Mar 19, 2017

Dan Fixes Our Book and Our Evening

Review of A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes
Dinner and Acknowledgments

It's hard to stay exasperated at a guy who breaks the rules by giving us only one author to choose from, but whose hospitality is always second to none.  Last Wednesday, Dan invited us into the man cave where, in keeping with our theme for the evening, he started us off with vodka on ice and two different varieties of piroshki.  For our main course, Dan prepared an outstanding beef stroganoff.  He finished with a dessert of Russian kissel.  (For those who skipped dessert or who still haven't gotten past last month's "boiled baby," kissel is a type of fruit custard.)

Since authentic dishes from the Bolshevik era are a little hard to find, Dan opted for an Americanized beef stroganoff and credited Marin's own celebrity chef, Tyler Florence, for the  recipe.  Regardless of its provenance, the result was excellent, Dan.  Thanks for your always fine hospitality.

A special acknowledgment is owed to Armando, who was recently elevated to Chair of the California Water Commission.  Mando, we're grateful for your thoughtful leadership in addressing the challenges facing our state's most precious natural resource.

Our Review and Discussion of The Fixer

Despite the grumbling occasioned by Dan's heavy handed selection process, Malamud's 1966 novel about a Jew wrongfully imprisoned in Tsarist Russia came with impressive credentials: it won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.  Malamud's Yakov, a desperately poor handyman referred to by the narrator (with not a little irony) as "the fixer," leaves the rural shtetl where all Jews are required to live and escapes to Kiev.  Once there, he attempts to pass as a Christian, is framed for the murder of a boy, and is thrown in prison.  Only there does he realize that he's traded one form of incarceration for another. 

To a man, we were moved by an extraordinary story of human perseverance.  Where he felt let down last month by the spare characters in Plainsong, this month Peter applauded our author for imaginative, convincing characters.  Armando saw an Everyman in Yakov, whose prison epiphany reveals the resilience in all of us.  Even Terry, who couldn't shake his fascination with the novel's "male menstruation" scene, found Malamud's protagonist among the most striking characters we've encountered to date. 

We were impressed by the story but less so by its lack of urgency.  Jack, Larry, and I all felt that Malamud's narrative took far too long to get going.  And once underway, Dean complained that the prison scenes were uneven--some compelling and others not.  (My notes are unclear, but I think John said he set aside The Fixer to binge-watch Downton Abbey.  Evidently he's easily fatigued by stories of the proletariat.)

But these were petty complaints. More substantive criticism came from Paul, who found little that was uplifting or hopeful about the novel.  He invoked a line from Raymond Chandler and said Yakov's miserable existence "crept along like a dying thing." (In fact-checking Paul, I didn't find that quote but did find a similar Chandlerism applicable to Yakov's interminable confinement:  "I'm killing time and it's dying hard.") 

Rating The Fixer

Tom's opinion about our book was unequivocal: the book deserved its two national literary awards. Despite some misgivings about the writing, the pace of the narrative, and the decades-old claim that Malamud plagiarized portions of the novel, we agreed with Tom and gave Malamud an impressive 8. 

Next Up: A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes

Glenn offered us several interesting titles for next month, including one that was redundant. (Note to future hosts: review our booklist before you offer up your selections.)   In the end, we were persuaded by Glenn to select A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes.  Why?  Three reasons:  1) Glenn heard Daniel Handler say that HWJ inspired him to write the Lemony Snicket series; 2) HWJ  was also the inspiration for William Golding's The Lord of the Flies; and 3) we couldn't turn down the prospect of a good pirate story.  Next month let's hope our pirate story isn't ruined by a bunch of spoiled children!

Feb 19, 2017

Paul's Plainfare

Plainsong by Kent Haruf
Dinner and Acknowledgments

Remember when we read The Onion Field and every one of Paul's dishes contained onions?  The entire meal came together nicely despite--or maybe because of--the presence of onions in each course.  If we had doubts about Paul's ability to perform the same trick twice, our dinner last Wednesday put them to rest. 

At the appointed hour, we sat down to a meal of meat and potatoes, much like the bill of fare at Haruf's Holt Cafe. But, without benefit of a menu, it took a few moments for us to piece together Paul's clever theme. Following a tapenade that included baby pickles, Paul served us baby back ribs, a side of roast baby potatoes, and a baby greens salad with baby corn and baby carrots. For his piece de resistance, he prepared a dessert of "boiled baby."  (It's a type of pudding; it's boiled in a cloth; and, no, it was far from awful.)

None of us knows what Paul will dream up next, but last Wednesday's dinner was just superb. As we enjoyed each course, the food served to remind us of Victoria Roubideaux, the pregnant teenager at the heart of Haruf's novel.

Our Review and Discussion of Plainsong

Published to critical acclaim in 1999, Plainsong put both Kent Haruf and his fictional town of Holt, Colorado on the literary map.  Over the course of a school year, the characters in Haruf's quiet novel confront pain, depression, insult, and tragedy.  They also experience moments of shared joy and discovery.  All of this takes place in a town that feels far removed from the familiar afflictions of modern society.  That feeling of course is illusory:  Victoria's flight to Denver lands her in an environment just as confining as the one she left.

At the start of his book, Haruf helpfully defines "plainsong" as "a simple and unadorned melody"  as well as "unisonous vocal music" chanted by early Christians. As we shared our thoughts about the novel, our comments kept returning to the themes so evident from the title. We all noted the simplicity of Haruf's language and the dialog of his characters.  And several pointed out the clannishness of small town environments. (I'm talking about you, Larry.)  Haruf's spare style won over most of us, but there were detractors.  Peter and Jack both felt that too little was said and, as a result, Haruf's characters were flat and undeveloped.  Roy, who listened to the audio version, found the narration confusing thanks in part to the brevity of Haruf's writing. 

Haruf's biggest fan, Doug, missed dinner but emailed us his comments.  While he enjoyed Haruf's writing (he called it "compassionate" and "elevated"), he was mostly struck by the hard reality forced upon each character and the stoicism each affects.  He also noted the hopefulness that lifts the novel as autumn turns to spring, the McPherons find comfort as surrogate parents, and the birth of Victoria's child approaches.    

Rating Plainsong

As our most reliable barometer of a title's popularity, Tom likened the book's atmosphere to that created by Annie Proulx in Wyoming Stories and said he could have continued reading long after it ended.  Often a contrarian, John "fell into the book on the first page." I felt the same way and was touched by the pain of loneliness that seems to afflict all of Haruf's characters. (This is a theme he explores head-on in his final novel, Our Souls At Night, which Doug encouraged us to read.)  With only a few naysayers depressing the vote, Plainsong received a robust 7.8 rating, with several vowing to read its sequel, Eventide.

Next Up:  The Fixer by Bernard Malamud

Dan wasn't able to attend our dinner and instead asked us to select our next book from three titles, every one of them by Bernard Malamud!  His blatant disregard for our selection process did not go unnoticed.  We'll see next month if The Fixer, a novel about the wrongful imprisonment of a Jew in Tsarist Russia, exceeds our low expectations.  (Sorry, Dan, I couldn't resist.)

Jan 15, 2017

Ski Weekend Pictorial


After years of too little rain and snow, we had almost too much of both during our January ski weekend.  Our arrival at Serene Lakes on Thursday afternoon was greeted with blue skies and snow covered roads.  The weather later turned stormy, but that didn't bother us.


After a day of skiing Sugar Bowl, shoveling the back deck (thanks, Tom!), or lazing around (thanks, Peter!), we sat down to enjoy Tom's world-famous mountain lasagna.


The following day some skied Mt. Rose in the rain while the sensible ones stayed indoors.  We met up later at George's beautiful new home in Montreux.  The living room was picture perfect....


...but the blue tape on the dining room floor highlighted that everything else was not quite perfect.  The headaches of new construction gave us plenty to commiserate over as we enjoyed Stephenie's excellent white lasagna.


As for A Nation of Sheep, we let George try to convince us that Lederer's 1961 screed is as relevant today as it was leading up to the Vietnam War.  When he was finished, we turned back to Stephenie, her lasagna, her conversation, and the excellent Bandol she poured.  Thank you, George, for letting us visit and spend time with your infinitely more interesting wife. I'm sorry, George, that wasn't fair.  I should have also acknowledged the pleasure we took in the company of your well-behaved dogs...!