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Seeing Calvin Coolidge in a Dream: A Novel Paperback – July 15, 1997


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin; 1st St. Martin's Griffin Ed edition (July 15, 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312156499
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312156497
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.7 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #676,864 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

John Derbyshire took an interesting risk with this first-person novel written in the voice of Chai, a former Red Guard from Northeastern China who fled his strife-ridden country by swimming to Hong Kong, eventually making his way to the United States. Happily married and living in Long Island, he has developed an obsession for Calvin Coolidge, whose low-key, laissez-faire approach to government makes him sound to Chai like the ideal Confucian leader. Through Chai, Derbyshire offers insights on the difference between China, where citizens are crushed by the weight of a long and enduring history, and the United States, where a relative lack of history gives its citizens the opportunity to endlessly remake themselves. All this is wrapped in a plot that has Chai flirting dangerously with thoughts of reviving a long-lost relationship with a woman from his past. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Initially a gritty portrait of a shirt-on-his-back mainland Chinese emigre, Derbyshire's first novel segues into a credulity-stretching but enjoyable flight of fancy. We first meet narrator Chai and his wife, Ding, at home on Long Island, during an evening of Scrabble and moon cakes. A former Red Guard whose disaffection with Maoism was accelerated by witnessing politically excused rapes and killings during the Cultural Revolution, Chai has come to this bourgeois life through a circuitous route. Escaping China by swimming to Hong Kong, he rose from messenger to banking executive, attaining a hard-to-swallow mastery of Western culture in part by memorizing David Copperfield. All along, he has worshipped a sequence of heroes, from Lu Xun, an iconoclastic Chinese writer of the 1920s and '30s, to Calvin Coolidge, and he still thinks about Selina, a young Hong Kong receptionist who broke his heart 20 years ago. Now Chai learns that Selina is living in Cambridge, Mass., and he decides to rekindle their relationship. Ding's ploy to avert this tryst is a delightful, subtle bit of silliness and includes a hilarious scene in which Chai thinks he is being chided by Coolidge's ghost. Derbyshire clearly knows Eastern and Western mores, and those willing to overlook the novel's plot dissonance should enjoy this debut both as a lighthearted romantic romp and as a knowing literary study of the tensions between self-discipline and determinism.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

4.9 out of 5 stars
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I highly recommend this book for easy and fun reading!
R. D. Neth
The use of language is breathtaking, the analogies awesome and the story itself charming, funny and totally uplifting.
Robert N. Going Esq
If you want a good, thoughtful read, try this acclaimed book.
Walter Fekula

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

34 of 36 people found the following review helpful By Walter Fekula on August 20, 2000
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I am the Boris in John Derbyshire's brilliant first novel. I have had the priviledge of having Mr. Derbyshire work in my Department at a Wall Street firm allowing him to write his novel at the office. What has John done? He has put together a masterful novel of a Chinese immigrant who comes to this country with his Chinese wife and as many of us do, fantasizes about a former girlfriend who has also immigrated to this country. Unlike many of us husbands, he visits her. He then weaves in the 30th president of the United States who helps preserve his marriage. It should be noted that Mr. Derbyshire is English, went to China to teach and fell in love with and married one of his students. He does have a genuine fondness for Mr. Coolidge. We have debated to what extent the book is autobiographical, which he vehemetly denies although his wife hates the book. So be it. If you want a good, thoughtful read, try this acclaimed book.
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18 of 18 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on August 3, 2001
Format: Paperback
This one really has to be read on trust. Such an absurd concept - former Red Guard escapes mainland China to Hong Kong, eventually reaches New York in the banking industry and becomes obsessed with Calvin Coolidge - can only be translated into wonderful reading by a genuine talent - which Mr. Derbyshire obviously is. It's worth reading for the commentary on Chinese history. It's worth reading for the commentary on Mr. Coolidge. It's worth reading strictly for the penultimate scene - when the title scene is played out. It's worth reading purely for the craft of the author's art. It's just worth reading - proof that there are still precious gems out there amid the torrent of flotsam and jetsam that the main publishing houses turn out on a prolific and shameless basis.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Owen Hatteras on December 22, 2004
Format: Paperback
Until recently, my only acquaintance with Mr. Derbyshire was in his role as a somewhat disagreeable controversialist in "National Review" magazine. Then, I noticed his most recent book (as of this posting), "Prime Obsession", a non-fiction account of the work of 19th century German mathematician Bernhard Riemann, whose prime number theorum remains one of the biggest unsolved problems in mathematics. Through the capsule biography of the author, I found out the existance of this book and consulted the reviews here.

Having read "Seeing Calvin Coolidge in a Dream", I can say that it fully lives up to the sometimes-extravagant praise posted here. The book has a quirky charm all its own, not least because of the first-person voice of its hero, Chai, a winning and fascinating personality. Since the plot has been fully discussed in other reviews here, I will limit myself to a few random observations.

--Chai's account of his participation in the Red Guards as a teenager reads like a chiller out of Chen Jo-Hsi's book, "The Execution of Mayor Yin, and Other Tales of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution" His witnessing of a gang-rape (which he feigns participation in) shames him and destroys at a stroke any loyalty to the Party he may have had. This starts him on his long road to America.

--Like Joseph Conrad in England, Chai masters the intricacies of English while in America. His ironic and insightful observations of the United States, China, and Hong Kong (before the PRC took over) are fun to read and dead-on.

--The long-dead Calvin Coolidge appears to give some dry and intelligent advice. Mr. Derbyshire manages to squash the old legend of "Silent Cal" as unintelligent and indolent.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Robert N. Going Esq on September 1, 1998
Format: Paperback
I understand this is the author's first published novel, and it is a masterpiece. The Englishman manages to capture the cadences of both Chinese immigrant and Yankee Puritan with aplomb. The use of language is breathtaking, the analogies awesome and the story itself charming, funny and totally uplifting. In the process he manages to paint a wonderful portrait of the most neglected President of the twentieth century, the magnificent Calvin Coolidge.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By James Carragher on April 20, 2005
Format: Paperback
I was telling a friend who was once my English professor at Cal Berkeley that Seeing was the best novel I'd read in a long time. (Unfortunately, there is currently little time for novel reading.) She asked, "Good book or good read?" I sort of went "Huh," but have been mulling over the question ever since. The answer: good read, emphatically. Swift, short and constantly entertaining in its transitions of place and time, and overlay of memory, Seeing is a true page-turner. Good book? I think the answer here is also yes. Derbyshire, who I presume from his name to be a Caucasian, does a pretty convincing job as an Asian narrator, even capturing Chai's reflexive smugness toward women, particularly his wife Ding. The pitch for the rehabilitation of Calvin Coolidge does not convince me; he still seems a simple man for simpler times whose values are of a more limited guidance than the author implicitly argues. At the same time, the observations on China, particularly the excesses of the Red Guard, and on a self-absorbed and often frivolous America as seen through a recent, successful immigrant's eyes ring very true. And you can't help but enjoy Ding's wiles as she brings Chai to live Coolidge's maxims.
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