger. Tomorrow we leave the warm, sunny Medıterranean for chılly Istanbul. Weather reports vary sıgnıfıcantly, the Turkısh sıtes beıng more optımıstıc (17-18 degrees C) than others (13-14, chance of showers). I'm goıng to belıeve the locals untıl they're proved wrong.


Thursday, November 12, 2009

Steepest Street

I found this piece on the steepest blocks in San Francisco over at Streetsblog SF. I spent the last six weeks of 2008 at the top of the Church & 22nd Street block mentioned in the post and some of the comments. It is not uncommon to hear "Oh, shit!" from unknowing automobile drivers cresting the hill. Predictably popular with boot camp sergeants putting their grunts through morning drills, this block is, sadly, also the site of not a few scooter accidents.

I have many photos taken from atop the hill, but none of the hill itself, so I'm attaching a random shot I found on the web


Wednesday, November 11, 2009

New Landscapes

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes. (Proust)

A friend of mine is reading "How Proust Can Change Your Life," and he posted the above quote with a comment about how he needs to remember this since he tends to crave new landscapes. And so it is with me. When I'm traveling, a steady stream of words flows from my head to my hand, but finding inspiration in the quotidian, that is a challenge.

In What I Talk About... (previously mentioned here), Murakami writes about the characteristics one needs to become a novelist. The most basic requirement is a certain amount of native talent. After that, one should possess a strong power of concentration, and the discipline to sit down at a desk for hours at a time to write. Fortunately, the latter can be developed. (I need to work on that.)

Two weeks ago, I pledged to blog daily for the month of November. Now it turns out that I will not be able to fulfill that commitment. Tomorrow afternoon I'm flying to Istanbul (not Constantinople), Turkey. If all goes well, I will soon regale you with curious tales of new landscapes.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Park Life

Last week when I was in Sunnyvale, Izumi took me to a park. We saw mallard ducks, coots, a sun-bathing turtle, and (I think) one very tame white heron.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Linguistically Speaking

I've been spending a lot of time in the kitchen lately, cooking this and baking that, and while I do, I've been listening to History of the English Language. It's a lecture series by John McWhorter, an American linguist currently at Columbia University. The series title is a bit of a misnomer as it is in fact more of a broad survey of language and linguistics. McWhorter is an engaging speaker, the topic one of interest to me. I'm currently listening to lecture #21 of 36, which is about language mixing, specifically grammar, and draws from examples like the impact of Dravidian sentence structure (subject-object-verb) of South India on the Indo-European languages of the North, and Media Lengua of Equador, which combines Spanish vocabulary with a Quechua grammatical system.

McWhorter is not a prescriptive grammarian, rather he sees language as a living, breathing, evolving thing, and he is emphatic in distinguishing between the spoken and written forms. Most of the several thousand languages around today still exist only orally. The written versions are a different, fairly recent phenomenon altogether.

Last week's NY Times Book Review has an essay on recent changes to the Japanese language brought on by the ubiquity of cellphones, blogging, email, etc. Some changes include the classically vertical language becoming horizontal and people losing the ability to hand-write complex characters (think spellcheck). And of course there is the relentless infiltration of Engrish words (often creatively used) into the vocabulary.

The impact of cell phones goes way beyond texting (of which young Japanese were surely early adopters,) with something called keitai shousetsu 携帯小説, or cell phone novels. These are actual novels and short stories meant to be read on mobile phones. Earlier this year I read Miura Shion's Mukashi no Hanashi むかしのはなし, in which it is revealed, at the end of the first in a series of interlinked stories, that the narrator has typed this story on his cell phone. At the time, I found that absurd, but according to this essay, five of the top ten best-selling books in Japan in 2007 were written on cell phones. Huh?


I love the fuzzy red pipe cleaners.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Sunday Run-ins

Another splendid day in the City by the Bay, so this morning V and I rode our bikes out to the Embarcadero for another waterfront run (this time on the East side). We parked near Townsend Street, not far from AT&T Park (home of the SF Giants) then ran along the water, under the Bay Bridge, beyond the Ferry Building, past Pier this and that, then turned around and came back.

Here I'd like to note that I ran into three acquaintances this morning. First I saw neighbors, a couple, from my apartment-sitting gig in Noe Valley last year. They were right around the corner from where I live, visiting friends in the neighborhood. Then I passed another friend-of-friend on The Embarcadero itself as I was finishing up my run. Since I probably know about a couple dozen people in the city all told, that's rather remarkable.

Saturday, November 07, 2009


Though it is rather foreboding when it's cold and windy, nothing beats Crissy Field on a warm, sunny day like today. So when V suggested we head there for a run early this afternoon, I was all for it. Just this week I returned to a regular running schedule after having broken my toe way back at the end of July. (The toe still stubbornly refuses to heal completely, but I've decided to just ignore it for the time being.)

Though we live only about 3-1/2 miles from Crissy Field, there is no quick and easy way to get there from here. Road work on Divisadero made the drive over extra long, over half an hour. I could run faster than that!

But it was worth the drive. And many, many other people seemed to think so as well. Always popular with runners, cyclists and dog companions, today it was especially crowded. We parked at the end of Divisadero and ran the 2+ miles out
along the bay to the base of the Golden Gate Bridge (touching the hopper hands) and back.

Along the way, there's a plaque on one of the bridges that reads "This is dedicated to those who find this place a beautiful place to dream."

(Note: not my photos)

Friday, November 06, 2009

Valencia at Hill

Thursday, November 05, 2009

The Real Forbidden Fruit (Or, The Mighty Quince)

This afternoon I made compote from a few of the quince given to me by my friend Izumi when I visited her on Tuesday. Her Sunnyvale house has a tree in the yard. The fruit looks a bit like the guava. It smells delightful. Most varieties are too tough and sour to eat raw, but they make lovely jam. A syrup made from the fruit is said to be good for the throat. The Japanese for quince is karin 花梨, written with the characters for flower and pear, and indeed it is a relative of apples and pears.

It's said that the fruit described in the creation story, the one that got Adam and Eve kicked out of the Garden, was in fact a quince. Elsewhere, the fruit makes an appearance in "The Owl and the Pussycat," where it is eaten, famously, with a runcible spoon.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Running With Murakami

Way back in January, I mentioned that I was waiting for Murakami Haruki's 2007 book 走ることについて語る時に僕の語ること (What I Talk About When I Talk About Running) to be published in paperback. While the English version appeared back in August of this year, and another novel (1Q84; it has something to do with Orwell's 1984, 25 years on) has appeared in Japanese, Bungei Shunju (the publisher) seems to be dragging its feet on this one.

But wait! there's a light at the end of this tunnel. The Western Addition Branch of San Francisco Public Library has a large collection of Japanese language books, and thanks to their excellent web service, I'm able to request books and have them delivered to my very own Mission Branch. So a sunny day last week I walked to 24th Street and picked up my very first SFPL loan.

Murakami started running in 1982, when he was 33 years old. He'd recently completed his third novel, A Wild Sheep Chase, his first work as a full-time writer*. By the time he'd completed the book, he found himself overweight and smoking 3 packs of cigarettes a day. He knew that he had to make a change. To put it briefly, he began running, quit smoking and began eating a more healthy diet. The secondary changes, rather than conscious decisions, seemed to follow naturally from the daily habit of running. He wanted to be able to run longer distances, so he had to quit smoking. And so on.

I found a couple of the ideas he raises in the second chapter to be interesting. First, often when people hear that he runs nearly every day, they applaud him on his strong will and commitment. But that's not how he sees it. Murakami says that he runs because it suits him. No matter how strong your resolution, nobody is going to continue doing something like that for over 20 years without enjoying it. I've been running regularly (except when I'm abroad!) since 2000, and I couldn't agree more.

The second theme has to do with the habit of running. Murakami describes his constitution as such that he puts on weight easily if he's not active. His wife
, on the other hand, is naturally thin and doesn't have to think about what she eats. This doesn't seem fair, that some people have to work to maintain a level of fitness while for others it comes naturally. But in the long run, he's glad that he has had to work to stay in shape. If he didn't, he would not have developed the generally healthy habits and lifestyle that he currently has. How many people do you know who never seemed to have to do any work to stay thin when they're young, only to end up struggling with their weight after reaching middle age?

I'm still only about a third of the way into the book, so expect more on it later!

*Until then he had managed a cafe/jazz bar in Tokyo called Peter Cat. Great name.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009


“Let’s not forget that the little emotions are the great captains of our lives and we obey them without realizing it.” ~Vincent Van Gogh

Monday, November 02, 2009


I recently came across this genuine Bajaj auto rickshaw in the Portrero neighborhood of SF. The sighting put a smile on my face. I can not for the life of me imagine how it came to be there.

Typically black and yellow, occasionally green and yellow, this sturdy little three-wheeled taxi (with a fantastic turning radius) is found in most parts of India.
The driver (and possibly his close friend) of course mans the front, with room for three average size adult passengers (or a dozen school children) to sit comfortably. In Madhurai, I was once one of six (desperate) adult female passengers: one shared the front seat with our driver, three sat across the back, another sat on their laps, and I sat on a bar at the side window with my back side hanging out. We were a motley bunch: three Americans, one Irishwoman, my friend from Japan, and one Indian from another state.

See also
tuk-tuk, the Thai version.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

The Bad Beginning

Today is the first day of NaBloPoMo (wherein I vow to post every day for a month), it's 5:30PM local time, and I only just now remembered that I ought to post something. Which calls to mind the title of Lemony Snicket's first book, which also happens to be the title of this post.

I got to see Lemony in person once. I was living in Menlo Park, CA, home to the great Keppler's book store. Keppler's hosts a lot of author readings, and when I discovered that Snicket (AKA Daniel Handler, author of the slightly more grown-up targeted books The Basic Eight and Watch Your Mouth) I was very pleased. Maybe even excited. Snicket at the time was about four or five books into the wildly successful A Series of Unfortunate Events. I loved the books for their bleak pessimism, ernest absurdity, anachronism-filled settings and delightful use of vocabulary.

Knowing Handler/Snicket's popularity, I showed up quite early for the reading. An employee later told me that it was the biggest turnout they'd ever had for an author. As the store filled with parents and children, I noticed that I appeared to be the only adult without a child escort. Did that make me creepy? I wondered.

The target age for the books, I suppose, is about 9-12, but there were many much younger children in attendance. I sat in a folding chair at the end of the fourth or fifth row, next to a man with a boy of about five. When Handler showed up, wearing an absurd trench coat and speaking the audio equivalent of his over-dramatic, over-blown prose, he announced that he was sorry, but Mr. Snicket was unable to attend the reading because he'd run into trouble at a picnic. From the start it was clear that this was not going to be your typical adult-author event. Handler did a great job of getting the children to participate, encouraging them tell him the sort of trouble one might have at a picnic, and so on. I'm not sure if it was the content or simply the tone of Handler's voice, but the child next to me was in tears within the first 10 minutes.

I don't want to leave you in tears,
dear reader, but do check out the Gothic Archies' The World is a Very Scary Place. Too late for Halloween, but I think Lemony Snicket would approve.