Saturday five, #2.

Five books, five links to my own stuff, and five links to others’ articles.

I’ve read eight books since my last post on any of them, so I’m going to take a shortcut and catch up by highlighting the five most interesting. Now that spring training is ending, I hope to get back to regular dishblogging soon.

* Charles Seife’s Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea is the one non-fiction book in this bunch, a history-of-math tome that incorporates a fair amount of philosophy, physics, and religion all in a book that’s under 200 pages and incredibly readable for anyone who’s at least taken high school math. The subject is the number zero, long scorned by philosophers, theologians, and even some mathematicians who resisted the idea of nothing or the void, yet which turned out to be critical in a long list of major scientific advances, including calculus and quantum mechanics. I generally prefer narrative non-fiction, but Zero moves as easily as a math-oriented book can get without that central thread.

* Dashiell Hammett’s Nightmare Town is one of three major Hammett short-story collections in print (along with The Continental Op and the uneven The Big Knockover), and my favorite for its range of subjects and characters without feeling as pulpy as some of his most commercial stories. The twenty stories are all detective stories of one sort or another starring several different Hammett detectives, including early iterations of Sam Spade and the character who eventually became the Thin Man, as well as a western crime story that might be my favorite short piece by Hammett, “The Man Who Killed Dan Odams.”

* Readers have recommended Tim O’Brien’s short story cycle The Things They Carried for several years, usually any time I mention reading another book that deals with the Vietnam War and/or its aftermath. The book, a set of interconnected stories that feels like an novel despite the lack of a central plot, is based heavily on O’Brien’s own experiences in that conflict, especially around death – of platoon mates, of Viet Cong soldiers, of Vietnamese civilians, and of a childhood crush of O’Brien’s who died at age 9 of a brain tumor. The writing is remarkable, more than the stories themselves, which seemed to cover familiar ground in the genre, as well as O’Brien’s ability to weave all of these disconnected stories into one tapestry around that central theme of death and the pointlessness of war. The final story, where he ties much of it together by revisiting one of the first deaths he discussed in the book, is incredibly affecting on two levels as a result of everything that’s come before.

* I’m a big Haruki Murakami fan – and no, I haven’t read 1Q84 yet and won’t until it’s in paperback – but Dance, Dance, Dance was mostly a disappointment despite some superficial entertainment value, enough to at least make it a quick read if not an especially deep one. A sequel of sorts to A Wild Sheep Chase, it attempts to be more expansive than that earlier novel but still feels like unformed Murakami, another look at him as he built up to The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, a top-ten novel for me that hit on every level. Dance is just too introspective, without enough of Murakami’s sort of magical realism (and little foundation for what magical realism it does contain) and no connection between the reader and the main character.

* I loved Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, a funny, biting satire on upper-class life in the United States just after World War I, so I looked forward to House of Mirth, present on the Modern Library and Bloomsbury 100 lists, expecting more of that sharp wit but receiving, instead, a dry, depressing look at the limitations of life for women in those same social circles prior to the war. It’s a tragedy with an ironic title that follows Lily Bart through her fall from social grace, thanks mostly to the spiteful actions of other women in their closed New York society; it’s a protest novel, and one of the earliest feminist novels I’ve read (preceded, and perhaps inspired, by Kate Chopin’s The Awakening), but I found myself feeling more pity than empathy for Lily as a victim of circumstances, not of her own missteps.

Next up: I’m reading Martin Booth’s A Very Private Gentleman (filmed as The American) and listening to Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine: How Creativity Works. The Booth book is on sale through that link for $5.60.

Five things I wrote or said this week:

On Jeff Samardzija’s revival.

This week’s chat.

One batch of spring training minor league notes, including the Angels, A’s, Rangers, and Royals.

Tuesday’s “top 10 players for 2017” column, which I emphasized was just for fun and still got people far too riled up. There’s no rational way to predict who the top ten players will be in five years and I won’t pretend I got them right. But it was fun to do.

I interviewed Top Chef winner and sports nut Richard Blais on the Tuesday Baseball Today podcast, in which he talked about what it was like to “choke” (his word) in the finals on his first season and then face the same situation in his second go-round. We also talked about why I should break my ten-year boycott of hot dogs.

And the links…

* The best patent rejection ever, featuring Borat’s, er, swimsuit.

* A spotlight on Massachusetts’ outdated liquor laws. For a state that likes to pretend it’s all progressive, Massachusetts is about thirty years behind the times when it comes to alcohol, to say nothing of how the state’s wholesalers control the trade as tightly as the state liquor board does in Pennsylvania. The bill this editorial discusses would be a small start in breaking apart their oligopoly, but perhaps enough to start to crumble that wall.

* I admit it, I’m linking to Bleacher Report, but Dan Levy’s commentary on how Twitter has affected what a “scoop” means, especially to those of us in the business, is a must read. And there’s no slidshow involved.

* The Glendale mayor who drove the city into a nine-figure debt hole by spending government money to build facilities for private businesses – including the soon-to-be-ex-Phoenix Coyotes – won’t run for a sixth term, yet she’s receiving more accolades than criticism on the way out. Put it this way: Given its schools, safety, and public finances, we never considered Glendale for a second when looking to move out here.

* The “pink slime” controversy has led the manufacturer to suspend production at three of its four plants. That makes for a good headline, but are job losses really relevant to what should be a discussion of whether this is something people, especially schoolchildren, should be consuming? And now the controversy is moving on to carmine dye, derived from an acid extracted from cochineal beetles and used in Starbucks frappuccinos. If nothing else, I applaud the new emphasis on knowing exactly what we’re eating.

Dog Soldiers.

Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers won the National Book Award in 1974 and made the TIME 100 ranking, although I haven’t seen or heard it mentioned outside of that context. I’m going to guess it’s because the subject matter and setting feel very dated, making its relevance to today’s reader a lot less obvious, but that didn’t make it a less interesting read for me.

The book is populated by hippies, cheats, losers, dropouts, and freaks, set in the waning days of the Vietnam War and the dissolute California society of the age. John Converse is a writer/journalist of dubious credentials based in Vietnam who allows himself to get roped into a transoceanic heroin deal using a friend he calmly describes as “a psychopath” and his own wife as part of the supply chain. When the psychopath, Ray Hicks, and Converse’s wife Marge connect in California it sets off a chase by some bad guys who moonlight as good guys on their days off and an increasingly desperate and irrational attempt to sell the drugs in territory controlled by other suppliers.

Along the way, there’s a healthy dose of unhealthy drug consumption, copious vomiting, and more than a smidgen of violence. Ray and Marge end up in a hippie commune with the dope and more weapons than a Libyan rebel camp, while Converse tries to avoid the dirty cop who wants to bust Ray and Marge but take the drugs for himself. It’s a nihilistic, unsparing look at compromised people descending into a hell of their own making.

Aside from my inability to really place myself in the story – I’ve never tried a drug stronger than alcohol, unless you count chocolate, which I do – I struggled to find a deeper theme below the story. Maybe the heroin isn’t really heroin, but symbolized something deeper, like a search for meaning in something consumable and disposable like money. Maybe the battle over the heroin stands in as a metaphor for the war, a conflict with questionable and short-lived objectives where the cost in lives can never be justified by the results. Maybe it’s about the fickleness of man, how quickly we’ll sell out our friends for a quick fix or financial gain. All of these occurred to me as possibilities while I was reading the book but none were fully developed as themes, leaving Dog Soldiers as a compelling read but one whose plaudits I couldn’t fully explain.

Next up: Dashiell Hammett’s The Dain Curse.

A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain.

Robert Olen Butler won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for his short story collection A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, yet another entry in the canon of literature about the Vietnam War. Butler’s conceit is a new one, revolving around Vietnamese immigrants in the greater New Orleans area, transplants from one delta to another, dealing with the culture gap as well as the weight of history, of a country left behind, a war lost, and often a family divided by death or distance. These depictions show great empathy for his subjects, but rarely veer into the sentimental, instead giving greater depth and color to a population that is marginalized here after a war that, despite hundreds of novels and stories on the subject, is still in search of its great, defining literary work. I’m not sure that this is it, though.

The strongest stories blended the experiences of their central Vietnamese characters into American settings, giving readers familiar ground underneath the unfamiliar emotions or cultural norms of their subjects. “The Trip Back” takes a common subject, the declining health and memory loss of an aged family member, and grafts it on to a Vietnamese couple struggling emotionally in their new country as they receive a visit from that family member, not realizing his mental state until after he gets off the plane. (Nice job by the Vietnamese branch of the family, failing to inform the American branch that the man was senile.)

One exception, the title story, is the best of the collection as it follows the conversation between a dying Vietnamese man and the ghost of Ho Chi Minh, whose hands are coated with sugar from his time in Escoffier’s kitchen before his own radicalization. Ho admits to his dying friend that he is not at peace in the afterlife, and the friend realizes it’s because Ho used confectioner’s sugar – which contains cornstarch or another anti-caking agent – instead of granulated sugar. Is the sugar standing in for the standard “blood on one’s hands” metaphor, with the wrong sugar the betrayal of the Marxist philosophy underlying the revolution, leading to Ho’s restlessness beyond the grave? Is that the dying man’s own conscience, questioning his onetime friend’s radicalization while he himself chose Buddhism and a life of peace? (In reality, the Communist leader probably did not work for the famous French chef, or, at least, there is no evidence that he did, but the symbolism depends on that connnection.) Meanwhile, the man overhears his family here in America admit to knowledge of and perhaps involvement in the murder of a local Vietnamese man who wrote an editorial urging the U.S. to admit that the war was over and begin normalizing relations with Vietnam, in direct contrast to his own non-violent philosophy.
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Two of the stories flopped because of fully predictable endings – “Letters from my Father,” which repeats an urban legend that most of you have probably heard before; and “Love,” told by a cuckolded husband who used to protect his wife (and manhood) in Vietnam by telling U.S. forces that Viet Cong fighters were hiding where his wife’s would-be suitors lived.

The one longer story in the book, “The American Couple,” was for me the weakest entry in the collection. Told from the perspective of a Vietnamese woman, Vinh, a sharp observer whose skills help her win a trip for two to Mexico on an unnamed game show that is obviously “Let’s Make a Deal,” and whose husband fought for South Vietnam. They strike up a slightly awkward, arm’s-length friendship at the resort with an American couple, one that gradually drifts into a childish battle between the two men, both of whom are dealing with the memories of a war in which they participated but never truly fought. Telling the story from Vinh’s perspective robs us of any insight into the behavior of the two men – the entire episode seemed juvenile to me – while she is almost robotic in her relaying of the action.

Next up: Richard Russo’s Bridge of Sighs, the follow-up to his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Empire Falls, which fell at #33 on the last version of my own top 100.