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 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?


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.