A review of Haruki Murakami’s “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.”

This is a series of reflections of living a life shaped by writing and long distance running.

Mr Murakami writes in a clear and calm way about how the disciplines of writing and running, for him, inform each other.  Writing a novel involves sustained effort and calling on reserves of concentration.  Running involves a focus and concentration and a delving down into reserves of energy that is not dissimilar.  And of course for both, practice/ training is essential.

The writer is quick to point out that is not a training manual for writing or running, or a series of steps for others to follow.  Rather it is an attempt through writing to understand himself better, and in doing so, share what he has learnt along the way.  And so he recounts how he sold his jazz bar to begin writing and how he later began running, and how the disciplines informed both.  The book is a series of chapters that have been written between longer jobs at various places, and as he says in his Afterword, therefore took a long time to write.  And so it has a purposefully disjointed to and fro feel, reflecting someone rifling through their memories, and finding linkages. And so we find ourselves training in Tokyo gardens, then participating in New York marathons, then Japanese Ultrathons, then jogging by the Charles River whilst lecturing in Harvard.

As someone training for their first marathon I found the book both scary and helpful.  Marukami’s account of his first marathon, following the same route as the very first in Athens, is a vivid and memorable sequence.  He ran in incredible heat, the salt of his sweat drying in the heat.  He describes the various stages, the long busy motorway at the start, the segue into the country, and recounts his mood of irritation and anger with everything towards the end.

The other stand out chapter is the ultrathon.  This is terrifying, even for a marathon a year runner like him.  He describes in scary detail the physical symptoms of knotting muscles, swelling limbs, legs going dead.  He pumps his arms so hard to keep moving his wrists swell!

There are also vivid insights into the writing process, the hard work and ultimate satisfaction of writing, especially a novel.  He also writes on the peculiar psychology of writing, how he has learnt to deal with the morbidity, he calls it the toxicity that occurs in the mental health of writers.  And he writes on the no small matter on dealing with the human condition, of looking to the sky for kindness and seeing only clouds, of ageing and accepting its rigors and demands.

In short it’s a rich and rewarding read, not to be confined to the sports shelves alone.

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A review of Stant Litore’s “Dante’s Heart.”

In this short story Stant Litore, author of “the Zombie Bible” series, paints a dreamscape of a haunted traveller, Dante, who is hunting the violent creatures that erupt from his chest when he sleeps.  He is especially driven by the fact that one of these creatures slew his father.  He’s accompanied by a Dwarf, and a Naiad (Water Nymph).

This is a prose poem that will frustrate some just as it haunts and enchants others.  Chase it too hard for meaning and it will become a cryptic puzzle as opposed to a pleasure to read.  But the core meaning isn’t too hard to fathom; we beget violence which causes havoc.  However, even that violence can be transfigured and redeemed by innocent hearts as with the children and the horned animal in the story.

There are some wonderfully rich colour illustrations in the pages (by artist Roberto Calas), of some key images in the story.

This is transcendental and imaginative story telling.  It’s worthy of, and echoes, Ray Bradbury at his strangest.  If you have a loved one who loves stories, this will make a very decent gift.

A review of Darren Shan’s “ZOM-B Bride”

This is the most claustrophobic installment yet of Shan’s undead apocalypse saga.  Set entirely in the underground lair of B’s nightmare clown nemesis Mr Dowling, there are no wide open spaces, and no natural light.  The stink of excrement and blood is everywhere.

As well as the usual lashings of gore, this book has the general ‘yuck’ factor turned up to maximum.  There are images to make you gag.  I won’t dwell here on the toilet hygiene habit of Dowling’s mutants.  Suffice it to say they don’t use Andrex.

When we last saw B Smith at the denouement of “Zom-B Family,” she was being carried off by the mutant babies to Dowling’s lair, having been rescued from the ‘Board’ and Dan Dan.

In this story, she learns of Dowling’s plans for her, and they are of a disturbing nuptial nature.  We learn of the origin of the mutant babies, and some of Dowling’s origins, but there is a lot to sketch in still, as with the Dowling/Owl Man/Oystein triumvirate.  There’s a suitably messy and violent final chapter and we can see the general direction the narrative will now take.  It’ll be a relief to get out in the open again.  That’s the main gripe I have with this book.  The atmosphere and general stink is oppressive, like being locked in a fetid public loo.  There is the usual wild Shan imagination at play, including some trippy scenes of B and Dowling’s mental bonding, and the story moves at its usual cracking pace.  It also develops the arc from book one in a satisfying way, with very early scenes revisited and shed light on.  This is not an arc which loses sight of its origins. It also prompts us to explore the motivations of its darkest characters.  Do we feel sympathy for the Devil?

This isn’t my favourite book of the series, but it is still a wildly entertaining page turner.  But if you are going to jump on to this ride there’s only one place to start, which is book one.