I won’t be posting much for the next few weeks as I’ll be traveling and training in Thailand. However, when I get back I’ll have plenty of new photos and insights from my training that the Muay Thai Institute and at the Wat Pho Thai Traditional Massage School.
I’ll spend two weeks at MTI followed by a couple short courses at Wat Pho.
I’ll be back to my regular schedule of posting in the later part of September.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I imagine the elevator speech for this book being, “Lord of the Flies done Paul Theroux style.” While that may or may not sound appealing, this is one of the most gripping novels I’ve read recently.
The Beach will have its greatest appeal with travelers because understanding the mindset of a traveler versus that of a tourist (vagabonds versus regular folk, if you prefer) is essential to being able to feel the realism in the behavior of the book’s characters. (If you don’t know the difference between a traveler and a tourist, it’s safe to say that you are a regular person who travels as a tourist.) Like Moby Dick, this is a book about all-consuming obsession, but the obsession is in finding and protecting the traveler’s paradise. (Such a paradise is partially defined by a complete lack of tourists.) Unlike Moby Dick, The Beach isn’t rambling, and it maintains tension throughout.
The story beings on Khao San Road in Bangkok, a familiar haunt for backpackers and other low-budget world travelers. The protagonist, Richard, has just gotten in to Bangkok and checks into a hostel. Rooming next to Richard is a Scottish man named “Daffy” who seems to be a complete lunatic and who keeps talking aloud to himself about a “beach.” Owing to the accent, Richard first thinks Daffy is talking about a “bitch,” but soon realizes the man’s obsession is with a patch of sand. Richard has a brief and unusual interaction with Daffy, who throws a lit joint onto Richard’s bed. In the morning, Richard finds a meticulously hand drawn map on his door with “the Beach” prominently labeled. When he goes to see why the crazy stranger left it for him; he knocks on Daffy’s ajar door to find the man has committed suicide.
The beach is on one of the small islands that are kept off-limits as part of the Thai National Parks system. Richard teams up with a French couple who was also staying next to him. While Richard had heard their amorous sounds through the thin walls on the night he met Daffy, he didn’t meet the couple until they were all called in to talk to the police about Daffy’s suicide. For some reason Richard is unwilling to tell the police about the map, but he does tell the Frenchman. The map leads them to the island. It isn’t easy to get to. Once on the island, they discover they must get through a grove of marijuana guarded by heavily armed locals to get to the fabled beach.
It turns out a small community of travelers has already set up on the idyllic beach. As with any group, some people get along well and others rub each other the wrong way. We get the best insight into those individuals who become the friends and enemies of Richard, and many of the others are the novel equivalent of movie extras. At first, all is well on the island. Richard and the French couple have to do work a few hours a day on the fishing detail, but otherwise they are living in their Eden. However, as things begin to go wrong—and they do go frightfully wrong—Richard and others begin to be confronted by the question of what they are willing to do to protect the Beach, and how will their personal moralities be twisted in the process.
Garland uses a couple of interesting techniques in the book. First, Richard is plagued by dreams featuring Daffy, and later–as the burden of secrets to which he is party piles up—he begins to have hallucinations of Daffy during the day. In both cases, it seems that the dreams and hallucinations are an attempt to help him work out the mysteries of the Beach. No one on the island will tell him about Daffy, and he is desperate to know what drove the man mad—or whether he was always like that. There’s one character, Jed, who goes off every day and no one seems to know where he goes or what he does. Eventually, Richard comes to be in on some of these secrets (e.g. becoming Jed’s partner), and the burden of knowledge doesn’t improve his state of mind. In the end, Richard seems to realize that he is the new Daffy, and what drove Daffy into madness will surely do the same for him if he doesn’t get off the island.
Second, Garland uses what—for lack of a better term—might be called foreshadowing. However, it’s not so much a matter of subtle hints as a bold statements such as [paraphrasing], “It’s too bad _________ would die, especially in the way he did.” This should have seemed ham-handed, but there’s always enough mystery about what will come next that the these tips were like lighter fluid to intensify one’s reading so one could find out what would happen next and how.
I whole-heartedly recommend this novel, and think it’s one of the best pieces of travel-oriented writing that I’ve read. It’s a page-turn from beginning to end.
Taken at the Cochin Shwetambar Murthipujak Jain Temple, this photo captures one of the feeding times during which members of the Jain congregation get up close and personal with the local pigeon population.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is the third, and probably last, installment in my “Happy 75th Anniversary, Batman” series of reviews. Batman: Arkham Asylum is an attempt to convey a nightmare on the page, and it succeeds both graphically and narratively. It’s quite different from other Batman comics in style and content. It takes the dark nature of the Dark Knight’s mythology to the extreme.
There are two story-lines woven together in Batman: Arkham Asylum. The main line involves Batman entering an Arkham Asylum being run by the inmates. There he finds himself pitted against his foes: the Joker, Two-Face, Scarecrow, and others. The other is the 19th century tale of Amadeus Arkham’s descent into madness.
As is common in the Batman mythology, psychiatrists are portrayed as walking the razor’s edge between sanity and insanity. For those who don’t read comic books, this is most readily exemplified by the character of Dr. Crane / Scarecrow in the first film of the Nolan trilogy, Batman Begins. I’m not sure whether the point is to create enemies that are so strong they can bend doctors to their will, or if there is a general disdain for psychiatrists—as one might see a dislike of lawyers in other stories.
Among the nightmarish elements of this work is the fact that Batman’s face is never seen clearly. The Dark Knight is always a vaguely and/or surrealistically silhouetted. There’s a mix of sharpness and haziness in the graphics. The Joker gets his own crazy scrawl font. The graphics are as creepy and strange as can be. On my low-end Kindle, the work was in black and white, which worked well. I did look at the sample pages, and the color version uses a lot of sepia and crimson.
Batman: Arkham Asylum asks us to consider whether Bruce Wayne / Batman is sane or just a lunatic with a moral code.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A couple of reviews ago, I covered Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One, which imagined the first year of the Dark Knight’s venture into crime fighting. The Dark Knight Returns is Miller’s take on the other end of the Caped Crusader’s career. It begins ten years after the last sighting of the Batman. Commissioner Gordon is on the verge of retirement, and there’s a mix of new and old threats rising.
There are four parts to this work. The first, also entitled The Dark Knight Returns shows the rise of a powerful gang of thugs called “The Mutants.” The way this gang’s leader is drawn makes him look like he truly is an altogether different species, but it’s his filed teeth and his bulky physique that account for his appearance. The main battle is with the “rehabilitated” Harvey Dent (a.k.a. “Two-Face,” an inappropriate moniker as his face has been fixed and his flighty psychiatrist ensures the community that Dent’s mind is fixed as well.) We see Bruce Wayne’s concern about the deteriorating state of Gotham and his eventual return to crime fighting, which is instigated by a freakish bat flying through his [closed] window. Wayne takes the bat as a sign from the universe that the Batman is indeed needed. Dent engages in a terroristic plot which the Dark Knight must try to foil.
As was the case in Batman: Year One, the story of Commissioner Gordon plays out in parallel with that of Bruce Wayne / Batman. However, in the third book, Gordon has retired and it’s the new Commissioner, Ellen Yendel, who shares the spotlight. Yendel, unlike Gordon, promptly issues an arrest warrant for Batman.
Book Two is called, The Dark Knight Triumphant, and it’s in this episode that Batman comes up against the leader of the Mutants. As in Batman: Year One, Batman arrives to the fight as an underdog. However, as would be expected, the nature of his underdog status is completely different. In Year One, Batman is a supreme physical specimen, but is green to crime fighting. In The Dark Knight Returns we see a battle-hardened veteran Batman who is a spry geriatric, not up to fighting young, mutant thugs. However, as with the former comic, the Dark Knight does redeem himself. Many of the Mutants, being fair-weather friends to their leader, form a cult of Batman in the wake of the Dark Knight’s victory over their former boss.
Besides broadening the readership demographic to retirement community dwellers, another new demographic is appealed to with Carrie Kelley, the new Robin. There are references early in the book to the profound effect that the death of Jason Todd had on Bruce Wayne. Be that as it may, Batman seems quick to bring this young girl into harm’s way given the lingering wound of Jason Todd.
Book Three, Hunt the Dark Knight, pits Batman against his ultimate nemesis, the Joker—who like Dent—has been sprung in no small part due to his lunatic psychiatrist. Miller continues the popular Batman comic disdain for psychiatrists, who are portrayed as a small nudge away from becoming bat-shit crazy (pun intended.) While the battle against the Joker provides this chapter’s crime fight, Commissioner Yendel’s war on Batman is a major part of the storyline. We also discover that time has not been as kind to Selina Kyle as it was to the men of this series. (i.e. Gordon is old but distinguished, and Batman has pretty much the same preternatural physique that he did as the young batman.)
The Dark Knight Falls is the last section, and it’s the most famous for the battle between Batman and Superman. Earlier in the book there’s a foreshadowing call from Clark Kent to let Batman know that the Superman will be out-of-town for a while. Appropriate to the 1986 issue date of this comic, a Cold War crisis is the event consuming Superman’s time. These Cold War tensions result in a nuclear missile launch that Superman diverts, but the Man of Steel hasn’t read up on the Electro-Magnetic Pulse (EMP) effect. [Incidentally, Miller didn’t read up on the use of nuclear weapons as an EMP either, or—at least—he gets it completely wrong. Perhaps, he just figured that his readers wouldn’t know the difference--and he’s probably right. At any rate, I’m not deducting stars for bad science.] The power outage caused by the EMP results in looting and societal chaos. Batman quells this with the help of the cult of Batman mentioned previously. However, this doesn’t go over smoothly with some, which results in Superman’s invasion of Batman’s Gotham turf, and the ultimate battle.
I enjoyed this work more than Batman: Year One in part owing to the serious enemies that the Dark Knight must vanquish. I’d agree with the common view that this is a must-read for those interested in the canon of the Caped Crusader.
Also, if you aren’t a comics fan but are wondering how Batman and Superman could end up fighting–as per the upcoming Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice movie–this might give you some insight. [Though I wouldn't expect that movie to follow this work in any of the vaguest ways.] Also, there are other Caped Crusader versus Man of Steel interpretations out there, though this is probably the most famous.