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 a 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.

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.