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.

May 30, 2016

All Heart and No Fist at Peter's

Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist by Sunil Yapa

Peter's Dinner 

Oh, what to say about a man who assembles his menu from the Food section of The New York Times even after enduring its less-than-flattering portrayal of the Man Book Club?  Poor Peter.  He simply couldn't shake his affection for Melissa Clark's timeless recipes.  Fortunately for us, her curation and Peter's execution last Tuesday of a one-pan entrée of roast chicken, potatoes, and arugula, paired with roast carrots and Brussels sprouts, made for an almost perfect springtime meal. 

The only misstep came at the end.  Thanks to a minor oversight, the organic berries were topped with crème fraiche instead of vanilla ice cream.  Most of us would never have noticed the substitution had the cold vanilla-flavored cream not been dispensed from refrigerated Three Twins pint cartons! 

Our 2016 Quiz

Before we turned our attention to Yapa's debut novel, we all submitted to the Man Book Club 2016 Quiz, which was designed to test how closely we've been listening to one another since our last quiz in 2008. 15 questions were administered, with three guys given chances at each unanswered question.  (Paul was absent; he'll get number 16.) 

The questions were challenging, but men you should still be ashamed!  How many times have we heard Armando talk about his other men's group and George talk about US Rowing?  Maybe our poor performance will make us more sympathetic the next time we see our children's progress reports.  Kudos nonetheless to Terry and Glenn, who showed real test-taking mojo, and honorable mentions to Roy and Doug, whose correct answers to some questions kept them from disgracing themselves.  The rest of you ARE disgraced, so start taking notes.  I'm not waiting 8 years before administering the next quiz.

Other Acknowledgments

We should also acknowledge Peter's daughter, Lulu, whose presence during dinner tempered our outbursts and improved our table manners.  While only an 8th grader, she can already outrow George and outswim Larry.  A low bar, but impressive.  Speaking of impressive, John's daughter Ali was named CWPA player of the year as Michigan headed into the NCAA tournament earlier this month.  John was too shy to share this, so I'm giving Ali the plug she deserves.

Our Review and Discussion of Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist

Sunil Yapa's 2016 novel about the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle had us polarized from the start.  Perhaps it was his ambition (the same event witnessed simultaneously by 7 different characters) or his craftsmanship (there were more than a few clunker sentences--"florid" according to Doug), but his street-level narrative didn't quite work for many of us.

It's hard to summarize Yapa's novel without trivializing his efforts.  The story centers on 12 hours of scripted yet chaotic protest and an ineffectual and at times violent police response.  Through the lens of his various characters, Yapa opines on globalization, illegal immigration, poverty, drugs, family dysfunction, homelessness, and much more.  And therein lay the problem for many of us.  Was the book as simple as its title suggested--an examination of the conflict between love and violence?  I posed the question but no one saw it in such easy terms.

Instead, we argued about Yapa's self-conscious character study and split over whether Victor, Julia, John Henry, Park, et al. were principled in their passion (Peter and Terry seemed to think so; I didn't), reflected a black-and-white clarity (Tom felt they did; Larry felt they didn't), presented as vivid and compelling (John) or muddled and unresolved (Larry and Jack). 

Most of us conceded the novel had its moments, especially in the way its shifting points of view reflected the chaos surrounding the characters (Armando) and captured the same events seven different ways (Glenn).  But if his characters' anguish was palpable, so was Yapa's prose.  He caromed between casual unfinished sentences and digressive high-pitched ones, often in the same scene.  In the hands of a surer stylist, it might have worked.

Rating the Book
Rarely has our post-discussion rating been so polarized.  With two 8's (Peter and Armando) and two 4's (Stan and George), Yapa squeaked by with a passable 6.0 and our grudging recognition of  his undeniable talent.  As Terry noted, if we rated on discussion quality alone, Yapa's number would have risen considerably.

Next Up: The Moonshine War by Elmore Leonard

Roy offered us an interesting set of choices for our reading in June.  Bill Bryson's sentimental favorite A Walk in the Woods was first, followed by Emily Mandel's much-touted Station Eleven, and finally Elmore Leonard's 1969 mass market classic, The Moonshine War.  Many of us had already read Bryson's comedic Appalachian meditation and a few bristled at the idea of reading Mandel lest it be taken as a conciliatory gesture.  Our misgivings were mooted when Roy promised a fine selection of distilled spirits if we chose Leonard's Prohibition era narrative.  An easy choice indeed.  We'll convene next month with our used paperbacks and shot glasses in hand. 

May 8, 2016

An Apologia

[Reader's Note:  The NYT gave you a small glimpse of the Man Book Club.  Please read below for the rest.  Spoiler Alert:  We do read books by women.]

Man Book Club article New York Times
The New York Times Interviews
 Man Book Club
Our Interview with The New York Times

When we were approached by The New York Times, we were flattered but never expected to end up in print.  Nevertheless, we gave a phone interview and provided additional information by email.  When the article came out on May 4, we were dismayed that so little of what we prize about our close-knit group was mentioned or explained. 

The Article's Angle
The Times article opened with our name (manifestly masculine), our location (an affluent county), and our experience eating Rocky Mountain Oysters (aka, calves’ testicles).  These details provided the hook for anyone mildly curious about all-male book clubs.

After such a lead-in, most feature articles would step back and provide context, the very context we’d provided during our interview.  But this wasn’t a feature article; it was a “trend piece.”  And, as in all trend pieces, provocation is better than explanation.
I don’t blame the writer.  This was her assignment and nothing she wrote was incorrect.  But, by omission, the details and quotes in her piece implied that our book club has zero regard for women's contributions to literature.   Nothing could be further from the truth.

A Critical Reaction

While most pundits had fun with the machismo story line, and understood that we and the other book clubs in the article weren't seeking to be taken seriously, there were some who averred that we were shockingly narrow-minded in our book selection criteria and that as rich white men we were modeling abhorrent behavior. One writer even said book clubs like ours perpetuate “the patriarchy’s continued dominance.” 

To address these concerns, a little explanation is in order. 

Why “Man Book Club”

“Man Book Club” was intended as a riff on the "Man Booker Prize." It referred to our original selection criterion, which mandated shortlisted or award-winning authors only.  Like Booker Prize winners, for example.  Except the Booker Prize became the Man Booker Prize when it was "bought" by the Man Financial Group (a UK hedge fund).  So our name was a jab at Man’s cynical entry into the rarefied world of literary awards.

Who We Really Are
Residents of Marin County?  Yes.  Rich?  No.  We all have to work, unfortunately.  All white?  Another no. Anyone who reads our website can see that our so-called "patriarchy" includes men of Mexican, Japanese, and Filipino descent. 

Why We Came Together
We came together for two reasons:  a desire to form a men’s group and a concomitant desire to read.  In 2007, all of us had young kids and our lives were going nonstop. We were busy doing lots of things.  But we weren’t reading.  Half of us had stopped after college; the other half only read intermittently.  Amid all this action (and inaction), we were also seeking more contemplative fellowship with other men.
Learning from Women’s Book Clubs
When we formed our book club, an online search indicated that the vast majority of book clubs were women-only.  Many of these clubs read widely, but others were quite specific:  there were book clubs that read only gothic romance, fantasy, young adult, Jane Austen (yes, only Jane Austen) or other subgenres.  This gave us an idea for our book club:  we would focus on male-themed literature.  Call it our Jane Austen approach to reading.

Our Book Selection Criteria
Our longstanding rule—“No books by women about women”—has apparently caused the most consternation among our critics.  And confusion.  Virtually every critic read our rule as forbidding any books by women. Or any books about women.  Neither is true.  We read books by women and we read books about women.  Confusion over our rule led one critic to claim--incorrectly--that our criteria would exclude Anna Karenina.

Our rule helps us avoid overtly feminine titles that may not appeal to the entire group of us.  It’s a way to rule out Eat, Pray, Love, but rule in Unbroken.  And Anna Karenina.  It’s not perfect and in fact we’ve strayed from it, like when we read Patti Smith's memoir, Just Kids. 
A final and obvious note about our reading.  Once a month we gather to eat and discuss a book that usually emphasizes male themes.  The rest of the month we can and do read anything.  And that includes women's fiction.  
In Conclusion…

We are a group of middle-aged men who have re-discovered the joy of reading after a long hiatus.  Our efforts to read should be encouraged, even if our material isn't as eclectic as some would like.
Slate got it right when it called out the Times and others for grossly distorting the import of our book club.  Its headline read:  Feminists Shouldn’t Roll Our Eyes at Men-Only Book Clubs. We Should Applaud Them.

Thank you, Slate.  We couldn’t have said it better.

Apr 24, 2016

Dinner at the Orphanage with Larry

Men's book club the orphan master's son
If Larry's intent last Tuesday was to serve us something that approximated--in tone or taste--the cuisine of Adam Johnson's North Korea, he did a terrible job.  There was no fresh bird's breast, no toxic peaches, no purloined shrimp, and thankfully no ox secretions.  Larry instead took us south of the 38th parallel so we could feast guilt-free on bulgogi, salmon, rice, kimchi (homemade), and mochi (also homemade).  Well-nourished, and with guest Stuart at our table, we looked across the DMZ and wondered about the strange world that inspired The Orphan Master's Son.

(A special acknowledgment is owed to Tom and Dean, who transported Stan and his new wheelchair to Larry's and back.  Stan's recent motorcycle accident in Mexico and his return odyssey--10 hours to the border in the back of a pickup, and another 9 to the hospital in S.F.!--are quite the story.  Stan, we wish you a fast recovery.)

The Book
Johnson's 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is, on its surface, the story of an Everyman character (named Jun Do) who while navigating the absurdity of modern-day North Korea becomes a symbol of its extremes.  Born to an orphan master, raised among orphans, and later working variously as a kidnapper and an intelligence officer, Jun Do's early years are full of the contradictions of North Korean society.  Johnson ups the ante in Part 2 of the book when the reader realizes that the Commander Ga character from Part 1 has disappeared and Jun Do has assumed his identity.  No longer Everyman, Jun Do's real identity is open to question (literally, as his interrogation spans all of Part 2).

Our positive rating (7.6) belied the mutterings of some (Roy and Dan, I'm talking about you), whose forward progress suffered during the book's transition to Part 2.  With its confusing character changes and relentlessly shifting point of view (back and forth from a literarily omniscient third person to a politically omniscient second person--speaking from a state loudspeaker--to the first person Interrogator posing as our protagonist), not everyone was impressed by Johnson's virtuosity.  Nor was everyone satisfied by the novel's fanciful detour to Texas and that state's later role in the story's climax.

We were all, however, entranced by the many sordid DPRK details extracted (or manufactured) by Johnson.   Replete with gulags, prison mines, foreign kidnappings, widespread hunger, self-criticism sessions, and several Potemkin-style communist paradoxes (e.g., the handmade vintage Mustang using a Lada chassis and Mercedes engine!), Johnson's imagination soars.   Yes, the story is dark (Dean), dystopian (Larry), and surreal (Peter), the narrative saunters (Stan), the "truthiness" quotient is high (thanks for that Colbert reference, Glenn), and there's more than a little misogyny (duly noted by Paul), but many of us thought Johnson did a superb job in grappling with our often conflicting notions of truth, identity, and the nature of power and relationships.  As Doug also noted, Johnson beautifully fictionalizes a society whose reality is already stranger than fiction.   For Terry and me and a couple others, The Orphan Master's Son landed at or near the top of the MBC booklist. 

Next Up
Peter challenged us with his offerings for next month.  With two (!) titles about racism and a failed criminal justice system, another about disease and mortality, and a fourth about Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik, we shuddered and instead picked Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist.  A novel centered around the WTO protests in Seattle, YHMSF has landed on many recent Best Picks lists.  We'll see if it makes ours.