Dec 18, 2008

Armando's Hideaway

We came expecting a dank room with a lumpy mattress on the floor, adolescent guards at the ready, and beans and rice for sustenance. Armando was only able to conjure up the beans and rice (courtesy of Picante), but when paired with his homemade tamales, green salad, and a pleasing berry and ice cream dessert selection, we were most forgiving. The smooth brandy from Roy, and the selection of Latin beers, also helped.

Armando never circled back to his father’s barroom antics (we’ll wait for that next time), but he did impress us with his tales of whales (and their 10-foot appendages), Fresnel lenses (yes, that was young Armando in the lighthouse), and a 20-year men’s group that’s still going strong. Some of us were even invited into his “man cave,” whose artifacts and animals (those were California Kingsnakes!) might have entertained us all evening.

The Book
Had we picked any other of Armando’s book choices, we would likely have been pleased. But as it was, we felt merely informed by our reading of Marquez’ account of the 1990 kidnappings in his native Colombia. Our criticisms centered around the limits Marquez imposed on his reporting: he spent too much time lionizing the hostages and their high society families and friends, and too little time exploring the class tensions, the widespread violence, the political instability, and the shadow of Uncle Sam—all of which contributed to Pablo Escobar’s desperate bid for leverage as he sought to avoid extradition and protect his family.

Fortunately, Stan happily filled in some of the missing context! (How about we next pick a book about Mongolia and see if Stan also spent time there in 1972 playing music and marveling at the abundance of cocaine?) I'm not sure I get Stan's connection to Havana Nocturne, and I know Peter is still smarting from George's generalizations about where all the stable democracies are located (none south of the equator, apparently). As we went around the table, no one was quite as critical as I, but the rating still fell solidly into the mid-range, with the final result a disappointing 4.9.

Next Up
Our next selection is David Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. We will take off the month of January and instead travel up to Tahoe for a weekend of skiing and bonding (not bondage, Garth). Food and beverage assignments are coming, so be sure to RSVP if you haven’t already. So far, 14 are confirmed, and we now have a second cabin reserved for the overflow.

Dec 14, 2008

Book Selections for Jan/Feb

At Armando's on Tuesday evening, I'll be proposing the following three titles for your consideration. Given the short month, we'll read the book for our meeting in February. (For our January ski weekend, we'll have to find other pursuits to entertain us.)
1. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle (Wroblewski). This novel has three strikes against it: it's still only in hardcover, it exceeds 500 pages, and it carries Oprah's imprimatur on the cover. Despite those negatives, this coming-of-age story is on everyone's top ten list for 2008. The reason is that it's a wonderful, readable story about a boy, his dogs, and his need to vindicate his father.
2. Out Stealing Horses (Petterson). This Norwegian novel is also a coming-of-age tale, but told from the perspective of a old man, recently widowed, who has moved to the country to escape family and friends. His escape becomes a return, and the reader is taken back to World War II when the man, then age 15, is forced to grapple with his father's love and betrayal.
3. Peace Like a River (Enger). Another (you guessed it) coming-of-age story told from the perspective of an 11-year old boy in the early 1960's. Set in the Dakotas and Montana, this novel perfectly captures the voice of a boy bearing witness to his older brother's act of vengeance, his younger sister's love, and his father's greatness.
Each one of these stories is absolutely unforgettable. See you all Tuesday.

Dec 7, 2008

Mexico Now Extraditing Drug Suspects to U.S.

As I was reading about the Extraditables in "News of a Kidnapping", this article with the above headline appeared in the Dec 1st edition of the Chron.

Here is the link

-- Larry

Dec 3, 2008

Retracing Jack London's Journeys on the Bay

Reading Jack London’s Tales of the Fish Patrol was like my grandfather spending an afternoon on my boat telling me tales of fishing and other stories, with some embellishments, I am certain, and perhaps a few outright lies which could be categorized as “fiction”. The settings in the stories are part of my everyday life. I spend a lot of time with my kids at the precise spots in the bay described by Jack London and I work in Benicia. I thought that I might be able to provide the other members of the group a different view of their local world of the Bay Area, but from the Bay side.

It really is a very different world from the water. Each time I go out it is a bit of an adventure, due to the confluence of the wind and the currents, the water is always different from the day before.

Our first group was comprised of Tom, Terry, Armando, Glenn, and myself. We departed Loch Lomond Marina in San Rafael and followed the Marin coast to Angel island, then across to San Francisco waterfront, down to Candlestick Point and then across to the Oyster Beds which is now the Oakland Airport. Even Asparagus Island is connected by landfill to the airport. We followed the East shore to Alameda, Oakland, Treasure Island, then to Richmond, the Brothers Islands, Point Pedro, Point Pinole, across San Pablo Bay. We viewed the asphalt cap which tries to encapsulate the slag from the Selby Smelter then up the Carquinez straits past C&H Sugar, then Port Costa and into the Benicia Harbor were we docked and walked down the street to one of my lunchtime hangouts overlooking the Benicia Bight, Captain Blyther’s. Nearly everyone followed my advice and got the Reuben sandwich once they found out that is the only thing I ever order from the menu, perhaps not so much in agreement of my good taste, but likely in fear that it is the only edible entrée on the menu.

After lunch, we went east, up the straits and entered Suisun Bay, and toured down the rows of ships which comprise the mothball fleet, a huge relic of World War II and the Navy’s vow that they will not have to retreat due to lack of shipping capacity again. There is also an environmental reason why they are anchored in Suisun Bay. America has very little capacity to dismantle ships. Most of that is done in Korea and elsewhere in Asia, but America also has a law prohibiting the export of hazardous waste, and since all those ships contain asbestos, they must remain here untll they can be scrapped.

We motored back up the straights past Vallejo, across the bay to Point Pablo, China Camp, and to the Marin Islands, and being fairly low tide, viewed the beach area adjacent the mud flats where yellow Handkerchief and his band dropped off Jack in the last story.

There will be another trip this Friday after Thanksgiving and possibly even another if we still haven’t taken all those who wish to go on this excursion. I was very pleased with the company on the trip and I must admit that I am much more comfortable in smaller groups like this where you can get to know each other better – because we are forced together on a small boat for hours and we need to pass the time getting to know one another. I know the ostensible purpose of the group is the intellectual stimulation provided by the engaging minds of the authors, but we had a good time together - without any help from those brilliant minds. It was a very good day on the bay.

Nov 16, 2008

Dean's Delicious Fish Tale

As our host on Friday, Dean was inspired by Jack London to create a meal that casually mixed seafood and ethnicity. We learned that Dean’s excellent grilled halibut and spinach lasagna reflected his own mixed Croatian and Italian roots. While London might have sneered (given his animus towards immigrants), we were delighted that the legacy of Tadich’s fine cuisine—and even finer wait staff—lives on in Dean’s household.

We should also acknowledge Roy, in absentia. With ingredients from Tom, and with a nod to London’s enterprising Greek and Italian fishermen, he supplied us with unmarked bottles of ouzo and grappa. But Roy did more than lubricate our discussions. He also generously offered to take us on his boat through the Carquinez Straits to Benicia and down to the old oyster beds in Oakland. Larry and I can’t make it next weekend, so instead we’ll wave our yellow handkerchiefs as you come around Point Pedro.

Finally, thanks to the men in our group who, along with their wives, appeared last night to support Chris’ fine work at the helm of the Diabetic Youth Foundation. What a beautiful evening at the Claremont Resort in Oakland. And how striking to see our men sporting ties and starched collars!

The Book
Jack London delivered exactly what our 14 in attendance were expecting: a series of short, readable tales of San Francisco Bay, circa 1900. His stories got us talking about the local geography, and our neighborhood’s proximity to many of London’s own adventures. From the Marin Islands to McNear’s Landing to the San Rafael Slough (which we now know extended as far as Davidson Middle School), London's tales of the bay are littered with local landmarks. And so we happily digressed into topics as varied as the nearby egret colony, the disappearance of native shell mounds, the massive Gold Rush-era sediment flows into the bay, and more. We thank Armando, our naturalist, for his wealth of detail and Stan for his perpetual willingness to share on a more, ahem, personal level. (His real estate holdings aside, did he really stalk those egrets in his birthday suit?)

Tales of the Fish Patrol was just one collection of many short stories Jack London turned out during his abbreviated career. Tom surprised us by explaining that London never actually worked the fish patrol, but instead took his details from others. Regardless, the writing was engaging and fast-paced and would have produced universal acclaim had not one of us spoiled the party by revealing that London’s short stories predominantly targeted the adolescent reader (Tales of the Fish Patrol, for example, was serialized in 1905 in Youth Companion) and that London was typically paid by the word for his stories (at his peak, he commanded up to 20 cents).

Our attempt to rate Tales of the Fish Patrol (it eventually received a 6.7) was complicated by the insubordination of a few. Once Dan proclaimed that London deserved a 10, Stan engaged in a petty act of vote cancellation with his 1. Thereafter, Glenn, claiming inspiration from This is Spinal Tap’ s Nigel Hufnel, raised the ante with an 11, which was later canceled by yours truly. Shame on us all for these antics! But congratulations on one collective accomplishment: this is the first book that everyone finished before the meeting.

Next Up
Armando offered us a fine set of choices for our next gathering: Robert Laxalt’s Sweet Promised Land (a paean to our fathers), V.S. Naipaul’s A Way in the World (his fictionalized autobiographical essays), and two titles by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, News of a Kidnapping and Of Love and Other Demons. (Note to MBC philistines: 2 of the 3 writers selected by Armando won the Nobel Prize for Literature; the third received two Pulitzer nominations. It can be done.)
We opted for News of a Kidnapping, Marquez’ non-fiction account of the Medellin Cartel’s murder and kidnapping spree in Colombia. If, after dinner, Armando dusts our desserts with a fine white powder, we trust he'll be using confectioner's sugar.

Oct 27, 2008

Chris explains the financial crisis

If you were convinced that Chris' only expertise was The Godfather and its progeny, you'll be forgiven for choking on your corn flakes last Wednesday. Chris was quoted on the first page of the business section of the San Francisco Chronicle (above the fold, of course). Read beyond the initial quote so you don't miss the real gem, wherein Chris offers an analogy that the masses (and the Centers for Disease Control) can understand. Chris, we salute your mastery of all things financial. Won't you supervise our investments for us?

If your edition is already lining the birdcage, here's a link:

Oct 20, 2008


Havana Nocturne was full of fun anecdotal facts but, as Andrew says, the book was short on theory and failed to provide adequate historical context for either the mob's activities or the Cuban revolution. By bogging down in detail, the author misses an opportunity to capture our imaginations. Most of us come away saying "so what" rather than understanding the significance of one of the most profound revolutions in modern history.

Oct 18, 2008

Jeff's Montecito Nocturne

Jeff knew from the outset exactly how to fête us, Cubano style. Last Wednesday, with food from Sol, plenty of rum, a temperate outdoors setting, and the aromatic smell of imported Honduran and Dominican leaf, we were transported back to Havana’s Malecón a la 1958.

Jeff’s reticence on the biographical front was set aside long enough for us to learn that he interrupted his classical education (between Andover and Berkeley) to ship out with Royal Viking at the tender age of 19. He wouldn’t disclose his cruise duties, but since it’s well known that he later courted his wife aboard ship, we can only deduce that Jeff’s manly attractions helped him succeed with Royal Viking too!

The Book
Havana Nocturne: How the Mob Owned Cuba—And Then Lost It to the Revolution was reminiscent of Positively Fifth Street: Murderers, Cheetahs, and Binion’s World Series of Poker in one sense: just as McManus sought to connect the Ted Binion murder trial with the drama of the World Series of Poker, T.J. English spends much of his time educating the reader on the history of the American Mob and the seeds of the Cuban Revolution in order to conjoin the two. Neither author succeeds in linking his two subjects as seamlessly as his book’s subtitle would suggest.

T.J. English set out to persuade us that the mob owned and lost Cuba to the fidelistas. None of us was convinced that the mob exerted that much control over Batista, much less the rest of the Cuban economy, but most of us felt well educated by English’s efforts. Even Stan, with his master’s in Latin American studies, and Chris, with his family’s ties to Latin America and his personal passion for all things mafiosi, were suitably impressed by the depth of research demonstrated by the 45 pages of endnotes.

As a group, we were split on how much we enjoyed the book. Many felt better informed about the Mafia and the Cuban Revolution (Glenn and Dean, for example), but some had misgivings about the quality of the writing (Peter), the loose editing (Larry), the digressive quality of the narrative (yes, every single American mobster from 1920 to 1960 was mentioned anecdotally in this book about Cuba!), and the ambitious conclusions English draws at the end of each chapter.

So, while we were compelled by the subject matter, we were less attracted to its presentation. That may explain why so many couldn’t seem to finish the book before the meeting, but insisted they would later. (Next month we’ll ask Dan, Dean, John, Armando, and Jack if they made it.) Our rating reflected our mixed reactions: Havana Nocturne pulled down a middling 6.0.

Next Up
Dean suggested four unusually disparate titles for our reading next month. We were a little intimidated by Salman Rushdie (whose Satanic Verses is reputed to be among the most admired but least read titles of all Booker winners), unimpressed by Buford (sorry, Dean), and split between another Philip Roth novel and an easy collection of Jack London short stories. In a surprise vote, Jack London’s Tales of the Fish Patrol won a strong plurality. Next month, we’ll see how well London’s early musings on San Francisco Bay hold up.

Oct 16, 2008

Bloggin Literate

After one year of membership, I now feel fully engaged with the club since I can now blog. Please enjoy with me my entering into 2004. (I think that's when blogging became mainstream.) Like Mrs. Palin, who was discussed in a number of conversations last night, I don't use g at the ends of my words, so I will always be bloggin.

Oct 14, 2008

Dean's Book Choices for November

After much heavy thought and pondering, here are my selections for November:
1. The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie: In honor of the 20-year anniversary of its publishing, it is a book I have never read but have wanted to. It is very lengthy--over our 500 page criteria. Have it be noted that this book lost to Oscar and Lucinda for the 1988 Booker Award.
2. Among the Thugs by Bill Buford: What you've been waiting for. A stimulating book that most may never read without my prompting. Have it be noted that Toobin referenced Buford in The Nine.
3. American Pastoral by Philip Roth: Pulitzer prize winner in 1998. I've not read it. Has current reference to Obama's friends, the Weather Underground.
4. Tales of the Fish Patrol by Jack London: A series of short stories set right here in SF Bay and at China Camp (easy read). Never read it but always wanted to.

Oct 4, 2008

Hats off to the Woodhead boys!

Jeff, our host next month, is an accomplished fellow in his own right, but yesterday's Marin I.J. article was all about his two fine boys, Dylan and Quinn. You can read about their plans to swim the Tiburon Mile by clicking the following link:
Way to go, Jeff and Laura!

Sep 24, 2008

Francis Feeds Phelans as Terry's Turkey Tantalizes Thirteen

Terry’s dinner last Wednesday was quite a feat: he picked a fine novel for discussion, he set a superb table replete with butterflied roast turkey, new potatoes, and pumpkin pie, and he neatly connected both despite the hunger and scarcity that pervades Ironweed. Terry credited John with the recipe for the main course, and the irony wasn’t lost on us. The man whose vision of scarcity led to our eating from unmarked cans during our discussion of The Road now inspires fine meals in the kitchens of others.

As our host, Terry began his duties with a new MBC ritual. Not only did he share the fruits of his larder, he also shared some of his personal story during dinner. Raised in a separatist Christian environment, Terry described how he grew up and later broke away (to Bible college, then to Harvard, and eventually to Marin County). His story gave us new insight on the power of communes and religious cults in America.

Speaking of communes, we were fascinated to hear about the largest annual in-gathering of artists, healers, and hedonists in the United States. Thanks to Garth and Glenn, we got the rundown on this year’s Burning Man Festival. We were amazed by the scale of Burning Man (48,000 people camped in the desert!), impressed by the absence of commerce, intrigued by its celebration of fire and art, and (mildly) titillated by the anything-goes nature of this vast encampment.
The Book
The inspiration for Terry’s turkey dinner came, of course, from the novel’s protagonist, Francis Phelan, who stays sober just long enough to deliver a 12-lb turkey to his estranged wife and grown children. After dinner, Francis returns to the streets and to the cycle of drunken violence that scars his journey through adulthood. Through his eyes, Kennedy sketches a life of talent and possibility that is hopelessly dulled by alcohol and riven with guilt.

The early reviews of Ironweed (i.e., the crossfire of emails before the meeting) were not encouraging. Stan, Peter and George complained that this month’s selection was depressing and continued the tired theme of middle-aged angst. None of them was at the meeting and--without their bullying--we reached a different consensus. Indeed, our discussion found much more to admire than to criticize in Kennedy’s writing, his characters, and his view of Albany street life in 1938.

The writing certainly had us taking sides: it started slowly for Roy, bogged in the middle for Tom, and closed too slowly for me. The alternating narrative voice gave us interesting perspectives, but John and Doug both commented on how intentionally unreliable the narrator became as Kennedy forced us to make our own judgments about the effect of alcohol on the characters’ memory and observation (e.g., the impact of Helen’s singing or the choice of endings for Francis). Some of us found the story’s mystical elements a little distracting, but Dean felt that Francis’ ghosts gave him a special clairvoyance and Glenn (Jack? Doug? Dan?) noted that the ghosts were a clever narrative shortcut into Francis’ past.

Kennedy leaves little room for ambiguity about his characters and their choices: no one is on the street (or bottle) by accident. Indeed, Kennedy’s main characters repeatedly articulate the universal themes of reason and free will coupled with their own interpretations of morality and mortality. While Chris felt that the accidental death of his child transformed Francis and pre-ordained his future, Kennedy hints that the opposite may be true: Francis chooses to kill people (the ghosts), help people (Helen), and visit people (his family) for quite rational reasons. His individuality stands in real contrast to, as Larry and Jack both observed, the homeless people we see every day and whose stories we don’t know.

Ironweed’s environment aroused our interest as much as the characters did. While the 1930’s diction was praised (Tom) and criticized (Armando), Kennedy’s evocation of place and time was powerful enough that it took Armando back to a parallel moment with his father in the 1970’s. We look forward to the rest of that story when it’s Armando’s turn to host….

Our fourteen votes, combined with proxies from Peter (4) and George (8), pushed Ironweed's rating above the mean to a surprisingly strong 7.3.

Next Up
For the second time, the upcoming host was not present to defend his choices. As a consequence, we rejected Jeff’s posted choices and instead adopted his last-minute addition, T. J. English’s Havana Nocturne, which meets our selection criteria only if we stretch them beyond recognition. T.J. English is indeed a man and is also a past winner of the Humanitas Prize, which sounds impressive until you learn that it is awarded each year to honor outstanding TV screenplays in various categories. Hmmm…didn’t we turn to books as an alternative to television?

Sep 13, 2008

October Selection

Greetings MBC,
Below are four suggested titles for October (although I'm tempted to go back to the Hunter Thompson offering from last month). Comments/notes are brief as I'm confident of an Andrew 'book-selection-coup'...

- Independence Day by Richard Ford (1996 PEN/Faulkner; Pulitzer). MBC "sweet spot".
- The Alienist by Caleb Carr ( Staff Pick). October murder/mystery.
- The Search by John Battelle (Finalist for the Goldman Sachs/FT Business Book of the Year). Local/tech.
- Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin (Pulitzer Prize-winning historian; #1 "New York Times bestseller). Historical/political. Violates both "length" and our "cardinal rule").

Jul 24, 2008

Glenn's Hiro

Approaching the dog days of summer, with several of us already gone on vacation, Glenn readied his home and welcomed a smaller-than-usual contingent Tuesday night. Well, on second thought, he apparently didn’t ready his home. With his nicely furnished patio still awaiting its bluestone installation, and with a step riser that would have intimidated a Chinese gymnast, Glenn dared us to complain. And none did, as we were much too preoccupied with his food and drink and company to care. Thank you for hosting, Glenn.

Without our resident chemist (Roy went to Hawaii to avoid reading this month’s selection), the drink was merely fine. The food, however, deftly mirrored Uncle Enzo’s fare in Snow Crash. But with delivery by Pico instead of Hiro, taste and texture were both outstanding. As were the vanilla and blueberries suffused with raspberry liqueur. Not content with these amuse bouches, Glenn introduced us to his excellent friend, Judd, an import from Mill Valley who admitted to a fondness for SciFi but who proved to be no Stephenson apologist.

These acknowledgments wouldn't be complete without saluting George's impromptu discourse on the re-creation of an ancient Athenian trireme. He promises more at his upcoming lecture at the St. Francis Yacht Club. And we remain impressed by Glenn's passionate embrace of all things robotic (and that is NOT a reference to Jana, his lovely and intelligent wife).

The Book
Stephenson’s first breakthrough novel, Snow Crash, challenged us. Ostensibly about a not-too-distant society whose culture and institutions have been overtaken by monopolists and hegemonists, Snow Crash describes a real world that is threatened by its parallel, virtual world. The book is long, peopled with techno-thrill junkies, freighted with a mixture of tech talk and Sumerian myth, and it features a plot that could have been served up in half the pages. Did I say it was long? (Editor’s Note: Having read only 230/470 of this novel, I’m still confident I absorbed enough.)

Let’s start with the positive. First, George read it and then convinced his 14-year old son to read it. As a group, we weren’t as impressionable as Evan, but several of us felt rewarded by the effort. Those who liked it tended to be steeped in SciFi, although some had their quibbles with Stephenson’s lengthy, digressive, and slightly baroque style and structure. Larry, who proudly read this precocious digital age novel on his Kindle, described it as “The DaVinci Code on steroids.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement (though Larry might try re-reading The DaVinci Code on his Kindle to see if it's the digital medium that adds the steroids). John, on the other hand, was impressed with Stephenson’s ability to construct a virtual world that extends and distorts our physical world (e.g., the actual replication and manipulation of viruses, language, and even human behavior by virtual means). Judd, who confessed to reading Stephenson’s massive Cryptonomicon (easily twice the length of Snow Crash) and also meeting Stephenson at Book Passage, admitted that Stephenson’s writing has matured since his early efforts. Indeed, Judd’s assessment of SciFi literature validated my own sense of the genre: despite a soaring imagination, the writing quality can be quite uneven.

Everyone who read Snow Crash (and that includes Jack and Dean, who each claimed to have reached p. 63) found Stephenson's 1992 novel amazingly prescient. His Metaverse is eerily similar to the virtual worlds that now populate the cyberspace we’re familiar with. As Glenn noted, the avatars adopted by our children in Club Penguin are just a half step away from the characters’ avatars that fill Stephenson’s Metaverse. And the regular blurring of Metaverse and Reality in Snow Crash is not only intentional, but may be yet another example of Stephenson’s prescience.

In the end, Snow Crash had its adherents but it failed to stimulate a strong response. Our rating of 5.8 puts it below the middle of the pack.

Next Up
Since we are taking August off, we agreed to Doug’s suggestion that we share titles that make for ideal summer reads. No literary awards, no moody narrators, no big words—just easy, uncomplicated stories that read well on the beach or in the mountains. I wish I could capture some of what was said about the titles that were proffered, but instead I’ll trust you to remember and reach for the books that you found most intriguing. So, in no particular order and without referencing authors, here are the titles I was able to scribble onto my Post-It: Any book by Lee Child, The Alchemist, Blood Sucking Fiends, God’s Middle Finger, The Call of the Wild, The Old Man and the Sea, Into the Wild, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, Nature Girl/Tourist Season, Blink, North Dallas Forty, Richistan, Stiff, Bonk, Peyton Place, Endurance, Into the Void, and Three Cups of Tea.

For September, Terry gave us three distinct choices: Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail (Hunter S. Thompson), Ironweed (William Kennedy), and High Jinx (William F. Buckley). Without Terry present to both defend and proselytize, we bickered over page length, topicality, relevance, and even (sacrilegiously) asked ourselves if we could pick a different book altogether. Tom rushed to defend the integrity of Terry’s list and we quickly fell in line. By the narrowest of margins, Kennedy’s 1984 Pulitzer winner won out over Thompson’s 1972 political screed. Ironically, Kennedy and Thompson were quite close friends. Maybe that’s why we had such difficulty picking one over the other. We’ll find out in September if our choice is vindicated.

Jul 21, 2008

Book suggestions for September

I have 3 suggestions, each quite different from the other.

First, one of my favorite fiction authors for his Blackford Oakes novels is William F. Buckley. Who else could write a sex scene that involves Queen Elizabeth (not the book I'm recommending). So, if the closest you ever get a conservative is to check the next box over on the ballot, try the novel, High Jinx, by William F. Buckley.

Or, if light and action packed isn't your cuppa, how about Ironweed by William Kennedy. It will remind you why you don't live in Albany, NY.

And, rounding out the trio with a political campaign themed read is Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail by Hunter S. Thompson. It's a Gonzo-journalism fueled coverage of the 1972 presidential campaign between Geo McGovern and Richard Nixon. I was inspired by seeing the portrait of Thompson's life at The Rafael last week.

I won't be at the club meeting Tuesday (son's 18th birthday) but will deputize Glenn to defend my honor and book choices.

Jun 20, 2008

Jack proves there's nothing rotten in the state of Denmark

Jack threw open his suburban Orebyslot on Tuesday and helped us celebrate Stegner’s quasi-autobiographical journey to Denmark by offering plenty of Danish trimmings to go with his All-American grilled sausages and chicken. With warm weather and idyllic golf course views, the pickled herring, Danish blue cheese, and Carlsberg on ice evoked a summer night at the Tivoli Gardens. Indeed, the mood turned romantic on the patio when one of us reminisced about his Danish tryst years ago…but I shall stop before I violate our rules of disclosure.

Additional thanks to John and Roy, who each brought bottles of flavored aquavit (let’s use the Swedish spelling since no one wants to say “aqvavit”) to complement Jack’s bottle encased in a slab of ice. (Note to Jack: I would be tempted to sneer at any man who apes Martha Stewart, but your clever adaptation of her party trick certainly captured my fancy.)

And, finally, a big thanks to the multi-talented Armando, who cajoled us into a photo shoot by the pool and later managed to photoshop Peter in and John’s devil horns out. Scroll to the bottom of the blog to see the results.

The Book
The Spectator Bird drew a strong rating for the simple reason that a record number (5 of 15) failed to finish the book and therefore excused themselves from the voting. Had they read it, I suspect the average would have fallen below 7.3. I also think some gave the book the benefit of the doubt simply because it was Stegner, everyone’s favorite West Coast novelist-cum-environmentalist. (Witness both Garth and Stan, who loudly rounded up from 7.5 to 8.)

The book was divisive in other ways (beyond its inability to hold everyone’s attention for a scant 214 pages). Some liked the story’s movement between present and past using a 20-year old travel journal; others found it tedious and contrived. Some sympathized with the aging narrator’s perspective; others felt he was simply crabby (likening him to Steinbeck in Travels With Charley). Finally, some found inspiration (or at least closure) by the end, while others were left wanting. Most everyone, though, was impressed by the writing. Glenn and George found plenty of passages worth reflecting on, with Glenn going so far as to look up the English translation of the last line in Goethe’s Faust in order to make sense of the German version quoted by Stegner. Whether it was the quality of the writing or Stegner’s reputation, only Dan was sufficiently underwhelmed that he gave the book a 5; the rest of us gave it a 7 or 8.

Maybe The Spectator Bird didn’t match the breadth or insight of Angle of Repose (according to John), Crossing to Safety (me), or Big Rock Candy Mountain (Stan, I think), but its reflections on memory, aging, and the enduring power of relationships are vintage Stegner. That’s, of course, my humble opinion.

Next Up
Glenn proposed three eclectic titles for next month (Snow Crash, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, and Flatland) and, worried that we had too little to choose from, he augmented his list with two more interesting possibilities: Atul Gawande’s Complications and Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha. Sometimes too much of a good thing is too much of a good thing. Paralyzed with indecision, we eventually culled through the original titles and came up solidly in favor of Neal Stephenson’s cyberpunk/sci-fi classic, Snow Crash. I do hope our selection won’t require us to dine virtually next month.

Jun 16, 2008

Glenn's Book Suggestions

The three books that I'd like to recommend are, like me, from three completely different categories. The first choice, Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, is one of the first cyber-punk novels that inspired movies like the Matrix, Terminator II and Minority Report. It's a bit long at 440 pages but it moves 'blindingly' fast. The second choice, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon, breaks the 500 page rule completely at 639 pages. In defense of this choice, this Pulitzer prize winning book reads like a mystery that you can't put down. The writing is amazing and you get to learn about comic books during the 30's. The last choice, Flatland by Edwin Abbott, was first published in 1880. It's only 96 pages long and is probably the only geometry book you'll ever enjoy reading. It's the story of a two-dimensional world inhabited by geometric beings that believe their planar world is all there is. One being is able to escape Flatland and see their world from a new perspective. Aside from the math, it really makes you think about perspective and what happens when women are careless (I'm not kidding).

See you Tuesday.

May 21, 2008

Chez Stan, Blind But Not Hungry

men's book club group discussion review of Blindness Jose Saramago

Stan’s baronial residence could not have contrasted more sharply with the rapid physical decay depicted in Jose Saramago’s Blindness. Had we a stronger sense of justice last night, we would have given our beef tri tip and roasted new potatoes to the cyclone victims in Myanmar. Instead, we tucked in, helped ourselves to ice cream, and promised to support Garth’s upcoming Burmese fashion show fundraiser. (Although his daughter may be worried about his preference for fem couture, we know Garth’s intentions are honorable.)

Stan, thanks for feeding the 14 of us as we sorted through the pain and triumph of Blindness. However, your insistence that we complete our roundtable discussion with our eyes closed may have overly stimulated certain other senses. When I opened my eyes, my plate was empty. The obvious suspect was the man seated to my left, who arrived with a see-through gauze blindfold and a tendency to thievery. If I had one of Garth’s stiletto heels, I might have planted it in John's thigh.

The Book
Although Saramago’s plot is compelling (an epidemic strikes a city, renders its inhabitants blind, and creates a profound loss of social order), several in the group complained that the book was slow going. The absence of conventional punctuation, the elliptical dialogue, and the intentional omission of character names made the act of reading more challenging.

While Roy criticized the writing as “mechanical” and Doug was surprised at his own lack of progress, Jack praised the book as an excellent sleeping aid. (I noted, with obvious insight, that the removal of punctuation was a conscious attempt by Saramago to eliminate visual cues for his readers. But I was quickly informed that all of his books are written this way. That ended my insight for the evening.)

Most of us, however, got used to the narrative style and were absorbed by the story and its parallels to the Holocaust and any number of other fascist and authoritarian-inspired tragedies of the last century. Armando and Glenn both read this novel in overtly political terms, with Glenn (or was it Armando?) discovering a cautionary tale perfect for the current election cycle. Glenn’s disclosure that Saramago is an atheist with a pessimistic view of mankind came as no surprise, particularly given the jarring revelation during the novel's scene in the church. Doug, who admitted his bias against political fiction, was intrigued by the plot but underwhelmed by Saramago’s delivery.

The interesting result of our discussion was how highly we rated this book despite a few strong dissents (Roy felt generous giving it a 3!). Even with conservative numbers from Dean, Jack, and Doug, the book drew more 9's and 10's than any book to date. Stan, Terry, Glenn, and Larry all ranked it as their book of the year. With an 8.3 rating, Blindness has overtaken The Great Gatsby and Tortilla Curtain. Beyond its high rating, Blindness also seemed to provoke more topical discussion than any other book on our list.

Next Up
For next month, Jack asked us to consider The Spectator Bird by Wallace Stegner, as well as McGuane’s The Bushwhacked Piano and O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. The virtue of each choice, as we enter the summer season, is its brevity. So, in gratitude, we agreed to take up Stegner’s 1976 National Book Award winner. For the ambitious engineers in our group, extra credit will be awarded if you also read Angle of Repose and come prepared to explain the title.

May 18, 2008

Jack's Book Suggestions

I've got three recommended choices for June reading. Since we're heading into the busy summer season, I've chosen 3 relatively short books, all in the 200+/- page range (you're welcome in advance). These could be easily read on the beach. My first choice, and the one I hope the group will choose, is The Spectator Bird by Wallace Stegner. It won the National Book Award. Stegner is one of my favorite authors. Angle of Repose is one of my all time favorites, but it exceeds the 500 page limit. I read Spectator Bird about 20 years ago and would look forward to re-reading. My other choices are: The Bushwhacked Piano by Thomas McGuane (winner of the Richard and Hilda Rosenthal Foundation Award), a light-hearted, sad/funny book that is fun to read. Finally, my other suggestion is The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien, a trove of Vietnam war related accounts (fictional) on a handful of veterans that are very powerful. Amazon has info on all of these. See you Tuesday.

Apr 27, 2008

Back to Waco, by George!

George had warned us that the food theme for Steve Martin’s memoir would be geographic, so none of us was expecting any funny stuff. Last Tuesday, he delivered on his promise, and served up pulled pork and slaw right out of Martin’s hometown of Waco, Texas. I’m not sure where Stephanie’s chocolate-laced pecan pie hailed from, but I’m sure Steve Martin would have approved.

In my sampling afterwards, I heard universal acclaim for the pulled pork. Indeed, Garth fell off his vegetarian wagon in order to partake! For our next meeting, Stan may have to put him on a diet of carrots and pureed bitterroot.

Our acknowledgments would not be complete without commenting on the three ferocious canines that greeted us at the door. In particular, we were absorbed by the Pug Gymnastics orchestrated by Stephanie in the back yard. An appearance on David Letterman is imminent, I'm sure.

The Book
I’ll confess that I groaned when we rejected Cormac McCarthy in favor of Steve Martin’s sawed-off memoir. My bad attitude persisted as I read the book and found myself underwhelmed. I was heartened to discover that most of you felt the same way, if for different reasons.

We were all impressed by Martin’s exposition. Stan summed up our feelings when he described Martin as a fine technician. His prose was carefully wrought and he took us through the 1960’s and 1970’s with a clear sense of direction. But while we got an A-to-Z recitation of what it required for Martin to develop into an accomplished comedian, the personal Steve Martin was never on full display. Even his callow years at Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm were less about the wonder of growing up and more about specific magic tricks, his stagecraft, and a few of his fellow travelers. To his credit, George fell on his sword and apologized for proposing this pleasant diversion from our normally meaty fare (again, glad to have you aboard, Garth).

Steve Martin had his defenders, though. Chief among them were Jack and Stan, who both admitted that their admiration for Martin determined their rating for the book (each an 8). Notwithstanding these victims of Martin’s cult of personality, our overall rating was a middling 5.8 (which includes Jeff’s absentee vote of 6).

Our dinner discussion was bracketed by viewing clips from Martin’s Tonight Show and his SNL appearances. Thanks to Glenn and Tom for the content, and to Larry for bringing a phonograph, which proved so unnecessary in this age of Youtube and digital downloads.

Next Up
For our next selection, Stan offered up two wildly different products of the counterculture era: Dickey’s Deliverance and the Autobiography of Malcolm X. Neither got us too excited, but his third choice did. We picked Blindness by Jose Saramago, a past winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. When we meet next at Stan’s, let’s come in dark glasses and consider what it means to live in a sightless world.

Mar 19, 2008

Doug Wins Our Verdict

Many thanks to Doug for his gracious hospitality last night. He resisted the temptation to feed us along party lines (i.e., Italian for the right wingers and Thai for the left leaners) and instead heaped mounds of non-partisan poultry and beef on platters and invited us to make our selections. That, combined with twice-baked potatoes and far too many dessert choices, may have encouraged gluttony over moderation. (At least it did for this intemperate centrist.)

While we enjoyed Doug's beautiful home, we sympathized with the inordinate investment he's made behind the walls. Doug, at least you have Al Stewart’s haunting melodies to motivate you as you make his home yours.

The Book
The Nine, Toobin’s recent expose of the Supreme Court, prompted more vigorous discussion than I ever imagined. In a gathering of 13 men (with only 2 lawyers to keep us honest), I assumed that the court’s personalities and issues would barely keep our attention. I was wrong.

Doug provoked us from the start by asking if we could identify Toobin’s sources and therefore his sympathies. We all chimed in with some obvious candidates (Breyer, Kennedy) and concluded that since he was most sympathetic to O’Connor, he must have spent a lot of time in Phoenix. Since Toobin writes with no attribution, Doug’s question forced us all to recognize the limits of Toobin’s reporting.

The unabashed politics of the Supreme Court aroused some comment. For people with life tenure, the members of the court show themselves surprisingly reactive to the events of the day. Larry echoed Toobin’s observation that O’Connor, while less beholden to precedent, usually sought to broker a compromise that provided guidance to the lower courts. Jack wondered whether the court, having grown more conservative since O’Connor’s departure, would soon be marginalized by more liberal executive and legislative branches. Glenn seemed taken with the notion that the court, regardless of its politics, moves more slowly in order to temper Congress’ gyrations.

Peter questioned the representative authority of an institution that repeatedly takes its members (and its clerks) from the same half dozen elite law schools. Perhaps in response to Peter’s understandable ignorance (and our poor memories), Tom pulled out his daughter’s 8th grade US History text and held forth on the constitution and each of its 27 amendments. Get ready for a quiz at the next meeting, fellows. I hear Tom is a sucker for questions on the scope of the 14th Amendment….

We gave this book a 6.5, a solid but unspectacular rating. The subject matter kept most guys interested, but Garth lamented the formulaic chapter transitions, John described the narration as tedious, and I yearned for a little more substance.

Next Up
George introduced a twist in our usual book selection process. Instead of starting with proposed titles, he offered us three possible dinner menus for our next meeting. To a man, we opted for the African stew paired with aphrodisiacal gazelle horns (as opposed to the short ribs or the enchilada stacks). When presented with the literary counterpart for each menu, we abandoned our palate in favor of our funny bone. Yes, gentlemen, my prediction came true: you eagerly raised your hands for Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up and you rejected a title from Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men) as well as an African coming-of-age story (Beah’s A Long Way Gone).

George’s clever departure from our selection criteria was worthy of Chief Justice Earl Warren. No strict constructionist, George (like Warren) made new MBC law when he elevated Steve Martin to the level of Cormac McCarthy. Well, we can only hope that Stan rediscovers our original intent upon his return from Brazil.

Feb 13, 2008

Roy's Our Gatsby

Last night Roy’s hospitality was like coming home. No women, no children—just a house full of men and distilled spirits and food fit for kings. The Dungeness crab, pasta, and assorted sides were all we needed to feel as generously treated as Jay Gatsby’s guests. Had Roy turned the pool lights on, we might have jumped in and made for East Egg.

Roy, thank you for your hospitality and for the insider’s tour of your distillery, er, laboratory. Perhaps someday we’ll also see the armory. In the meantime, we’re content knowing that yours is the sanctuary we’ll retreat to next time the lights go off.

(But if our lights do go off, we know that Garth's won't. He was simply stunning in his electroluminescent smoking jacket. If only Roy had made good on his threat to wear pink last night. The two of them might have decamped to the Castro Theatre after our meeting.)

The Book
Our discussion of The Great Gatsby started off in two venues. At my table, there seemed to be some question about whether it deserved the recognition it’s received. Peter certainly didn’t think so, and Doug’s description of Fitzgerald’s troubled last years eking out a living in Hollywood wasn’t inspiring.

When our groups joined together, I asked if this book deserved its position in the pantheon of great American novels. The initial reaction was underwhelming, but the final tally produced a huge thumbs-up. With a 7.7 rating, TGG takes top honors to date.

Despite my encounter with Roy’s unadulterated gin, I remember a few of the sentiments from our run around the table. But I’m already confusing them with comments made during the Quiz Reveal that followed. So, here’s my selective mash-up:

Our two power engineers (Tom and Dean) used almost identical language to express their fondness for the book and its brevity, with Dean also noting that the characters’ unrealized ambitions find a parallel in the lives of middle aged men everywhere. (How dare you call us middle-aged, Dean!)

Roy, evidently addled by exposure to Red Line synthetic lubricants, couldn’t separate Jay Gatsby from Coleman Silk in The Human Stain. Terry, whose Harvard education omitted TGG, was dismayed to learn that motor oil now costs more than $1.98/qt.

Larry faulted Fitzgerald for elongating a short story into a novel. Indeed, he called it a “novella,” a term he picked up during those interminable PTA meetings in the school library. Peter, still suffering from either altitude sickness or ethnocentrism, felt that TGG was a disappointingly incomplete work. Garth rejected Fitzgerald’s "vacuous" caricature of the American Dream in favor of…yes…the version touted for Burning Man 2008!

Doug’s sympathy with the characters’ Midwest/East Coast perspectives was lost on us as we marveled at all of his hockey injuries, including the nicked carotid artery. Jeff (Andover) and George (Redwood), both participants in that most elite of sports (yes, I speak of the crew), opined on the class tensions in TGG. No irony there.

I forget the commentary from Stan and Armando, as I was more intrigued by their later references to waxing styles in Brazil and using Zig Zag papers as art media. Finally, Dan, even if you are worth only $49.95 to your wife, your empathy for the Wilson character is ours, too.

Next Up
Doug gave us three outstanding options. For fiction, he proposed Russo’s Nobody’s Fool. For non-fiction, he offered The Nine by Jeffrey Toobin. And in the history category, he proposed Ellis’ Founding Brothers. Our choice was surprisingly easy: we voted overwhelmingly for The Nine. So, as we explore the personalities sitting atop the least scrutinized branch of government, let’s thank Doug for steering us (temporarily) away from fiction.

Jan 19, 2008

The Men of Man Book Club

We've been getting together since last May, but there's a lot we still don't know about each other. Just how much, we'll soon find out. At the end of an upcoming meeting, I'll administer the following "quiz" and we'll see who's been listening and who's been drinking. The one with the most right answers gets an extra fine bottle of red that has been reclining in my cellar since Terry sold me the house.

Before the quiz, you may do all the homework you like, but no fair volunteering your own (or someone else's) data unless asked....

(Note: Everyone is featured; a few come up twice.)

  1. According to his wife, this man is worth only $49.95, because that’s all she paid an internet dating service to find him.
  2. He played NCAA Division I hockey.
  3. These two attended Harvard.
  4. These two have wives who attended Harvard.
  5. He attended Yale (with his wife).
  6. He was the 20th employee of Netscape.
  7. After trekking through the Himalayas, he worked all winter at a ski resort in Austria.
  8. These two are longtime “power” engineers. (For extra credit, name their companies.)
  9. One was, until recently, a nationally-ranked cyclist; the other is on a nationally-ranked rowing team (3rd place at the 2007 Head of the Charles).
  10. His products are sold around the world using the trade name Red Line.
  11. These two attended the oldest boarding school in the country. (For extra credit, name the school.)
  12. He completed the Paris-Brest-Paris race, at 1,200 km the oldest bike race in the world. (He is not the cyclist mentioned above.)
  13. At the 2007 Burning Man Festival in Nevada, these two men designed, built and operated a communal shower and water recycling facility.
  14. These two were once PTA presidents.

Jan 16, 2008

Tom's Tortillas and More

Last night Tom fed us well and single handedly too. Okay, aided briefly by his sous-chef (John prepared the guacamole), and closely observed by a hungry Robin and Casey, Tom turned out a meal worthy of a Mexican Tenksgeevee. His enchiladas, chopped anchovies on Caesar, and Spanish rice were complemented by an exquisite homemade Mud Pie. The frozen hand emerging from the dessert was a delicious bit of culinary symbolism.

(Peter/Dean, since you didn’t finish the book, we’ll let you in on a secret: Garth’s high-concept dessert suggestion, which Tom executed so well, is explained in the last two pages of the novel. While you're at it, try to figure out why John arrived wearing an electronic ankle bracelet and Stan was sporting huaraches.)

Tom, thank you for hosting us with such grace and generosity. Fifteen bookmen arrived hungry and went home satisfied.

We welcomed Glenn to our group last night. He was an inaugural MBC member, but his yearlong stint in Colorado has prevented him from joining us until now. Now that he's back in Marin (and cycling with Terry), we know all's well in his and our world.

The Book
Our run around the table produced a surprising verdict on Tortilla Curtain: we all seemed to like the book enormously, but there was no scarcity of criticism. I put the book in my Top Ten, but learned that most of you quarreled with the novel’s accelerated ending (glad you read it this time, Roy), the implausible attitudes of the principal characters (including Delaney’s rapid conversion to the dark side), Boyle’s failure to capture more of the complexity of the migrant worker experience, and an alleged lack of originality (Larry, I'm putting words in your mouth). To all of your criticisms, I say rubbish! I’m still taking T.C. Boyle to the proverbial desert island (but maybe I’ll take Stan’s suggestion and bring along Water Music instead).

Despite the quibbles over tone and style and substance, the book pulled a 7.5 rating, our highest to date. Even Jack, voting absentee, gave it a 7. (Note to Dan: Jack missed because of a conflict NOT involving his wife or mother-in-law!)

In the Painful Parallels department, we have in our midst a self-described Mexican naturalist (Armando); two former SoCal denizens, one raised outside the proliferating gated communities (Glenn) and one inside (John); our carpetbagger from Rolling Hills Estates who declined to state on the gate issue (Terry); an Australian whose convict roots and dubious morals make him our poster child for immigration control (Peter); and the usual polyglot assortment from the Emerald Isle, eastern Europe, and Asia, whose ancestors were despised by the immigrants who preceded them. As Terry asked us, who will the Mexicans despise 50 years from now?

Next Up
In a serious breach of protocol, Roy proffered only one book for our consideration. But since our straw vote revealed that most were satisfied with the choice, we all agreed to read Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby for next month. For later consideration, George recommended Updike’s Rabbit series and others mentioned a desire for non-fiction (including Glenn, who touted The Last Place on Earth; Armando, who liked America in 1492; and George, who proposed a title (name?) about a 19th century US expedition around the world). Keep bringing your recommendations to future meetings.

Jan 7, 2008

Killer Angels Considered for Davidson Eighth Grade

The eighth grade history teachers at Davidson are considering Killer Angels as a supplemental text for their eighth grade honors history classes. I was asked by Mabel Bialik, my son's teacher, to provide input and agreed to meet with several Davidson teachers tomorrow (1-8) at 2:30 at Davidson. I obviously liked the book and would recommend it, but I know many of you were not as enthusiastic.   Thus I wanted to offer you the opportunity to provide Mrs. Bialik and the other eighth grade history teachers other views.

I will write in my comments that the book may not grab the interest of girls as there are few women mentioned in the book.

I'm sure they would welcome any comments you would have either tomorrow or via e-mail. You can also reply to this posting and I will see that it gets relayed to the teachers.

Of note, the eighth graders that go on the D.C. field trip this spring will visit Gettysburg. 
-- Larry