My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Norwegian Wood is about a quintessentially normal and likable guy named Toru Watanabe who has a thing for women who range between eccentric and completely off their rockers. The story is delivered as a flash back as an adult Watanabe mulls over his college days, during which all of these relationships took place.
At the center of his various relationships is his love for Naoko, who had been the girlfriend of Watanabe’s high school best friend until said friend committed suicide. Naoko is a beautiful girl in a fragile state–haunted by her former boyfriend’s suicide and probably a little unstable of her own nature. On the other hand, Watanabe begins a platonic relationship with another girl, Midori, who is sane, but a bit of a wild child and not devoid of her own neuroses. While, of the two, Midori is better for him, he cannot bring himself to take their relationship to the next level as long as Naoko is around—even though Naoko is institutionalized. A third woman, Hatsumi, is dating Watanabe’s college best friend, and she seems to represent the sweet, stable woman who Watanabe doesn’t seem to attract. Incidentally, Hatsumi eventually commits suicide. [Warning: this book is rife with suicide and probably has the highest rate of suicide of any novel I’ve ever read—fortunately it’s a relatively small cast of characters and so this amounts to only a few deaths.]
The character development and story are both excellent. Though I will say the character of Naoko is underdeveloped, but I suspect that is on purpose. I couldn’t tell whether Watanabi had reason to be so madly in love with her, or whether that was his curse. (I suspected the latter.) In contrast, Midori is tremendously likable, and– despite her kookiness–she is the kind of person almost anybody would be drawn to at least as a friend—though some might find it trying to be in an extended romantic relationship with her.
Murakami intersperses humor into this book with its overall somber tone. A lot of this is in the form of dialogue between Watanabe and Midori, or Watanabe and Reiko (Reiko is Naoko’s roommate at the institution and is an older woman for whom Watanabe holds a measure of affection as well.) (Among my favorite quotes is [paraphrasing], “I don’t like being alone. No one likes being alone. I just hate being disappointed.”) These flourishes of humor both add to the readability and the realism of the story.
I’d recommend this book for anyone who enjoys literary fiction. Not that it’s hard to digest literary fiction. It’s very readable, but if you need something beyond realism to hold your attention, this is probably not the book for you. Unlike some of Murakami’s speculative fiction, this work is quite centered in realism. [Though, it does have a fairly high body count.]
There was a movie adaptation made a few years back. I haven’t seen it, and so couldn’t tell how closely it follows the novel, but from the trailer suspect it’s as close as can be expected.
This is a bridge over the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The Bhagavad-Gita is a philosophical poem, the title of which is translated as “Song of the Lord.” It’s often read as a stand-alone work, but it’s included in the sixth book of longest known epic poem, entitled the Mahabharata.
In The Bhagavad-Gita, Krishna teaches the warrior-prince Arjuna about sacred duty (dharma.) The setting is the battlefield at Kurukshetra as a war is about to get underway. Arjuna asks his charioteer, Krishna, to halt the vehicle between the opposing armies. Arjuna is struck with a crisis of conscience. He doesn’t want to fight and kill the men on the opposing side–some of whom are related to him by blood and others of whom are well-respected elders. Arjuna can see no virtue in the war.
Krishna, after briefly mocking what he describes as Arjuna’s newly developed cowardice, goes on to offer his explanation of why it is that Arjuna should fight. The first argument is that nobody really dies because consciousness is reborn. This makes sense if you believe in reincarnation… otherwise, not so much. A concise restatement of this argument is presented in the 11th teaching: “I am time grown old, creating world destruction, set in motion to annihilate worlds; even without you, all these warriors arrayed in hostile ranks will cease to exist. Therefore, arise and win glory! Conquer your foes and fulfill your kingship! They are already killed by me. Be just my instrument, the archer at my side!”
Another of Krishna’s argument is that if Arjuna fails to fulfill his duty he will be thought less of by others. This is an odd argument to make as Krishna makes a more compelling case for ridding oneself of ego, whereas this seems to be saying that one should put what others think of one above doing what one believes is right. That sounds a lot like succumbing to ego rather than eliminating. In the 12th teaching, in fact, Krishna tells us that the best of men are “Neutral to blame or praise…” This suggests that perhaps one shouldn’t be moved by what others will think of one.
At the core of Krishna’s argument is that one cannot escape the Karmic cycle by engaging any acts but those that are selfless. Like the reincarnation argument. One may find this logic compelling or not depending upon whether one believes in Karmic theory. Karma is the idea of cause and effect. If you do good, you’ll receive good effects and if you do bad you’ll experience bad effects. Ultimately, however, the goal is to break free of the Karmic cycle and, in theory, the only way to do that is to engage in acts that are selfless—hence doing your sacred duty. If your driver isn’t God, it’s not entirely clear how you know what your sacred duty is, at least not by way of this work. (Presumably, God talks to kings and princes, and kings and princes tell the unwashed masses what they are supposed to do. If you happened to have already done away with such a system—as most of the planet has—you may have trouble with this logic.) However, if one takes the lesson to be that one should not be consumed with personal gain when one acts, one has an argument of more general appeal.
Another argument is that devotion to God is all important, not a man’s actions in any absolutist sense. From the 9th teaching, “If he is devoted to me, even a violent criminal must be deemed a man of virtue, for his resolve is right.”
It should be noted that Krishna delivers a number of lessons beyond the need to comply with one’s dharma, and, in my opinion, many of these ancillary lessons are more compelling than Krishna’s explanation of why Arjuna must fight.
One such lesson is to concern oneself with the journey and not the destination. Krishna states it as such, “Be intent on action; not the fruits of action…” Furthermore, there are a great many teachings that will be familiar to Buddhists, such as the need for non-attachment and moderation.
The poem contains lessons of Samkhya (e.g. discussion of the three gunas) and Yoga. It describes concepts from the three original forms of yoga (predating yoga as a fitness activity by centuries): those being of action yoga (karma yoga), knowledge yoga (jnana yoga), and devotional yoga (bhakti yoga.) While The Bhagavad-Gita predates the formulation of eight limbs of yoga as described by Patanjali, it does address certain among them in varying detail. Early on, it speaks about pratyahara—withdrawal from the senses—in considerable detail. There are also references to pranayama (breath/energy control exercises) and most of the yama and niyama are listed among the virtues in the latter part of the teachings. Of course, samadhi (liberation / yoga’s 8th limb) is a central concept in this work.
While The Bhagavad-Gita remains widely cited and relied upon for guidance to this day, it’s not without its controversial elements. In the fourth teaching, Krishna explains how he created the caste system. Of course, Krishna might not have intended it to be the stain it became.
The Miller translation that I read has a few nice ancillary features. There is an introduction that offers background and context for those who have little knowledge of Indian history or mythology. There’s also a glossary that goes into detail about terms that are frequently used in the work. It’s not that there are Sanskrit words mixed into to the text. The glossary explains what the English words should be taken to mean in the context of the Hindu worldview.
What is most intriguing, however, is the afterword which is entitled, “Why Did Henry David Thoreau Take the Bhagavad-Gita to Walden Pond?” Of all the thinkers that have cited The Bhagavad-Gita, the use of Thoreau and Emerson as examples raises intriguing questions. The Thoreau of Civil Disobedience and the Emerson of Self-Reliance would seem to be as far from the message of The Bhagavad-Gita as possible. Krishna is telling Arjuna to ignore his conscience, and just do what God tells him to do—be a selfless instrument of destruction. Thoreau and Emerson both preached that one’s conscience should always be one’s ultimate guide. Thoreau went to jail because he refused to pay taxes that would support the war with Mexico. I suspect Krishna would say to Thoreau, “Hey, I’m throwing this war, and you’d damn well better do your part.” However, there are ideas in The Bhagavad-Gita that work with the American Transcendentalist philosophers. The idea of removing self-interest and egotism as a way to eliminate delusion before one makes one’s own decision is a consistent suggestion.
I have mixed feelings about The Bhagavad-Gita. Like many (most?) sources of religious doctrine, I think the central message of The Bhagavad-Gita is just another means by which to keep the masses under the control of an elite—and, specifically, fighting the wars of the royalty. However, I–like Thoreau and Emerson—also see a great deal of insight into how to be a better person in this poem.
I think The Bhagavad-Gita is worth a read, regardless of how you may ultimately feel about its message. It offers a concise summary of key ideas in Indian philosophy and psychology. It will give one a better understanding of the Indian worldview, and may teach you something about how to live in the process.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Heir to the Empire is set about five years after the first movie trilogy (by release date, i.e. after Return of the Jedi.) It features many of the principal heroes of the first trilogy including: Luke, Leia, Han Solo, Chewbacca, Lando Calrissian, R2-D2, and C-3PO. Obviously, gone are most of the bad guys from the movies, but in their place has risen Grand Admiral Thrawn—a master strategist who seeks to revive the Empire. Thrawn is portrayed more as a brilliant military man than a dastardly villain. This doesn’t mean he can’t be cold and villainous, but he also brings in a measure of intellect and rationality not seen in the movie universe. While it would appear that Luke is the last of the Jedi Knights, or the first of a new line if one prefers, that turns out to be not entirely true.
I enjoyed this book. I bought it during a Kindle sale on what Amazon considered to be the best Star Wars books. While I’d seen the movies, I hadn’t read any of ancillary works, and so I Googled to find out which of the books on Amazon’s list were considered by fans to be the best. Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy, and particularly this first installment, seemed to be on every fan’s list.
One of the great plot devices used in this book is a creature whose mere presence can nullify the force. This strips Luke’s powers away through a critical piece of the book. Yes, the introduction of this creature is deus ex machina, but it’s deus ex machina that challenges the protagonist–rather than making life easier for him–so it’s alright by me. Because Luke is the last of the known Jedi, he’s essentially a Superman among mere mortals, and so the book might have become tedious if Luke weren’t stripped to his native intellect and courage devoid of superpowers. Instead, he has to escape from the planet on which these creatures reside and help rescue Han and Lando in the process without any supernatural abilities.
As mentioned, this is the first book of a trilogy, and, therefore, it leaves many major issues unresolved. Multi-part series usually have less satisfying endings than a stand-alone book, and I can’t say it’s not true of this work. However, this first book of the Thrawn trilogy does contain a clear climax and a definitive tactical (battle-level) resolution.
The book intersperses chapters from the hero’s point of view (PoV) with those from the Thrawn’s ship. This book begins with a chapter from the enemy’s PoV, and so for Star Wars neophytes—such as myself—one enters into a whole new territory in which it’s not quite certain when or where one is in the Star Wars universe. However, in subsequent chapters Luke, Leia, and Han are introduced and we learn that Han and Leia are married and that Leia is pregnant, and this gives one insight into the timeline of the book. We also learn that while the Empire seems to have been destroyed, the Republic is on weak footing and is having trouble reestablishing itself.
The book introduces us to a couple of new characters that I understand will become established in the expanded Star Wars universe. The most intriguing and important of these is Mara Jade, the right hand woman of the most powerful smuggler in the known universe. We soon learn that Mara despises Luke Skywalker and wants nothing more than to dance on his grave. However, we don’t learn until much later why it is that she hates him, and we learn after a time during which the two are forced together by circumstances. Mara Jade is a force to be reckoned with. While she might not be a match for Luke the Jedi, she is more than a match for Luke stripped of his powers. It seems clear that Zahn is building a relationship between Luke and Mara with their interaction in this book. Luke is oblivious to why Mara dislikes him, or even who she is until he is explicitly told, but events force them to spend time together under trying circumstances.
All in all, I liked this book. I found it readable, and thought that it did a good job of maintaining tension throughout.
It took me several months to master the art of crossing streets in India. Pedestrian crossing signals are as rare as gold crappers, and as useful as wings on a goat. There are many streets that one can’t cross in one fell swoop between the hours of 8am and 11pm. So, if you don’t want to spend the day trapped on your block like a jittery puppy, you need to plunge into traffic and take it one lane at a time.
Fearlessness. That’s the key–pure and simple. One will have crosstown buses whizzing past on either side. In the military, during Basic Training, we got inoculations via cattle vaccination-guns. It was an assembly line of shots. Take one step forward get a shot, one more step and get another shot. The clinic staff had a lot of recruits to inoculate that were standing between them and their morning coffee. The warning was, “Take one step and stand perfectly still.” Because as soon as you stopped, they would “shu-shunk” that shot into your deltoid. If you wavered, the gun wouldn’t make a nice solitary puncture, but rather would gouge out a slit. Or so we were told. At any rate, the advice to a Bangalore pedestrian is the same, “Step onto the dashed line and remain perfectly still, because if you cringe, you’ll get a truck mirror up side the cranium and you’ll die.”
I traveled to Thailand this past month. I’ve been to Thailand on a couple previous occasions, but not with the implicit rules of Indian traffic ingrained in me. My first official act in Bangkok was to almost cause a multi-car pile up accident. Why? Because Thai people do this strange thing when a pedestrian wanders into the street or an intersection in front of them, they apply the brakes. Now every Indian knows that the proper device to employ when someone crosses into traffic in front of one is the horn. As a matter of fact, the horn is the go-to Indian driving tool for almost every eventuality. It wouldn’t occur to most Indians to apply the brakes and certainly not to make a lane change for an encroaching pedestrian or other driver. If the pedestrian doesn’t get out of one’s way, you simply lean into the horn, putting all your body weight into it.
Now, it may sound like I’m giving Indian drivers a hard time. However, it occurred to me that either system works as long as everybody is on the same page. Those who’ve experienced roundabouts will tell you that they are at least as safe–and probably more so–than crossroad intersections. Even though roundabouts seem terrifying for novice drivers, they have a prevailing logic that is sound. By the same token, it may be that the Indian approach is at least as safe. (It certainly makes a pedestrian more cautious.) The Thai approach, which is widespread though most of the world, is at once more polite but less trusting than the Indian approach.
BONUS TRAVEL TRAFFIC ADVICE: Anywhere in the developing world, always look both ways when crossing one-way streets. The prevailing view is that lane directives are optional for scooters and small motorcycles.