Tuesday, July 08, 2008

The Month That Was -- June 2008

The Month That Was -- June 2008: Hoo boy am I late this month! I'm not really sure why. I spent a mess of evenings running my pile of Newfoundland pics through my Photoshop routine; spent a fair amount of time sick (for the first time in over a year a think); spent a weekend in Chicago (more below); was attempting to keep up a social life (with only marginal results); and finally, I had a bunch stuff written up to post but I had to do somewhere other than my home computer so I saved it to my flash drive, only to lose my flash drive before I got it copied over. That last one caused me to curse my luck, my life and pretty much the entirety of existence. So I guess a really do know why I'm so late.

Last month I promised to have the trip report on Newfoundland and possibly do a literature round-up. Well, Newfoundland is not ready, so I lied a little bit. But I am going to feed you a whopping four book reviews in addtion to the usual nonsense.

Tender is the Night
Thus Was Adonis Murdered
Smile When You're Lying
Unknown Quantity
Still My Kinda Town
Politics Free Zone
The End of the End of the Sopranos
The Big Lolbowski

Tender is the Night

Tender is the Night: I took my time reading Tender is the Night, and I'm glad I did. It merits a lot of thought. At the risk of eliciting an Oh-my-god-we-know-what-the- book-is-about-from-freshman-literature-just-get-on-with-it reaction, let me do a quick synopsis.

Dick Diver is prodigal young psychiatrist starting his career in Europe just after WW1. A handsome alpha-male, he is admired by all. He's is practicing at a plush sanatorium, when a beautiful schizophrenic named Nicole comes into his care; her illness having been brought on by an act of incest. In time, he commits an egregious violation of ethics by falling in love with Nicole and marrying her and taking her away under his personal care.

Nicole it seems is enormously wealthy. They fall in with a well-heeled party crowd; rich but damaged revelers who swarm around Dick and Nicole as their ideal. However, privately Nicole needs constant attention and always seems to be teetering on the brink of a meltdown. The combination of the hedonistic life and neediness of his wife begins to act as a drain on Dick. His work -- his psychiatric theories, his writing -- gets thrown by the wayside.

Into this mix appears Rosemary, a naive, teenage flavor of the month actress who develops an intense crush on the rather older Dick. The attraction in mutual and immediately obvious to Nicole. Although they don't consummate their mutual attraction the Dick/Rosemary relationship in combination with other events takes its toll on Nicole and she breaks down, and seems to be regressing.

More and more Dick's facade of masterfulness starts to slip away, accelerated by the death of his father. He subsequently does meet up with Rosemary again and they make love, but there is no follow through emotionally. Dick is left feeling beaten and unhappy and worst of all, he begins to see himself as a kept man. He frequently over drinks and engages in embarrassing behavior.

Meanwhile, perhaps in response to Dick's degradation, Nicole becomes more and more self-assured. She slowly comes to term with her past. She even takes a certain cruel pleasure in the image of Dick as a kept man. In time she takes her own lover. She and Dick finally divorce.

A dry description such as that makes it seem like the stuff of bad soap operas, but each flex point in the plot carries an stunning amount of emotional complexity, and when considered as a whole I cannot think of a more fully realized piece of humanity. It is on the face of it one of the purest tragedies ever written. It is the story of a man who is drained of life by his own idealism.
At the outset of his adult life Dick is brimming with intellectual energy and the power of his youth as he begins his career in psychiatry. He has high minded revolutionary ideas that he wants to pursue. He is clearly accustomed to being personally impressive. In fact, he is said to think of this time as his "heroic period."

Then comes the encounter with Nicole and subsequent romance and marriage. We try to discern what it is about Dick that would make him take such unethical actions -- what was it about Nicole that triggered them? Fitzgerald doesn't take the clear and easy road. We are left with a raft of possibilities: 1) Her physical beauty, 2) The professional challenge she offers, 3) Her money (we are forced to wonder if Dick isn't such a hero and is motivated by easy leisure as much as anyone else), 4) His chivalric instinct (he does see himself as heroic, after all).

Any one alone would be the stuff of boilerplate. Fitzgerald gives us all of them -- subtly, sometimes not until well after the fact. Character and motivations proceed to feed off each other and while we are left with uncertainty about the specifics, we are more certain of the character in full.

At each turn of the plot we are offered similar open-ended options -- the fateful meeting with Rosemary; interactions with the crowd of flawed and damaged hangers-on who circle the couple; an ultimate attempt to preserve his marriage and resume his career; the final betrayals. All of which continually build Dick's humanity through half-understood hints about motives.

At the end of the book, the point of view shifts to Nicole. She is now fully "cured" and has no need for Dick's attention any longer. Now it's she who is fully alive while Dick is spiritually drained. She has begun an affair and wants divorce. Perhaps she resents his affair with Rosemary. Perhaps she is simply a different person from when they met and no longer loves him. Perhaps it's an affirmation of independence. Perhaps she feels a debt of guilt to him for his years of care and it manifests as hostility. Again we don't know the specifics but the character is fuller for them.

Some reviewers, on full contemplation, think that end came because of Dick's ultimate success in curing Nicole, which was, at least superficially, his goal. Thus, there is a certain happy aspect to the ending. His work is done, so he can ride off into the sunset. That is, I think, way too easy. It may also be important to remember Fitzgerald, was in a real-life disaster of a marriage to a nut case. I doubt he found anything happy in such situations.

The end of the book is, in its way, as harrowing as any horror story. We stay in Nicole's point of view as her communication with Dick dwindles. In time, he no longer writes or asks for time with their children. He moves to from small town to small town, each more remote than the last. Eventually, she only knows what she hears piecemeal from rumor. At the end, she only thinks of him in passing once in awhile. The heroic young man, who so many loved when it was to their benefit, has ceased to exist except as an occasional musing in the mind of disinterested soul.

I wish I could do that. I wish I could write a character and story so complete. I wish I could find the perfect balance between the vague and the complex. It takes incredible talent, something Fitzgerald had in excess.

I'm going way out on a limb here, but upon consideration, I think it beats Gatsby.

Thus Was Adonis Murdered

Thus Was Adonis Murdered: The first of four mysteries by the late Sarah Caudwell will make you want to read the rest. A ludicrous murder mystery set in Venice is solved long distance by a pack of dry and droll English barristers in a somewhat Rumpolian vein -- delightfully lighthearted, more than a bit randy, and exquisitely written in a quasi-Edwardian style (despite its setting in the 1980s). Highly recommended if you need something trivial and fun, yet clever and sharp.

Let me describe it another way, I picture this book being read by elegant women in beachside cabanas who grin slyly at the more witty passages. And yet I enjoyed it to pieces.

(That doesn't make me gay, does it? Um, no, it doesn't.)

Smile When You're Lying

Smile When You're Lying: Chuck Thompson spent years in the trenches churning out those fluffy, content-free pieces that seem to recycle through glossy travel mags, including the ones in the seat pocket in front of you next to the air sickness bag. I can't imagine anyone thinking those represent the actual process and experiences of travel any more than Hogan's Heroes represents Nazi prison camp life. Real travel stories, while occasionally interesting, would piss off advertisers and so magazines and guidebooks actively omit them. The traditional travel writing industry is really in the fantasy business.

Apparently some people feel the veneer must be maintained because, in Smile When You're Lying, when Thompson explained how a lot of this nonsense simply amounts to re-summarizing other articles and doing web research, the industry took umbrage. Press releases flew about and a minor scandal (precious to any writer) was born.

To his credit, Thompson came out and said that the passages in question were really just a small part of the book -- which is true -- and really aren't such a big deal -- which is also true. The book as a whole is something of jumble -- part travel expose, part trip reporting, but mostly autobiographical. We are treated to extended sections on Thompson's adolescence in Juneau and his early adulthood as an ESL teacher in Japan. We then move on to his experiences with the standard travel industry as described above. He discusses some of this trips and then goes on to provide a long and rather tiresome explanation on what is the matter with Americans and their travel habits and how it is all related somehow to Bush/Cheney/Evil Corporations.

There is a class of travel writing, which can be thought of as "counter-travel." These sorts of books turn the fluffy stuff on its head, by writing about bad experiences, rip-offs, ugly hotels, and surly natives, with heavy doses of irony and snide humor. There are always semi-dangerous or quasi-illegal activities going on. Colorful expats play a crucial role. There is even a subclass of this sort of writing about white westerners opening bars in exotic foreign locales and, while they didn't make any money, they sure had a great time. Understand: these are real experiences. They are genuine. Your last trip to Cancun was pathetic by comparison.

The problem with counter-travel writing is that it's really just as bad as the fluff it counters, it simply defines itself by a different set of cliches. Instead of being studiously detached, it is personal to the point of a rant (it's all about Chuck). Instead of being carefully neutral and bland, it imbues each scene with opinion and judgment and sarcasm (that Chuck is quite a character). Instead of coddling, it is designed to challenge -- but one suspects it only challenges the appropriate sort of people (these would be the people who wish they could do the cool things Chuck does). You see, Chuck is a guy who has been there. Maybe one day, you will get there too. It's still a fantasy being sold.

If you are the right sort of people, you'll get a kick out of this book. Thompson has a solid fundamental game. He tells good stories. He shares my feelings about the Caribbean (overrated). His prose is lively and concise. He manages a just the right amount of self-depreciation when he's getting to be a bit too full of himself. In fact, chances are you are the right sort of person. You don't get a book contract without the publisher being confident in the size of the audience, and that means it probably includes you. So please, don't take my negativity as a reason not to buy the book. In fact, at the risk of contradicting everything I have just written, I hope Thompson keeps plugging away. He's clearly smart and funny guy and I would approach his next book with an open mind.

But I had hopes for an original voice in travel writing and I didn't get it. I got the cool cliche‚ instead of the square one. Interestingly, in my favorite chapter (the one on the Caribbean), he recounts a confounding comment made to him by David Swanson, a Caribbean guide book writer:

[Swanson said,] "In the middle of Curacao is a big oil refinery that belches soot all day. Right next to the oil refinery is the oldest Jewish cemetery in the new world...It sends chills up my spine. Because of all the soot the gravestones are eroding so badly you can't even read a lot of the names."

David put a bow on this enchanting package by saying something I immediately made him repeat...

"It's one of the coolest places I've been in the Caribbean."
Now there's a guy who should be writing a book; someone with that point of view has to be worth hearing out. Unfortunately, nobody has fantasies about soot-covered cemeteries.

Unknown Quantity

Unknown Quantity: I didn't make it. I didn't make it through. Unknown Quantity is a pop math history of algebra, by John Derbyshire who previously authored Prime Obsession, which was the story of the search for a solution to the Reimann Hypothesis with sidelights on the nature of prime numbers. I liked Prime and was able to follow it pretty well. Unknown Quantity lost me.

Some folks cannot understand the first level of abstraction where x and y variables are used to solve simple equations. Others can go further. Some mental mutants even find new levels of abstraction. It is, I suspect, built into our wiring. Algebra is, simply put, abstraction in its purest form. In the discipline of Algebra, new fields open up when someone comes along and finds a new level of abstraction. From simple x and y unknowns, to classes of numbers and equations represented by other symbols and operators, to classes of classes given yet newer gadgety symbols, to classes of classes of classes... Derbyshire does his best to explain this, and if you are an equation tinkerer or you spend your spare time doing IQ tests you might get a kick out of the samples and examples. But I got to the point where I would cringe when he would casually toss out a "You can easily calculate from table 12.1..." or an "As is obvious from figure 16.3..." My days of trying to understand higher math are long past. I will have to go to my grave unable to find the root of a matrix, or whatever is going on.

More importantly, I found the historical sketches a bit less compelling this time around. Frankly, the personalities involved in the history of Algebra are less interesting than the ones from Prime. So, no, I didn't make it to the end. Approach this book with caution. You'll need paper, pencil and maybe an HP-15C calculator.

Still My Kinda Town

Still My Kinda Town: Chicago was tugging my sleeve. This was spur of the moment weekend, just to break routine, and it was sweet.

I took the train. If you can take the train without adding time to your trip, you should. Amtrak advertises four and a half hours. In my case I drive the fifteen minutes into Ann Arbor, pick up my ticket at the station, and I'm ready to go. Contrast this to a half hour drive to DTW, a wait for the parking lot shuttle, a wait to check my bag and get my boarding pass, a wait to get through security...why rehash it, you know the score. Even when a storm knocked out the train signals, forcing us to complete a long stretch at a speedy fifteen mph, we still completed the trip in a little over five hassle-free hours. If everything went perfect (as if) it's four hours via air. The choice is clear.

So, I had a day and a half in Chi-town and first up was an extended visit to the Taste of Chicago. Most cities have a "Taste" and Chicago is one of the best. I had shark-on-a-stick, a spicy cup of gazpacho, and I got my deep dish fix from the Lou Malnati's booth. Then I sat for a while listening to Lovers in Arms, a funky hot little outfit that deserves better than quick set at a food festival.

In the afternoon I wandered over to Millennium Park -- still a great place -- and snagged a seat at the bar in the Park Grill to watch battle of Chicago: Cubs vs. White Sox. Like always, the crowd in Chicago is was friendly and everyone was chatting about whether they were south side or north side fans. Case in point, I had a nice conversation with the girl next to me, a trial lawyer raised on an Iowa farm, who was so trusting she left me (almost a complete stranger) in charge of her purse while she hit the ladies' room. The Cubs got slaughtered, by the way.

In the evening I headed down to Navy Pier where a Tony award winning production of Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors was staged, but they had the temerity to sell out before I got there. So I wandered down to the beer garden and had a ludicrously delicious Italian beef sandwich, followed by a nightcap and some excellent jazz at Joe's Be Bop.

The next day I stopped for Jamba Juice breakfast then immediately rented a bike for a nice long ride along the lakeshore. I headed north towards the beaches, seemingly along with half the population. Folks were generally lazing in the sun. One thing I noticed was a small course set up for open water swimming and the triathletes were out in force. Further north you come to the big beach bar where all the volleyball nets are set up. They were full. My next visit will involve some extended time at the beach.

Finally I turned south down and headed all the way down to museum campus. I made my habitual pilgrimage to the Tsavo Lions exhibit at the Field Museum, had a bite to eat, trolled some of the other exhibits, then headed back to turn in my bike. I made a final stop at Hotel Sax and had snack in their high end bowling alley / ultra lounge called 10 pin. Nothing special about the lounge, but it looks like it could be fun with a group. Then it was time to leave.

Just about the perfect weekend in my kind of town.

Politics Free Zone

Politics Free Zone: I've developed a minor obsession with reading Tyler Cowen's blog Marginal Revolution. Cowen is the author of the pop economics book Discover Your Inner Economist, and he writes about just about anything that comes into his purview from a market economics perspective.

I came across one passage in a .pdf of an old paper he had linked up that absolutely perfectly describes why I do not engage in discussions on the politics of the day. To wit:

Just about everyone thinks that their political views are better than the views of smarter or better trained others. On economic issues, few voters defer to the opinions of economists. Nor does this appear to be a well-grounded suspicion of experts. Many citizens are deliberately dismissive, stubborn and irrational. At the same time these individuals maintain a passionate self-righteousness. They are keener to talk than to listen, the opposite of what an information-gathering model would suggest. Individuals tend to believe that their private self-interest coincides with the national self-interest. Debates and exchange of information tend to polarize opinion rather than producing convergence.

Individuals often continue to hold their political views even when a contrary reality stares them in the face....[There is significant] self-deception in human behavior and in politics. By self-deception I mean individual behavior that disregards, throws out, or reinterprets freely available information. Individuals frequently treat their personal values as a kind of ideal point, and assume that the pursuit of those values also yield the best practical outcome.
I'll add something to that. Right now I would wager you are telling yourself that it is true, that people do that sort of thing all the time. What you are not saying is, "I do that all the time." That should tell you something.

The End of The End of The Sopranos

The End of The End of The Sopranos: When The Sopranos ended last year I developed a fascination with the famous black ending. Specifically, I found it interesting that everybody was debating whether Tony was dead, when in fact it didn't really matter. That wasn't the point. Still, just to finally put the matter to rest, we now have the definitive answer. Tony is dead and here is the evidence. There are lots of good points in this essay, but the POV evidence and the timing of the shots of the Tony looking up at the door are incontrovertible to me.

The Big Lolbowski

The Big Lolbowski: Profound genius. The Big Lebowski/LOLcat mash-up. You will need to know the tale of the Dude well and be down with LOLcats. If you are, you will see genius. If not, your nose will scrunch up and you'll say, "Huh?"