Nov 19, 2009

Roy Prepares a Capital Meal

men's book club group discussion review of In Cold Blood Truman Capote

Dinner last night was a superb feast of midwestern fusion. With a nod to In Cold Blood’s western Kansas setting, but with a decided bias towards his own state of Indiana, Roy delivered roast chicken, roast pork, and roast ribs—all Manhattan style. The accompanying sides were tastily updated renditions of 1950’s staples: green beans, spinach, and scalloped potatoes. Out of fidelity to our book, Roy’s selection of beverages naturally included Orange Blossoms (orange pop and vodka)—a road trip favorite of Dick Hickock and Perry Smith. But it was Roy's grappa (distilled using grapes skins and stems from Tom J) and house bourbon that provided the end-of-evening lubricant. Sorry, Paul, but your bottles of Gallo (however clever in the pun department) never made it to the table.

We were missing a few men last night, including our good friend John, whose daughter was undergoing corrective surgery for scoliosis. While he sat at the hospital keeping vigil, we kept one for him (aided by the grappa and bourbon). With Cat’s surgery over and an excellent prognosis ahead, we look forward to having John back in our midst. As for Tom A and Garth, your absences were barely excusable. Next time, when forced to choose between MBC and your children, remember that a high school concert is as easily recorded as attended. And, as for Peter, if you missed our dinner in pursuit of your dream to run a 5-minute mile at age 50, please hang up your spikes and return to the fold at once. A cold, dark high school track is no place for an effete bookman.

The Book
Truman Capote confirmed his reputation as a serious writer with the 1965 publication of In Cold Blood. His so-called “nonfiction novel” about the killings in Holcomb, Kansas mesmerized the nation during its serialization in The New Yorker and divided many on his particular approach to “reportage” (thanks for that reference, Stan). Some objected to his artistic license, and others were offended by his easy familiarity with his subjects. But, for many Americans in 1965, Capote’s gravest offense was to humanize two killers as a rejoinder to (and critique of ) society’s resort to capital punishment. To his critics, the book's title was devoid of its intended irony.

As a group, we were not so divided. Capote’s original take on the Kansas killings was compulsively readable and a fascinating study of time and place. Maybe, as some suggested, we’re too inured to the kind of violence depicted by Capote to be offended by his narrative. Or, like Terry, we’ve read enough true crime (good and bad) to appreciate what a stunning achievement ICB represented in 1965. As for Capote’s politics, his concerns about capital punishment have become today's orthodoxy. Whether we agree with Roy’s fantastically bleak assessment of our penal system, many of us still have stronger misgivings about the execution of criminals than did our parents in 1965.

Capote's novel drew praise from all quarters except Paul, who felt that Capote's account was emotionally flat. Nevertheless, Paul seemed pleased that ICB represented a return to our usual fare of misogynistic, deeply flawed primary characters. During our roundtable rating, it was noted that ICB had the potential to steal top honors from Blindness, our highest rated book to date. So as not to taint the outcome (Bindness was his selection, you may recall), Stan initially abstained from voting only to belatedly insist that his 8 had been ignored. The upshot: ICB tied Blindness during our meeting, but overtook it when I later received Tom A's email giving it a 9. Even counting Stan's 8, Capote's true crime classic eked out an 8.4 and now holds the pole position in the Man Book Club ratings contest.

Next Up
Our next meeting is a joint affair with the women's book group to which some of us are affiliated (by marriage only). Given the choice of reading Truman Capote's enduring novella, Breakfast at Tiffany's, and Bill Bryson's memoir, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, the women ignored one of America's foremost humorists in favor of a book whose brevity and title reference to expensive jewelry seem apt as we enter another holiday season.

Nov 12, 2009

“Once Upon a Time”, in the West

For our first selection of 2010, I’ve picked four lesser-known authors. Each is a “writers’ writer” and a personal “desert island” choice (if I could only own a few books). They’re very different guys but would’ve had a lot to talk about over beers. Two of these writers are known for their humor. Three are mostly bald; one has a suspicious comb-over. Although most write about a wide variety of topics, I’ve picked one book from each that is set in the American West, and one each from the late 1960’s, ‘70’s, ‘80’s and ‘90’s. Two are regional history and travel narratives, while two are genre fiction grounded in specific places and eras.

Great Plains, by Ian Frazier. 320 pages, originally published in 1989. Winner of the Western Writers of America “Spur” award for non-fiction. Frazier himself has won the Thurber Award for American Humor twice, including this year.

Ian Frazier alternates between straight non-fiction and humor pieces, and he may be the one writer on this list that you’ve heard of, since his work appears regularly in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, etc.

His interests range from the last typewriter repair shop in New York ( ) to the near-biblical struggle to raise young children ( ).

Publisher description of the book: “With his unique blend of intrepidity, tongue-in-cheek humor, and wide-eyed wonder, Ian Frazier takes us on a journey of more than 25,000 miles up and down and across the vast and myth-inspiring Great Plains. A travelogue, a work of scholarship, and a western adventure, Great Plains….is an expedition that reveals the heart of the American West.”

Newsweek: “Although [his book] is about America, it is most emphatically not one of those ego-driven travel diaries into the soul of a nation....Frazier is a great storyteller, and he tells stories here about the waves of migration over the Plains, about Indian tribes, about war-makers and moneymakers, about local heroes and national villains. Everywhere, he treats the land and its stories as gifts to be shared, a kind of potluck to which we're all invited."

Seattle Times: “Frazier's account of three summers that he spent on the wide open spaces between the Rockies and 100th meridian is a rhapsodic hymn, a joyful salute to ‘a sheet Americans screened their dreams on for a while and then largely forgot about.’”

Pros: Always fun to read, interesting but not pedantic. Cons: Can be a little digressive.

True Grit, by Charles Portis. 224 pages, originally published in 1968. No awards, unless you count John Wayne’s 1969 Oscar, but, please, ignore that movie when deciding about this book.

Charles Portis has only written five novels in 40 years, but two of them are considered American classics. True Grit, his second, is considered his most accessible.

Publisher’s Summary: “True Grit… tells the story of Mattie Ross, a fourteen-year-old girl from Dardanelle, Arkansas, who sets out in the winter of eighteen seventy-something to avenge the murder of her father,... [convincing] one-eyed "Rooster" Cogburn, the meanest available U.S. Marshall, to tag along with her. As Mattie outdickers and outmaneuvers the hard-bitten types in her path, as her performance under fire makes them eat their words, her indestructible vitality and harsh innocence by turns amuse, horrify, and touch the reader….True Grit is eccentric, cool, straight, and unflinching, like Mattie herself, who tells the story a half-century later in a voice that sounds strong and sure enough to outlast us all.”

Newsday: “True Grit flirts with myth and tall tale, but reading it is like encountering a voice speaking to us directly from America's past. Mattie at times seems less a character than a fact, the fact of what pioneer life was - hardship and sorrow and mortal danger - accepted with no expectation of sympathy…. True Grit is a great American novel waiting to be rediscovered.”

Donna Tartt, in her foreword to the new edition: “[T]here are the books we love so much that we read them every year or two, and know passages of them by heart,…that we press on all our friends and acquaintances ….Most books that engage readers on this very high level are masterpieces; and this is why I believe that True Grit by Charles Portis is a masterpiece.…

I cannot think of… any novel… which is so delightful to so many disparate groups and literary tastes…. Like Huckleberry FinnTrue Grit is a monologue, and the great, abiding pleasure of it that compels the reader to return to it again and again is Mattie's voice. No living Southern writer captures the spoken idioms of the South as artfully as Portis does; but though in all his novels (including those set in the current day) Portis shows his deep understanding of place, True Grit also masters the more complicated subtleties of time.”

The Believer: “[A] western that both satisfies and subverts the genre…. When Roy Blount, Jr., says that Portis ‘could be Cormac McCarthy if he wanted to, but he’d rather be funny,’ he may be both remembering and forgetting True Grit, which for all its high spirits is organized along a blood meridian, fraught with ominous slaughter.”

Pros: Easy to read, short, slyly funny, great history. Cons: Protagonist is a 14-year-old girl – one who could kick your ass.

Bad Land, by Jonathan Raban. 384 pages, originally published in 1996. National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction, a New York Times top 10 best book of the year.

Jonathan Raban is a transplanted Englishman, now living in Seattle, who has written several books about his explorations of various parts of America (piloting small boats the length of the Mississippi and along Alaska’s Inside Passage, living for months at a time in the deep South, etc.). He’s known for both literary criticism and travel narratives. While he often makes you smile, he’s rarely laugh-out-loud funny.

Bad Land is the depressed twin of Great Plains. It focuses on just one place, and it tells a pretty grim story.

Publishers Weekly: “Raban…has written a vivid and utterly idiosyncratic social history of the homesteading movement in eastern Montana that went boom and bust during the first three decades of this century. Lured by free land from the government and a deceptive publicity campaign mounted by the local railroad, thousands from all over the eastern United States and northern Europe went to Montana to make their fortune as farmers. He examines the literature that lured them there and the how-to books they read once they arrived.… This seemingly informal yet careful blend of chronicle and personal reportage is social history at its best.”

New York Times: “Early in this century open land in the West still seemed to cry out…to what Jonathan Raban identifies as ‘the intense, adhesive attraction of self to soil.’ In one of the most illuminating books written about rural America in many years, Mr. Raban…shows us how the towns and farms of eastern Montana were settled - and later unsettled, when reality shattered the dreams…..[H]is imaginative reach recaptures the momentum of the settlers' migration, and their idealism, not only from official records, newspapers and memoirs, but even from schoolbooks of the age….In Bad Land we find an affectionate reasonableness about this bewildering nation that reminds us how much it is always nourished by the hopes of immigrants.”

Kirkus Reviews: “Raban skillfully evokes the landscape's stark immensity...., produc[ing] a startling revision of traditional Western myth: not the hopeful cowboys and farmers so often found in children's school primers, but solitaries, religious zealots, and even sociopaths. In Randy Weaver, Theodore Kaczynski, and Timothy McVeigh, Raban discovers spiritual descendants of the homesteaders in ‘their resentment of government, their notion of property rights, their harping on self-sufficiency, and self-defense, [and] in their sense of enraged Scriptural entitlement.’ A powerful, grim new slant on those who took the way west - and of the terrible consequences when their dreams curdled and died.”

Pros: Raban is a pleasure to read, with insights and great sentences on every page. Cons: This is ultimately a downer of a story, letting some air out of the balloon that is the American dream.

The Last Good Kiss, by James Crumley. 244 pages, originally published in 1978. Independent Mystery Booksellers Association 100 favorite mysteries of the 20th century.

Like Charles Portis, James Crumley went for long stretches without publishing anything, producing only nine books before he died last year. His later books were of uneven quality. But his third, The Last Good Kiss, written in 1978, is considered by many to be the best hardboiled detective novel of the last 40 years, maybe the best ever. If you like mystery fiction and haven’t heard of this one, go read it, whether we pick it or not.

Dennis Lehane, author of Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, etc.: “Some of the most beautiful prose in any language or genre dances across its pages. It's funny. Deeply humane. An homage to both The Long Goodbye and On the Road,…it's an ode to the American road and American West, a love song to drinking, screwing, roadside motels, big old automobiles and dive bars. It's the best novel ever written about the '70s.

‘It’ is The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley and while it may have a peer or two, it has no better. In telling the story of CW Sughrue, a big-hearted, road-worn shamble of a PI, who goes looking for a ten-years-gone runaway named Betty Sue Flowers, Crumley leads us into an entire generation's search for Home, as the hopes of the 60’s have been replaced by the bottomless hangover of the late 70s….

The experience of reading The Last Good Kiss is both exhilarating and increasingly deceptive. It starts out like a road novel and seems to amble quite by accident into classic noir territory …. With each curve in the road, … the book morphs yet again, this time into a smart and resonant meditation on the ways in which men's idealized visions of women thwart any ability to truly see them.”

One of the best first sentences ever: “When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.”

Frances M. Nevins, top mystery reviewer: “[O]n the basis of just three novels, James Crumley has become the foremost living writer of private-eye fiction.… His principal setting is not the big city, as in Hammett and Chandler, nor the affluent suburbs, as in Macdonald, but the wilderness and bleak magnificence of western Montana. His prevailing mood is a wacked out empathy with dopers, dropouts, losers, and loonies….

[He]has minimal interest in plot and even less in explanations, but he’s so uncannily skillful with character, language, relationship, and incident that he can afford to throw structure overboard. His books are an accumulation of small, crazy encounters, full of confusion and muddle, disorder and despair, graphic violence and sweetly casual sex, coke snorting and alcohol guzzling, mountain snowscapes and roadside bars. What one remembers from The Last Good Kiss is the alcoholic bulldog and the emotionally flayed women and the loneliness and guilt.”

Pros: Over-the-top hardboiled storyline, with more twists than you can count. Vivid capturing of road trips, bars, the 1970’s. Cons: Plot can get out of control. Melodramatically messed-up characters. Even more of a downer than Bad Land. If you don’t like the genre, you’ll hate the book.

Nov 9, 2009

In Vino Veritas: Tom Wins Our Judgment

In Taber’s account of the 1976 California v. France wine tasting, the assembled French critics approached the task of comparing French and California vintages with typical Gallic hubris. And they came away chastened by the scores they awarded to the Chardonnays and Cabernets from California. We, on the other hand, were never in danger of losing. At Tom J’s elaborately arranged dinner and tasting on October 21, it was provincialism at its best: all California wines, all night long. (Some of us were willing to make an exception for an especially fine Australian Shiraz, but after extracting it from its display case Peter would only let us fondle his bottle of Penfolds 1999 Grange.)

As a prelude to his fantastic meal of grilled stuffed game hens (to say nothing of the accompanying pasta and salad), Tom set up a blind tasting of three winning Chardonnays from this year’s Sonoma Harvest Fair. With each bottle reflecting a different market tier (approximately $10 v. $20 v. $40), the test was whether price really does matter. It didn’t. We voted in favor of Taft Street Winery’s 2006 production. And the 2007 Sebastiani, at the low end, fared almost as well.

Our two guests for the evening played excellent supporting roles: Charlie ably backed up Tom in the kitchen (a critical function given the rising impairment levels in the group), while Dennis supplemented Tom’s wine tasting with several outstanding bottles from Lewis Cellars, where he and his family have developed a fine reputation among midsize vintners in the Napa Valley. In addition to serving a Chardonnay and several excellent Cabs, Dennis answered our many questions about the business of winemaking. Thanks to both of these gents for spending the evening with us. And thanks, too, to John for making an exquisite flourless chocolate torte to put an exclamation point on Tom’s meal.

As if we didn’t have enough wine to sample, Tom challenged us to pair up and bring an especially good bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon. I can’t recall all of the labels, but the highs and lows stand out. Doug’s bottle of Chimney Rock (thanks for letting me pair with you, Doug!) was universally lauded as exquisite, and Dean/Dan/Tom’s garage wine (with fermentation help from Roy) reminded us why these guys haven’t quit their day jobs.

The Book
For the uninitiated, the early part of Taber’s book about the 1976 Paris wine tasting gave us a badly-needed history of winemaking in the Napa Valley as well as a primer on the rarefied traditions still extant in France. How many of us knew that the classifications (e.g., grand crus, premier crus) given to French wineries in 1855 remain virtually unchanged today? Taber also provides a lengthy history of the two California wineries that took top honors in 1976. Both, we learned, were led by immigrant visionaries in a valley that had been making wine for almost a hundred years, but good wine since only the 1960’s.

Although Taber’s tedious summaries of the harvest and crush process could have used some pruning (indeed, Tom A felt that the entire book could have been condensed to article length), he eventually lets us in on the real surprise of the story. Both Chateau Montelena and Stag’s Leap were upstarts, with newly-recruited talent (Mike Grgich) or self-taught winemakers (Warren Winiarski) and little commercial success before the Paris tasting put them on the map. After his description of the climactic tasting at the Paris Inter-Continental Hotel, Taber commences a survey of the development of winemaking in other parts of the world. It was at this point that many of us stopped reading and started complaining.

In retrospect, we should have done as Charlie and Dan did and watched Bottle Shock, a loose adaptation of the book, replete with sexual undertones notably absent from Taber’s account. Or we could have read The Billionaire’s Vinegar, which Doug applauded and which Tom J originally recommended. Since we did neither, we prided ourselves on our expanded knowledge of local oenology, and we breathed a sigh of relief that the author was in Palo Alto and unavailable to join us (thanks for trying to get him, Dan).

Next Up
In search of a new genre, Roy assembled a list of classic true crime dramas: Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, and Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter. Mailer and Bugliosi were both too long (clever move, Roy), so we chose Capote’s carefully observed account of a murder in rural Kansas and its wider impact on America in 1959.