May 23, 2009

Chris' Last Meal

AcknowledgmentsChris did an exemplary job hosting Man Book Club on Tuesday. He asked what we would enjoy as a final meal before being locked up. The universal response: more of the same! (Ok, not from Garth The Vegan.) Chris didn't disappoint. His now-legendary filet mignons were grilled to perfection, and the evening's record turnout reflected their popularity. With 17 guys vying for space at the table, we were seated just in time to toast our kind host. Even our latecomers (Larry caught an early flight to make this dinner!) were graciously attended to by a true Bohemian.

In keeping with the last few meetings, we were presented with a heavily-themed selection of wine and beer, including several bottles of red from the BigHouse Wine Co. (Paul and Dan), an amber ale from Humboldt Brewing with the none-too-subtle Hemp label (Glenn), Rogue Brewery’s Dead Guy Ale and Redhook’s Slim Chance (Tom A.), and—winner of the evening’s grand prize for most fanciful label—Lagunitas’ Undercover Investigation Shut-Down Ale (Garth). Lest we sacrifice quality for cleverness, perhaps we need to “shut down” our label competition (or at least consult Beer Advocate before buying more exotica).

Before turning to our book, we forced our newest member, Judd, to offer up his bona fides. Apart from certain parallels to the life of John McCain (which parallels, he hastened to add, may be biographical but are most certainly not political), we were intrigued to learn that Judd’s family has an interest in a California champagnerie. Judd, we’ll meet in your cellar anytime.

Finally, we toasted George’s return from Pebble Beach, where we hear he honeymooned extravagantly with his golfing wife. Happy nuptials, George!

The BookHow shall I put this without offending our host? How about: The 25th Hour was a pleasant escape into genre fiction? None of us argued that Benioff’s story wasn’t compelling. The hero, Monty Brogan, spends his last night of freedom with two prep school pals, and together they ruminate on (and react to) his obligation to report to federal prison the next morning to start a 7-year sentence for drug dealing.

As a group, we were frustrated that Benioff’s novel delivered so little on its promise (hence, the 5.8 rating). With richer characters and a fleshier story, we might have been satisfied. But no one felt that Benioff’s tight narrative could match the impact of, say, Cormac McCarthy, whose simple lines resonate forever. So instead we were left wondering how much of Monty’s last night of freedom was truly significant to the shallow arc of this spare, first novel. He cleans up some loose ends (his betrayer, Kostya; his dog, Doyle), he says his farewells (to his father, his lover, and his friends), and in the book’s climactic scene he prepares himself physically to face (!) a 7-year stretch.

Despite these carefully plotted moments, Monty’s fantasy en route to Otisville (which divided us for other reasons) is an apt metaphor for his regret and ours, too. While he dreams of the life he could have had, the reader dreams about what this novel might have been. Benioff had within his reach the perfect parable for our time. He leaves us instead with the haunting premise of the book’s final line ("This life came so close to never happening") and a yearning for so much more.
Next Up
Paul noted (complained, actually) that our last three novels have featured badly flawed protagonists with way too much male angst. Perhaps in reaction to this trend, Garth proposed four of the most inflammatory titles to date. Despite his withdrawing Isabel Allende’s “memoir of the senses” (but only after being censured for his flagrant breach of the MBC cardinal rule), Garth’s fem-biased erotica selections already had us flummoxed. Nevertheless, a clear majority rejected Nin and Trevanian and voted for Henry Miller's magnum opus, Tropic of Cancer. Maybe this once-controversial title will interest us as much as it did the 9 justices of the U.S. Supreme Court, who ruled that the book was a work of literary merit (and not obscenity).

May 18, 2009

Garth's Picks for June

Passion exists on many planes, so here are four classic selections which deftly engage the reader's senses in wonderfully exotic settings. Opportunities for great meals exist with each, though some dishes would probably be best eaten at home...

Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller (318 pages)
"No punches are pulled in Henry Miller's most famous work. Still pretty rough going for even our jaded sensibilities, but Tropic of Cancer is an unforgettable novel of self-confession. Maybe the most honest book ever written, this autobiographical fiction about Miller's life as an expatriate American in Paris was deemed obscene and banned from publication in this country for years. When you read this, you see immediately how much modern writers owe Miller."

Delta of Venus, Anais Nin (320 pages)
"In Delta of Venus Anaïs Nin penned a lush, magical world where the characters of her imagination possess the most universal of desires and exceptional of talents. Among these provocative stories, a Hungarian adventurer seduces wealthy women then vanishes with their money; a veiled woman selects strangers from a chic restaurant for private trysts; and a Parisian hatmaker named Mathilde leaves her husband for the opium dens of Peru. Delta of Venus is an extraordinarily rich and exotic collection from the master of erotic writing."

Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses, Isabelle Allende (320 pages)
"Sex and food, once celebrated as two of life's great joys, suffer a lot of bad press these days. Genuine epidemics, coupled with monthly findings of new things that are bad for us, have pushed otherwise happy souls into programs of agonizing denial and, in severe instances, abstinence. Thankfully, in this sophisticated defense of pleasure, novelist Allende (The House of the Spirits) puts the joy back into eating and loving with all the panache that marks the best of her fiction. Though passionate about her subject, she remains consistently whimsical with this mix of anecdotes, recipes and advice designed to enhance any romantic encounter. As always, her secret weapon is honesty: "Some [aphrodisiacs] have a scientific basis, but most are activated by the imagination." Allende's vivacity and wit are in full bloom as she makes her pronouncements: "There are few virtues a man can possess more erotic than culinary skill"; "When you make an omelet, as when you make love, affection counts for more than technique." Her book is filled with succinct wisdom and big laughs. Despite sections titled "The Orgy" and "Supreme Stimulus for Lechery," Allende comes down emphatically for romance over sex and for ritual over flavor in a work that succeeds in being what it intends to be: fun from the first nibble to the last."

Shibumi, Trevanian (496 pages)
"When this novel was first published in 1979, the leading critics had a difficult time classifying the work. It wasn't exactly an espionage thriller or an epic, but it seemed to touch upon many genres and themes. Shibumi is a fictional biography more than anything else, for its central character, Nicholai Hel, is the tale's main concern. A minor character in the story sums up the protagonist superbly at the end of the book by calling him half saintly ascetic, half Vandal marauder - a medieval anti-hero. Nicholai Hel is your vintage 'man-against-the establishment' with a mind like a steel trap and the tastes and lifestyle of an 18th century aristocrat. His pedigree is a throw back to the German/Russian elite, where generations of breeding and culture have contributed to his unusual character. Nicholai is a man without a country, a natural mystic, philosopher, linguist, master of Go, a complex Japanese board game of high strategy, and most importantly, a self trained assassin for hire who is expert in the arts of naked/kill. More than this, he is a seeker of spiritual perfection, his ultimate goal being that hard to define state or condition known as Shibumi."


May 4, 2009

Peter No Lie

Our host teased us with his early menu suggestions of kangaroo meat and his later references to Indo-Chinese fusion. Despite the misdirection, Peter pleased us last Tuesday with vodka on ice and a delicious sampling of chicken breasts, baked salmon, assorted sides, and brown rice (anathema to Asians but perfect for Marin County’s whole grain ethos). With his daughter’s brownies and Roy’s after-dinner spirits, we were more than satisfied as we settled in to our book discussion.

Our dinner was notable for the presence of two new MBC members, Tom A. and Paul, who impressed us with their thematic enterprise. Paul showed up wearing a vintage bulletproof vest, replete with camo coloring and an attached grenade. Tom arrived in mufti but with a bottle of Fly Catcher pinot noir and a six-pack of Ruination IPA, names that evoked characters in O’Brien’s post-Vietnam narrative.

As we introduced ourselves to our new members, it became obvious that mutual respect and civility have no place at our table. Tom and Paul, you gave as good as you got, and we only hope you come back for more.

The Book
O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods is a documentary novel about a Vietnam vet’s political disgrace, his wife’s subsequent disappearance, and his conflicted and confused role in both events. O’Brien asks more questions than he answers, and we obligingly struggled to figure out many of the same issues that perplex the characters in the novel.

None of us pretended to solve the Big Questions, but we were intrigued by the little ones. Peter asked if the protagonist’s flaws were the product of his childhood or of Vietnam. Paul queried the lack of emotional attachment in and between the characters and wondered if the reader was intentionally left with a similar disaffection. Tom A. and John were both taken by the geography of the novel, the vastness of the lake region, and the title’s inference that the answers are to be found in, not at, the lake. Garth and Stan dueled over the dishonesty propagated by all wars (or just some wars), while acknowledging (with Tom J.) that having friends and acquaintances drafted to serve in but not return from Vietnam makes for painful memories.

The story’s narration was a challenge, given the shifting first person, but when it came to the evidentiary chapters and their footnoting, we were all left guessing. Dean proposed that the narrator in the footnotes was Wade himself, returned from the dead and chronicling his own disappearance as the consummate act of magic. Peter questioned the veracity of much of the "record" presented in these chapters, while others suggested that references to an actual record (e.g., the Peers Commission) without context was just as dishonest. I felt that since only one man (Lt. Calley) was ultimately convicted of atrocities at My Lai, the novel’s exposure of Wade and his lie (“my lie”) was O'Brien's indictment of the many who couldn’t or wouldn’t acknowledge their role in this shocking chapter of American military history.

The book drew consistently positive ratings (7’s and 8’s from all but Roy, whose 4 may have reflected his disgust at Wade’s indecision on the eternal question: vodka or gin?). With a 7.2, O’Brien’s stature in the Man Book Club is secure.

Next Up
Next month’s host, Chris, pandered mightily and very nearly hijacked our usually staid book selection process. Playing Barack to my Hillary, he invoked Obama with his call and response (“Yes, we can!”), and he turned on the Bohemian charm (yes, I refer to the conservative SF gentlemen’s club to which he belongs and, yes, irony duly noted). With these antics, Chris sought to force the selection of Tom Robbins’ cartoonish novella, B is for Beer.

Fortunately, taste and tradition withstood Chris' ham-fisted tactics and, after a series of votes in which no one opted for O’Neill’s Netherland and few gave the nod to Lewis’ Coach, we picked The 25th Hour by Christopher Award-winner David Benioff. (The Christopher Award is admittedly a second-tier Hollywood tribute—in Benioff’s case for adapting The Kite Runner to the big screen—but he is married to Amanda Peet!) Let’s see if this venture into crime fiction is the diversion we need as summer approaches.