Mar 19, 2017
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!