BOOK REVIEW: Richard II by William Shakespeare

Richard IIRichard II by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars page


This is a dramatization of the last couple years of the deposed King’s life. It is written entirely in verse, which is not the norm for Shakespeare (only a couple other histories are purely verse, most mix prose and poetry.)

The story opens with two gentlemen petitioning Richard II about their dispute. One of the men, Henry Bolingbroke, has accused the other, Thomas Mowbray, of both misappropriating funds and being involved in the murder of the Duke of Gloucester (a relative of Bolingbroke’s.) Mowbray denies these claims. First, Richard attempts to mollify the men and bring about a peaceful settlement. When this fails. Richard agrees to allow the two men to undertake “trial by combat” – i.e. dueling to the death. While this seems to provide a solution, as combat is about to take place, Richard changes his mind and calls off the match. Instead, the King banishes both men into exile – Mowbray permanently and Bolingbroke for ten years [adjusted to six years.]

As in Hamlet, indecisiveness is the root of tragedy in this play. Had Richard let the two men duel it out as planned, he likely would have died as King instead of being deposed. If Mowbray had won, then Bolingbroke would not have been around to later usurp the crown. If Bolingbroke had won, he would have automatically received his inheritance upon the death of John of Gaunt (Bolingbroke’s father and Richard’s uncle) and – therefore – Richard wouldn’t have confiscated John’s holdings to fund a war in Ireland. Either way, Richard would have been better off had he let the duel happen. But, because he didn’t, and then took possession of Bolingbroke’s inheritance, he triggered a chain of events that would involve Bolingbroke invading England against minimal resistance [and increasing support] as Richard was off fighting in Ireland.

While this play is generally classified as “a history,” it has been known to be called a tragedy, and the ending certainly fits that genre. In the last act a conspiracy to unseat the newly coronated king, Henry IV [Bolingbroke,] is revealed when the Duke of York discovers that his son, Aumerle, is involved in the conspiracy. Aumerle races to King Henry and gets him to grant him leave without knowing what treachery was in the works. Henry agrees, but then the Duke of York shows up asking the King to punish his son for his involvement in the conspiracy. It looks like York is about to have his way when the Duchess (York’s wife and Aumerle’s mother) enters and implores the new king to spare her boy – which Henry does (though he has the conspiracy brutally crushed with most of the conspirators killed and those who weren’t killed being captured.)

Also in the last act, one of Henry’s loyalists overhears an off-the-cuff remark that Henry makes about wishing Richard dead. The henchman decides to go to the prison and take matters into his own hands. The play ends with a mortified Henry rebuking the murderer and announcing that he, himself, will go to the holy land in an attempt to make amends for the suggestion that triggered Richard’s murder.

I found this to be an engaging tragedy. The histories aren’t often as intriguing as the tragedies, but this play features and intense – if straightforward – narrative arc. If you’re interested in reading Shakespeare’s histories, this is definitely one you’ll want to check out. It also sets up what is sometimes called “the Henriad,” [a tetralogy of plays] which includes “Henry IV, Part I,” “Henry IV, Part 2,” and “Henry V.” That makes “Richard II” a logical starting point to take on the four-play epic.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Vision #1 by Tom King

Vision #1Vision #1 by Tom King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars page


This issue imagines a family of superpowered androids moving into suburban Washington DC, into a neighborhood where the denizens are the lawyers, bureaucrats, and political professionals. Vision is a member of the Avengers. Having been created by villainous Ultron, Vision changed sides to protect humanity, the android’s affinity for humanity subsequently led him to create his own family — a wife and two children, Viv and Vin. When Vision takes a job as the Avenger’s liaison to the Federal government, he moves his family into a Virginia neighborhood popular with the DC elite.

Being fish-out-of-water, these androids are challenged by the quotidian events of suburban life and they’re perplexed by the idiosyncrasies of mankind. Setting a household of super-bots in the most mundane human habitat imaginable provides a lot of comedic fodder. The “Visions” are welcomed to the neighborhood by a couple from next door. Vin and Viv attend their first day at school. The only real action is at the very end of the issue, and it’s clearly meant to carry the story onward through subsequent issues. [Though, if you are reading this as a standalone, it feels like all the action has been crammed in at the end — almost as an after-thought.]

The art and color palette are consistent with the laid-back suburban circumstance of the story.

This issue plays on an amusing premise, but – of itself – is more of a set up than a story. If you’re interested in the character and intend to move forward with reading more issues, you’ll probably want to give this issue a read. However, if you’re expecting this to be an action-packed superhero outing, you’re likely to be disappointed.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: The Art of Impossible by Steven Kotler

The Art of Impossible: A Peak Performance PrimerThe Art of Impossible: A Peak Performance Primer by Steven Kotler
My rating: 5 of 5 stars page

Out: January 19, 2021


Steven Kotler’s new book, “The Art of Impossible,” shares territory with two of his previous books [“The Rise of Superman” and “Stealing Fire” (the latter co-authored with Jamie Wheal,)] but it also takes a step back to reveal a broader landscape than those previous books. Whereas the earlier books focused on how to achieve a high-performance state of mind called “flow” (or “peak performance,”) this one looks at the bigger picture of how to achieve success with daunting projects. So, while the fourth / final section of the book presents information that will be familiar to past readers, the first three sections – on motivation, learning, and creativity, respectively – are not addressed in the earlier works. [It’s worth pointing out that even section four (Ch. 19 – 23) presents some new information and organizational schemes because this is a fast-moving research domain of late.]

The book’s first six chapters (i.e. Part I) are about achieving and maintaining motivation. This starts from the logical bedrock of finding an “impossible” task for which one is likely to have sufficient passion and interest to follow through. The reader learns how to formulate goals that are challenging enough and clear enough to facilitate sustained interest, effort, and productivity. The importance of autonomy is discussed at length, and the reader learns what companies like Google, 3M, and Patagonia have done to make gains via employees energized by increased autonomy. The kind of motivation that allows one to knuckle-down under adversity, grit, is given its own chapter, and the author discusses six variations that are important to success.

Part II (Ch. 7 – 14) is about the learning process and how one can organize one’s pursuits to get the most learning per effort. Chapter ten is the heart of this section, offering a detailed approach to organizing one’s learning activities. Chapter fourteen offers yet another critique of the 10,000-hour rule that was popularized by (and oversimplified in) the Malcolm Gladwell book, “Outliers.” [This “rule,” developed by Swedish psychologist Anders Ericsson, has come under intense criticism in large part because every time the explanation shifted downstream it became less of an approximate rule of thumb that was applicable to some specific domains and more of an iron-clad rule deemed applicable to every activity that benefits from practice, resulting in insane behavior such as parents who pick their child’s sport in the womb so that the kid can get the requisite number of practice hours before the college recruiters come to see him or her play.]

The third part (Ch. 15 – 18) is about fostering creativity. Here, Kotler takes the reader on a tour of changing thought about creativity, ranging from the ancient stories of muses to today’s state-of-the-art neuroscience. Like the section on Flow, there is an elaboration of where the neuroscientific understanding of creativity sits at the moment. Having read a range of books discussing such descriptions, this approach is falling out of favor with me. First, whenever I’ve read a book by an actual neuroscientist, I’ve learned that these simple attributions of activities to certain brain regions are either vastly oversimplified, more tentatively agreed upon than suggested, or both of the above. Second, I have realized that learning a name like Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC) and an oversimplified explanation of what it does doesn’t really help me. That said, I understand there is interest in these descriptions that drive their inclusion in such books. (I, too, have been interested in reading about it, but less and less so.)

The final part is about Flow, and this is where readers of “Rise of Superman” will be well-primed for the information that is covered. Chapter 21, which elucidates the twenty-two “Flow Triggers,” is the heart of this section. As I mentioned, Kotler has changed the way he organizes this discussion since his earlier book, but the material is still largely from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work on the subject. In addition to explanation of what it means to get into the state of Flow and of how to improve one’s chances of getting there, there is a discussion of “Flow Blockers” – four mind states that hinder Flow. The last chapter lays out a plan consisting of daily and weekly activities, and – as such – it serves as both a summary and an outline for moving forward.

Writers may find this book particularly beneficial because Kotler relies heavily on anecdotes from his own work to clarify and explain the points under discussion. By contrast, “Rise of Superman” relied almost exclusively on stories from extreme sports athletes, and “Stealing Fire” drew on silicone valley and the special forces heavily for examples. I actually enjoyed that Kotler spoke from his own experience. As someone who has read a fair number of books on peak performance, I’ve seen a lot of the same stories repeated within popular books. That said, readers who haven’t read much on the topic may wish the book had a broader set of narrative examples and less definitional / conceptual discussion. The author may be aware that many of his readers will have fatigue from reading the same stories and examples. When Kotler does mention such widely-discussed examples (e.g. Steve Jobs putting bathrooms in the Pixar building in a central location that created cross-pollination of people on different projects) he does so briefly and without preaching to the choir.

I found this book to be an interesting overview of how to approach a large-scale life mission. It’s well-organized and readable (though it might benefit from less vocabulary-based neuroscience discussion.) If you are feeling a bit rudderless, this is a good book to look into.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Empire of Ants by Susanne & Olaf Foitzik

Empire of Ants: The Hidden World and Extraordinary Lives of Earth's Tiny ConquerorsEmpire of Ants: The Hidden World and Extraordinary Lives of Earth’s Tiny Conquerors by Susanne Foitzik
My rating: 5 of 5 stars page

Out: May 6, 2021


In love with our own grandeur, most humans don’t give a thought to the magnificence of other species, and this is particularly true of ants. People use ants as their go-to being to fill in the SAT Analogy “Gods are to Humans as Humans are to ______________.” When we want to explain how some more capable entity (be it a god, a trans-galactic alien species, or an advanced artificial intelligence) is more likely to kill us through indifference than through maliciousness, we draw upon the image of an ant about to be crushed under the boot of a person who’s just going about his day, harboring no ill-will towards his six-legged neighbors.

This book will roll back that smug attitude, impressing the reader not only with all the little-known but intriguing behaviors of ants, but also with the range of skills employed by ants that we humans have always thought of as our unique bailiwick – e.g. city building, agriculture, slavery, war, and communication of complex ideas.

The book consists of fourteen chapters and a brief epilogue. The introductory chapter not only prepares the reader to be more impressed by ants, it also explains how crucial ants are collectively to our ecosystems. Chapter two explores the ant caste system in much more detail than the usual queen / worker / drone distinction, and it also explains how sex is determined in a manner quite different than that to which we are used. Chapter three continues an extensive discussion of reproduction that was begun in the previous chapter.

Chapter four dives into what might be called the governance of ant colonies. That may sound grandiose (and, in some sense, it is) but we are talking about huge populations living in a relatively small space. While sci-fi might have one imagining the queen ruling with an iron first while all others act as mindless automatons, the truth is very different, and – in fact – after establishment of the nest, the queen leaves the the thinking business altogether. Chapters five and six investigate the subjects of communication and navigation, respectively. Ants have a tremendously varied set of chemical emitters and receptors, allowing them to communicate a wide range of messages with great clarity. They also communicate through physical contact. Anyone who has ever seen a line of ants in convoy probably suspects that ants must be skilled at getting where they need to go and back. This chapter explains the methods by which ants achieve this purposeful motion, from chemical signals to navigation by the sun to – in some cases – an internal magnetic compass.

Chapter seven takes the reader into the realm of ant militaries, elucidating how they hunt, bivouac, and carry out the various tasks required of them. Chapter eight introduces the question of how colonies (that can be on par with human cities with respect to population) feed everyone, and gives special attention to leafcutter supply chain logistics and in-colony fungiculture. Chapter nine examines the lives of tree-dwelling ants. In this chapter, we learn that not only do ants engage in activities we think of as human; some also perform activities we associate with other species – such as silk weaving. Chapter ten continues the book’s examination of ant agriculture by explaining how some ants keep aphids as livestock [the aphids consume leaves and excrete sugars as a waste product because there is far more of it than they need for their own purposes.]

While chapter seven indicated how ants share some of the less palatable habits of humans – specifically, war, chapter eleven delves into some of the downright loathsome activities these insects share with our species – including: enslavement and theft. Chapter twelve identifies some of the threats to ant health and well-being, including tape worms and fungal parasites. You may have read about the fungus that can hijack an ant’s nervous system to turn it into a zombie (Ophiocordyceps camponoti-floridani,) eventually the fruiting body of the cordyceps pops out of the ant’s head to release spores (after the fungus has “driven” the ant high up into a tree from which the spores can be widely distributed.)

Chapter 13, entitled “The Path to World Domination,” is largely about how invasive species have come to take over in many parts of the world. This includes fire ants, which the Spanish (unwittingly) hauled from Mexico to the Philippines, from which the insects were dispersed all over the world via trade routes. While — throughout the entire book — intriguing ant behaviors are mentioned, the final chapter collects together a group of particularly unlikely skills that are witnessed among ants. My favorites were ants that could glide back to tree trunks when knocked off a limb, as well as another species that could catapult themselves through the air.

The book is well-illustrated, employing both drawings and color photographs. The photographs are particularly useful for showing some of the stranger species and – in a few cases – behaviors that can be difficult to visualize. There is an extensive “further reading” section that is organized by chapter.

“Empire of Ants” provides a fascinating look at an underappreciated species. Just as Peter Wohlleben’s “The Hidden Life of Trees” changed the way I looked at trees, this book changed the way I see ants. I’d highly recommend the book for anyone interested in the natural world.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Breath Taking by Michael J. Stephen

Breath Taking: What Our Lungs Teach Us about Our Origins, Ourselves, and Our FutureBreath Taking: What Our Lungs Teach Us about Our Origins, Ourselves, and Our Future by Michael J. Stephen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars page

Out: January 19, 2021


This book explores the crucial role of breathing in human existence, discussing evidence of how breathing practices can contribute to healing of numerous illnesses, investigating the range of threats — from pollution to smoking to toxic dust — that can threaten our ability to breath, and examining a number of diseases that can disturb a person’s breathing. This book is primarily a popular science look at pulmonary medicine. Unlike other breath-related books that I’ve reviewed, this book is mostly about what can go wrong with our lungs and what medical science is doing to combat these threats. The story of how breathwork and changing breathing patterns can improve health and well-being is addressed, but that’s not the book’s central focus. The book uses plenty of stories (e.g. case studies) and what I call “fun facts” to keep the reading from becoming too dry or clinical for a neophyte reader.

The book consists of fifteen chapters. The first two chapters provide basic background information to help understand how the Earth happens to have the oxygen-laden air necessary for our type of life (Ch. 1) and how the lungs exploit that air in fueling our bodily activities (Ch. 2.) Chapter thee explores how breathing begins in newborn babies, explaining that the lungs are the only major organ that doesn’t start working until we are out in the world, and lung inflation doesn’t always go smoothly. The fourth chapter discusses how breathwork (including — but not limited to — yogic pranayama) has been shown to improve health for those experiencing a range of conditions, including: depression, addiction, PTSD, and pain, as well as how breath and meditational practices contribute to better health, generally.

Chapter five investigates the intersection of the respiratory and immune systems, explaining how autoimmune conditions, allergies, and asthma come to be. In chapter six, the author discusses one of the most common and widespread diseases in the world, tuberculosis (TB,) a disease which not only threatens the lives of many, but also sits dormant in a huge portion of the population.

Chapters seven through nine each deal with hazardous materials that are inhaled into the lungs. The first of these chapters is about smoking, and it focuses on the question of how nicotine acts in the body to create intense addictions – as well as what has and hasn’t worked to help people break said addiction. Chapter eight is about pollution. (As resident of a city of twelve million people, I found this to be a particularly disturbing chapter because air pollution is a hazard that is too easy to be blind to if one doesn’t suffer from respiratory problems.) Chapter nine investigates a range of breathable hazards including smoke, dust, and asbestos, and it does so through the lens of the rescue and cleanup at the World Trade Center after the dual collapse of the twin towers on 9-11, an event which released all sorts of toxic material into the air, hazards for which most responders were ill-equipped.

Chapter ten through twelve are about ailments that may or may not be linked to environmental causes like the ones mentioned in the paragraph above. The first of these is idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, which, by definition, is a condition that arises from an unknown cause, an ailment which involves a stiffening and thickening of lung tissue (which must be thin and supple to allow gas exchange and the expansion and contraction of the breath cycle.) Chapter eleven focuses on lung cancer, which is often due to an inhaled hazard (most notably, smoking,) but not necessarily. While the other chapters of the book focus on breathing as a process by which we take in oxygen and expel carbon dioxide, chapter twelve turns to a different role played by breath, one that is crucial to the activities of our species, breath as a means to control the voice.

Chapter 13 describes the process and challenges of lung transplant. As mentioned in the discussion of pulmonary fibrosis, lung tissue is rather delicate material, and so it was no easy task to transplant it. Furthermore, because the lungs are a point at which the external world (air) contacts the body’s internal systems the challenges are even greater than for those organs that are hermetically sealed within bodily tissues.

The last two chapters focus on cystic fibrosis (CF.) Chapter fourteen explores the nature of the disease and the slow, but promising, path towards treating it. CF is a genetic condition in which the lack of a single amino acid wreaks havoc on the ability of cells to process minerals. The last chapter tells the story of two cases of CF. The first story – involving a ten-year-old whose family had to struggle against a policy that essentially locked their child out of the lung transplant list – is particularly engrossing.

As someone who practices breathwork, I found this book to be interesting and insightful. While it is heavily focused on pulmonary medicine, it does offer insights that will be beneficial to those who are not afflicted by respiratory ailments. If one wants to know more about medicine as it pertains to respiration, this is definitely an interesting and readable choice. However, even if one is infatuated with breath more generally, I believe you’ll find in this volume a great deal of beneficial food-for-thought.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Pandemics: A Very Short Introduction by Christian W. McMillen

Pandemics: A Very Short IntroductionPandemics: A Very Short Introduction by Christian W. McMillen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars page

This book explores disease pandemics through the lens of History. I open with that because this is a topic that can (and has) been addressed through many different disciplines, and a reader expecting biological or epidemiological insights is likely to be disappointed. However, if one is interested in questions of how, where, and with what impacts various diseases spread, this book provides a concise overview for seven select pandemics: The Plague, Smallpox, Malaria, Cholera, Tuberculosis, Influenza, HIV/AIDS.

This book belongs to Oxford University Press’s “A Very Short Introduction” series, a massive collection of brief guides outlining a wide range of scholarly topics. This title complies with general guidelines of the series, presenting the basics of a subject in a manner accessible to a neophyte, citing sources and providing recommendations for further reading, and offering graphics to support the text where beneficial.

As mentioned, the book delves into the seven pandemics listed in the opening paragraph, and does so in the order in which they are listed. Each disease is presented in its own chapter – so the book consists of a prologue, seven chapters, an epilogue, and back matter (i.e. citations, recommendations for additional reading, and the index.)

Obviously, these seven pandemics don’t represent a complete history of disease pandemics. The book was published in 2016, well before the COVID-19 pandemic (though readers will certainly read some prescient-sounding statements — particularly in the epilogue,) but not even all past epidemics classed as pandemics are addressed. [It should be noted that there is no perfectly agreed upon dividing line between epidemic and pandemic.] Still, this book includes the biggest and most globally-widespread pandemics, but it also covers a diverse collection of diseases, including: contagious, vector-borne, and water-borne illnesses, as well as bacteria- and virus-induced diseases. It’s worth noting that The Plague is a worthy first case not only because it’s one of the diseases that has most shaped human history, but also because there’s not a great deal known about disease before then. (During the relatively recent 1918 “Spanish” Flu pandemic, the medical community still didn’t know anything about viruses, and so one can imagine how little ancient people would have understood about these causes of death.)

As the book shares information about the pandemics and their impact on the world, it also teaches one something about how medicine and science progressed as a result of these events. This is famously evident in the case of Cholera, a disease whose unusual characteristics with respect to spread baffled doctors until a clever investigator learned that cases were tied to a common water well. The case of Cholera is a prime example of how changing one’s approach can resolve a stubborn question, looking at the cases spatially offered an immediate insight that other modes of investigation had failed to present.

I found this book to offer interesting insight into pandemics. If you are looking to understand the history of disease pandemics, this is a great book with which to start one’s study.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: What the Hell Did I Just Read by David Wong

What the Hell Did I Just Read (John Dies at the End, #3)What the Hell Did I Just Read by David Wong
My rating: 4 of 5 stars page


This is the third installment in a trilogy that began with “John Dies at the End.” The series takes place in an undisclosed and rundown Midwestern town that is prone to various catastrophic supernatural shenanigans. It’s a humor-horror cross-genre work that is heavier on the former than the latter by virtue of the fact that the tone is consistently lightened by the duo of doofuses’ jokes and unreliable narration – often in the face of apparently calamitous events.

In the first book, the narrator, David, and the titular character, John, consume a drug (street-named “Soy Sauce”) that gives them the ability to see supernatural phenomena to which the general citizenry are blind. This book continues with that idea, but — given their experience with supernatural happenings, limited as it may be – they’ve become paranormal investigators of sorts (usually unpaid and sometimes without anyone asking for their services.) Also, Amy becomes not only a more firmly established love interest to David, but also a full-fledged member of the team – albeit the one that plays straight-[wo]man to the buffoonery of the other two.

The central event in this story is a child abduction that turns into a chain of abductions, but soon it becomes in doubt whether the children ever existed in the first place – or whether they are mass delusions implanted by a monstrous source. The book unfolds as the story of the trio trying to find the “children,” to find out what their true nature is, and then to figure out what to do about them. The villain’s henchman is capable of shape-shifting and takes several forms throughout the book – including that of David, thus casting suspicion upon him.

The author takes an interesting approach to perspective. The perspective shifts between David, John, and Amy, but only the David parts are written in first person (John and Amy are allotted sections from their perspective, but they are written in third-person limited perspective.) There are section headings to clarify whose perspective is being used and so it’s not hard to follow (even context would provide a great clue.) The shifting perspectives serves three purposes. First, one can see points in time during which David is not present, allowing the team to divide and conquer and for humorous confusion to be exploited. Second, it allows one to see the difference between the various accounts of the same event, which is helpful in building confidence about what actually happened — given the unreliable narration. Third, it allows for unreliable narration to be used for comedic effect. John, in particular, is famous for being especially unreliable among the unreliable narrators, though most of his embellishment is along sexual lines. [Amy is the most reliable in that she isn’t prone to flights of fancy. However, she has no ability to see through the shapeshifters and implanted hallucinations, and so she might – in fact — be the least reliable.]

There is not a strong and satisfying conclusion to the story. In part, this is because it’s not entirely clear what really transpired. We know at the end that there is another version of events out there, an account written by a scholar of the paranormal who is a secondary character in the latter half of the book. However, it also seems that the author tries to end one the lesson that sometimes the best thing to do is to wait and see, and not create problems by one’s need to be active. That is a fine lesson, but it doesn’t make for a satisfying conclusion to the story. There is also a muddled motivation of the “missing children.” I don’t think this lack of a definitive ending is about setting up a fourth entry in the series because the author states only vague intentions to (possibly) continue the series at some undefined point in the future. I also don’t think it’s a matter of having painted himself into a corner, but it maybe that he’s trying to say something about what really happened that I didn’t actually get. That’s a risk with so much going on in a multi-perspective, unreliably-narrated book.

There is a humorous attempt to engage with the challenge of mental illness, with John and Amy encouraging David to get help toward the end of the book. [This is also addressed in the epilogue.]

This is certainly a fun read. It’s humorous throughout. The story isn’t the strongest (or perhaps isn’t the clearest.) If you’ve read the other books, or at least the first one, and enjoyed it, I’d recommend you give this one a look.

View all my reviews

Our 2020 in Travel: Strange, but Not Disappointing

On January 1, 2020, we returned to Bangalore from Doha, Qatar — a long layover to thaw from Christmas 2019 in Budapest. Little did we know, this would be the only time that we’d be outside of India all year. Late in 2019, we’d been spit-balling 2020 travel to two or three other countries, one of which — China — rapidly became unlikely given the epidemic rippling out from Wuhan.

With COVID-19 cases in India still paltry and concentrated in a few locations, we went forward with our early March Holi trip to Jaipur, followed by Hola Mohalla in Anandpur Sahib — traveling via the bizarre planned city of Chandigarh. This trip would be our last by airplane for 2020. Mid-March was when the virus started to be viewed as worrying, and, by late March, an extensive lock-down would be implemented that would keep us home until mid-summer. 

There was a bright side to the restrictions. India has many sights that are difficult to get to, but which are worth seeing, including many in our home state of Karnataka. Therefore, when restrictions eased and intrastate travel became possible, we focused on seeing some of the South Indian sights that we’d never gotten to before — mostly because they were relatively inconvenient to reach.

Our first, tentative, explorations were just outside Bangalore at the beginning of July. One of which, Ramanagara Hill, we’d visited on previous occasions. The other, Chennagiri Hills, was new, but it was right next to Nandi Hills — a place we’d visited previously. All went well, except that, as we hiked down from Chennagiri Hill, an irritated official griped at us that it was closed (since said official apparently didn’t get to his post ’til about noon, we — and numerous other trekkers — had already passed through without knowledge that it was “closed.”)

For the rest of the year, our travel focus would be on reaching some of the fruit beyond the low-hanging bits we’d already seen. In late August, we traveled to Gokarna and Jog Falls, the former is the most popular beach destination in coastal Karnataka and the latter is the second highest plunge waterfall in India.

In October, we ventured out to the Sakleshpur area, a locale on the road to Mangalore near which we saw a sunken cathedral, a star-shaped fort, fog-enshrouded mountains, and some lesser-known Hoysala temples, (having seen the famous Hoysaleswara Temple at Halebidu as well as the one at Belur on previous occasions.)

At the end of November, we participated in a North Karnataka tour run by the State Tourism Corporation (KSTDC.) The tour included Hampi, which we’d visited previously, but we still managed to see a couple things we’d missed on our first visit. The bulk of the tour, however, were places that were entirely new to us, including: Badami Caves, Pattadakal, Aihole, and Vijayapur (Bijapur.) The tour highlights were Badami and Gol Gumbaz (in Bijapur.) This trip went off without a hitch other than a learning curve about ASI’s (Archeological Survey of India’s) new system by which one had to purchase tickets online. The biggest problem we faced was that many of these sites are in places with — at best — spotty cell coverage. The part that was not so much a problem but an offense to logic was that, while the system was meant to reduce interpersonal contact to fight COVID [no need to exchange money with a ticket taker,] theory and practice diverged and — in practice — it usually meant about eight different guys handling one’s phone in lieu of the single-point of contact of a ticket-seller.

That brings us to December, which was the first and only time this year (since returning from Doha) that we traveled outside of the state of Karnataka. We toured southern Tamil Nadu. The trip started with a sleeper bus down to the tip of India. [The tip of peninsular India. The point in India that is furthest south is on an island in the Nicobar archipelago, but Kanyakumari — where we visited — is a town where the landlocked piece extends furthest south.] We then took a car from Kanyakumari to Rameshwaram, a pilgrimage town located out on an island that juts toward Sri Lanka, passing huge wind farms and salt “fields.” (The latter look a bit like unplanted rice paddies.) From Rameshwaram, we rode over to Madurai before catching a bus back to Bangalore.

So ended our year in travel.

On Saturday our 2021 travel is supposed to begin with another KSTDC tour of Nagarhole (a national park that is home to tigers and elephants) and Bylakuppe (the largest Tibetan settlement in southern India.) After that, who knows?

BOOK REVIEW: Introducing Aesthetics: A Graphic Guide by Christopher Kul-Want

Introducing Aesthetics: A Graphic Guide (Introducing...)Introducing Aesthetics: A Graphic Guide by Christopher Kul-Want
My rating: 4 of 5 stars page


This volume is one in a large series of books that provide concise outlines of various subjects using graphics for support. In this case, it examines the philosophy of aesthetics. Aesthetics (the study of perception, sensation, and beauty) is a sub-discipline of axiology (the study of value), which – in turn – is a sub-discipline of philosophy.

The book consists of over one-hundred short (1 to 2 page) sections that present aesthetics from various angles. Some of that chapters focus on philosophers that had a particular impact on the subject, including: Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Kant, Hegel, Adorno, Nietzsche, Barthes, Derrida, and Lyotard. Others examine the approaches to evaluating aesthetics during various eras, including: ancient, medieval, Renaissance, the Enlightenment, Romance, Modern, Post-modern. Some define key terms, and others relate the subject to the broader human world. Still others relate the subject to other philosophical concepts, such as: reality, semiotics, or modes of governance and economy. There are sections that explore the subject’s classic questions, such as: “Are truth and beauty synonymous?” and “Should art have a purpose, and – if so – what?”

This entire series uses graphics as a support for the text. As with many of the books in the series, this volume mostly uses cartoon drawings that repeat key lessons from the text, sort of like an elaborate text-box. I can’t say that there was any point at which these graphics made anything easier to understand, but they don’t hurt either.

I found this book useful in getting a basic overview of the topic. There were times when it felt like it was straying from the topic of aesthetics, but I think that was just because so much of philosophy from post-modernism onwards looks at everything through a certain lens, regardless of whether such an examination seems particularly relevant or not (e.g. psychoanalysis, Marxism, etc.) [It’s interesting to think about “Communist Aesthetics” as the very term seems like an oxymoron. If you’ve ever seen the brutalist architecture or sculptures of Cold War Eastern Europe, you might conclude that the absence of aesthetic viewpoint was the prevailing Communist aesthetic viewpoint.] At any rate, while the book is not highly engaging reading, it’s a quick and concise outline of the subject (which is what it’s meant to be.)

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Chu, Vol. 1 by John Layman and Dan Boultwood

Chu, Vol, 1Chu, Vol, 1 by John Layman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars page

Out: January 26, 2021


The unique element of this book is its food-centric premise, and – in particular – the existence of food-based extrasensory perception. The central character, Saffron Chu, is able to read the mind of anyone nearby, if she eats the exact same thing that person is consuming as he or she consumes it. Saffron is part of a criminal gang that conducts high-value burglaries. Saffron’s brother, Tony, has a different (and much grosser) food ESP in that he can get psychic impressions from sampling the deceased at crime scenes (i.e. a bit like “iZombie” but he doesn’t have to eat brains; it can be blood or viscera that he tastes.) [Actually, his power is broader than that in that he can get impressions off of anything he eats, except – for some reason – beets, but the tasting of blood and gore is most relevant to his role in this story.] Tony is a police detective.

The story begins with the crew that Saffron belongs to bungling the burglary of a powerful crime boss. Keeping with the critical role of food, the burglary fails because a city-wide outbreak of food poisoning attributable to tainted chicken strikes part of the crew, and only Saffron and her charming, if douchey, Dick Dastardly-looking boyfriend – Eddie Molay – escape. The rest of the story revolves around Saffron and Eddie trying to survive and escape revenge attacks from the crime-lord who they attempted to rob. As the couple is doing so, Tony and his partner are assigned to solve the murders of the burglary-gone-awry from which Saffron and Eddie escaped, as well as some of the subsequent cases that ensue.

Family is a major element of the story’ tension. The cat-and-mouse between Tony and Saffron is only part of this, though it is a central element of the story. These characters are also put in situations in which they must determine if family comes before the other things they value, and they must cope with the fact that whatever they do happens within a familial context – i.e. they each have to face the shame of the family knowing who they truly are.

The art is whimsical, colorful, and easy to follow. The classic cartoony nature of the drawings is beneficial in maintaining a tone that is lighthearted, despite the many gruesome deaths that are depicted in graphic, but comically absurd ways.

This volume collects the first five issues (#1-5) of the series. I enjoyed the story, which was straightforward and entertaining. The premise of the book is unique, if odd — but better bizarre than cliché.

View all my reviews