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!


  1. Andrew, what I missed in the discussion of the "Fixer" you posted was the timeliness of the book to reflect recent events. An autocratic leader who has no idea about his subjects, and who back tracks on his promises. A government organization developing "alternative facts" to match their narrative. An individual who thinks he can keep his head down and survive the events going on around him. They all play into what is going on around us today. In the end Yakov decides the truth is more important than his suffering and he is determined that he get to tell his story even if it means years of mental and physical torture.

  2. All excellent points, George. No, we didn't draw those parallels at dinner but we should have. However, we did discuss the plight of Jews in Russia and Eastern Europe then and more recently, which is another BIG theme I missed in my summary. And that is why I rely on all of you to set me straight....

  3. George and Andrew make good points about the book. I would extend the conversation to view an individual's ability to endure isolated confinement when there are other expedient options and how much of that resolve comes knowing that others have not forgotten him. In this case Yakov endures continued miserable solitary confinement despite being promised better if he admits his (false) guilt or by quickly ending it via suicide. Malamud would like us to believe that such conditions can be tolerated if we know there are people who believe in our innocence -- the lawyer, several of his guards, his father-in-law and eventually his wife. I believe the book requires us to think about how each of us would react in a similar situation and what support we would need to endure such hardships when more expedient options are readily available.

  4. You're right, Larry. After his initial period of incarceration when it seemed that no cared about him, Yakov was absolutely sustained by the knowledge that others supported his innocence--especially his father-in-law and ex-wife. Malamud seems to be making a larger point about the power of community and, conversely, the weakness of each of us as individuals when forced to stand alone. Certainly that was Yakov's situation when he arrived in Kiev and decided to avoid the Jewish ghetto and live among Christians. We talked about this a little, but as usual we had too little time to do it justice.

  5. First of all let's clear the air regarding MBC rules. There are 3 rules: 1. book must be under 500 pages and might I point out the #1 book on our list was well over the 500 page limit. Therefore an asterisk should attached to Nobody's Fool. 2. Author has won/nominated for a major literary award. 3. No books by women about women. There is no mention regarding number of books or authors during our selection process.
    "The Fixer":352 pages, Malamud won a Pulitzer(The Fixer) and 2 National Book Award(The Fixer & The Magic Barrel), the novel is definitely not chick-lit!!!

    As for the meal, you forgot to mention the Russian brews that I hand selected from a Russian deli in the Outer Richmond deli.
    Did anyone not notice the Tyler Florence signed menu in our kitchen?

    As for the book, I enjoyed it more the 2nd time around than the first. I have read 4 of Malamud's books and I must say they are not very uplifting but do force you to contemplate how our society treats one another. Lets be honest , antisemitism and all the other "ism" will never disappear. Poor Yakov just wanted to pursue a better life but instead was wrongfully accused for murder, only because of being a Jew. For me, this book is a gut check, "Do unto others as you would have done unto you". Look out for your fellow man/women. Cheers and thanks to everyone for making it to the meeting.

  6. I'm actually glad we read this book despite my criticism. It offered an intriguing look into a time and a culture that most Americans don't understand, and also an interesting character study of a man so committed to a path despite its consequences that he reminds me of the father in Mosquito Coast.

    My challenge was pushing through the second half of the book as Yakov is insistent on his innocence and unwillingness to bend, and events conspire to keep him from being dead -- so we get an extenuated dreary existence. I realize that this is in part the point of the book and doubtless the intended reaction, I just had trouble getting through it.

    By the way, Andrew, I do remember the Chandler quote you mentioned, but as you say, I can find no mention of him saying "time crept along like a dying thing". In fact, Googling it, I can't find it anywhere. So perhaps I was merely channeling my inner Chandler and now I will have to start writing tawdry detective novels. Or perhaps I was just hoping that once, you guys will actually vote to read a Chandler novel.