Monthly Archives: May 2010

Desperately seeking Black

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Heartbreaking and funny about nine year old (or so) Oscar, a precocious Upper East Side boy trying to find a secret of his father (who died in the 9/11 attack), interwoven with the history of his grandfather and grandmother, who survived the Dresden bombings.

Inventive and funny – I don’t normally like books that try to be creative with typography and pictures to tell a story, but it works here. And Oscar is a hoot, vaguely related to the protagonist in The curious incident with the dog in nighttime, with his idiosyncratic messages "José!" and convoluted, yet strangely logical thinking. My favorite sentence: "More people are live today than ever lived. That means that if they all wanted to play Hamlet at once, there wouldn’t be enough skulls."

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May 17: An explanation for non-Norwegians

Norwegian Constitution day today, an integral part of the annual productivity-dampening festival known as May. If you want to blend in with the natives, expect to wear your suit all day (including at 0800 flag hoisting at local school), eat ice cream and hot dogs (sold by brass-band parents, see below), and display a Norwegian flag prominently somewhere on your person.

image You will see brass bands of varying quality, women (and not a few men) wearing folk costumes, even more children carrying flags (upright in the morning, dragging along the pavement after lunch), and, should you go into Oslo or any medium-sized town, an increasing number of drunks (some of them still in folkloristic garb) towards dusk. Suffice is to say that "May 18" and "hangover" are synonyms in Norwegian, whether it is for the usual reason, or for lack of sleep and overexposure to plastic trumpets and sour, underage marching bands.

One excellent aspect, though: The almost complete absence of militaristic chest-beating – partly for tradition, partly for lack of chest. May 17th is a children’s celebration, by and large.

Enough of this, I need to, quite literally, hoist the flag. Man, it is early in the morning…

Winding through magical realism

The Wind-up Bird Chronicle The Wind-up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

On the back of this edition, there is a quote from a New York Times review: "Critics have variously likened him to Raymond Carver, Raymond Chandler, Arthur C. Clarke, Don DeLillo, Philip K. Dick, Bret Easton Ellis and Thomas Pynchon — a roster so ill assorted as to suggest that Murakami may in fact be an original."

I had to laugh at that, for I wanted to add another writher – Gabriel Garcia Marques, the originator of magical realism. Like Marques, Murakami’s stories are long and disjointed, with many characters, inhabiting a world where magic is present but never referred to. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is long and rambling, the main theme being a young suburbanite’s search for his wife (where he is aided or opposed by many characters, each with their own reality – or lack of it – to deal with.)

Sometimes the stories feel underdeveloped, and there is little attempt at closure, which at times can feel rather cloying (though not as bad as, say, Peter Høeg.) The overarching theme, if any, is the fight between good and bad, between "defilers" and "defiled", which is most visible in some of the stories, told in letters and found computer files, about soldiers in the little-known war between Japan and the Soviet Union before and at the end of WWII.

The saving grace of this book is the language, which can only be described as "poetic", and the individual stories, of which some are brilliant (such as the story of a group of Japanese soldiers trying to kill zoo animals and botching the job). I thought some of the evil characters – the protagonist’s brother-in-law politician, a Soviet camp commander, a creepy and threatening mafia enforcer – were underdeveloped. All the characters seem rather distanced from what is happening around them, which gives the novel a dream-like mode, as if they are all narrators seeing the world through a video camera while adding their own commentary and interpretation.

It works, and the narrative moves along sufficiently to make this an enjoyable read – but once, methinks, is enough.

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Cases: How to prepare for and learn from them

These videos have been updated: You find the new ones here.

My versatile and creative colleague Hanno Roberts and I have made a series of five videos on case learning and preparation, originally for students at the BI/Fudan MBA program. This teaching method is difficult both for teacher and student, but highly rewarding provided you give it proper attention – which means effective preparation. Hanno and I talk about the goal of case teaching, how students can prepare individually, how to prepare as a group, how to go through the case discussion in the classroom, and then we sum up with some strategies for how to retain what you have learned. Hanno and I did these videos against a green-screen, with little preparation – we basically met, outlined a structure with some keywords (displayed on the little computer on the table in front of us, decided broadly on who should say what, and dove right into it. Most of the videos were shot twice, and then the very capable Lars Holand picked the least bad clips, added the background and logos, and generated the files in .mp4 and .flv. The lack of scripting was intentional – we did not want the videos to be too formal and stultifying, though the format itself might be. We also wanted to be a bit formal, to make sure we got our main points across. The results is a bit stiff, there are a few repetitions (we intro each clip, to make them more embeddable), but given that these were created also to be understandable for students whose first language isn’t English, I think it kind of works. And it was fun to do, and not too much work. Anyway, the videos are there, free for all to use – and hopefully, our students will watch them carefully, and the result will be better case teaching, more learning, and an even more enjoyable experience teaching. Continue reading