I normally don't comment on children's books, but both my five year old and I loved this one. ("Read it again!" she begged.) It's creepy and haunting...moreI normally don't comment on children's books, but both my five year old and I loved this one. ("Read it again!" she begged.) It's creepy and haunting in the tradition that the original Grimm brother's fairy tales were scary.
It reminded me in good ways of a gothic short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne called "Feathertop." In classic fairy tale fashion, the wicked are punished, and love truimphs, but this is startling and darkly imaginative work, and pleasure to read for both adults and children. (less)
I wouldn't rank this book up there with Cold Blood, but it's a chilling read all the same. Reading about Eric Harris made me think of that old line ab...moreI wouldn't rank this book up there with Cold Blood, but it's a chilling read all the same. Reading about Eric Harris made me think of that old line about the "banality of evil." Dylan Klebold emerges as more sympathetic, perhaps a child who can have been saved. The character of Littleton, Colorado itself also fascinated me, as this deeply evangelical conservative community struggles to deal with unimaginable tragedy. The mythologizing of Cassie Bernall is just one heart-breaking example of the stories people invented to try and make sense of these events. Cullen shares Truman Capote's grand narrative vision but has his own smooth, journalistic writing style. This is an enthralling read. (less)
I expected to love Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, since it features two of my favorites subjects, jogging and the craf...moreI expected to love Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, since it features two of my favorites subjects, jogging and the craft of writing. Throw in a dash of memoir and you have what should have been an inspirational read. I hoped the book would jumpstart my exercise program and fuel my progress through the final revision of my second novel.
To those ends, the book disappoints, but I was still glad I read it. Maybe I was expecting too much from one of the world’s premier authors, but this thin memoir doesn’t measure up to classics like Stephen King’s On Writing or Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. If you don’t already love running or writing, Murakami’s memoir won’t do much for you.
Why? Let’s get the bad out of the way first and then discuss what the book does right. Murakami’s descriptions of running feature some of the most flaccid prose I’ve encountered this year. He even resorts to cliché, complaining of it “raining cats and dogs” during a training session for the New York Marathon. Consider this passage about his run between Marathon, Greece and Athens:
The road within the Athen’s city limit is very hard to run on. It’s about three miles from the stadium to the highway and entrance and there are lots of stoplights, which messes up my pace. There are also a lot of places where construction and double-parked cars block the road, and I have to step out in the middle of the street. What with cars zooming around early in the morning, running here can be dangerous. (Murakami 61)
Note the painful passive tense, the lack of sensory imagery. Much of this book contains exactly these kinds of snooze-inducing descriptions of running. The memoir portions from a man characterized as a “guardedly private writer” probably won’t surprise longtime Murakami fans. We learn he once owned a jazz club and was a former smoker. He collects LP’s and has a special fondness for classic rock and roll. There’s little insight into the man’s psychology, the unique forces and life events that shape a great writer. And maybe this is a good thing. Murakami comes across as slightly dull in his memoir. There’s no messed up childhood, no triumph over alcohol or drugs. This is a record of one writer getting it done. He leaves the magic for his stories.
There are surprises in this book. Murakami discusses artists who hit their peak as they approached middle age, like Dostoevesky, who produced his greatest novel, The Brothers Karamazov, shortly before his death. The book becomes most dynamic and hits some soaring notes when it makes the connections between running and writing. Noting that both are a matter of talent, Murakami, who doesn’t consider himself talented at either, believes that:
I have to pound the rock with a chisel and dig out of a deep hole before I can locate the source of creativity. To write a novel I have to drive myself hard physically and use a lot of time and effort. Every time I begin a new novel, I have dredge out another deep hole. (Murkami 43)
Many of us have seen runners crippled by aching joints and bad knees in old age. What Murakami points out in this book is that writing offers similar highs and joys, but also takes a toll that is both psychic and physical. Art always involves sacrifice. In another passage, he makes his thoughts on discipline and concentration abundantly clear:
Writing novels, to me, is basically a kind of manual labor. Writing itself is mental labor, but finishing an entire book is closer to manual labor. It doesn’t involve heavy lifting, running fast, or leaping high. Most people only see the surface of writing and think of writers as involved in quiet, intellectual work done in their study. If you have the strength to lift a coffee cup, they figure, you can write a novel. But once you try your hand at it, you soon find it isn’t as peaceful a job as it seems. The whole process--sitting at your desk, focusing your mind like a laser beam, imagining something out of a blank horizon, creating a story, selecting the right words, one by one, keeping the whole flow of the story on track—requires far more energy than most people ever imagine. You might not move your body around, but there’s grueling dynamic labor going on inside you. Everybody uses their mind when they think. But a writer puts on an outfit called narrative and thinks with his entire being; and for the novelist that process requires putting into play all your physical reserve, often to the point of overexertion. (Murakami 79-80).
When my teaching schedule or home life gets hectic, the first thing I let go is the exercise. The hour a five mile jog—or plod, in my case—is an easy cut. As the papers pile up, or the children get sick, I cling to what little time I have. I keep writing, trying to carve out a little space in the day. What I gained from this book most clearly is a realization of how important my physical health is to the writing that I need to do. If I want to write, I need to run, or like Charles Dickens, taking up an evening walk which will allow me to think about the stories I’m working on. I’ll leave with Murakami’s thoughts on these things:
In any event, I’m happy I haven’t stopped running all these years. The reason is, I like the novels I’ve written. And I’m really looking forward to seeing what kind of novel I’ll produce next. Since I’m a writer with limits—an imperfect person living an imperfect, limited life—the fact that I can still feel this way is a real accomplishment. Calling it a miracle, might be an exaggeration, but I really do feel this way. And if running every day helps me accomplish this, then I’m very grateful to running. (Murakami 82)
For the Murakami fan in your family this book is well worth a purchase. For the runner with literary ambitions, it offers some heady delights. It’s by no means a perfect little book, but this is a book on writing worth your time and effort. (less)
I didn't expect to like this book as much as I did. Kate Atkinson is a British atheist so that means that all the cool characters get to be atheists,...moreI didn't expect to like this book as much as I did. Kate Atkinson is a British atheist so that means that all the cool characters get to be atheists, too. ("She didn't believe in God. How could she?") The lone Christians in this book are a loony old lady who ends up causing a cataclysmic train accident and a murderer who converts in prison, only to scatter his brains across Jackson Brodie's apartment after being released. This is exactly what I expect out Kate Atkinson, so forgive my eye-rolling. I don't think one can write something the length of a novel without betraying one's world view.
Still, this is a likeable book, peopled by complex and likeable characters. Reggie, an orphan straight out of Dickens, stole my heart. (Indeed, many of the chapter titles come from Dickens.) Every time she said "sweartogod" while telling a whopper or "totally" in agreement, I smiled. There is a great amount of carnage in this book, but you root for the characters to find some peace amid all of it. All in all, it's an enthralling read.(less)