Jul 10, 2021

Lost and Found at Armando's Table

men's book club review rating Solnit A Field Guide
Dinner and Acknowledgments

Last Wednesday was only our second dinner together since 2020 and, like our meal in May at Tom's, it was worth the wait. Mando served up a series of classically French dishes whose ingredients had the imprimatur of none other than Claude Monet and our very own Le Comptoir. From the opening cheese selection to the roast chicken, from the potato casserole to the apple pie, c'etait tout magnifique!

Our Discussion and Review of Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost

Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost is a collection of essays on a seemingly endless variety of topics—from the plot of Vertigo to the travails of Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca to a heroin overdose by a close friend—all connected (sometimes flimsily) by the notion that true self-discovery occurs only after one has lost one’s way.

When we picked A Field Guide from Mando’s list of titles last month, we naively thought that we were finally going to understand why it’s better to put away the map. We didn’t expect that Solnit’s path was going to be more metaphysical than literal. Yes, there were the obligatory references to Thoreau's road less traveled and to early explorers relying on maps with too little topography and too much terra incognita. But Solnit’s emphasis on geography was simply to get us in the mood for more serious soul-searching. And that’s where our problems began.

Most of us felt Solnit’s essays were, ahem, all over the map (thanks for the pun, Dan). Her ideas and associations move quickly and at times randomly. Some guys couldn’t follow the thread and others simply lost interest. Worse, her commentary is surprisingly uneven for such an accomplished writer, with trenchant observations and clever asides followed by more than a few clunkers.  To paraphrase Paul, Solnit's ideas were fascinating and frustrating, erudite and interesting, but with no obvious lesson to be drawn from the collection.  (I'm tempted to also paraphrase Dean, who characterized Solnit's stories as David Sedaris writ noir, but my notes don't do his wit justice!)

Rating A Field Guide to Getting Lost

With her intentionally discursive style, Solnit doesn’t make the reader’s task easy. And so we complained, predictably. But she earned our grudging admiration nonetheless. She provoked us with her impressive range, she made us consider our place and our potential, and (for most of us) she had us thinking long after we’d finished the book. So, despite our various disappointments, we gave her effort a respectable 6.1.

Next Up:  Deacon King Kong by James McBride

Doug offered us an excellent list of titles to choose from.  We chose James McBride’s recent novel, but we paused to consider Days Without End (Barry), The River (Heller), and The Splendid and the Vile (Larson).  We’ll decide in August if McBride’s novel about New York in the late 60’s is worth the acclaim it’s received.

Jul 9, 2021

2021 Redux

 A summary of unposted titles from Spring 2021....

 January 2021  
Host - Roy   

Subtitled A True Story of Vengeance and Survival, John Vaillant's account of a man-eating tiger in Russia's Maritime Territory gave us a fulsome education on the wrenching poverty that afflicted Russia's far east after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the endemic corruption that has devastated the tiger's habitat, and the history of the Siberian tiger and its brethren in Africa and the Indian subcontinent.  What it didn't offer was a concise story.  After a promising start, in which we learn about and applaud the tiger's killing of a local poacher, Vaillant veers off into lengthy digressions about Soviet-era politics, the Russo-Japanese war, the consumer economy in China, the plight of early man in sub-Saharan Africa, etc.  After occasional updates on the activities of the marauding tiger, Vaillant does return in the final 30 pages to finish the story of how the tiger was eventually tracked and killed.  He doesn't, however, answer the question implicit in the subtitle, as we are never quite sure whose survival is at stake in this most bleak of environments.  Rating: 7.2

 February 2021  
Host - Peter  

While Peter did offer News of the World for our consideration, we clearly disappointed him by not opting for one of his more substantial titles (Far From the Tree-Solomon; The Known World-Jones; Necessary Lies-Chamberlain; and The Return-Matar).  At 208 pages, Paulette Jiles gave us (and Hollywood, since it was recently made into a film starring Tom Hanks) a short, endearing story about a Civil War veteran who's agreed to escort across Texas a young girl recently freed from Indian captivity.  The book contains all of the ingredients needed for a successful movie:  a sympathetic protagonist bound by a sense of duty, menacing bad guys (and few good ones for contrast), an arduous but successful journey, and a bond created during that journey that produces the novel's climax.  OK, so it was predictable and at times corny, but it proved an enjoyable read.  Indeed, that was the most common adjective used during our Zoom discussion.  Misgivings aside, we liked the Civil War and Reconstruction history, Captain Kidd's livelihood as a reader of news in a time of deep political polarization, and the brief but sympathetic treatment of Joanna's captors, the Kiowa, and their Comanche allies.  Rating: 7.4

April 2021  
Host - Andrew  

Kevin Barry's novel about two aging Irish gangsters waiting expectantly one night at the Port of Algeciras has been on everyone's list of books to read.  And it's been on ours as well. Offered but rejected in the past, I resurrected it alongside Homeland Elegies (Akhtar), The Abstainer (McGuire), The Splendid and the Vile (Larson), and Fortune Smiles (Johnson).  For most, our selection was vindicated by an appreciation for Barry's poetic dialog, his unforgettable characters, and the building suspense he creates out of a series of flashbacks.  Were it not for our American ears, we might all have given it a full thumbs-up as Doug did.  But the fact that Barry had us running for the Irish-English dictionary slowed many of us down. While I found pleasure in reading quickly and ignoring the unfamiliar references, I was in the minority.  All of us, however, were engaged by the gangsters' back story and intrigued by the significance each of the two men places on the elusive Dilly (for whom they are waiting) and her mother (whose death they both grieve).  Rating:  7.8

May 2021  
Host - Tom  

When Tom told us we were finally going to dine in person, and he offered us a choice of Krueger's This Tender Land,  Weiner's The Geography of Bliss, Proulx's Bad Dirt, and Sides' Hellbound on His Trail to accompany our meal, he figured he'd also toss in a book about food just for kicks.  And that's how we ended up with Anthony Bourdain's book about his televised quest for the most compelling meals in the most exotic places around the world.  After a 14-month hiatus, with only Zoom meetings to sustain our reading, the promise of real food and a discussion of same proved irresistible.

Let's dispense with the book first.  It featured interesting locales and passable writing, with a few compelling stories intermixed with just as many forgettable ones.  What was most memorable about the reading were the occasional anecdotes--his time in France with his brother, his reflections crossing North Africa, his depression in Indochina--that foretold Bourdain's subsequent suicide.  While many of the dishes were enticing (and some utterly repelling), Bourdain's travelogue was bittersweet from start to finish.  

Our dinner, on the other hand, was a pure pleasure from start to finish.  With 15 guys in attendance (including our good friend Mark), and a table groaning with BBQ chicken and ribs and assorted sides, we spent less time on the book and more time simply eating and catching up.  Fully-vaccinated and guided by the latest from the CDC, our dinner was the first large indoor gathering most of us have enjoyed since the onset of Covid.  What a terrific way to return to normalcy!  

Nov 27, 2020

Dean's Tree Huggers Unite (via Zoom)

Last Sunday was time for another Zoom distanced meeting of the Man Book Club.  And while it would have been appropriate to have each of us Zoom-in while embracing or seated in our favorite tree, given this month’s book – The Overstory by Richard Powers, we eschewed the outdoors for the comfort of our manmade arbors of dens, dining rooms, and back bedrooms.

Reading the entire 500+ page book was, like trying to hack through the book’s redwood trees, a daunting task for several of our members.  But even those who had completed only the first half of the book agreed that The Overstory was well written and compelling - especially the Chestnut story, which intertwined the Hoel family immigrant saga and gave new meaning to a “family photo album”.  Indeed, the Chestnut story was MBC’s favorite of the several disparate stories with which Powers begins the book.  The outlier (and there always is one) was Terry, who also liked Mimi Ma’s, daughter of Chinese immigrants, story.

In general MBC found the last part of the book wanting (or per Doug, it needed an editor) – reflecting Powers’ not completely successful (in our opinion) attempt to weave the disparate stories and nine main characters from the book’s first half into a cohesive west coast redwood forest climax and then, as an epilogue, short chapters intended to tie up a few loose story arcs  Even with those shortcomings, Powers’ ability to create a richly detailed and diverse narrative about trees struck a sentient and anthropomorphic chord among the MBC, confirming The Overstory’s 2019 Pulitzer Prize award.

The book inspired MBC members to reminisce about their time spent in forests -- The Great Smokey Mountains (Stan), Plumas National Forest (Andrew).  Others paused to reflect on logging as an extractive industry that places little value on the health of the overall ecosystem (Tom and Dean) and how several characters were obviously based on the real life experiences of people like Julia Butterfly, who was willing to live in the real redwood trees to protect them from loggers (Paul) or Professor Suzanne Simard, whose research tenacity led to radical insights into tree and forest ecosystems (Larry).

Otherwise, the members of MBC continued their dogged determination to get through 2020.  Even as 2021 is on the horizon, we already can see events like MBC ski weekend being cancelled (and with it the annual slip and slide car contest down Andrew’s iced driveway).  But we are grateful that COVID has not impacted any of us or our families.  We look with bated breath (behind masks of course) to a time in 2021 when MBC can again meet in person.

Next month’s book continues the forest theme but with a decidedly more predatory bent – The Tiger, by John Vaillant, a non-fiction lesson teaching us that humans (and even bears) are not always at the top of the food chain.  Roy hosts in January.  Bring your pith helmets.


Nov 20, 2020

Ask Jeeves (Larry Did)

Many of us knew the Oakland based search engine/question-answer website Ask Jeeves (now just Ask.com) was related to an English gentleman’s personal valet, but the MBC’s September book – The Code of the Woosters by P.G. Wodehouse—as Zoom hosted by Glenn provided a path to the “Jeeves” origin.

 The book provides a humorous account of British aristocracy in the lates 1930s, a time when the sharp “Upstairs, Downstairs” line between the aristocracy and the working class begins to fade. The Code of the Woosters follows the escapades of English gentleman Bertram “Bertie” Wooster and his manservant, Jeeves. The beauty of Wodhouse’s book is that it is told through Bertie as narrator who believes it is “he” who is controlling the action, while the reader quickly surmises the real brains of the duo lies with Jeeves.  The book then leads the reader on a romp through the daily social pratfalls of the British upper class where, like Seinfield, nothing of substance occurs.

For a short and humorous work, there was a surprisingly wide set of opinions among the meager number of MBC Zoom attendees.  Several including Tom and Glenn found the book enjoyable and a fun read as each chapter unfolds with Bertie dealing with one predicament after another only to be left at chapter’s end in another social “pickle”.  Glenn and Paul appreciated Wodehouse’s ability to turn a phrase in the King’s English. I was in the middle of the pack – liking the lighthearted storyline but only by skipping over some of the 1930s idioms to keep the book moving.  Jack found the book a light farce with unredeeming characters, yet found himself rooting for several of them anyway.  Andrew (for the part he read) and Dean found the book uninteresting and repetitive with each chapter structured beginning with the protagonist extracting himself from a sticky wicket left hanging at the end of the previous chapter, only to be thrust into a new tight squeeze by chapter end.

But the big news of the month was the nuptials of Glenn and Gamin, which was celebrated in this time of COVID through a slightly disjointed webex meeting via the Sonoma County Clerk’s office.  Congratulations to the couple from all of MBC.  Unfortunately, we were not able to throw Glenn the kind of bachelor party that Bertie threw Gussie in the book.  In other news, the Tom/Dan/Dean winery group is well into their 2020 crush with 2 ½ tons of varietals in process.  Tom reported that the crop did not suffer smoke damage from the fires as of the initial press. Overall MBC members continue to grapple with the vagaries of COVID, wildfires and the election.  One member recounted how their parent contracted COVID and survived but with lingering aftereffects.  We do count ourselves lucky, however, as none of us is an essential front-line worker – although Glenn is now married to one.

Up for October is Dean’s recommendation and 2019 Pulitzer Prize winner, The Overstory by Richard Powers.  After reading this, you will not look and feel for trees in the same way. 


Aug 17, 2020

Dan Gives Us Our Last Orders

Another month, another Zoom meeting for the otherwise gregarious Man Book Club. Yes, last Tuesday continued the MBC virtual saga, except for the Dan/Tom/Dean Covid-19 Social Bubble - hunkered down in Dan’s garage, aka the Man Cave.

And Dan’s garage was an appropriate place to start this month’s Zoom meeting as Dan was this month’s host and book recommender/vote counter/date decider. Indeed, this month’s book, Last Orders by Graham Swift opens with a similar motley crew of regulars holding forth in an East London pub.

The book goes on -- in repeated flashbacks and from different points of view -- to detail the lives of the various protagonists and their interactions. The common thread being the recent death of their friend, Jack Dobbs and their road trip to fulfill Jack’s desire (Last Orders) to have his ashes spread at the Margate pier/quay (as depicted in Paul’s Zoom background).

MBC members generally felt the book was well written and a worthy Man Booker winner – George gave it the “best MBC book ever”. Swift certainly wove an intricate story around and among his characters – Jack, Vince, “Lucky” Ray, Lenny, Vic, Amy and Mandy. Indeed, one criticism was trying to keep the characters straight, especially at least in the beginning. Another small criticism was a lack of insight into Amy’s (Jack’s wife) feelings and what her plans are – stop visiting her daughter, move to Margate, hook up with Ray? Terry commented that he would have liked to have a better wrap up to the story. I felt Swift needed to move Amy aside so he could write a “buddy” story.

The other theme that emerged from our evening was the feeling that the book speaks to men of our age and stage in life as Swift’s male characters are, except for Vince, about the age of the MBC. Several members mentioned that the book gave them pause to reflect at this point in their life’s journey, just as Swift’s characters reflect on their lives, secrets and mortality. Doug specifically said that the book’s impact was different today than when he first read it a decade earlier. Each member also was asked where they wanted their body buried or ashes scattered. The answers varied – Colma, Vermont, the Golden Gate Bridge, in his own cemetery, out the car window, and on the farm.

Otherwise it was your typically unsatisfying, tech plagued, but well attended Zoom meeting with Andrew appearing to be under a food warming heat lamp at an all you can eat Hometown Buffet, Glen needing a bit more bandwidth than was available from one of his student’s Chromebooks, and Jack sporting his Puget Sound college tour T-shirt.

In what nearly became life imitates art, we were surprised to hear that three MBC members nearly had their own “Jack Dobbs” moment last month as they all found ways spend a couple of days in the hospital – one via helicopter. While all of them are back home and looked their chipper selves, it is a sobering reminder that we will either be “Jack Dobbs” or the ones carrying out “Last Orders”. A positive note was sounded with news that Garth is on the mend and aside from not being able to eat spicy foods, is back enjoying life.

BREAKING NEWS: Winning the best excuse for repeated absences, Armando emailed that his prolonged absence from MBC is due to the small matter of being appointed the new Director of State Parks. Wow, when can we get San Simeon renamed the MBC Clubhouse?

Next month’s book continues the British theme – did Andrew vote twice again so he can tutor us with another UK geography lesson? – with The Code of the Woosters by P.G. Wodehouse. Glen hosts with hopefully more bandwidth at a date and location – the barn?