Dec 6, 2022

Captains All at Roy's

Dinner and Acknowledgments

Last Thursday evening, Roy's ocean-to-table commitment was evident from start to finish.  Inspired by the fishermen in Kipling's story, Roy's own fishing was the basis for our entire meal.  The appetizer table held plates of yellowtail and bluefin, along with smoked salmon, halibut, and ahi poke.  And the dinner table featured trays of roasted Dungeness crab, paired with side salads and bread.  A meal entirely of seafood and entirely from Roy's own catch.  Kudos to our captain!

Sushi, salmon, poke, and a cheese selection

Our Discussion of Captains Courageous by Rudyard Kipling

Better known for The Jungle Book, Kim, and short stories about colonial India, Rudyard Kipling wrote his novella, Captains Courageous, while living in Vermont.  The story is simple:  spoiled rich kid (Harvey) falls off an ocean liner bound for Europe and is rescued by a fishing boat crew.  The captain  refuses to return to port and instead puts Harvey to work.  In short order, Harvey drops his dandified ways, blends in with the crew, and when the boat returns to Gloucester, Harvey impresses his parents with his newfound maturity and work ethic.

If it weren't for the impenetrable writing, we might have given Kipling his due for churning out a passable coming-of-age story for young readers.  But Kipling's strange blend of nautical terms, sailors' argot, and Anglo-American elocution created one head-scratching paragraph after another.  Glenn was shocked how long it took to read all 107 pages; Stan and Dean simply gave up.  For some of us, the Horatio Alger parallels (Doug, me) were obvious, but less interesting than the insights on 19th century fishing practices (Larry, Roy) and the hardships of a fishing town like Gloucester, dependent on a single, high-mortality industry (Paul, Terry).  

Our Rating of Captains Courageous

Had we been asked to rate Paul's boyhood abridged version, we might have been more generous.  But the full-length Young Adult edition written in 1897 by an Indian-born expat Englishman in Vermont about a polyglot crew of American fishermen made for a trite and at times undigestible adventure story.  Rating:  5.5--our lowest in 5 years.

Next Up:  Ski Weekend in January

In January we'll decamp for the high Sierras and hope for deep powder.  With no book assigned for January, Doug proposed Claire Keegan's Small Things Like These as our collective holiday read.  Short, inspiring, and--yes!--well-written, too.   

Oct 29, 2022

A Hell of a Meal at Dean's

Dinner and Acknowledgments 

In honor of Martin Luther King Jr.'s southern roots, last Tuesday Dean laid on an evening of southern-style cooking that rivaled any other meal he's prepared for us. After a starter of "Memphis treats" (courtesy of Dick Cohn), Dean served up pulled pork, black-eyed peas, collard greens, and corn bread, followed by an apple crumble dessert. The clamor for seconds was proof that Dean exceeded his already-high standards. If it weren't for Dean's vintage 30.06--the same model used to kill King--we might have walked out with all of his leftovers. [Ed. note:  a tasteless reference, to be sure, but see below graphic.]  We might also have absconded with Stan's classic 1934 roadster, since it was blocking Dean's driveway!

Dean sighting his Remington Gamemaster
Stan's 1934 Ford

Our Review and Discussion of Hellhound on His Trail by Hampton Sides

While the focus of Sides' story is the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.--which, as Doug noted, occurs exactly at the midpoint of the book--the reader is treated to a split narrative leading up to that fateful moment.  In alternating chapters, we learn about King and his controversial arrival in Memphis and James Earl Ray's circuitous journey from "Jeff City" to the Lorraine Motel. After the shooting, the pace quickens as the nation's law enforcement apparatus (including, as Tom noted, 3,000 FBI agents!) spends the next two months identifying and tracking Ray while the country convulses and the civil rights movement grieves.

Despite the lack of conclusive answers to questions that still linger for the conspiracy-minded (Did Ray act alone? Was the FBI complicit?), we all enjoyed and felt enriched by Sides' meticulously-researched account of King's assassination and the ensuing manhunt, especially as so many details were new to us.  As I noted, most of us were too young to appreciate the events at the time yet too old for those events to find their way into our school curricula.  And others pointed out that Ray's actions were usually (and rightfully) a mere footnote in the broader history of King, the SCLC, and the civil rights struggles of the 1960's.

While the first half of the book came in for criticism (George called it choppy; Paul called it filler), the latter half vindicated our (and Sides') efforts.  Larry likened the story's arc to that of The Feather Thief, where after the climax the author entertains the reader with a well-researched thesis on how the crime was committed.  In this case, Sides convinced most of us that there was no conspiracy afoot and that, as Roy put it, a "total misfit loner" did indeed shoot King, while he was under constant police surveillance, and then eluded national and international authorities for months as he tried to make his way to Rhodesia.

Our Rating of Hellhound on His Trail

Sides doesn't simply tread old ground with his account of Ray's movements and motivations; he pulls gems from an exhaustive record to offer the reader more insight on an unlikely assassin.  From Ray's $200 nose job (Terry's favorite) to his prison escape in a bread box (Dean's) to his aborted jewelry store heist in London's Paddington neighborhood (a stone's throw from my old flat!), Sides shares vignettes that entertain and inform.  For that, he lands in our current Top Ten with an 8.2 rating.

Next Up:  Captains Courageous by Rudyard Kipling

Roy presented us with an unusually eclectic list of titles, including (gulp!) Homer's The Odyssey, Strayed's Wild, Martel's Life of Pi, Torday's Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, and Kipling's Captains Courageous.  Kipling eked out a win over Torday, so in December we'll see if a 15-year old railroad scion stranded at sea piques our interest as much as King and Ray did this month.

Sep 24, 2022

A Wake for the Dead in Glenn's Barn

Lunch and Acknowledgments

It was a small but convivial gathering last Saturday at Glenn's.  Eschewing our usual weeknight dinner, Glenn treated us to lunch al fresco and used the Cunard Line's menu from 1908 as his inspiration.  With duck pate, anchovies, stilton cheese, mixed nuts, and smoked salmon for appetizers, Glenn followed with roast beef and browned potatoes for the entrĂ©e and apple pie for dessert.  As we ate in Glenn's beautifully-restored 100-year old barn, we couldn't help but think of the Lusitania's passengers, dining on the same food at the very moment their ship was struck by a German torpedo.  

Glenn's copy of the Lusitania's 1908 lunch menu 

Dining with Captain Glenn
Our Review and Discussion of Dead Wake by Erik Larson

Although not as infamous as the Titanic's sinking, Germany's 1915 attack on the Lusitania is known by every student of history as an important reason American sentiment began to shift away from isolationism and in support of the Allied Powers against Germany. With that as background to our discussion, Tom answered our most pressing question in the affirmative.  Yes, despite the book's obvious climax, Dead Wake keeps its reader in suspense throughout. 

Like most books we've read, it's strength of story that wins us over.  And that's where Larson's book shines, with an account both informative and gripping. We learned that Cunard's Lusitania and Mauretania were thought to be unsinkable.  As the fastest ocean liners in the world, they operated at twice the speed of Germany's fastest U-boats. So why was the Lusitania vulnerable?  It was traveling at reduced speed to save Cunard money; its hull was lined with empty coal bunkers which, when filled with sea water after the torpedo explosion, forced the ship to list precipitously; and, most damningly, the English (who'd broken the German Navy's code) knew of the U-boat's presence but refused to alert or escort the Lusitania for fear of compromising their codebreakers or risking their destroyers.

Our admiration for story notwithstanding, Glenn's biggest quibble was ours as well: for a sinking that took only 18 minutes, the reader is fed an awful lot of detail, especially about passengers more colorful than significant, in the course of the book's 353 pages.  (That said, who wouldn't want to know about the passenger who survived being ejected from an underwater smokestack?  Or the passenger torn between saving his original sketches by William Thackeray or his copy of A Christmas Carol with handwritten annotations by Charles Dickens?)   

Our Rating of Dead Wake

Our enjoyment of a good story was tempered by the sobering statistics we learned while reading Dead Wake.  Although the ship sank in calm weather, with ample lifeboats and within sight of the Irish shore, almost 1,200 of its 2,000 passengers died.  Fearing more U-boat attacks, the British Navy ordered its nearby cruiser to withdraw, so a flotilla of fishing trawlers and civilian boats was all that was available to perform search and rescue. The Lusitania was prized as a target, not because of its military importance, but because U-boat captains were recognized for the tonnage of their kills.  As one of the largest vessels afloat, the Lusitania was an irresistible trophy.  

Recognizing a good story, but one weighed down by an excess of detail, we gave Larson a solid 7.4.
Next Up:  Hellhound on His Trail by Hampton Sides

Dean gave us an interesting list of contemporary classics (Where the Crawdads Sing, Beloved, A Visit from the Goon Squad) plus the controversial American Dirt.  The voting was close, but we rejected all of them in favor of Hellhound on His Trail, Hampton Sides' account of James Earl Ray's assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the manhunt that consumed a nation.

Jul 1, 2022

Feather Thieves and Salmon at Dan's

Dinner and Acknowledgments

Last Wednesday, Dan's challenge was to prepare a meal themed around a story about the theft of centuries-old bird skins.  He nailed it.  With help from Roy, Dan started us with gravlax and then served freshly-caught cedar plank salmon and roasted chicken, pan-fried corn, salad, and french bread. To close, he put out a batch of homemade chocolate chip cookies and a chaser of aquavit.  

The salmon was a nod to the "salmon flies" at the center of our story, and the chicken stood in for the many feathered species so prized by Edwin Rist and his fly-tying community.  Bravo, Dan!  

Our Review and Discussion of The Feather Thief by Kirk Johnson

Until Dan proposed the title, few of us had heard about the theft of bird skins from London's Natural History Museum in 2009. Moreover, it seemed a slender premise for a book.  But once we started reading, most of us were quite taken by Johnson's non-fiction account of young Edwin Rist and his brazen heist.

Johnson opens with a history of rare and exotic birds in South America and Southeast Asia.  He explains that Englishman Alfred Russel Wallace's acquisition and study of birds in the Malay Archipelago led him to formulate a theory of evolution ahead of Charles Darwin. His work also resulted in the donation of over 125,000 birds to the Natural History Museum, which now boasts the largest ornithology collection in the world.  

As Wallace was collecting birds, women's fashion turned to bird feathers for hats and coats.  At the same time, the gentry in England developed a passion for fly-tying, including so-called "salmon flies," the ne plus ultra of  fishing flies.  As with women's hats, the more exotic the bird, the more desirable its feathers, even though most salmon flies weren't actually used for fishing.  

All of this was prelude to the theft at the heart of Johnson's story.  By the 1990's, making and collecting salmon flies had regained popularity, but the same problem bedeviled current collectors: where to get  exotic feathers whose sale was banned by international law?  Enter Edwin Rist, who while studying at the Royal College of Music to become a flautist broke into the Natural History Museum and stole 299 bird skins.  His capture, trial, and the subsequent search for the missing skins are Johnson's focus in the latter half of the book.  

Our Rating of the The Feather Thief 

Ok, we liked the book, but with some big caveats. First off, several guys (Dean, Terry) noted the parallels to our prior book about Teddy Roosevelt's 1913 exploration of the Amazon (River of Doubt), as Wallace's first ornithology expedition covered similar terrain with as punishing an outcome.  But after building a strong back story, Johnson disappoints following Rist's criminal trial.  As Doug noted, Rist faced no accountability by receiving a suspended sentence.  And as Paul, Jack, Larry, and Roy all observed, once Johnson begins his own search for the missing skins, his failure to find them makes for a deeply unsatisfying ending.  Even our non-fiction devotee Glenn, who likened the obsession with faux fishing flies to the Ming vase obsession, was disappointed by the ending.

Despite our reservations about the ending, we gave Johnson a healthy 6.8 for a fascinating peek into the history of birds and their fly-tying antagonists. 

Next Up: Dead Wake by Erik Larson

We read The Devil in the White City years ago, and have several times suggested other Larson titles, but to no avail.  Finally, we get another chance.  In August, we'll convene at Glenn's to discuss a U-boat, an ocean liner, and a World War.

Feb 28, 2022

Larry's Southern Luncheon

This month’s book was a work of fiction that offered us a trip back to 1960s America in the South.  The book focuses on a boy coming of age within a strict military family, specifically a Marine Air Corps family stationed in Beaufort, South Carolina.  The book’s title refers to the family’s patriarch, Colonel Bull Meechum (nicknamed the Great Santini), who commands his family as though they are another group of young pilots he must whip into Marines.  The book is a thinly-veiled account of Pat Conroy’s own childhood growing up in such a family. 

MBC’s comments focused on Ben Meechum, Bull’s teenage son facing the age-old conflict of children finding their place and voice within a strong patriarchal family.  The book seemed to hit home with MBC as all us are old enough to have grown up in those times.  And all of us are sons and fathers.  The book should be read within the context of the era the book was written/published – 1976 – well before many of the “tell all” Mommy Dearest genre books arrived and the book’s stark description of black life and policing in the South were not common. 

Larry hosted this first MBC gathering of 2022 at his home yesterday.  The weather cooperated and we were able to dine in Larry’s backyard on a beautiful Marin Sunday afternoon with a Mt. Tam backdrop.  And while no mint juleps were seen, Larry did his best to provide a taste of the South with BBQ steaks, grits topped with collard greens, and finishing with homemade pecan pie topped with just churned vanilla ice cream.  The Meechums of the book would have been right at home. 

The book was generally well received by MBC and reflected the old writers’ adage of “write what you know.”  Or in this case write what you lived through, for Ben Meechum reflects the experience of adolescent Pat Conroy.  In several cases the MBC members were able to relate specific aspects of their own childhoods to those of the fictional Meechums. 

Doug loved the story but found Conroy’s writing a bit prosaic and dull.  Andrew found the trip to the 60’s triggered memories of his own father’s parental style – who grew up in the south and attended West Point.  Paul enjoyed it, especially where all the children pile on to stop Bull from bullying their mother.  He found the book to have a sense of humor and a nice character study.  Tom also enjoyed the character development particularly Bull Meechum – a real piece of work.  He found the story well written and readable.  Dean thought the book was well written and saw the book as a series of vignettes built around the family’s dynamics.  He wondered how we would deal with similar situations today – interfering in a basketball game and dealing with an abusive alcoholic father.  Dean also related to the Catholic family and found MaryAnn, the daughter, as compelling a character as Ben.  Having recommended the book, Larry also identified with the itinerant nature of military life having grown up near an Air Force Base and seeing how some military kids were forced to uproot their lives every few years to move to the next posting. 

In the end, the scoring reflected the consistently positive responses among the MBC, with an average rating of 8.1.