If I Survive You (*****)
The book is somewhere in between a novel and a collection of short stories. It is an array of loosely connected stories with overlapping characters. This structure is original and brilliant, and so is the voice the stories are narrated.
It started very well for me, as it promised to take me into the experience of a young Jamaican man growing up in the US. It painted a complex picture of someone who looks like an African American but with a very different history and identity.
However, as it started to narrate increasingly unbelievable plots, I started to lose interest. In the end, I was underwhelmed by the story but thoroughly entertained by the storytelling.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (*****)
After reading this old classic, I read about the author. The life of the author, growing up in Brooklyn under very difficult conditions, closely parallels the main character in the book. Though not entirely autobiographical, it is clear that the images and experiences are borrowed from the author's own experience. This intimate picture of a place and time makes the book so likable. Yet, I wish it was less sentimental and predictable. Every author tries to manipulate the readers to some extent. After all, that is their job. But it must be done so subtly and skillfully that a reader cannot catch it. In this case, unfortunately, I could often see the hands of the writer trying to manipulate me. The truth itself is so powerful there is no need to orchestrate the emotions.
In her biography, I learned that the original manuscript was rejected many times, and then an editor at Harper worked with her for many years to polish it before it was published. I have to wonder if this well-meaning editor tried to polish it too much and made it look too finished. Sometimes, the rough edges are necessary, especially when the raw material is so real and powerful.
White Holes (*****)
Like all other Carlo Rovelli books, this one, too, floats delicately in a space that is part physics, part philosophy, and part poetry. It talks about a physics idea that Rovelli is partially responsible for which describes a new kind of cosmic object -- a white hole. No one has seen a white hole yet, but the same could be said about a black hole a few years ago. The author uses Loop Quantum Gravity to arrive at this conclusion, a competing theory to String Theory. There is no observational proof that can establish the correctness of either of these two perspectives. Such is the state of contemporary Physics, and the possibility of experimental proof, which had always been the bedrock of science, still remains elusive.
However, whether you are convinced by his arguments or not, his narrative and language will certainly put you in a trance. Through him, it is easy to feel the profound excitement of a physicist exploring the world around us and trying to make sense of it. In this book, he also revisits his meditations about time (The Order of Time), and it is beautiful.
Above all, it is a book about how we humans can travel into the universe, into spaces that we cannot go physically, to go there through our mind. It is a journey that is partly through reason, but when reason alone is inadequate, imagination can open new doors.
A Dominant Character: The Radical Science and Restless Politics of J. B. S. Haldane (*****)
Here's a remarkable biography of an extraordinary human being. J. B. S. Haldane is not your usual scientist, immersed in his own scientific world and leading an otherwise ordinary life. He erased the line between his existence as a scientist and his responsibility as a political being. He risked his life and well-being in every possible sense of the term. He performed risky experiments on himself because he felt that was the moral thing to do. He followed his political conscience and risked everything. He did not hesitate to speak his mind at every stage of his life. In one word, he lived his life on his own terms.
Reading about him, I was constantly reminded of my father. Though far less consequential, he, too, lived a reckless life but died knowing he lived the life on his own terms. Not too many people can say that.
I think everyone should know about this man, not because he was perfect, he certainly was not, but to know why one cannot lead a morally astute life without merging their profession and their politics.
The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos (*****)
During the last 500 years, starting with Copernicus, the history of science has been a history of Humans enjoying a special place in the universe. First, we came to realize that our planet rotates around the sun and not the other way around. Next, we came to realize that our sun is also just yet another star in our Milky Way galaxy among 100 billion other stars. Then we discovered that our galaxy is also not that unique, but there are more than 100 billion galaxies in our universe. Now some physicists and mathematicians are contemplating if ours is the only universe or just one of the many universes out there.
This did not come about because scientists were eager to extend the thought of the Copernican revolution but because they were compelled to imagine the existence of other universes to make sense of what we already know. In this book, Brian Green described nine separate branches of physics and mathematics that, almost independently, are forced to accommodate the possibility of multiverses.
All of these are at the cutting edge of these disciplines, and the underlying ideas are deeply conceptual and mathematical. Therefore, it is not an easy task to describe the necessary arguments to people who are not researchers in the field or without using the language of mathematics. The author has done a marvelous job of doing just that without diluting and distorting the science too much. That is the primary strength of the book.
In the end, did it convince me of the existence of a multiverse? I am not convinced yet, but it softened me enough to become an ardent follower of these thoughts. Logically, it is hard to ignore something suggested by so many different lines of thought. Yet, the fact that most of these ideas are either theoretically impossible to demonstrate or technologically too difficult to find experimental support, dampens my enthusiasm.
The author also admits this shortcoming and spends the last section of the book discussing what science is. Our earlier definition of science was based on verifiability and falsifiability. This was the strength of science and the main reason it progressed so rapidly. Now, we are at that point where new ideas are trying to push the envelope. Should we give up so easily and accept a new paradigm? Should we allow ourselves to take refuge in the idea of a multiverse that would suddenly make many of our scientific questions, such as why is the electron's mass what it is, meaningless? Personally, I still want to believe we can answer these questions without accepting a multiverse. I am not against some physicists exploring these exotic ideas, but I hope there will be others who will not accept defeat and continue to explore the more conventional paths. I also want to hope that I will be alive when this debate is settled, but that seems unlikely.
After the Quake (*****)
This is a collection of 6 short stories written around 2000. The common thread that ties them together is a faint connection to the Kobe earthquake of 1995. I found them uneven in quality, where some are hauntingly beautiful while others are OK but not memorable. Like most of Murakami's writing, they all share a bit of magic. In the end, it is hard to say what exactly the author is trying to say, but they still put me in a trance. Some of these stories are particularly powerful and hard to forget.
In "Super-Frog Saves Tokyo" we meet a huge frog who is determined to save Tokyo from a killer earthquake and asks for the help of an ordinary bank employee. Perhaps it was all a dream, but we get introduced to two noble characters.
"Honey Pie" is a beautiful love story that will stay with me for a long time for the purity of the three characters.
Strange Weather In Tokyo (*****)
I don't know what attracted me to this book. Was it my current fascination with contemporary Japanese novels by female novelists? Was it the urban loneliness that is often portrayed in these novels? Was it the intriguing picture on the cover of a young Japanese woman floating away in a store? Or was it the unlikely relationship between a 38-year-old Japanese woman and a man in his late sixties? Whatever it was, it failed to satisfy me. The only positive quality was the atmosphere of a contemporary Japanese city with its lonely people. Besides that, the story, the characters, and their psychological motivations sounded contrived and unbelievable. I wanted to belive it, but could not.
Tom Sawyer Abroad (*****)
I was surprised to discover there are more than two books in the Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn series. That itself should have been a warning to me to be skeptical about this one. Alas, I was too eager to read more about these three characters and was predictably disappointed. It is a forced story that lacks any credibility. My advice, stop after the first two books and ignore the other two.
Novelist as a Vocation (*****)
I have mostly enjoyed Murakami, some more than others. What intrigues me is the strange atmosphere he can create and my inability to summarize what he tries to say in a novel. To me, that is a great quality of any art, where it defies easy categorization or a summary. Life itself is mostly beyond easy analysis, so why should we expect anything less from good art?
I was immediately attracted to this book, where one of my favorite authors talks about his writing process, the lifestyle he chose to feed his creative process, his reaction to awards and recognition, and how he builds the story and his characters. It is not a how-to book for new authors, and he constantly reminds his readers that this is what works for him, but most likely, it will be different for anyone else. Despite such warnings, I think anyone who has a creative side may benefit from his experience.