What I Talk About When I Talk About Running / Haruki Murakami

Murakami has delivered a quiet and persistent meditation on running and work. His other novels are psychologically astute but often leave me puzzled. They are full of portals into other worlds, weird sex, and haunted characters. Here, writing personal nonfiction, Murakami still doesn’t let the reader in very far. He writes short sentences that have a calm, even pacing. I think it’s hard for him to articulate exactly how he feels, which is perhaps a reason he finds an outlet through fiction and running.

Reading about someone else’s reasons for running made me nervous, because I have a deeply personal relationship to the sport. Running taught me the value of discipline. It taught me how to compete fiercely and fairly. It let me explore a wide radius around my home. It gives me spiritual solace to be out the road and to turn off my thoughts (Murakami: “I run in order to acquire a void”). When I have trained enough, the most painful part of a race feels joyful: I am out on the frontier of myself, and the only thing that matters is the road in front of me.

The most valuable part of the book was not his individual reflections on the sport, many of which I identify with, but rather his thoughts on making training a continual part of your life. This part still eludes me: I set one goal at a time, and design training plans for each race. He is content with running six miles a day, every day, only intensifying slightly for a marathon. There’s a metaphor here for life: it’s about showing up and working slowly, stoically, and continuously, rather than setting one spectacular goal, achieving it, and then congratulating yourself.

posted : Thursday, December 29th, 2011

Juliet, Naked / Nick Hornby

Almost without meaning to, I have read a significant number of Nick Hornby novels. I pick up a copy, read the opening chapter, and three hours later have finished the book. They’re a little light, pleasant, but sometimes surprisingly wise and cathartic.

Juliet, Nakedfits in perfectly with the rest of his books. The book follows Duncan and Annie, an aimless academic couple in a depressed seaside town in England. Duncan is gripped by an obsession with an American singer-songwriter who hasn’t released any material or even performed, in twenty years. The obsession is the dynamic that drives the story forward, and it is an effective and relatable device.

The book’s characters and plot continuously verge on the absurd, but fortunately never cross the line entirely. The characters remain believable, if sometimes dementedly awkward, and so held my interest. Similarly, the book’s relationship with the invented artist at its heart continually flirts with comic absurdity: on the one hand, Hornby situates the artist in the vivid late ’80s moment of Morrissey and the Smiths and the Talking Heads; on the other, he spends a good deal of the book lampooning both the fictional music and its obsessive fans.

Hornby also toys with some very old literary conceits of the realist novel while updating them for a story in 2008. Instead of the epistolary of Pamela,we get emails and internet-forum posts. Instead of the psychological testimony of Lolita, we get a Wikipedia entry. The familiar conventions of internet age language could be pushed much further artistically, but here they feel insubstantial, almost lazy.

posted : Thursday, December 22nd, 2011

The Berlin Stories / Christopher Isherwood

I first saw Cabaretin middle school, and I was blown away. The brassiness of Sally Bowles, the transgressive and hungry sexuality of the maestro, and the nightmare descent into fascism seared themselves into my 8th-grade self. I was looking forward toThe Berlin Stories,then, two novels that form the basis of the musical. I was disappointed. I was reminded more of Victorian comedies of manners rather than a modernist landmark. The jacket breathlessly describes Isherwood as “perhaps the first major openly gay writer read by a wider audience;” my reaction could be a case of radical language for the time rendered banal by history. I also admit to possible period ignorance: I was not captivated by Thomas Mann’s  The Magic Mountain,which loosely shares a historical moment of 30’s modernism with Isherwood.

The Berlin Stories consists of two linked novels, The Last of Mr. Norrisand Goodbye to Berlin. Norrisis more explicitly political, but you never feel the heat of actual political persecution. Isherwood primly condemns those who slander the Jews, when terrifying historical uncertainty is the most compelling aspects of that time. Norris comes off as a buffoon, three steps behind every intrigue.

Goodbye to Berlincontains the famous Sally Bowles, and her scenes are engrossing. Yet the book doesn’t actually use her that effectively: she flits in and out, and the book lacks any of the show-stopping nightlife scenes that give the musical its power. The rest of the book is an interesting but schizophrenic collection of relationships: a thinly-veiled love story between Otto and Peter, which plays out against the backdrop of a seaside summer; the narrator’s friendship with the Landauers, first silly Natalia and then mysterious Bernhard.

baulk: n, a roughly hewn timber beam

posted : Sunday, December 18th, 2011

PrairyErth / William Least Heat-Moon

PrairyErth took me a long time to get through. This is perhaps appropriate: it’s over 600 pages long and takes as its subject a single county in Kansas. William Least Heat-Moon is one of my favorite writers about America. I’ve read his Blue Highways,a 1970s road trip on the back roads, and River Horse,about taking a boat across the US, mostly by river. If his previous books examined America’s networks and lines, then this book examines the space between. The most frustrating part about his books is that I am jealous of them. I wish I were footloose on the back roads, or exploring rivers, or wandering the high prairie. It is even hard to drop into his slow exploring mode at the end of a hectic day, which compounds the jealousy: not only am I not out there, I am cognitively too harried to slow down enough to even go with him.

Formally, the book is lovely. He divides the county up into a 4x3 grid, and the beginning of each chapter is marked by a dot on the grid, a small glyph locating you within the county and within the book. Each quadrant has a name, often after its principal town or village. He begins his study of each quadrant with a chapter he calls “From the Commonplace Book,” a collection of quotations that loosely revolve around the themes he’s chosen for the quadrant. He quotes Wendell Berry and Gilbert White, county records from the 1860s, Native Americans — everyone who meditates on landscape. Heat-Moon meditates, also— in one chapter, he sits in a pickup truck and simply tallies the things that go by: autos, pickups, wet dogs. I found myself most gripped by the people and cultures he takes the time to get to know: the revitalization and subsequent closing of a village cafe by a few feminists; riding along in a pickup with a man who hunts coyote with dogs; and ghostly encounters with the ranches, Indian agencies, and wagon trails of the past.

quoin: n, a substantial block placed in the exterior corner of a building to lend an appearance of solidity. Also coign.
cumbrous: adj, cumbersome, heavy
intestate: adj, n, not having drawn up a will; a person who has died without a will.
atavism: n, a reappearance of an earlier characteristic, or the tendency to revert to an ancestral type.
gallinaceous: adj, relating to birds of the order Galliformes, which includes domestic poultry.
nidus: n, a site of origin
noctivagate: v, walking or wandering in the nighttime
steatopygic: adj, having fat buttocks (!)
calumet: n, a highly ornamented pipe of the Native Americans.

posted : Monday, November 28th, 2011

Sudden Sea / R.A. Scotti

As a New Englander, the 1938 hurricane is everywhere. Even seventy years later, its effect on the landscape is still apparent, if you know how to look. A sandbar at the mouth of the Connecticut River that restricted development for 300 years got scoured out. Stands of identical mature trees stand in the forest in perfect southeast-northwest lines, having been nursed by a rotting larger tree blown down by the storm. High-water markers show the huge flood stages caused by the storm surge and then the subsequent runoff.

R.A. Scotti’s narrative of the storm is deeply appealing because it centers on my home landscape. She opens with the scene of Katherine Hepburn hitting a hole-in-one on the Fenwick golf course the morning of the storm; I know that course well. She describes the devastation on Jamestown, in Narragansett Bay, and I’ve driven the Pell Bridge enough to imagine Jamestown before the roads were paved.

Yet the book’s main weakness is that Scotti is a writer of mysteries and potboilers. She wants to focus on the human drama (of which there is plenty), but the breathless way she exposits her characters is tiring. She conveys the power of the storm when she describes house after house getting ripped off its foundations, but the cumulative effect is numbing. She is most interesting when she speculates on the storm’s wider effects: its role in crippling train travel and promoting flying, its fatal blow to the dying New England textile industry. She claims over and over that the storm “changed everything within a matter of hours;” it would have been nice to more closely examine the regional evidence.

posted : Sunday, November 6th, 2011

Freddy and Fredericka / Mark Helprin

I picked up Freddy and Fredericka because I loved A Winter’s Tale. That book was long, intricate, beautifully written, and engrossing. Freddy and Fredericka is as long but nowhere near as good.

The title characters are the Prince of Wales and his wife, who, after a series of unfortunate PR disasters, are sent to America with nothing and told to “reconquer the country”. There’s a lot of fun material here: monarchy, birthright, America, Britain, tabloid pop culture — but it flounders for being unsure of itself and way too long. Freddy, for one, is deeply admirable as a scholar, soldier, and athlete, but he gets himself caught up in improbable and public disasters, and the world thinks him insane. His wife, Fredericka, is portrayed as vacuous and image-obsessed (and therefore adored by the public) — until she “decides” to be brilliantly intelligent and well-read. It strains credulity, even in a fantastical setting. On the positive side, there are some moving passages about America and its natural beauty; they pop up occasionally and remind you that Helprin is better than this.

The book repeats scene after scene of slapstick wordplay, which is enjoyable the first ten times and annoying the twenty times after that. To paraphrase the New York Times review (am I cheating?), “a conceit that would be entertaining for 200 pages aspires to importance in 550, and falls flat.”

Words (not so many this time, perhaps my vigilance is slipping)

  • Ecdysian: adj, relating to ecdysis, the process of shedding or stripping off an outer covering

posted : Wednesday, November 2nd, 2011

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter / Mario Vargas Llosa

This is the second book by Llosa that I have read, the first being The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta. I am embarrassed to admit that I cannot remember if I finished it or not. This book will be perhaps more memorable but was still light and fluffy. Each year I try and read a book or two by the current Nobel laureate, and I’m late on Llosa and thus far, a bit puzzled by the choice.

The story is of a young man, also named Mario Vargas, who works at the news desk of a radio station. He is still a student, and falls in, more or less simultaneously, with his divorcee aunt (she’s an in-law, and shes’s 32 to his 18) and with Pedro Camacho, a mad genius of a Bolivian scriptwriter. The book entertainingly interstitches young Mario’s adventures with Camacho’s serial tales, and its most skilful conceit is the slow intermixing of characters and plotlines, evidence that Camacho is losing his mind. The novel doesn’t take much seriously, which is a shame: it relies on its comedy to get out of any real work.

The book, written in 1977, brings to mind three other South American writers: Borges, Marquez, and Bolano. Its epigraph is a complex passage from Salvador Elizondo’s The Graphographer: “I write. I write that I am writing. Mentally I see myself writing that I am writing and I can also see myself seeing that I am writing…” which lends Borgesian overtones about Art and Writing and Reality that regrettably only pop up in the Camacho’s serials and their portrayal of his descent into madness. Most of the novel, however, is written in the wry and humorous style of Marquez (with whom Llosa has a tumultuously macho relationship involving fisticuffs and stolen wives). Finally, its tale of a young aspiring artist drifting through Latin America anticipates Bolano’s Savage Detectives, though nowhere near as complex or dark or interesting as that novel.

words (all the more embarrassing for being in translation, though not surprising, given their Romantic originals, that they are all Latinate.)
rachitic: adj, rickety, ill, sick (as in rickets, the disease)
afflatus: n, a sudden inspiration, “as if blown upon by a divine wind”
cyclothymic: adj, relating to cyclothyma, a severe form of bipolar disorder
paropsis: n, a disorder of vision.

posted : Friday, October 28th, 2011