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. 

--Larry

Aug 9, 2020

Courtesy of Terry and George, We Zoomed With a (Executive) Hoodlum

For MBC’s July meeting, we were treated to an hour Zoom “sit down” with John Costello, the author of our latest book, Executive Hoodlum: Negotiating on the Corner of Main and Mean, an “inside baseball” autobiography of growing up in a mob connected family and straddling the line between the corporate world and the underworld.

John graciously answered our questions about his life, the book, and what it was like to be a regular guest at the Playboy Mansion – and yes, it sounds a lot like the party scene from movie, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood.  At the end of his hour, we all felt a bit more braggadocious.  But all posturing aside, John admitted that writing the book – which took over 5 years – was a cathartic process -- to come clean with his corporate friends about his not so savory Chicago family’s roots.  While he has lived “large”, the loss of many family members and childhood friends to addiction, the judicial system, and “questionable circumstances” has taken a toll. Perhaps John’s life is best described by the old adage that what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger.  But the flip side is what does kill you, kills you. 

John also said the book was a legacy for his young children (two sets of twins) and in the end how the birth of his children helped him move away from his Chicago mob ties.  Finally, he hoped the book would serve to help those feeling trapped in their place in society based on their family’s history see that there is a way out.

Frankly many of us coming into this meeting were ready after reading EH, to give it a mediocre score based on Costello’s writing style.  But after an hour with him, we knew John and the book were the real deal.   Maybe Costello is not the greatest literary talent MBC has read, but certainly he is the most straightforward and fascinating author we have encountered.  Of course it helped that John’s Zoom hour with us felt like being in an afterhours lounge bar with John regaling us with story after story of his upbringing around Chicago’s organized crime figures to his eventual success in corporate America.   His verbal retelling of several passages from the book were so much better than his words on the written page.   John’s willingness to give us an hour of his time and his engaging responses to our questions earned EH an extra point on the MBC 10 point rating scale – a first in MBC history.  It might have even been two additional points had we had access to cigars and whiskey snifters.

John ended his portion of the MBC program with a teaser about a possible sequel.  We won’t give away any details about the second book except to say it involves more family members and the US Attorney for the Sothern District.  John – an unsolicited suggestion from the MBC is to include your experiences with making a TV deal based on the book around control, monetary considerations (points, percentages) and all the people in between (book publishers, agents, producers etc.).  We think that would make for fascinating reading.

John -- The MBC appreciates you taking the time to talk with a bunch of privileged hot tub soaking, white wine drinking Marinites.  And a big shout out to MBC George for using his college rowing connections to entice Costello to attend. 

Attendance at July’s MBC meeting was light with only eight or nine attendees.  Terry, the MBC host for July, who recommended EH, set another MBC first by not showing up to tout his own selection for 45 minutes.  There was some concern that his absence was harbinger of a “no knock” Fed raid on our Zoom meeting with Terry ending up in a witness protection program in Spain, but show up he did, tardy and as far as we can tell, not wearing a wire.  Tom attempted a phone Zoom connection from Grey Lodge but was “disappeared” after asking John Costello a question.  Jack, in his faux Zoom library, learned he could join Dan’s Saturday early AM golf fivesome by strolling out his back gate.  George and the pugs attended from Nevada having just escaped the latest COVID upsurge in Arizona.

Otherwise no major changes in the status of the attending members. 

Dan, next month’s host, signed in late from the “man cave” and with his excuse -- aside from not reading the book -- the plethora of Zoom meetings he already attended that day and then having to “pick up the dog”.  Which, by the way is a great segue to the next MBC meeting on August 10th, method of attendance TBD.  Next month’s book and 1996 Man Booker (now just Booker) Prize winner is “Last Orders” by Graham Swift, which, according the accounting firm of Dan, Dan and Dan won with a total of five votes.  With so few votes, one wonders if Andrew somehow stuffed the ballot box again resulting in another English writer/(Man) Booker winner on MBC’s reading list?  P.S. Don’t watch The Last Detail, the 1972 movie.  While a fine Jack Nicholson flick, it is not based our next book.

Hope to see/view more of you in August.

-- Larry

Jun 2, 2020

Stan Talks Pretty, Larry Edits, and We Listen In, all Virtually of Course

[Editor's Acknowledgment:  Larry took it upon himself to prime the blog with this guest post.  I am deeply grateful.  Enjoy and be gentle in your comments.]

Tuesday May 19th saw, or more accurately Zoomed, the second MBC virtual meeting.  It still feels a bit strange that neighbors literally next door to each other have to see each other on a computer screen in a recreation of the old Hollywood Squares game show.  And you know how exciting our lives are when the highlight of the evening was Terry’s new toilet!

In truth, these virtual meetings provide all of us a means to see friends and catch up on our lives.  And it was good to hear about lives moving along outside of our own cloistered homes.   For the most part those updates are mundane – children (really young adults now) moving in and out of our lives, the bottling of the 2019 vintage at the Tom/Dean/Dan home winery, Terry moving back into his newly refurbished home, Paul preparing for his first Airbnb guests, Glen starting a new program at Madrone (San Rafael) High, Stan’s embarking on his itinerant life on the road with an MB Sprinter licensed in Hood River OR, and Andrew (along with COVID-19) bringing back the drive-in movie.   There were also a few sad updates – finding out that a couple of friends are battling cancer and how it is not advisable to have a shipping container drop on your foot (with live video of the recovering shoe and foot).

Oh, yes, there was a book/audio book to be reviewed.  In the only instance in memory in which the host, Stan, did not only fail to finish reading his recommended book but also attempted to distance himself altogether from said book.  Stan explained how, had “we” voted for The Story of a Goat, its rating would have been Trump “incredible” as opposed to the “6” rating received by the chosen book – Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris.  We quickly reminded Stan, that it was HIS vote that broke the tie between the two books, leaving us to rate MTPOD not The Story of a Goat.

Other than Andrew’s effusive “I laughed so hard, I almost totaled the Land Rover”, the rest of MBC thought the book was like reading/listening to a self-effacing stand-up comedian – great in small doses but harder to appreciate during a longer reading/listen.  Not a Pulitzer contender, but certainly an enjoyable diversion during the sequestration.  The book brought to the fore how a “book” can be perceived differently in its audio versus paper formats.  The members that both read and listened to MTPOD agreed that Sedaris has a particular audio cadence that is hard to recreate on the written page – like trying to read a Seinfeld script and having to imagine how Jerry, Elaine, George & Kramer would deliver their lines.  Each member, like watchers of Seinfeld, had their favorite story from the Sedaris book – the speech teacher, David’s father, the visit from neighbors back home, learning French, and living in France.

We had additional discussion about how this compared to Sedaris’ other books.  The general agreement here was that MTPOD was not one of his stronger books and felt somewhat dated.  Certainly, none of the stories in this book matched the author’s reading of his Santaland Diaries story – now an annual NPR holiday staple.   So, while scoring only a mediocre “6” on the MBC rating scale, MBC agreed that Me Talk Pretty One Day, in whichever format, was a wonderful diversion during these Shelter-In-Place times.

--Larry

Jun 2, 2019

Roy's Success

shteyngart Lake Success Review Rating Men's Book Club
Dinner and Acknowledgments

When it comes to preparing our group's dinner, Roy sets an exceedingly high bar...for himself.  With few exceptions (a delivery from Sol Food comes to mind), he's always worked from scratch and aimed for something a little different.  Remember his Dungeness crab?  Manhattan-style sandwiches?  Anzac biscuits and dirty rice balls?  Well, last Tuesday was more of the same.

To accompany Shteyngart's financier-on-the-run escapade, and with the protagonist's $30,000 Japanese whiskey firmly in mind, Roy started us with a Caesar salad followed by a bouillabaisse stuffed with local halibut.  His main course was a delicious pasta seasoned with mentaiko (buttery fish roe), Korean chili threads, and shiso leaf.  For dessert, he served his own kumquat ice cream over son David's citrus cake. To wash it down, Roy laid out shot glasses of home-distilled brandy.  If it was all too rich and too much, we didn't care; we had a book about excess that needed pairing. 

Our Review and Discussion of Lake Success by Gary Shteyngart

In his latest novel, the gilded ego of Gary Shteyngart's New York is contrasted with America's wholesomeness west of the Hudson River.  Well, sort of. The novel opens with an introduction to Barry Cohen, a hedge fund manager ("hedgie") whose fund's assets ("AUM") are declining rapidly, whose recent trades are under investigation, whose young child is autistic, and whose wife is looking elsewhere for affection.  Facing such challenges, Barry does what any red-blooded American would do:  he skips town in a Greyhound bus in search of a long-ago college girlfriend.  This being a journey of self-discovery, Barry gets to learn about himself while the reader learns about automatic watches, Greyhound buses, and--oh, yes--today's America.  

That's the trite summary.  Thankfully, Shteyngart's writing is not nearly so trite.  But neither is it free from criticism, at least from us.  Shteyngart commits the cardinal sin of saddling his reader with a repugnant main character.  As host Roy noted, Barry is both unlikable and implausible. Glen called him a narcissist and a sociopath; George described him as irredeemable. Paul said he fits nicely into almost any Woody Allen film (in a twisted, misogynistic way, of course).  Terry charitably noted that Barry merely voices the thoughts many have but are afraid to express.  Regardless, Barry's antagonizing presence in the narrative spoiled what should have been an amusing 21st century take on the Gatsby story.  

Our Rating of Lake Success 

If it weren't for Doug, we might have ended our discussion still moaning about Barry's shortcomings.  But Doug, with his usual insight, pushed us to appreciate Barry's quest for an ideal (love? success? contentment?) that is every bit as elusive for the other, more sympathetic characters in the story.  In fact, whether it stems from his own autism, his certitude about success and money, his luck of Kokura, or just native resilience, Barry returns to New York and his perch atop Wall Street a far cry from the man who fled in the middle of the night.  Because he challenges us to question everything we thought we knew about success and failure, we partially forgave Shteyngart his Barry Cohen and coughed up a grudgingly positive 5.8.

Next Up:  The Devil's Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea

Again we were presented with a Jack London doubleheader (Call of the Wild and White Fang) and again we resisted.  We also turned down Bad Blood and The Devil in the White City (second time) so we could instead read Luis Alberto Urrea's Pulitzer-nominated account of 26 men, an unforgiving frontier, and an immigration policy that continues to defy partisan solutions.  Next month we'll discuss whether anything has changed along our southern border in the last 18 years.

May 4, 2019

Peter Celebrates the Flower Moon

Killer of the Flower Moon mens book club review rating
Dinner and Acknowledgments

April's book selection took us back to 1921 and told us, in unsparing detail, what lay at the end of the Trail of Tears for the Osage Nation.  As our host last Tuesday, Peter had to devise a menu that referenced, without trivializing, the subject matter of The Killers of the Flower Moon.  Our consensus:  his fry bread tacos were the perfect accompaniment to our book.

Now common to Native American tribes throughout the southwest, fry bread was concocted by the Navajo during their forced relocation to New Mexico.  The Navajo used the only ingredients offered by the US government (flour, salt, lard) to sustain them on land too poor to grow their traditional foods. Fry bread tacos later became part of the southwestern indigenous cultures that spanned the border with Mexico.  (Note:  no big beautiful wall then existed.)

Preceding the fry bread tacos was a tasty Three Sisters Stew, another Indian recipe and an overt reference to the three Osage sisters whose murders open Grann's story.  Dessert was a bowl of strawberries and brownies topped with vanilla ice cream.  Delicious, yes.  Subtle, no.  No one missed the symbolism of white over red and brown.  Well done, Peter!

Our Review and Discussion of The Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

Thanks to the popularity of The Killers of the Flower Moon, Grann has successfully reminded Americans of a painful, long-forgotten chapter in American history.  During the decade following World War I, two notable events occurred on the Osage reservation in Oklahoma:  the discovery of large deposits of oil made the Osage enormously wealthy, and a series of Osage homicides began and persisted with the connivance of local authorities. Grann's non-fiction account sifts through trial transcripts, newspaper articles, first-person accounts, and other primary sources to re-tell the disturbing story of how prominent whites not only exploited the Osage but--to bypass the "headrights" of the Osage--also killed them.

Grann also describes how the then-named Bureau of Investigation was called in to find the killers after the efforts of the county prosecutor and state attorney general were deemed corrupt by the Osage and others.   The personal involvement of J. Edgar Hoover and the convictions obtained by his agents and federal prosecutors are the climax of Grann's narrative.

Despite our differences, we all found the story of the Osage fascinating.  We were, to a man, appalled by the treatment of the Osage by otherwise upstanding white citizens.  At every opportunity, the white establishment stole the wealth and dignity of a tribe that was, by the 1920's, greatly reduced in population and forced to survive on land whose spectacular oil wealth had already begun to diminish by the time the FBI concluded its investigation.  As Peter noted, Grann's book takes direct aim at the myth of American exceptionalism. And, as Larry and Dean pointed out, the suffering of the Osage was the logical result of the westward expansion foretold in Undaunted Courage.

Our Rating of The Killers of the Flower Moon

While The Killers of the Flower Moon features a compelling story, many of us faulted Grann for trying too hard. After selling us on the shocking killings that rocked the Osage Nation, Grann then tries to convince us that Hoover's legacy and today's FBI were both forged in the crucible of the ensuing investigation. (They weren't.)  If that weren't enough, he devotes the final pages of his narrative to his own investigation in which he purports to discover innumerable additional victims along with suspects never charged in their deaths.  (We weren't persuaded, as the sources he relies on had already made similar claims.)  Partly for these reasons, and partly to revoke Grann's poetic license (Paul and I complained about his occasional, awkward lyricism), we pulled back from a stronger rating and awarded Grann a still-healthy 7.3.

Next Up:  Lake Success by Gary Shteyngart

For May, Roy offered us The Overstory by Richard Powers, The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver, Rules of Civility of Amor Towles, and Lake Success by Gary Shteyngart.  In the end, Roy's desire to reprise Shteyngart (after our enjoyment reading Super Sad True Love Story) broke a tie with The Overstory.  We will see if Shteyngart's latest novel about Wall Street hubris lives up to his growing reputation as an American satirist.