Murakami's books are often categorized in "Sci-Fi/Fantasy", but I believe that is mis-labeling. I have read (well, listened to) "Kafka on the shore", "1Q84", "Wind-up bird chronicle", and "Dance, Dance, Dance", and they are not SF, in my opinion - they have core elements other than SF.
However, this book actually reads like SF. The characters actually spend time trying to explain why all these can make sense scientifically (up to a point). But, to me, that's not Murakami's strength, and his effort to build "rational" aspects of the story was wasted as far as I was concerned. Despite this, I could enjoy many of the Murakami's usual funny, scary, sad, and sweet exchanges among the characters. I should also point out the contrast of the vastly different voice characteristics of the two narrators was effective in delivering the two parallel stories that converge towards the end. My favorite Murakami book is still "Kafka on the shore", but this book does add to my understanding of Murakami's paths and style.
The story is about a man who takes a life-ling journey to find a spiritual truth. While the story takes place in India during the time of the Buddha, and Buddhism idioms are used, this is not about Buddhism at all, I thought. I am not religious or even spiritual, but I enjoyed the book tremendously. The story sounded like one long philosophical poetry.
While I was listening to this, I had to fight my urge to search the Internet to find out why this German writer (who, as far as I knew, was not a Buddhist) wrote a story that takes place in ancient India. I was glad I didn't. The Publisher's Summary in Audible.com does not mention this, but the last 50 minutes or so of this audiobook is actually an essay by some professor who explains the background where Hesse wrote this book, which made me appreciate the experience even more.
A rare illness (anti-NMDA-receptor autoimmune encephalitis; inflammation of brain) struck the author, and because the illness manifests psychosis-like symptoms, she was not sure what was going on at the time, and neither were her family/friends nor the doctors who initially treated her. The behavioral manifestations of the illness make it extremely difficult for the patient, her relatives, friends, and co-workers to deal with the situation.
She was extremely lucky in that she encountered the right doctor who knew of the illness. She was also lucky that she was surrounded by very supportive family members and boyfriend. It's heart-breaking to imagine that most of those who are affected by the same illness out there would not be so lucky and face ill fate. We are lucky that she happened to be a reporter and thus could write about her experience so that awareness about this illness can be communicated to the rest of us. The book is extremely well-written, and she did a great job of describing what she went through both from the first person account as well as from the medical point of view based on her research afterwards.
Honestly, I didn't know who Dave Van Ronk was until I listened to this book. I got this book because I was interested in learning about the 1960's music scene in Greenwich Village. The book taught me much more than what I had expected. Dave Van Ronk is hilarious and honest in his depictions of the period. I was fascinated by the period, disillusioned a little bit but overall really enjoyed the journey through his experience. I always thought Bob Dylan was an elusive character, but Van Ronk's description of him perfectly explained why this was the case. Greenwich Village in the late '50s and early '60s was such a unique place/time - so many of the musicians who flocked in the area influenced each other. Sure, Dylan had a talent, but he would never have emerged as he did without the unique window of space/time described in this book. I also learned what it was like to be a musician trying to be himself. Thank you, Dave Van Ronk. Thank you, Elijah Wald. I recently passed through the neighborhood and felt so sad that many of the cafes/bars described in the book were gone and replaced by chain pharmacies and banks...
Like "Sputnik Sweetheart", among Murakami's books, this is a "lighter" but very good one, I think. To explain what I mean by "lighter" without mentioning the plot, a metaphor that Murakami used in one of his interviews may help (this was an interview for a Japanese literary journal in 2004; I am translating/para-phrasing - the original was longer):
"Human existence takes place in a "two-story house" (metaphorically, obviously) : the first floor is where people talk to each other; the second floor is where each individual does her/his own things, like reading books or listening to music; then there is the basement where people occasionally visit to reflect or look at things that lay there that are forgotten in daily life; then, below the basement, there is the second basement that most people don't get to visit. There is darkness in the second basement; people see the connections to their past and their souls. The entrance to the second basement is not obvious. You may not come back from there…"
Using this metaphor, the story in "South of the Border, West of the Sun" takes place mostly on the first and second floors and occasionally peeks at the basement. It does not get down to the second basement, I thought. In contrast, "Kafka on the shore" and "The wind-up bird chronicle" definitely spend some time in the second basement. But I don't mind Murakami's stories that take place mostly on the first and second floors, probably because I don't necessarily want to visit the basement or the second basement that often. It's just that it's good to know that Murakami can take me there. Unlike many of Murakami's stories, this book does not contain many metaphors, but I liked it.
I only knew Tony Danza from the 1980's TV show "Taxi", but, through this book, I found out what a great guy he is. But more importantly, in this book, Tony Danza lets me peek at some of the real lives of the kids who attend a public school in Philadelphia. I never watched the cable TV "reality show" that was part of this, but I know this actor went much deeper than a role in the TV show. He stayed with the class after the TV show production ended, and he still keeps in touch with some of the students. It's really heat-breaking what some of these kids have to go through in their personal lives AND go through the high school life that is so important in determining their future. We all know how important education is, but most of us, including myself, tend to think "education" in rather abstract way. This book brought me back to the time when I went to a public school but also reminded me how important this short period can be in shaping the kids' future. For this, I now feel that high school teachers probably play more important roles than college professors do. We often hear about negative things about teachers in public schools, but, considering what they are up against, we don't give (at least many of) them enough credit. Tony Danza honestly describes what went through his mind during his interactions with the students and other teachers and admits his flaws, mistakes, and vulnerability. I could tell that Tony Danza himself had some great passionate teachers. He is a great narrator by the way. Many of the scenes made me cry (and I almost never cry listening to audiobooks).
I think this is the first time I rate a book with five stars for both story and performance. So many of the diseases prevalent in modern societies (e.g., Type 2 diabetes) are called "mismatch disease" because they are caused by mismatch of the modern life style such as abundance of food (of unbalanced kind) vs. our evolutionary tendency to store fat and sugar when we can because food was scarce. This book provides a comprehensive view on how we humans developed since our ancestors started walking on two feet. The author has a rare quality of being able to translate his research expertise to its public health implications. I feel lucky to be alive in this age when books like this can teach us the evolutionary perspective on how we are living now compared to the past and what can be improved. It is also devastating to know that so many of modern diseases are preventable, and yet, important information like this has not seeped into the mainstream culture.
As a teenager in the 1970's, I was never a Beatles fan (I was more into the Stones), but some of John Lennon's post-Beatles music, such as "Mother" and "Imagine", made such a strong impression on me because they sounded like they were coming right out of his very personal inner self. But I was a bit too young then to know exactly what was going on politically. This book filled me in with the information on the cultural and political background in America that Lennon walks into at the time and vividly depicts how he lived through the period and influenced many people (to the point that Nixon was afraid of him). Sure, as a former Beatle, it was probably easier than anyone to make a difference in the world, but he didn't have to do any of the things he did. His attempts to get involved and make a difference even in the local community levels appeared sincere and are consistent with his music. I am glad someone wrote a book about this period of Lennon's life.
I liked the way this book made me feel a bit uncomfortable. You don't hear or read these bluntly honest opinions about the type of lies that we often consider socially acceptable (if you think about it, as the author explains, they are harmful). I did not agree with some of his arguments, but the most important thing was that this book made me re-evaluate my approach to life. I also liked the last 30 minutes where he responded to readers' questions. When there are too many books out there in which the authors stretch and repeat the same points over and over again, this to-the-point style was also refreshing.
I admit that I never seriously studied Einstein's equations or quantum physics, but this book gave me a great outline of the development of modern physics. I am now motivated to listen to other audiobooks on modern physics or even get some paper books that contain equations. Michio Kaku is also good at depicting human side of Einstein and other physicists. It's fun to think about Einstein writing numerous love letters. I also never imagined that Schrödinger was a serious womanizer!
I cannot help comparing this book to "The China Study" by Colin Campbell, who recommends plant-based diet, which may appear to be at odds with the recommendations given in "Grain Brain". Both authors have "credible" (though this can be subjective) research background. However, I felt that this book provided more scientific arguments and thus, to me, more convincing. Through reading this book, I felt that I learned a lot in various areas of biology - brain, causes of many illnesses: inflammation and oxidation, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, etc. To me, the most convincing argument against the wheat-filled eating habits of modern society is the fact that we humans started eating wheat only ten thousand years ago or so, and that the characteristics of modern wheat (e.g, gluten content) changed in the past several decades and is nothing like what ancestors ate. I can believe that the increase in obesity and diabetes has something to do with the increasing consumption of wheat. I did think that the author is opinionated and probably biased (this was also the case with Colin Campbell). Yet, I am convinced that there is no harm in avoiding wheat most of the time. It is SO hard to avoid wheat-containing food though.
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