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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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Grit (And Books That Serve As Salvation)


“I don’t think you can be an optimist until you’ve survived a terrible experience,” writes Kait Heacock , author of the short story collection Siblings and Other Disappointments (great title!), in a piece for The Millions titled “Tom Robbins Was My Spiritual Advisor.” It’s a powerful statement, not least because it seems counterintuitive. But here’s the thing: She’s bang on the money. Like, bull’s-eye on the life o’ metre scale.

In fact, she goes on to add,

“You can’t believe in good in the future unless you’ve seen darkness in your past. Otherwise, you’re nervous and fretful as you look over your shoulder for the bad thing coming. Growing up, I was a casual pessimist, more of a complainer than anything. I expected the worst, occasionally experienced a slight variation of it: a cheating boyfriend, my grandparents’ deaths. I don’t think I was an optimist until I came to New York. Until I learned that I could make it out the other side of tragedy. Maybe the grittiest thing I could do was admit my unhappiness and take steps to change it.”

If you read Ms. Heacock’s piece, you’ll notice she has a bit of a fascination/fetish for “grit.” No, not the grits you eat, the grit you earn by surviving ****storms, curious incidents in the middle of the night, and other assorted events that give you the ability to don invisible body armour and say Go fu*$ yourself! to the world when you know you’re right and the rest of the world is wrong. Or perhaps you’re simply tired of being unhappy, tired of being tired, and wanting to make a change, no matter how slight it may be.

For this wide-eyed young lady from the Pacific Northwest, the plan was to move to New York City, become a writer, and bathe in the many monies and sunshiny successes which would soon roll her way like waves lapping so naturally at a beach.

Well, as it turns out, she nailed the first part (the move was successful) and then got thrown a monkey wrench two months later when her brother overdosed and died.

Sometime after his death, long before I landed a dream publishing job and was vacillating between staying and leaving [New York], I became obsessed with the idea of “grit.” It was a buzzword in education, and the researcher who popularized the term, Angela Duckworth, began appearing on NPR’s homepage. NPR defined grit as the “ability to persevere when times get tough, or to delay gratification in pursuit of a goal.” The times were tough; the goal was to be a writer. Grit, I convinced myself, was all I needed to survive New York, survive my brother’s death, and survive my life.

Kait Heacock had – and appears to still have – grit. What she no longer has is an address in the City. She’s moved back to the PNW, and as she claims, Tom Robbins deserves part of the credit for that. And that’s because he and his novel Another Roadside Attraction, described by his publisher as a “stunningly original seriocomic thriller [that] is fully capable of simultaneously eating a literary hot dog and eroding the borders of the mind,” served as her spiritual advisor at a particularly muddied juncture in her life.

As with most readers, there have been a lot of books that served the purpose of spiritual advisor/salvation over the course of my own life. Off the top of my head, some of these include The Alexandria Quartet, Barney’s Version, Bel Canto, A Confederacy of Dunces, The End of the Affair, The English Patient, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Ghostwritten, The Histories, The Line of Beauty, Long Walk to Freedom, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Man’s Search for Meaning, the Pensées, The Prophet, A Suitable Boy, War and Peace, and The Wind-up Bird Chronicle

This begs the question: Which book(s) did you read in your time of need (for a spiritual advisor/salvation)?

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Quote of the Day

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Is it possible, in the final analysis, for one human being to achieve perfect understanding of another? We can invest enormous time and energy in serious efforts to know another person, but in the end, how close can we come to that person’s essence? We convince ourselves that we know the other person well, but do we really know anything important about anyone?

In the spirit of what Facebook yesterday called Happy Friends Day, I thought it apropos to quote something about friendship and ended up stumbling on Murakami Haruki’s The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. However, unlike almost all the other quotes I use as part of this series, I have to say that I vehemently disagree with it. Whether this passage is exclusively the belief of the book’s protagonist, Toru Okada, or of Murakami himself, either way I don’t buy in to it.

Although Murakami’s characters tend to sway more to the cynical side of things, usually it’s not a “hot issue” (Norwegian Wood is a prime example). Perhaps it’s a cultural difference? Maybe it’s a trait of Murakami’s characters? I don’t know for sure, but what I do believe is that if you don’t “know anything important about anyone,” you don’t have what the Koreans call nunchi (눈치) and the Japanese call kidzui (気づい), which is essentially an emotional quotient high enough to read others’ feelings and mood.

It’s not about knowing  the most number of secrets about a friend, for example, that makes you close. It’s understanding their inner workings, sympathizing with what you share in common, while empathizing when unable to relate directly. In the case of Toru Okada and The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, I think this passage actually works because here’s a guy whose wife walks out on him one day out of the blue while going to look for their cat, never to return.  After a series of encounters with some legendary supporting characters (May Kasahara, Lieutenant Honda, Creta and Malta Kano, Nutmeg and Cinnamon Akasaka and, of course, the legendary Boris the Skinner), the only contact he’ll ever have again with his wife is through this dark, cold, emotionless machine called a computer (remember Murakami was writing this novel before most people knew what the word email meant).

In any event, the passage may work for the novel and a cynical protagonist, but is not reflective of what friendship should be or can be. As my brother likes to say, “Friends are friendly!” Ergo, friendliness is next to…err…godliness?

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A Necessary Return to the Long Novel?

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@Borisk (Boris Kachka) over at vulture.com has come up with some rather hefty books he thinks we should all read. Entitled “26 Very Long Books Worth the Time They’ll Take to Read,” the list for me includes some obvious choices (Don Quixote, War and Peace, A Suitable Boy), some I’ve been meaning to read for years (Infinite Jest, Bleak House, The Stand), some surprises (Middlemarch [yawn], 1Q84 [The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle was a much “bigger” book, if a much smaller published work]), and some I simply have to disagree with (Life and Fate, Underworld).

Still, on this day of reflection, I can’t help but wonder if our collective blasé/anti-establishment/angry mood couldn’t best be tempered by a serious sit-down with a tome heavy enough to buoy a ship in stormy weather and insightful enough to make us actually “think” (yes, it’s in quotation marks).

As Kachka points out, “Binge-watching is easy; just drag the laptop into bed and go. But savoring a book of, say, 800 pages or longer is a project.”

Although my book club would draw and quarter me if I suggested it, especially after our last pick, Alejandro Zambra’s Multiple Choice (128 pages), perhaps it is time for all of us to make at least one book a year one of those tomes we’ve been promising ourselves for years we’d read. For me, that starts with what is currently on my bedside table, Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, a paltry 608 pages. I know, I know. Weak. But it’s a start.

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Remembering Raymond Carver


And did you get what

you wanted from this life, even so?

I did.

And what did you want?

To call myself beloved, to feel myself

beloved on the earth.

(from the inscription on Raymond Carver’s tombstone)

James Carver recently wrote a very nice piece about love, literature and remembrance that he posted on medium.com called “A Tribute to Raymond Carver on His Birthday, by His Brother James — With Never-Before-Seen Family Photos” to commemorate his late brother’s birthday, which was May 25. His big bro was an American literary giant in his day, author of notable works like Cathedral and the stories “Why Don’t You Dance?” and “Errand.” Although he lived a somewhat scandalous, alcohol-fueled life (on a par with other writers like Hemingway, Kerouac and Fitzgerald at times), he’s regarded as a titan in the field of American literature, as evidenced by his induction in the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1988.

For those who’ve read Raymond Carver, the link might not seem so obvious, but he actually had a profound effect on another giant’s writing: Murakami Haruki, author of international bestsellers like The Wind-up Bird Chronicle and A Wild Sheep Chase and, more up Carver’s alley, short story collections like The Elephant Vanishes. Today, there’s even a Japanese professor named Hosea Hirata who teaches a course on the subject and the correlation between the two authors.

For those not in the know, and as his go-to translator Jay Rubin wrote about in Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words, Murakami used to very much enjoy his Suntory time, maybe not as much as Carver liked his booze, but the two connected early in the Japanese writer’s career, when he was just trying to get a foot in the door with the whole translation thing. In fact, as Rubin documents in detail, another American literary great, John Irving, whom Murakami went jogging with in Central Park to earn Garp’s trust (which he did after proclaiming his admiration of Setting Free the Bears – ouch!), represented one more of Murakami’s earliest inroads to the country’s literary establishment.

That said, I like what brother James had to say at the end of his short piece, as it sums up not only his relationship with his brother, but many of our own relationships with a lot of the people whom we love:

“I miss my brother very much. I loved him and respected him enormously…We can’t really get inside the other person’s mind to see how it ticks; we can never know the true feelings one may have for another. We can only be guided by the things said and the feelings shown to us by the other person, and believe it to be true. Ray captured the complexity of those relationships, in love or outside of love.”

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