Mar 26, 2009

John Goes Nuts

When we met in 2007 to discuss The Road, John was determined to make our meal memorable, if not palatable. On Tuesday, our meal was both. John evoked the castration scene at the beginning of The Power of the Dog by serving mountain oysters, overnighted from a cattle ranch in Arizona and deep fried with a choice of seasonings (and, for those still not satiated, they were also ground into beef for taco hors d'oeuvres). John then cleansed our palates with a spread that included iceberg salads, seared flank steaks, and a fine strawberry shortcake. As excellent as the main course was, John’s hospitality—much like Savage’s novel—was all about the opening act.

We should also acknowledge the character actors who appeared at our dinner. Paul, in a guest role, presented himself as John’s kin, a cameo he was ill-suited for given his thoughtfulness and intellect. George and Larry, both sporting chambray shirts, denim, and boots, failed to convince us they were the lawful successors to the Burbank ranch. And then there was Stan, flaunting flannel from Abba Dabba and Bitch and sharing ranching insights plagiarized from his Wyoming in-laws.

Finally, displaying a subtlety he is not normally known for, Garth arrived with a six-pack of Two Below, a pale ale from Ft. Collins. However, it wasn’t its taste (quite drinkable) or its provenance (home to those book-loving Great Apes) that captured our fancy; instead, we were impressed at Garth’s clever pairing of beer brand with beef part. From beers to balls to strawberries, our evening was a testicular success.

The Book
Set on a Montana ranch in 1924, The Power of the Dog explores the fraternal tensions between the wealthy Burbank brothers when one (the quiet, plodding George) marries and brings his wife and stepson to live at the ranch. Phil, the accomplished older brother, sets out to destroy the relationship and, in the end, is himself undone. As Garth noted, the opening castration scene is truly the story’s metaphor: the remainder of the novel depicts the end of a way of life, the destruction of longstanding family bonds, and an emerging feminine influence at the ranch.

The book’s most provocative issue (homosexuality) generated a heated discussion, with Stan taking plenty of arrows for his insistence that Annie Proulx, in typical fashion, misrepresented the main character’s sexual orientation. To the rest of us, Phil’s repressed homosexuality was evident, though not central to the plot. We were more interested in who the “dog” of the title referred to, which character deserved the label of hero, and the ranch life so bleakly described by Savage.

We agreed with Tom that this story was heavily character-driven, with Paul that change (and its absence) was a key theme, and with Doug that Phil’s character symbolized a disappearing legacy of the old West. Our few quibbles included Peter’s criticism of the old-fashioned dialog (it was rather cowpoke) and Garth’s claim that all of the characters would have benefited from a regimen of anti-depressants.

The most stimulating discussions aren’t always generated by the best books. In this case, our 7.3 rating—while good—failed to reflect just how engaged we were by this satisfying little novel. Thanks for an excellent recommendation, John.

Next Up
We had a list of fine choices from Peter, and ended up in a tie (7-7) between The Queen’s Gambit and In the Lake of the Woods. In our final round of voting, National Book Award Winner Tim O’Brien bested Nebula Award nominee Walter Tevis. And so we look forward to reading O’Brien’s purposely confusing, possibly fictionalized retrospective on the Vietnam Era.

Mar 23, 2009

Peter's Book Suggestions for April

The books that I have selected for review for the April meeting are a combination of ones that I have read and ones that I want to read. I will not elaborate here too much on each one as I will have that chance on Tuesday 03/24. Needless to say I think all four will provide satisfying reading to such an august literary assembly. Please find the following notes from publishers and a few selected reviews.

In the Lake of the Woods – Tim O’Brien. A novel that, while imbued with the troubled spirit of Vietnam, takes place entirely after the war and in the United States. The main character, John Wade, is a man in crisis: after spending years building a successful political career, he finds his future derailed during a bid for the U.S. Senate by revelations about his past as a soldier in Vietnam. The election lost by a landslide, John and his wife, Kathy, retreat to a small cabin on the shores of a Minnesota lake--from which Kathy mysteriously disappears. Was she murdered? Did she run away? Instead of answering these questions, O'Brien raises even more as he slowly reveals past lives and long-hidden secrets. Included in this third-person narrative are "interviews" with the couple's friends and family as well as footnoted excerpts from a mix of fictionalized newspaper reports on the case and real reports pertaining to historical events--a mélange that lends the novel an eerie sense of verisimilitude.

The Queen's Gambit – Walter Tevis. Eight year-old orphan Beth Harmon is quiet, sullen, and by all appearances unremarkable. That is until she plays her first game of chess. Her senses grow sharper, her thinking clearer, and for the first time in her life she feels herself fully in control. By the age of sixteen, she’s competing for the U.S. Open championship. But as she hones her skills on the professional circuit, the stakes get higher, her isolation grows more frightening, and the thought of escape becomes all the more tempting.
"Ultimately, this is not really a novel about chess....It can be read with intense enjoyment by those who know nothing about the game, as long as they are interested in what it means to be human at the deepest levels." The Washington Post

Crossing to Safety - Wallace Stegner. Since its publication in 1987, Crossing to Safety has established itself as one of the greatest and most cherished American novels of the twentieth century. Tracing the lives, loves, and aspirations of two couples who move between Vermont and Wisconsin, it is a work of quiet majesty, deep compassion, and powerful insight into the alchemy of friendship and marriage.
Review: "A magnificently crafted story of the remarkable friendship between the Langs and Morgans....A novel brimming with wisdom on subjects as diverse as writing for money, solid marriages, and academic promotion policies — with page after page of the superb descriptive writing that has been a hallmark of his (Stegner’s) work. The Washington Post Book World

Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II - Douglas A Blackmon (Non – Fiction). In this groundbreaking historical exposé, Douglas A. Blackmon (Wall Street Journal) brings to light one of the most shameful chapters in American history—an “Age of Neoslavery” that thrived from the aftermath of the Civil War through the dawn of World War II.
Under laws enacted specifically to intimidate blacks, tens of thousands of African Americans were arbitrarily arrested, hit with outrageous fines, and charged for the costs of their own arrests. With no means to pay these ostensible “debts,” prisoners were sold as forced laborers to coal mines, lumber camps, brickyards, railroads, quarries, and farm plantations. The neoslavery system exploited legal loopholes and federal policies that discouraged prosecution of whites for continuing to hold black workers against their wills. Based on a vast record of original documents and personal narratives, Slavery by Another Name unearths the lost stories of slaves and their descendants who journeyed into freedom after the Emancipation Proclamation and then back into the shadow of involuntary servitude.
Review:"Wall Street Journal bureau chief Blackmon gives a groundbreaking and disturbing account of a sordid chapter in American history — the lease (essentially the sale) of convicts to 'commercial interests' between the end of the 19th century and well into the 20th. Blackmon's book reveals in devastating detail the legal and commercial forces that created this neoslavery along with deeply moving and totally appalling personal testimonies of survivors…..." Publishers Weekly

Mar 18, 2009

Does John Have the Cojones?

Our group email traffic has been obsessed with one issue: will John serve mountain oysters at our upcoming dinner? The opening castration scene in The Power of the Dog may or may not set the tone for our meal. For background, check out Armando's link to the TED conference he attended (yes, he is that smart) and read the article in today's NY Times, linked as follows: