Hardboiled Wonderland is my third Murakami novel and fourth book over the course of the last six months, and my admiration for his writing has develop...moreHardboiled Wonderland is my third Murakami novel and fourth book over the course of the last six months, and my admiration for his writing has developed from a puppy love to a mature one. Gone are the expectations of flawlessness and romanticism because I feel like I now know what to expect, but what remains is even more compelling and significant to me.
There are still aspects of Murakami (and/or his translations) that really irk me, much like moving in with a significant other only to find that they load the dishwasher the wrong way, but his offerings are so numerous and fascinating that I have never even considered putting down one of his books for good.
I would group Hardboiled Wonderland with Kafka on the Shore, and I find myself resisting to call them contemporary fables. Perhaps I am tempted to find some sort of moral insinuation in his writing, but then again it was the lack of moral pontificating that drew me to his books in the first place. He may write with them in mind, but he hides them well enough as to warrant multiple interpretations, which is the most you can hope for in any piece of artwork. Even more significant is that I was able to use his writing to reflect on my own life in this moment, without much effort.
His imagination is so foreign to mine, that I am wholly and completely consumed by it. Both Hardboiled Wonderland and Kafka remind me of Spirited Away in the way that they could meld such existential darkness with the true, small (and possibly fleeting) pleasures of life: food, records, maintaining company with friends and acquaintances, helping others in times of need, the occasional drink, finding satisfying work, and extraordinary adventure, all socially-constructed inventions of the human condition. There are others I have omitted, I'm sure, but they differ for everyone.
My only significant gripe with Murakami (the verbal tick, the facial blemish, the object of disdain one maybe later come to love) is his obsession with cultural specifics. Such a characteristic part of his work, I find his penchant to describe his Nike bag or Toyota car so incredibly distracting that I almost threaten filing for divorce. But if you can get through that, I would hope that your marriage will have been as successful as ours is, blemishes and all, coming to terms with my own faults while learning to love theirs. To quote the great Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting, if I may, "the question is not whether you're perfect or she's perfect; it's whether you're perfect for each other." The ring stays on. (less)
Like many a book written after the year 2000, I only bought this book because I saw the author being interviewed on The Daily Show. One thing that I l...moreLike many a book written after the year 2000, I only bought this book because I saw the author being interviewed on The Daily Show. One thing that I love about Jon Stewart is that you can tell when he's actually read the book versus when some poor interns had to come up with succinct, cohesive notes on stupid current affair books. The line during the interview that sold me on the book was when Jon Stewart said, "You know a book is good when there is a throwaway line about JFK having an orgy."
So, with that out the way, if you have any interest in Cuba I implore you to ignore the tacky cover art. It turns out that no historical narrative about Cuba is complete without understanding the story of the American mob in Cuba in the periods leading up to the Revolution. The stories are in and of themselves breathtaking in their ambition and gravitas, in a way that really lends weight to the phrase "the following is based on a true story..."
Much like the kind of tacky fictionalized accounts that often follow those words of false credibility, the real story is almost impossible to discern. The book is most impressive in its ability to set the foundation for post-Revolution Cuba, almost regardless of how you actually view the truth of the situation. He paints complicated, conflicting views of many of the main players in Cuban history: Fulgencio Batista, the brutal political tyrant but fierce populist who (amazingly enough) was actually responsible for some of the policies Fidel Castro would later take credit for; Castro, of course, who comes across as a bougie kid with a disdain for authority; and Meyer Lansky who was brilliant in his organization of casinos but was completely blind-sided by the surrounding political climate.
What makes the context of this book so interesting is that both Cuba and the mob lend themselves to overly-romanticized recounts in narrative form. Maybe both subjects elicit a bit of idealized empathy, or maybe both subjects are so captivating simply because the truth that guides these stories is so bizarre and foreign to most of us. I can't say for certain the TJ English really falls prey to this same kind of rosy-eyed view of the period, but I would imagine that is because I'm already somewhat empathetic having already traveled to Cuba and being somewhat more familiar with the culture. Ultimately, English has done his homework and I think the book can be appreciated by a large variety of people.
(On a side note, sometimes these reviews feel like the end of Reading Rainbow when they would get kids to read reviews of children's books that were clearly, in retrospect, written by adults.)(less)
South of the Border, West of the Sun is a beach read for those who don't like beaches. For those who prefer the cold mildew of the urban jungle to the...moreSouth of the Border, West of the Sun is a beach read for those who don't like beaches. For those who prefer the cold mildew of the urban jungle to the perfections of a sunny day, Murakami gives you a story of unrequited love in the jazz bars of Anywhere, Japan. I would read this novel as a character study for his other works, as the main character is reminiscent of his other leading men, except that he usually ends up situating them in extraordinary precariousness (just where we like them). (less)
There I was in the bookstore, in the fiction section, looking like I didn't belong. After a solid year or two of reading non-fiction books that had be...moreThere I was in the bookstore, in the fiction section, looking like I didn't belong. After a solid year or two of reading non-fiction books that had been guiding me toward some vague insight of greater truth or blah blah blah, I had hit a wall. A friend had suggested reading Ishmael by Daniel Quinn but a quick glance at the back cover signaled to me that I should move on.
After making quick work of the "q" section, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged were staring me down. Feeling like I had undergone a radical ideological shift in the last couple of years, I thought it might be time to pick up some Ayn Rand and give voice to my sociological second-guessing. That was until I was ultimately overcome by the overwhelming sense that she was just a whiny sourpuss with a need to provoke.
I just didn't want a book with an agenda. I didn't want to read anything that would explain the human condition in explicit metaphors or allegories of the difficulties inherent in modernity or an insane guilt trip focused on the perils of gluttony. I just wanted a story.
I turned to Murakami because his name seems to be floating around in the zeitgeist right now, and, well, what can I say except that I'm a scene whore. Maybe this guy was just another meaningless name; another Brooklyn promulgation inflicted on our narrowly-defined pop culture.
And for the first several chapters, I thought my worst fears had been confirmed. The book read like someone trying really hard to impress you with Western obscurity, forced surrealism, that hard-to-define-"I'm-comfortable-with-my-sexuality-except-that-I'm-really-not-so-I'm-going-to-make-it-seem-like-I-am" quality, and strange motifs that not only seemed incoherent but boring. And as I waited for the trainwreck to happen, the pages kept turning and turning.
The trainwreck never came, and as I began to accept certain aspects of Murakami's musings, I started to enjoy them. I now understand what people mean by a meditative book; I found myself calm and at ease reading it, fully immersed in a foreign world the way I hadn't been in a long time. Kafka almost reads like an anime film or a manga book. The imagery is vivid and bizarre, and the motifs felt genuinely strange and alluring after a while. I fell in love with this book.
It eventually made me want to soak up all things Murakami, and so I moved onto South of the Border, West of the Sun which I have also reviewed. (less)
A real... conversation-starter. Behavioral economics is a field that ties together a wide variety of disciplines into an over-arching framework that s...moreA real... conversation-starter. Behavioral economics is a field that ties together a wide variety of disciplines into an over-arching framework that says, "Well, that might be somewhat obvious but I appreciate your chirpy little experiments."
Yes, Freakonomics and The Tipping Point seem to have fundamentally influenced our NYT-top-10-non-fiction reads over the last several years, but that's because these books are insightful, entertaining and provocative in a way that real academia just can't (or shouldn't) match. Predictably Irrational the executive summary of a field that is completely fascinating; great for cocktail parties, totally unrelated classes, and random events happenstance that will have you saying, "Gee, I wonder what Dan Ariely would say about this."
In a book designed to turn common sense on its head, I instead found many of my own instincts confirmed by what I read. That may signify that my instincts are counter to anything resembling common sense, but more than likely I think one would find that they are not too surprised by the findings. After all, Ariely succeeds in making behavioral economics digestible and credible by framing topics in such a way that the logic of his argument is succeeded by a contextual example for how he arrived at his conclusion.
Take, for instance, my favorite section on professionalization. Common sense says that one reason many are so frustrated by law and medicine is that concepts and documentation remain intentionally opaque, designed to make you visit legal and healthcare professionals in order to even be able to understand anything at all. Ariely argues that movements to make these professions more transparent and accessible to the layman have actually resulted in higher perceived levels of mistrust amongst employees in these industries, and lower levels of personal satisfaction with their work.
The applications of this concept extend to other areas of interest to me as well, from open-source development to design. To me, it indicates that there is something to be said for needing certification in something; some sort of basic human need to be specialized in a way that allows you to be marketable and be considered knowledgeable. Hence, closed systems of development may actually be preferable to open-source systems, because people can take individual ownership of its successes and failures.
In design, it says to me that perhaps objects should be designed with virtuosity in mind. To put it bluntly, don't just make a guitar hero guitar, make a violin. Sometimes design isn't about usability, it's about creating a platform and system that someone can improve at.
As you can see, it's a useful book for brainstorming. Recommended.(less)
Say you're going to write a book about music. Or, better yet, not even a book, but a review. You see a concert, you go to a show, you hear a song on t...moreSay you're going to write a book about music. Or, better yet, not even a book, but a review. You see a concert, you go to a show, you hear a song on the radio, and all of a sudden you are summoned to rehash your experience. Let's make it a song, just to keep it simple.
Sounds easy enough, until you realize that there are an infinite amount of things you could write about. You could reduce the song to its genre characteristics, discussing how the song either contributes to, advances, or woefully imitates conventional schadenfreude. You could discuss your personal reaction to the song, providing anecdotal references to support your case. You could approach the song from the perspective of an experienced musician, discussing the musicianship and technical prowess of the song's author or authors while relaying to the layman the difficulty of executing such a track. These are only but a few angles you could take.
But then you realize that not only are you attempting to objectively review, judge and critique someone else's work, but that by contributing to this dialogue, you yourself are opening yourself up to others only to be reviewed, judged and critiqued yourself. You want to write as objectively as possible, but the very judgement you render on a song or artist may bely your own limitations. Ideally, you approach the truth as closely as you possibly can, but then you remember that famous quote, "writing about music is like dancing about architecture."
Now try extrapolating this to your experience in a country. Not just any country, but a country that probably has more misunderstandings and enigmatic qualities per square inch than any other on earth. As such, Cuba is more like a post-modern version of an enigma: an image maintained out-of-focus by a photographer with a cautious eye. You may be able to focus the lens once in a while, but chances are you will end up missing almost everything in your pursuit for momentary clarity. Thus, the challenge is enormous.
A former professor once stated, "The longer you stay in Cuba, the less you really understand it." Andrei Codrescu's short stay in Havana was such a frighteningly articulate flash in the pan of clarity that I was able to overlook many of the things that he might have missed. He asked the right questions, talked to the right people, and generated such a deceptively clear picture of Cuba that I'm not even sure he really missed anything. His book is not so much about Cuba as it is about the confusion, bewilderment and enchantment that comes over most visitors as they wash up on her shores. It's not a review of a song, it's a meditation on the process of reviewing a song.
I hate to say it, but it is entirely possible that Ay, Cuba is a wholly terrible introduction to Cuba. Fortunately, it is a fascinating and charismatic elixir for the Cuban visitor's detox process. I recalled more moments, feelings and observations after reading his book than I ever had before over the last four years.
When the book is finally written on Cuban history in the latter half of the 20th century and into the 21st, it may shed light on our (the visitor's) utmost puzzlement. In the meantime, Ay, Cuba is about as good of a placeholder as you can hope for. (less)
It is the ten year anniversary of the first time I read Cather in the Rye, and I am finding myself a reluctant manifestation of Holden Caulfield. Was...moreIt is the ten year anniversary of the first time I read Cather in the Rye, and I am finding myself a reluctant manifestation of Holden Caulfield. Was I drawn to the book because I was already resentful, or did I become resentful as a result of reading it? Who can even tell anymore... The resentfulness has even reached the point of my contempt for any story that even references Catcher in the Rye, as though any other person's inspiration from this book were somehow inferior to mine. This... this is the kind of book that Catcher in the Rye is.
I'd like to think that my life is a story of what Holden could've become had he just put up with more of the bullshit and insincerity that permeates modern existence, and to a certain degree I find myself finally able to not only accept these truths but enjoy their company. But, for the forseeable future, a part of me will be that disaffected adolescent who just cannot seem to understand the callousness of the world that surrounds him. I may not have developed resentfulness from J.D. Salinger, but he certainly provided me a way to articulate it. In a world of phonies, zealots, perverts, it seems wholly disingenuous to try and assign a star value to this book.
Catcher in the Rye isn't a work of fiction; it's a reality that some are both privliged and cursed to know. To those who fluctuate between idealism and cynicism and realize that they aren't polar opposites but complementary catalysts, Catcher in the Rye is our Book of Psalms.
So, I promised myself that I would stray away from the non-fiction universe after perusing a particularly disturbing online survey that noted that for...moreSo, I promised myself that I would stray away from the non-fiction universe after perusing a particularly disturbing online survey that noted that for the most part, unhappy people read non-fiction because they are unwilling to bask in the fervent imagination of a good fiction writer. This is to say that non-fiction writers are inherently unimaginative, and the people that read their work are depressed boors staving off suicide one "Chicken Soup for the _______ Soul" at a time.
Of course, I would like to think that this isn't true, but given that my last few books have been "Stumbling on Happiness", "The Paradox of Choice" and other such fare, I had reason to give this completely non-credible sous-breast exam undeserved credence. Am I really that unhappy with my life? Am I really incapable of basking in the creative halo of the literary giants? Does one have anything at all to do with the other? Will reading Harry Potter finally subjugate what Slavoj Zizek refers to as the modern human's injunction to be happy?
Well, I am happy to report that reading non-fiction has not affected my happiness in any way, nor has it taken away from my ability to don the glow of the creative writer's halo. In the best non-fiction books (or at least the most entertaining), most of the joy comes from observing an author work out their neuroses in a public manner with a mix of internal narration and running commentary that would rival any football game for its collection of witty repartee regarding inanity and banality.
It turns out that the most creative writing, at least for me, involves taking an average, everyday scene and skewing its perspective by having it be recounted by the most neurotic painter that ever existed. The best non-fiction makes me gasp with amazement at the profound farces that other people outside of my immediate universe call "lives". How would a "normal" person react on a playboy photo shoot on an actual tropical island? So, fasting involves more than just not eating?
David Rakoff seems particularly well-suited for the task of reporting back from the avant-garde of lifestyles, and thus I thoroughly enjoyed driving the manure truck of his imaginative bullshit. This isn't to say that I disliked this book at all-- in fact, I quite enjoyed it. But I enjoyed it the same way I enjoy reading an old journal entry: incredulous bemusement with a hint of embarrassment and self-loathing. Rakoff's tone is unshakable and cynically perfect, but it can be a little much to read.
In the end, it turns out that reading someone like Rakoff makes me realize that I'm not quite as unhappy as I had previously thought, or in exemplary fashion, I'm not quite as unhappy as I could be. It takes a certain jadedness and, what's the word I'm looking for... CREATIVITY... to be able to take seemingly mundane, objective truth and twist it into a mangled psychotherapy session that gets published in Vanity Fair. After all, if I really were that unhappy, then I'd be a non-fiction writer myself.(less)
Banksy's art is provacative and gutsy, but you have to take his message with a grain of salt. After all, the number one spraypainting foil to Scotland...moreBanksy's art is provacative and gutsy, but you have to take his message with a grain of salt. After all, the number one spraypainting foil to Scotland Yard chose to publish a book of his work through the most exemplary, altruistic publishing house of all corporate publishing houses, Random House (maybe I'm saying that with a hint of sarcasm). Is Banksy right? Of course he is, but you know what? His credit card bills are doing just fine with a list price of $34.95 a book. He's probably the only graffiti artist with a mortgage. Appreciate the art for what it is, intellectual fodder and ballsy execution, but don't turn him into a symbol for anything other than entertainment. (less)
Although I have yet to find a lot of practical insight, this book is frighteningly accurate in its assessments of purchasing patterns and how they cor...moreAlthough I have yet to find a lot of practical insight, this book is frighteningly accurate in its assessments of purchasing patterns and how they correspond to our self-perceptions. Delivered more as a marketing tool than a sociology tome, the executive-friendly tone (replete with abundant, powerful graphics) is actually kind of refreshing. Maybe I'll figure out how to use this book some day, but for now it's great to talk about at parties;)(less)
Reading Mali's stuff doesn't compare to hearing him recite it. With a penchant for rhythm and acting, he's one of those people that comes across as co...moreReading Mali's stuff doesn't compare to hearing him recite it. With a penchant for rhythm and acting, he's one of those people that comes across as condescending and patronizing and most importantly... right on the money. He's got the swagger that comes from fighting the good fight. Kind of like the Half Nelson of the poetry world. (less)
This book hit the "no shit" zone pretty early on, and stayed there throughout most of it. What is it that Sherlock Holmes used to say? Oh yeah. "Eleme...moreThis book hit the "no shit" zone pretty early on, and stayed there throughout most of it. What is it that Sherlock Holmes used to say? Oh yeah. "Elementary, my dear Watson." In other words, PRETTY SIMPLE. Yes, it's difficult to choose. Yes, it's depressing us. Watch Barry Schwartz's TED talk [http://www.ted.com/tedtalks/tedtalksp...]. It's much more concise, and far more entertaining. (less)
As if I wasn't impressed enough the first time I read this book, upon learning that it was Michael Chabon's MFA thesis I have a whole new level of adm...moreAs if I wasn't impressed enough the first time I read this book, upon learning that it was Michael Chabon's MFA thesis I have a whole new level of admiration for it. An astonishing universe of characters I'd like to meet, characters I'd like to be, characters I might be and characters I was and might become, Pittsburgh becomes the backdrop for the drama that is our early 20's, and sexuality becomes the metaphorical vehicle of our confusion. On a surface level, it's easy to read the book and come away thinking that it's an examination of the ridiculousness of sexual absolutes, but really it's about gaining the confidence to be comfortable who you are, almost irrespective of sexuality. And frankly, I need that right now. READ IT.(less)
What started out as a promising "freakonomic" look at the human psyche quickly became an amalgam of annoying psychological parlour tricks written to a...moreWhat started out as a promising "freakonomic" look at the human psyche quickly became an amalgam of annoying psychological parlour tricks written to amuse and provide misleading insight. It's easy to take this book too seriously and feel maddeningly powerless to control our own happiness, and perhaps it's true, but it's a sobering thought that seems to encourage us to stop planning out what we think will make us happy and just accept that we don't know. All I know is that I don't need any help making my decisions any more difficult. (less)
What I love about this book is that it got me thinking a great deal about alternatives to the standard process of having a 9-5 job. Of course, big pic...moreWhat I love about this book is that it got me thinking a great deal about alternatives to the standard process of having a 9-5 job. Of course, big picture, the book is about much more than that, namely the importance of these individuals in the continuing economic well-being of the U.S. However, my disputes with his thesis, that "creatives" are behind this economic growth, stem mostly from the conclusions that he draws from his data, and the breadth of personal anecdotes that he uses to prove his point. "I mean, jesus, I bike a lot, and other creatives do too. We're saving this country every time we bike." (Paraphrasing, of course)
Interestingly enough, the book has a paradoxical effect. Instead of making me want to move somewhere where perhaps rent is cheaper and be a pioneer of some new cultural movement in an up and coming place, Florida explains why these places are so inhospitable to "our kind" and thus makes me want to stick to NYC, SF, Cambridge, Austin and like-minded places. Now who's going to move there to start all of these movements?(less)