Month: November 2017

a conditional recommendation

Okay, so I reviewed a recent Nobel laureate and one of the other authors in the running. It’s only fair that I review another.

Cat’s Eye, by Margaret Atwood. Some of her other books have been reviewed here before.

This book is reminiscent of The Bell Jar, in that it is a seemingly semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story of a young artist. But it is, in fact, not a memoir, which makes it remarkable.

Elaine Risley is a middle-aged artist who travels to her home town of Toronto for a retrospective of her work. The trip triggers memories of her younger years, and she starts to reminisce. The novel is set up as a series of flashbacks in parallel with the present day. Elaine thinks about how various incidents in her life shaped her, and analyzes her present self critically- her appearance, career and parenting. The stream of consciousness style, with frequent time shifts, is not as complicated as it could be and feels natural. Elaine is brutally honest to the point of being rough.

The plot isn’t particularly eventful, but it is relatable. Elaine struggles with bullying in school, because of her unusual childhood. She has love affairs, healthy and unhealthy. She admires her brother and finds the ways women mysterious. An overarching theme is her relationship with a “frenemy” of her youth, whose rise and fall is the mirror image of her own. Atwood is adept in depicting the interactions of the playground, and I found myself remembering the odd group dynamics of my school’s social circles.

What I look for in literary fiction these days is a deliberate injection of beauty/romance into everyday life and observations. Murakami does this a lot- who else can describe a young man making a sandwich in a more meaningful way?- and that’s part of why I keep turning back to his work. Cat’s Eye was brilliant in that respect. Some gems:

(On the adulting Impostor Syndrome) “Another belief of mine: that everyone else my age is an adult, whereas I am merely in disguise.”

(On being supported by her spouse) “I could live without it, I have before. But I like it all the same.”

Another thing I liked was the unintentional feminism of the book. It’s feminist simply by virtue of being a book with a female protagonist that mentions her goals and opinions apart from romance and relationships. Ironically, Elaine’s art is labelled feminist despite not being deliberately so. The second quote illustrated what I mean: Elaine can, and does, get by as a single woman and single mother. But she is also happy as a stay-at-home mother to her daughter when in a relationship.

So, as promised:

I highly recommend this book, IF (and only if):

  1. You are female
  2. You are extremely pretentious
  3. You are okay with being a little bored
  4. You appreciate ‘good prose’ (see 2&3 above)

5/5 from me, since I check off all the points on the above list.

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Shoe Dog

Phil Knight, the founder of Nike Inc., opens Shoe Dog with the description of a morning run. With that, he instantly connects with the average runner; a sense of camaraderie sets in, and lasts till the last page of the memoir. He’s up at an ungodly hour, laces up, stretches, feels his muscles groan and wake up, and hits the road; basking in the inimitable runners high. On his run, he consolidates his thoughts on what will turn out to be the most important decision of his and scores of runners’ lives, down the years. He decides to talk to his father, his only financier, about starting a company for running shoes. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Phil Knight’s partner was the legendary track coach, Bill Bowerman, who coached Phil at University of Oregon, as well as several Olympians, including the great Prefontaine. The company was built on the sweat and blood of shoe dogs, people who are passionate and borderline obsessed with shoes. About running shoes.

For years, this company that Phil Knight founded in 1963 was called Blue Ribbon. The story of the change of name to Nike and the design of the logo, the Swoosh, are parts of the memoir that are best left to the reader to enjoy afresh. The company was, essentially, an importer of running shoes from Japan. Onitsuka (ASICS today) was the manufacturer of these shoes. They were, however, conceptualised in America by Bill Bowerman, and later, Johnson, a salesman par excellence, with the help of many a running enthusiast, including stars and rookies in university tracks.

The path to self sufficiency in manufacturing shoes is studded with supply troubles and manic enthusiasm of the coterie that formed the core team of the company. It is safe to say that this team that nurtured Nike through its initial days, was built around the onslaught of liquidity crunches and multiple court cases, all of which were life-threatening to the company. For instance, Onitsuka sued Nike in Japan, and Nike sued back in America for breach of contract and trademark infringement. Daily affair for huge companies today, but it could have broken everything that Phil had built. The bad times at Nike went so far as to be notified to the FBI for fraud. This brush with law enforcement was cringe-worthy for anyone rooting for the company (or just for running shoes).

As a leader, Phil is disparaging in his take on his role, as he recounts his non-response to enthusiastic members of his team even when they demonstrated utmost dedication to the cause of Nike. Some of them maintained a ledger of the likes of customers, and also went so far as to not cash-in their paychecks. Phil is deeply grateful, though, through negotiations, court cases, and the biannual meetings called Buttface (thus christened to establish how non-conforming to the then corporate standards they were). It would have helped the reader to surmise the same had he described their lives more in depth, though.

Of the people that helped to make Nike possible, the role of Phil’s wife, who was their first accountant, is greatly underplayed. She is portrayed as a Mary Sue, with no say whatsoever in any matters. Also, due, in part, to this lack of regard for her part in Phil’s life, or for that matter, for the role that his family may have played, it would be apt to categorise this book as an account of the company, Nike, rather than as a memoir of its founder.

In the last chapter, Phil writes about why he wrote the memoir. After all, who really wants to know about the birth and growth of a company that sells “sports stuff”? In a candid couple of pages, he writes that his life’s purpose that has been somewhat realised through Nike, which he sees not as a profit making enterprise, but as a movement towards excellence. The memoir is thus meant to inspire people to start up, believe in their maniacal desires, pursue a calling, and the like. The everyday and the epic in the book, like the daily and personal struggles of the team members, or the geometric year on year increase in annual revenue, prove, surely, that pursuing one’s calling is the the most worthy thing to do.

The book gives us the tale of Nike from 1962 to 2006. Some years, however, have unfortunately been brushed over. Today Nike is worth much more than the $8000 annual turn over in 1963. In a way, it’s the story of a do-gooder capitalist, who stands as testament to all that’s well with free markets. One of the most saddening parts of the book, though, was the narration of the “so-called sweatshop” controversy, regarding the abysmal condition of Nike factories in China, Bangladesh. It is outrightly disregarded with deep contempt, rather than acknowledging the humanitarian issue that needed addressing. Nevertheless, since, Nike has risen to become the gold standard of factories in the East. A good comeback, that.

As the audience to the book, the slightly more initiated was given far too little to chew on. This is not a quintessential book for runners. Indeed, what would a shoe dog not have given to know more about the shoe designs, or to skim through pictures of the earliest prototypes and products! Neither is the book one for biography buffs. Though the fashionable modernist writing style of writing aided its readability and added to the spark of the book, it felt like it nourished more sound-bites than material.

That said, Shoe Dog is an entertaining page-turner for anyone that is willing to engage in a passionate memoir. It widens our understanding of today’s corporate giants. The book is at once the story of the company that tells us that there is no finish line, and a story about winning – with clinical precision and an enduring belief in one’s calling. Just like a professor of the jungle.

“Don’t pointless things have a place, too, in this far-from-perfect world?”

After the failed attempt at reading a Nobel laureate, I turned to the work of another author who was in the running- Haruki Murakami. I’ve been a fan of his for a while now, for his very readable, yet insightful, urban fiction.

Sputnik Sweetheart was published over a decade after Norwegian Wood, but has a very similar feel. I read the English translation by Peter Gabriel. It did not disappoint- classic Murakami through and through.

If you’re familiar with his work, you’ll recognize the tropes- Manic Pixie Dream Girl, average but well-meaning and hard-working male protagonist, some weird sex and supernatural occurrences. Luckily no cats here. What I liked about it was the simple, straightforward storyline, and a relatively believable supernatural event that could easily be ascribed to a variety of commonplace (and not-so-commonplace) causes. It’s open-ended without being a letdown.

K is a 25-year-old Japanese schoolteacher. He is infatuated with his best friend Sumire, who is an aspiring writer. Sumire behaves and dresses eccentrically, to channel the feel of Kerouac. One day, she falls in love with an older woman called Miu. She begins to work for Miu’s business and travel with her, taking on a more adult and responsible lifestyle. Out of the blue, Sumire goes missing in Greece and K receives a panicked summons from Miu. Mysteries are solved and more are revealed.

A quote I particularly liked:  “Don’t pointless things have a place, too, in this far-from-perfect world? Remove everything pointless from an imperfect life, and it’d lose even its imperfection.”

One complaint, though, was that the English translation seemed clunky at times. As a non-American native speaker, some blatant old-fashioned Americanisms really stood out and broke my immersion. I understand that many Japanese idioms may not translate well, but using a literal translation or replacing it with plain phrasing would be a better way to convey the true spirit of the book.

It’s odd, to me, how Murakami’s male heroes are always the romantic ‘victims’: either they wallow in unconditional love, or they are loners, or they cannot impress the object of their affection. In literature written by women, men are always heartless or absent and heroines are strung along and left heartbroken. A good reason to branch out and make sure I read work by authors from all walks of life.

3.5/5, from me. Don’t hesitate to read it if you like the Murakami style, the story is tame enough for me to recommend this book unconditionally.

An allegory, shrouded in fog

The 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to the English writer Kazuo Ishiguro a few weeks ago. Coincidentally, I had abandoned The Buried Giant just the previous weekend after nearly a month of trying to struggle through its 300-odd pages.

Here’s a review anyway, because I made it 60% of the way through (and because I need to justify the Did Not Finish tag to myself).

Ishiguro’s other books, Never Let Me Go and The Remains of the Day, were terrific reads and when I found a copy of The Buried Giant in the library (giant font, hardback– why America why) it went into my backpack without hesitation. Unfortunately, this book crossed the line from “introspective and subtle” to “uneventful and confusing”.

Axl and Beatrice (who he calls ‘Princess’ in every single sentence- strike one) are an elderly couple living in a medieval British village. They’re a bit isolated from their neighbours, as their advanced age is seen as a liability. Axl has also been noticing strange lapses in the collective memory of their society. A fact that he realizes repeatedly, because he keeps forgetting it. In a moment of clarity, Axl and Beatrice decide to set out on a Quest to visit their son (though they are unsure of his existence and location).

Strike two: Axl is also under the influence of the Fog, and tends to forget and rediscover things frequently. As a weekend/commute reader, I often had to flip back to reread, because I wasn’t sure whether it was my memory or Axl’s that was unreliable.

Then a couple of new characters are introduced– Gawain and Wistan. Axl doesn’t know if they are friend or foe, but seems inclined to trust them. He also finds them vaguely familiar… Argh! Strike three: everything is vague, and at 2/3rds of the way through, I expected at least a hint or two.

As expected from Ishiguro, there is a twist in the end of the story that ties things together in a neat, albeit slightly heartbreaking, way. I did not get that far into the book, but I’ll reveal what I understood of the ending from summaries: the amnesia-inducing fog is caused by the breath of Querig; this is intended to cause the Britons and Saxons to live in peace despite the British massacre of Saxons. Gawain is actually Querig’s protector, and Wistan kills him, and then the dragon, to rescue everyone from memory loss.

This is pretty thought-provoking. We are told that we need to study history to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. But could deliberately avoiding history enable us to live more peacefully in the present by erasing prejudices? Were the amnesiac Britons and Saxons in the story doomed to fight once again?

I don’t regret not finishing this book- it put me in a reading rut for a month. Maybe someday I’ll have the time and energy to give it the patience it deserves. I recommend this book to Ishiguro fans who have some time on their hands. 1.5/5.