Archive | October, 2013
October 23, 2013

The Adventures of Augie March

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The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

 

Nobody asks you to love the whole world, only to be honest…

Is this the great American novel? I hate tags like that or attempts to declare any work of art “the best.” I would certainly not proclaim it to be so about this novel, but there is a great deal about it worth discussing and admiring. There is not doubt that Bellow is an immensely gifted writer as quotes like that one prove. His command of the language is impressive (even imposing and intimidating) and his writing, dense. However, I am not convinced that this book is as significant as it seems to think it is.

I am not sure that Augie should be classified as a hero, either. In the end, there is not an overwhelming argument for him being a person that I find admirable, or even memorable. His good and bad qualities seem to balance out and there does seem to be an everyman struggle to find meaning and purpose in life, but there is also very little growth in his morality and a very small amount of improvement in his decision making. Perhaps that is the key lesson in the book and Augie’s nature (“…everyone sees to it his fate is shared. Or tries to see to it.”) is to do just that and somehow implicate the reader in his struggles.

As for the promising start of the book, I found some of the later chapters lazy and unfocused. New characters (like Robey, Mintouchian, and the sailor Bateshaw) seemed to pop up exclusively for Bellow to spout further diatribes that could not be otherwise folded into the overall narrative. I was reminded of a similar tactic used by Ayn Rand, except she tends to do it over entire 1000-page novels. The characters had no real relevance in the plot or story other than to serve as a way for the author to squeeze in more pompous, rambling philosophy. I also expected Bateshaw had actually blow up the ship with one of his experiments and that this accounted for his bizarre behavior and demeanor towards Augie, but this proved to be fruitless.

Don’t get me wrong. Parts of this novel were quite entertaining and illuminating to be sure. Particularly his description of each character, no matter how insignificatn and lines like:

“Everyone has bitterness in his chosen thing,” he says. “That’s what Christ was for, that even God had to have bitterness in his chosen thing if he was really going to be man’s God, a god who was human.

Yet, somehow I still feel cheated as a reader. It seems to me as if an author of Bellows’ talents and experience should be able to intertwine themes and story in a way that does not come off as clumsy, inserted, and as ham-handed as they do in the second half of the story.

Ultimately, rather than complain about what this book isn’t, I will focus on what is attempting to communicate. I think Augie philosophy on the axial lines of life are what will resonate with me the most:

I have a feeling about the axial lines of life, with respect to which you must be straight or else your existence is merely clownery, hiding tragedy…. When striving stops, there they are as a gift… Truth, love, peace, bounty, usefulness, harmony!

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October 13, 2013

When in Korea

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When in Korea (WinK) is an adventure group that regularly books trips of all kinds throughout the country. After an amazing weekend in the Southwest corner of the peninsula, I can’t wait to book another trip with this fun and easy-going group.

This particular weekend was a study in contrasts. Saturday was spent in relative peace and calm at two different green tea plantations in the Boseong area of Jeollanam-do. The first stop was a pleasant tour of the multi-tiered green tea mountains followed by a terrific green tea-filled lunch at the on-site cafe. I had a tongkatsu pork cutlet topped with green tea powder and green tea rice on the side. Olivia had the bibimbap (비빔밥) with the same rice and Cheymus had jajangmyeon (짜장면) made with green tea noodles and black beans. Desert was also a refreshing green tea ice cream at the gift shop to wash it all down. The whole thing reminded me of the Looney Tunes cartoon where Yosemite Sam was forced to eat only coconut on a deserted island for 20 years until Bugs arrived. If you don’t like green tea, this place is not for you but a little experimenting will definitely change your mind.

(Click on any image to view full-sized or in a slideshow)

After lunch we packed up and went down the road a bit to another privately owned plantation that was in its fifth generation of family ownership.  As an added treat, our tour group divided up into five teams for a little tea-picking competition. Here we were shown just how to pick the best and most coveted leaves before being turned loose to pick the leaves ourselves. This green tea plantation is world-renowned as the leaves there make some of the best and most expensive tea available. Each cup of tea is sold exclusively  at the most expensive hotels in Korea for upwards of $50-70 a cup.

Once we picked the leaves, we got to enjoy a special tea tasting and the tea master showed us how to drink tea the traditional way. The whole process is all about patience and taking time to slow down and enjoy every aspect of the ritual. It was a great lesson not only in the multiple health benefits of green tea, but the overall advantage of a life lived in slow motion. We then moved to the work area and got to continue the competition as we dried the leaves in pairs on large hot iron pots rolling them dry. The whole experience was truly fascinating and educational as well as being very relaxing. Our team sadly lost in the big competition, but we were all so buzzed from the terrific tea and peaceful afternoon, that we were ready to head out to the pension in and get settled in for the night.

The pension (Korean lodging similar to a guesthouse) was near the mountains of Wolchulsan National Park. After getting our room assignments we enjoyed a picnic-style Korean BBQ (with lots of beer and soju) and got to know the members of our tour group even better. One of the amazing things about living and working overseas is the diversity of the people you meet here. I shared dinner with people from Australia, South Africa, and England, as well as the U.S., and got the lowdown on my desire to get dive certified from a former instructor.

A separate contingency of the WinK tour went to the Grand Prix qualifying heats that day instead of the tea excursion and they arrived late and in good, well-lubed spirits to complete the group. We all had different units of various sizes and most people, like me, slept in surprising comfort on the floor, Korean style. My bunkmates were from Sheffield (home of Def Leppard) as well as Blackpool, England. Both had enjoyed a great day at the track and had me pumped up for my first Formula 1 race the next day. I went to bed well before the partying stopped and slept-in well past the morning call for a sunrise hike on the mountain.

The extra sleep was well worth it. Our busy Sunday began with sprinkling rain as forecasts tracking a typhoon off the southern coast threatened to ruin our race day. As I learned on my trip to Japan, there should always be room in your gear for an emergency raincoat, and today was the perfect excuse to bust mine out. After about a 45 minute trip from the mountains and some dodgy signage and directions we arrived at the Korea International Circuit (a track built on reclaimed marshland) in Yeongam, near the port city of Mokpo. Despite the success of similar F1 events in Singapore, the Korean events have continuously lost money for race promoters, prompting calls to renegotiate the deal with Formula 1. Losing the race would be a shame, because with some time and the proper cross-promotion (like the K-Pop concert the previous night) the high-tech and high-speed sport might be a perfect fit for a country obsessed with cars.

Fortunately for our group, the clouds were somewhat chased away and we were treated to a nice Blue Angels-like air show just prior to the race performed by the the 53rd Air Demonstration Group, coincidently nicknamed “The Black Eagles.” Once the start lights went from red to green, we were treated to an extremely loud and blisteringly fast race. The F1 cars took roughly 90 seconds to finish a lap and completed 55 laps (totaling over 308 km) in just a few hours. While the race saw no big crashes, the second half was mostly completed under caution as the track conditions were brutal on the tires of most cars. The winner proved to be the pole-sitter, Team Red Bull’s  Sebastian Vettel from Germany. Vettel is the current points leader and is closing in on his forth straight Formula 1 title. While he lead from wire-to-wire and was never really challenged, this was the first time in the short 3-yer history of the race that the top qualifier has actually won the race. I was pulling for Brit Lewis Hamilton of Team Mercedes, who finished fourth.

After some creative repositioning from our crack WinK tour guides, we were able to switch busses for a much needed direct drop-off back home in Daejeon. Most travelers in the group were juts as exhausted as I was and slept on the entire 2.5 hour ride back to reality. Overall, I was impressed with the organization of this tour group and thrilled with the new friends I met from all over Korea (and the world). I have already booked my next adventure with them to the DMZ in Novemeber, so stay tuned to my internet journal for updates from the front line as I peek across the border into North Korea for the first time.

 

When In Korea from Matthew M. Vacca on Vimeo.