issue 65 November 2008

      The Barcelona Review: Book Reviews

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami
A Hatful of Cherriesby Felix Calvino
My Best Friend Has Issues by Laura Marney
My Epileptic Lurcher by Des Dillon

Index of Book Reviews Issues 50+

Index of Book Reviews Issues 1-50


coverWhat I Talk About When I Talk About Running
by Haruki Murakami: 
Harvill Secker,
Random House, UK, 2008

If you are a huge fan of Haruki Murakami and you are runner, you will love this book.  If you’re a Murakami fan, but find running an odious activity, you will still enjoy this book because, as the author says himself, running forms his writing; thus, we are given insight into the creative process behind a true master, and indeed this running memoir goes a long way towards a deeper understanding of the man and his art. True, it is filled with practical information, such as the difficult hurdle in the New York City marathon (that last upward slope toward Central Park near the end) and other reflections on the 26-some marathons he has run in addition to an ultra-marathon and triathlons); what runs through his head while he runs and why he runs; what music he listens to while running (the Lovin’ Spoonful, Carla Thomas, Otis Redding, the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton’s Reptile), how best to train and taper—all that kind of running stuff;  but there is also much to be said about ageing and acceptance.
      Murakami is 59 years old.  He began running at age 33.  For a long time, he ran excellent times in marathons, around three and a half hours, give or take a few minutes; then the time began to slow down.  For a while, he quit altogether, but eventually took it up again with a more relaxed attitude.  Before taking up running in the first place, Murakami and his wife ran a jazz club, his biorhythm and general lifestyle reflecting the profession—late nights, heavy smoking.  During this time he began writing after the club closed for the night and managed to get two novels published, but finally made the decision to sell the bar and give full-time writing a chance with the hopes of writing something more substantial (he did: Norwegian Wood).  He and his wife left the city, revamped their lifestyle—early to bed, early to rise—and to counterbalance a sedentary existence, he took up running.
      Apart from his short hiatus, Murakami runs nearly every day, for around 6 miles. No easy feat for such a world-renowned  author, with interviews and speaking engagements to deliver, occasional teaching, not to mention the other demands of daily life.  His reasons are many, but perhaps most important of all is to fight off the “unhealthy type of work” he does:
      When we set off to write a novel, when we use writing to create a story, like it or not a kind of toxin that lies deep down in all humanity rises to the surface.  All writers have come face-to-face with this toxin and, aware of the dangers involved, discover a way to deal with it, because otherwise no creative activity in the real sense can take place . . . No matter how much you spin it, this isn’t a healthy activity.
      Literary burnout, he feels, can happen with time and age: “the physical vitality that up till now was naturally able to overcome the toxin has passed its peak, and its effectiveness in their immune systems is gradually wearing off.  To keep the creative vitality one must keep the body healthy.” I think this applies to us all; everyday life throws up plenty of toxin—we may not love our jobs or the compromises that are sometimes required; relationships can be murky and difficult; politics can drive us round the twist—and to make up for the lost vitality of youth which can withstand it all more tolerably, we adults need to maintain a healthy body to combat the daily grind.   (I started running in middle age when I contracted a literal toxin—Hepatitis C—and had to give up alcohol; as hard as that was, I will say I regained an edge with my new lifestyle.)
      Murakami takes it further; it is the discipline of running marathons, of running every day, of having the capacity to “suffer”—for training and running marathons is nothing if not having to suffer— that has formed his writing:
      Most of what I know about writing I’ve learned through running every day.  These are practical, physical lessons.  How much can I push myself?  How much rest is appropriate—and how much is too much?  How far can I take something and still keep it distant and consistent?  When does it become narrow-minded and inflexible?  How much should I be aware of the world outside, and how much should I focus on my inner world?  To what extent should I be confident in my abilities, and when should I start doubting myself?  I know that if I hadn’t become a  long-distance runner when I became a novelist, my work would have been vastly different.  How different?  Hard to say.  But something would have definitely been different.
      Murakami’s novels sell hugely internationally though they are hardly mainstream—a fact that gave his publisher pause with Norwegian Wood—and not everyone can relate.  My first reading was The Wind-up Bird Chronicle.  I was blindsided by its brilliance, but I remember someone saying they didn’t get the bit about the guy [protagonist Toru] always sitting in the dry well.  It has made me wonder:  is Murakami the kind of author who appeals most to those who have suffered long-distance running or some equivalent?  Those who can impose that kind of discipline, ostensibly para nada?  Like sitting for hours in a well.  I’m half-joking here, but I honestly half-wonder, too.
      There are so many nice observations in this short book. I love the way he speaks of the young, blond girls of Harvard running past him.  He loves their energy and the swinging ponytails.  As they run past he realizes, despite a certain envy, that they are in their own rhythm in life, their own time, and he is in his.  To each a season, as it were, and that is as it should be and it is OK.  More than once, he conveys a sort of Zen-like acceptance of his limits and capacities.  
      I Iove, too, the simple but highly effective prose. Murakami has translated Raymond Carver—from whom he has reworked a Carver title to form his own—and though Murakami’s novels take us into bewitching territory, that minimalist realism is always there.  In this memoir—as in his best-selling non-fiction work Underground— we are wholly grounded (healthily above ground, not below), but, like Carver, there is magic in the prose and we share in his little epiphanies.
      Murakami says he wishes to run all of his life.   Let us hope he can.   J.A.

The Barcelona Review: Book Reviews

coverA Hatful of Cherries
by Felix Calvino
Arcadia, Australia, 2007

Felix Calvino was born and raised on a farm in Galicia, the green, northwest coast of Spain  After moving to England to escape military service under Franco, he migrated to Australia in the late 1960s where he resides today.  His debut collection of stories is written in a beautiful English that holds the reader captive and gives much pleasure.
       A  Hatful of Cherries is comprised of 16 stories, mostly quite short, with a few set in Australia, but the majority set in his native Galicia, back in the time just after the Civil War, which still looms in the collective mind of its inhabitants.  Life is hard, food is scarce, and people work their farms as best they can.  In a simple, but powerful prose, Calvino grabs the reader from the first sentence and never lets go.  There is not a dull or weak story to be found; each is a little gem, easily transporting the reader from the mountains of post-civil war Galicia to a nightclub in contemporary Newport Beach, Australia, and other points down under.
       In the longest piece, “Basilio,” we find the happily married Basilio—a somewhat withdrawn man due to his having a bit of a stammer and a withered arm—who began driving a pick-up and delivery  van for the widow Perez just after the Civil War when “there were rumors that the dense and darkly wooded valley surrounding the road was a hiding place for criminals and bandits, but he never saw any.”  We follow Basilio on one long day’s round of pick ups and deliveries, in which Calvino captures, through Basilio’s sensitive eye, the rough beauty of the country along with memorable sketches of the Galicians with whom he often interacts as well as his reflections on the war itself. Apart from the commonplace, the day will be full of surprises. 
       In “The Pocketknife” a man is reminded of childhood memories as he looks at a window display of pocketknives: 

The law governing pocketknives was a source of argument among the men, or rather, the beginning of many arguments.  The law regulated blade size, prohibited the aid of springs to open the blade, required the blade to fold into the handle, and so on . . . The law came into force after the war.  People were to disarm, and stay disarmed.  These were the Generalissimo’s wishes.  I remember the Generalissimo. I saw him every day in a portrait hanging behind the teacher’s desk.  I don’t remember the war. But I remember the people saying it was a bad war . .
“An Old Sheep” follows the son of a respected old sheep herder, parents now dead, who falls into dissolute ways, leaving the locals at odds as to how to deal with him; while “The Swallows” is a simple tale of a cuckoo who ends up in a swallows’ nest in a barn and shows how the household at the farm follows the bird’s plight.

The ever so delightful “A Hatful of Cherries” portrays a Galician couple who take in a young girl to help with the housekeeping, and follows their lives as they become curiously entwined, with the townspeople watching closely and with suspicion; while “Silvia” follows two Galician gentlemen with families who share a mistress until complications arise which must be resolved.  We are reminded in this story and others of the strict ethical code of the community that can be quick to condemn, but is not heartless.  They are a stalwart people, slightly backward from our 21st-century perspective perhaps, but with an inner strength and grit, and the ability to move with the rhythm of the land and the appreciation of simple pleasures.
       As for Australia, particularly moving is the story of a woman from Galicia who, through a long correspondence with a fellow Galician now farming in Australia, has taken the bold step of flying to that far away country to become his bride.  Our narrator is the intermediary who greets her at the airport before she boards a second plane to her destination where things are not exactly what she had expected.  In another of the Australian stories, we find a man running from love, and in yet another we find a group of middle-aged men looking for wives at the city’s new hot spot.
       There is a gentle, quiet passion in all of these stories;  every emotion, every word spoken runs true; it never once sinks into sentimentalism yet we are moved by the characters.  The author’s humanity shines through, and the stories linger long after the final page.  I hope to read more.  J.A.
In this issue, see A Hatful of Cherries and Detour

The Barcelona Review: Book Reviews

coverMy Best Friend Has Issues
by Laura Marney  Black Swan
a division of Random House, 2008

What on earth can happen when an innocent young girl from Scotland follows a whim and moves to Barcelona, hoping to find some low-level job while having a bit of a laugh and losing her virginity?  A whole hell of a lot, as it turns out.  Our narrator, Alison, says at the outset:  “What did I know about life?  Wee heifer like me, a 22-year-old no-mates stay-at-home from the rump end of Cumbernauld?  What did I even know about sex?  Never mind drugs, or violence,  or murder.”
       Yes, sex, drugs, violence, murder . . . all enter in as the young lass Alison is about to have the stay of her life—if she can survive it, that is.  Just going flat-hunting in the Raval, she stumbles on the dead body of a boy in the stairwell.  She flees, slipping in blood and cutting her leg in the process, only to be surrounded on the street by a group of men, speaking either Spanish or Arabic, sending her into deeper panic.  To the rescue comes street-wise Chloe, an American girl, who diffuses the situation and then invites Alison to have a drink with her at The Oveja Negra, one of the city’s better known watering holes for the under thirty set.  A little girl bonding, and Alison finds herself invited to stay at Chloe’s cool, if rather messy, flat in the Barrio Gótico, replete with a rooftop terrace where Chloe is decorating the chimney in broken tiles, Gaudi style, and growing marijuana plants.  Well, it was a hard start, but the luck of finding a rooftop flat in the heart of the city, what could be better than that?
       Except that Chloe is a spoiled rich kid who runs hot and cold, one minute talking about how they’re best friends, and the next turning weird and bossy and manipulative.  Yep, she’s a head case, and the reader sees what Alison is only  barely aware of and wishes to deny when she does see it.  Alison is more interested in getting back at two ex-mates, chubby girls she once palled around with until they dumped her, the chubbiest of them all.  But a year of glandular fever turned the green-eyed Alison into a gorgeously thin new girl, and though she lacks self-confidence, feeling out of her depth in a foreign country with a worldly flatmate, she knows how to rub it in to the “lard-arse losers” back home:

Dear Lisa and Lauren,
Weather lovely.  Recuperating nicely and working on tan.  Had to buy new clothes (size twelve too big!).  Enjoying Sangria on La Rambla. Don’t know if you’d like it here.  The hot weather would be a nightmare for your athelete’s foot and intimate itching – think of the thigh chafing!  Nasty.  Hasta la vista, Alison xxx

Eventually, Lisa and Lauren will come to Barcelona to visit, and it will be Chloe, not Alison, who makes it “memorable.”  As Chloe increasingly shows her wacko side, we push for Alison to wake up and see the demon for what she is.  It is a long time in coming, but come it does.  I don’t want to spoil the ending, but suffice it to say, there is a dark and haunting twist that you never see coming. 
Marney is a marvelous comic writer.  Those postcards to Scotland are worth the read alone.  She captures to a tee the innocence and vulnerability of a small town girl while also showing the dark, knowing, manipulative side of human nature, spinning it all into a comic noir like nothing quite like you’ve ever read.  J.A.

The Barcelona Review: Book Reviews

coverMy Epileptic Lurcher
by Des Dillon 
Luath Press Limited, Edinburgh, 2008

Do you like dogs?  Cats?  It helps, but isn’t really necessary because Des Dillon pulls you into a world of animal lovers despite yourself.  Bailey, the epileptic Lurcher, is our hero, but it is through our narrator Manny Riley that we get to know him. 
       Manny has anger management issues.  And a drinking problem.  The drinking makes the anger worse and so it is no surprise to learn that Manny has done jail time.  But this is before our story begins.   As we learn, his ex-cellmate Paddy got him to stop drinking and to attend A.A.  Manny still has a temper, but not quite so bad.  And when he feels it get the better of him, he calls Paddy for support. 
       Paddy thinks Manny needs something to look after and tries to talk him into getting a cat, but Manny has no interest.  Paddy then introduces Manny to Connie, a pretty young brunette who works at the local casino, and here things pick up.  Before long the two get married and are as  happy as two people can be. They give up their council flats and move to a wee village by the sea, joined by Floyd the cat.  Some dealings with the local cop put Manny to the test, and soon  “Super Cop”  turns against him and Connie:  “He done us for no tax on the Renault.  Stopped us five times in the next year.  And when he realized we’d made the car street legal he sat in his cop car on the hill, looking in the window.  We bought blinds.  After that we kept losing wing mirrors.”  But they persevere.
       Manny is a script writer, trying to sell a script to the BBC, or Hollywood, or wherever he can.  The doors appear to be closed, however.  Tension mounts and eventually the magic of the infatuation drains; when Connie discovers she can’t have children, she falls into a depression.  That’s when Manny gets the idea to get a puppy.  He and Connie pick out a what they think is a Collie from a litter of pups pulled out of a river.  But this pup grows up to be four feet long and three feet high, ugly as sin (“a greyhound with long hair”)—and develops epilepsy to boot.  No matter, they both live in his orbit.  Later, Connor the Collie will join the household, and he has the ability to predict a fit 5 minutes before it starts.
       Now Manny’s temper is put to the test as he roams around with Bailey charging all over the place, upsetting the natural order of things. A whole “host of nutters” frequents the glen where Manny walks the dog, “and none of them liked Bailey.” One old codger, whom Manny calls Daddy Doom, particularly gets on his wick, and they have a bit of a go-round, particularly when the old codger asks why Manny isn’t working during the day. Manny tries drinking Valerian infusions, learning the violin . . . everything he can to keep control.
       Then he sells a script to an agent for the BBC—a script based on some of the eccentric locals—and all is wonderful until he’s asked to rewrite it and rewrite it until it doesn’t remotely resemble the script it started out as.  No longer is a wee village the setting, with all its colorful characters, but rather a London gym filled with young professionals. 
       At least there is some money at hand, and after an altercation with some neds on the beach, the couple move to a different village with Floyd, Connor and Bailey.  In the meantime, Bailey’s fits have become more frequent and quite scary.  When he goes into a fit, he can even defy gravity:  paw prints are visible on the ceiling to prove it  Then the fits happen even more frequently—non-stop for a while—and Manny and Connie hardly have the stamina to deal with it.  
       These are the bare bones of the plot, but what carries the narrative so beautifully is Manny’s voice, in the local dialect, full of mischief and humor, with a temper ready to flair up at a slight or injustice—and it sometimes does—but working overtime to keep it in check, too.   We cringe when Manny travels to London to meet his agent and appears like the fish out of water he is; and likewise for his and Connie’s trip to Istanbul, where they have to be the most innocent tourists ever.  But we cheer him on through it all, and when he takes a stand against the local A.A. who wants to ban him for swearing, we stand with him.   
       We also have the occasional voice of the doggies: “Bailey jealous the Mummydaddy.  The Mummy on the cou and shout Bailey, Bailey, Bailey. The Bailey get on the urra cou wif the Daddy and sit my head on the Daddy’s ledgers.  Shovy mcgraws under my noe and stare at the Mummy.  Jealousing her.”
       Yeah, maybe it helps to be an animal lover, but if the doggie-speak puts you off, there is still Manny, struggling with his anger demon, reduced to tears and frustration one minute, and joking around the next.  We feel for him, laugh with him, root for him, and won’t soon forget him.  J.A.