Jul 2, 2017

A Moonshot at Larry's

Dinner and Acknowledgments

There was plenty that could have gone wrong at Larry's last Thursday evening.  An aborted rocket launch, a botched shipment from Chattanooga, jello that wouldn't set--all were possibilities.  Thankfully, none occurred and Larry's evening went according to script.  

In a meal that touched on several of the themes in Moonglow, Larry served us Philly cheese steak sandwiches (the protagonist is born in Philadelphia), matzo ball soup (Judaism and anti-Semitism are prominent themes), raspberry jello (the protagonist's final meal), and Moon Pies shipped from the Chattanooga Bakery (the moon mesmerizes both reader and protagonist, and is the novel's central metaphor).

But Larry's best effort came after the meal.  As a tribute to Chabon's imagination, he launched a model rocket (an Estes rocket, Glenn!) several hundred feet above his back patio.  Amazingly, the rocket's chute partially deployed and it landed less than 30 feet away. Very impressive, Larry. 

Our Review and Discussion of Moonglow by Michael Chabon

We've all noticed that a middling book will sometimes engender a lively conversation.  That occurred with The Rise of Superman, another selection by Larry, which had us arguing late into the evening but only earned a passing grade.   Last Thursday, we learned that the reverse is also true.  Moonglow drew strong marks following a lackluster discussion. Chabon demands a minimum commitment from his reader, but how could we focus when Larry's moonshot and Moon Pies were competing for our attention?

In his latest novel, Michael Chabon lulls the reader into thinking he's enjoying a faithfully reconstructed biography of Chabon's grandfather, told through a series of recollections shared at his deathbed. We learn that "my grandfather" (both narrator and grandfather go unnamed) served in the OSS during WWII and entered Poland ahead of the Russians in order to seize Germany's vaunted V-2 rockets and its surviving rocket scientists.  After the war, he married a French woman, did time in prison for assaulting his boss, and retired to Florida after a successful career selling model rockets. 

If Larry's parlor trick was a backyard rocket launch, Chabon's is that he's created a fantastical story about a man who is not his grandfather.  It's not clear who he is, but it is clear that simple biography is secondary to the relationships that connect the characters in Chabon's novel.  Indeed, the reader's epiphany midway through the novel is that Chabon's family's darkest secret involves the grandmother and not the grandfather.

Our cautious embrace of Chabon's clever storytelling disappointed Doug, who was convinced that we would all love the novel for its deliberate mixture of fact and fiction.  As he put it, this is how all family stories are rendered.   We enjoyed elements of the story but it didn't quite come together for some of us--especially as the story is told non-sequentially.  While Armando didn't mind the narrative switches, I felt we were made to suffer so that Chabon could prove his point that life's stories are messy.  Dan and Stan both stopped partway through:  Stan loved the writing but blamed his concussion; Dan opted for the Timothy Egan selection and gave it a 9!  Our guest Stewart chided Dan and Stan, claiming that the novel's second half made the effort worthwhile.

Our Rating of Moonglow

Between the DNRs (Did Not Reads), Moon Pies and rocket gazing, our book discussion grew desultory as the evening grew late.  But when it came to time to rate the novel, we perked up and handed Chabon an impressive 7.8.  Maybe Doug was right after all.

Next Up:  Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Harari

Stan proposed several titles, but the one I remember and the one we picked was, again, the one recommended by Stan's father.  According to Stan, Harari's tale of the triumph of homo sapiens is his father's favorite book of all time.  Stan, we're used to your hyperbole; invite your dad and let's hear it from him directly. Until then....

Jun 3, 2017

Ivy Elegy, Hillbilly Elegy--Terry Does Both

men's book club review summary of Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance
Dinner and Acknowledgments

Our host and our author have much in common.  Raised in insular, rust belt communities, each made his way to the Ivy League and then to the west coast, where they both achieved a measure of professional success.  (Note my guarded language here, Terry.)  So far, so good.  But, as Terry showed us last Wednesday, they diverge completely in their approach to food.

Among his hillbilly kin, young J.D. Vance was content with Taco Bell and McDonald's.  Not so, Terry, who simulated hillbilly cuisine the only way he knows how:  with recipes from the New York Times!  Yes, that bastion of coastal elitism was Terry's source for every single dish we sampled.  Not that we were complaining, mind you.  Thanks to Melissa Clark (Peter, still your beating heart!), we ate our way through rural Kentucky in fine style.  Her recipes, executed to perfection by Terry, produced a very tender pulled pork and slaw, a deliciously moist brown butter corn bread, and two sides of pinto beans.  For dessert, Terry assembled an excellent rhubarb cobbler

We were grateful to Terry for his hospitality while also commiserating with his personal circumstances.  This spring, both of Terry's parents passed away.  For that, Terry, we tender our utmost support and offer the condolences of those who have experienced similar loss.

Our Review and Discussion of Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

The irony of Terry's menu speaks to the distressing dietary habits of poor communities everywhere, including Appalachia.  In Vance's 2016 memoir of growing up in southern Ohio to Kentucky-bred hillbilly parents, he devotes much of his narrative to the self-defeating choices of his contemporaries. Whether it's abandoning school, avoiding work, abusing drugs and alcohol, forgoing marriage or commitment--Vance paints a bleak portrait of a community he clearly knows well. 

Vance's story alternates between social commentary, hillbilly ethnography, and personal memoir.  Alas, each was a disappointment.  Cribbing from a review I found online, I criticized Vance's effort as "workmanlike." His writing is clear but he relies on platitudes to explain his success and others' failures.  Larry agreed and noted that while the reader is force-fed a summary of the author's many accomplishments, the searing intimacy that elevated JR Moehringer's memoir, A Tender Bar, was missing from Vance's story.

As a social and ethnographic study, both Terry and Doug were disappointed in Hillbilly Elegy and found in Hochschild's Strangers in Their Own Land a much more thoughtful explanation of white working class anger, the battle of myth and self-interest, and the resulting voting choices that have fueled the Tea Party and, by extension, the Trump phenomenon. (In a cynical aside, Doug noted that Vance appears to have been inspired by the wildly successful family confessional of his favorite law school professor and noted Tiger Mother, Amy Chua.)

Most distressing to all of us was Vance's lack of originality.  He may have been the product of a hillbilly culture, but his descriptions of it aren't illuminating. Only halfway through, Armando found Vance's memoir formulaic.  Dean criticized the story as repetitious and Tom saw nothing different about Vance's family and friends than could be seen in any impoverished American community. Most telling, though, was Dan's indifference.  Hailing from the same area of Ohio as Vance, he found nothing insightful or provocative in the characters or communities depicted by Vance. 

Our Rating of Hillbilly Elegy

We selected Hillbilly Elegy hoping to understand what has changed in middle America that explains why the politics of so many poor and working class whites have shifted to the right.  All we learned last Wednesday was that better explanations are available elsewhere.  Despite our disappointment, we gave Vance a 6.0 for his personal accomplishments, if not his narrative ambitions.

Next Up:  Moonglow by Michael Chabon and Stay Interesting by Jonathan Goldsmith

Larry offered us an interesting set of options for our June reading, including a book about testosterone, a subject in which we feigned no interest. Among the others, we rejected Timothy Egan's The Worst Hard Time as too reminiscent of our previous title about the 1930's Dust Bowl  (Bad Land by Jonathan Raban).  We also passed on The Narrow Road to the Deep North in favor of lighter fare by Michael Chabon.  So, later this month we will see if Chabon's true/fictional/neither elegy to his grandfather is the summer read we've been waiting for.

As an add to our usual fare, the folks at Dutton sent us advance copies of a memoir by "the most interesting man in the world."  We hope that Jonathan Goldsmith will restore our faith in the power of memoir.

Apr 29, 2017

Glenn's Book Blows!

Review and Analysis of A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes
Lunch and Acknowledgments

Question: what do you get when you pair a strangely-conceived children-abducted-by-pirates story written in 1929 with a gorgeous afternoon in Sonoma County?


1.  A contrite host;
2.  A delicious Caribbean-style lunch;
3.  A very spirited conversation;
4.  An appreciation for why no one this side of the pond reads Richard Hughes, an Englishman who lived in a castle; or
5.  All of the above.

Yes, over jerked chicken, spiced slaw, beans and rice, and a mouth-watering rum cake, we checked Answer No. 5 at Glenn's last Sunday.

Since we revel in the accomplishments of our children, we were all proud to hear that John's daughter Ali made the U.S. Women's Senior National Team this month.  Were it an Olympic year, we would be watching Ali striving for gold.  Way to go, Ali!

Our Review and Discussion of A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes

A High Wind in Jamaica attempts to tell two stories:  one a swashbuckling pirate adventure and the other a story of children coming of age on the high seas.  It starts with a hurricane in Jamaica whose destruction is so vast that Mr. and Mrs. Bas-Thornton are compelled to send their children home to England while they rebuild.  During the voyage home, the children's ship is overtaken by pirates.  The children are kidnapped by the pirates but by the end of the novel the captor-captive relationship reverses, and when the pirates are captured they find themselves entirely at the mercy of 11-year old Emily Bas-Thornton.   Her courtroom testimony--motivated by a preternatural sense of self-preservation--leads to their execution.

Our discussion began and ended with apologies from Glenn.  For, no matter how promising its premise, HWJ disappointed on every count.  There was too little made of the pirates and too much of the children, according to Tom.  It was, as Dean described, a "very crappy pirate story."  As a children's story, it was even crappier...and mildly disturbing.  Paul characterized it as a nasty version of Peter Pan.  Jack was more charitable and assumed Hughes was writing for a Young Adult market--so presumably the novel's psycho-sexual undertones would avoid scrutiny.  Wherever HWJ fit in the broad category of children's lit, our guest Mark was as underwhelmed as the rest of us.   According to him, memorable children's fiction is invariably anchored by the extraordinary but, with no giant peach or chocolate river to fill its sails, HWJ was just another fantasy cast adrift.

(Ed. Note:  If you're counting, that was three nautical puns in one sentence.)

Rating A High Wind in Jamaica

Not only was HWJ a clumsy attempt at pirate/kid fiction, it was also implausible (Roy), strange (Armando), and Disneyesque (Terry).  With little to justify the hours we invested in it, it's no surprise we gave it our worst rating (5.3) in four years. We're inclined to forgive Daniel Handler for his effusiveness (since we raised our children on his Lemony Snicket books).  But it's astonishing that the Modern Library included HWJ as No. 71 on its list of the top 100 novels of the 20th century.

Next Up: Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

Terry proposed an eclectic set of titles for May:  the civil rights story behind the Groveland murders, Chouinard's entrepreneur-cum-environmentalist business book, a mass market spy thriller by Stuart Kaminsky, and JD Vance's memoir about growing up in Appalachia.  We chose Vance in the hope that his story will help us better understand the angst of the white working class. 

Mar 19, 2017

Dan Fixes Our Book and Our Evening

Review of A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes
Dinner and Acknowledgments

It's hard to stay exasperated at a guy who breaks the rules by giving us only one author to choose from, but whose hospitality is always second to none.  Last Wednesday, Dan invited us into the man cave where, in keeping with our theme for the evening, he started us off with vodka on ice and two different varieties of piroshki.  For our main course, Dan prepared an outstanding beef stroganoff.  He finished with a dessert of Russian kissel.  (For those who skipped dessert or who still haven't gotten past last month's "boiled baby," kissel is a type of fruit custard.)

Since authentic dishes from the Bolshevik era are a little hard to find, Dan opted for an Americanized beef stroganoff and credited Marin's own celebrity chef, Tyler Florence, for the  recipe.  Regardless of its provenance, the result was excellent, Dan.  Thanks for your always fine hospitality.

A special acknowledgment is owed to Armando, who was recently elevated to Chair of the California Water Commission.  Mando, we're grateful for your thoughtful leadership in addressing the challenges facing our state's most precious natural resource.

Our Review and Discussion of The Fixer

Despite the grumbling occasioned by Dan's heavy handed selection process, Malamud's 1966 novel about a Jew wrongfully imprisoned in Tsarist Russia came with impressive credentials: it won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.  Malamud's Yakov, a desperately poor handyman referred to by the narrator (with not a little irony) as "the fixer," leaves the rural shtetl where all Jews are required to live and escapes to Kiev.  Once there, he attempts to pass as a Christian, is framed for the murder of a boy, and is thrown in prison.  Only there does he realize that he's traded one form of incarceration for another. 

To a man, we were moved by an extraordinary story of human perseverance.  Where he felt let down last month by the spare characters in Plainsong, this month Peter applauded our author for imaginative, convincing characters.  Armando saw an Everyman in Yakov, whose prison epiphany reveals the resilience in all of us.  Even Terry, who couldn't shake his fascination with the novel's "male menstruation" scene, found Malamud's protagonist among the most striking characters we've encountered to date. 

We were impressed by the story but less so by its lack of urgency.  Jack, Larry, and I all felt that Malamud's narrative took far too long to get going.  And once underway, Dean complained that the prison scenes were uneven--some compelling and others not.  (My notes are unclear, but I think John said he set aside The Fixer to binge-watch Downton Abbey.  Evidently he's easily fatigued by stories of the proletariat.)

But these were petty complaints. More substantive criticism came from Paul, who found little that was uplifting or hopeful about the novel.  He invoked a line from Raymond Chandler and said Yakov's miserable existence "crept along like a dying thing." (In fact-checking Paul, I didn't find that quote but did find a similar Chandlerism applicable to Yakov's interminable confinement:  "I'm killing time and it's dying hard.") 

Rating The Fixer

Tom's opinion about our book was unequivocal: the book deserved its two national literary awards. Despite some misgivings about the writing, the pace of the narrative, and the decades-old claim that Malamud plagiarized portions of the novel, we agreed with Tom and gave Malamud an impressive 8. 

Next Up: A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes

Glenn offered us several interesting titles for next month, including one that was redundant. (Note to future hosts: review our booklist before you offer up your selections.)   In the end, we were persuaded by Glenn to select A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes.  Why?  Three reasons:  1) Glenn heard Daniel Handler say that HWJ inspired him to write the Lemony Snicket series; 2) HWJ  was also the inspiration for William Golding's The Lord of the Flies; and 3) we couldn't turn down the prospect of a good pirate story.  Next month let's hope our pirate story isn't ruined by a bunch of spoiled children!

Feb 19, 2017

Paul's Plainfare

Plainsong by Kent Haruf
Dinner and Acknowledgments

Remember when we read The Onion Field and every one of Paul's dishes contained onions?  The entire meal came together nicely despite--or maybe because of--the presence of onions in each course.  If we had doubts about Paul's ability to perform the same trick twice, our dinner last Wednesday put them to rest. 

At the appointed hour, we sat down to a meal of meat and potatoes, much like the bill of fare at Haruf's Holt Cafe. But, without benefit of a menu, it took a few moments for us to piece together Paul's clever theme. Following a tapenade that included baby pickles, Paul served us baby back ribs, a side of roast baby potatoes, and a baby greens salad with baby corn and baby carrots. For his piece de resistance, he prepared a dessert of "boiled baby."  (It's a type of pudding; it's boiled in a cloth; and, no, it was far from awful.)

None of us knows what Paul will dream up next, but last Wednesday's dinner was just superb. As we enjoyed each course, the food served to remind us of Victoria Roubideaux, the pregnant teenager at the heart of Haruf's novel.

Our Review and Discussion of Plainsong

Published to critical acclaim in 1999, Plainsong put both Kent Haruf and his fictional town of Holt, Colorado on the literary map.  Over the course of a school year, the characters in Haruf's quiet novel confront pain, depression, insult, and tragedy.  They also experience moments of shared joy and discovery.  All of this takes place in a town that feels far removed from the familiar afflictions of modern society.  That feeling of course is illusory:  Victoria's flight to Denver lands her in an environment just as confining as the one she left.

At the start of his book, Haruf helpfully defines "plainsong" as "a simple and unadorned melody"  as well as "unisonous vocal music" chanted by early Christians. As we shared our thoughts about the novel, our comments kept returning to the themes so evident from the title. We all noted the simplicity of Haruf's language and the dialog of his characters.  And several pointed out the clannishness of small town environments. (I'm talking about you, Larry.)  Haruf's spare style won over most of us, but there were detractors.  Peter and Jack both felt that too little was said and, as a result, Haruf's characters were flat and undeveloped.  Roy, who listened to the audio version, found the narration confusing thanks in part to the brevity of Haruf's writing. 

Haruf's biggest fan, Doug, missed dinner but emailed us his comments.  While he enjoyed Haruf's writing (he called it "compassionate" and "elevated"), he was mostly struck by the hard reality forced upon each character and the stoicism each affects.  He also noted the hopefulness that lifts the novel as autumn turns to spring, the McPherons find comfort as surrogate parents, and the birth of Victoria's child approaches.    

Rating Plainsong

As our most reliable barometer of a title's popularity, Tom likened the book's atmosphere to that created by Annie Proulx in Wyoming Stories and said he could have continued reading long after it ended.  Often a contrarian, John "fell into the book on the first page." I felt the same way and was touched by the pain of loneliness that seems to afflict all of Haruf's characters. (This is a theme he explores head-on in his final novel, Our Souls At Night, which Doug encouraged us to read.)  With only a few naysayers depressing the vote, Plainsong received a robust 7.8 rating, with several vowing to read its sequel, Eventide.

Next Up:  The Fixer by Bernard Malamud

Dan wasn't able to attend our dinner and instead asked us to select our next book from three titles, every one of them by Bernard Malamud!  His blatant disregard for our selection process did not go unnoticed.  We'll see next month if The Fixer, a novel about the wrongful imprisonment of a Jew in Tsarist Russia, exceeds our low expectations.  (Sorry, Dan, I couldn't resist.)