Wednesday, May 02, 2007

The Month That Was - April 2007: Well look a that. It's now been almost two months since I did any traveling. That's unheard of. Not even a weekend away. Wow. I'll need to rectify that soon.

Apparently I did a lot of reading this month because that seems to dominate the posts.

Giving Up
Seeing Calvin Coolidge in a Dream
Link Slop
The Return of the Sopranos (and Entourage)
NFL Round-Up (fans only)
I Give Up: I did something I very rarely do but should do more often, and that is to stop reading a book before I finish it. There have been plenty of books in my life that I continued to slog my way through because I felt a duty to finish what I started. Why? What exactly is the pretext for continuing a book if you cease to be interested in it? Life's too short, isn't it? It might be because I felt like I would have wasted my money if I didn't. This month I found two books for free online, and in both cases I decided not to finish them. We'll see if I ever do this for a something I actually purchase.

You can get Kafka's Metamorphosis just about anywhere online (it's lived way past any copyright expiration) but is as good a place as any. I feel silly describing the story because if you are familiar with literature you know that it's about a man who wakes up one morning and finds he is a gigantic insect, if you didn't know that, well, how silly would I sound describing it to you?

Generations of serious readers have drawn all sorts of inspiration from it and discovered all sorts of meaning and symbolism in it. Haruki Murakami, whom I wrote about last month, is certainly one of them. I don't doubt there is depth there to be found, but it turns out I can't be bothered with a book unless I can get into the story and the characters. No one in the book seemed very human; they all came across as merely dramatic devices, not actual people. Anyway, after a couple of chapters I felt no compulsion whatsoever to keep going. Maybe if I was younger and my tastes were in the formative stage I might have hauled through it and tried to take it to heart. As it stands, I'll probably just have to make it through life unable to engage anyone in a serious discussion about Kafka. Pity.

The other book was one I recall having been assigned in a 10th grade English class, not reading, and faking my way through the subsequent exam -- Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig. It's available at something called and there is a ton of background info on a nicely done wiki.

It is only superficially about motorcycle maintenance and it is only marginally about Zen Buddhism. It is intended to be a philosophical tract about the conflict of deterministic and the intuitive, the romantic and the classical, and how it resolves into a search for value. During a road trip from Minneapolis to San Francisco, the author uses his interaction with his companions, his motorcycle and the landscape as a springboard for a series of explorations (which he calls "Chautauquas") along these lines.

Approaching the book again in adulthood, it held some promise. The framework is a story about his relations with his companions, his son, and his history of mental illness, which was reasonably interesting (again, I find myself mainly looking at story and characters). He was also doing a decent job as a travel writer.

But, oh the philosophical diatribes! It was strictly adolescent level stuff (I now understand why it was assigned in 10th grade) blown way out of proportion and loaded down with pomposity. That combined with his annoying habit of picking apart every word and action of his companions and turning it into some sort of character flaw, well the whole thing just put me in mind of another book I once read that had a mildly interesting story that was completely crushed by philosophical obesity: Atlas Shrugged. I did force myself to finish Atlas Shrugged many years ago. Not so Zen.... I was done with it after finish maybe one third. That, my friends, is wisdom ascendant.
Arcadia Found: The book I did finish was Seeing Calvin Coolidge in a Dream, by John Derbyshire. It is the story of one T.C. Chai, a former Chinese Red Guard who managed to escape to freedom in Hong Kong and eventually a solid happy life in the U.S. In alternating chapters, the first half of the book is taken up with a description of Chai's current life in the U.S. and his Chinese past.

Chai's past is alternately heroic and despicable. As a member of the Red Guard he was a pawn in Mao's purges and movements. He was a bully at best, and at worst was complicit in a particularly heinous act against an innocent for which he is convinced he will pay dearly for in this life or the next. (Ironically, it is also the beginning of his yearnings to emigrate.) When disillusion and hopelessness set in deeply enough he manages to summon the courage to swim though four miles of ocean straights to freedom in Hong Kong.

As a young man in Hong Kong he becomes infatuated with, and successfully pursues, a demure beauty, Selina, who is already betrothed to another. Although she remains committed to her pre-arranged marriage, their affair turns to love. After their inevitable break she lingers in his memory as the only epic and passionate love of his life, even after twenty years time, a completely agreeable marriage to another beautiful woman, and the arrival of an infant daughter.

Upon coming to the U.S., Chai decided to totally embrace America, in contrast to many of his immigrant cohorts, including his wife, who seem to keep their new country at arm's length. In the interest of thorough assimilation Chai has immersed himself in the literature and history of the West, and the U.S. in particular. He has passed through an obsession with Samuel Johnson, among others, and is now on to President Coolidge, the plain spoken, optimistic, Yankee moralist. In a minor way, this makes Chai is a bit of a tedious fellow; there is a touch of condescension in his tendency to frown on those of differing sentiments.

From a chance encounter he suddenly finds that his Hong Kong paramour now lives nearby, or at least within driving distance. Despite the years that have passed Chai finds himself courting infidelity and seeking out the lost dream of his youth. Luckily for him, his subtly perceptive wife connives to save him from himself with a little help from the ghost of Calvin Coolidge. The plot is slight and common (a wise woman saves a man from himself) but serviceably, if not gracefully, rendered.

The real treats here are Chai's ruminations on culture, immigration, fidelity, history and aging. (We actually don't get to the whole mid-life crisis plot until halfway through the book.) Derbyshire excels at calm and steady descriptions of disturbing emotion. His depictions of the horrors of the times of Mao are so even keeled that when you cringe at the events, you know it's the event and not the prose doing it to you. Equally heartfelt are the feelings of gratitude that Chai, and a number of the Chinese characters, express in having escaped the horrors of Mao and living the comparatively idyllic middle-class American life. In the character of T.C. Chai, Derbyshire has created a man in full -- good and evil, joy and despair, pride and regret, yin and yang. To wit, here is a brief self-reflection:
Perhaps I should begin to cultivate one of those long wispy beards. But I have lived some, I have not led a bookish life. I have watched helpless as my mother died. I have been a peasant, a soldier, a factory worker, and an intellectual. I have swum for my freedom, I have said farewell forever to a girl I loved beyond all reason. More: I have fought in battle, I have killed a man - or at any rate, tried to. I have committed rape, I thing I recall reluctantly, and with deepest shame. May Heaven forgive me for that.

Well, my pedant's cap came to me not from a life spent in libraries and lecture halls, but after suffering borne and suffering inflicted. I can wear it with dignity and humility, as it should be worn, not with the empty arrogance of the merely credentialed.

That's a beautiful passage. Profound and rather dark sentiments presented with refined neutrality so as to cause the reader no easy judgments.

Chai is certainly one of the most fully developed characters I have encountered in a novel. He doesn't really fit into a literary pigeon hole. In fact, as one enters the second half of the book and the plot goes from observations of Chai to the emotional mechanics of infidelity, the mid-life crisis aspect of the story seems a bit out of place, as if it is unworthy of the depth of the preceding topics. I would have been happy just to follow Chai's extended observations on how the Chinese and Western worlds differ as it is played out before him in the course of his day-to-day life.

Occasionally Chai can be a bit annoying with his habit of treating trivial events to be highly indicative of national culture -- both U.S. and Chinese -- but by and large his opinions are genuine and original, which makes the book worthwhile in and of itself; the product of a mature open-mindedness as opposed to low-rent moral relativism. It's a very intelligent and well thought out read, told with great clarity and excellent humor.

I give Seeing Calvin Coolidge in a Dream my highest praise of the month: I finished it. You will too.

(Marginally related aside: I am looking for a copy of a book entitled The Ugly Chinaman, by Bo Yang. I have only seen English translations sporadically around the web and they are running round-about $60-90. There is no way I will pay that much for a book (without the chance of hocking it on eBay for twice that in the future) so if anyone knows where I can get a copy for a reasonable price, please drop a dime.)
Link Slop: I haven't done a round-up in while so here we go:

• As it moves from a focus on chefs and food to quasi-reality gimmicky shows, the ongoing decline of The Food Network is described in cruel and profane terms by chef Anthony Bourdain. More recently: his take on the Food Network Awards. Killer stuff.

• I have developed a minor addiction to Ask Metafilter. Metafilter was an ancestor of many of the "Web 2.0" social networking sites that get so much press. It's not the same model really, but the spirit is the same. But the sister site, Ask Metafilter is the real gem. Site members can ask any and all sorts of questions (requests for info or opinions dominate) and the hive mind attempts to reply. I check in every 2 or 3 days to see what's been asked and invariably find some enlightening link to satiate my intellectual curiosity. A cut above other such sites in my view.

• Another addiction I have is Google Reader. It's really just a simple RSS reader, but like webmail, it's a big boon to be able to read it from home/work/road/wherever. Dead simple to set up, I have a ton of news sites of various flavors set up (blissfully free of politics) and it is my main source of information about the world. It's still beta so there is the occasional minor glitch but, like other things Google, it demonstrates how simple is better.
Is This the End of Big Tony?: I don't know what to make of the start of the end of the Sopranos. Everybody is waiting to see who gets whacked and we've gotten a lot of NY/NJ war set up, abut what's really interesting to me is how they are starting to close the books on some of the characters.

Uncle Junior's life ends up with him as a medicated half-wit in some nursing home. Johnny Sack is in the ground unable to accomplish the one thing most valuable to him, providing for his family. Paulie will never be more than an ass-kissing buffoon with nothing more than an ability to keep Tony from killing him to show for his life. Carmella cannot be happy with her success selling her house, too concerned about the shortcuts she took in the building of it and how they might come back on her (can you say "metaphor"?) It looks like A.J. is now being set up for something or other. These guys are all coming to ruin, one by one.

You see, my bet is that Tony doesn't get whacked (although I don't doubt there will be at least one juicy killing) and at the end, things go on as before, but we will have seen that the family with a dark secret is irreparably damaged and probably unsalvageable -- the wages of sin, and so forth. That would fit with the theme of the show more than any grisly massacre. The world will be loudly disappointed, but the tiny minority of people who appreciate great drama will not.

On the other hand, I could be wrong and the finale turns out to imitate Cleaver, but I don't think so.

I've also been watching the new season of Entourage. It's a lightweight sitcom; basically a male/West Coast counterpoint to Sex and the City. The four leads wander the city like children in a toy store of hedonism. No judgment is passed about their narcissistic lifestyle -- which is OK with me. It's just a lightly humorous fantasy after all. If it did not come on immediately after The Sopranos I'd probably never see it, but man does not live by brow-furrowing drama alone.
NFL Round-Up: Checking in on my two NFL teams -- in the AFC we have the Dolphins setting us up for a big dose of kool-aid. To wit:

• Last year's first round pick, Safety Jason Allen, was a non-factor, but that was because he held out of camp and never caught up with all the learning a rookie needs to do. He may live up to his promise this year.

• Last year's seventh-round pick, D-Tackle Rodrique Wright, was a first considered a first round talent until he was found to be concealing a wrist injury. He's all better now and may turn out to have been a steal for the Fins.

• Joey Porter was signed at linebacker after being released by the Steelers. Porter is a top talent, or at least he was; he's not getting any younger and Fins have plenty of, ahem, "well-seasoned" players. Of course the upside is the potential for high comedy from a guy who celebrated his signing by going to the Palms casino in Vegas and having his entourage assault another NFL player at a poker table. Those who believe the Fins needed "attitude" are rejoicing about this.

• Joey Harrington is gone and Duante Culpepper is likely on the way out leaving Cleo Lemon
as the top QB but there is a good chance that Trent Green may be signed.

• In one of the most profoundly stupid picks in the history of the draft they used their 9th pick to take wide-out Ted Ginn. Ginn should have been lucky to go late in the first round or early second. Just awful. I can't even contort myself enough to find any justification except possibly it was just a bad mispronunciation of "Quinn." Oh wait...I'm supposed to be finding reasons to be positive, aren't I? Um...Ted Ginn may get healthy for training camp.

I'm sure I'll drink the Fins Kool-Aid again this year, but it will be that nasty green Kool-Aid, and it'll have dead bugs in it. Oh well, let the Cleo Lemon to Ted Ginn era commence. The sooner it starts, the sooner it's over.

In the NFC, the Lions remain the Lions. If Kitna stands tall in Martz' schemes and the receiving core doesn't underachieve, we could have a very entertaining offense this year. Might be fun to watch. I have a certain amount of sympathy for Matt Millen. He drafted wide receivers three times in four years, two of which were total busts, then he's standing there on the clock with the second pick and the player that stands head and shoulders above the rest is a wide receiver. So that makes a wide out first round pick in four of the last five years. This could only happen to the Lions. Let me quote Mike Tanier over at
According to an NFL Network report, Lions offensive coordinator Mike Martz convinced Millen to select Johnson by explaining how he would use the receiver in his offense. "I plan to have Jon Kitna throw footballs to him," Martz explained. "Gosh, I never would have thought of that," Millen replied. "Now back to my Spider-Man coloring book. Staying between the lines is ever so hard."

Meanwhile, Drew Sharp of the Detroit Free Press has already made the prediction that Lions will go 3-13. Way to go out on a limb there, Drew.

In direct contrast to the remedial mind of Matt Millen, when it come to off-season moves the Pats are on another level. I can already see them as the odds on favorite, what with their loaded up receiving core. The Randy Moss thing looks controversial, but it's not. If he turns out to be a bust or a locker room cancer, they are so stacked at that position they can sit him or cut him and still be six receivers deep. It's Belichick's league, we just watch on TV. I guess you can accomplish a lot if you don't waste any thought on your appearance. (Seriously, Belichick must get endless pleasure from being in the same division as Miami. What an advantage to know that you can just sit back and wait for 25% of your division to systematically hang themselves.)

Oh and by the way: Did I not completely and perfectly ID Michael Vick as a cretin years ago when I started my Sick of Vick campaign in his rookie year? What a heaping pile of pot-smoking, bird-flipping, Valtrex-snarfing sleaze he's turned out to be.