Dec 18, 2016

A Sellout at Jack's

The Sellout by Paul Beatty
Dinner and Acknowledgments
We met last Wednesday at Jack's and learned that Jack had spent the day on a project in Sacramento and had hurried back for our meal.  If he had any concern about feeding a small army, he didn't show it. He must have prepared everything the day before, pressed his wife into service, or lied about his work itinerary.  Regardless, when it came time to take our places, we were treated to quintessential American comfort food.  A hearty beef stew, plenty of winter vegetables, a mixed salad, and a fruit dessert that was more healthy than it needed to be.  (Thank goodness for the box of See's Candies that materialized next to the fruit.) Kudos, Jack, for turning out a fine meal under pressure.

Our Review and Discussion of The Sellout

Approaching our meeting, I queried whether Paul Beatty's profane satire about race in America allowed our group of mostly white men to adopt the idiom of Beatty's characters and use the N-word during our discussion of the book.  The quick response from our host:  No.  While we never felt muzzled, this forced awareness of the language of race is one of many subjects Beatty happily skewers in his award-winning roman a clef.  (More on that below.)

Beatty's novel begins and ends with the narrator's appearance before the U.S. Supreme Court to defend his participation in a master-slave relationship (he's the master, albeit unwillingly, of Hominy Jenkins, the last Little Rascal) and his initiative to segregate the local high school by excluding whites and Latinos.  Between those appearances, Beatty's narrator explains his unconventional outlook on race by sharing the details of a zany childhood tormented by a psychologist father whose best experiments were always about race and always on his son. About his tortured upbringing, he says:

Talk about starting life off with a handicap.  Fuck being black.  Try learning to crawl, ride a tricycle, cover both eyes while playing peek-a-boo, and constructing a meaningful theory of mind, all with one hand.

While race stands at the center of his novel, Beatty exposes innumerable cultural stereotypes to comedic effect, even if his range is exhausting and at times impenetrable.  On one randomly selected page, he references Pantone 342, the Sistine Chapel, Banksy, The Thomas Guide, Sacagawea, Surenos, KLON, The Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices, and Fruit Town. Jack summed up our feelings when he declared that he wasn't sure if he got it all. (Terry gave up and said he didn't miss what he didn't understand.) All of which made us wonder how those Man Booker Prize judges in England were able to sift through Beatty's rapid-fire assault on American popular culture and decide it was worth an award.

Since we weren't sure if we were in on the joke or the butt of it (as George noted, the white couple gets chased out of the black comedy club on the novel's last page), we grew more critical as we went around the table.  Larry panned the story as episodic and unlikely to stand the test of time.  Dan agreed and likened the novel to a series of Seinfeld episodes, i.e., all about nothing. Tom and Dean found it funny at times, but not necessarily enjoyable.

Rating The Sellout

A roman a clef is a story whose fictional characters are disguised figures from real life.  The key ("clef") to which characters represent which real people is the reader's challenge.  In The Sellout, Beatty renders certain prominent blacks in cryptic fashion.  His "negro diplomat" is "C _ _ _ n  _ _w _ _ _"; a "noted TV family man" is "_ i _ _   _ _ _b _."  These characters weren't hard to decipher (Powell and Cosby).  Since we couldn't say the same for other characters and cultural references, we were hard pressed to give Beatty better than a _.8.

Next Up:  Ski Weekend and (optionally) A Nation of Sheep by William Lederer

In January, we head to the Sierras for a weekend of skiing.  We didn't select a book.  Instead, George urged us to find a copy of Lederer's 1961 title, A Nation of Sheep  (Lederer co-wrote The Ugly American), and reflect on its commentary about individual liberty falling victim to the media and big government.

Oct 31, 2016

Doug and His Sympathizers

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Dinner and Acknowledgments

Our meeting last Thursday was another fine example of Doug's excellent hospitality. He could have laid out an assortment of banh mi and washed it down with iced coffee and sweetened condensed milk and no one would have complained. But that would have been predictable.  So Doug eschewed tradition and went with a nicely-done London broil accompanied by...everything.  Not to be missed was his chocolate cake made with Guinness Stout and his gigantic chocolate chip cookies.  (The latter were, alas, too large to sneak into my jacket pocket for the trip home.)

Our Review and Discussion of The Sympathizer

Of the 14 titles Doug offered us last month, Viet Thanh Nguyen's The Sympathizer was not the shortest nor the easiest. But it was arguably the most thought-provoking.  Framed as a first-person confession, Nguyen's unnamed narrator takes the reader on a perilous journey from the fall of Saigon to the Vietnamese diaspora in Orange County and back again to the reeducation camps of the Viet Cong and the flight of the boat people.  Along the way, we're treated to a funny, satirical, and at times harshly critical study of America, its values, and their effect on the Vietnamese experience here and abroad.

Doug expected I'd like the novel, with its insights on Asian-American assimilation and identity (Doug, are you profiling?), but we both wondered if others would. The answer came quickly. Though straddling two dinner tables, the group joined together in lauding Nguyen's inventiveness and adroit use of the English language (there's that profiling again!).  Many (Mando, Paul, and Tom) enjoyed the story on historical merit alone; others (Larry and John) were impressed by the novel's cultural ambitions, including its send-up of the entire Vietnam war film genre.  We didn't spend much time comparing it to The Quiet American, although the parallels were obvious since Nguyen's narrator repeatedly alludes to Graham Greene's Saigon.

By the end of the evening, time was our undoing.  We just didn't have enough of it to do justice to Nguyen's richly layered tale of war and its aftermath.  At my insistence, we spent a moment enjoying the significance of the characters' names (e.g., French colonialism and American naivete are conflated in the CIA agent, "Claude"; the despised William Westmoreland character is "Richard Hedd"; the purest of Vietnamese characters, whose death is sadly inevitable, is appropriately named "Bon").  At Doug's instigation, we also tussled with the "meaning" of the book and its narrator's epiphany that "nothing" is the answer.

Rating The Sympathizer

When it came to rating the book, all but one of us was effusive.  Dan was the holdout. He complimented the "great" writing, but felt cheated by the filmmaking scenes and gave it a miserly 5.  Even Stan, who agreed that the scenes in the Philippines slowed the story's progression, was able to muster a 7 for what he felt was extraordinary writing. Dan's dim view didn't prevent The Sympathizer from impressing the rest of us and garnering a formidable 8.2.

Next Up:  The Sellout by Paul Beatty

For our next title, we vacillated between the Patty Hearst story in American Heiress and the summer's most talked-about novel of race relations, The Sellout.  We opted for the latter (persuaded in part by page length) and we'll soon see if the story of one man's cheeky reintroduction of slavery helps us dig deep into America's "original sin."

Oct 12, 2016

Mando Takes Us Out to Sea

The North Water by Ian McGuire
Dinner and Acknowledgments

After a break in August, we returned in September ready for two things: a delicious meal and a vigorous discussion of a truly gruesome seafaring tale.  We had both and weren't disappointed by either. As to the first, Armando grilled an outstanding yellowtail tuna (caught, incidentally, by him on his most recent trip to the Sea of Cortez) and paired it with a perfectly done beef tri tip. To eat so well when discussing the plight of 19th-century sailors trapped in Arctic ice was almost criminal. Almost. But not enough to prevent some of us from reaching for seconds. Thank you, Armando, for setting an outstanding table, as usual.

We should also acknowledge Paul Liberatore, whose lifestyle pieces in the Marin IJ are consistently interesting and enjoyable. Paul was our guest for the evening and we are grateful to him for the positive reaction that followed his recent article about our book group.  Thanks, Paul.  Your profile of us provided a perspective sorely missing in the New York Times' trend piece last May.

Our Review and Discussion of The North Water

First, a disclaimer:  a courtesy copy of The North Water was sent to us by the good folks at Henry Holt & Co. Evidently, they were hoping we'd review it and help them sell a few copies.  Unfortunately, it was several months before Ian McGuire's first novel finally made it into our rotation.  During that time the book was published, got great reviews, and sold plenty of hardcover copies.  Thank goodness, because we genuinely liked the book and wouldn't want anyone to think we'd sing for the price of a lousy hardback.  (We can be bought, just not that cheaply.)

The North Water places the reader aboard the Volunteer, an 1850's whaling ship whose sailors are wretched (to a man), whose voyage is futile, and whose prey has retreated far north of their usual breeding grounds. But if any of us thought these simple themes would combine for a pleasant bit of historical fiction, perhaps with elements of Herman Melville, Patrick O'Brian, or Richard Henry Dana, we were in for a big surprise.  The first page treats the reader to the novel's prime antagonist, Henry Drax, leaving a whorehouse and openly savoring the residue of a night of fornication.  Within a few short pages he has killed a man, sodomized a boy, and shipped out on the Volunteer

All of us found McGuire's novel rich in its language (with all of its coarseness) and peopled with unforgettable characters.  As for universal themes, we kept coming back to the obvious: good vs. evil.  Although, as Roy pointed out, since virtually every character is badly flawed, the contrast is really between Drax's malevolence and the more modest shortcomings of his shipmates.  No one, including the protagonist Sumner, gets a pass from McGuire.

Rating The North Water

While Armando critiqued one of the whaling scenes as "inauthentic," the rest of us were captivated by a story so different from anything we've read to date. According to Larry, the book had the urgency and harshness of The Revenant; Doug found it "unflinchingly violent"; Tom said it was "engrossing" (high praise from the engineer!); Paul fell hard for McGuire's many "well-turned phrases"; and the history geek in Terry was fascinated by the novel's prescient account of a dying industry.  With a rating of 7.8, The North Water landed high on our growing list of books read.

Next Up: The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Doug miscalculated badly when he offered us 14 titles for our consideration.  He subsequently pared the list to four in order to force a decision.  We rejected Barbarian Days when we learned we could read a magazine-length version; Underground Airlines had some confusing it with Underground Railroad; and The Throwback Special simply didn't resonate.  Which left us with Nguyen's much-praised The Sympathizer.  Given how impressed we were with another recent Pulitzer winner (The Orphan Master's Son), we have high hopes for our next selection.

Jul 23, 2016

Tom's Wyoming Evening

Men's book club group review discussion
Dinner and Acknowledgments

No one caters western barbecue like Tom.  Last Saturday, he invited 35 of us to his house for an evening of smoked chicken, barbecued ribs, and a very tender brisket.  The eating was spectacular and so was the setting.  With tables set outside (for sunset views over Peacock Gap) and inside (to avoid the evening chill blowing in from the Bay), and too many side dishes and beverages to count, we were overwhelmed by Tom's generous hospitality.  We were also delighted to see Dorothy, whose recovery we've been cheering these last few months. Thanks for a fine evening indeed, Tom.

Our Discussion and Review of Close Range:  Wyoming Stories

A mea culpa is in order.  In my zeal to catch up with with several men and their spouses, I set aside my notetaking, asked few questions, and came away with only fragments of conversations about Proulx's most famous short story collection.

The common refrain of those at my table was the repeated reference to the quality of Proulx's writing.  Her turn of phrase, her uncanny eye for detail, her ear for dialog, her evocation of a fragile masculinity--all were enjoyed in this stunning collection of stories about life on the range.  Naturally, most of us commented on Brokeback Mountain, whose famously homosexual story line obscures a larger, deeper narrative about love, loss, aging, and other age-old themes.  Everyone was moved by the joy and sadness of the story and the despair of its principal character, Ennis.  One of my many favorite lines was Proulx's quick description of the failure of Ennis' marriage:  "A slow corrosion worked between Ennis and Alma, no real trouble, just widening water."

Among the other stories mentioned by many was Blood Bay, the story of a cold winter night, a pair of finely-tooled boots, two amputated legs, a trio of cowpunchers, and a nervous host.  Everyone was taken by the story's spare dialog and abbreviated ending.  And almost everyone found in the opening story, The Half-Skinned Steer, the gradually building suspense that is the hallmark of fine short form fiction.  For her confident prose and relentless insight, we gave Proulx a much-deserved 8.4, which puts her in the Man Book Club pantheon of greats (well, our current Top Five list).

Next Up:  The North Water by Ian McGuire

For September's meeting, Armando, ever the water wonk, gave us several choices but winnowed them to two:  The Water Knife and The North Water.  While the former is explicitly set in a warming world with severe water shortages, the latter is its near opposite, with a cast of murderous sailors hunting whales off the coast of Greenland in 1859.  We chose Ian McGuire's cold, harsh world of predators--both natural and man-made.  Let's hope this most manly of adventure stories lives up to the hype that accompanied its publication earlier this year.

Jun 19, 2016

A Moonshine Evening at Roy's

men's book club group review discussion The Moonshine War
Dinner and Acknowledgments

We gathered at Roy's house last Tuesday for a novel combination (pun intended):  we got to drink several varieties of Roy's bespoke moonshine while discussing Elmore Leonard's 1969 classic, The Moonshine War.  Accompanying the gin, rye, and corn liquor was a sampling of white lightning (near-pure grain alcohol).  In keeping with the novel's backwoods locale, Roy treated us to venison, boar, and goose--all hunted and dressed by the man himself.  His black-eyed peas and bourbon ice cream were added evidence of Roy's commitment to a true moonshine evening.  Bravo, Roy!

Our Review and Discussion of The Moonshine War
Set during Prohibition, Leonard's novel centers on an impoverished town where the main source of income for many is distilling or bootlegging liquor.  With the arrival of a crooked internal revenue agent, everyone's livelihood is threatened, especially Son Martin's, as he's sitting on 150 barrels of the best hooch in western Kentucky.  The story's "explosive" climax is foreshadowed the moment agent Long is discovered with a Remington in his valise.  As Larry noted, Leonard presents the reader with an overt illustration of the literary principle known as Chekhov's Gun (i.e., if Act I features a gun hanging on the wall, Act III will invariably have it go off).

Though predictable in form, most agreed that Leonard's mastery of the genre (spare dialog, sharply-etched characters, a reluctant hero) makes his story both timeless and compulsively readable. According to Terry, The Moonshine War was the perfect summer read for our group.  We agreed and readily voted  7's across the board.

Next Up

Our next meeting is an evening BBQ at Tom's with spouses and significant others invited.  Eschewing our democratic tradition, Tom has directed us to immerse ourselves in the purest of literary forms:  the cowboy short story.  And who better to render it than Annie Proulx!  Next up is her acclaimed collection, Close Range: Wyoming Stories, featuring among other titles Brokeback Mountain.