Apr 24, 2013

Middle America, Middlesex, and an Ending

With apologies to John, Larry, and Peter, here is an abbreviated and belated summary of three outstanding evenings in the preceding months.

Last December, we arrived at John's house with exceedingly low expectations.  With 1950's Iowa as his backdrop, and knowing that Roy had already mined the era to produce his Midwestern Manhattan-style sandwiches for our discussion of In Cold Blood, John's menu choices appeared limited. Or so we thought. John surprised us by pulling from his warming oven individual foil boxes he'd hand-filled with gourmet meat loaf, organic spuds, and fresh veggies.  Not Swanson's.  Not Hungry-Man.  Just outstanding!

Our reaction to The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid was more muted. We enjoyed Bryson's many references to a childhood that resembled our own.  From Glenn's memory of the x-ray measuring machines in shoe stores, to Larry's recollection of hi-fi cabinets and early color TV's, to our collective memories of delivering newspapers and driving to Disneyland--Bryson had us reminiscing about simpler times.  But it wasn't enough to achieve more than a middling 7.0 rating.  As noted by Paul, Bryson's memoir, while funny and evocative, is a book about not very much.  There is an aimlessness to the narrative that left many of us wanting more.  So we helped ourselves to dessert, talked about growing up, and relaxed in the company of John's excellent guests, Mark and Don.

In early January,  we went skiing.  And a good thing, too.  By late January the snow in the Sierras was declining fast and very little more came our way.  Fortunately, our bye month gave us an extra 30 days to finish reading Jeffrey Eugenides' best known work, Middlesex.

When we met in February, Larry's dinner nicely captured the Greek immigrant story at the heart of Middlesex with servings of lamb and beef gyros (on two types of homemade pita bread!) followed by  assimilationist brownies a la mode (yes, the vanilla ice cream was also homemade).  The book was received almost as well as the dinner.

Many considered it a rich, evocative tale (multi-layered, according to John) that suffered from a single, significant distraction:  the lengthy revelation that the main character, Callie, is a hermaphrodite.  Doug, who was born only 5 miles from Greek Town, wasn't convinced of its import but figured it was Callie's fate given the secret of her forebears. Contrast that with Paul who, having read the novel on his iPhone, complained that the first 2100 pages were mere foreplay to the main act (presumably the reader's epiphany about Callie, but as usual Paul wasn't saying). From there our discussion evolved into commentary about the Greek  diaspora (who knew Peter's hometown of Melbourne boasts the second largest expat Greek community?) and of course hermaphrodites (Terry warned us not to research the subject via Google images; Armando noted that post-coital snails eat their penises to separate). (Editor:  My notes are quite specific on this last point.)  Our 7.5 rating was boosted by Stan who proclaimed the novel "a brilliant work of art," despite having read it over five years ago and retaining only the dimmest recollection of the story line.

Peter's dinner on March 19 was a well-conceived and even better executed St. Patrick's Day meal, replete with corned beef, cabbage, potatoes, carrots, and competing apple and rhubarb pies.  Maybe it's his Commonwealth upbringing, but leave it to Peter to serve up Irish food to accompany our discussion of Julian Barnes, an oh-so-English contemporary novelist.

Barnes' The Sense of an Ending generated an unpredictable reaction.  Unlike Banville's The Sea, an equally introspective novel that had most of us on the fence, we all genuinely liked Barnes' effort.  Like Banville, Barnes delves deeply into the fissures of unreliable memory, in this instance through the perspective of Tony Webster, a retiree who discovers a painful part of his past.  For most of us, the pleasure of this novel was the gradually building suspense that precedes the narrator's realization of the pain he'd caused his school friends long ago.  But not quite all were entranced by Barnes' skillful prose.  Paul, always the contrarian, found the characters uniformly unlikable. His dissenting 5 failed to keep this gem of a novel from pulling down a very respectable 7.5 (an above average rating, especially for a Booker Prize winner).

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