Saturday, January 02, 2010

The Month That Was - December 2009

The Month That Was - December 2009: Kiss another decade goodbye. I almost certainly have fewer ahead than behind at this point. I'm still waiting for that mortality vaccine, and really, what is the hold up on that?

I finished yet another revision of the manuscript that will become Misspent Youth and now it's time to set it aside again and clear my mind of current preconceptions. Perhaps one more revision before we get to the final publishing sequence (which in itself will require at least two revisions beyond that). Until I'm ready, I'll go back to working on some ancillary writing projects that may or may not ever see the light of day.

As promised, I'm laying off the city of Detroit for this month. Detroit...lay off...there is a joke in there somewhere, but making it would break my vow. I finally finished Cloud Atlas; you can find my extensive comments about it below. I've since moved on to The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker, which appears to consist entirely of the thoughts going through a man's head as he rides an escalator back to his office after lunch. "Oddly compelling" is an insufficient description. More next month. My one bit of travel was to spend the long Christmas weekend at The Greenbrier -- a seriously high-end resort in the West Virginia Appalachians. I'm still way behind in photos; I got Tulum and Delray Beach up, but I haven't yet started Valley of Fire/Zion/Bryce Canyon, and now I have Greenbrier to do. I may never catch up.

Oh by the way, I have gone back and added labels to all the posts I made for 2009. At the end of every post you will now see the assigned label(s), such as 'Travel' or 'Books'. If you want to read more of that type, just click the label and they will all come up. I figure this brings me up to about 2003, technologically speaking.

Now bravely onward to 2010.

[Books] Book Look: Cloud Atlas
[Travel] Dressing for Dinner
[Movies] Suburban Samuel Clemens
[Cars] Automachinations
[Movies] Last Word on The Phantom Menace

[Books] Book Look: Cloud Atlas

Book Look: Cloud Atlas: If you troll for book reviews on the web, looking to fill out your reading list, you will inevitably stumble across a lot recommendations for Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell. As a monumental work of imaginative fiction that garnered short listings for the Nebula and Arthur C. Clarke sci-fi awards, it's not surprising that it would appeal to webheads. But it also won the British Book Award for literary fiction and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, so it's no genre baby either.

The book consists of a set of six novellas in a structure that is most aptly described as a Russian Matryoshka doll. You get the first halves of novellas 1-5 in order, then the entirety of novella 6, followed by the second halves of novellas 5-1 (reverse order). The effect is like a palindrome, or the winding and unwinding of a yo-yo, or perhaps the expansion and contraction of the universe. A short description of the six novellas:
  1. The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing. The time is the mid-nineteen century and story that of an American notary trying to make his way back across the Pacific to his home in San Francisco, written in the style Herman Melville. Along the way Ewing encounters savagery from both native and civilized men and experiences a brutal shipboard existence.
  2. Letters from Zedelghem. We move forward in time to Europe between the wars. This one is written in a droll Edwardian style. Driven, talented, but unknown and ne'er-do-well English composer Robert Frobisher flees debt and family shame in England by weaseling his way into becoming the assistant to a world renowned composer in Belgium. What starts out as the good humored, narcissistic romp of a young rake, turns serious. All this is told in the form of a series of letters written by Frobisher to his best friend back in England, Rufus Sixsmith. During his time in Zedelghem, Frobisher discovers and reads Adam Ewing's published journal and finds some sad poignancy.
  3. Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery. Set in the '70s and told in the flat, unadorned style of a flavor-of-the-month mystery. Crusading reporter Luisa Rey is investigating an uber-powerful nuclear power company that is covering up how unsafe their latest reactor is. Nefarious conspiracies, dastardly assassination attempts, death defying action, and criminal corruption clash in this pulse-pounding potboiler. You get the picture. The connection is that Luisa Rey's inside source is none other than Rufus Sixsmith. In the process, Luisa finds herself in possession of Sixsmith's most cherished possession, the letters Robert Frobisher sent him decades earlier.
  4. The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish. We have reached roughly contemporary times (maybe y2k) and so are given a big ol' dose of irony and satire. Cavendish runs a small-time vanity publishing house which has produced the autobiography of a powerful mobster. Things go sour, as they will when mobsters are involved, and Cavendish must flee for his life. He goes to his brother for help and his brother seems to contrive to have him committed to some sort of asylum, possibly as retribution for cuckolding him some years past. While trapped in the asylum, Cavendish suffers a stroke and struggles to simultaneously escape the institution and regain control of his body. All along, Cavendish, is evaluating 'Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey' mystery for publication.
  5. An Orison of Somni-451. We are now in the future where we find a Blade Runner-esque dystopia. The prevailing culture is a Korean Corporatism that has environmentally trashed the world and created a slave race of highly specialized clones. This story is told in the form of a final confession and explanation of a rebel clone, Somni-451, given to her legal representative before her execution. In the course of Somni-451's transformation from subservient clone to self-valuing humanity, she is exposed to a holographic movie of The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish.
  6. Sloosha's Crossin' and Ev'rythin' After. Now we move yet further into the future and have gone from dystopia to full-on post-apocalypse. We are back in the Pacific at a time when the world has almost totally fallen back to tribalism and subsistence living. The story centers on Zach'ry, a young member of one of the more advanced tribes (although still quite primitive). His family and tribe, along with others, live in constant threat from the Kona, a savage tribe that hunts, kills, and enslaves others. Zach'ry's tribe takes in a strange visitor from the final remnants of a technologically advanced civilization (which maintains a Star Trek-ian prime directive of sorts). Things go from bad to worse for Zach'ry and humanity. We discover that Zach'ry's tribe worships a deity based on Somni-451.

Cloud Atlas is a tour-de-force of writing skill, as I will get to briefly. But it is marred -- jarringly so -- by one serious flaw. The morality behind it is utterly infantile. Mitchell has stated that the primary theme of Cloud Atlas is predation; individual on individual, tribe on tribe, race on race, culture on culture. Fair enough, but every predatory situation is portrayed as perfectly black and white. The bad guys are all violent, conniving, and unremorseful and pretty much avowedly evil or nihilistic or narcissistic. The good guys are all victims and underdogs and prone to hand-over-the-heart nobility.

Before I go further, I'm going to start to get a little more detailed into the stories and there is the possibility of spoilers, although I will try to be circumspect. I should also note that this isn't a thriller with a secret twist at the end; even if I generate some spoilage it will not likely diminish your reading experience, but if you want to be especially careful stop reading now.

Story by story, let's briefly describe the bad guys and good guys.
  • The Pacific Journal...Bad guys: Native slaveholders, corrupt British profiteers, a nihilistic murderer, greedy Christian missionaries, shipboard child rapists; Good guy: A na‹ve, purehearted American who falls victim to his own trusting nature.
  • Letters...Bad guys: a plagiaristic domineering composer, his amoral wife, upper crust society in general by scornfully eschewing talented bad boy. Good guy: the bad boy talent, his brother who died in WW1 to no good purpose.
  • Half-Lives...Bad guys: Greedy capitalists, corrupt politicians, hired assassins. Good guys: Stalwart whistleblowers, a crusading reported who fights corruption in the memory of her father -- a good cop who stood up to bad ones.
  • The Ghastly Ordeal...Bad guys: a mob boss (cut straight from a Guy Ritchie film) and a Nurse Ratched knock off. Good guys: a mildly disabled third rate book publisher and a pack off sweet oldsters who only want to be treated with respect.
  • Orison...Bad guys: owners of McDonalds style restaurant, spoiled and carelessly murderous well off college kids; Good guys: A clone fighting for human rights, members of secret society dedicated to the same cause, a poverty swamped society of outcasts living outside the culture and on their own terms.
  • Sloosha's Crossin'...Bad guys: Sadistic genocidal enslavers; Good guys: a peaceful and idyllic tribe; the last remnants of civilization fighting to preserve itself.

Not a shade of gray in that list. Snidely Whiplash and Dudley Doo-right would fit in perfectly. The bad guys have no redeeming qualities, and the good guys are all noble, righteous, and pure. Not only are the normative ethics simplistic, but some of the cliches are so long in the tooth they're only worthy of MST3K.

Now, while the core morality of a work of fiction is very important, a book can succeed without a solid one, and Cloud Atlas does. But that is precisely the reason the childish philosophy behind it is so jarring. With respect to any other aspect of fiction, Cloud Atlas is a masterpiece.

The sequencing of the stories through history and into the future, something that most writers would have ham-fisted, is handled elegantly: implicit reincarnation, both subtle and direct repetitions from one story to another, circuitous returns to familiar places. The plot structure is surpassingly excellent.

For me, the most impressive aspect of Cloud Atlas is the mastery of writing styles. And not just the writing styles in themselves, but capturing the transformation of the English language as a by-product. From historic styles of 19th century formality, to Edwardian insouciance, to hardboiled potboiler, to irony and satire, then into the future through the dystopian corporate speak, and further to post-apocalyptic pidgin -- this transformation, happening as it does at the point of communication between writer and reader, adds a primal sense of realism that informs the experience of reading at a very deep level. This, to my mind, qualifies as genius. (Long time readers know how enthralled I am by contemporary attempts to use language in something other than a purely utilitarian way.)

Despite the formulaic nature of the characters, I cared about some of them. Frobisher was fun; and Cavendish. And despite the horrors and tragedies that are inflicted upon the good guys in "Sloosha's Crossin'..." and the unadulterated, shameless emotional button pushing, I found this story the most affecting of all. It may have been button pushing, but it was awesome button pushing. (I actually had to set the book aside and spend some time with the deliriously happy characters in Misspent Youth, to clear my palate before going on.)

So, as with all my book reviews, that leaves the question of whether you should read the book. Let me draw an analogy.

Suppose it was discovered that Rembrandt went off into his studio and began working on a new portrait. It was a work of astounding creativity. It drew on everything before it, but also looked to the future and used materials in ways they had never been used before. The quality craftsmanship was unprecedented. The vision and scope was as broad as humanity itself. It was a work likely to profoundly affect you for a long, long time. But the subject...well, the subject was: a velvet Elvis. A shatteringly beautiful velvet Elvis. Would you still want to see it?

By the way, the film rights have been locked up by the Wachowski Brothers, the duo behind another mind-blowing ride with a simpleton's core: The Matrix. Hmm.

[Travel] Dressing for Dinner

Dressing for Dinner: What's most astounding about this trip is that nothing went wrong. The travel plans were to fly out to DC on Christmas Eve (Thursday), drive 4 hours into the West Virginia mountains on Christmas Day, drive back then fly home on Sunday. In that span of days, apart from the standard holiday madness, there was a terrorist bombing attempt and a quasi-riot at JFK airport yet I skated through both ends of my air travels with nary an incident. That includes flying Delta (the airline in both the attempted bombing and riot incidents) in and out of Detroit (the destination of the would-be bomber). I must say, I noticed no security histrionics except for a polite TSA officer checking IDs and boarding passes at the gate, with an obvious goal of visibility rather than any sort of rule enforcement. I'm may be in the minority, but I think TSA did OK this time around.

The Greenbrier is a storied and venerable luxury resort in the Appalachians just across the border form regular Virginia into West Virginia, in the remote town of White Sulphur Springs. The name should tell you that mineral baths were how the town got its start back all the way back in the late 18th century. It's a small town; approximately two-thirds of the local residents are employed by The Greenbrier which was, and probably still is, the most high-society destination in the South and it is consistently revered by eminent luminaries and various species of the Southern hoi-polloi.

There's a fascinating social dynamic behind this long-term hospitality excellence. It's not easy for an organization to maintain stratospheric levels of service for decades on end. You can probably count the number of such places in the world on your fingers (and maybe toes). One strategy for doing so is to create an entire community, including history and culture, dedicated to the mission. Think of Disney essentially building Orlando in their image of service and magic (although the city has progressed way beyond just Disney). The relationship between the Greenbrier and White Sulphur Springs is almost the same, except that it arose organically and locally over more than a century. Generations of solid West Virginians in the area have devoted healthy portions of their lives to The Greenbrier and have never misstepped to the point of allowing it decay or even fall out of favor. That's a remarkable achievement.

This motivation to service apparently extends beyond the functioning of the resort since the Greenbrier was retasked as an Army hospital throughout WW2 and subsequently was the site of a top secret fallout shelter during the Cold War years (more on that later).

What's it like to stay at Greenbrier? It's nice. Very nice. But you must be comfortable with a certain old world formality in the atmosphere. This is reinforced from the moment you enter the grounds. The main building is an enormous antebellum castle of a structure. Horse drawn carriages would not be out of place pulling up to the entrance. The furnishings are ornate, gilded, and garishly colorful. The interior was designed by Dorothy Draper, who also did the similar Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island. You won't see a lot of plastic or aluminum or kid safe decor.

Like most historic properties, the rooms are outdated and a bit worn; there is only so much you can do to renovate centuries-old architecture and plumbing. Water pressure is anemic and electrical outlets are dear. But unlike some such rooms I have stayed in, the heat functions well and there doesn't seem to be a problem with noise (although that may be because of the high-end patronage). The bed is plush and comfortable and there is a walk-in closet. All in all, about as good as you can expect from a historic property.

The indoor pool is another beauty. (There is an outdoor infinity pool too, but of no use in December.) It is Olympic-sized with a deep-end depth of nine feet. And it is tiled -- not concrete, with stair step platforms into the water. The only thing missing for a full-on 1930's era swim experience were full coverage bathing suits and shower caps on the women. That and a diving board. I absolutely hate that lawyers have done away with diving boards and criminalized diving in general, so I took the opportunity for a few head first plunges into the nine foot end when the lifeguard's back was turned. There is a sort of faux sun-deck with lounge chairs and a separate area for patio furniture style chairs and tables where you can dine from the uncharacteristically substandard snack bar. There are fine locker room facilities available, associated with the spa, which is important because the idea is to bring your swimwear to the pool area and change there as opposed to wandering through the lobby in your bathing suit like common rabble. Anyway, I was really digging on the pool.

The grounds are lovely and roll gently through the Old South round-top mountains with footbridges across broad and shallow streams. One suspects fall and spring are stunning. In the current day, that spells real estate opportunity and the surrounding areas are filling up with tasteful rental properties starting at around $2 million and going up as high as you like from there. What real estate crash are you talking about?

I can easily see the attraction of a home in the area, especially a vacation home or summer estate, thanks to the activities available at The Greenbrier. These include: fly-fishing, skeet shooting, wing shooting, off-road driving, falconry (yes, the big scary birds that can peck your eyes out), hiking, biking...all offered with tours and instruction as needed. Tennis is big, but even bigger is golf, what with the Greenbrier hosting a PGA tournament. It is clearly a place you could go year after year to get your recreational fix. The Snowshoe skiing resort is a little over an hour away, but I suspect the warm months are prime time here. For an empty nester with means, not only would this be a fine semi-retirement but it would serve as a draw to get a far-flung family together every now and then.

Sadly, holiday scheduling and time constraints kept us from doing any of the activities, but we were able to take a fascinating tour of the bunker. What is the bunker you ask? The story is that back in the duck-and-cover fifties, President Ike determined that in the event of a nuclear attack, an effort should be made to save the legislative branch of government and keep it functioning in the post-apocalyptic world. Nowadays we know better and would readily offer them up as sacrificial lambs, but it was a simpler time. Plans were laid and palms were greased and construction of said fallout shelter began at the Greenbrier under the auspices of adding a new wing to the resort.

It was quite an undertaking and scores of Greenbrier employees had to be in on the secret to keep it going. After it was complete the fallout shelter's service staff doubled as Greenbrier staff to maintain the charade. Cover was finally blown in 1992 in a hubristic report in the Washington Post that justified itself by claiming the shelter was insufficient and needed to be exposed as such. The tour guides proudly point out that no Greenbrier employees had broken under questioning, it was a unnamed former government functionary who coughed up the validation.

The tour itself is interesting as a window on to how the government thought about survival back then. There was only room for legislators -- no families, and the military was empowered to forcibly remove the legislators and leave their families to deal with the apocalypse on their own if need be. The congresscritters would then be ensconced in dormitory style bunks, 60 to a room, fed military rations, and be serviced by a single assistant each until it was presumed safe to exit. Tellingly, at some point in the seventies, the leaders of both chambers contrived to have VIP suites where they could stay in a modicum of comfort while the rest lived on like college freshmen. No reason status symbolism should be affected by a little thing like nuclear war, after all.

The tour is loaded with little gems of information, especially for those of us who lived through those times. (It remains unsettling for me to hear events I have lived through and recall referred to in historic tones.) I highly recommend the tour. It's an interesting little distillation of a Cold War vignette.

One question that can be reasonably asked about The Greenbrier is whether it is timeless, or merely nostalgic. I'm not sure, but I'm leaning toward timeless. I don't think they set their policies based on a desire to reproduce the thirties, either 19- or 18-, they just seem to like the genteel formality of it all. Dressing for dinner is a perfect example. There is no attempt as far as I can see to generate some sort of old school dining experience. The waiters don't display any antebellum affectations and they don't force their employees into any of those embarrassing historically accurate costumes. Wi-fi is ubiquitous, though there are draconian filters in place. The main bar is no different from a nice comfy lounge you might find in any better hotel in NYC, except everyone is wearing coat and tie instead of metrosexual gear. They certainly don't stop folks from getting tipsy. One particularly sloshed woman attempted to engage me in conversation by asking, "So what's your fancy pants?" I plan to use that question on future job interviewees to see how they react to confusion. Turns out this woman was drinking herself silly in the bar while her husband was off in the casino losing a small fortune. Oh yes, there's a casino (coat and tie recommended). What could be more timeless?

One area where they keep scrupulously modern is food prices. Sweet Fancy Moses! You'd think you were at Wynn Las Vegas. A bottle of water is $2.50, entrees in the cheapest restaurant start at $20, and a mixed drink will run you around $15. And there is really no opportunity to be fugal since the nearest restaurants outside the resort are a significant drive off. I would rate the food good (in the cafe) to excellent (the main dining room), the service average but consistent.

Between the price and the formality, Greenbrier will only appeal to a select audience. If you can afford it, Greenbrier is a fine experience. It would work best if you could sync it up with your love of golf or tennis or fishing or wing shooting. Or at least you should give yourself enough time to sample the activities. It makes a great respite from the commotion and strife of the uncouth modern world. Just don't forget your Sunday go-to-meeting clothes. And your wallet.

[Movies] Suburban Samuel Clemens

Suburban Samuel Clemens: I didn't post anything the month John Hughes died because everybody else in the world already did, but he was always one of my favorites. Lost in the standard view of his films as sweet-and-sour adolescent comedies was his oblique appreciation of suburban middle-class life. It's not obvious what a radical concept this is until you give some consideration to how middle-class life is constantly portrayed in art as empty and phony. If you live in a nice middle-class neighborhood Hollywood will portray you as closet sexual deviant or a secretly violent criminal, or, God help you, a Christian. At best you'll be a repressed corporate stooge in dire need of some spiritual enlightenment.

I would guess at least 90% of the current inhabitants of the world, and probably 99.9999% of everyone who ever lived at any time in human history, would view middle-class suburban life as an outright utopia just on the basis of safety alone, never mind comfort and convenience and economic opportunity. But we sneer at it. We refuse to believe we are safe, expecting our children to be kidnapped at any moment or fall and bump their heads if they are not wearing a helmet. We spend our time perfecting the aesthetics of our yards or shuttling kids to soccer games or running home businesses on the side because we can grab a quick bite of fast food and find everything we need in one trip to Costco, but we decry the consumerist society that makes that possible.

There's a reason our culture has organically evolved the middle-class as it has, and it is because it's the exactly the life we have wanted; the best that flawed human nature has ever achieved. Appreciate it. Celebrate it. Enjoy it. John Hughes did. He laughed at it because, as a product flawed humanity, it will have its' share of absurd irrationalities. He found drama in it because, as a product of flawed humanity, there will be conflict -- pain and pleasure. But he also saw what a great achievement it is.

You certainly don't see a lot of that in the arts. The old TV show Wonder Years (oddly unavailable on DVD) comes to mind. And more recently the wonderful pop band Fountains of Wayne seems to take that tack, especially on their Utopia Parkway album. I am trying to hit that chord also in Misspent Youth; we'll see if I succeed. But for the most part cynicism and negatively rule the day.

All this came to mind when I happened to stumble on Sixteen Candles for the nine-millionth time, but the first time in ages uncut with no commercials -- 25 years old and it hasn't aged a day. And I saw that a new documentary about Hughes and his abrupt disappearance from Hollywood in 1991, Don't You Forget About Me, recently hit cable (haven't seen it, reviews mixed). For some reason, they neglected to interview me for it, but if they did I would have told them that I think Ferris Buellar's place in the Pantheon is right next to Huckleberry Finn, and the suburbs and the Mississippi aren't all that different.

[Cars] Automachinations

Automachinations: It's getting close to my traditional car buying year. The first new car I ever bought was a bright red stripper 1984 Toyota Celica (no a/c, power nothing, manual trans) -- an awesome little scootmobile in comparison to the hand-me-down domestics I had been driving up until then. It locked me in as a Toyota loyalist for a quarter century. Historic note: I was not allowed to drive it to a UAW presentation given at Solidarity House for a business school class outing back around '88, as they believed drivers of foreign cars were moral criminals. They got the pusillanimous pleasure of causing me inconvenience and in return never even considered buying a union built car for over 25 years. I guess they showed me.

After nine Michigan winters and countless road trips to Florida and DC, I gave it up and bought a new '93 Camry. It was a car more fitting my 30-something lifestyle. It had a/c and power and even a CD player, but the amazing revelation I got from it was the quiet. It was absolutely dead silent. A gas-powered tomb. I would go on long Saturday afternoon drives to little out of the way Michigan towns just to enjoy the existential peace of the smooth, easy ride.

Next time, again nine years later, I was a home-owner and had a little discretionary income and so decided to upgrade to a new Camry, an '02, purchased over the web. It has been a good car, perhaps a few more squeaks and rattles than the previous, but reliability has been literally perfect. Yet unlike the previous two, it hasn't been a revelation. Other than the creature comforts I could afford, it does nothing better than the previous Camry as far as I can tell. No shame in that for Toyota -- I mean, how much more seamless can the act of driving be.

So with my unplanned, but now traditional, nine year cycle coming up, I am informally in the market, but not absolutely locked into buying Toyota again. One option is Hyundai, what with them being the new Toyota and all. Both my Mom and my little brother have Hyundais and like them a lot. The other option is Ford. I know all the domestic makers have gotten government aid in one way or another, but at least Ford didn't participate in that hideous bailout. The new Taurus is getting good reviews and will likely be cheaper that the comparative 'yota, and the scuttlebutt is that Ford quality is now comparable to Toyota and Honda.

If I was really keyed in on the best deal I would likely be looking at a Saturn or Pontiac right now since GM is offering huge incentives to clear the lots of these now obsolete brands. But since I have a policy of paying outright for the car then keeping it for nearly a decade, saving a few bucks up front is not my primary concern. For now the Camry is still running fine, and I am putting miles on it at a much slower pace than previously. I guess I don't feel any hurry to keep to my nine-year plan, but I will likely be getting more familiar with the market and that means you'll be hearing about it.

By the way, if I had a single piece of advice to give to a young person starting out in life it would be: Do Not Have a Car Payment. I have seen people graduate from college and the first thing they do when they finally get a job is lock themselves into a five-year car loan for 20% of their take home pay. Avoid this any way you can. Buy used. If you must get a loan, buy a car you can drive for ten years but have it paid off after two. Remember, you might be dropping $1500 a year on insurance anyway (and maybe parking, too). Not having a car payment is a huge source of peace of mind and lifestyle flexibility when you are just starting out.

Oh, and one other thing: Get Off My Lawn! Damn Kids.

[Movies] Last Word on The Phantom Menace

Last Word on The Phantom Menace: It's been making the rounds on numerous web sites but I would be remiss if I didn't recommend this seven-part video takedown of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7) over at YouTube. (There is some naughty language and a hint of perversion, so be advised.) Narrated by a tightly twisted and deeply disturbed geek character, they are a total stitch. It bogs down in the middle but the start and the end are priceless, and behind the over-the-top psycho-nerd shtick is a truly righteous understanding of why the movie sucked so awfully. Yes, it's an old film from a previous century, but its continuing place in pop culture makes it relevant. Enjoy.