What I Learned about Writing from “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running” by Haruki Murakami

 


When I picked up this book, I was expecting something like a memoir or a collection of essays on running. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that it was so much more than that, and I found myself highlighting numerous passages that gave me a fresh perspective on life and writing (as well as running). I read the book in three days, though I could have easily finished in one if I didn’t have other stuff going on. I also wanted to reflect on some of the great lessons I’d learned from it and apply them in my own life and writing habits.

In case you don’t know, Haruki Murakami started running the same year he decided to sell his jazz bar and devote himself to writing — he was thirty-three. For me, reading this book now at thirty-three, gave me motivation and encouragement, and it was like a sign that I, too, should start pursuing new goals. As Murakami says, “That age may be a kind of crossroads in life.”


In no particular order, here are some lessons on writing from the running novelist:

“I stop every day right at the point where I feel I can write more. Do that, and the next day’s work goes surprisingly smoothly.”

Murakami explains that, while he is aiming to increase the distance he runs, speed is less of an issue, as long as he can run a certain distance. If he increases the pace, he shortens the amount of time he runs, but he lets that exhilaration he feels at the end carry over to the next day. It is the same thing that applies to writing a novel. This allows you to keep up with the rhythm and set the pace. This is especially important for long-term projects. You don’t want to burn out too quickly in the beginning doing too much, and not have anything left to continue and carry you to the finish line.

So, does it work? I’ve actually been trying to finish my first draft of a children’s book for the last two weeks. It is under 10k words, so I knew I could easily finish it in a week or two. But when I was at 3,000 words, I lost momentum and ran out of ideas. I took a few days off and had to let my brain rest. I had been writing for two nights straight, way past my bedtime, and I would often end up staring at my screen, rereading everything from start to finish (several times), even though I had nothing left to add. It was counterproductive and it wasted a lot of hours when I could have gotten a good night’s sleep. After I read this, I decided to try it out. I had a few ideas pop into my head and started writing again. I was quite sure I could have gotten more than 1,000 words on the page, but I stopped at around 700 words, leaving a note on where I wanted to continue the next day. Sure enough, when I got up the next day, the words just poured right out and I didn’t require a lot of time to get them all down. I had spent the previous night thinking about those ideas and how I wanted to go about writing them. Instead of forcing myself to write everything down that night, just going over ideas and sentences in my head, and even saying them out loud, helped me to organise my thoughts and ideas.

Stopping where you feel you can write more not only helps you set a pace for your writing, it also allows you to pause and gather your thoughts and ideas, so that when you return to it the next day, you can jump right in without much planning or thinking. I did this for three days and got my first draft done at just over 7,000 words. I think I’m going to continue using this method for editing, re-writing and maybe even blogposts as well. It may take a bit longer than usual, but you end up with better quality writing and new insights and perspectives you otherwise may not have in just one sitting.


On deciding to become a novelist

I gained a whole new perspective on writing when I read about how Murakami initially started writing. He describes his sudden desire to write a novel while watching a baseball game, and it was the moment the crack of the bat meeting the ball which echoed through the stadium that the thought came over him. He never had any ambitions to be a novelist. He didn’t even have a concrete idea of what he wanted to write about, but he felt that if he just started to write, he could come up with something. He went out and bought manuscript paper and a fountain pen and started writing until he had a 200-page manuscript — all handwritten. He didn’t even know what to do with the finished novel and simply sent it to a literary magazine to be considered for a new-writers prize. The most shocking part was that he didn’t make a copy before shipping it off! He was perfectly fine with the possibility that it may not get selected and might just vanish forever, and was simply content with having finished it than whether anyone would actually read his work.

I don’t know if many writers (new or seasoned) would ever do what Murakami had done, but that was in 1978, before the Internet took over the world and people didn’t rely on social media to communicate with people. Everyone of us can now easily send a 140 character Tweet to the rest of the world within seconds and get feedback just as quickly. Murakami had to wait months to find out whether his novel, which he spent long hours crafting, was even read by anyone. When he finally heard back from them, he had already completely forgotten he’d entered the competition in the first place. His novel won the prize and was eventually published that summer. Before he could get his head around what was happening, he was labeled as a new, up-and-coming writer.

So, what can we learn from his experience? We now live in a time where it is much easier to get published, but we often get distracted by what comes after your book is published — fame, recognition, status, etc. Murakami started writing with no expectations or ambitions of doing it professionally or turning it into his career; he simply started writing because he had a desire to write. He didn’t tell anyone or Tweet about it while he was writing, and everyone who knew him had no idea he had done it until after the fact. He was self-motivated and worked from start to finish — he was pleased with himself just because he was able to do it. I also had a desire to write something for a few years, but I was often held back due to a fear of not being good at it, being rejected, or being judged for it. I started numerous stories that never made it to the end. I gave up when things got tough and I started to doubt myself. I was worried about being a bad writer — before I had even completed a first draft. Murakami did not even think about what he would do with his novel after he had finished it. This mindset was what pushed him to the finish line. His mind was focused on just getting it done. Everything else that might come afterwards never even crossed his mind. The fact that he didn’t make a copy impressed me the most because he didn’t need any proof of his work, he didn’t need to read it again and again. He sent it to one competition without a backup plan, then he forgot about it and went on with his life and started writing other stories. He plunged into writing without expectations. I was not even halfway with my first draft and had given up when I started reading this book, and after reading this particular part, I got right back into it— forgetting about all the stuff that might come afterwards — just get it done. Done is better than perfect. You don’t need to be naturally talented to start writing either. Write because you want to write.


On setting priorities

Murakami, after deciding to become a novelist, started to change his daily routine so that he could focus on writing. He started to get up before 5 a.m. and went to bed before 10 p.m. He is a morning person and that is the time he can focus and work. After working in the morning, he has the rest of the day free to do other things that don’t take much concentration and he has been able to work efficiently for more than two decades. This lifestyle means he doesn’t have much of a nightlife and have had to turn down a lot of invitations. This is his way of prioritising how he wants to divide his time and energy so that he can focus on writing. Murakami worked out when he could work most efficiently and stay focused, and he rearranged his priorities and changed his lifestyle to do it.

This is definitely a challenge for me, as I have never been a morning person. I sleep late and wake up late. Even if I wake up early, I just stay in bed until I feel like getting up. This wasn’t an option for me when I was still teaching in primary school, obviously, but I fell back into this pattern soon after I left my teaching job and started freelancing. I would often wake up still fatigued, barely staying awake, extremely unfocused throughout the day. Soon after breakfast, lunchtime came around, though I would sometimes push it back until 2:00 or 3:00 p.m. So, I really only get about two to three hours of work done. Then, dinner time rolls around, and after dinner, I finally feel like I can work without distractions, so I stay up way past midnight, lying awake until dawn, and falling asleep when I should be up again. It is an incredibly unhealthy way to live, especially for freelancers. Although you don’t have set working hours, you still need a daily routine so that you have a work-life balance. I ended up sitting in front of my laptop from 11 a.m. to the wee hours of the night, and finding that I really only did about four hours of real work while the rest of the time was disrupted by mealtimes, social media, daydreaming, Netflix or other family interruptions. Wouldn’t two or three hours of focused, uninterrupted work in the early morning be better than twelve plus hours of scattered brain activity throughout the day? I have yet to really put this into practice, though. I just started setting my alarm for 7:00 a.m., which is a big improvement from getting up after 9:00 a.m. Let’s hope I can push it even earlier and begin a new morning routine. Even if I don’t end up working in the morning, I can at least get some much-needed exercise done so I can free up the rest of the day to do other things.

Murakami also valued certain relationships over others and the most indispensable relationship he felt he needed to build was not with a specific person but ‘with an unspecified number of readers’. He considered this ‘invisible conceptual relationship’ to be the most important thing in his life. As a writer, your duty should be to your readers. As long as there was one reader who was happy with your work, that should enough to motivate you towards writing the next thing.

This has certainly changed my whole perspective on writing and made me reflect on why I wanted to write in the first place, and to let go of those stupid fears of not being liked by some people. Could you be happy with just one satisfied reader? Would that be enough for you to continue? You can’t please everybody! Write for the one person who would like it and benefit from it, and would wait patiently for your next book. Write for that person.


The most important qualities a novelist has to have

1. Talent

Talent is what fuels a writer. The only problem with talent is that you can’t control how much you have. It has a mind of its own, which can well up when it wants to, and once it dries up, that’s it.

Some people are naturally talented writers, while others need to work a little harder to get there. Some can write a novel in mere weeks or months, while others take years to churn one out. Murakami actually doesn’t consider himself to be naturally talented, yet, his work has become so popular over the years. He worked really hard to get there — he had to ‘pound the rock with a chisel and dig out a deep hole’ before he could locate his source of creativity. This gave him a motivation to dig deeper and deeper, and —  in a way — it allowed his creativity to last as long as it has. If people rely on a ‘natural spring’ of talent, they might suddenly be in trouble when they find that they’ve exhausted their only source. Being not-so-naturally talented may end up giving you an advantage, because you push yourself to keep going and improving, honing and refining your writing.

2. Focus

Focus is having the ability to concentrate all your limited talents on whatever is critical at the moment. Without focus, you simply cannot accomplish anything of value. Focus can even compensate for your limited talent or lack of it. When you don’t think of anything else and just solely on your writing, you’d be surprised with what you can accomplish. Even if you are a writer with a natural spring of talent, you won’t be able to write well without focus or concentration.

3. Endurance

Writers of fiction or long novels really need endurance in order to concentrate on writing every day over a long period of time.

Murakami describes endurance so perfectly in this quote: “If concentration is the process of just holding your breath, endurance is the process of slowly, quietly breathing at the same time you’re storing air in your lungs.” You need to continue to breathe while you hold your breath.

Endurance, like focus, can be acquired and sharpened through training. It is just like training muscles. If you do it consistently every day, you can gradually expand your limits and push yourself further and further than what you were originally able to do. It takes a lot of patience and self-discipline. This kind of training is extremely important and indispensable for a writer, as well as a marathon runner.


These are just some of the great lessons I’ve come across while reading this book. I highly recommend anyone who has a desire to write or run, or even just want a new perspective on life, to read this book. You are bound to find something that inspires you or change the way you think and look at life.

 

Get it on Amazon Kindle

Book Review: ‘YOU’ and ‘Hidden Bodies’

‘YOU’ 

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Ok, I actually read these books last year but realised I didn’t post a review on my blog. I wanted to add it now, after finishing Season 2 of YOU on Netflix. So let’s start with the book ‘YOU’…

I just want to say: Pick it up, pick it up, pick it up! (Reference to the man singing at the train station.) I cannot believe how fast I devoured this psychological, mind-blowing, twisted thriller that was soooooo bad yet soooooo good! I could not put it down!

I’ll admit that I started reading it after watching the Netflix series YOU Season 1. There were some characters that were changed or added in the show that made it even better than the book, in some ways (the neighbour’s kid Paco, especially, because he made Joe seem like a caring human being despite his sick, twisted mind). But the book also just flows and takes a hold of you and doesn’t let you go and you just find yourself turning the pages (not realising how much time has passed, ignoring your full bladder, bowel movements, and feelings of hunger).

I was so confused about my feelings for Joe. I found myself falling for him and rooting for him and wanting him, and then I realised how f-d up that was because he is f-d up and crazy and a stalker and, oh, so much is wrong with him. And now, I’m even thinking and writing like him with long sentences filled with ‘and’s and not needing to take a breath in my thoughts.

I am in awe of Caroline Kepnes and how she came up with this twisted tale, his character, his voice, his mind and even making readers sympathise with this psychopathic stalker / killer! I love the many literary, music and film references in this book and it makes me want to read those books (Desperate Characters, Dr Sleep, On the Road) and watch those films (Pitch Perfect). These elements were weaved into the storyline and helps you to understand the character and personality of Joe, his observations, perceptions and opinions. They made his character come alive and feel like a real relatable person, despite his dark twisted mind.

I love how Joe bags on Dan Brown and then gets Beck to read The Da Vinci Code together and go a journey together. (I don’t know why so many people hate on Dan Brown; I love The Da Vinci Code!) And he ends up loving it (I was disappointed to know she didn’t really read the whole thing)! The way how she incorporated Stephen King’s release of Doctor Sleep into the story was so clever, too. Then to find out that Mr. King himself recommended the book on Twitter, saying that YOU was ‘Hypnotic and scary’, made me feel excited for Ms. Kepnes. Imagine writing about an author in your book and then having that author read and give you a positive review on it – that is like the biggest compliment ever! What would have made it even cooler is if Dan Brown had also read it and given his take on it!

The book reads like a diary but also like a letter and it’s all written in second person, literally, using ‘You’. I feel like I learned a lot about storytelling and story writing, the use of voice, narrative, sentence construction, obscure references and vocabulary, and even the use of punctuation! This book is such a well-crafted piece of work! I read it on Kindle and eventually bought a hardcopy paperback because I felt like I needed a physical copy of this masterpiece to line my bookshelf. Caroline Kepnes is such a talented writer and to see that YOU is actually her first novel just makes me love her even more!

‘Hidden Bodies’

hiddenbodies

After reading ‘You’, I found myself rooting for Joe and hoping he could just find a nice girl to settle down with. He certainly managed to find that girl in this sequel, but not without difficulty or assholes getting in the way of his happiness. He continues to justify his killing by describing everyone’s faults, how the world would be a better place without them. And Joe always manages to convince you that he is doing the right thing! I wanted him to pay for what he did and I wanted him to be happy and find love at the same time. This is what is so frustrating about this whole thing! The mind of a serial killer is not to be trusted yet I couldn’t help feeling sorry for him and sympathising with him. This is totally f-d up, right?

That is how brilliant Caroline Kepnes is! She makes you question everything about our lives, the society we live in today, our over-dependency on social media to share every detail of our lives, how vulnerable we are and how quickly we begin to trust people we barely know.
But I do have some issues with the #mugofurine that managed to go unnoticed for months in Peach Salinger’s house. I mean, wouldn’t it start to smell after a few days? Surely, flies or bugs would just start swarming toward that mug. Seriously, how?!

Some parts were predictable for me though. When Forty managed to survive the whole ordeal, he blackmailed Joe into writing his future scripts for him. I saw that coming, given what an asshole Forty is and how ungrateful he is to everyone in his family. The way he ended up dying in the end was more amusing than shocking. And I just loathed that name – Forty, with a twin called Love.
What I liked about ‘You’ was that a lot of the characters and events seemed more relatable and even quite plausible. But ‘Hidden Bodies’ was too far-fetched and extreme.

When Joe was invited to the Quinn property, it felt a bit like Rachel Chu entering the Crazy Rich Asians mansion. How Joe met Love and how quickly their romance just blossomed after a couple weeks did not seem realistic at all. Just because she is 35 and had two unsuccessful marriages doesn’t mean she must settle down with the next guy she dates but that is precisely what she says! So even after learning about Joe’s past, after he literally confesses to being a murderer, she still decides to be with him and protect him and even goes to retrieve his #mugofurine. Oh, come on!

The ending – the last few chapters – just seemed rushed, trying to tie up every loose end. And it didn’t really end end. It’s not a real ending and I hate that I want to know what happens – if the cops will be able to pin him for the murders; if he will get away with everything and become a father and marry Love and live happily ever after. I hate that I need to know these things!

Season 2 of YOU on Netflix was so different from the book, which really frustrated me. The most annoying thing is Candace being not dead and trying to sabotage everything and even dating Forty. Then when she finally caught Joe red-handed and told Love everything, Love kills Candace – WTF! Oh, yeah, the guy in the cage (not in the book) whom Joe had locked up was actually killed by Love, not Joe. This plot is so far off from the book and made Love into a crazy bitch and not the perfect girl for Joe at all. They’re two completely different stories. The show again completely failed to resolve the #mugofurine situation and it wasn’t even brought up throughout the entire season. Dr. Nicky was brought back and he has become this weak man, not caring about clearing his name or trying to get revenge on Joe. He basically declares to Forty that he deserves to be in jail for his other sins (namely, cheating on his wife) even though he didn’t kill Beck. It was frustrating to watch, yet I want to rewatch it.

I also want to reread the book after watching the show. I saw from Kepnes’ Instagram that she will be writing two more books in the YOU series and I will definitely be buying them. I just hope they will be as good as the first book and not disappointing, as many sequels tend to be.

Sweden (Part 8 – Gothenburg schools, Lin Edu & Edtech products, Science Park & RI.SE)

Immediately following our meeting at Lin Education, we boarded our coach and headed towards Gothenburg, which is about a five hour drive from Stockholm. We stayed in Gothenburg for two days and nights and visited a few more schools, another Lin Education office, and the Research Institutes of Sweden (RI.SE).

Fridaskolan

We arrived at Fridaskolan at around 9:30 the next morning (and it rained). Fridaskolan is probably my favourite school out of the all the schools we visited (the Anna Whitlocks Gymnasium is a close second, though). The school building is surrounded by large glass windows, letting natural sunlight in. There is a big grand staircase that leads down to the school cafeteria right by to the main entrance.

As soon as we arrived, we enjoyed a time of Fika which was strawberry panna cotta served with tea / coffee. There were also some students selling smoothies to raise funds for their next school trip! The students can take turns to sell snacks and food at the cafeteria every week to raise money for whatever causes they choose – I love this idea!

Most of the classrooms and activity rooms are located above the cafeteria level with a lot of open spaces as well. The class sizes are quite small with no more than 20 students in a class. Students are also allowed to work in the open spaces outside the classrooms during the lessons as well. There is no bell indicating the beginning or end of a lesson because every level follows a different schedule and timetable. They even have lunch at different times. We got to visit science, design and technology, English, and art classes.

The student that led the school tour for our group could speak fluent Mandarin as well since her mother is Chinese and her father is Swedish. She greeted us and even explained a lot of the things in Mandarin, I felt so ashamed and embarrassed that I could barely understand her!

After the school tour, we headed back down to the cafeteria and enjoyed another delicious free school lunch. Seriously, I’m amazed that free school food can be this good! I also loved seeing the kids sitting on the staircase to eat their lunch as well! It was absolutely adorable!

It was still raining when we had to leave and I was surprised to see that students still played outdoors in the pouring rain! This would never happen in Hong Kong! Schools have a rainy day recess arrangement and all outdoor activities would be cancelled, automatically resulting in indoor or classroom recess.

I absolutely fell in love with this school and secretly wish that I had attended school there when I was young!

Lin Education – Seminar and exchanges with Edtech companies

We visited the Lin Education office on both of the days that we were in Gothenburg. The first day, we were given a seminar by an educational scientist who had been doing research projects in schools and conducted a project called ‘Purified by Fire’ with over 100 students. Students were given various tasks to complete through an online platform. They had to conduct their own research – both online and by exploring local historical locations – to complete missions. They interact with different actors and characters in the game and can play it whenever and wherever they want. It is next level gamification! It was so interesting to hear about the project and how students responded to the experience. What a fun and exciting project to be a part of!

This Lin Edu office was very unique and well-designed as well, the ground level provides a lot of space for comfortable seating for social gatherings and meetings, including a ping pong table, two spiral staircases on opposite sides leading up the employees’ desks and work stations, a meeting area that is linked by a ‘glass bridge’ opposite the work stations, and of course, an area for Fika, fully equipped with a kitchen counter and sink, coffee machine, fridge, cupboards and even a dishwasher! Seriously, why can’t HK offices be like this?!

On the second day, we got to listen to several Edtech companies present about their products and services. I was most impressed by Lexplore, which uses eye-tracking AI technology for reading assessment and intervention. I was selected by the group to test it out and read a sample passage and answered comprehension questions while it tracked my eye-movements. It was really quite amazing!

The other Edtech companies were very innovative as well but I won’t go into detail about them. If you are interested, the links are provided below with brief descriptions.

Soundtrap – An online collaborative platform where people can create music or audio recordings together.

Strawbees – Prototyping, coding, robotics and construction kit using ‘Strawbees’ to connect straws together. Provides activities and solutions for developing skillsets for the future through hands-on exploration, electronics and programming.

Sensavis – Interactive and visual learning tool that can create personalised learning videos, let students learn by exploring and discovering, activate learning by including students in the learning process.

Loops Education – Brings learning objectives together in visual maps designed to engage students and makes learning collaborative.

Polhemsgymnasiet

Polhemsgymnasiet is an upper secondary school located in Lindholmen, Gothenburg. It was founded in 1829 as a branch for younger students out of Chalmers technical university and later became a technical college and upper secondary school in 1937. The school provides preparatory education for universities and has four main programmes – Natural Science, Technical, Economic and Social Science. There are three principals at the school that oversee the different programmes. The areas of development focus in the programmes include formative assessments, development of language in teaching all subjects, and digital development of teaching and teaching digital competence. They also have collaborations and exchanges with other institutions in different countries including China, Spain and Germany. There are also interdisciplinary projects where students work on developing different skills including perspective drawing, modelling, CAD, graphic design, animation, manufacturing, report writing and even public presentation. In their grade 3 programme, they will do a diploma project that includes problem solving and entrepreneurial skills, and finally participate in an exhibition. We got the chance to see the exhibition showcasing students’ architectural designs and models.

Lindholmen Science Park, Chalmers University and RI.SE

We got to take a quick tour around the Chalmers University library where 90% of the books are online. The librarian facilitates and guides students to do research rather than searching or locating books. The library serves more as a space for students to study or do group projects rather than for storing books. Many of the shelves are empty with mostly reference books.

RI.SE, which stands for Research Institutes of Sweden, promotes and encourages research and international collaboration within the industry, academia and public sectors to maintain competitiveness of the Swedish business community and contribute to a sustainable society. The institute offers unique expertise and more than 100 testbeds and demonstration environments for future-proof technologies, products and services. Their research areas cover innovations in AI, digitalisation, health and safety to transport systems, urban development, water, and even the work environment. We got to see the office and work stations of their staff and saw devices and gadgets I had never seen before!

End of Part 8

Back to Sweden (Part 7)

Continue to Sweden (Part 9)

Book Review: All We Have Left ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Get the book

All We Have Left by Wendy Mills (Goodreads)

This is such a beautiful, sad, heartwarming, and hopeful story about 9/11. I randomly picked it up from the library and the blurb at the back just intrigued me.
Two girls. Two lives. One event that changed them – and the world – forever.

Jesse’s story takes place in the present time, 15 years after the events of 9/11. Her brother died in one of the twin towers and her family was never the same again. Her dad harboured a lot of hatred and anger toward Muslims which led to Jesse making a bad decision – tagging the side of the Muslim Peace Centre – resulting in community service and her mum leaving her father. However, Jesse starts to look into her brother’s death, which was something her family never wanted to do.

Alia’s story is the most significant as it records her experience in the Twin Towers from before the planes hit to when the towers fell. Her story ties in very well side by side with Jesse’s. Alia met a boy in the elevator of the tower, who was actually Jesse’s brother. Together they helped a woman with a heart condition down hundreds of steps as they all attempt to get out before the inevitable happened. Along the way, they share about their lives and why they were in the towers that day.

The two stories weave together beautifully, going back and forth between Jesse’s and Alia’s story. Each is told in the first person narrative and we learn about how their lives and those around them had changed. Though, Alia’s story is mostly about that single day’s events and Jesse’s story spans several weeks, they were both equally captivating. Both girls are very similar in that they both made mistakes and struggled to reconcile with their parents.

Their stories tie together because of Travis, Jesse’s brother, who is the unlikely hero of this story. Although he was described as a coward by his own father and even himself at times, he showed immense bravery and courage and selflessness through his actions that day. His final moments were not explained in detail, but this is also a reality for a lot of survivors. Their heroes did not make it out and many survivors have no idea what happened to them or what their final moments were like. No one will ever know what happened to them in the end.

This is such a well-researched book. The descriptions were so clear and detailed and everything felt so real, it felt like the author was writing from personal experience.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Though some parts may be difficult to read, especially if you remember the events of that day and read enough news articles to know just how tragic that day was for the whole world, I think it is a great depiction of how many people’s lives had changed. It also goes deep into the issues of religion, racism, discrimination, hatred and even grief. It teaches us to be more tolerant, understanding, and accepting of different religions and races, and to educate ourselves so that we do not become ignorant bigots.

There is danger of stereotyping people because of the colour of their skin or what they choose to wear or even the traditions they keep. I often find myself making assumptions about people because of what the media or the mass majority tells us to believe. I hope to have a better understanding and not make that mistake again. I have learned a lot about the Islamic religion and practices of Muslims from reading this book and I think it is a very good book to teach young people about good morals and values as well. We need more books like this, now more than ever.

Get the book (Amazon)

Book Review: the curious incident of the dog in the night-time

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This is such an amazing book by Mark Haddon! It’s been kind of a slow reading month for me but I still really enjoyed this and definitely recommend it. I actually bought this book several years ago and it just sat on my bookshelf, untouched until last month, when I browsed my bookshelf looking for something to read, while guiltily staring at a stack of books I had just purchased on Book Depository (free shipping worldwide!).

I read a few chapters every few days before going to bed, and it was hard to figure out which chapter I was really reading because the chapters are numbered using prime numbers, which was not explained until chapter 19 or cardinal chapter 8. I thought it was strange to start with chapter 2 and even thought maybe the chapters are out of order or something!

The story is told from Christopher’s perspective. He is autistic and lives on rules, patterns, routines and cannot easily adapt to changes in the environment or surroundings. The way he describes the situations and interactions that happen around him are so matter-of-fact that they sometimes feel comedic and amusing to the reader, even though to Christopher, he has no emotional reaction at all to them. The way his brain works is truly fascinating and he often thinks about difficult mathematical problems to calm himself down when he feels distressed or uncomfortable.

I love the diagrams throughout the book showing how he sees signs, symbols, words, patterns, puzzles etc. It really gives you a deeper understanding of what it is like for an autistic person to live and function in our world.

The most exciting part of the story is when Christopher leaves his home in Swindon, where he lives with his father, and tries to go to London on his own to find his mother. He repeatedly asks the same questions as he does not understand common expressions or sarcasm and makes you feel frustrated at times. I can totally understand why his parents or other passersby react the way they do to him. It isn’t easy communicating with an autistic person. This book really helps readers to gain a better understanding of their world and how their brains work.

I completely failed to understand the whole math problem he solved in the Appendix; but I just loved how he said that Siobhan had told him to put it in the Appendix because it wasn’t very interesting and not many people would want to read that! Well, she was right!

My favourite problem has to be The Monty Hall Problem, though. I read that part several times and his illustration really helps!

The Monty Hall Problem illustration
The Monty Hall Problem illustration

(The book is similar to The Rosie Project series, where the protagonist Don suffers from Asperger’s but doesn’t seem to be aware of it. I have also bought The Rosie Result on Kindle so will probably start reading that soon too.)

See my Goodreads review

Book Review: Eats, Shoots & Leaves

⭐⭐⭐⭐

Here is my book review of ‘Eats, Shoots & Leaves’ by Lynne Truss:

eatsshoots
Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss

Sticklers unite! I never thought I’d enjoy a book about punctuation as much as I did. I could have easily read it in one sitting but I took a break after the introduction because it felt like it would never end! I mean, it was over thirty pages long! The chapters that followed were much more interesting and entertaining, and deeply informative. I never imagined that I would get excited reading a book about punctuation!

Truss writes with humour, conviction, authority, and shamelessly shames those who don’t know the difference between a comma and an apostrophe (yes, they exist!), and misplace apostrophes in contractions, plurals (unnecessarily adding them, i.e. banana’s – banana’s what?) and possessives. She explains, in great detail, when and how to use various punctuation marks with numerous literary examples. She even provides a historical background for each of them! I was surprised to learn that George Bernard Shaw once campaigned to reform the spelling of the English language (most notably ‘bomb’ into ‘bom’, because, well, it just saves time!) and even to abolish the use of inverted commas and italics font for titles.

I’d thought I knew the difference between a colon and a semicolon, but after reading the twenty-nine-page chapter titled ‘Airs and Graces’, I learned that there was more to their story than I had originally thought. I did try teaching the colon and semicolon to my students once and immediately thought better of it, then swiftly removed the items from the syllabus. It’s one thing to say you understand the difference, it’s quite another to teach it. Well, I never tried again. One of the reasons Truss says people use for not mastering the colon and semicolon is that “The difference between them is too negligible to be grasped by the brain of man”, which literally made me laugh out loud and choke on my own saliva! And I definitely will be rereading that chapter again, more than once if I have to!

Punctuation has always fascinated me; I even campaigned to include punctuation worksheets and exercises for students during my time as an English panel-chairperson (though a somewhat short-lived role). It deeply frustrated and irritated me when students (and even my fellow colleagues, who were native speakers, mind you!) consistently misused you’re/ your, it’s/ its, they’re/ their and the like. I highly recommend this book to them!

Well, I tremendously enjoyed reading all about punctuation – the history, function and usage – and how important they are to language and communication. I will surely be paying close attention to punctuation from now on (not that I hadn’t already before). I did, at times, find Truss rather obnoxious and snobbish, arrogantly sitting on her high-horse while silently mocking or yelling at greengrocers, editors and a poor old pen-pal named Kerry-Anne. It can come off as either incredibly pretentious or utterly hilarious.

Have you read this book? What did you think about it? Let me know in the comments.

Get the book here!

Can you become addicted to reading?

I hate that I’m going to start this blog with a cliche – I can’t believe how quickly this year just flew by! I am somewhat conflicted by some of the choices I have made last year, mostly starting a new part-time job, staying there for eight months, then resigning from that job. I was excited to start it but I later realised it wasn’t for me and it became unsatisfying, isolating, frustrating, never-ending. I felt relieved when I no longer needed to set my alarm clock for 5:00 a.m. every morning or panicking when I accidentally snoozed and failed to set a second alarm. However, I quickly fell into a slump and woke up five hours later, sometimes even at noon, losing half the day to sleep and intermittent naps. It was not a good sign. I needed to get back into a routine.

I wanted to spend time developing my own projects and passions and enjoying what I used to love. I thought about doing many things – reading, writing, travelling, drawing, photography, animation, research, the list goes on. Well, there is one thing I can not stop doing – reading. I read all kinds of books – memoirs, biographies, chick lit, thrillers, self-help, guide books… I am a reading machine! I can’t stop buying books either – paperbacks from bookstores or ordering online, as well as eBooks on Kindle! I read 15 books in four months – September to December! However, I realised that while I was at my last job, I started getting into audio-books because it was just too quiet working in that room by myself with nothing but my own thoughts. I finished seven audio-books within a few months. I guess from then on, I just couldn’t stop. For the last three months, I found myself thinking about reading constantly; if I wasn’t reading, I was browsing and searching for the next book to read. Whenever I got on the train or the bus, I would just start reading. I mean, why waste that commuting time? I purchased a Kindle, which I still can’t believe I didn’t get until last month!

I have set myself a reading challenge for 2019 on Goodreads to read 35 books. Today, I finished my 4th book since starting on 1st January. At this pace, I may surpass my goal. I wish I could just do this for the rest of my life and not worry about anything else. Something just happens to me when I am immersed in a book. Nothing else in the world matters. My thoughts rest and I think only about the characters, the setting, the hidden meanings. My mind opens and absorbs the words on the page. I have learned more from reading books than I have from all my years of schooling. But then…

There are times when I’d forget what time it is, forget to eat or shower or sleep. It is like I can’t live a day without reading. Can you become addicted to reading? Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Am I just escaping reality?

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Just Do Something!

justdosomethingGet the book !

I’ve been thinking a lot about what I should do with my life; this isn’t anything new really. I found myself thinking I was meant for more than this and started reading books on finding my purpose and how to live out God’s plan for my life. I was constantly reminded of the verse from Jeremiah 29:11 “For I know the plans I have for you, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” I had no idea what I should do, when and how. I was even struggling to decide which volunteer role I should take at church. I was continually praying to God to reveal his plans to me. I never heard from him but I did come across this book called ‘Just Do Something: A Liberating Approach to Finding God’s Will’ by Kevin DeYoung. It popped up as a recommendation after I read ‘Why Church Matters’ by Joshua Harris. DeYoung would say that it’s total baloney to say that it is God’s will for me to read this book. That was even what I had thought when I bought it! Well, he completely changed my way of thinking about God’s will from that first page.

To expect God to speak to us and reveal his plans for us is foolish. Yes, God has, on numerous occasions throughout the Bible, spoken to people about his will for them. But this is not the norm. They were very rare occasions and none of them had asked God to tell them.

We over-spiritualize everything in our lives and often forget to live our lives due to our fear of doing the wrong thing or making the wrong decisions or disappointing God. We delay making even the most simple and straightforward decisions (non-moral decisions) because we are waiting for God to tell us what to do, when in fact, God has no obligation to reveal his plans or his will for us. His only desire for us to be live for God, obey the scriptures, be holy, love Jesus and think of others before ourselves. If we do all these things, we can do whatever else we like, with whomever we like and wherever we like because we will already be walking in the will of God. God or Scripture will never tell us which job to take or which house to buy or which person to marry.

The fact that I was willing to volunteer at church is already walking in God’s will because anything that serves his purposes is good. So why did I need to complicate the matter and think so much about the decision? There is no right or wrong choice in this decision! Whatever I decide to do, the outcome is the same. This is a non-moral decision. I will not harm anyone or cause trouble in doing so. This book made me realize how silly my thinking was!

So I made several bold, non-moral decisions to serve at church. Now, I need to do the same for my career, education and relationships. God gave us free will to make our own decisions and become self-sufficient human beings, not so we would become cowards and wait for everything to be handed to us or to be told what to do. We are not God’s puppets.

What we need to pray for is not for God to tell us what to do, but pray for wisdom to make our own decisions and not be afraid to take risks or fail. If we must fear something, fear God, not the future.

 

‘The Art of Travel’ by Alain de Botton

artoftravel

I don’t know what I expected when I bought this book. At the time, I was browsing a bookstore for books for my father; I wasn’t really thinking of buying anything for myself. But then the title of this book just got my attention. The Art of Travel – is there an art to travelling? I was intrigued. I had wanted to embark on new journeys around the world for months and eventually, I decided to take a break from work to do it. I packed up my desk after nine years of teaching and told my colleagues I would not be back in the new academic year. I want to experience and explore more. I want to appreciate what the world has to offer and not be stuck in the same place, for what would be the tenth year of my teaching career. I still have so much more I want to do and learn and places I want to go and see; and life doesn’t wait for you – you have to make it happen. So I made it happen. And this book is now going to teach me how to truly travel, understand the cultures around the world, notice the little things and observe what is going on around me, really take in the sights, and just be generally happier on my journeys.

At first, I did not really understand the concept and structure of this book. The format and layout is not like what I was used to reading. There are five main chapters – Departure, Motives, Landscape, Art, and Return. In each chapter, he breaks it down into sub themes with the relevant places that he visited that inspired his writings, and a guide that guided him to experience the different aspects of his travels in a more meaningful way. Within each theme, he divides it into numbered sections and chunks. I did not know where it was going and there was no story to it. But I kept trying. The key message I got from it was how we feel and think when we travel is just as important, if not more so, than what we see and do when we get to our destination. There really is an art to travelling and de Botton has put into words something we have all thought during our travels, but never made the effort to record or write them down. I never thought about travelling in such a way. Every time after a trip, I come back feeling a little empty and the memories of the places I had visited slowly fade away. I never documented or wrote about what I had experienced because I didn’t really understand what that experience was – what was the purpose of it? After every trip, I come back with hundreds, sometimes thousands of photos from my digital camera, most of which I would never look at again. I select some I think are ‘post-worthy’ and upload them on various social media sites and the rest remain on my SD card or computer. Is this my purpose for travelling? What have I even learned from this trip? I realized I needed to change my whole mindset and stop thinking about what’s next or what photo would impress my friends or what souvenirs I should get, and really appreciate the moment, the present scene, the feeling in my skin, the thoughts running through my mind. Let your mind take you on a journey as well.

I also developed a deeper understanding of God when he discussed the misfortunes of Job in the chapter about sublime landscapes. The universe is so vast and mysterious, we will never understand why things happen the way they do. With Job as a guide, we are led to discovering the sublime and the beautiful. God explains to Job that the world is unfair, but when we encounter sublime places, “see how small you are next to the mountains.” We must realize that we are merely “playthings of the forces that laid out the oceans and chiselled mountains… Our life is not the measure of all things: consider sublime places a reminder of human insignificance and frailty.” And if we spend time in such places, “they may help us to accept more graciously the great unfathomable events that molest our lives and will inevitably return us to dust.” We are a part of the earth; that is what God created us from. In the end, we must accept our fate that we become one with the earth’s foundation. As we look at such sublime landscapes, we become fascinated and begin to wonder about a greater majestic power, a force so great and divine that we can only conclude is the work of an almighty God. We are merely dust in His creation.

When we travel, we are always worried about what we will do when we get there, yet when we get ‘there’, we are not really ‘there’. We are worrying about our next destination or next stop and never truly present in the moment. This book teaches us to forget everything we know about how to travel from the guidebooks we read. To truly be present in the moment, we need to develop a different mindset. Are we really seeing what is there in front of us when we arrive at tourist spots with our cameras and selfie sticks? Do we really understand what the building, tower, castle, monument, mountains, lakes, etc. represent and why they are special to the city? Why did we choose this destination and not that one? How many photos do we need to take to be satisfied that we have documented evidence that we were in fact present at this place? These were the questions that popped into my mind as I was reading this book. No photo can capture what we see before our eyes. So just enjoy the moment and appreciate the sublime and beautiful world.

De Botton describes each scene so vividly using the teachings and philosophies of various artists and writers that leaves you amazed and ashamed at the same time. I started to reflect on my recent trip to Osaka, during which I finished reading the final 50 pages on the flight back to Hong Kong. I regret not finishing it earlier so that I could practise some of what de Botton suggests – drawing or sketching, writing or word painting as a way to remember the sights. It doesn’t matter if you are not an artist, we can all become one and everyone has the ability to pay attention to beauty. No artist is able to fully capture the magnificent landscape, not even the renowned Van Gogh. You can only select certain details and that choice varies from artist to artist. They do not simply reproduce. The key is on seeing and not capturing. As we write about a place, we can also in some way ‘possess beauty’ through understanding it. Though, I have never tried word painting, de Botton did and realizes his own limitations and expresses that, “Attractive places typically render us unaware of our inadequacies with language.” I found this quite ironic for a writer of his calibre.

Reading this book was a journey in itself. I never thought about noticing how letters look on the signs at airports, or the minor details of a carpet, a train compartment or a hotel room until I read this. One of the most memorable parts of the book was the last chapter on Return, in which he suggests being a traveller in your own room – a novel idea inspired by Xavier de Maistre’s first book, ‘Journey Around My Bedroom’. We are always searching for new destinations to travel to but we seem unable to appreciate our own home. In fact, having lived in Hong Kong for so many years, I still don’t think I know this city very well. There are so many places I haven’t explored or thought to visit. Travel does not have to involve long distance flights or train rides to foreign cities or countries. You can travel around your own home or simply to the building across the road and discover something you didn’t know before.

The most important takeaway from this book is best summarised by this quote, “The pleasure we derive from journeys is perhaps dependent more on the mindset with which we travel than on the destination we travel to.”