Autumn has passed in a whirlwind and winter is upon us. The time has arrived for another reading list. First off is Norwegian Wood, the book that made Haruki Murakami a superstar. This is more of a period novel, first released in 1987. The current English version, which Murakami himself authorised, is by academic Jay Rubin. Next up is The Midnight Library, a Times bestseller from last year. Matt Haig paints a vivid sketch of near-death experiences. The book reminded me of Mitch Albom’s works, particularly The Timekeeper and For One More Day. Finally, I wrap things up with a nonfiction title: Remember by Lisa Genova. The author keeps to her forte of neurological matter and brain science. This represents another popular pick coming from the writer of Still Alice.
- Norwegian Wood (Murakami). This is my introduction into his prose, and it was a fitting one. The book is firstly a love story, chronicling two years in Toru’s love life. He recalls his first love, Naoko, who was his best friend’s girl. At the time, he stayed in the dormitory. He would amuse Naoko with stories of Storm Trooper, his roommate. He would befriend Nagasawa, who lived in the same dorm. The latter was a Casanova, and they would head to bars to pick up women. The book was set in 1969, complete with stereos, prolific letter-writing, and free love. Naoko gets ill and retreats to the hills.
While studying at university, Toru meets Midori. She is the polar opposite of Naoko: vivacious, impulsive, and candid. Though he is still in love with Naoko, Toru falls for Midori. She is the daughter of a bookshop owner and loves to speak her mind. He visits Naoko at her new pit stop and meets Reiko, who is in the same boat. Together with their fellow inhabitants, they grow their own vegetables, eat mostly fresh fruit, and teach one another new skills. After this, Toru writes to both women constantly, but Naoko could rarely muster the courage to reply. Nagasawa’s narcissism increasingly unnerves Toru, and he distances himself from the former.
He moves out of the dorm and finds his own place. When meeting up with Midori shortly thereafter, his phlegmatic stance and ruminating about Naoko creates a void between them. For months, Midori does not acknowledge him. In the end, tragedy strikes, and Toru takes a break. He wanders along the coast and sleeps in graveyards. After three weeks, he decides that it was time to return to Tokyo. He lets Reiko in as a guest, who finally leaves the shelter. He realises that Midori holds a special place in his heart and phones her.
Norwegian is quite easy to read. The text has eleven (mostly lengthy) chapters. Murakami had released a few novels before this, but – as mentioned – this put him on the map. Norwegian has been deemed semi-autobiographical. Indeed, some of Toru’s details mimic those of a younger Murakami. Their ages are similar. Both studied university in Tokyo and were then newcomers to the metropolis. Student protests overshadowed both in college. An early Murakami creation, Norwegian reveals some of his hallmarks. For instance, the inclusion of a cat and an enigmatic well could be found here. Furthermore, the main character is an only child, another feature emblematic of the novelist.Interestingly, the author admits that his earlier life could not be that eventful. Many decades on, this remains one of his most famous pieces.
- The Midnight Library (Matt Haig). This was a treat from the veteran author. Since being published last year, Midnight has been a mainstay on the Times bestsellers. The book combines time travel with existentialist probing. The use of the library was a brilliant conceit. At the start of the book, Nora Seed is fed up with her banal existence. Her day worsens, she finds no purpose and connection, and at the end, she’s just gutted. Enter, the Midnight Library. The repository functions like a sort of limbo. The shelves are stacked with infinite possibilities for Nora. Her mentor, the librarian, guides her through the process. The clock is stuck on midnight.
Nora picks up the Book of Regrets. She slowly works through these, starting at the major ones before proceeding to minor regrets. She gets to live various versions of herself. She indulges in her life with Dan, her ex-fiancée, and finds that their life together isn’t what she imagined. She goes to Australia, only to realize that Izzy, her best friend, has perished. She lives for fame and fortune but finds emptiness. She survives a polar bear attack in the Arctic as part of a group of scientists trying to deconstruct climate change. She uncovers a simple life looking after dogs in her hometown.
Waking up as a spouse and mother was by far the happiest iteration. She felt something different and deeper: she experienced love for Molly, her child. After each foray, whether they be days or weeks, she ends up with Mrs. Elm (the librarian). Yet, untangling the multitude of possibilities, there will always be a loose end; disappointment will loom in the corner. While in the freezing North Pole, she meets Hugo, a fellow slider. He admits that the limbo is different for various souls. In his case, it’s a video store with his uncle. In all these scenarios, Nora has to improvise. This reminded me of the show, Thank God You’re Here.
In all, Midnight has shades of Recursion by Blake Crouch. I reviewed that last year. The read also reminds me of Mitch Albom. I loved the writer’s creativity, utilising ‘Ryan Bailey’ and ‘Henry David Thoreau.’ He likewise paints a beautiful landscape with his prose. The book has short chapters, is fast paced, and the page count is reasonable. Like most worthwhile novels, the protagonist changes in the end. She appreciates what she has and exudes new joie de vivre.
- Remember (Lisa Genova). The Harvard-educated neuroscientist returns with a dissection of human memory. The book is divided into three parts. ‘How We Remember’ is Part I. The first six chapters comprise this section. This functions as a handy introduction into the mechanics of memory. She emphasises the need for paying attention in order to cinch recollections. We also need to ‘make it meaningful,’ as this adds value to our memories. Visualisation is likewise critical in the process as our brains need cues. In this section, the author unpacks muscle memory, the processes that are deeply ingrained into our psyche – like riding a bike or surfing. She also differentiates between semantic and episodic memory. The former is made up of all our stock knowledge, while the latter is your history, remembered.
Part II is called ‘Why We Forget.’ The author reveals that, as we retell our stories, they become less accurate. The further we are from the event, the more unreliable our accounts. One chapter is titled ‘Tip of the Tongue.’ The average person gets this a few times a day. Genova reveals that this happens more often with proper nouns. She cites the Baker/baker paradox, where subjects would remember the common noun more than the surname. The author also assures us that remembering stuff is not always better. When we do want to recall, we can always use lists, calendars, diaries, and even mind maps. She then discusses ‘Normal Aging’ and ‘Alzheimer’s.’
Part III is Improve or Impair. Genova kicks off the final section with a nudge for people to contextualize. If you’re struggling to remember something, try to retrace your steps. Memories are far likelier to be recalled when the conditions match the original. You are more likely to make associations. She also dedicates a chapter on stress. The latter causes all sorts of ailments, so chilling out is key. Genova debunks myths. For instance, she points out that there’s no scientific evidence that drinking red wine prevents Alzheimer’s. The same applies to dark chocolate, coffee and tea. Instead, she advances certain dietary approaches, exercise, yoga, and meditation.
The author brings this altogether in the fourteen-page Appendix. The writing could get a little technical. However, the short chapters allay this. In general, Genova’s language was quite straightforward. There is no doubt that this is a well-researched book.