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A Little Heartbreak, A Dose of Literary Reality

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I’m hoping this was just a speed bump on the road called Jack Reacher.

I just finished Lee Child’s latest addition to the Jack Reacher series, Past Tense, and was…What’s the word…Saddened? Untitillated? Underwhelmed?

JR is once again the middle of Nowhere, USA. He’s kinda/sorta looking for his father’s birthplace. He gets into a few fights. He wins them all handily. The end.

Of the roughly 3,454 books I’ve read by Mr. Child, this was the first time I felt let down, something many of us have experienced at one time or another with authors/artists we love. We are, after all, human. No artist can remain at the top of their A game forever (although a solid argument could be made for Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Ruiz y Picasso, Mr. Picasso’s baptismal name).

I remember the first time this happened to me as a reader of fiction, feeling somewhat crestfallen, that is. I fell in love with Tolstoy at a young age, starting with War and Peace, moving onto Anna Karenina (which his old comrade Dostoyevsky called “the greatest love story ever written”), and culminating in his last novel, Resurrection, in 1899, which had a great premise but ultimately fell flat.

Then it happened with Murakami Haruki. I loved A Wild Sheep Chase. What followed (in English translation) was Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, Norwegian Wood, Dance Dance Dance, South of the Border, West of the Sun, and then his opus, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. From there, things went south for me (but not west of the sun), including Murakami’s choice for his new translator. It began with Sputnik Sweetheart and Kafka on the Shore, and then — contrary to what some believe — 1Q84.

Alternatively, there are some “red wine” authors that seem to get better with age, like Ayn Rand (I know, I know…This will be controversial with certain readers), who went from We the Living (amazing, with a terrific ending) to The Fountainhead (profound, nearly led to a complete nuclear meltdown for Ms. Rand) to her true opus, Atlas Shrugged (which had a profound influence on philosophy, politics and social movements). The same could be said of Somerset Maugham, who started relatively early with Of Human Bondage, then The Moon and Sixpence and then, at the tail end of his career as a novelist, his opus, The Razor’s Edge.

Finally, there are the yo-yos of the literary world. Take Fyodor Dostoyevsky. He broke out to wild acclaim in 1846 with a novella called Poor Folk, and didn’t get 15 minutes of fame; he got, quite literally, 15 days of being what Guardian contributor Daniel Kalder called a “cause celebre.” It would be 20 years (of being pissed on and heckled) until Fedya D regained his rightful place as a master of fiction after the release of Crime and Punishment in 1866. His last novel, seen by many to be his opus, was The Brothers Karamazov.

As a final note, and as it pertains to the genesis of this post, 61 Hours and Worth Dying For are my two favourite Reacher novels to date.


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New Murakami Film Set for 2018 Release

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Lee Chang-dong, one of Korea’s most celebrated film directors (Peppermint Candy, Oasis, Poetry), is set to release an adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s short story “Barn Burning,” which was originally published in The New Yorker in 1983 and subsequently as part of a short story collection called The Elephant Vanishes.

The movie, titled Burning, is a mystery thriller that follows two men, one of whom is a novelist, and a female model after they get involved in a “strange incident.” It stars Yoo Ah-in, Steven Yeun, and Jeon Jong-seo.

Click here to read the full article and learn more details about Lee Chang-dong and the movie itself.

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If I Could Turn Back Time…

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No, it would not be to recreate a Cher song. Or maybe it would. I’m not sure at this point because I have the stupid thing playing on a loop in my head right now.

Writing for futurism.com, Chelsea Gohd published a piece called “We Can’t Alter The Flow of Time But, According to Physics, We Can Bend It” a few days ago, and I lapped up every word.

We’ve all considered the notion of time travel at one point in our lives. Don’t deny it. Ever since that excellent! film (not movie) Back to the Future II, when Biff steals a sports almanac and goes back in time to make himself crazy rich, we’ve all entertained notions of joining the Biffs of the world.

As far as I understand – and with much of what I learned at M.I.T. relegated to the depths of the Mariana Trench – Einstein conceived of travelling forward in time (assuming we could reach the speed of light), but never back in time. He did leave open one possibility that even he could only speculate about: wormholes.

Although I’m generally apathetic when it comes to sci-fi literature and movies, I’ve been thinking a lot about the space-time continuum lately because of a Korean novel I’m helping to translate, author Kim Hee-sun’s The Multiverses of Infinity (무한의 책).

It goes without saying that I’m ecstatic to be part of a project I truly believe in and helping breathe life into it for English readers one day. (Think Kafka meets Murakami Haruki in a dark Prague alley, somehow the two speak the same language, and after a quick meet-and-greet of sorts, they decide to stroll off together to a Harajuku jazz club, where they will discuss beautifully shaped ears and huge insects.) And since the plot of Multiverses involves a character going back in time, it’s got me thinking.

Without giving away too much of the plot, the central driving force for this character to go back in time is to help someone, not hurt them, and not to benefit in any selfish way like our friend Biff. If we as human beings ever do come up with a way to travel through time, I can’t help but wonder what our motivation would be.

Anyway, Ms. Gohd’s article on space-time is nothing short of fascinating and illuminating. And to quote Gohd quoting Stephen Hawking at the end, “Even if it turns out that time travel is impossible, it is important that we understand why it is impossible.”

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Quote of the Day

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“I myself, as I’m writing, don’t know who did it. The readers and I are on the same ground. When I start to write a story, I don’t know the conclusion at all and I don’t know what’s going to happen next. If there is a murder case as the first thing, I don’t know who the killer is. I write the book because I would like to find out. If I know who the killer is, there’s no purpose to writing the story.”
Haruki Murakami

Expect the unexpected. That’s today’s theme. Just when fit looks like it’s about to hit the shan – with everything nicely falling apart on the way – life has a Ha-Ha-Ha-funny way of swooping in and providing a much-needed set of paddles and life jacket (remember, ’cause you’re up a river and all).

Alternatively, just when things look all la-dee-da, peaches and freaking cream, rainbows sprouting out of frigging manholes, you get whacked over the head by a 2×4.

Boom! Eat it!

Even novelists, the grand puppeteers of the world, don’t understand how everything will unfold in their made-up universes of Plato-like, cave-dwelling prisoners. Theirs is to observe the flames on the wall, take their cues from human nature, and then pen the next sentence. Then a paragraph. And then a page and chapter and – if they’re lucky – a full-length story. If they’re really lucky, they’ll still be conscious and breathing when the last word is down on paper, all the answers (hopefully) answered somewhere along the way.

When the unexpected does – not if – happens, keep in mind something that the great Joseph Conrad once wrote: “Life has no meaning. Each of us has meaning and we bring it to life. It is a waste to be asking the question when you are the answer.”


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Lee Child: Brain, Meet Candy

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In between sweeping fictional epics and treatises on a broad range of subjects, from the origin of modern phytoplankton to explaining theories of economic growth, I like to get my inner Child on. Lee, that is.

As I await my Amazon order due next week (Manhattan Beach, Don Quixote), I have a few days to let my mind wander, so I let it wander all the way to the local library yesterday, where I picked up Make Me, Lee Child’s 8 millionth addition to the Jack Reacher Library for Altruism, Public Safety & Community Affairs.

And for reasons that escape me, I can’t get enough of JR/Lee Child. Or, as Murakami Haruki is super-enthusiastically quoted as saying on Mr. Child’s website, “I like Lee Child!” Good on ya, Haruks! Talk about a ringing endorsement. Maybe someone should have looked at “The Language of Love” before translating that one.

I tried explaining the appeal of Lee Child to my mother last night, but fear I didn’t do a very good job.

“So I’m about 120 pages in,” I began, “and essentially nothing’s happened so far. JR’s in the middle of nowhere Oklahoma, there’s been one minor fight, no deaths, one gun scene, a complete lack of blood, and a mystery tied to the evolution of wheat.”

“Weak?” she asked.

“Nope. Wheat”

“Like a Tweet?”

“Similar, but totally opposite. Like shredded wheat, yet not yet shredded yet. Anyway, Lee Child’s greatest description thus far into the book is of a train station and a mahogany bench. In a town called Mother’s Rest.”


“Not who. Where.”


“Anywho, I’m not kidding about the slowness of it. Best of all, if you asked Matt to edit this as a manuscript, he’d have a heart attack and lose much of his head hairs; there’s alliteration all around, poor man’s poorly punctuation, dialogue bleeding from one character to the next (how many people really say ‘a million to one gets you…’ so often?), and so on and so forth.”

“So why do you like him so much?” my mom asked, equally fascinated and repulsed by my answer.

“I dunno, but I do!”

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The Art of Translation

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How much freedom does a translator have when sculpting a literary work into another language?

That seems to be the burning question recently behind Deborah Smith’s “brilliant but flawed translation” of Han Kang’s Man Booker International  Prize-winning novel, The Vegetarian. Writing for The Los Angeles Times, Charse Yun’s article “How the Bestseller ‘The Vegetarian,’ Translated from Han Kang’s Original, Caused an Uproar in South Korea” points out how pundits are now revealing glaring errors, omissions and flat-out additions to Han Kang’s original Korean manuscript.

Justified? Necessary? Helpful for the average English reader?

Yes, says I.

If you’re familiar with older translations of Korean novels, then you’re also familiar with the all-too-familiar feeling of your eyes being gouged out by the words on the page; they’re unnatural, inconsistent, misleading, and confusing much of the time. The result is a hackneyed version of what is purported to be, in its original Korean version, “great” or “incredible” or “fantastic.”

For a closer look at the challenges faced by translators, check out this insightful look into the world of translating Japanese literature into English, specifically the works of Murakami Haruki. The three participants in this email “roundtable” were Philip Gabriel, Murakami translator and professor of Japanese literature at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Jay Rubin, Murakami translator and professor of Japanese literature at Harvard University, and Gary Fisketjon, an editor at Alfred A. Knopf.

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Kafka Makes His Canadian Court Debut

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It really is the small things in life that bring me a tremendous amount of pleasure. One of these things is when anything literary or linguistic makes its way into a court of law, which it did recently in New Brunswick, that scandalous little province always punching above its weight class.

In an article titled “Just what does ‘Kafkaesque’ mean? A New Brunswick judge weighs in,” Canadian Press journalist Rob Roberts reported from Fredericton about Paul Lynch, a local lab janitor, who was nailed for his 7th DUI-related offense in 2015. According to Roberts, “Because of his prior convictions, he [Lynch] was immediately remanded pending sentencing, and later sentenced to six months in jail.”

Here’s the problem: Nobody came to his hearing and he was never able to make a phone call, so when he didn’t show up for work the next day – or the 180 days after that – his employer fired him.

Seem logical and by the book? Well, not if you have a cursory understanding of Franz Kafka. Per the article, “In a new ruling, Justice Hugh McLellan defines Kafkaesque as the struggle ‘against rules and forces that cannot be understood.'”

What the Franz?

“Labour adjudicator John McEvoy ordered the health authority to give him his job back, in a decision that declared ‘no one . . . should face the Kafka-like situation faced by Lynch in respect of his inability to contact his employer.'”

While a little more out there than the “Oxford commagate” debacle in a Maine court case earlier this year, it’s interesting to note that Justice McLellan even invokes the legendary Prague, Bohemia, Austro-Hungarian (now Czech Republic) writer’s name in the first place, as notable publications like The New York Times and The Atlantic have published pieces in the recent past asking whether “Kakaesque” is “‘a word so overused it has lost all meaning?'”

Perhaps that’s why younger readers now say Murakamiesque? Should you need any clarification of what this adjective means, definitely pick up The Elephant Vanishes, though A Wild Sheep Chase and The Wind-up Bird Chronicle would suffice as well.

Literature aside, how can a Canadian citizen be arrested, convicted and then essentially forgotten about – and all without a single phone call?

I suppose you could ask The Globe and Mail (“Here’s how to fix a broken system“),  The National Post (“No faith in our justice system“), The Huff Post (“Canada Doesn’t Need To Fix Its Justice System. It Needs a New One“), or The Georgia Straight (“The Canadian justice system is so broken it’s criminal“).

Then again, if you wanted a slightly more objective POV, you could refer to last year’s report from the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, which graded provinces and territories in five categories: public safety, victims support, efficiency, fairness and access to justice, and costs and resources. Benjamin Perrin, a UBC professor of law, was one of the report’s authors.

How did Canada’s most populous province fair in the report card assessment? We suck, bottom third of the provinces, and an overall rating of a C+. Why, you ask? According to one CBC report by Alison Crawford, “Perrin points to how police can directly lay charges in Ontario.” That’s right. They don’t need the OK from the Crown beforehand (like in Quebec), nor do they even need the consent of an alleged victim.

As a result, says Mr. Perrin, “[T]here’s an awful lot of people being dragged through the Ontario criminal justice system who are ultimately having their charges stayed, withdrawn or acquitted. That is costing millions of dollars to the province but it’s also plugging up the system so that really important cases don’t make it through..”

That fact is scary enough, but what’s even more frightening is that Canada ranked 12th among 113 countries surveyed in 2016, according to the World Justice Project Rule of Law Index, “the world’s leading source for original, independent data on the rule of law.”

So, Mr. Lynch, if you think you had a Kafka-/Murakamiesque experience going through the justice system here in Canada, imagine what it would have been like in bottom-of-the-heap No. 113, Venezuela, 18 spots below Sierra-freaking-Leone and two spots down from Af-oh-my-ghanistan.

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Music for Writing

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Hey! I finally found a picture of my doppelgänger! Except I have a mullet of curly hair that men are jealous of and women swoon over. And my face is much more spatial – and palatial. Oh, and my back is always erect when I type. Always. Well, there’s also the hot issue of my eyes, which are not quite as beady and shine with illumination like a handsome dwarf star that’s run out of hydrogen to burn so begins collapsing onto itself. Hmm. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I am also a man, like the man in the picture, and I wear clothes and have a laptop computer.

My apologies for getting distracted by my doppelgänger. Now, onto today’s post!

Murakami Haruki published a memoir in 2013 called What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. Oh, that Murakami is so quirky!

Anyway, it’s early Sunday morning here. I’ve been writing since 5 a.m., and I was suddenly struck with this idea to share What I Listen To When I Listen To Music While Writing.

We’re all unique in our habits and patterns, but for me I can’t write creatively without my earbuds firmly in my side head holes. I can write in public and in private; with chaos going on all around me or in perfect tranquility; inside or outside; at a desk, on the floor, or in transit; with or without my bikini mesh high-cut thong on; etcetera; and so on; ad infinitum.

But without my instrumental music forming the backdrop to my writing experience, I might as well be writing in Polish. Which wouldn’t go over very well because I know exactly zero Polish words.

Per the advice of an old friend who emailed me yesterday and insisted I stop quoting other people in my Quote of the Day posts, I’ll actually quote myself for the first time in more than four years of running this site.

There’s a moment in A Father’s Son when the father, Rick Maloney, is listening to Pachelbel’s Canon in D late at night and becomes unusually emotional. As he tries to explain the raw power of music to his son, Rick says,

“You know, Schopenhauer once said that the effect of music is so very much more powerful and penetrating than is that of the other arts, for these others speak only of the shadow, but music of the essence. I love that line: for these others speak only of the shadow, but music of the essence!” He opened his eyes and looked into mine. “I’m convinced that if angels do actually exist, they might very well have come down to Earth and inspired the great Baroque artist to write this canon.”

That’s kind of how I feel every morning after cruising into my “office” (coffee shop) and I  begin writing as I bask in the auditory splendour of these incredibly gifted musicians.

So, if you’re looking for some new music to write to or meditate to or, I don’t know, party to (?), click on the following links and see if they turn your crank.





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Crack for the (Literary) Soul

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When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child.

(Therefore, I read Sidney Sheldon with reckless abandon.)

When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.

(Ergo, I switched over to Lee Child.)

Thank godness (sic) for Corinthians! Like many readers, I have fond memories of reading as a youngster. When I wasn’t dining on chicken noodle soup to fortify my soul, I was either playing hockey or video games, reading, or volunteering my time at one of 23 nursing homes/shelters/soup kitchens in the pre-GTA (i.e. Toronto Toronto).

I read Watership Down, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, the Hardy Boys, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and…get ready…Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. (“Hey, Mom,” I’d later say, “I thought a period ended a sentence.”)

But it was Sidney Sheldon whom I fell in love with as a young teen and consumed like cotton candy dipped in a sumptuous 151 proof rum & crack sauce. (“Whoa,” I’d later think – but not verbalize because it sounded sacrilegious, “You can put creams down there to do that?!?!?)

As I grew older, school MADE ME read novels about boring subjects like communism and totalitarianism as seen through the eyes of farm animals, orphans who like hanging around graveyards, and teenagers in a pre-Survivor scenario who kill instead of show off their naked upper bodies, etc.

Aside from a few girly rags in between during this academic period of my life (Hey, man, Stephen King publishes in Playboy! So does Margaret Atwood, Murakami Haruki, Norman Mailer and Ray Bradbury – so back off!), I didn’t have much of a chance to read anything except what was prescribed to me by all my Doctors of Literature.

Once I got out of school, though, I started reading what I wanted to read once again, and soon my literary boundaries began growing in leaps and bounds. I started my first book club in 2004 and my current one in 2009. Whether fiction or non-fiction, whether written in English or translated, whether a male or female/young or old author – I didn’t care. Soon I was slurping away on literature like a kid attacking a Slush Puppy after a hockey game. (Or Alberto Manguel walking around a library with a grocery cart big enough to hold all the books of Alexandria.)

Although I tend to read more serious literature these days most of the time (because I lost my sense of humour somewhere around Yonge and Lawrence a while ago, I’m told), I still succumb to the Lee Child virus every now and then. Which is what I did last week. Which is why I feel a bit lighter in the brain, but a bit sturdier in the happiness index.

I don’t read a lot of thrillers, but something about Mr. Don’t-Call-Me-a-Child, Asshole! resonates with me like, oh, I don’t know, how certain people feel upon getting a little blue box from Tiffany’s for Christmas or someone else being handed the keys to a muscle car and told to drive it hard into the ground.

Jack Reacher is not remotely human, a perfect soul in many ways yet has no sense of commitment. But still.

But still I can’t get enough of him. If you’ve only seen the recent Tom Cruise Jack Reacher series movies, do yourself a favour. Go to a hospital and get a brain scrub. Have those memories completely erased from your brain and then start at square one: pick up ANY Jack Reacher novel (there’s no real thread through them except the brother who comes and goes and a few other small details), find a comfortable place to read, and strap yourself in for a wild ride. You won’t regret it.

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Quote of the Day

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“As it turns out, the atrocities we suffered were committed by none other than ourselves, and the inner sense of guilt and fear sparked by this incident helped form the roots of the frantic hatred that thrives to this day.”

Hwang Sok-yong, The Guest

I need to start today’s Quote of the Day post by saying that I wish I could write more prolifically on Korean literature, specifically its canon of fiction, but that is made difficult for three reasons: (1) the quality of the English translations tends to be poor to quite poor; (2) the content, in my experience, is not engaging nor is it particularly  groundbreaking in any way; (3) the way in which the majority of Korean authors (I’ve come across) express themselves in narrative and dialogue is not very clear, logical or lyrical much of the time.

I’ll get back to that conversation in a later post, but it’s interesting to note that perhaps the most famous writer to come out of East Asia (in English) in the modern era is the Japanese author Murakami Haruki, who is celebrated and venerated (by foreign readers everywhere) and scorned by some of Japan’s literati (like Nobel Laureate Kenzaburō Ōe) for adopting “fast food American-style writing.”

But I digress. Today’s quote comes from a titan of South Korean letters (to my knowledge there are neither artistic titans nor men/women of letters in North Korea), Hwang Sok-yong, and a book I read years ago called The Guest (2005).

The book is a little like Chang-rae Lee’s A Gesture Life in that we follow an ethnic Korean now settled in the U.S., 40 years on, back to the atrocities of war a lifetime ago. Unlike Lee’s book, however, The Guest revisits one of the many horrific battles that took place during the Korean War (1950-53), the fight between good and evil, Christians and communists, God-fearing and God-loathing people.

The title of the book is a euphemism for smallpox, yet infers unwanted visitors that bring nothing but death and destruction (i.e. foreigners, Bible thumpers, people with big noses, those whose breath smells like milk and cheese, etc.). This is partly aimed at the Americans in the context of the plot – for they were initially blamed for the massacre this novel centres around in the Korean War – and partly at colonialism in general (Korea was an unofficial suzerainty of China for centuries, an official one for about 250 years, a Japanese colony for 35 years, and has since been living under the umbrella of the U.S. 8th Army for the past 72 years).

The quote today, while not terribly memorable for its prose, does capture what is arguably the saddest element of war: a fraternal, incendiary battle that pits brother on brother, parents on children, and families on families. What most people still don’t know today – 64 years on – is that Koreans are one of the most homogenous ethnicities in the world, despite the fact that they are now two countries. From the time Dangun came down from the heavens and founded Korea’s first kingdom, Kochosun (or Gojoseon as it’s now spelled), in 2333 B.C., the Korean peninsula was essentially ruled by one Korean dynasty or another. It was only in 1945 that the Soviets and Americans literally created an imaginary line out of nowhere (today known simply  as the 38th parallel, or the DMZ to tourists) that Korea became two nations, and then, in 1948, two countries.

Two years later, North Korea invaded in the early morning hours of June 25, 1950, and hell on Earth was unleashed. Three years later, 2.5 million civilians were dead on both sides of the border, another 500,000 were killed in battle, and more than a million soldiers and civilians were wounded, “disappeared” or were abducted.

Yet the saddest part to this whole thing is that a formal peace agreement was never signed between South and North Korea. All that fighting, all those deaths, and for what? A stalemate. The most heavily guarded border on our planet. Constant tension in the region. And 25 million people living under the oppressive thumb of a Big Brother figure that even George Orwell couldn’t have imagined in his worst nightmares.

As of 2017, North Korea and South Korea are still technically at war.

On a final – and lighter – note, I happen to know the two translators  who worked on Hwang’s novel, Kyung-Ja Chun (mother) and Maya West (daughter), and can say with confidence they did a great job on the English version. So, if you’re looking to expand your literary horizons to a country few outside of it are familiar with, The Guest is as good a place to start as any.

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