The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami

Murakami's The Strange Library appears designed for younger readers but few of them would recognise a library as it's depicted: borrowing cards, inked date stamps, stacks of books teetering over the door. The book is designed by Suzanne Dean, whose credit is tucked at the foot of the credits. An endpaper note explains that many of the illustrations have been sourced from The London Library and visually the enterprise has the charm of an English storybook but the story, translated by Ted Goossen, is less attractive. A boy researching the Ottoman Empire becomes imprisoned by a extremely threatening old man; his fellow inmates are a girl who speaks with her hands, and a sheep man – a recurring Murakami character who appears in Dance Dance Dance. The combination of inventive design and lurching narrative renders the experience either more frustrating or engaging, depending on your tastes. The final effect is subversive: looks like a children's book, freaks you out.


Good reading

This is being passed around: Salon's Anne Bauer on why it's a problem that writers don't talk about where their money comes from:
... When an audience member — young, wide-eyed, clearly not clued in — rose to ask [an unnamed author] how he’d managed to spend 10 years writing his current masterpiece — What had he done to sustain himself and his family during that time? — he told her in a serious tone that it had been tough but he’d written a number of magazine articles to get by. I heard a titter pass through the half of the audience that knew the truth. But the author, impassive, moved on and left this woman thinking he’d supported his Manhattan life for a decade with a handful of pieces in the Nation and Salon.
Also being passed around: Vulture's David Marchese talks to Jon Ronson about how we use social media to shame others. Says Ronson:
... We still see ourselves on social media as the hitherto-silenced underdog, yet we have huge power. We are more powerful en masse than NBC... We like to see ourselves as righteous people, but we’re behaving as unforgiving and cold. We’ve sort of tricked ourselves into believing that we’re something online that we’re not, or that we haven’t turned into something that we have.
And Jon Ronson again, on the New York Times, about destroying lives with Twitter:
... In those early days, the collective fury felt righteous, powerful and effective. It felt as if hierarchies were being dismantled, as if justice were being democratized. As time passed, though, I watched these shame campaigns multiply, to the point that they targeted not just powerful institutions and public figures but really anyone perceived to have done something offensive. I also began to marvel at the disconnect between the severity of the crime and the gleeful savagery of the punishment. It almost felt as if shamings were now happening for their own sake, as if they were following a script.


Features fuse like shattered glass

Now I watch movies while saying over and over again, 'They could never make this now.' You couldn't be this clear and cold and dissolute; this adult. Literally: the teenage children of the couple would be enabled as the heroes, their wealth signified by product placement and a contemporary soundtrack. And the heroine would not be wetting the bed.

Reversal of Fortune: Directed by Barbet Schroeder (More, Maitresse). Written by Nicholas Kazan (At Close Range).


Blogging via a Twitter feed: Mike Nichols

Reading a tweet about someone you like. (beat) Realising the tweet is because they're dead.

Anyway: WOLF. Jack Nicholson's fantastic portrayal of line-editing a manuscript.

And Anne Bancroft, obv.

After THE GRADUATE swimming pools in movies were never the same.

Prior to that a swimming pool was CAT PEOPLE or just the edge with someone climbing out of it.

Anyway. Mrs Robinson was the pool.

He couldn't stay down there forever.

This was back in the day when movies had a subtext.



Flash Boys by Michael Lewis

Flash Boys opens in late 2008 on Spread Networks laying the straightest possible fibre optic cable between Chicago and New Jersey in an effort to reduce the trading time between two stock exchanges by five milliseconds. The connection will earn Spread $2.8 billion in rentals from traders who will use its advantage of five thousandths of a second to execute "flash" trades: to buy and sell shares in the time it takes traders on slower networks to press a key.

The numbers are dazzling but the principle is rock simple: if a trader is faster, he can beat others in the queue. As computers and software have improved in speed, the physical distance between exchanges has become the last mile. Flash trades rely on dedicated software (often adapted from open source) and hardware like Spread Networks' "Gold Route" to close the gap. It also helps that the majority of flash trades are made in exotically named "dark pools" -- exchanges where the transactions remain essentially secret. Whether high-speed trading is fair or not is part of a larger argument, especially if you employ Wall Street's tortured, relativistic language. But does the notion of secret exchanges give anyone pause? Isn't secrecy the weapon of capitalism's modern villain? The Enron? The terrible Madoff?

Lewis's most remarkable feat is to cut through the obfuscation and euphemism surrounding his subject and emerge firmly on the fence. While a lay-reader might call angry bullshit on the whole enterprise Lewis sees the debate as an opportunity to examine the market along capitalist principles. He uses the tools of fiction to describe lead "characters" (real people both named and anonymous) who believe a line can be drawn, not between but across the exchanges: a boundary that will regulate trading speed and ensure fair play. An honest working trader who cannot understand why his trades are blocked. A Russian programmer with an exceptional talent for designing financial software while himself having no interest in money. A financier who decides to set up a new stock exchange that blocks high speed trading. His youthful heroes come straight from the good-guy deck. Their fair-play solution? In part, coiling a length of fiber optic into a box to slow the signal down.

Many of the individuals' stories in Flash Boys turn on the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Is the author testifying to their patriotism or implying that, having survived one disaster, America is headed for another? Lewis's blindingly intelligent and well-written exposé ends with him contemplating the microwave technology that might outpace the Gold Route, but he stays mum about where it's taking us. Only the markets can decide.

-- Sunday Star Times, June 2014


Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki And His Years Of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

Tsukuru Tazaki is an engineer who designs railroad stations. Professionally concerned with ensuring the flow of commuter traffic, he has been personally devastated by the passing of relationships in his formative years. While growing up in Nagoya, he and four other high school students became as close as platonic friends could be. Aka ("re"), Ao ("blue"), Shiro ("white") and Kuro ("black") and Tazaki ("the only last name that did not have colour in its meaning") lived in each others' pockets until the day when the others expelled Tsukuru from the group. "They gave no explanation, not a word, for this harsh pronouncement. And Tsukuru didn't dare ask."

Banished to Tokyo, Tsukuru falls into depression before, as per his aptronym ("Tsukuru" is written with the Chinese character that means "make" or "build") he sets about rebuilding his life. After a series of unfulfilling relationships he meets Sara, who prompts him to confront the mystery he has been trying to avoid: why did his friends reject him?

The premise of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is as direct as its prose. The novel was translated by Philip Gabriel, who also worked on South of the Border, West of the Sun. Any effect that he or fellow translators Jay Rubin and Alfred Birnbaum has on Murakami's prose is a larger discussion: it's my impression that Gabriel smooths things out but the author's frankness still startles. Tsukuru can't picture Shiro "sticking her hand up the anus of a horse"; later, "These insistent caresses continued until Tsukuru was inside the vagina of one of the girls."

Tsukuru's dreams are also shockingly vivid and anthropomorphic, like manga. But it is only when the locale shifts to Helsinki that he becomes a foreigner. "Are you Chinese?" asks a local. "I'm Japanese," he replies: "It's nearby, but different."

Murakami's Finland is like Shusaku Endo's France in Foreign Studies (1965): uninformed, quaint, filtered through other fictions. The methodical tone of the action and the protagonist's tendency for conjecture and tangential self-examination is more than a little Auster-esque, as is the naming of characters after colours and the incidental mysteries. (What is in the box the jazz pianist carries with him everywhere? The answer may be a symbol of Tsukuru's ostracism.)

In a story of colours, music also assumes significance but, like a crime writer, Murakami makes easy reference to art and literature that may well have been enjoyed by someone not unlike himself. It's another casual touch in a novel lacking the conventional turns a marketing department might demand from someone whom the Observer describes as "the best author on the planet." Colorless Tsukuru has been written in spite of such hype. It's a graceful story of a life in transit. The novelist watches: his subject passes by.

– Sunday Star Times, September 2014