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 by Kent Haruf

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.)

Jan 15, 2017

Ski Weekend Pictorial

After years of too little rain and snow, we had almost too much of both during our January ski weekend.  Our arrival at Serene Lakes on Thursday afternoon was greeted with blue skies and snow covered roads.  The weather later turned stormy, but that didn't bother us.

After a day of skiing Sugar Bowl, shoveling the back deck (thanks, Tom!), or lazing around (thanks, Peter!), we sat down to enjoy Tom's world-famous mountain lasagna.

The following day some skied Mt. Rose in the rain while the sensible ones stayed indoors.  We met up later at George's beautiful new home in Montreux.  The living room was picture perfect....

...but the blue tape on the dining room floor highlighted that everything else was not quite perfect.  The headaches of new construction gave us plenty to commiserate over as we enjoyed Stephenie's excellent white lasagna.

As for A Nation of Sheep, we let George try to convince us that Lederer's 1961 screed is as relevant today as it was leading up to the Vietnam War.  When he was finished, we turned back to Stephenie, her lasagna, her conversation, and the excellent Bandol she poured.  Thank you, George, for letting us visit and spend time with your infinitely more interesting wife. I'm sorry, George, that wasn't fair.  I should have also acknowledged the pleasure we took in the company of your well-behaved dogs...!

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.