Monthly Archives: January 2013

Book: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
Black-on-white version also available

Impetus to run.
192 pages, ★★★★

Running is a form of meditation. Murakami says he “doesn’t doesn’t know what he thinks about when he’s running”. When he’s happy, he thinks a little about being happy, and when he’s unhappy, he thinks a little about being unhappy. He says the average human mind isn’t strong enough to sustain a vacuum of thoughts, so random thoughts will seep in occasionally no matter how hard we try to block them out (see my book review on meditation exercises). That sounds like meditation to me.

Murakami started running to recover from an addiction to cigarettes, and has since run multiple marathons, including the original marathon route in Greece (he did it alone, surrounded by traffic!) Running motivated him to write, to give up smoking, and to run even more. Runners compete only against their former selves.

This humorous, autobiographical collection of essays, letters and memories persuades me strongly to get up and run.

Enough said. I want to go running. ★★★★

Book: After Dark

After Dark
A hooker.

Dark, deeply descriptive account of one eventful night in Tokyo.
256 pages,
★★★★★

At its center are two sisters—Eri, a fashion model slumbering her way into oblivion, and Mari, a young student soon led from solitary reading at an anonymous Denny’s toward people whose lives are radically alien to her own: a jazz trombonist who claims they’ve met before, a burly female “love hotel” manager and her maid staff, and a Chinese prostitute savagely brutalized by a businessman. These “night people” are haunted by secrets and needs that draw them together more powerfully than the differing circumstances that might keep them apart, and it soon becomes clear that Eri’s slumber—mysteriously tied to the businessman plagued by the mark of his crime—will either restore or annihilate her.

Murakami’s thriller After Dark is similar to his epic 1Q84 trilogy. Both books have a small number of characters, are slightly surreal, and both are set in Tokyo. Both After Dark and 1Q84 are highly addictive reads.

After Dark goes further than 1Q84 in one respect. In 1Q84, Murakami writes that good authors “omit description of the familiar”. The gun in 1Q84 was only described in great detail because, according to Murakami, “it is going to be fired”. After Dark, However, is different—every minute details is given excessive description—the wrinkles on someone’s face, the texture of a paper coffee cup, the lyrics playing in 7-Eleven. I like this slowed-down version of time that After Dark‘s excessive description creates. Amidst chaos, the reader (and Eri, who is sleeping somewhere in suburbia) are the only two people who have time to appreciate fine details in this hectic, dystopian novel.

We see detail from every angle. When a prostitute has been hurt by a client, we learn all about that client and his job, his actions and his alibi for that night, even his relationship with his wife. Murakami writes explicitly that the reader’s perspective is “a camera, observing momentarily from each of many different angles”. After Dark‘s tangled plot would take any of its characters years to unravel, but our ‘magic camera’ perspective is granted access to all angles, to every missed encounter, and sees all the coincidences in the story. All the book’s characters, meanwhile, are blissfully oblivious.

After Dark Character Map
After Dark Character Map. Click to enlarge.

I love this book. It’s one of few short novels to rival 1Q84 in quality. I recommend After Dark for anyone who loves being gripped by fiction. ★★★★★

Book: Cultivating Compassion

Experiment 8: Mr. Einstein is on a railroad car moving to the left with velocity v, and on his car are two light bulbs that, from his perspective, come on simultaneously. To confirm this, he could also rig some sort of detector that would go off only if both beams of light arrive at his position simultaneously.

Question: What will Mrs. Einstein see?

Answer: She will agree that both beams of light reach Mr. Einstein at the same time. However, since from her point of view the light on the right has greater distance to travel, she will see the light on the right come on first!

Conclusion: From the above experiments we see that events which may be simultaneous for one observer can happen in a different sequence for another observer. This leads us to the startling conclusion that there is no such thing as a universal “now” for which everyone will agree on what happens “now”. That is, I can see two events as happening “now” while another observer will see one event happening “now” with the other event yet to occur!

Source: http://aether.lbl.gov/www/classes/p139/exp/experiment8.html

~

I enjoy these bewildering thought experiments in special relativity. They stretch the mind for its own sake, like riddles, quizzes or a work of art. The more I think about the implications of Mr and Mrs Einstein on moving trains, the more I realise the triviality of our human senses. Our senses and feelings, as beguiling as they are, hardly represent the real world at all.

Recently, the number of books I’ve been reading has inflated my ego. This January, I read 21 books—that’s more than I read between the ages of 0 and 23. I’m also way ahead in this year’s Mad Reviewer Reading Challenge.

Thought experiments brought my ego back to normal again. Not special relativity, this time, but something much more useful…

Cultivating Compassion
When lost in the library, “red” and “Buddhist” are usually safe book choices. They usually get 4 or 5 of my stars.

Guided meditation. Thought experiments that sharpen your worldview.
190 pages, ★★★★

Two thought experiments from this mid-level Buddhist book stood out for me.

First, everyone on earth is either your friend, neutral, or an enemy. Given that Buddhists believe in infinite reincarnation, everyone on earth has, at different points in the past, been your friend, neutral, and enemy. The author gives a political example:

“China was a close friend of the U.S. during the Second World War, then became an enemy during the Korean War, and now is supposedly a political friend again” — page 69

People also make up, make friends, and fall out within lifetimes. Given that all enemies can become friends, and that all friends can all become enemies, in this lifetime or the next, we can choose to mould the kinds of relationships we want in life.

The book phrases this much better (and longer) than I did, but the concluding ‘meditation’ is this:

“Just as I want happiness and don’t want suffering, so this friend wants happiness and doesn’t want suffering. And equally, this neutral person wants happiness and doesn’t want suffering. And equally, this enemy wants happiness and doesn’t want suffering.” — page 81

Irrefutable logic here cultivates your compassion for enemies, friends and strangers alike. So why not all get along?

Next, the ‘moon-ripples’ analogy, as I’ll call it, reminds us that our perception is just a mirage, a vague approximation of reality. The world behaves like the reflection of the moon in a rippled ocean:

“In the blink of an eye, everything is changing. Or, even more subtly, in each three-hundred-and-sixtieth of a blinking of an eye or of a snapping of the fingers, everything is disintegrating. For a Buddha, the realisation of this is still more subtle, but at our level, this measurement affords a glimpse of subtle change. It is said that all impermanent phenomena possess a nature of such subtle disintegration” — page 171

We fixate on false ideals and try to solidify the future. This is an impossible goal, since the world is unpredictably complex; elusive and in constant flux. The future is never certain, nor should it be. When you encounter something you will never understand or see clearly, just think about the ‘moon-ripples’ analogy.

This interactive book is written for people already familiar with Buddhism. Author Jeffrey Hopkins uses his experience from the Tibetan Buddhist Learning Center in the United States to formulate these exercises. There are dozens of meditations, and pages of prose provide the supporting logic behind each one. Everyone will find something they need in this book—I recommend Cultivating Compassion for all Buddhists. ★★★★

Book: Norwegian Wood

Norwegian Wood
The most beautiful of many available covers

Being 17 with serene clarity.
389 pages, ★★★★★

Norwegian Wood summarises adolescence with a clarity that no 17-year-old possesses. We follow Protagonist Tora Wantanbe and his closest friends as they feel love, unrequited love, sex, death, promiscuity, mental illness and heartbreak, with naïvety and bewilderment, for the first time. Like these characters, I saw all of the above, and can testify that at 17, that’s a lot to take in.

I had no idea what was going on when I was 17. At least these characters at least seem to understand it all a bit better than I did. Having their hot-headed stories told by a highly articulate adult (Murakami) makes all their teenage shenanigans seem smooth, painless and futile. Of course, it certainly didn’t seem that way at the time.

As always with Haruki Murakami, the novel has beautiful sex scenes. Unlike The Time Traveler’s Wife or Fifty Shades of Grey, whose ugly sex scenes tarnish the whole book, I find the sex in Murakami’s books very agreeable.

Here’s the character map I made for this simple novel:

Norwegian Wood Character Map
Click to enlarge.

It’s a gripping book and I read it all in one sitting. Starting with 1Q84, I think I’ve discovered my first favourite author. I absolutely love Murakami’s writing! ★★★★★

Book: Eating Animals

Eighteen months ago, I stopped eating meat. I also changed from drinking coffee to drinking tea, and for the first time ever, embraced a religion—Chinese Buddhism—into my life. It was the best thing I ever did.

Vegetarianism came first. My main concern wasn’t animal welfare, but the quality and nutritional content of the meat I was eating. In Beijing, my local vendor only sold the fattiest cuts of pork, the quality (and hygiene standards) of which were questionable at best.

I didn’t miss meat. Cooking became quicker, cheaper and cleaner, and ordering restaurant dishes became a smoother operation (just read the menu back-to-front, starting with the vegetable side-dishes). Vegetarians have it easier in the grocery store, too—we can avoid the meat, fish, dairy, and alcohol aisles and cut browsing times roughly in half. I also feel much calmer—probably due to the lack of excessive lipid-based animal hormones in my system.

Tea came next. I met a tea connoisseur, who introduced me to different teas and teahouses in Beijing. Tea replaced my daily coffee because its easier to brew and can be consumed safely all day. Green, white and oolong teas made me calm enough—for the first time ever—to read books, which gave rise to this blog.

Chinese Buddhism then came easily. I already loved China and wanted to become more Chinese. I already ate vegetarian, and already resonate with Buddhism’s teachings of “letting go” (放下) and “going with the flow” (随缘). I already loved the colourful rituals, the calmness, the smell of incense in a temple—my first date with my fiancée was in a temple! Through books and videos, Buddhism taught me the importance of respect, of true happiness and of family values. Nothing could make me more Chinese than a Chinese moral education (and a Chinese wife), and I feel much happier and more stable as a result.

Anyway, it all started by eating vegetarian…

Eating Animals
Look closely at the lettering: feathers and fur are separated from leaves and roots by barbed wire. An accurate depiction both of factory farming and of the average American diet.

Convincing argument for a vegetarian diet.
341 pages, ★★★★★

Eating Animals is the argument for eating vegetarian. Author Johnathan Safran Foer is a vegetarian who argues not that we should stop eating meat, but that our methods of meat production are both cruel and unhealthy, and that the resulting diseases and environmental damage make factory factory meat production detrimental in so many respects.

    His argues for a return from factory farming to family farming in this book.

Johnathan Safran Foer uses lawyer-tactics to fight from health, moral and economic perspectives. His most poignant remark is about our children’s health, on page 112.

Why are entire flocks of industrial birds dying at once? And what about the people eating those birds? Just the other day, one of the local pediatricians was telling me he’s seeing all kinds of illnesses that he never used to see. Not only juvenile diabetes, but inflammatory and autoimmune diseases that a lot of the docs don’t even know what to call. And girls are going through puberty much earlier; and kids are allergic to just about everything, and asthma is out of control. Everyone knows it’s our foods… Kids today are the first generation to grow up on this stuff, and we’re making a science experiment out of them. Isn’t it strange how upset people get about few dozen baseball players taking growth hormones, when we’re doing what we’re doing to our food animals and feeding them to our children? — page 112.

The overwhelming stench of blood in the animal-houses makes (temporary, immigrant) farm-workers violently sadistic, resulting in widespread animal abuse (cutting animals’ legs off, chasing hogs into boiling water, penetrating orifices with electric cattle prods—for ‘fun’). Animals husbandry has been turned into animal abuse. Manure—traditionally a source of fertiliser—has been turned into toxic waste. The factory farm industry seems to be destroying animals, the environment, and its (temporary, immigrant) workers. Suicide rates in the industry are sky-high. I’m pleased to see that the New York Times agrees with Eating Animals’ thesis that factory farming should be stopped.

This book reaffirmed my strong conviction that a vegetarian diet is a healthier, cheaper, cleaner and more moral way to eat.

See these films if you’re hungry for more:

★★★★★

Book: Red Sorghum

Red Sorghum
Red with Communism, Nationalism, rage, energy, Japanese soldiers and blood.

Flashbacks of a township’s brutal Japanese occupation.
359 pages, ★★★★

China descended into a civil war in the 1920s. While China was divided and weak, Japan invaded during the 1930s, and brutally occupied some of the eastern regions. Pillage, burning, rape, torture and murder were commonplace during this dark chapter of Chinese history. In Nanjing, some 300,000 people were massacred within just a few days (an act which the Japanese, to this day, still do not acknowledge). Japanese forces retreated from China after the two nuclear bombs that ended the Second World War, which allowed China to focus all its energy on national re-unification (which was easier now the Nationalist Party had been weakened). China’s response to the Japanese invasion thus helped to end the civil war, to unify China under the Communist Party, and gave China a revived impetus to rejuvenate itself as a People’s Republic in 1949, which still exists today.

Red Sorghum is told as a series of flashbacks from this dark period of Chinese history. Like real flashbacks, they’re not recalled in chronological order, but as disconnected fragments that sometimes overlap in time. Characters thus seem to die then re-appear, then die again from another perspective, as time jumps back and forth.

More than half of the characters die by the end, most of whom are murdered by Japanese soldiers. Many of them are tortured before they’re killed, and the book contains vivid descriptions of rape, of body parts being cut off, of people being skinned alive, and of people being mutilated by bayonets and bullets.

At one point, Japanese soldiers destroy the entire village. Only six survivors remain (in the story, at least), and they pick up Japanese weapons and continue to fight to the death.
The Chinese patriotism and historic realism in Red Sorghum helped this book to become a best-selling modern classic in China.

The Japan/China struggle is echoed in the courtroom. On page 117, Magistrate Cao decides who has custody of a chicken—Wu the 3rd, or a “woman” (we never learn her name). Magistrate Cao demands the chicken’s stomach be slit open to see who’d been feeding it which type of grain. Wu the 3rd obeys Magistrate Cao and slices open the innocent chicken to prove he owns it—a harrowing echo of the Japanese treatment of the Chinese. In my opinion, the Magistrate’s verdict—to award the chicken to the “woman”—was based on the temperaments of the two defendants (one brutal, like the Japanese; and one kind, like the Chinese), and ignored the evidence, spilled out on the courtroom floor, entirely.

Red Sorghum is Mo Yan’s darkest book. It’s realistic, though, and should be compulsory reading for anyone who wants to understand modern Chinese history. However realistic it might be, a book this bloodthirsty could only earn four stars from me. ★★★★

Green tea: Mao Feng

Mao Feng

Too expensive and too light.
Green tea » Chinese teas » Oven-dried, ★★★
Also known as: Dancing Mao Feng, 毛峰

Mao Feng traditionally comes from the Yellow Mountain region in China. “Mao” (毛) means “hair”, which represents the curled, brittle leaf structure, and “Feng” (峰) means “peak”, which refers to Mao Feng’s mountainous place of origin. Despite its delicate taste, Mao Feng is a rather common green tea in China, and its price tag is never excessive.

This particular Mao Feng, though, sells for $28 per 50 grams in Australia—a price that 3-star quality doesn’t justify. Tannin is more prominent than caffeine, and there’s no lasting sweetness at all. Mouthfeel is restricted to the lips and the tip of the tongue, and the usual back-of-the-throat warming feeling (茶气) is completely absent in this Mao Feng variety. All the flavours thus seem dull, or muted.

If you’re looking for a similar tea that’s both better and cheaper, then try the lively, fruity Bi Luo Chun (碧螺春) instead. ★★★

Book: The History of Seafaring

The History of Seafaring
Very large, hardback, full-colour book

Like a guided tour of a maritime museum, in print
374 extra-large pages, ★★★

The History of Seafaring feels like a guided tour of a maritime museum. Some 270 artefacts are represented as large, colour images in this book—some of which are 50 cm across. It’s a beautiful tome, weighs nearly 3 kilograms, and would look good in a company’s waiting room, or on a conservatory coffee table.

Most people needn’t read it from start to finish. Even though it’s well-written and beautifully-produced, I only give this book three stars because my interest in seafaring waned before the end. Skim-read it and zoom in on the parts you find interesting. ★★★

Book: The Game

I’m currently reading an ebook, which will take me an epoch to finish. In the meantime, I think a back-dated review is in order. I miss blogging already.

Here’s one I read in 2011…

The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists
Fiction? Non-fiction? Porn? Thriller?

Thrilling, disturbing, true. A tale of self-reinvention.
452 pages, ☆☆☆☆☆

Hidden somewhere, in nearly every major city in the world, is an underground seduction lair. And in these lairs, men trade the most devastatingly effective techniques ever invented to charm women. This is not fiction. These men really exist. They live together in houses known as Projects. And Neil Strauss, the bestselling author, spent two years living among them, using the pseudonym Style to protect his real-life identity. The result is one of the most explosive and controversial books of the year — guaranteed to change the lives of men and transform the way women understand the opposite sex forever.

The Game is a story of management, success, sex, psychology, drugs, sleaze and celebrities laced with porn and self-help. The Game is a ‘true’ story about how a small group of “average frustrated chumps” (AFCs) deconstructed the art of seduction into a series of learnable steps, and transformed themselves into “pick-up artists”, or PUAs.

Enter the club, hunt out a gullible model-type, and start entertaining her less-attractive friends with jokes and magic tricks. Divert attention from the target and throw mild insults at her to erode her confidence (“that large nose looks great on you”; “is your hair supposed to look like that?”). Wait for three indicators of interest (IOIs) from the woman (touches her hair, adjusts her breasts, licks her lips, or touches you). Exit with a phone number (and not too late) and call her later for sex. The men in this book seduce hundreds of women with this routine. Supposedly, it works.

To understand The Game, it helps first to understand Fight Club…

Fight Club’s protagonist felt oppressed by his job. He created an alter ego, a schizophrenic hallucination, called Tyler Durden, who was “free in every way you’re not”: single, carefree, without want or ambition, yet Tyler was happier (in a hedonistic sense) and more successful than the protagonist’s real self. Tyler Durden gave the protagonist the strength he needed to leave the career-obsessed, materialistic life that he hated.

The Game’s protagonist, Neil Strauss, couldn’t get laid. He, too, created an alter ego called Style, who was bald, tanned, smooth-talking and, most importantly, women found him irresistibly seductive. Style was everything that Neil Strauss wished he could be: popular, respected, and promiscuous. He even became rich by running his own “how to be like me” seminars.

Neil Strauss (before, right) and his alter ego, Style (after, left).
Neil Strauss (before, right) and his alter ego, Style (after, left).

Both Fight Club and The Game are coming-of-age, transition-to-manhood stories, with struggles and pitfalls, and surprisingly tragic endings. Fight Club’s protagonist destroys the “capitalist world” with nitroglycerine, then shoots himself in the neck, destroying his alter ego. The Game’s protagonist quits when he finds himself surrounded not by beautiful young women, but by creepy “pick-up artist” men. Both characters give up their chosen image of manhood just moments after they achieve it.

Objectively, there’s little difference between struggles against the upper classes in Fight Club and against gullible women in The Game. But while I could sympathise with Fight Club’s anarchist/Maoist ideology, and find some humour in it, I had no sympathy for the manipulation of women for sex in The Game. My moral compass, I learned, was inconsistent.

I’m happy that this novel ends in tragedy. It’s the only way it could have been published, yet still be socially-responsible. Like Fight Club, the tragic ending is brought forward to Chapter 1, which depicts a down-and-out pick-up artist called Mystery needing drugs to stay awake, sleep or stop him from killing himself:

Mystery was beyond understanding. He was out of control. For a week, he’d been vacillating between periods of extreme anger and violence, and jags of fitful, cathartic sobbing. And now he was threatening to kill himself. — Page 1

The middle of the book builds towards this anti-climax.

The Game is loaded with promiscuous sex scenes. Between sex scenes, the characters talk about sex with lucid description, and discuss women and flirting tactics. Its mixed writing style (prose, dialogue, email, text message, and illustrations) suits a young audience—but read it carefully to avoid getting the wrong message.

I needed to read this in 2011. Whether The Game is true or not, pick-up artists like those in The Game really exist. This book taught me that everyone chases something—be it women, money, drugs, stamps, or gadgets… everyone plays a “game” of sorts.

My game is books. What’s your game? ☆☆☆☆☆

Book: The Case for God

I love Goodreads. It makes it so easy to discover new books and create reading lists.

Sometimes, it’s too easy to select books on Goodreads. Recently, I made a few selections based solely on the book’s title because my small, shattered iPod screen makes reading Goodreads reviews inconvenient. I say “never judge a book completely by its cover”, but on three occasions recently, I did just that—and I regret it.

If the title were an accurate representation of the book, however, then this wouldn’t happen… if only books were labelled as strictly as, say, medicines or wines. Never mind.

The Case for God
The Case for God

Unconvincing.
376 pages, ★

I found this book inaccessible partly due to my disappointment that it was not a “case for God” at all. The title was lying and I never really forgave it.

This book should be called, “A meticulous history of some major religions” instead.

What did I learn? That religion requires “perseverance, hard work and practical action”. We Buddhists agree.

I read half of this book then skimmed the rest when I realised that not only is it an academic book rather than a religious one, but also that it contains no “case for God” whatsoever. I recommend this book for Philosophy of Religion students only.

Book: The Book Nobody Read

Star-ratings reflect nothing but the reviewer’s ability to choose suitable books. Sometimes, genuinely good books (like David Copperfield or Liquid Gold) get one- or two-star reviews on this blog simply because I was reading them at the wrong time, in the wrong mood, or lacking the required background knowledge. How else could To Kill A Mockingbird and This is Not My Hat both get a four-star rating? Only in my eyes.

Recently, I’ve been returning from the library with some terrible book selections that I’ve been reluctant to review until now.

So forgive me for being harsh. I’ll keep this quick.

The Book Nobody Read
This is The Book Nobody Read

Ivory tower-dwellers might call this a thriller.
306 pages, ★★

“The Book Nobody Read? That book sounds so bad that I have to read it!”

That was my regrettable train of thought in the library. I have a juvenile tendency to contradict warning signs, not to mention a particular weakness for cacti labelled “do not touch”. This book wasn’t painful, but reading it was a waste of my time. Two stars from me.

The Book Nobody Read starts as a true crime thriller. The Second Edition of De Revolutionibus (that’s another book that nobody read) has been stolen and a judge is trying to determine whether this crime constitutes a misdemeanour or a felony.

The thrill stops there. This book then turns into the chronicles of an academic’s pursuit of Copernicus, of his character (“did he like wine or beer?”) and of his rival theorists (Kepler’s adorable spirograph-style solar system, called a Lenten Pretzel, for example). Aside from the giddying pictures, my interest quickly evaporated.

What did I learn? I learned that Copernicus was involved in the coining of the word ‘butter’. And I learned never to waste my time reading unsuitable books. ★★

Book: After the Quake

After the Quake
Available in a multitude of covers

Disappointingly disconnected, slightly bizarre short stories.
147 pages, ★★

In 1995, an earthquake in a prosperous Japanese city left only spiritual rubble. This story documents people’s reactions immediately following the quake. One woman leaves her husband, and one man accepts a mysterious delivery job. Most of the characters have either lost something, or are looking for something, in the vaguest sense.

Aside from that, unless I go into some philosophical over-think, the characters in these short stories have nothing in common. They also never meet each other. The final story then becomes surreal when it introduces a giant frog character, which unlike the fantasy elements of 1Q84, is neither spiritual nor meaningful.

After the Quake feels like a work-in-progress, a rough sketch, an EP. I am still confident that Murakami’s best works are yet to be found, and I’ll keep looking. ★★

Book: The Casual Vacancy

Yesterday’s library run was highly successful. Four books from my reserve list were available surprisingly early! A fifth book, J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, then leaped off the shelf with its Coca-Cola-esque font, colours and proportions, and nested itself atop my book pile. Would you resist?

The Casual Vacancy
Red sells.

Parish politics, the down-and-out, and all the struggles in-between.
512 pages,
★★★★

Set in Pagford, a sleepy town in south-west England, the novel begins with the shock death of Barry Fairbrother upsetting the village equilibrium. He died suddenly, leaving an empty seat on the parish council (called a “casual vacancy”). Middle-class characters then fight over the empty council seat, engage in online slander, and even argue with their families about it—sometimes violently so—in a petty, village power-struggle. Tension escalates as it trickles down the social ladder to those right at the bottom (Terri and their poor daughter, Krystal). Kay, a social worker, witnesses all sides of this struggle and shows us the most comprehensive perspective of this story’s tragic process.

A whopping 34 characters fill out this book. I had to keep notes on them all, and was soon drawing labelled arrows to keep track of all their ages and the relationships between them. A complex web soon emerged, which I’ve beautified and included below.

Connections between the 34 characters in The Casual Vacancy
Connections between the 34 characters in The Casual Vacancy

There is no protagonist. One could argue that Barry Fairbrother is the most influential character, but he dies on page three. Everyone else is of equal importance until the end.

To me, the most interesting character is 16-year-old Krystal. She lives on the local council estate (‘The Fields’) with her 3-year-old brother and their pitiful, heroin-addicted mother. Their story, and their family situation, reminds me of the 2009 film Fish Tank. Krystal’s torn between the desire to improve her home situation by caring for her mother and brother, and the desire to run away and start her life afresh. Her internal conflict ends in tears as she chooses an unfortunate, alternative end to her struggle. The novel ends with her funeral, and village equilibrium is sadly, once again, restored.

The Casual Vacancy trained my ability to keep track of 34 characters. I now feel ready to take on more complex works of fiction. Let this book prime you for the classics. ★★★★

Book: Quantum Theory: A Very Short Introduction

I’m feeling a lull after reading Haruki Murakami’s epic 1Q84. I even considered giving in to star-inflation and giving it a six- or seven-star rating. 1Q84 changed my taste in books.

I’ve also run out of books. 1Q84 raised the bar for me so drastically that yesterday, for the first time ever, I returned home from the library empty-handed. That Chinese children’s book aside, nothing on the shelves appealed to me. Only 8 books in the library’s database had the caliber to match Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 (most of which are novels by J.K. Rowling, Haruki Murakami and Mo Yan), and none of them were available. I’m roughly third in the queue for each of them, so about a two-month wait is expected.

So I hunted for books on my iPod. Like most digitally-pirated books, I found they were all quite boring, too (it’s interesting how the pirate internet contains only the most popular music but only the least popular books). This book on Quantum Theory was the best of a terrible selection.

So here goes…

Quantum Theory
Another PDF on iBooks

If I were ever forced to learn quantum theory, I’d start by reading this book.
128 pages, ★★★

Neither entertaining nor comprehensive, this book is exactly what its title promises: a very short introduction.

Written by the highly-respected John Polkinghorne, this book introduces a world where the laws of nature are so far-removed from that of our everyday experience that they are practically incomprehensible to most laypeople. Feynman said, “we can safely say that nobody understands Quantum Theory”. Someone else famous said, “If a person claims to understand quantum theory, then they are lying”.

I didn’t enjoy reading this book, and I’d only recommend it for those who, for whatever unthinkable reason, are required to know the basics of quantum theory (perhaps for a one-off job or for a test). Only in this rare and unfortunate circumstance would I recommend this book to anyone sane. I give it stars because it’s a well-written (if dry), and if you push yourself, you can learn something. I hold back two stars because this book want as fun as it could’ve been. A Very Short Introduction to Relativity might be more interesting. ★★★

1Q84 refined my taste in books. You’ll see more famous fiction reviewed on this blog in the future. I promise.

Book: 小宝宝最爱问的为什么(动物篇)

小宝宝最爱问的为什么(动物篇)
I read a wide variety of world literature.

I want to read this to my children.
60 pages, ★★★
Language: Chinese

Suitable for children about 3-4 years old, this book answers 30 “common questions about animals”, including:

  • Why are giraffes’ necks so long?
  • Why do dragonflies give birth in the water?
  • Why do cats have whiskers?

The science is concise and correct, and the language is very proper.

It’s linguistic etiquette, more than anything else, that your children will learn from this book. It teaches them how to ask intelligent questions properly, and how to formulate clear, intelligent-sounding answers. Read 30 of these examples out loud with your child, and they’ll have at least learned the logical structure of a polite question-and-answer dialogue.

There’s pinyin throughout, which helps for learning new vocabulary, too. I want to read this with my children. ★★★

Book: 1Q84 (Volumes I, II & III)

1Q84
The cover consists of three partially-transparent pages, which elude to the bizarre, multi-layered, quasi-real world of 1Q84.

The most gripping book I’ve ever read.
926 pages, ★★★★★

The year is 1984 and the city is Tokyo. A young woman named Aomame follows a taxi driver’s enigmatic suggestion and begins to notice puzzling discrepancies in the world around her. She has entered, she realizes, a parallel existence, which she calls 1Q84 —“Q is for ‘question mark.’ A world that bears a question.” Meanwhile, an aspiring writer named Tengo takes on a suspect ghostwriting project. He becomes so wrapped up with the work and its unusual author that, soon, his previously placid life begins to come unraveled.

As Aomame’s and Tengo’s narratives converge over the course of this single year, we learn of the profound and tangled connections that bind them ever closer: a beautiful, dyslexic teenage girl with a unique vision; a mysterious religious cult that instigated a shoot-out with the metropolitan police; a reclusive, wealthy dowager who runs a shelter for abused women; a hideously ugly private investigator; a mild-mannered yet ruthlessly efficient bodyguard; and a peculiarly insistent television-fee collector.

A love story, a mystery, a fantasy, a novel of self-discovery, a dystopia to rival George Orwell’s—1Q84 is Haruki Murakami’s most ambitious undertaking yet: an instant best seller in his native Japan, and a tremendous feat of imagination from one of our most revered contemporary writers.

1Q84 is unmistakably Japanese. It’s laced with assassins, quasi-religious cult leaders, underage sex and kidnapping. This bizarre (yet real) world is made even stranger when some of the characters are shifted into an alternate world—subtly different from the real world—called 1Q84.

Aomame (青豆) leaves 1984 and enters 1Q84 when she walks down the emergency stairway of a Metropolitan Expressway. She notices nothing at the time, but throughout the first few hundred pages, the reader (and Aomame) slowly realise that something isn’t right. Police uniforms have changed; a logo on a billboards is the wrong way around; and the stairway by which she entered this alternate world no longer exists. She doesn’t recall major news events, such as an unforgettable murder, or that the US and the USSR are co-operating to build a base on the moon.

In addition, on page 610, Aomame describes 1Q84 is an “…unreasonable world where there are two moons in the sky, one large, one small, where something called the Little People control the destiny of others—what meaning could it have anyway?”

The Little People, introduced slowly, will become increasingly important.

Pages 440 to 610 were the most exciting. Aomame acquires a loaded gun, and intends to use it, and Tengo (in a separate storyline) has sex. This entire 170-page section is constantly tense and revelatory. The plot twists, and we realise the world is entirely different, and more connected, than we were led to believe. Everything clicks into place.

Imagine the thrilling feeling of the 2-minute Changeover scene in Fight Club, maintained for 170 pages. I’ve never been so gripped by a book before. Haruki Murakami is a genius.

Despite the alternate-world, telekinesis, double-moon fantasy world in which most of the story takes place, there are some repeated reminders that everyday life is still happening in 1Q84: a rubber plant (on Aomame’s old balcony), her breasts (being small and of different sizes) and the NHK fee-collectors (knocking furiously at people’s doors) are mentioned briefly, throughout the story dozens of times.

From the furthest perspective, 1Q84 is a book about two childhood lovers (Aomame and Tengo) being pulled closer together via alternate worlds and some highly unforgettable characters. Maybe the Little People pulled them together? ★★★★★