Book Review: The Thief by Fuminori Nakamura (four out of five stars)

The Thief

This is not what I expected.

I had heard about ‘The Thief’ (Japanese title: “Pick-pocket”) being a great mystery and crime novel, and that the book’s young author, Fuminori Nakamura, had won the 2009 Oe Prize (Japan’s largest literary prize), and I was thus interested in reading this book. The only other similar type of book which I had read was “The Devotion of Suspect X” by Keigo Higashino, and I was expecting a similar type of traditional crime novel with perhaps a twist near the end.

But, while The Thief is on one level this type of book, it is also very different from traditional books in this category. There is a strong philosophical aspect to Nakamura’s story, which is woven well into the main plot.

The story centers around a professional pickpocket (for whom the name which he uses daily is not shared in the book) who, along with two others, is hired by a mysterious man for a special theft assignment. They complete the assignment and he is paid a lot, but the next day it is in the news that their target was murdered. The main character all of a sudden finds himself involved in a complex and dangerous situation, where it is not clear if he will manage to find his way out.

There are subplots including one related to his old partner in crime who he meets after a long time, and another about a young boy who steals to survive, and who the Thief becomes friends with. This relationship with the boy is the only real solid relationship shared in the book in the present time period. There is also regular mention of a ‘tower’ which the Thief used to see as a child, although it is not so clear how this is related to the plot. Nakamura in addition spends time describing details about pickpockets – not only their methods, but also some justifications which they use for their crimes.

The book is relatively short, and Nakamura writes concisely and efficiently. Dialogues are brief, and the book moves along at a quick pace. Characters development is mixed; understood that there will not be in depth character development in a book of this length, but on the other hand some of the characters are not described in enough detail to really understand who they are and what their motivations are.

The pace picks up quite a bit near the end at is hard to put the book down. One is hooked through the last page, last paragraph, and last sentence. However, when I finished this book, my initial thought was that the book was good, but the overall storyline was not that different from other novels of this type, and I was tempted to give this book three out of five stars based upon the main plot only.

However, after thinking about this further, the book grew on me, and there were two areas in particular which I really liked: (1) the ending (which not all will like) (2) the philosophical theme throughout the book. With regards to the philosophy shared, it is more of an existentialist or absurdist type of philosophy, and there are shades of Camus in Nakamura’s work. But what prevents me from giving five stars is that, unlike the case of Camus where in works like The Stranger (also known as The Outsider) the book is both solid and complete, in The Thief there are still parts which are left too vague and ambiguous. Either the reader has not fully understood these unclear areas, or these are gaps in Nakamura’s work, but in either case this takes away from being able to give this book five stars.

In short, if you are looking for a more traditional mystery and crime novel, then this book is not for you, and I’d actually then suggest reading The Devotion of Suspect X. However, if you are interested in taking a risk with something both different and unique, which you may or may not end up liking, then this is definitely worth reading.

Rating: **** (four out of five stars)

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Book Review: ‘American Gods’ by Neil Gaiman – unique and genre-defying (4 out of 5 stars)

American Gods

Despite American Gods having been published in 2001 (with a revised edition in 2011 with some additional new text), I only heard about this book recently in relation to the television series of the same name. I have not yet seen the television series, but the premise sounded interesting, and I thus decided to read this book. American Gods won both the Hugo and Nebula prizes in 2002, and thus expectations were high for this book.

As soon as I got the book, I had second thoughts due to its size – 600+ pages! I wasn’t sure if it would be worth the effort to read this, but now – 600+ pages later – I can say it was worth the effort.

The underlying theme is about an upcoming battle between the old Gods and the new Gods of America. Who are these Gods? This is where the book is fascinating, innovative, and thought-provoking. The Old Gods are primarily the Gods brought to America from the countries where immigrants came from – one example would be the Norse Gods. First generation immigrants believed in these Gods which gave the Gods strength, but successive generations have believed less and less, or stopped believing all together, and this has caused the Gods to weaken over time.

The new Gods are the Gods of modernity – credit cards, shopping malls, television, etc. People have recently started to believe in these new Gods, which has given them strength, and this is thus the background of the battle which is brewing between the old Gods and the new Gods.

The story centers around a 32 year-old man named Shadow, who somehow finds himself unexpectedly slowly pulled into this world of Gods and upcoming battle. We follow his story as he slowly learns about what is going on, and then adapts accordingly.

The only other part of the plot which I’ll share, which is a part which I really liked, is that it is set in the ‘real America’. This is not the more well-known America of New York, Los Angeles, or Silicon Valley. This is the America in between the coasts, with small towns that have a certain character and charm, and with special ‘temples’ built that are uniquely American (the book explains details about these ‘temples’). This is the America of backroads through the Midwest, the South, and the West, and of ordinary people living ordinary lives.

The beauty about Neil Gaiman’s writing is that he combines these two themes – the battle of the old and new Gods, and life in the ‘real America’, to build a fascinating and creative story. This is the real strength of American Gods. To his credit, he also must have done quite a bit of research on Gods from different cultures across the world and throughout history, and this adds to the authenticity of the book.

I do have two gripes about this book. The first is that it does get a bit too slow at places. In fact, there was one point relatively early in the book where I thought about giving up. I’m glad that I didn’t, but some of these parts could have been shortened a bit. The second is the climax. I won’t say more, and it is not that the ending is bad by any means, it is just that I had different expectations and this part did not fully live up to my expectations.

Overall, the most amazing thing about this book is that it is so unique that it actually defies classification into a specific genre of book! Mystery? Americana? Fantasy? Magical-mystical? (e.g., such as the works of Salman Rushdie and/or Haruki Murakami), Mythological? Horror/Zombie?

The answer is ‘all of the above’ and more – and this is what, despite some minor flaws, makes American Gods an enjoyable and memorable book.

Rating: **** (four out of five stars)

 

 

 

 

 

Book Review: “When Breath Becomes Air” (five out of five stars)

When Breath Becomes Air

“When Breath Becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi is a not only stunningly well-written and very thought provoking, but it also really makes one reflect on the meaning and purpose of our lives.

Dr. Paul Kalanithi was a neurosurgeon and a writer. He was born in New York and his family moved to Kingman, Arizona, when he was 10 years old. He graduated from high school as valedictorian. He pursued higher education and obtained two Bachelor’s Degrees (English Literature and Biology) from Stanford, a Maters Degree in English Literature from Stanford, an MPhil in History and Philosophy from Cambridge, and an MD from Yale. He was just completing his residency for neurosurgery, and was also completing a fellowship in neuroscience, when he was diagnosed with cancer. He died 22 months later, and, in the period between his diagnosis and his death, he wrote this book.

The book has two parts – his medical career prior to his diagnosis, and his life after his diagnosis. In the first part he shares both the positives and the challenges of pursuing the field of neurosurgery. It is very openly written, and his description of the learning process – from classroom learning to doing actual neurosurgery – is fairly detailed and provides a rare insight for laypersons into this highly complex field.

In the second half, the doctor is now a patient. It is tough to read this second part (and the epilogue) as the author’s condition worsens. The author reflects on multiple topics in this section including his decision to become a father at this time, religion and whether or not God exists, and human relationships. However, through his introspection during this period, and his openly sharing his experiences, he provides us with important thoughts on the meaning and purpose of our lives – who we are, what we do, why we do what we do, and what will provide us with fulfillment.

Paul Kalanithi - picture

This book is an amazing book for three reasons. The first is the writing – the author is a truly gifted and powerful writer, which makes his writing all the more impactful. The second is the person – he is multi-talented, thoughtful, and insightful – and he writes with a surprising calmness despite his terminal illness. The third reason is that it will most likely have some level of impact on you and your life as you learn from the author’s experience and message.

The author passed away while writing this book – nevertheless, it does feel like a complete book and not a partially written book. There is an epilogue written by his wife Lucy which describes what happened after the main text of the book finishes.

Paul Kalanithi and family

Those who are interested in the field of neurosurgery will especially like this book since, as noted above, a lot of the initial focus is on this topic. However, even for someone not interested in this field, I’d still highly recommend this book because it will make one think and self-reflect, and – who knows – perhaps help to provide some guidance with regards to how we should live our lives.

(further information about Paul Kalanithi is available at http://paulkalanithi.com/)

Rating: five out of five stars

 

 

Good new about real progress…

This is a brief follow-up to my recent blog post on concerns about the weakening of our system of checks and balances. There is very good news about real progress in the past few days on the concerns highlighted, and that our system of checks and balances is working well.

With regards to checks and balances, this past Friday (February 3rd) Federal Judge James Robart blocked President Trump’s travel plan, and the good news for the system of checks and balances is that the DHS and the CBP – and actually the entire executive branch – is complying with this ruling. This is what was lacking a few days ago.

Article: Trump Just Got Checked and Balanced

Of course the DOJ has now appealed, and this will now most likely reach the U. S. Supreme Court…but this is all fine and is in line with how checks and balances work. The important achievement here is that the executive department is no longer violating this important foundational principle of checks and balances.

With regards to the second topic about NSC membership, there is also good news. Congress has heard our voices, and six Senators (Warner, Leahy, Feinstein, Harris, Heinrich, and Mekley) have introduced legislation to address this very serious concern. Of course there is still a long road ahead to get this passed, but this is a very important step in the right direction.

Article: Legislation to Codify Membership on the NSC

Finally, my post also mentioned concerns on Steve Bannon’s extreme views. Over the past few days there has been significantly increased visibility and awareness on this topic. This is important and should help further increase support for legislation such as above.

Article: Steve Bannon’s Obsession with a Dark Theory of History

Article: Time cover labels Bannon ‘The Great Manipulator’

Article: House Minority Leader Nancy Blasts Steve Bannon

Article: Leading Republican Senator John McCain Blasts Bannon Placement on NSC

Thus, in summary, very good progress over the past few days, and this shows the amazing power of both our system of checks and balances, and of what people can achieve by reaching out to their members of Congress.

However, we must avoid the risk of becoming complacent, and remain proactive. President Trump’s response to the ruling by the Federal Judge (tweeting about him being a ‘so-called judge’ despite him having been nominated by President Bush [a fellow Republican] and unanimously confirmed by the Senate!) hints that he is going to continue to push for expanded executive power, and thus we need to continue to be vigilant and proactive in terms of contacting our members of Congress.

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Open Letter to Congress for Ensuring Strong Checks and Balances

Dear Member of Congress,

As one of your constituents, I would like to first thank you for your service. This is much appreciated.

I am writing to share my serious concern about the possible deterioration to our system of checks and balances, and to request for you to take action to address this concern. This separation of powers is a critical foundation of our political system, and the checks between the executive, legislative, and judicial, branches as per the U. S. Constitution have prevented one branch from gaining too much power throughout our history.

My concern is that too much power is now starting to be concentrated in the executive branch beyond the norms envisioned for our political system. The example that best demonstrates this is how the recent travel ban has been handled. This was initiated via an Executive Order, which is in line with our political system since Presidents can issue Executive Orders. Multiple courts then issued stays limiting the order, with two judges calling for a complete halt to all detentions of anyone impacted by this ban.

This step is aligned with checks and balances, and the next step should have been for DHS and CBP agents to follow the court order. Instead, they ignored the court order and continued to enforce the Executive Order, which, to my understanding, is in direct contradiction to our system of checks and balances.

This action has continued without challenge, which has unfortunately minimized (at least as of now) the role of the judiciary as one of the two checks on the executive branch. This then leaves only one remaining check – the legislative branch.

I am thus writing to request for you to work with other Members of Congress to enact and support legislation which ensures the continuity of our strong system of checks and balances. One such example of this type of legislation is the bill introduced by Senator Feinstein for limiting executive authority under the Immigration and Naturalization Act. Understood that partisanship sometimes comes into play, but for such a critical topic as ensuring proper checks and balances, hopefully members of Congress – both Republicans and Democrats – can unite so that the legislative branch is able to provide appropriate checks on the executive branch.

Please also address any executive actions which, even if completely legal as per the U. S. Constitution, are unprecedented and risk over-concentrating power in the executive branch. One such example is President Trump’s recent appointment of Steve Bannon to the NSC. The NSC drives our national security and foreign policy, and membership has traditionally consisted of senior government officials with roles in these areas. On January 28th, President Trump added Steve Bannon as a permanent member and changed the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Director of National Intelligence from being permanent members to being optional.

This is highly unusual from whatever I understand about the purpose of the NSC – downgrading the role of two senior security officials and adding someone as a permanent member who has zero experience with being a senior official in any role related to the NSC. Given that Steve Bannon was the chief executive officer for President Trump’s campaign and is now President Trump’s Chief Strategist, this action to my understanding risks over-concentrating power and influence with the President beyond what has been our normal convention. If you believe this to be of concern, then I’d request if you can please review to see what Congress can do to address this risk via appropriate legislation.

By the way, the above argument is based purely on principle as related to checks and balances, and not on anything related to Steve Bannon’s views. However, his being known to clearly have alt-right extreme views (he himself just last year declared his website Breitbart News to be “the platform for the alt-right”) certainly adds additional concern to the above risk.

President Trump is our fairly elected president, and he deserves our support and respect as president. Most of his Executive Orders have been moderate and in line with our system of separation of powers, and do not thus require any additional legislative action. However, if we feel that the executive branch might be at risk of concentrating more power than is the norm as expected via our system of checks and balances, then it is important that we all speak out about this and take action to address this concern.

Thomas Jefferson stated, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty”. The above concerns may only be risks at this point, but I believe that these require us to be vigilant and proactive, and am thus contacting you accordingly. Please consider the views expressed in this letter, and, if agreed, then please take action as you feel appropriate.

Best regards,
Rohit

 

 

 

 

Letter to My Members of Congress Opposing the Recent Travel Ban

President Trump #ismypresident, and I decided to give him a fair chance (as both former President Obama and Hillary Clinton had recommended) and wait until after his inauguration to see how he would perform as President of the United States.

Now that we’ve seen his priorities and decisions during his first week, I am of the view that we should proactively speak up and lobby our members of Congress on any of his initiatives which we feel are extreme and not aligned with who we are, our founding principles, Presidential norms and expectations, and legal requirements. I will periodically be posting on this topic – and below is my first such write-up which was originally shared as a Facebook post on January 30th]


I just contacted my two Senators and my Representative expressing my strong disagreement with President Trump’s recently announced blanket travel ban (for multiple reasons), and would suggest that anyone who feels the same do so also.

Some thoughts if/when contacting your member of Congress:

(1) thank your Senator or Representative for their service
(2) ask them to represent your views, but focus on one main issue in the communication (whatever is highest priority for you) so as to not confuse your messaging. If multiple topics of concern, then would suggest sending separate communications for each topic.
(3) if they’ve already taken a stand representing your views, then thank them for doing so, but still write to them
(4) optional – but if you, like me, philosophically reject the entire concept of ‘alternate facts’, then please also ask your member of Congress to speak out publicly to challenge any such fabrications, and to also support the media in any such challenges. This type of behavior must not and cannot be normalized.
(5) remind them that you do vote (hopefully you do! smile emoticon:-)) and that your decision in the next election will be based upon how well they represented your views (if you voted for them in the last election, you can mention this also)
(6) mention about your usage of social media and how you will also share your feedback on your members of Congress via social media
(7) if your member of Congress is a Democrat and thus most likely already representing your views, still contact them so that they are assured about support for their positions
(8) if your member of Congress is a Republican, and thus may or may not be representing your views, PLEASE CONTACT THEM ON HIGH PRIORITY! If they are opposed to this blanket travel ban, then they will be reassured about support from their constituents for their position. If they are supporting this ban, then this group in particular needs to hear opposition views – hopefully enough such views to make them rethink their position.

I would like to follow-up on #4 above by thanking Senator Durbin Senator Dick Durbin, Senator Duckworth Senator Tammy Duckworth, and Representative Davis Congressman Danny K. Davis, for their support on topics such as above.

Book Review: Dark Matter by Blake Crouch (five out of five stars)

dark-matter

Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter is just…hmm…trying to find the right word here…it is just…AWESOME!

It is so hard to describe this book. At a high-level, it is a mix of science fiction and a love story. This might not sound so unique…but add in some quantum physics and philosophy…and you end up with a book unlike any that I’ve ever read before.

Jason Dessen, who is living an ordinary life, is one day abducted and knocked unconscious. When he awakes, he is in a completely different world where nothing – his family, his career, etc. – is the same. And as he realizes this, he wonders: which world is real?

The book is such a joy to read, with some surprises throughout the book, that I’m going to hold off on mentioning any further details on the plot. Crouch has written this book very well with a fast “on-the-edge-of-your-seat” pace which makes it hard to put this book down. It is well researched, and the plot is quite solid.

My initial concern area when I started the book was that Crouch does not spend time going into depth on details of the characters, their background, etc. But upon completing the book, it turns out that this actually works well for the story – had he gone into this level of depth, it would have slowed down the page-turning rapid pace which makes this book so exciting.

The only other minor concern is that upon reflection there are a couple of minor gap and/or unclear areas in the plot. But these are trivial and don’t have a material impact on this excellent storyline.

And, for fellow Chicagoans, an added pleasant surprise: the story is set in Chicago. It is great reading about various familiar landmarks and neighborhoods in this book.

For parents, this book does have a small amount of mature content, and, while teenagers would love the storyline, I would not recommend this for children and younger teenagers due to this content.

I highly recommend this book – not only will one thoroughly enjoy this, who knows…it might even change the way one views life a little bit… 🙂

Rating: Five out of five stars

 

 

 

 

 

 

age appropriate