The Blind Side by Michael Lewis The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer Where the Buffalo Roam by Anne Matthews The Control of Nature by John McPhee The Firecracker Boys by Dan O’Neill The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean Driving Mr. Albert by Michael Paterniti Once Upon a Distant War by William Prochnau American Stories by Calvin Trillin A Wanderer in the Perfect City by Lawrence Weschler The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe
I feel like I first heard of Haruki Murakami in 1990 or 1991. He was a former jazz club owner who translated writers I loved like Raymond Carver and Richard Ford into Japanese, and his first novel to be translated into English, A Wild Sheep Chase, was being talked up as a Chandler-influenced exploration, something a bit lighter and stranger than a traditional hard-boiled mystery, an absurdist noir.
I tried the novel, and early on it didn’t do much for me, so I set it aside. I knew any time a novel doesn’t work that it may be the reader’s fault as much as the writer’s, and the mythology of Murakami was so engaging that he stayed on my radar for years even as I didn’t read him. A couple years ago, it seemed like I was hearing amazing things about his new novel, Kafka on the Shore, everywhere I turned. It seemed like it was time to give him another try. The only question was whether to read Kafka or his other big book, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. People seemed split on which of them was better, and the gist of most conversations was that I wouldn’t go wrong with either one.
Kafka on the Shore blew my mind. I had never read anything like it. The closest analogy I can come up with is my experience watching Being John Malkovich. All the rules and conventions I had counted on as a viewer or reader had been twisted around. I recognized things, but they no longer made sense in the same way. On the familiar drive home from watching John Malkovich, I took a wrong turn. I was that disoriented. Kafka did the same thing to my equilibrium, but whereas Malkovich was mostly funny, Kafka resonated with history, loss, tragedy, and a poignant inability for characters to connect. I talked the book up to everyone, gave it as a Christmas present, and looked forward to the ever-lengthening shelf of Murakami titles I would eagerly work my way through.
But a funny thing happened on my way to Murakami-induced bliss: I got bored. I turned first to his other epic work, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and every trope sounded familiar. It was like reading another version of Kafka, but what had been magical now seemed habitual. The narrator-protagonist had a sense of alienation from everything (work, love, geography) that was strikingly similar to Kafka Tamura’s. There were mysterious alienated disappearing potential impossible love interests. There was the same sense of menace and fate, marked by massive good luck and coincidence as well as inexplicable dangers, mysteries, and disappearances. It felt like names and places had been changed, but otherwise the tone and content of both books were remarkable similar. Life is too short to read long books that aren’t moving you, so I set it aside, but I kept in mind the possibility mentioned earlier that perhaps I had failed the book, and in bookstores I would often find myself in the Murakami section contemplating a different angle of attack.
At the end of this school year, I plucked the thin volume, Norwegian Wood, off the shelf. On my internal buzzmeter, it was the next most discussed book of his. I managed to read the whole thing, and though I quoted a brief passage earlier on this blog, it was a desultory experience at best. Other than the passive tone (again), the aimless protagonist/narrator (again!), and the inability of any character to really connect with another (again!!!), I couldn’t fully manage to put my finger on what I found so dispiriting about it—until I read Geoff Dyer’s recent review of Murakami’s latest book, a nonfiction account of his life as a runner. (I should love this guy!—he runs marathons, writes novels, loves pop culture, and he has translated writers who are important to me.) Dyer pointed out to me that it wasn’t just the characters and their situations that left me uninspired, but the tics of language, the prose style that describes those characters and situations. The things that bothered Dyer about Murakami’s nonfiction were traits I immediately recalled from his fiction, and the voice that Dyer was hearing was the same one that wasn’t working for me.
It’s always a pleasure to come across a skilled, articulate reader. Dyer has been on my radar for a number of years. It may be time to move one of his titles on to my “Books to Read” list.
One of the joys of kids is their fresh approach to language. Sometimes through their ignorance of the finer points of usage, they make ordinary language dance and shout and sing again, bringing to our attention the conventions and clichés that are such an integral part of our world that frequently we don’t even notice them. W, for example, uses a regular conjugation for the conjunction “won’t,” saying “I willn’t.” A number of years ago R tended to conflate two interjections to make an even more powerful one. Though he has long stopped saying it, I still use “Holy Smokes Cow!” for moments of awe and great enthusiasm.
I gave my love a rock, and she gave me ashes. It was enough to turn me off of rocks for a while, but I’ve always had a soft spot for them, and this weekend at Whitefish Point I fell in love with them again. What appeared to be a sand beach gave way to rocks at the edge of the water. I was simply keeping an eye on the boys while enjoying the water horizon and mild temperature when the rocks started to call to me. Initially it was just a single rock that stuck out from the others, all the more brilliant for being wet. While holding and admiring it, others appeared to me, equally beautiful and distinct. Before long I found myself filling my pockets, then I had to run to the car to get a larger container. After a bit, the boys started heading for the car, but I could barely pull myself away. There kept being one more rock that wanted my attention. I wanted to scoop up pounds of them to go through later, and discard the ones I didn’t love, but that goes against my initial rule of rock collecting, that it is a selective process, that I take only those that really speak to me.
In honor of this weekend, and my return to rocks, or their return to me (whichever is more accurate), I would like to call attention to my two favorite poems about rocks, two works that seem to capture the essence of stone: “Rock Said” by Jeanne Marie Beaumont, from her book Curious Conduct (BOA) and “The Encyclopedia of Stones: A Pastoral” by James Richardson, from Interglacial: New and Selected Poems & Aphorisms (Ausable). Beaumont’s poem is a right-justified monologue in the voice of a rock, or perhaps more accurately, it is a series of one-line monologues, each a single sentence. The right justification creates a sense of stillness that seems absolutely perfect for a rock’s voice, a rock that is not only perceptive, but often quite funny. Richardson’s poem is lengthy, 63 separate sections, each a small meditation or pensee. They are written in the third-person plural, but they seem kin to Beaumont’s first-person speaker. In both cases, the poets have created a stillness, a sense of calm. These rocks are, perhaps above all else, observers. They have a far different perspective on time than humans do, and they use that to gently point out our foibles. The rocks in both poems are humble and funny, good companions.
Though I am not nuts about either of these books in their entirety, each of them includes pleasures beyond the rock poems as well. Curious Conduct has a list poem composed entirely of questions called “Afraid So” that is worth rereading, and Interglacial contains 16 ½ pages of aphorisms that are a delight.
I know many people would be severely disappointed if they accidentally missed one of the Olympic marathons, so I'm offering the following reminder as a public service announcement: the women's race is Saturday, August 16 and the men run the following Saturday, August 23.
I'm not convinced Deena Kastor can repeat her bronze medal performance from 2004, but I do look for Ryan Hall to be in the hunt for a medal in what should be a very tight race on the men's side. Don't be surprised if the top five or six runners finish within a minute of each other.
Though I’m not normally a fan of bestsellers, especially those that might be deemed ‘inspirational,’ I’m making an exception for Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. It was an assigned reading for work, and I was more than skeptical about it; a friend had called it self-serving, and it had all the earmarks of the book de jour—every mother at the pool who was sipping a fancy coffee or bottled water seemed to be reading it. It looked like this summer’s Water for Elephants. I’m sure the film rights have already been sold for a tidy sum, so that Hollywood can produce one of those inspirational blockbusters that is based on a true story. Not normally my cup of tea, so to speak, but it was our required summer reading, so as July drew to an end, I decided it was time to take my first step toward getting ready for the new school year. What I found was an engaging and moving story, a riveting adventure tale that never swayed from its ethical center nor succumbed to self-righteous finger-wagging.
Three Cups of Tea is a nonfiction work about Greg Mortenson, a mountain climber who, after a failed attempt to conquer K2, finds his calling building schools, especially for girls, in the most isolated, rugged, and impoverished nooks and crannies of Pakistan and Afghanistan—a remarkably difficult and dangerous task in the best of times, and one that becomes even more complicated and risky after the events of September 11, 2001—with a missionary zeal that seems genetic. That summary however doesn’t do justice to the narrative momentum of the book. There’s almost an Indiana Jones sense of tempo and adventure made all the more compelling by the fact that its nonfiction, and that Mortenson has a real moral purpose.
Let’s set aside the message of the book for a moment though to look at what makes it a compelling read. It has high altitude adventure; holiday season heartbreak; the penniless, jobless, homeless, loveless, clueless blues; a whirlwind romance; long odds; fantastic coincidences; a protagonist with a monastic devotion to a seemingly quixotic quest and a comic cluelessness of how to go about achieving it; a protagonist constitutionally inured to discomfort; a kidnapping; war; terrorists; foreign journalists; an international cast of strong-spined characters; fatwas; cultural clashes, both comic and menacing. This is a partial list, but my point here is that the book is fun to read, which is reason to pick it up.
Mortenson comes across as truly heroic, and while that makes reading the book a pleasure, it may also be the book’s major fault. This is almost a hagiography, and one in which the subject is also the co-author. I really wish Mortenson wasn’t identified as a co-author. The book is written in the third person, and Mortenson comes across as the kind of hero the world is always in need of, that is one who is selflessly devoted to the greater good, regardless of small minds and short-sightedness on the local and global levels. And part of what the book always makes clear is that it takes a village (a global one in this case) to support a hero. Without Mortenson these wonderful projects would never have happened, but it’s also true, and readily acknowledged, that he could not have pulled these projects off without the support of a huge web of individuals. If I just think about the text of the book I am sucked in and moved, but when I remember that Mortenson is the co-author I become skeptical for a moment. If a journalist throws aside objectivity to write an unabashed hagiography that says something about how persuasive his or her subject is, but when the subject himself is saying these things about himself, it seems to undercut the claims about his humility. It’s a real complaint, but it’s not enough to substantially dampen my enthusiasm for this book.