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.


  1. Men of Man Book Club! You are doing great. I've had The Nine in my hands at the bookstore a time or two and always passed on it, and your report confirms that I'll continue to pass on it. The one-sidedness of Toobin's reporting must have been annoying, or at least off-putting.

    I like the idea of choosing books based on what you want to eat! Very clever. Martin's bio has been excerpted a time or two in the NYer and it looks OK. He's had an interesting career, so maybe the book will provide some good discussion . . .if not at least the meal will be great!

    The Apes gather for their next "vine swing" (as Clark calls it)to discuss Tree of Smoke on 3/31I am really enjoying that book. The first maybe 100 pages are somewhat disjointed and maybe even a little confusing, but now that I'm into the 1969 section it's interesting, very thought-provoking, funny, enjoyable. We'll have a good discussion because it won't receive a unanimous thumbs up, I predict, and that's what drives solid discussion. I'll let you know how it goes.

    I am currently teaching Gatsby to my juniors and I mentioned to them that it's still chosen by adult book groups, thanks to you guys!

    Keep on reading-

  2. Jeff,
    Even though the book got mixed results, more for its leanings than anything else, it is still a very good book for a club read. The book allows for a good general discussion about our courts, politics in general, and the movement of main stream America.
    The book also shows the influence that the party extremes have in our two party system. We do not have a consistent middle-of-the-road political party, which is probably where most of us would end up were it so.


  3. Hey George- Thanks for the comments. The Great Apes always enjoy political discussions, both current and historical, so maybe Toobin's book would be worth visiting. Had anyone read either Halberstam's and/or Woodward's Supreme Court books? I haven't and just am curious if your discussion had any "compare and contrast."

  4. Jeff,

    We avoided the compare and contrast with previous Supreme Court exposes, mostly b/c most of us hadn't read them. But, in my opinion, Toobin tries hard to outdo Woodward and succeeds in part (with his breadth of inside material) and fails in part (with his open hostility to the more conservative justices).

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