Author, Book review, Haruki Murakami, Japan, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, Sport, USA, Vintage

‘What I Talk About When I Talk About Running’ by Haruki Murakami

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami

Non-fiction – paperback; Vintage; 180 pages; 2009. Translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel.

Confession time. I’ve never read anything by Haruki Murakami despite owning quite a lot of his backlist. Furthermore, I’m not a runner, so delving into What I Talk About When I Talk About Running might seem like an unusual choice for me to make. But I received this as a “Secret Santa” gift at my book group earlier in the month, and casting about for something light and easy to read last week, this one filled the gap. I found it surprisingly entertaining.

A memoir about running and writing

The book is essentially a memoir about Murakami’s long affair with long-distance running. At the time he wrote the book in 2007, he’d competed in some 26 marathons, one for every year of his amateur running career, so I suspect the total may now be higher.

Interspersed with this thoughts and philosophy on running, Murakami also shares his thoughts on writing (he became a full-time novelist in 1982 after he sold the jazz bar he owned and managed) and the way the two inform each other.

Marathon running is not a sport for everyone, just as being a novelist isn’t a job for everyone. Nobody ever recommended or even desired that I be a novelist — in fact, some tried to stop me. I had the idea to be one, and that’s what I did. Likewise, a person doesn’t become a runner because someone recommends it. People basically become runners because they’re meant to.

He covers the ups and downs of the sport — the joys and challenges it has brought him, including his struggle to overcome lethargy and the “runner’s blues” — and the kinds of places he has visited to compete in events (he’s a regular competitor in the Boston and New York marathons). It soon becomes clear that he’s a dedicated and focussed runner, intent not on the competitive element but on achieving his own personal goals which revolve mainly around time and distance — and keeping in shape. He appears to be motivated purely by his own inner odometer.

And the qualities that he brings to his running — dedication, focus and endurance — is something that is also mirrored in his writing life:

If I am asked what the next most important quality is for a novelist [after talent], that’s easy too: focus — the ability to concentrate all your limited talents on whatever’s critical at the moment. Without that you can’t accomplish anything of value, while, if you focus effectively, you’ll  be able to compensate for an erratic talent or even a shortage of it. I generally concentrate on work for three or four hours every morning. I sit at my desk and focus totally on what I’m writing. I don’t see anything else, I don’t think about anything else. […]After focus, the next most important thing for a novelist is, hands down, endurance.

The loneliness of the sport also seems to suit him. He says he likes his own company — a good trait if you’re a writer — and isn’t a particularly sociable or extroverted person, so spending a lot of time pounding the pavement by himself, with only the rhythm of his breathing for company, suits him.

Later in the book he covers his growing interest in triathlons and his struggle to come to terms with the challenges of the swimming and cycling legs of those events. I was particularly interested to read about his cycling experiences, seeing as I’m a keen cyclist, and I can’t say I concurred with his view that it was a boring sport — “It’s the same movements repeated over and over” — because at least when you’re on a bike you can take in the scenery and fresh air without killing your feet and knees!

A charming read

All in all, I found What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (the title is a riff on Raymond Carver’s short story collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love) a charming and rather delightful read, told in a straightforward style, with no literary flourishes or allusions to pretension. It’s all very matter of fact and, at times, painfully honest.

It didn’t exactly make me want to strap my running shoes on, but it did make me think about how exercise — for me it’s long distance walking and cycling — can aid, inspire and inform the creative life. And it has also made me more curious to explore Murakami’s extraordinary backlist of novels…

I read this as part of #DiverseDecember.

Africa, Author, Book review, Charley Boorman, Little, Brown, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, Sport, travel

‘Race to Dakar’ by Charley Boorman


Non-fiction – hardcover; Little, Brown; 320 pages; 2006.

As I write, the 2007 Dakar Rally is in full swing. It is the world’s most gruelling and challenging off-road endurance race for motorised vehicles. One motorcyclist, South African Elmer Symons, has already died in this year’s race and last year’s claimed the life of Australian Andy Caldecott.

So when actor Charley Boorman finished the 20,000 mile road trip from London to New York (the long way round via Russia) with his best mate Ewan McGregor in 2004, the Dakar Rally seemed like the next logical challenge. But, as Charley was soon to realise, there’s a big difference between riding a route you’ve organised yourself to racing along one that has been designed to test your off-road navigational skills, your physical capabilities and your mental strength to their absolute limits. It has often been compared to climbing Everest or sailing around the world it is such a difficult feat to achieve.

This book charts Charley’s attempt to tackle the Lisbon to Dakar route, via the deserts of Morocco, Western Sahara, Mauritania, Mali, Guinea and Senegal, with mixed — and often heart-breaking — results. It is accompanied by a seven-part TV series, now on DVD, which looks at Charley’s pre-trip preparation and planning through to the actual two-week 10,000km race.

But this is no solo attempt. Charley is clever enough to form a race team comprising two accomplished enduro motorcyclists, the unflappable cool-headed Australian Simon Pavey and determined first-time Dakar Rally racer Englishman Matt Hall. He also has a brilliant race support crew headed by producer Russ Malkin (who also managed the Long Way Round ride).

I loved the book. It’s easy to read and highly entertaining and gives you a slightly different perspective to the TV series. It’s written in a very chatty style and conveys Charley’s fears and doubts quite clearly — there is little room for ego here!

However, as with Long Way Round, I’m not sure the book would make the grade as a stand alone read without the TV series — you really need to SEE the terrain and the riding conditions (all that dust, all those dunes and cars barrelling out of nowhere) to fully appreciate the difficulty of the challenge.

But this is a wonderfully inspiring read about pushing the human mind and body to its limits. And you don’t have to be a bike nut to appreciate it.

Atlantic Books, Author, Bill Borrows, Book review, Non-fiction, Publisher, Sport

‘The Hurricane: The Turbulent Life and Times of Alex Higgins’ by Bill Burrows


Non-Fiction – paperback; Atlantic Books; 368 pages; 2003.

Let’s get one thing straight: I am not a snooker fan. But I’ve been interested in Alex “Hurricane” Higgins after seeing a TV documentary on him several years ago. He seemed like an intriguing character; a sporting genius who did much to take snooker from the dingy pool halls into the realms of prime-time TV but who managed, somehow, to make a fortune and then blow it all on drink, drugs and women

Bill Borrows’ unauthorised book pulls no punches. The opening chapter has to be one of the best opening chapters of any biography I’ve ever read. It somehow captures the strange world that Higgins now inhabits, his cantankerous and difficult nature, and his sad demise from snooker legend to drunkard and drifter.

If you know nothing about snooker, the book is highly readable and, at times, just plain laugh-out-loud funny, as the following extract reveals:

He took off his hat, pulled a comb out of his pocket, dipped it in a glass of vodka and orange on the table, stood up and then combed his hair in the mirror over the fireplace. It is always the little things which give it away.

In many ways The Hurricane is a bit like a car crash: you know what’s coming but you can’t tear your eyes away. Higgins’ penchant for self-destruction, his flawed genius and his vulnerability make this a thoroughly entertaining, if somewhat sobering, read. My only quibble is that it lacks a glossary of snooker terms. But all in all, you’d be hard pressed to find a more interesting and jaw-dropping sporting biography.