Thursday, November 08, 2012

The Month That Was - October 2012

The Month That Was - October 2012: The most wonderful, glorious event of the month was the final lawn mowing the year. I survived another season long battle with the demon lawn, even at one point finding a common enemy in Creeping Charlie (don't ask).

The strangest thing that is going on is that I don't feel like reading. I usually have two books going; one in the car that I read in snippets (during lunch and so forth) and one for reading a chapter or two prior to bed. The Coup, reviewed below, was my last car novel and my bedtime reading was a continuation of my entirely self-indulgent reading of the young adult Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan, which I will likely review in it's entirety a couple of years from now when the series is complete. Since completing those I am totally unenthusiastic about their replacements (which I won't identify just yet). What I would normally do is just pitch them get something new but the problem isn't the material, the problem is finding desire for reading anything at all. this is a new experience for me. I don't know what is going on. Some sort of low-level depression maybe? Perhaps it's my subconscious telling me to do more writing instead. Whatever it is I hope I figure it out soon.

I also had my first experience with vandals at my new house. We have street lights all over the neighborhood, including one in from of my house. Although they look sturdy, the poles are not metal, they are fiberglass and apparently some kids (I'm guessing local high school types) have taken to pulling hard enough on them until they snap. The kids then flee, usually baseball batting a mailbox or two along the way. None of this is going to cost me any money other than a possible increase in neighborhood association dues. It causes me no fear. I know this is the sort of thing kids do and frankly they could do a lot more damage than that. Still, I find myself angry and thinking of how badly I like to get a hold the miserable little brats with my own ball bat. I am now on the direct opposite side of the fence when it comes to teenage antics than I was as a youth. I am now exactly the sort the mean old man who young'uns like to trash for kicks. My journey to the dark side is complete.

Oh and I heard there's an election or something going on. I don't care.

[Books] Book Look: The Coup
[Travel] Oh See OC
[Football] Pigskin Potluck

[Books] Book Look: The Coup, by John Updike

Book Look: The Coup by John Updike: John Updike was probably the last great novelist there will ever be, by which I mean the last novelist with any mainstream cultural power. He came up mid-20th century along with all the other glory boys at William Shawn's New Yorker and outlasted most of them. He both preceded and outlasted the last literary movement, the fast burning Beats. Who is there to replace him? Haruki Murakami is deeply, but not broadly, popular. Tom Wolfe is bombastic and audacious, but not much of a stylist and will always be thought of as a journalist first. Jonathan Frazen? He's a magazine cover boy and certainly on every hipster's kindle, but he seems more a creature of zeitgeist than organic influence. The point is not whether they or any other novelists are good enough. The fact is nobody reads mainstream fiction; it is culturally insignificant like all forms of art except film and television -- so it's really silly to even consider a novelists cultural influence. Updike was the final link to the heroic age of the American novel.

Updike's big splash was the classic Rabbit, Run back in 1960 (already well into the waning of the novel). He gained a reputation as commentator on the state of America -- especially the suburban middle class. The reality is that Updike was not so limited in scope and always had a broader view, as evidenced by The Coup.

At first look, The Coup couldn't be further from Updike's wheelhouse. It is the story of a monstrous dictator of an hellhole of an African country. This dictator, one Hiram Felix Ellellou, known in college as "Happy", has deposed the king of the nation in the name of Marx and Mohammed, although his power seems to stem mostly from the awe of the peasantry in his big black Mercedes and his willingness to have his henchmen kill or imprison the anyone who is inconvenient to him. In short, he is one of the stripe of dictators who regularly appear in destitute third-world hell holes.

It's entirely possible that Ellellou believes the tropes of his Muslim/Marxist mashup philosophy, but if so, only briefly and superficially. He occasionally makes noises about leading his people to spiritual well-being and economic independence. But even he has to face the fact that his people can't see past their noses to anything larger and that without the aid of the outside world they would be living in caves. He cannot stop his constituents from trading in slaves, nor prevent them from partnering with the hated U.S. for oil riches -- at least not without slaughtering them.

This foreign setting stems from Updike's travels in Africa as a visiting scholar. But he's still Updike, so the best portions of the book happen back in the U.S. or in the descriptions Ellelou's marital interactions.

through flashbacks we see that Ellellou was an abandoned child in French colonial territory. He grew up to participate in some of the mid-century conflicts of the French Indochina (on the French side) then somehow found himself as a college student at a small liberal arts school in Wisconsin. Here he experiences, if not outright racism, than racialization of society. A white woman gets involved with him, mostly out of a desire to be rebellious than anything else. He falls in with a bunch of Nation of Islam types. The entire litany of racial hypocrisy is on display for him. He ends up with a low-level anti-white sentiment, but again, one senses it is not out of passionate belief, but out of utility, even acknowledging that a belief system is only as good as it's consequences. Entitled hypocrisy or the middle class -- despite the exotic setting we are now on Updike's home turf.

But mostly, Ellellou is overwhelmed and confused by America. There is too much too take in, too many products, too many complications, too many ideas, too much stimulation. He yearns for clarity and simplicity and in doing so comes to see his empty, destitute homeland as a paradise and America as a destroyer.

Back in his homeland, he deposes and eventually beheads the king (a former mentor), pulls some stunts that make him look magical to his backwards constituents, and intimidates or kills anyone else who gets in his way, yet he still can't see the way to glory. His has a interior minister, who is clearly smarter and more practical than he, just primed to pull a coup of his own. More prominently, he has to deal with his allotment of four wives. Here again, Updike steps back into a realm he knows well -- marital dynamics. In the face of his theoretically absolute political and social power, his wives retain personal power. He still longs for their approval and spousal respect. In varying ways he gets this, despite the fact that a couple of them have borne numerous children in the face of his impotence. The push and pull of husband and wives is not all that different from that in the New England suburbs of Updike's usual setting.

In the end, everyone, including the country, gets a change of position or scenery, but it's unlikely anyone was shaken from their belief in themselves or altered their values. Ellellou find a brief moment of happiness as the thing he hates: a prole, employed thanks to American industry. But even in the face of this, it is not clear he gets what he has become.

Long time readers of my reviews know that I value conciseness very highly. I am, generally, of the opinion that in fiction, any words that serve no purpose should not be written. If a sentence does not move the plot forward, add needed characterization, or make the reader laugh, it should be removed. Updike, in contrast, has no compunction against hanging out for a paragraph describing the the tactile sensations of a patch of sand. In fact, this was probably the major criticism of Updike over the years, that he was more shallow than his thesaurus led us to believe.

I disagree heartily with that. He is not shallow. And in the hands of most writers, a prediction for detailed scene setting would be death to a manuscript. But there is another, less understood reason to keep words in a story: beauty. A sentence that is completely useless otherwise can be permitted provided it is of exceptional beauty, in which case it is its own justification. Updike is such a consummate craftsman with such a strong poetic sense, that his flights of wordiness are still worthwhile. Usually. Even Updike could have stood to hack 20% out of The Coup.

Should you read The Coup. Yes. It's a safe bet you be impressed. If I have left the impression that this is a political book, let me correct that: it is not. Politics, in a completely cliched way, plays a role, but this is a book about acute observations of deluded individuals (of the sort we all are, really). So please do let fear of partisan offense stop you. (Although I would note that Updike was an Obama supporter and he suggested Obama would benefit from reading The Coup. Use that info bite however you will.) Nor is it particularly dire, despite the subject matter -- some have even read it as primarily a comedy. Beyond as a satire, it's tough to pigeonhole, but The Coup is certainly one of the best books I've read in a long, long time.

[Travel] Oh See OC

Oh See OC: Again I hit Orange County. This time it was Miss Kate's 50th birthday and rented house in Laguna Beach.

Once again we made a run down to San Diego -- this time La Jolla. I love La Jolla. Walking along the shoreline. The Cove. The view. The sea lions. Tasty food everywhere. There are few better places in the world to spend a leisurely afternoon. This afternoon, however, was actually chilly. Or at least chilly for Southern California. We had given passing thought to renting kayaks for some exploration of the bay, and we could have had we been prepared for the chill and drizzle, but lack of rain and wind gear would have made it a bit of a grind. So we settled for trolling the shops and having a fine waterside lunch.

The next day was a Michigan football game so we had a mad scramble to find a sports bar that featured the game. We found one -- a fairly sophisticated one, Player's Sports Grill -- wedged into the corner of a strip mall. It had about a hundred and thirty TVs covering every square inch of wall space and each table was given it's own personal speaker. A serendipitous place to find when you want to watch a game that only of interest to people from the other side of the country. Outstanding game -- last minute victory.

This was followed by another mad scramble to get some warm and dry gear, because we had planned a sunset sailboat cruise in Newport Beach. Of course, in the overcast weather, "sunset" required quite an imagination. Still, Newport Beach harbor is lovely and over-the-top wealthy. We zipped in and around multi-million dollar homes and enormous yachts -- also some semi-abandoned floating pieces of junk. It seems that in Newport Beach harbor once you have possession of one of the mooring buoys you own it for good. With dock space all locked up tight, just having a piece of crap rowboat that's about to sink tied up to a buoy to reserve it is probably good for a hundred grand or so of net worth. So rusted and corroded half floating pieces of crap populate a fair number of them, just so the owner can hold on to them for investment purposes. Sea lions tend to occupy the truly abandoned ones, which surprisingly don't sink under their weight.

Despite the nasty weather, it was nice to be out on the water and sailing, even if we only got out in the Pacific for a few minutes before darkness drove us back into the harbor where we voyeuristically gazed into the sparkling homes and restaurants and the skipper regaled us with stories of the madness of the rich folk.

And that was it for everyone else. The next morning they were all off to the airport for their flights home. I, cleverly, booked myself one more day which I spent, at the suggestion of Miss Anna, in San Clemente.

As sweet a SoCal beach town as you will find. San Clemente doesn't really have the high-end vibe of a Newport Beach or La Jolla and it lacks the crowded intensity of Laguna Beach or Dana Point. It's just a sparklingly lovely little place with the nicest beach I've yet experienced is So Cal. the only one that approaches the beauty and accessibility of a Florida beach. In fact, the place reminds me of one of my favorite spots in Florida, Delray Beach. It has a long main street of little shops and cafes, then a short walk through a residences -- mostly mid-mod with some med-style -- and down towards the end is the beach. And in San Clemente you get a long pier stretching into the Pacific with a buzzing clapboard fish and beer house at it's base that undoubtedly fills up with people at sunset. I settled into a bar across the street from the beach for a light lunch of fish tacos, bloody marys, and football. I could have happily chilled out there all afternoon.

I suspect it will be awhile until I get back to SoCal. (Unless Michigan gets in the Rose Bowl.) Next year probably -- hopefully during better weather. I'm going to be angling for San Clemente as a base of operations.

[Football] Pigskin Potluck

Pigskin Potluck: NFL season is half over, and it's been a strange and fascinating season. I almost wish I had my football column back. Almost.
  • It started with Bountygate, and has anything ever had it's moral righteousness turned inside out so fast? At the start it was all the rage to demand action -- who were these savages trying to injure their fellow players? Roger Goodell put his hand over his heart and laid down the law; he could do no less what with the concussion problem getting so much press and all. Then the Saints, everybody's beloved puppy of a team, started to lose. Then everyone stopped to think about it. Then everyone read the details. Then the lawsuits came. A couple months later and Goodell is running for cover and suspended players are beating the rap. I realize there may have been some wrong-doing here, but I just love it when the sanctimonious get their comeuppance.
  • Then we had replacement refs, who are now largely forgotten. For me this was a dose of self-awareness. I know I am an instinctive contrarian, but I never realized how severe this affliction was until I found myself thinking that even though everyone was up in arms over these guys, there really was no hard evidence that we're doing significantly worse than the pros. There are bad calls made in every game, often they are overlooked or excused away. I seriously suspected that the replacements weren't doing any worse, at least not relative to expectations given their experience level, they were just getting hammered because of perceptions and fashion. I honestly still don't know that that wasn't the case. But in the course of this I discovered one secret to lifelong happiness: Always agree with the majority and delude yourself that you have done so out of reasoned analysis. You will find the world is made for you.
  • I can't remember the last time I saw an NFL game in person, but I have been to two Michigan games this year. Having given some thought to the differences between college and pro I have come to wonder whether the differences between the games are greater than generally perceived and whether that explains why it is so difficult to draft effectively over a long period of time. It has to do with the great(er) variation in athletic ability in college. This is most blatantly on display at QB where a very athletic QB will always have someone he can outrun in college. The offense only needs to design a play such that the poorer athlete ends up responsible for stopping the speedy QB and points and trophies and Heismans are in the offing. At the pro level, every player on the defense is a better athlete than anyone the QB has ever faced before. The QB may get away with depending on his athleticism for a while -- maybe even a full season -- but the defenses around the league will figure you out and you will fall flat. This is also true to a lesser extent in receivers and defensive backs. In college you can get away with just being a better athlete. Chances are your team has a receiver who will simply be outright faster than the guy covering him. Easy target. Once you get to the NFL you will no longer be fast enough to outrun the skilled and disciplined defenders, your success will depend on hitting your routes, adjusting on broken plays, and even blocking. It's entirely possible that players who don't get the big national headlines or even regular starts during their college career turn out to be the ones who are better at adapting, finding roles, and playing with their heads instead of their feet. This explains why the big NFL stars are often guys you never heard of in college. Denard Robinson (Michigan's speedy QB) is a blast to watch, but no one has deluded themselves that he is going on to much success in the NFL except as a role player. And as much fun as I have at the Michigan games, I still prefer the higher play quality of the NFL.
  • Speaking of quality: Peyton Manning. He gets a knock or two for having only one ring but that's about the only knock I can think of. In fact, having that ring could be quite an argument in his favor. The one season the Colts managed to have a defense that wasn't below average he got them all rings. He was out all last year with an injury and looking at the Colts record you can get a sense for how much of their success was because of him. Now after a year off, four neck surgeries, and on a unfamiliar team, he looks like he's still elite.
    "Receiver Demaryius Thomas [says] that Manning recently installed a play during practice that included a fade-out route cornerback Champ Bailey described as "unstoppable." Manning installed another play that the Saints couldn't handle - during last night's game. And so the point is that Peyton isn't playing at this level because he has the arm strength of his younger days, but because he still has enough in his body and he has more than ever in his mind."
    I maintain he is the best QB ever and probably the best football player ever. And that's not me being a contrarian.
  • Since this post is getting to be as long as my old columns, let me finish up by pointing you to my current favorite football writer, Mike Tanier, at Sports on Earth, formerly of my longtime favorite stats site Football Outsiders. He writes smart, literate and lively columns -- never descending into snarky juvenilia as is the fashion in sports writing on the web. In fact, I worry that he may have a little too high an opinion of his readers. For example, this quote from a column a couple of weeks back:
    "As usual, Julian Assange couldn't get accurate injury information out of the Patriots if you gave him a keycard, Bill Belichick's computer password and a stethoscope. [Receiver Brandon] Lloyd went down hard on his shoulder at the end of the Seahawks game Sunday and appeared to be very injured, but ask Belichick and he will just tell you that Yuri Andropov has a cold."
    It's marginally reasonable to expect Joe Football Fan would know who Julian Assange is. But Yuri Andropov? That's quite a reach. Great line though. Kudos to his editors for letting him go for it. I'm rooting for a followup reference to Konstantin Chernenko.