BOOK REVIEW: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the LaneThe Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

As the title suggests, The Ocean at the End of the Lane takes place in a world in which the supernatural and spectacular lay camouflaged amid the most mundane of settings. The story is about a boy’s interaction with a tri-generational household of women who I’ll—controversially—call “good witches.” The characters explicitly gainsay the title of “witch,” but for lack of any better term with which to describe these ladies other than “a trio of females with supernatural abilities and benevolent purpose,” I’ll call them good witches.

In particular the boy befriends the youngest good witch, a girl who physically appears not much older than he, but whom he comes to realize seems much older. It’s the girl who refers to the pond on her family homestead as the “Ocean.” The girl introduces the unnamed boyish male lead to a supernatural parallel universe, but—in doing so—unwittingly gets the boy tangled up in peril. The boy tracks a portal into his world through which a malevolent creature can slip through. The shape-shifting creature becomes his nanny. However, he is the only one in his family who can recognize the creature’s true nature, and it will do anything to keep the boy from ruining its new gig.

The good witches become the boy’s protectors, and powerful protectors they are. But they aren’t omnipotent, and the forces arrayed against them are formidable as well. Among the morals of the story are that the more powerful enemy of one’s enemy is not only not necessarily one’s friend, but may spell one’s doom. The book also speaks to the rashness of youth running headlong into trouble, and the value of wisdom and experience to find solutions.

This book is short and highly readable. It’s appropriate for young adult readers, but can be enjoyed by adult readers as well. The ending is slightly too deus ex machina for my taste, but overall it’s an intriguing book.

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DAILY PHOTO: Ganesh Goes to Thailand

Taken on August 25, 2014 in Thailand.

Taken on August 25, 2014 in Thailand

I visited this gigantic Ganesh on the road between Ayutthaya and Nakornnayok to the northeast of Bangkok. Through the magic of Google, I was able to learn that the Thais refer to this deity as Phra Phikanet (พระพิฆเนศ), and that he is known as the remover of obstacles and the bringer of good fortune.

Muaythai Training in Thailand for Certificate or Freestyle?

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The Muay Thai Institute (MTI) in Rangsit, Thailand is uncommon in that it offers two different approaches to training. The first option is a program that will allow one to test for a certificate showing that one mastered the skills required at one’s respective level (Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced, Professional, and Teacher.) The second option is daily/weekly/monthly training, which the teachers refer to as the “freestyle” tract.

 

MTI’s website covers details of pricing and timing, but one may not be clear about what the differences will be with respect to actual training. I’ve trained at MTI on two occasions–the first time for one week and the second time for two weeks–and have trained in the freestyle track on both occasions. The majority of students at MTI seem to pursue the rank certificate approach.  This is probably in part because there aren’t many gyms at which one can get a certificate and transcript recognized by Thailand’s Ministry of Education. There a vast number of places to train Muaythai in Thailand, but few at which one can build rank that has some recognition beyond one’s own teacher.  (Which is not to say that certification is the only reason to train at MTI versus elsewhere; I’ve been back for training without certification.)

 

 A QUICK COMPARISON OF CERTIFICATE v FREESTYLE TRAINING

Advantage Freestyle Advantage Certificate
PriceBroader training experience

No need for planning

No minimal time investment

Focus on fighting skills

CertificateGreater perfection of fundamentals

Doors open to progress

Systematic approach to learning

Learn Wai Kru (respect) in detail

 

Before I elaborate on some of the differences, it should be noted that at least one’s first few days (and perhaps more depending upon one’s physical acumen) as a freestyle student will be spent training with the Level I (Beginner) certificate students. If your stay is short or if you have trouble grasping the basics, your whole training period may be identical to a Beginner certificate student. However, after a few days the training a freestyle student receives is likely to be different from the Level I student.

 

I’ll elaborate on the notations made in the above table:

 

PRICE: It’s a little cheaper to train freestyle. As of the time of this writing, it cost 8000 Baht for the Level I certificate program, which involves 10 training days (i.e. 20 sessions, or 40 hours). So if one trains the usual twice a day schedule without many (or any) days off, one can do this in two weeks. At the weekly training rate, one will pay 5000 Baht for two weeks. Note: CHECK THE WEBSITE as pricing details may change over time.

 

CERTIFICATE:  In the certificate program, one gets a handsome certificate, plus a transcript that breaks down how one did on all of the requirements so that one knows what items one kicked butt upon and which ones one eked by upon. As I mentioned, this is recognized by the Thai Ministry of Education, and so holds a little more gravitas than one’s teacher saying, “Hey, you can move over to the Intermediate ring now.” If one wants to teach Muaythai, it might not even be a question of what track you will pursue.

 

Sadly, for those in the Western world rank tends to hold a great deal more importance than it does throughout much of Asia, where one is either the teacher or one is a student and the respect others  grant one is based more upon what one can do and how hard one trains than what color belt one wears.

 

IMG_4914BREADTH OF TRAINING EXPERIENCE: Freestyle students usually spend more time doing pad work, unrestricted shadow boxing, and sparring than (Beginner or Intermediate certificate students. Freestyle students will also be exposed to a range of techniques from the Beginner through the Advanced levels. A Level I certificate student will focus on mastering the material for one’s level, and that will mean mostly doing footwork drills without and with punches /basic defenses, as well as bagwork.

 

DEPTH OF TRAINING EXPERIENCE: The flip-side of the previous entry is that certificate students will likely develop better technique because they’ll drill the basics more and will be corrected on smaller errors than will freestyle students. Which of these approaches is better is a personal question that depends on the student’s background and what they hope to get out of training.

 

THE NEED FOR A PLAN: A freestyle student just needs to show up every session and do what the teacher tells one, when he tells one.  If one decides to take a session or even a day off, there’s no issue other than personal nagging guilt (not that one shouldn’t take a day off once a week or so—depending on how long one is training for.) However, if you are in it for a certificate, you need to be conscious of the effect that dropping classes will have on having the minimum number of classes needed to take the test.

 

The certificate student may also need to put in time outside of the training sessions. Beginner students must show they know the Wai Kru, which involves an elaborate sequence of moves that one will usually practice in class at most once per day. While one usually has plenty of free time, if you haven’t experienced training Muaythai for four hours a day, you may not be aware of how much energy it takes to go practice even the relatively slow moves of the Wai Kru outside of training sessions.

 

PROGRESS: For those who want to be able to teach Muaythai eventually, it’s important to start checking off the intermediate steps. That requires progression through ranks. If one has no intention of working toward a high level, the certificate my hold little value. Also, be cognizant that Level 4 and the teaching levels require that one have a certain number of professional fights under one’s belt. That may or may not be feasible for some.  So don’t think you will work your way through to the teacher levels without fighting.

 

MINIMUM TIME INVESTMENT: The first time I attended MTI, I had only one week and I couldn’t have done the certificate program if I wanted to. If one wants to do the certificate, again, one needs to make sure one has adequate time to get in the minimum number of sessions.  If one has only a week or even a few days, one can get value out of training freestyle.

 

SYSTEMATIC APPROACH TO LEARNING: If one is new to martial arts (and to movement related activities in general), it may be beneficial to begin sticking solely to a small set of the most basic techniques—as per the certificate program.  The freestyle approach could be frustrating if one doesn’t have some experience using one’s body fluidly and adjusting to changing conditions. While the details of techniques vary considerably from one martial art to the next, there are a set of skills related to bodily awareness that people who’ve practiced movement arts for many years develop that can translate to relatively smooth and rapid acquisition of other approaches to movement.

 

FOCUS ON FIGHTING SKILLS: For a Beginner certificate student, the Wai Kru is the single most challenging item on one’s list to learn. The Wai Kru is very important, as it’s how one shows respect to one’s teachers and lineage. However, if one is primarily interested in picking up skills to apply to self-defense or to one’s mixed martial arts stand-up game, spending lots of time on getting the entire sequence perfect may not be the best use of one’s time.  (As opposed to if one wants to fight in Muaythai bouts or teach the art one day, in which case it’s worth taking the time to perfect this activity early.) [I should point out that freestyle students do get the opportunity to learn and practice the Wai Kru. It’s usually how one of the day’s sessions is finished each day. However, I will say that in two weeks I was nowhere near fluid in having memorized the full sequence, hence the suggestion that one be prepared to put in some overtime on it if one wants to earn a certificate and get high marks. ]

 

LEARN WAI KRU AND OTHER “ANCILLARY” SKILLS: There are skills like the Wai Kru that one will probably not master going about the freestyle tract. This may or may not matter to one, and whether it does or doesn’t matter is an important consideration in one’s decision.

 

These are my views on the difference between training freestyle or for rank at MTI. If you decide to train there, I hope it will be of some value.

DAILY PHOTO: A Bangkok Trifecta

Taken in September of 2014 in Bangkok.

Taken in September of 2014 in Bangkok.

This was taken on a side street in Chinatown near Old Siam Market. Tuk-tuk, food carts, and convenience store–a Bangkok trifecta.

DAILY PHOTO: Wat Yai Chaya Mongkol

Taken August 25, 2014 in Ayutthaya.

Taken August 25, 2014 in Ayutthaya.

DAILY PHOTO: A Fighter’s Exit

Taken on August 31, 2014 at Rangsit International Boxing Stadium.

Taken on August 31, 2014 at Rangsit International Boxing Stadium.

BOOK REVIEW: The Moor’s Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie

The Moor's Last SighThe Moor’s Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

The Moor’s Last Sigh tells the tale of three generations of an Indian family that built its fortune in the spice trade. This isn’t the type of book that would usually float to the top of my stack. I read it because I was traveling to Kochi (Cochin), and it came recommended because much of the first part of the book is set there. (The same recommendation might be received by someone traveling to Mumbai because the latter half of the book is set in that city; granted, there are a lot more stories set in Mumbai [Bombay] than Kochi.) Ultimately, I was pleasantly surprised by this book, despite its soap opera like tone.

The book does read like a soap opera, at least until it gets into the narrating character’s story. There are strong women characters in this male-dominated environment of an Indian family business, though they tend to fall into the categories of “petty bitch” or “prima donna” or both. In the first generation there is a matriarchal character who dominates the family by manipulation and cruelty. In the second generation, the female lead—a strong-spirited, independent artist—falls in love with a Jewish employee of the family. Those familiar with marriage as practiced by the Indian elite will recognize how this inter-sect wedding with an underling might result in no small grief. The resulting marriage produces two female children and a boy. The latter would be nothing but a source of bliss, but for a birth defect that results in a malformed arm. While his mother smothers him with love and attempts to display a progressive spirit that’s beyond biases against such infirmities, under the surface there is the need to come to grips with the fact that handicapped children aren’t supposed to happen in high-caste families. The man with the infirmity is the narrator and overall protagonist of the book. He—as seems inevitable—will eventually fall for a woman of which his mother does not approve.

Beyond the soap opera pettiness, there are genuine intrigues that unfold in the latter half of the book. However, the pettiness of narcissistic people is the root of the protagonist’s ultimate trial.

While Rushdie builds characters in the manner we expect of literary fiction, he doesn’t abandon story. There is a narrative arc that unfolds over the course of the novel. Surprises are revealed and twists unfold.

This is the first Rushdie novel I’ve read. I’ve always intended to read The Satanic Verses to see what all the hullaballoo was about, and the readability of this work makes me even more interested in following through. You know a writer has to be good to inspire a country to take out a hit on him.

I’d recommend this for more than just people visiting Kochi or Mumbai—though it will be particularly interesting for those who are. If you’re interested in the lifestyles of the rich and famous in India more generally, you’ll find this work enlightening. In general, it will appeal to those who like their literary fiction with a bit of a storyline—and if you like the low drama of bitchiness, all the more so.

View all my reviews

DAILY PHOTO: Bangkok by Night

Taken on September 10, 2014 from the Baiyoke Sky Hotel.

Taken on September 10, 2014 from the Baiyoke Sky Hotel.

The Baiyoke Sky Hotel is Thailand’s Tallest Building. For about 650 Baht (+ beverage costs) [i.e. $20 USD] you can eat at from a vast buffet and then go up to the revolving observation deck for panoramic views of Bangkok.

I’m Back From Thailand

My month-long hiatus from posting has come to an end. I’m back home in India after an educational month in Thailand. I’ve got a lot of posting to catch up on.

I’ll be writing about my two weeks training Muaythai at MTI-Rangsit:

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I’ll share my experiences of learning Thai Massage and Foot Massage at the Wat Po Thai Traditional Medicine and Massage School:

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Plus there’re a dozen books I finished off and need to review and–of course–I’ve got a ton of photos from in and around Bangkok:

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I learned some Thai Yoga (sometimes called Rusie Dutton Yoga) and had some other interesting experiences to write about.

So I’d best get crackin’.

Out to Thailand

IMG_4236I 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.

 

 

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