Thursday, November 4, 2010

Interview: Haruki Murakami

The Wind-up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami is one of my favorite authors. A friend of mine (Nehemiah Blake) sent me this interview the other day and I thought I would mention it here. My favorite book of his is without doubt The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. I love the tapestry and feeling of disconnection between the protagonist and the world. I love the isolation in the well and the interesting and curious characters with strange hats and the names of Greek Islands. I love the way the story is not a one dimension, linear tale but rather an intricate tapestry of different lives and personalities that have as a foundation the quest and love a man has for his lost wife. I love the simplicity with which Murkami writes and the complexity of the tale he weaves. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is without doubt my favorite Murakami. My second favorite is Norwegian Wood. The interview was done shortly before the release of Kafka on the Shore. I am linking to The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle above to keep the posts consistent, but the interview is about Murakami's writing in general and is long. I am looking forward to the English translation of 1Q84, his latest novel [review here].

As per the interview (see interview here) Murakami gives some interesting insights on The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.


You’ve said elsewhere, referring to The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, that you were interested in your father, in what happened to him, and to his entire generation; but there are no father figures in the novel, or indeed almost anywhere in your fiction. Where in the book itself is this interest apparent?


Almost all my novels have been written in the first person. The main task of my protagonist is to observe the things happening around him. He sees what he must see, or he is supposed to see, in actual time. If I may say so, he resembles Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby. He is neutral, and in order to maintain his neutrality, he must be free from any kinship, any connection to a vertical family system.

This might be considered my reply to the fact that “family” has played an overly significant role in traditional Japanese literature. I wanted to depict my main character as an independent, absolute individual. His status as an urban dweller has something to do with it too. He is a type of man who chooses freedom and solitude over intimacy and personal bonds.


Few novelists have written and rewritten their obsessions so compulsively, I think, as you have. Hard-Boiled Wonderland, Dance Dance Dance, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and Sputnik Sweetheart almost demand to be read as variations on a theme: a man has been abandoned by, or has otherwise lost, the object of his desire, and is drawn by his inability to forget her into a parallel world that seems to offer the possibility of regaining what he has lost, a possibility that life as he (and the reader) knows it can never offer. Would you agree with this characterization?




How central is this obsession to your fiction?


I don’t know why I keep writing those things. I find that in John Irving’s work, every book of his, there’s some person with a body part that’s missing. I don’t know why he keeps writing about those missing parts; probably he doesn’t know himself. For me it’s the same thing. My protagonist is always missing something, and he’s searching for that missing thing. It’s like the Holy Grail, or Philip Marlowe.

Read the full interview at the Paris Review Haruki Murakami, The Art of Fiction No. 182.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Books to Read: The Fattening of America by Eric A. Finkelstein

The Fattening of America by Eric A. Finkelstein

I have recently become intrerested in health and nutrition. I was horrified to realize that I am in fact overweight. I had a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 29, weighed 104kg (at 1m90) and a greater than 40-inch waist - and I was happy in my blissful ignorance (even though people told me I was fat and I could see that I was fat). I was quite happy that is until I saw a picture of me and my nephew. In the picture I had a huge double chin and looked like a bullfrog. I decided to do something about it! I decided to start excercising and to eat better (and less). Since I started my BMI has dropped to 26.5 (at 95.8kg) so although I am still overweight (as per the BMI index) I am on the correct downward curve. I started looking around for books on the obesity epidemic (and bought Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy for myself as a reference to learn more) and stumbled onto this book. It looks like a fascinating read. You can read the first Chapter on the official The Fattening of America homepage. Its well worth the read. I found the following excerpt particularly fascinating:

I coach my son's soccer team (largely because he wouldn't play if I did not). Although many teams drink Gatorade and eat Popsicles after practice and games, I limit our team's consumption to water and oranges. This, too, is a real challenge, as I have to constantly remind parents not to bring "rewards" for the team after practice and games. I once had to tell a mom to put the powdered donuts and Juicy Juice® back into her car. I told her what I tell the rest of the parents over and over -- water turns out to be a pretty good way to hydrate your kids. Looking at what transpires on some of the other fields, I would not be surprised if many kids actually gain weight as a result of being in the league. By the way, although we are not supposed to keep score, it did not go unnoticed (by me) that our team of six year olds went undefeated; the lack of Gatorade was not an obstacle to the team's on-field success. Of course, maybe it was my great coaching.

When I was a kid we only received oranges on match day and yes, during practice, only water. Amazingly, as well, now that I think about it, after training soccer, rugby, cricket, swimming or whatever for two hours, most of us would have to walk home (and I lived 1.5km from the school) no one picked us up, even after match day. It is unbelievable to think parents would offer the rewards they do now and describe in the excerpt above. Adults I believe do this too with compensation eating i.e. "I just worked out for one hour in the gym so I can treat myself to a starbucks and a muffin." All the work in the gym is gone in that one muffin. I think Mr. Finkelstein has his head screwed on right. I do hope to read this book sometime (should add it to my wishlist lol) as I think it would be a fascinating read.

As I wait to buy this book, I will continue on my weight loss program. I encourage you all to do the same. As per Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy we should all be doing at least 30 minutes of excercise a day at least. He recommends brisk walking, and that is surely easy enough. Couldn't agree more. You can buy The Fattenig of America from Amazon @ The Fattening of America: How The Economy Makes Us Fat, If It Matters, and What To Do About It

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Movie: Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

Norwegian Wood is without doubt one of my favorite novels of all time which I read on average once a year. Its a simple enough coming of age story with incredible complexities and amazing insights into relationships, human nature, frail insecurities and a Japan in transition. So much has been written about Murakami's masterpiece and I doubt there is anything I can add to the dialogue and therefore won't even try. However, I heard rumour of the movie coming out last year and it seems to have a December release date in Japan. I have always thought putting Murakami onto film effectively would be a challenge too far. Can you imagine trying to write the screenplay for The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle or Kafka on the Shore? Murakami is an amazingly gifted and imaginative novelist and one that I have admired ever since I read Dance Dance Dance. Since the movie has been announced I have waited for it with great anticipation (although not with as much anticipation as the The Lord of the Rings trilogy), but still, I am very keen to see if the director gives the novel justice. The challenge of the movie is not only Murakami's story and intent, but the director was Vietnamese who doesn't speak Japanese I believe directing Japanese actors acting in Japanese. The film debuted earlier this year at the Venice Film Festival and has had a good reception by the critics so I am hopeful. Hopefully the Taiwan release will have English subtitles or I will be doomed to waiting for the DVD release a few months down the line. Anyway, a trailer to the movie can be seen below (with English Subtitles). You can see more about the movie at the official Norwegian Wood Movie homepage.

Buy from Amazon @ Norwegian Wood

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Speech: Cycling Home from Siberia by Rob Lilwall

Cycling Home from Siberia by Rob Lilwall (Lilwall's site)

I was recently in a small bookstore in the Landmark Center in Hong Kong waiting for Queenie and I saw this book quite by accident. We needed to rush off for another appointment but that night, in the hotel, I thought a lot about the book. The next day I went back and bought it and I am REALLY looking forward to reading it. I am sure it will be in the tradition of great travel books like Who Needs a Road and The Great Railway Bazaar. When I saw this book I immediately thought of my friends Simon and Helen who went for a very long cycling journey accross America and Europe way back in 2002. This book I am sure truly encapsulates the spirit of adventure and seems to embody a naive and honest belief in the goodness of people. I am really happy I went back to buy the book.

On this book the Guardian writes:

The man starts with a confession: he's a Christian - and later confirms he prefers to stay with priests or nuns. I almost gave up there, but the honesty makes for compulsive reading: he farts on Russian live radio and gets the giggles, he camps in disabled toilets in Japan - and observes that they are cleaner and more comfortable than Russian hotels. When he is mugged at gunpoint, he has violent revenge fantasies, then feels guilty and prays for his attackers.

His disarming, open-faced bravura gets better and better as the book progresses. In Papua New Guinea, a place he decides to cycle around, he is chased by drunken men brandishing cudgels. Afterwards he wonders if perhaps he had pre-judged them and they were only being friendly.

The speech is pretty funny and he is very engaging. Its on the lighter side and this might be the next book I read. My wife is reading it now. Enjoy!

Buy from Amazon @ Cycling Home from Siberia: 30,000 miles, 3 years, 1 bicycle

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Current Reading: The Making of Modern Japan by Marius Jansen

The Making of Modern Japan by Marius Jansen

I am currently reading this incredible book by the late Professor Jansen. I am about 1/3 of the way through. It is an incredible book and worth the blood, sweat, tears and time to get through it. I did a quick google search for the book and found a very good "capsule" review of the book on the Foreign Affairs website. The reviewer, Lucian W. Pye writes:

This magisterial work [The Making of Modern Japan] has all the details one would want in a reference work, but the mature reflections of a lifelong Japan scholar at Princeton make it a pleasure to read. Last year, the Japanese recognized Jansen's learning by decreeing him a "National Treasure: A Person of Cultural Merit." (Jansen, who died just as the book was published, is the only foreigner ever to have been so honored.) Nearly half of the book is devoted to the Tokugawa period, when Japan became an integrated feudal state and put in place many of the fundamentals essential for modern nation-building. Jansen answers the question of whether the Meiji Restoration destined Japan to authoritarianism by detailing the interwar period, when Japan went far in the liberal, democratic direction. At every turn, Jansen looks behind the political stage to examine cultural and social developments. He avoids abstract theorizing by recounting the experiences of specific Japanese individuals, giving the story a strong human dimension. This authoritative work goes up to the present and ends with Japan's current economic problems. [See review here.]

To get a small taste of Jansen's writing ability and insights, you can also read this 1990 paper called [pdf link] "The Opening of Japan." I agree with Jansen when he writes:

Within half a century of its forced opening by the West it [Japan] had begun the building of an industrial system, installed the institutions of a modern state, and scored impressive victories over China and Tsarist Russia. Freed of the restictions of the unequal treaties, allied with Great Britain, master of Taiwan and soon of Korea, Japan was poised to alter permanently the balance of political power, and soon the balance of economic power, in East Asia and the Pacific world. On that dimension the opening of Japan was indeed a change with permanent significance for world history.[PDF download of "The Opening of Japan]

As I said, I am only a third of the way through the book but highly recommend it for anyone who is serious about studying Japan. You can buy it from Amazon @ The Making of Modern Japan

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Download: Formosa Betrayed by George Kerr

Formosa Betrayed by George Kerr

This book was very popular among the expat community when I first arrived in Taiwan and forms the beginning of the blueprint for any argument by the expat community defending the sovereign rights and nation status of Taiwan. Someone lent it to me once but I never got the chance to read it and had to return the book. I haven't seen it around in any bookstores of late and was thinking about it the other day. I looked it up on Google and to my surprise and delight there is a complete copy that can be downloaded from the University of Saskatchewan Taiwan Library Online page. I suggest you download it ASAP as one never knows how long these things stay online. Its good to see books like this available to the general public in such an easy way. Fourteen reviews on Amazon give the book a five star rating so I am sure it is a good read and certainly a good place to start the discussion of the early years in Taiwan after the KMT took over. Much of what happened then has a direct impact on current day politics and current day conflicts and disputes accross the Taiwan Strait. Should be a good read.

Download from the Formosa Betrayed page (pdf link)

If you REALLY INSIST on buying it, you can buy it from Amazon @ Formosa Betrayed

Monday, October 25, 2010

Speech: Richard Koo - Japan's Recession & Lessons for Today

The Holy Grail of Macroeconomics: Lessons from Japans Great Recession by Richard Koo

Richard Koo's "Holy Grail" is definitely on my wish list and I will definitely get to it before the end of this year (2010). He has a fascinating proposal that the 15 year recession in Japan was in effect was a "balance sheet recession" whereby asset prices and property prices dropped dramatically giving companies more liabilities than assets on their balance sheet. However, he argues the cash flow of these companies were still good so even though they were effectively bankrupt, they were still able to pay down their debts and it took them 10 years to pay off their debts. He argues (at least in the speech below) that this was the responsible thing to do. The speech below I believe covers a lot of the issues in the book very briefly. He comes accross as very sensible and rational economist and someone worth listening too for, at the very least, very engaging perspectives on Japan and also for the lesson we can learn for today.

I have embedded two speeches. The first is 10 minutes long and covers the essential ideas. The second one is a little more detailes in putting these issues in a global context.

You can buy from Amazon @ The Holy Grail of Macroeconomics, Revised Edition: Lessons from Japans Great Recession