Jun 24, 2009

La gastronomie de Garth

After last night’s extraordinary dinner, I’m at a loss for words. I now understand Henry Miller’s lament that writing is such an inadequate form of expression. Garth, with much assistance from John, served an exquisite eight-course meal that will forever be our platinum standard. Opening with a delightful chilled vichyssoise, breaking midway with a rosemary lime sorbet (John’s own concoction), and ending with a cheese, fruit and double port pairing, Garth kept us happily eating and talking until after midnight.

I could extend these acknowledgments by describing the perfect California setting (poolside, with Noritake on white linens and enough stemware to accommodate 4 successive tastings and pairings), or by reliving the coquilles Saint-Jacques and coquilles d’escargots (both sautéed to perfection), or by praising Garth’s selection of a 1995 Rutherford Hills chardonnay (aged in French limousine oak) to pair with the scallops, or even by fantasizing about the soft Humboldt Fog goat cheese striped with a thin line of ash (derived from the classic French Morbier) and served with a wedge of Anjou pear. But I’ll desist. Garth and John were toasted repeatedly last night. That’s enough. For now. Even if I can’t stop thinking about their meal….

The Book
Tropic of Cancer was a challenge from the outset. Most of us were curious about Henry Miller (whom none had read), but few expected to finish his controversial 1934 novel. Surprise! Six men made it to the end and most everyone else sampled enough of Miller to sustain our 8-course discussion. But during the occasional lull, we were entertained by asides from Tom J, who inadvertently bought and read (to p. 80 before realizing his mistake) Tropic of Capricorn, and who also read (and clearly enjoyed) Anais Nin’s Delta of Venus.

So, why were we initially pessimistic? Because, from the first page, Miller refuses to make it easy for his reader. The writing in Tropic of Cancer ranges from stream of consciousness, to coarse travelogue, to the caustic observations of a degenerate expatriate. Throughout this fictionalized account of his years in Paris during the Depression, Miller assaults the reader with prostitution, gonorrhea, syphilis, depression, poverty, racism, sexism, xenophobia, profanity, and hunger. And yet, despite the crude language and degrading behavior of all of the characters, there’s undeniable passion and energy and honesty in this novel. As Tom A, Glenn, Dean and others acknowledged, the story has peaks and valleys but the brilliant peaks compel the reader to keep reading.

Garth saw in Tropic of Cancer parallels to the Taoist philosophy of flow and balance with nature. And, indeed, Miller uses the metaphor of flow to describe nature. But his metaphor descends into snide references to urinating and bouts of the clap. He ends his commentary with the depressing realization that the flow of writing is “constipated by words and paralyzed by thought.” In between his rants about the state of art and society, Miller’s narrator lives almost entirely in the moment and in pursuit of gratification. According to Armando, if nothing else, Miller’s provocative tone and his cast of hedonists helped spawn a generation of Beat writers and poets.

Despite Larry’s ambivalence (expressed in his observation that Miller’s novel was much like Seinfeld, only without the humor), those of us who read the novel liked it enough to give it a 7.1 rating. I wonder whether it was Miller or the meal that inspired such a positive critique. (And, about that meal, did I mention John's delectable French tarts, whose taste and whose name tickled our fancy? How about Garth's pairing of a Frog's Leap varietal with his frog's legs? Excellent choice, but hardly subtle. Rather like his deft placement of the escargots between the frogs' legs. )
Next Up
Our voting split evenly between Larson’s Devil in the White City and Diaz’ The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Since Larry is hosting, we acceded to his preference for Junot Diaz' 2007 Pulitzer winner. As he has to follow Garth's bravura performance, it was the least we could do.

We also agreed to read Ollestad’s Crazy for the Storm during our bye month of August. Since the publisher (via Carol Fitzgerald and friends at The Book Report Network) has generously offered to send us copies to sample, we’ll come back in September with our thoughts and insights on Ollestad’s touching tribute to his larger-than-life father.


  1. Good call on the Junot Diaz pick. It'll be your most post-modern work discussed to date. I've got both a print copy and a cd set to lend. I would like them back after your July meeting, but same as last time first email with a mailing address gets one or both.

    Read on!

  2. Thanks for the offer, Jeff! You may have few takers since most of us already have the book.