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A Week to Remember: Happy Birthday, Haruki Murakami!

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
8 books covers by Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami was born on January 12, 1949. Murakami is a Japanese writer whose blend of Japanese themes, Western genre, and dream-like surrealism has made him one of the most popular writers of recent years.

Murakami didn't begin writing until relatively late in life. He tells the story of attending a baseball game in 1978 and having the sudden realization that he could write a novel. He spent the next ten months writing Hear the Wind Sing, which he submitted to a literary contest, winning first prize. That novel and the 1980 follow-up, Pinball, 1973, were not published in the United States until 2015, when they appeared as a single volume, Wind/Pinball (e-book | e-audio | print | audio). Murakami had been reluctant to have them translated, as he considers them to be "immature" and "flimsy" works.

The first novel that Murakami considered to be a reflection of his mature talent was A Wild Sheep Chase (e-book | e-audio | print). These first three novels, though each stands alone, form a loosely linked "Trilogy of the Rat," named for the best friend of the unnamed narrator. A Wild Sheep Chase is a sort of magical-realist mystery novel in which the narrator must search for a specific sheep that symbolizes Japanese political and cultural influence in the world. Murakami would return to this narrator several years later in Dance Dance Dance (e-book | e-audio | print | audio).

In 1987, Murakami's novel Norwegian Wood (e-book | e-audio | print | audio) became a cultural phenomenon with young Japanese readers. Murakami became so popular a personality that crowds gathered when he went out in public. He eventually chose to leave Japan, and moved to the United States for several years, teaching at several different universities. Norwegian Wood is generally considered Murakami's most realistic novel; it's the reminiscence of a man approaching middle age, remembering the important romances of his college years. Tran Anh Hung directed the 2010 film adaptation.

In his 1995 novel, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (e-book | e-audio | print), Murakami deals with Japanese war crimes during the Imperial occupation of northeastern China in the 1930s and 1940s. The ways in which Japan dealt with, or failed to deal with, its collective national traumas have been an increasingly important theme in Murakami's writing. His 2000 nonfiction book Underground (e-book | e-audio | print) was a response to the terrorist gas attacks on Japanese subways and included interviews with both the victims and the terrorists. The aftermath of a major 1995 Japanese earthquake is an element in each of the stories in the collection after the quake (e-book | e-audio | print | audio).

The lower-case title of after the quake was something that Murakami insisted on when the book was translated into English. Murakami is more involved with translations of his book than many writers, and he encourages his translators to take liberties to make the books more accessible to non-Japanese readers. He has said that he thinks of translation as an act of adaptation, more than a literal phrase-by-phrase re-writing.

Murakami grew up reading American and European writers and says that he has been influenced by, among others, Kafka, Dostoevsky, Kerouac, and Vonnegut. His writing mixes elements of mystery, science fiction, and other genre fiction with magical realism; the boundaries between reality and fantasy are frequently blurred. The tone is often melancholy, but rarely without a sense of humor.

Murakami is an avid runner and runs at least one marathon every year. He writes about the importance of running in his life in What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (e-book | e-audio | print | audio). He also enjoys a wide range of music—his first job was in a record store—and spent two years interviewing the conductor Seiji Ozawa; those conversations are collected in Absolutely on Music (e-book | print).

Murakami's most recent novel, Killing Commendatore (e-book | e-audio | print | audio), was released earlier this year; it's the tale of a portrait painter whose discovery of an unknown painting sends him on a strange journey through the underworld. He is also currently featured on local movie screens; the South Korean film Burning is an adaptation of Murakami's short story "Barn Burning," from the collection The Elephant Vanishes (e-book | e-audio | print | audio).

Also This Week

January 8, 1815

Approximately 8,000 British soldiers, under the command of Major General Edward Pakenham, attacked the city of New Orleans, defended by about 6,000 American soldiers, commanded by Brevet Major General Andrew Jackson. The battle lasted about half an hour, and it was a decisive victory for the Americans, who suffered fewer than 100 casualties, compared to about 2,000 for the British. The Battle of New Orleans was the last major battle of the War of 1812. Neither side knew at the time that the war was officially over; a treaty had been signed in the Netherlands on December 24, but the news had not yet made it back to America. Robert V. Remini tells the story of the day's fighting in The Battle of New Orleans (e-book | e-audio | print | audio).

January 8, 1944

Terry Brooks was born. Brooks is an author of epic fantasy novels whose attraction to the genre began in college when he read Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. He says that the other major influence on his writing style has been William Faulkner. He is best known for the Shannara series, more than 30 novels set in a distant post-apocalyptic future in which magic has re-emerged as an integral part of life. The series begins with the 1977 novel The Sword of Shannara (e-book | e-audio | print | audio).

January 10, 1949

George Foreman was born. Foreman is a former professional boxer who twice held the world heavyweight title. He held the title in 1973-74 and announced his retirement in 1977. A decade later, he made an unlikely return to boxing and became the oldest heavyweight champion in history when he regained the title in 1994, at the age of 45. He retired for the second time in 1997. God in My Corner (e-book | print | audio) is Foreman's "spritual memoir."

January 8, 1979

Sarah Polley was born. Polley is a Canadian actress and director. Her career began as a child actress in Canadian television, where she starred in the series Ramona, based on the Beverly Cleary stories, and Road to Avonlea, based on novels by Lucy Maud Montgomery. Polley began directing short films at the age of 20; her 2011 feature Take This Waltz (streaming | DVD) is a romantic drama starring Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen.