Jan 31, 2018

At our 100th, Tom's the Gentleman

Dinner and Acknowledgments

Tom had a choice to make last night:  he could have focused his efforts on the cuisine of the fictional Metropol Hotel or he could have commemorated the Man Book Club's 100th book.  To our delight, he chose both. For dinner, we enjoyed his slow-cooked rendition of beef stroganoff--which proved a worthy competitor to the Tyler Florence version Dan served when we read The Fixer.  His stroganoff was accompanied by a "Russian" salad.  How Russian was it?  I'm not sure, because I was too focused on what came before and after. 

For an appetizer, Tom teamed up with Roy, who harvested fresh caviar from an 80-lb sturgeon he caught in San Pablo Bay.  (Naturally, the caviar was paired with Russian vodka.)  And for dessert, Tom made a delicious carrot cake topped with candles celebrating our 100th book.  Spasibo, tovarisch Tom!

Cake, caviar, and vodka...all for our 100th book

Our Review and Discussion of A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

The conceit behind Towles' latest novel is simple:  a young Russian aristocrat, who is sentenced to "house" arrest five years after the Bolshevik Revolution, learns what it means to be a true gentleman in a society bent on ending class distinctions.  During his decades of confinement in the Hotel Metropol, Count Rostov mingles with party loyalists, foreign diplomats, KGB agents, and--most importantly--the hotel staff.  It is his relationship with the staff, and his adoption of an orphaned girl, that hastens Rostov's conversion from aristocrat to gentleman.  

Most of us discovered a very enjoyable story in Towles' surprise bestseller (although Dean and Jack found it slow going, and Dan actually disliked it). What we didn't discover was a traditional historical novel.  For those hoping to learn more about the Bolsheviks, Stalinism, or the rise of Nikita Khrushchev, few of those details seep into the narrative.  It is, as Larry described it, more akin to Eloise at the Plaza than conventional historical fiction. Indeed, I found myself wondering whether the upcoming paperback edition might get pitched to Young Adult readers. 

Towles' narrator begs our indulgence by addressing the reader directly and through occasional wordy footnotes.  While most of us found these asides amusing, Stan did not.  Pedantic and condescending were his words.  By contrast, Paul (who loved the book) found gems scattered throughout the novel, including references to two of our prior titles (The Tender Bar and The Maltese Falcon).  And Terry, who listened to the audio book, was entranced by the narration and  not distracted by the commentary.  He called it one of his favorite books of the year.  

Our Rating of A Gentleman in Moscow

Tom asked us to read Towles' novel because, after hearing about it from his wife, he was convinced we would enjoy it--all 462 pages of it. With a respectable 7.4 rating, he was vindicated in his choice (and in listening to his wife). 

Next Up:  Ski Weekend The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston

We meet next on the ski slopes around Lake Tahoe.  No book has been assigned.  Instead, George and I look forward to playing host and repeating the fun we had last year.
Editor's Afterword:  To correct the record...the ski trip disappeared when the snow disappeared.  So we convened at my house in February to discuss an old favorite--The Great Gatsby--at the request of our friends at Nutopia.  We meet next in March to discuss Mando's suggested title about the recent discovery of an ancient city deep in the rain forest of Central America.

Dec 17, 2017

The Road to Roy's

Men's book club Review of The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

Dinner and Acknowledgments

When our book is about starvation in a World War II POW camp, our dinner prospects dim considerably.  Last Thursday, some may well have been tempted to eat beforehand. Had they done so, they would have missed a deliciously eclectic meal.

Roy took inspiration from the Australian prisoners' working-class food fantasies (fish and chips) and their daily camp rations (a single ball of rice) and presented us with excellent versions of each.  Along with the fish and chips and the "dirty" rice balls (see below), we were treated to home-made sushi and a very commendable re-creation of Anzac biscuits for dessert.  (Who but Roy and Peter knew there were cookies named for Australian soldiers from WWI?)  Roy's Aussie-Japanese cuisine was washed down with quinine-fortified gin and tonics and beer from both countries (courtesy of Paul).

Ready for the jungle: rice balls, quinine, and lager
Our Review and Discussion of The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

Flanagan's Man Booker Prize-winning novel features a protagonist riven with internal conflict.  Born in poverty but made respectable by his training as a physician, Dorrigo Evans joins the army at the outbreak of hostilities with Japan.  After officer training, he ships out--but only after he's simultaneously: 1) proposed to Ella, the daughter of a doctor; and 2) had a passionate affair with Amy, the wife of his uncle.  His unit is captured and sent to a POW camp in Burma, where most of the men (led by Dorrigo) starve or die of disease as they lay train tracks in the jungle.  After the war, Dorrigo returns to Australia where--to his dismay--he is hailed as a war hero and, later, regarded as one of the country's leading physicians.  

In our discussion, we found much to like and a little to complain about.  As to the latter, most of the complaints were about Amy.  While central to the story (she's Dorrigo's lifelong obsession), her character felt unfinished and her climactic re-appearance late in the story improbable.  

We were willing to excuse Flanagan's clumsiness with Amy because so much of the rest of the novel was superb. Everyone remarked on the exquisite writing.  From the characters' names to the language they use, Flanagan masters the idiom of time and place. In addition to the writing, it is Dorrigo's struggle with love and loss and his doubts about the man he's become that enriches Flanagan's novel.  All of his (male) characters—from fellow inmates to camp guards—play strong supporting roles in an unforgettable story about war and its aftermath.

Our Rating of The Narrow Road to the Deep North

Flanagan's prize-winning effort polled an 8 in our ratings.  Our enthusiasm for a beautifully written story was tempered by our collective desire for more or, at least, for closure.  Dorrigo's life ends abruptly but not before the reader appreciates that his public accomplishments mask a deep sense of unfulfillment.  It's too bad, as George noted, that his unfulfillment becomes ours, too.

Next Up:  A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

With all of January set aside for reading (and nothing but skiing in February), we accepted Tom's request that we read this year's book club favorite, A Gentleman in Moscow.   At 500+/- pages, it approaches our page length limit but also promises to lift our spirits in time for the new year.

Nov 12, 2017

Peter's Take on an American Classic

men's book club group review k-129 josh dean
Dinner and Acknowledgments

I’m sure Peter puzzled over his meal choices.  What to serve when the story at hand is about submarines and deep-sea mining vessels?  A natural choice would have been a tasty deep water fish.  But lanternfish are hard to come by, even here on the west coast.  So Peter pivoted to patriotism and last Thursday showed his adopted flag by treating us to an all-American classic, the hamburger.  Combined with steak fries and salad, and ice cream afterwards, our meal was the perfect accompaniment to a quintessentially American story about ingenuity, money, and an engineering challenge fueled by the anxiety of the Cold War.

Our Review and Discussion of The Taking of K-129 by Josh Dean

In 1968, the Soviet ballistic submarine K-129 went missing.  Unbeknownst to the Kremlin, it suffered a catastrophic event and sank along the International Date Line north of Hawaii.   Shortly thereafter, the Americans learned of the loss and, using submerged acoustical beacons, discovered the sub’s location. With the CIA overseeing the mission, the race was on to devise a means of raising the sub before the Soviets realized it had been located.

The focus of Dean’s story is the engineering challenge posed by retrieving a 1,500-ton sub from a depth of 16,700 feet.  Complicating the mission was the requirement that the nature of the work be kept secret.  This required the construction of the Glomar Explorer, the world’s largest deep sea mining ship, equipped with a submersible barge (to carry the sub back).  It also required the secret cooperation of the Howard Hughes Corporation, which provided the CIA with its cover story:  the Glomar Explorer would explore the seabed for manganese nodules!  

Project Azorian was a partial success. Only a portion of the sub was retrieved, as the remainder broke apart during the lift process.  The story helped us understand America’s mood in the late 1960’s:  its confidence was high but Sputnik and Vietnam had punctured its post-war belief that anything was possible.  Much like the Apollo mission, Project Azorian tested and confirmed America’s engineering prowess.

After expressing our appreciation for a story so little known, we took turns faulting Dean for inserting one unnecessary character after another.  The Glomar Explorer had 178 sailors and engineers, and it felt like we were introduced to each one.  The narrative was also far too long.  What should have been long-form journalism, according to Larry, was instead expanded into a full-length book.  Both Jack and Roy skipped entire chapters and still came away with the story intact.  John was pleased to learn more about the U-2 and SR-71 spy planes and I was tickled to learn the origin of the CIA’s “neither confirm nor deny” response to press inquiries.  But neither was necessary to Dean’s story.

Our Rating of The Taking of K-129

Our below-average 5.7 rating reflected our impatience with Dean but belied our enthusiasm for the subject matter.  Indeed, some of us had a personal connection to the story.  George worked for the Hughes Corporation in the 1970’s and got to tour the secret offices used by the CIA.  Mando and others recall boating around the Glomar Explorer after it was mothballed in Suisun Bay.  And Larry’s uncle worked on submarines at Mare Island and took several out on shakedown cruises. 

Next Up:  The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

Roy proposed three novels for next month, each reflecting the theme of love and war.  We turned down Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See and Cleave’s Everyone Brave Is Forgiven and instead opted for Australia’s most recent winner of the Man Booker Prize, The Narrow Road to the Deep North.  We’ll learn in December if Flanagan’s story of POWs on the Burmese Railway justifies all the attention it’s received.

Sep 17, 2017

Dean's Dystopia

men book group review rating 1984 by george orwell
Dinner and Acknowledgments

Our dinners are often staged by the host to reflect the characters or events in the book under discussion.   Last Thursday, Dean faced an especially difficult challenge in preparing a meal that would be edible yet reminiscent of the dystopia in George Orwell's best-known work. 

As he has in the past, Dean rose to the challenge. His genius was in recognizing that there was nothing worth eating in the bleak wartime environment of 1984. So instead he mined the year of 1984 for his recipes.  We were served grilled steaks in pepper sauce, scalloped potatoes, and stewed vegetables--all reputedly popular in 1984!  Dean made sure we got the point by setting his Pandora playlist to 1984, resulting in background tracks from Prince (RIP!), Kenny Loggins, Tina Turner, and others.  In a nod to Orwell, though, Dean did offer us a dessert of genuine chocolate bars washed down with cups of Victory coffee. Bravo, Dean!

Our Review and Discussion of 1984 by George Orwell

Written in 1949, and set in a bombed-out London of the future, Orwell’s iconic novel describes a world that has devolved into three warring superstates, one of which (Oceania) is ruled by the remote but all-knowing Big Brother.  The novel's protagonist, Winston Smith, is presented as a conscientious party member who becomes disaffected, is caught and tortured, and later finds solace in his relationship with Big Brother.

While most of us were familiar with the story, we were nevertheless struck by the parallels between our reality and Orwell’s fantasy.   Dean compared the doublespeak practiced by Winston’s Ministry of Truth to the “alternative facts” touted by the current White House. Paul was more intrigued by how today’s technology (CCTV, facial recognition, bodyworn cameras, GPS tracking) has become as pervasive in our lives as Orwell’s “telescreen” is in Winston’s. If 1984 was meant to warn us about the perils of technology in the hands of a totalitarian government, Terry worried that the warning may be lost on today’s youth, who appear too willing to trade privacy for convenience.

Orwell’s depiction of the concentration of government power and the rise of an elite class of party members caused Larry to muse that, unlike the state in 1984, it is the technology behemoths that exert so much control in our daily lives. Larry’s commentary about the rise of Silicon Valley led John to complain that our knowledge-based economy is contributing to the development of an underclass that rejects education and advancement, much like the “proles” in 1984. 

Our Rating of 1984

Our discussion would have continued but for the late hour.  At rating time, we all acknowledged the continuing relevance of 1984 even if we were less impressed by its plot and, in Peter’s view, its dated writing. For his prescience, if not his storytelling, Orwell pulled down a respectable 7.4.

Next Up:  The Taking of K-129 by Josh Dean

Thanks to Dutton’s generosity, we received advance copies of The Taking of K-129, Josh Dean’s account of America’s covert effort to retrieve a Soviet nuclear sub that sank in international waters. Next month, we will leave the social paranoia of the early Cold War and turn to the US-USSR military tensions of the early 1970s.

Aug 1, 2017

Stan: A Brief History of His Father's Favorite Book

men's book club review Harari Sapiens
Dinner and Acknowledgments

Last Tuesday, Stan invited us into his home, served us Puerto Rican fare from Sol, and gamely attempted to lead us in a discussion of Harari's ambitious history of homo sapiens.  Stan struggled, but not because he hadn't finished the book.   No, Stan's encounter with a hit-and-run driver left him with two fused cervical vertebrae and a nasty concussion.  It was the lingering neck pain and an inability to concentrate that sidelined Stan during parts of our conversation.

Stan, we salute your courage, thank you for your hospitality, and look forward to your full recovery. But we do not excuse the manner in which you foisted Harari's anthropology text on us.  You've complained frequently and loudly about others' selections and have long urged us to adopt a rule that a title must be read before it is proposed. And then you persuade us to read Sapiens merely because it is your father's favorite book?!  Is this hubris...or merely the effect of that concussion?

Our Review and Discussion of Sapiens:  A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Harari

Speaking of hubris, Harari's study of the history and triumph of homo sapiens, and our likely future as we benefit from the fusion of biology and technology, is equal parts breathtaking, arrogant, illuminating, and entertaining.  Alas, at more than 400 pages, it is not brief.

Sapiens explains our ascendance over other primates by carving our recent history into three distinct "revolutions."  Like many Sapiens critics, we were reasonably impressed by Harari's description of the Cognitive Revolution (larger brain=speech=an ability to mythologize= population growth), somewhat impressed by his analysis of the Agricultural Revolution (domestication of food/animals=our own domestication=population growth), but nonplussed by his ultimate characterization of the Scientific Revolution (immortality is within reach if we don't kill ourselves first).  

While we generally agreed that Harari poses interesting questions and supplies provocative answers, none of us (except perhaps Glenn and Stan) was as captivated as the librarians in China who named Sapiens the National Library Book of the Year in 2014!  We appreciated re-learning the anthropology we'd forgotten (or never learned), but some of us questioned the book's rigor, others found its breezy textbook style off-putting, and still others found the book digressive and its conclusions overreaching.    

Our Rating of Sapiens

Despite our many quibbles, and perhaps because we felt rewarded for our efforts and Harari's ambitions, we gave Harari a thumbs-up and Sapiens a robust 7.6.

Next Up:  1984 by George Orwell

Dean offered us the chance to go back almost 10 years and read Verghese's Cutting for Stone, almost 50 years and read Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, or almost 70 and immerse ourselves in 1984.   With a hint of authoritarianism in the air, we picked the latter. We'll see if Orwell's classic stands the test of time.