Mar 22, 2011

So, who among us picks the best titles?

Is it Stan?  In his recent comment, he seems to think so when he asserts that "I brought the best books to the club...."  So I figured it was time to collate our best and worst picks.  Check out the pages in the sidebar.  Our Top 5 and Worst 5 lists reveal two other guys who are disproportionately responsible for the best and the worst of what we've read the past four years.  Next time they propose titles, we should all listen closely.  Including Stan.

Mar 16, 2011

From the Kashmir Valley to the Copper Canyon....It's the Full Peter!

On Tuesday Peter broke with tradition and made no effort to theme his meal with McDougall's ultrarunner's opus, Born to Run.  Instead, he treated us to an outstanding rendition of Kashmiri chicken laced with saffron he picked up in Kashmir back in 1992.  We may not have tasted the vintage saffron (nor seen evidence of its distinctive yellow coloring), but we did taste the freshly ground cinnamon and cardamom and the minced pistachios that flavored his dish.  I would have taken home leftovers, but in Peter's politically correct household (yes, the temperature stays at an even 62F to remind his daughters--and his guests--of their environmental responsibility), I couldn't find a single container of Tupperware!

Despite Peter's preference for the Himalayas, most of us prepared for a Mexican evening.  We brought plenty of Mexican beer and Stan even wore his bespoke sandals that were custom fit in the Copper Canyon in 2004.  John wore nothing (on his feet, that is), but Larry succumbed to the new ethos of minimal footwear and sported a pair of just-bought Nike Frees.

As we sat down to dinner, Peter was forced to recount the story of his failure to run a 5:00 mile at age 50, and the consequences thereof.  Suffice to say, none of us will ever join the Tamalpa runners on Tuesdays at the S.R. track without thinking of Peter's bold move last October on the evening of his 51st birthday.

The Book
McDougall's Born to Run showcases the extraordinary running abilities of the Tarahumara people in northern Mexico and culminates in a showdown in the Copper Canyon between Scott Jurek, a seven-time winner of the Western States 100, and a clutch of unknown Tarahumarans.  Most of us agreed with Doug that McDougall's story was perfect fodder for one of his magazine pieces (he writes for Men's Health, Esquire, Outside, and other manly periodicals) but a rather slender premise for a full-length book.  No matter.  McDougall lards up his paean to ultra runners with plenty of diverting (and distracting) anecdotes about every major distance runner since Emil Zatopek.

Despite our criticisms of the writing, everyone enjoyed the subject matter.  Indeed, as Paul and Larry both noted, the book was literally inspiring.  By attacking as myth the notion that distance runners are predisposed to injury, McDougall poses a compelling alternative:  that a naturally trained stride, a rejection of modern shoe technology, and a genuine love of running can produce extraordinary and extraordinarily durable runners.  He's certainly convinced Terry, who is back on the trails of China Camp, and John, who promises to go shoeless at his next early morning boot camp session.

Our rating for Born to Run (7.1) proves that a fascinating subject can overcome the choppy, journalistic prose that infuses so many acclaimed works of non-fiction these days. 

Next Up
Our next title is Jonathan Franzen's much-hailed novel, Freedom.  At 576 pages (and hardcover to boot), we've disregarded our usual 500-page limit in the hopes that this meaty study of current American manners will give us plenty to chew on when we meet next at Larry's.  If the novel is a bust, we'll blame Doug for misleading us with his riveting description of Franzen's storyline.

Mar 14, 2011

Larry's Book Options for April

I just found out today that I will be hosting April's book club. I've put the following list together. They are all books I'd like to read, but basically I think you will find them all entertaining and readable. No clear winner. I'll talk about positives and negatives tomorrow. -- Larry

The Junction Boys: How Ten Days in Hell with Bear Bryant Forged a Championship Team – by Jim Dent – 304 pages

When Bear Bryant took over the Texas A&M football program in 1954, he inherited a team that had lost its last five games by a combined score of 133-41. That season more than 100 Aggie hopefuls arrived in the small town of Junction for the first practice of a now legendary training camp. Ten hellish days later, only 34 remained to form the 1954 team that would only win one game, but those survivors--and that's what they were--formed the nucleus of the squad that would go undefeated just two years later.

Freedom-- byJonathan Franzen –576 pages: but should be a fast read

Novel by the same author that wrote The Corrections. Amazon Best of the Month, August 2010. An author we should read at some point in our existence. This book or The Corrections and Franzen have made almost every book list.

Growing Up – by Russell Baker – 352 pages

Baker's first Pulitzer was for distinguished commentary for his New York Times "Observer" columns (1979) and the second one was for his autobiography, Growing Up (1982).
An Amazon Review -- Russell Baker deserves to be a national treasure on the basis of this book alone. It traces his youth in rural Virginia, from the death of his father when he was only five through his growing up years between the wars. The rest of the book is a paean to his mother, a strong-willed optimist who never accepted defeat as an alternative to success. Her unfailing faith in the talents of her young son were not misplaced. This is an iconic and magical piece of literature, a story of courage and love, of the bonds of family in spite of tension and disagreement. Wonderful both as a story and as a piece of writing

God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything -- Christopher Hitchens – 307 pages

Amazon Review -- God is getting bad press lately. Sam Harris' The End of Faith(2005) and Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion (2006) have questioned the existence of any spiritual being and met with enormous success. Now, noted, often acerbic journalist Hitchens enters the fray. As his subtitle indicates, his premise is simple. Not only does religion poison everything, which he argues by explaining several ways in which religion is immoral, but the world would be better off without religion.