Jun 2, 2019

Roy's Success

shteyngart Lake Success Review Rating Men's Book Club
Dinner and Acknowledgments

When it comes to preparing our group's dinner, Roy sets an exceedingly high bar...for himself.  With few exceptions (a delivery from Sol Food comes to mind), he's always worked from scratch and aimed for something a little different.  Remember his Dungeness crab?  Manhattan-style sandwiches?  Anzac biscuits and dirty rice balls?  Well, last Tuesday was more of the same.

To accompany Shteyngart's financier-on-the-run escapade, and with the protagonist's $30,000 Japanese whiskey firmly in mind, Roy started us with a Caesar salad followed by a bouillabaisse stuffed with local halibut.  His main course was a delicious pasta seasoned with mentaiko (buttery fish roe), Korean chili threads, and shiso leaf.  For dessert, he served his own kumquat ice cream over son David's citrus cake. To wash it down, Roy laid out shot glasses of home-distilled brandy.  If it was all too rich and too much, we didn't care; we had a book about excess that needed pairing. 

Our Review and Discussion of Lake Success by Gary Shteyngart

In his latest novel, the gilded ego of Gary Shteyngart's New York is contrasted with America's wholesomeness west of the Hudson River.  Well, sort of. The novel opens with an introduction to Barry Cohen, a hedge fund manager ("hedgie") whose fund's assets ("AUM") are declining rapidly, whose recent trades are under investigation, whose young child is autistic, and whose wife is looking elsewhere for affection.  Facing such challenges, Barry does what any red-blooded American would do:  he skips town in a Greyhound bus in search of a long-ago college girlfriend.  This being a journey of self-discovery, Barry gets to learn about himself while the reader learns about automatic watches, Greyhound buses, and--oh, yes--today's America.  

That's the trite summary.  Thankfully, Shteyngart's writing is not nearly so trite.  But neither is it free from criticism, at least from us.  Shteyngart commits the cardinal sin of saddling his reader with a repugnant main character.  As host Roy noted, Barry is both unlikable and implausible. Glen called him a narcissist and a sociopath; George described him as irredeemable. Paul said he fits nicely into almost any Woody Allen film (in a twisted, misogynistic way, of course).  Terry charitably noted that Barry merely voices the thoughts many have but are afraid to express.  Regardless, Barry's antagonizing presence in the narrative spoiled what should have been an amusing 21st century take on the Gatsby story.  

Our Rating of Lake Success 

If it weren't for Doug, we might have ended our discussion still moaning about Barry's shortcomings.  But Doug, with his usual insight, pushed us to appreciate Barry's quest for an ideal (love? success? contentment?) that is every bit as elusive for the other, more sympathetic characters in the story.  In fact, whether it stems from his own autism, his certitude about success and money, his luck of Kokura, or just native resilience, Barry returns to New York and his perch atop Wall Street a far cry from the man who fled in the middle of the night.  Because he challenges us to question everything we thought we knew about success and failure, we partially forgave Shteyngart his Barry Cohen and coughed up a grudgingly positive 5.8.

Next Up:  The Devil's Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea

Again we were presented with a Jack London doubleheader (Call of the Wild and White Fang) and again we resisted.  We also turned down Bad Blood and The Devil in the White City (second time) so we could instead read Luis Alberto Urrea's Pulitzer-nominated account of 26 men, an unforgiving frontier, and an immigration policy that continues to defy partisan solutions.  Next month we'll discuss whether anything has changed along our southern border in the last 18 years.

May 4, 2019

Peter Celebrates the Flower Moon

Killer of the Flower Moon mens book club review rating
Dinner and Acknowledgments

April's book selection took us back to 1921 and told us, in unsparing detail, what lay at the end of the Trail of Tears for the Osage Nation.  As our host last Tuesday, Peter had to devise a menu that referenced, without trivializing, the subject matter of The Killers of the Flower Moon.  Our consensus:  his fry bread tacos were the perfect accompaniment to our book.

Now common to Native American tribes throughout the southwest, fry bread was concocted by the Navajo during their forced relocation to New Mexico.  The Navajo used the only ingredients offered by the US government (flour, salt, lard) to sustain them on land too poor to grow their traditional foods. Fry bread tacos later became part of the southwestern indigenous cultures that spanned the border with Mexico.  (Note:  no big beautiful wall then existed.)

Preceding the fry bread tacos was a tasty Three Sisters Stew, another Indian recipe and an overt reference to the three Osage sisters whose murders open Grann's story.  Dessert was a bowl of strawberries and brownies topped with vanilla ice cream.  Delicious, yes.  Subtle, no.  No one missed the symbolism of white over red and brown.  Well done, Peter!

Our Review and Discussion of The Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

Thanks to the popularity of The Killers of the Flower Moon, Grann has successfully reminded Americans of a painful, long-forgotten chapter in American history.  During the decade following World War I, two notable events occurred on the Osage reservation in Oklahoma:  the discovery of large deposits of oil made the Osage enormously wealthy, and a series of Osage homicides began and persisted with the connivance of local authorities. Grann's non-fiction account sifts through trial transcripts, newspaper articles, first-person accounts, and other primary sources to re-tell the disturbing story of how prominent whites not only exploited the Osage but--to bypass the "headrights" of the Osage--also killed them.

Grann also describes how the then-named Bureau of Investigation was called in to find the killers after the efforts of the county prosecutor and state attorney general were deemed corrupt by the Osage and others.   The personal involvement of J. Edgar Hoover and the convictions obtained by his agents and federal prosecutors are the climax of Grann's narrative.

Despite our differences, we all found the story of the Osage fascinating.  We were, to a man, appalled by the treatment of the Osage by otherwise upstanding white citizens.  At every opportunity, the white establishment stole the wealth and dignity of a tribe that was, by the 1920's, greatly reduced in population and forced to survive on land whose spectacular oil wealth had already begun to diminish by the time the FBI concluded its investigation.  As Peter noted, Grann's book takes direct aim at the myth of American exceptionalism. And, as Larry and Dean pointed out, the suffering of the Osage was the logical result of the westward expansion foretold in Undaunted Courage.

Our Rating of The Killers of the Flower Moon

While The Killers of the Flower Moon features a compelling story, many of us faulted Grann for trying too hard. After selling us on the shocking killings that rocked the Osage Nation, Grann then tries to convince us that Hoover's legacy and today's FBI were both forged in the crucible of the ensuing investigation. (They weren't.)  If that weren't enough, he devotes the final pages of his narrative to his own investigation in which he purports to discover innumerable additional victims along with suspects never charged in their deaths.  (We weren't persuaded, as the sources he relies on had already made similar claims.)  Partly for these reasons, and partly to revoke Grann's poetic license (Paul and I complained about his occasional, awkward lyricism), we pulled back from a stronger rating and awarded Grann a still-healthy 7.3.

Next Up:  Lake Success by Gary Shteyngart

For May, Roy offered us The Overstory by Richard Powers, The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver, Rules of Civility of Amor Towles, and Lake Success by Gary Shteyngart.  In the end, Roy's desire to reprise Shteyngart (after our enjoyment reading Super Sad True Love Story) broke a tie with The Overstory.  We will see if Shteyngart's latest novel about Wall Street hubris lives up to his growing reputation as an American satirist.

Feb 14, 2019

2019 Ski Weekend--Edited!

Stan prefers Squaw to Lahontan
[Editor's Note: What follows is Larry's overly generous, somewhat snarky take on our ski weekend. Naturally, I've added my own annotations to counter Larry's exuberance.]

A big thanks to Andrew for opening up his new cottagecabin, mansion to us this weekend.  While my room felt a bit like being back at summer camp, especially when bunking with John and Dan, upscale resort living was the theme of the weekend.  Although we had to dig out of snow drifts a couple of times, nobody complained when we were forced to stay an extra day living the aprés-ski life.  [Ed. Note: I would have complained were it not for Dean's tasty Sunday dinner.]

As has become standard for these weekends, the meals were MBC calorie-and-cholesterol-be-damned masterpieces.  Dean's lamb (and lamb-less) curry, Tom's lasagna, and  Paul's crepes were highlights along with the seemingly endless supply of great wines.  [Ed. Note: Don't forget Terry's breakfast feast, your own lunches-to-go, and Dan's soothing Manhattans.]
Larry's almonds, a few cookies, and an empty bottle...dinner's over
Entertainment is always an attraction of these weekends and this weekend was extra special once we determined how to access Andrew's Pay-Per-View account. It was money well spent as we focused on the most highbrow of movies: Clash of the Titans and Venom.  It was also a good weekend to watch golfers of our vintage at Pebble show the young Turks how it's done  -- thanks Phil Mickelson and Bill Murray!  That said, Andrew, we need a bigger screen next year with a better aspect ratio. I'm partial to the one in this URL https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=br9yftCP9Mg (just saying). [Ed. Note:  If you buy it, I'll install it.]

When we were forced into direct conversation due to numerous lapses in Andrew's high-tech entertainment system, we found ourselves engaged in manly topics such as pickup trucks (see related WSJ article https://www.wsj.com/articles/detroits-latest-offering-big-pickups-at-bigger-prices-11549886400), driving in snow, and our favorite -- what ails you?  [Ed. Note:  Well, that was mostly what ails Stan, since he's endured every possible sportsman's trauma in the last couple years.]

The driveway that defeated Tom's 4-wheel drive
The highlights of the weekend were several forays into the wild to search out the local coffee scene.  One trip required a carpool to town where we learned from one of our members how to chat up a 20-something barista using poetry (who knew?).  Another required breaking a trail through thigh deep snow, only to be rewarded with $9 cappuccinos.  The last, however, was truly MBC perfect.  We were treated (i.e., as in they were free) to custom made espresso drinks and affogatos by Andrew's affable neighbor, who's an espresso aficionado, whose equipment and knowledge rival the best San Francisco restaurants (hint -- bean uniformity), and whose home is the one Andrew should have built.  [Ed. Note: Yes, John and Nancy's company, their coffee bar (viva Tinito Rose Café!), and their stylish new home were all lovely.]     

So THANK YOU AGAIN ANDREW for a truly memorable MBC weekend in a new and wonderful place.  Of course Andrew will need to top this next year, so I can't wait to claim my comped room at the Ritz Carlton-Northstar (or can you at least figure out how to directly access the Martis lift from the cabin?).  [Ed. Note:  If Stan or George won't trade up to Martis Camp, maybe Doug will negotiate access rights for us.]

[Ed. Postscript:  The abundant snow at Northstar made for a terrific ski day--terrific, that is, if one ignores the 30,000-vertical-foot goal that Dean scripted for those foolish enough to hang with him.  The overnight snowfall forced Tom to put chains on at the bottom of the driveway and buried Dan's car at the top.  But the worst was Stan's treacherous drive back to Squaw Valley: what should have taken 20 minutes took 2 hours. We can only hope for this kind of snow next year....In the meantime, a brief photo gallery below.]

A simple walk proves chancy...thanks to John 
Still cold, but spectacular weather

Dan's car, covered by a snow angel

When brushing in the dark, Terry errs
Looking down the Martis run from the top of Lookout

John digs out

Nov 4, 2018

Larry Puts A Bug in the River

men's book club review rating v.s. naipaul a bend in the river
Dinner and Acknowledgments

Glenn, who picked our previous two books set in Africa, served us Ethiopian food (Dark Star Safari) and Vietnamese food (Heart of Darkness).  Last Tuesday, Larry aimed for a different kind of authenticity.  He eschewed our novel's references to French food, Indian curry, and American fast food, and instead opted for the native food disdained by Naipaul's fastidious narrator.  Yes, Larry served us insects.  BUGS!! Accompanied by a delicious Ethiopian chicken paired with skewers of beef, couscous, and rice, Larry used high-protein cricket flour for his appetizers and dessert.  Although FDA-approved, his main ingredient was nevertheless milled crickets. Larry, thanks for the reminder that we are only a few notches up the food chain from what we eat.

We must also acknowledge George's presence at our dinner.  He drove down from Reno expecting our hospitality and instead ended up in a hotel room.  Next time, George, don't be so coy in your emails.  Ask for a place to stay!  Or, even better, drive down with John and shack up in the Bambi. 

Our Review and Discussion of A Bend in the River by V.S. Naipaul

Its author a noted fixture of post-war British fiction and purveyor of post-colonial anxiety, A Bend In the River's narrative about a recently-independent African country showcased a well-crafted story (Doug), a fascinating geographic setting (Tom), and memorable images of people and places (Terry).  Those were the positive comments.  For most of us, though, Naipaul's writing served up a series of interesting vignettes punctuated by lengthy introspection.  Too lengthy, for some (Dan).

Set in the 1960's, Naipaul's protagonist, Salim, moves from his family's home on the coast inland to the "town at the bend in the river" where he sets himself up as a local merchant.  The town, and its country, go unnamed but the details in the story and the timing of Naipaul's writing suggest the setting is Zaire (formerly, and once again, the Congo) during the rule of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.  Salim, a descendant of Indian settlers and therefore a perpetual outsider, bears witness to the upheaval caused by the Big Man's consolidation of power in the face of tribal unrest and a persistent colonial influence.  He observes--with irony and detachment--the African "culture" overlaid on European-funded aid projects, the Big Man's increasing cult of personality, and the shifting allegiances within the local population, including among his friends.

Naipaul's novel has all the earmarks of a Great Novel:  family and politics, race and assimilation,  money and violence, plus lots of literary acclaim.  And yet, as a group, we mustered more respect than affection for Naipaul's storytelling.  We enjoyed the history lesson (Dean), compared it to our own experiences in Africa (Stan, Paul, Tom), and yet still found it wanting.  Paul's headline review (schizophrenia, annoyance, misogyny, conflict) was almost as damning as Dan's refusal to read beyond the halfway point. In the end, our patience was tried more by Naipaul's style (a colonial languor seems to infect his writing) than his substance.  Too bad, because a good story definitely lurks within the book's four long chapters.  

Our Rating of A Bend in the River

Despite all the kvetching, when it came time to rate Naipaul, we gave him the benefit of the doubt with a very decent 6.5.  Notably, our ratings were all within a 5-8 range, which indicates a closer consensus than our comments suggested when we sat down for dinner.  Larry, thanks for pushing us to read a title we had previously rejected but clearly found of interest last Tuesday.  

Next Up:  American Prison by Shane Bauer

Stan could not have argued for a more eclectic set of titles.  He gave us three options:  1)  The Old Man and the Sea paired with Animal Farm, which we rejected as two titles with nothing in common except their length; 2) The Swerve (Greenblatt's prizewinning historiography), which Doug warned us would be slow going and some suspected might be just another Sapiens (you know, the Convenient-Theory-That-Explains-It-All kind of book); and 3) American Prison, whose author infiltrated a for-profit prison and then wrote about it in Mother Jones.  We picked the last option and will steel ourselves for the polemic we know is coming (this did appear in Mother Jones, after all).

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.