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. While the author perhaps spreads it a mite too thick, it is still a useful and entertaining corrective. (I hold with the political scientist who believes that Mr. Coolidge's apparent indolence was the result of a deep--perhaps clinical--depression at the death of his 16-year old son, Calvin Jr. from septicemia caused by an infected blister on his foot that had been raised playing tennis on the White House lawn.)
All of this is just by-the-by, however. The book was simply a delight and I urge anyone whose interest has been piqued by these comments to read it just as I did.