Dec 14, 2009

A Progressive Holiday Meal

Acknowledging Capote and Our Cake Boss
Our dinner on December 8 was notable for several reasons: 1) women were present (and the men were well-behaved); 2) the dinner progressed from house to house (thanks to Larry, Terry, and yours truly); 3) Stan never monopolized the conversation (was it Abbie’s influence?); and 4) we ignored our chosen book. Well, all except for Garth, who used women and jewelry as the inspiration for his dessert. Thanks to him, Breakfast at Tiffany's will be forever known as the book that produced The Cake. With strings of edible pearls circling the plate, and silver earrings hanging from a profusion of silver stems, the Cake captivated our wives and quickly became the conversation piece of the evening. And, just as quickly, Garth was inducted into the Panderers Hall of Fame by all of the men present.

The Cake, surrounded by its admirers.
The Dinner
Conceived and hosted by three of us, but supplied and served by each man in attendance, our dinner was a nice entrée to the holiday season. Although we spent no time discussing the book, Capote’s slender novella was the evening’s thematic sideshow. The 1961 film by Blake Edwards spooled endlessly on Larry’s flat screen during appetizers, Garth came dressed in fedora and scarf, and Jana vamped as Holly Golightly (the dark glasses and white dress coat were smashing).

With assignments given out just days in advance, the food and drink were superb. Roast top sirloin, smoked salmon, and honey baked ham shared the bill for main course, but accompanying them were too many excellent dishes to list. Instead, I will offer a few observations:

1.  Larry’s antipasti and Dean’s baked Camembert and Brie were so vigilantly guarded by the women that certain men had to make do with beer and wine (Chris, that was a nice Xmas Ale!).

2.  The usual overachievers simply couldn’t help themselves. Tom J grilled his vegetables on site like a short order cook; Stan roasted enough new potatoes to feed Napoleon’s army; Tom A prepared two different side dishes and presented both with recipes attached; and, finally, John not only prepared 3 different sauces for his smoked salmon, but he also typed up name cards for each.

3.  In the unsung heroes department, George and Paul surprised everyone with distinctive salads that appeased the discriminating palates of our wives.

4.  Garth’s showy confection may have stolen the limelight, but Terry’s seasonally dressed cupcakes (thanks, Gail!) and Armando’s shockingly rich chocolate ganache were equally enjoyed, especially with help from Roy’s after-dinner spirits and George’s Ice Wine.

Next Up
We will spend January in Tahoe, and will return in February to tackle Jonathan Raban’s Bad Land. His outsider’s account of the promise and disappointment of the American west was the surprise pick from a compelling list of titles compiled by Tom A.

The Evening in Pictures

In a rare moment, Stan is seen listening intently while Theresa shakes her head in disbelief. At back, John sets out the name cards for his sauces.

Terry asks Tom J to repeat what he told Stan.
Obviously, it must have been fascinating.

George poses, drink in hand, and wonders 
how many wrapped books he can purloin.

Standing around doing nothing….it’s what I'm best at,
and Terry seems to agree.

Nov 19, 2009

Roy Prepares a Capital Meal

men's book club group discussion review of In Cold Blood Truman Capote

Dinner last night was a superb feast of midwestern fusion. With a nod to In Cold Blood’s western Kansas setting, but with a decided bias towards his own state of Indiana, Roy delivered roast chicken, roast pork, and roast ribs—all Manhattan style. The accompanying sides were tastily updated renditions of 1950’s staples: green beans, spinach, and scalloped potatoes. Out of fidelity to our book, Roy’s selection of beverages naturally included Orange Blossoms (orange pop and vodka)—a road trip favorite of Dick Hickock and Perry Smith. But it was Roy's grappa (distilled using grapes skins and stems from Tom J) and house bourbon that provided the end-of-evening lubricant. Sorry, Paul, but your bottles of Gallo (however clever in the pun department) never made it to the table.

We were missing a few men last night, including our good friend John, whose daughter was undergoing corrective surgery for scoliosis. While he sat at the hospital keeping vigil, we kept one for him (aided by the grappa and bourbon). With Cat’s surgery over and an excellent prognosis ahead, we look forward to having John back in our midst. As for Tom A and Garth, your absences were barely excusable. Next time, when forced to choose between MBC and your children, remember that a high school concert is as easily recorded as attended. And, as for Peter, if you missed our dinner in pursuit of your dream to run a 5-minute mile at age 50, please hang up your spikes and return to the fold at once. A cold, dark high school track is no place for an effete bookman.

The Book
Truman Capote confirmed his reputation as a serious writer with the 1965 publication of In Cold Blood. His so-called “nonfiction novel” about the killings in Holcomb, Kansas mesmerized the nation during its serialization in The New Yorker and divided many on his particular approach to “reportage” (thanks for that reference, Stan). Some objected to his artistic license, and others were offended by his easy familiarity with his subjects. But, for many Americans in 1965, Capote’s gravest offense was to humanize two killers as a rejoinder to (and critique of ) society’s resort to capital punishment. To his critics, the book's title was devoid of its intended irony.

As a group, we were not so divided. Capote’s original take on the Kansas killings was compulsively readable and a fascinating study of time and place. Maybe, as some suggested, we’re too inured to the kind of violence depicted by Capote to be offended by his narrative. Or, like Terry, we’ve read enough true crime (good and bad) to appreciate what a stunning achievement ICB represented in 1965. As for Capote’s politics, his concerns about capital punishment have become today's orthodoxy. Whether we agree with Roy’s fantastically bleak assessment of our penal system, many of us still have stronger misgivings about the execution of criminals than did our parents in 1965.

Capote's novel drew praise from all quarters except Paul, who felt that Capote's account was emotionally flat. Nevertheless, Paul seemed pleased that ICB represented a return to our usual fare of misogynistic, deeply flawed primary characters. During our roundtable rating, it was noted that ICB had the potential to steal top honors from Blindness, our highest rated book to date. So as not to taint the outcome (Bindness was his selection, you may recall), Stan initially abstained from voting only to belatedly insist that his 8 had been ignored. The upshot: ICB tied Blindness during our meeting, but overtook it when I later received Tom A's email giving it a 9. Even counting Stan's 8, Capote's true crime classic eked out an 8.4 and now holds the pole position in the Man Book Club ratings contest.

Next Up
Our next meeting is a joint affair with the women's book group to which some of us are affiliated (by marriage only). Given the choice of reading Truman Capote's enduring novella, Breakfast at Tiffany's, and Bill Bryson's memoir, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, the women ignored one of America's foremost humorists in favor of a book whose brevity and title reference to expensive jewelry seem apt as we enter another holiday season.

Nov 12, 2009

“Once Upon a Time”, in the West

For our first selection of 2010, I’ve picked four lesser-known authors. Each is a “writers’ writer” and a personal “desert island” choice (if I could only own a few books). They’re very different guys but would’ve had a lot to talk about over beers. Two of these writers are known for their humor. Three are mostly bald; one has a suspicious comb-over. Although most write about a wide variety of topics, I’ve picked one book from each that is set in the American West, and one each from the late 1960’s, ‘70’s, ‘80’s and ‘90’s. Two are regional history and travel narratives, while two are genre fiction grounded in specific places and eras.

Great Plains, by Ian Frazier. 320 pages, originally published in 1989. Winner of the Western Writers of America “Spur” award for non-fiction. Frazier himself has won the Thurber Award for American Humor twice, including this year.

Ian Frazier alternates between straight non-fiction and humor pieces, and he may be the one writer on this list that you’ve heard of, since his work appears regularly in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, etc.

His interests range from the last typewriter repair shop in New York ( ) to the near-biblical struggle to raise young children ( ).

Publisher description of the book: “With his unique blend of intrepidity, tongue-in-cheek humor, and wide-eyed wonder, Ian Frazier takes us on a journey of more than 25,000 miles up and down and across the vast and myth-inspiring Great Plains. A travelogue, a work of scholarship, and a western adventure, Great Plains….is an expedition that reveals the heart of the American West.”

Newsweek: “Although [his book] is about America, it is most emphatically not one of those ego-driven travel diaries into the soul of a nation....Frazier is a great storyteller, and he tells stories here about the waves of migration over the Plains, about Indian tribes, about war-makers and moneymakers, about local heroes and national villains. Everywhere, he treats the land and its stories as gifts to be shared, a kind of potluck to which we're all invited."

Seattle Times: “Frazier's account of three summers that he spent on the wide open spaces between the Rockies and 100th meridian is a rhapsodic hymn, a joyful salute to ‘a sheet Americans screened their dreams on for a while and then largely forgot about.’”

Pros: Always fun to read, interesting but not pedantic. Cons: Can be a little digressive.

True Grit, by Charles Portis. 224 pages, originally published in 1968. No awards, unless you count John Wayne’s 1969 Oscar, but, please, ignore that movie when deciding about this book.

Charles Portis has only written five novels in 40 years, but two of them are considered American classics. True Grit, his second, is considered his most accessible.

Publisher’s Summary: “True Grit… tells the story of Mattie Ross, a fourteen-year-old girl from Dardanelle, Arkansas, who sets out in the winter of eighteen seventy-something to avenge the murder of her father,... [convincing] one-eyed "Rooster" Cogburn, the meanest available U.S. Marshall, to tag along with her. As Mattie outdickers and outmaneuvers the hard-bitten types in her path, as her performance under fire makes them eat their words, her indestructible vitality and harsh innocence by turns amuse, horrify, and touch the reader….True Grit is eccentric, cool, straight, and unflinching, like Mattie herself, who tells the story a half-century later in a voice that sounds strong and sure enough to outlast us all.”

Newsday: “True Grit flirts with myth and tall tale, but reading it is like encountering a voice speaking to us directly from America's past. Mattie at times seems less a character than a fact, the fact of what pioneer life was - hardship and sorrow and mortal danger - accepted with no expectation of sympathy…. True Grit is a great American novel waiting to be rediscovered.”

Donna Tartt, in her foreword to the new edition: “[T]here are the books we love so much that we read them every year or two, and know passages of them by heart,…that we press on all our friends and acquaintances ….Most books that engage readers on this very high level are masterpieces; and this is why I believe that True Grit by Charles Portis is a masterpiece.…

I cannot think of… any novel… which is so delightful to so many disparate groups and literary tastes…. Like Huckleberry FinnTrue Grit is a monologue, and the great, abiding pleasure of it that compels the reader to return to it again and again is Mattie's voice. No living Southern writer captures the spoken idioms of the South as artfully as Portis does; but though in all his novels (including those set in the current day) Portis shows his deep understanding of place, True Grit also masters the more complicated subtleties of time.”

The Believer: “[A] western that both satisfies and subverts the genre…. When Roy Blount, Jr., says that Portis ‘could be Cormac McCarthy if he wanted to, but he’d rather be funny,’ he may be both remembering and forgetting True Grit, which for all its high spirits is organized along a blood meridian, fraught with ominous slaughter.”

Pros: Easy to read, short, slyly funny, great history. Cons: Protagonist is a 14-year-old girl – one who could kick your ass.

Bad Land, by Jonathan Raban. 384 pages, originally published in 1996. National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction, a New York Times top 10 best book of the year.

Jonathan Raban is a transplanted Englishman, now living in Seattle, who has written several books about his explorations of various parts of America (piloting small boats the length of the Mississippi and along Alaska’s Inside Passage, living for months at a time in the deep South, etc.). He’s known for both literary criticism and travel narratives. While he often makes you smile, he’s rarely laugh-out-loud funny.

Bad Land is the depressed twin of Great Plains. It focuses on just one place, and it tells a pretty grim story.

Publishers Weekly: “Raban…has written a vivid and utterly idiosyncratic social history of the homesteading movement in eastern Montana that went boom and bust during the first three decades of this century. Lured by free land from the government and a deceptive publicity campaign mounted by the local railroad, thousands from all over the eastern United States and northern Europe went to Montana to make their fortune as farmers. He examines the literature that lured them there and the how-to books they read once they arrived.… This seemingly informal yet careful blend of chronicle and personal reportage is social history at its best.”

New York Times: “Early in this century open land in the West still seemed to cry out…to what Jonathan Raban identifies as ‘the intense, adhesive attraction of self to soil.’ In one of the most illuminating books written about rural America in many years, Mr. Raban…shows us how the towns and farms of eastern Montana were settled - and later unsettled, when reality shattered the dreams…..[H]is imaginative reach recaptures the momentum of the settlers' migration, and their idealism, not only from official records, newspapers and memoirs, but even from schoolbooks of the age….In Bad Land we find an affectionate reasonableness about this bewildering nation that reminds us how much it is always nourished by the hopes of immigrants.”

Kirkus Reviews: “Raban skillfully evokes the landscape's stark immensity...., produc[ing] a startling revision of traditional Western myth: not the hopeful cowboys and farmers so often found in children's school primers, but solitaries, religious zealots, and even sociopaths. In Randy Weaver, Theodore Kaczynski, and Timothy McVeigh, Raban discovers spiritual descendants of the homesteaders in ‘their resentment of government, their notion of property rights, their harping on self-sufficiency, and self-defense, [and] in their sense of enraged Scriptural entitlement.’ A powerful, grim new slant on those who took the way west - and of the terrible consequences when their dreams curdled and died.”

Pros: Raban is a pleasure to read, with insights and great sentences on every page. Cons: This is ultimately a downer of a story, letting some air out of the balloon that is the American dream.

The Last Good Kiss, by James Crumley. 244 pages, originally published in 1978. Independent Mystery Booksellers Association 100 favorite mysteries of the 20th century.

Like Charles Portis, James Crumley went for long stretches without publishing anything, producing only nine books before he died last year. His later books were of uneven quality. But his third, The Last Good Kiss, written in 1978, is considered by many to be the best hardboiled detective novel of the last 40 years, maybe the best ever. If you like mystery fiction and haven’t heard of this one, go read it, whether we pick it or not.

Dennis Lehane, author of Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, etc.: “Some of the most beautiful prose in any language or genre dances across its pages. It's funny. Deeply humane. An homage to both The Long Goodbye and On the Road,…it's an ode to the American road and American West, a love song to drinking, screwing, roadside motels, big old automobiles and dive bars. It's the best novel ever written about the '70s.

‘It’ is The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley and while it may have a peer or two, it has no better. In telling the story of CW Sughrue, a big-hearted, road-worn shamble of a PI, who goes looking for a ten-years-gone runaway named Betty Sue Flowers, Crumley leads us into an entire generation's search for Home, as the hopes of the 60’s have been replaced by the bottomless hangover of the late 70s….

The experience of reading The Last Good Kiss is both exhilarating and increasingly deceptive. It starts out like a road novel and seems to amble quite by accident into classic noir territory …. With each curve in the road, … the book morphs yet again, this time into a smart and resonant meditation on the ways in which men's idealized visions of women thwart any ability to truly see them.”

One of the best first sentences ever: “When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.”

Frances M. Nevins, top mystery reviewer: “[O]n the basis of just three novels, James Crumley has become the foremost living writer of private-eye fiction.… His principal setting is not the big city, as in Hammett and Chandler, nor the affluent suburbs, as in Macdonald, but the wilderness and bleak magnificence of western Montana. His prevailing mood is a wacked out empathy with dopers, dropouts, losers, and loonies….

[He]has minimal interest in plot and even less in explanations, but he’s so uncannily skillful with character, language, relationship, and incident that he can afford to throw structure overboard. His books are an accumulation of small, crazy encounters, full of confusion and muddle, disorder and despair, graphic violence and sweetly casual sex, coke snorting and alcohol guzzling, mountain snowscapes and roadside bars. What one remembers from The Last Good Kiss is the alcoholic bulldog and the emotionally flayed women and the loneliness and guilt.”

Pros: Over-the-top hardboiled storyline, with more twists than you can count. Vivid capturing of road trips, bars, the 1970’s. Cons: Plot can get out of control. Melodramatically messed-up characters. Even more of a downer than Bad Land. If you don’t like the genre, you’ll hate the book.

Nov 9, 2009

In Vino Veritas: Tom Wins Our Judgment

In Taber’s account of the 1976 California v. France wine tasting, the assembled French critics approached the task of comparing French and California vintages with typical Gallic hubris. And they came away chastened by the scores they awarded to the Chardonnays and Cabernets from California. We, on the other hand, were never in danger of losing. At Tom J’s elaborately arranged dinner and tasting on October 21, it was provincialism at its best: all California wines, all night long. (Some of us were willing to make an exception for an especially fine Australian Shiraz, but after extracting it from its display case Peter would only let us fondle his bottle of Penfolds 1999 Grange.)

As a prelude to his fantastic meal of grilled stuffed game hens (to say nothing of the accompanying pasta and salad), Tom set up a blind tasting of three winning Chardonnays from this year’s Sonoma Harvest Fair. With each bottle reflecting a different market tier (approximately $10 v. $20 v. $40), the test was whether price really does matter. It didn’t. We voted in favor of Taft Street Winery’s 2006 production. And the 2007 Sebastiani, at the low end, fared almost as well.

Our two guests for the evening played excellent supporting roles: Charlie ably backed up Tom in the kitchen (a critical function given the rising impairment levels in the group), while Dennis supplemented Tom’s wine tasting with several outstanding bottles from Lewis Cellars, where he and his family have developed a fine reputation among midsize vintners in the Napa Valley. In addition to serving a Chardonnay and several excellent Cabs, Dennis answered our many questions about the business of winemaking. Thanks to both of these gents for spending the evening with us. And thanks, too, to John for making an exquisite flourless chocolate torte to put an exclamation point on Tom’s meal.

As if we didn’t have enough wine to sample, Tom challenged us to pair up and bring an especially good bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon. I can’t recall all of the labels, but the highs and lows stand out. Doug’s bottle of Chimney Rock (thanks for letting me pair with you, Doug!) was universally lauded as exquisite, and Dean/Dan/Tom’s garage wine (with fermentation help from Roy) reminded us why these guys haven’t quit their day jobs.

The Book
For the uninitiated, the early part of Taber’s book about the 1976 Paris wine tasting gave us a badly-needed history of winemaking in the Napa Valley as well as a primer on the rarefied traditions still extant in France. How many of us knew that the classifications (e.g., grand crus, premier crus) given to French wineries in 1855 remain virtually unchanged today? Taber also provides a lengthy history of the two California wineries that took top honors in 1976. Both, we learned, were led by immigrant visionaries in a valley that had been making wine for almost a hundred years, but good wine since only the 1960’s.

Although Taber’s tedious summaries of the harvest and crush process could have used some pruning (indeed, Tom A felt that the entire book could have been condensed to article length), he eventually lets us in on the real surprise of the story. Both Chateau Montelena and Stag’s Leap were upstarts, with newly-recruited talent (Mike Grgich) or self-taught winemakers (Warren Winiarski) and little commercial success before the Paris tasting put them on the map. After his description of the climactic tasting at the Paris Inter-Continental Hotel, Taber commences a survey of the development of winemaking in other parts of the world. It was at this point that many of us stopped reading and started complaining.

In retrospect, we should have done as Charlie and Dan did and watched Bottle Shock, a loose adaptation of the book, replete with sexual undertones notably absent from Taber’s account. Or we could have read The Billionaire’s Vinegar, which Doug applauded and which Tom J originally recommended. Since we did neither, we prided ourselves on our expanded knowledge of local oenology, and we breathed a sigh of relief that the author was in Palo Alto and unavailable to join us (thanks for trying to get him, Dan).

Next Up
In search of a new genre, Roy assembled a list of classic true crime dramas: Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, and Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter. Mailer and Bugliosi were both too long (clever move, Roy), so we chose Capote’s carefully observed account of a murder in rural Kansas and its wider impact on America in 1959.

Sep 11, 2009

His Name Was Dan (But Mine Is Not Andrew)

What’s First Is Prologue

“A man’s home is his castle, but a man’s garage is his sanctuary”. So proclaims the plaque proudly displayed in Dan’s serene garage retreat. But for our September session, his home was transformed into a literary salon, serving the finest in insight-inducing cuisine. There was something about those mushrooms….

First, wild mushroom crostini (and thin-sliced salami and cheeses), beers, and wines to get both our conversation and salivary glands going. Pre-dinner talk touched on many topics, including a detailed discussion of the many ways that high school sports can cause leg injuries (IT ligaments, knee screws, you name it), various and sundry ways to intimidate your dog into respecting you (ask not how President Obama might make an example of Joe Biden in front of his puppy Bo, ask what you can do to your puppy), and how Garth’s golf cart mysteriously mowed down John, like something straight out of Stephen King’s Christine. I am glad to report that all athletes, pets, pet owners, and tractor babysitters are expected to make full recoveries, much as did our book’s hero, William Shakespeare, after his brief turn on the rack.

Dan nobly sacrificed part of his Labor Day to labor over the preparation of succulent haunches of venison (coincidentally, each was approximately the size of his lovable dogs, Buzz and Tink), imported from a gourmet meat purveyor somewhere to the east, which he then marinated and rounded off with a truly delicious sauce - a combination of Madeira wine and ….. more mushrooms. Fungh-tastic! Not to be overlooked were terrific rosemary garlic mashed potatoes and a bountiful tossed salad.

As always, several gentlemen contributed memorable beverages:
  • Armando - Tequila Chamuco (his “current favorite”, but you know, there are just so many to get through)
  • Paul - Bunratty Meade (somehow we managed to connect this with pouring pots of boiling oil on people, but you’ll just have to trust me on this one)
  • John - Stone IPA
  • Roy - his brandy-of-the-week (or the day?)
And so we dined.
The Text’s the Thing
Our book this month was Jess Winfield’s My Name is Will, a two-pronged narrative that follows both William Shakespeare and Willie Greenberg, his crisis-ridden 1980’s graduate student doppelganger. Although most of us agreed with Dan that the book was great fun and presented both historical periods well (yes, gentlemen, we’re old enough that our college and post-college years are “history”), many of us also agreed with Doug that the two stories, despite coalescing during what seemed to be a shared hallucination, didn’t really come together, and with George that the “coming of age” moments for both characters sprang up a bit too abruptly as the book hurtled towards its anticlimactic end (ironically, since most of the book was downright chock-full of climaxes). And yes, for those keeping score at home, Paul once again played the “misogynistic, angst-ridden, male protagonist” card.
But for most of the group, the book’s high point was its poignant evocation of places and times from their lost youth - in Berkeley, in Santa Cruz, and even in Fresno (“When you live in Fresno, if you get a chance to go to the coast, you go!”). Because so much of the book took place in the Bay area, many of us could recall personal episodes at specific places it describes. Armando vividly remembered dropping his then-girlfriend / now-wife in the mud at the Renaissance Faire and confirmed that psilocybin mushrooms do indeed grow in manure, sometimes even in national seashore visitor center parking lots. Larry wistfully recalled riding the Davis-to-Berkeley library jitney (while Tom J. and Paul had to settle for wistfully recalling the jitney scene in the book). Paul waxed nostalgic about the Hate Guy and the Piano Guy in Sproul Plaza. John, just to be different, tenderly reminisced about his Mac Se and the Dark Castle computer game (described in the book as “a little warrior man with a pageboy haircut, throwing rocks at bats”).
John and Roy also took us back to chemistry and undergraduate – graduate student relations in the 80’s. (Insert your own details here.)
Dean read the book on a beach near the Navarro River, and just as he got to the scene with Kate and Dashka, who should walk up but a woman who introduced herself as “Pashka”? Thinking fast, Dean passed the book, strategically opened to said scene, to his wife. Subsequent developments were not conveyed to the group.
Which bring us, at last, to Stan, who used the book as a device to expound on the following themes, in ascending order of digressiveness:
  1. the Shakespeare “authorship” question,
  2. “history is bunk”, and we really don’t know anything about the past, and
  3. the 80’s and the years that have followed ought to be compared not to the Renaissance, but rather to Rome in its decline, and oh, by the way, we are now living during the Apocalypse.
In the words of the immortal Shaggy, “Zoinks!”. Having seen Marin Shakespeare’s production of Julius Caesar the prior weekend, Larry leapt to the defense of the written word: “The play’s [or in this case, the book] the thing.” Paul found the sections of the book that dealt with power, politics, and religion especially interesting, and appreciated the historical background, clearly believing it to be unbunklike. Plus he ranked the secret Catholic mass scene right up there with the hot library jitney episode.
Talking about where we’ve been and who we were eventually turned our thoughts to who we are now, and, in our own version of parallel storylines, the experiences our kids are and will be going through. Despite the book’s mostly non-serious tone, we ended the night with a pretty serious discussion about how kids experiment and find their way in the world, our place in their journey, and what we should or shouldn’t tell them.

“Good Company, Good Wine, Good Welcome, Can Make Good People”(Henry VIII, Act I, scene iv)
Or not.

For next month, a large majority of the group chose Judgment of Paris, the book on which the movie “Bottle Shock” was based. Even now, plans are being hatched to fetch the finest bottles from our respective wine cellars, bring in prestigious guest speakers, and generally engage in some pretty over-the-top wine behavior. Stay tuned.

Aug 31, 2009

Proposed Titles for October

Below are my three book selections for our October meeting. All books center on a “Wine” theme! I am hoping you will like my book theme idea because I plan to entertain you with good food and great wines. And, like always, everyone will provide the wonderful social and interesting book discussions.

Although the three books do not clearly meet our book selection criteria, I request your “relaxation” of the criteria. All are paperback and appear to be easy reads from the reviews I’ve read.

See you at Dan’s on September 8th and we can discuss. Thanks.

Tom J.

The Billionaire’s Vinegar: The Mystery of the World’s Most Expensive Bottle of Wine” by Ben Wallace. (323 pages) A New York Times Bestseller.

“Part detective story, part wine history, this is one juicy tale, even for those with no interest in the fruit of the vine. . . . As delicious as a true vintage Lafite.” —BusinessWeek
The Billionaire’s Vinegar tells the true story of a 1787 Château Lafite Bordeaux—supposedly owned by Thomas Jefferson—that sold for $156,000 at auction and of the eccentrics whose lives intersected with it. Was it truly entombed in a Paris cellar for two hundred years? Or did it come from a secret Nazi bunker? Or from the moldy basement of a devilishly brilliant con artist? As Benjamin Wallace unravels the mystery, we meet a gallery of intriguing players—from the bicycle-riding British auctioneer who speaks of wines as if they are women to the obsessive wine collector who discovered the bottle. Suspenseful and thrillingly strange, this is the vintage tale of what could be the most elaborate con since the Hitler diaries. Updated for paperback with a new epilogue.

The House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty” by Julia Flynn Siler. (464 pages) A New York Times Bestseller.

Set in California's lush Napa Valley and spanning four generations of a talented and visionary family, The House of Mondavi is a tale of genius, sibling rivalry, and betrayal. From 1906, when Italian immigrant Cesare Mondavi passed through Ellis Island, to the Robert Mondavi Corporation's twenty-first-century battle over a billion-dollar fortune, award-winning journalist Julia Flynn Siler brings to life both the place and the people in this riveting family drama. - Barnes & Noble

Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting That Revolutionized Wine” by George M. Taber. (352 pages)

The Paris Tasting of 1976 will forever be remembered as the landmark event that transformed the wine industry. At this legendary contest -- a blind tasting -- a panel of top French wine experts shocked the industry by choosing unknown California wines over France's best. George M. Taber, the only reporter present, recounts this seminal contest and its far-reaching effects, focusing on three gifted unknowns behind the winning wines: a college lecturer, a real estate lawyer, and a Yugoslavian immigrant. With unique access to the main players and a contagious passion for his subject, Taber renders this historic event and its tremendous aftershocks -- repositioning the industry and sparking a golden age for viticulture across the globe. With an eclectic cast of characters and magnificent settings, Judgment of Paris is an illuminating tale and a story of the entrepreneurial spirit of the new world conquering the old. - Barnes & Noble

Aug 24, 2009

He Can Carry Our Water Anytime....

Today's story in the Marin I.J. ( about the 7 candidates for the board of the Marin Municipal Water District mentions the involvement of one of our own. Too bad the article highlighted so few of Armando's many qualifications for serving in this important role. As a former Recreation and Parks Commissioner in San Rafael, a school district volunteer and activist, the chair of the Sequoia Parks Foundation, and in his prior life a National Parks Service Ranger in Pt. Reyes, Armando is ideal for the job. You have our support, Armando!

Aug 13, 2009

Another Pulitzer Evening at Larry's

First, my apologies for this tardy summary. Larry’s fine hospitality on July 28 deserves better than this late—and abbreviated—post about an otherwise delightful evening. But, with summer hard at hand, my attention has been elsewhere.

The first time Larry hosted MBC, it was on a winter evening and we drank corn liquor, ate a hearty stew, and talked about the Battle of Gettysburg. This occasion could not have been more different. Seated outside and overlooking Peacock’s 12th fairway, we were served a delicious paella followed by Larry’s homemade burnt sugar ice cream (thank you for the recipe, Larry!). While Larry’s menu tacitly acknowledged the colonial history of the Dominican Republic, Paul’s beer selection was less subtle. The Oskar Blues label reminded us that Oscar’s trajectory was more tragedy than triumph.

Our numbers were thinner than usual, but Jack’s return more than made up for it. It was also a pleasure to have our friend and neighbor, Tony, join us as a guest. However, with his Oscar Award in one hand and his passel of advanced degrees in the other, he was almost as intimidating as our resident rocket scientist, Glenn (whose absence for back surgery was duly noted and mourned).

The Book
Since this post is meant to be short, I’ll cut to the chase. Diaz’ novel about a multi-generational immigrant family living in New Jersey but forever rooted in the Dominican Republic was profoundly polarizing. Stan sung its praises and gave it a 10; Dan flinched and graded it a 3. We would have ignored Dan’s complaints (as he didn't finish the book), but they were largely mirrored by George, our Thoughtful Republican, whose vote was a 4. Even with Doug, Larry, and John celebrating the book’s virtues, we couldn’t develop a consensus rating above 7.1.

Whether it was the language (tough for the monolinguists), the cultural and political asides (the footnotes were clever, if distracting), the author’s in-jokes (enough geek content to last a lifetime), or simply the herky-jerky narrative quality (confusing POV shifts), the book was a hard read for some. And yet the book was both a fascinating cultural statement (who knew the DR was so interesting?) and a suspenseful narrative (even if Oscar's finale was like a beautiful slow-motion trainwreck). Paul sidestepped all of this and repeated the common observations he made about the last several books we’ve read. To his thinking, we can’t seem to avoid deeply flawed misogynists!

Next Up
We were given and agreed to read Ollestad’s Crazy for the Storm during August. We’re also set to discuss Jess Winfield’s My Name is Will when we meet next at Dan’s on September 8. Let’s see if George’s prognostication comes true and Blindness is finally dislodged from the top of our rankings.

Jul 14, 2009

Our Alumnus Makes Good (Press)

The following linked article explains why Jack is now only an honorary member of the Man Book Club. Judging from his profile, he's far too busy redeveloping Hunter's Point to idle his time away reading and eating with us. Jack, how about a cameo visit!?

Jun 30, 2009

Stoned in September

For our next meeting on September 8, I have 3 drug induced literary masterpieces. I understand that we will also be reading Crazy for the Storm (288 pages). I just don’t want to give anyone the impression that I have surrendered my selections. Bottom line, we will be reading 2 books within a 6 weeks span (600+ pages).

I will not take credit for the following overviews I am in the middle of a heater and it just won’t mellow out.

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolf, 414 pages

In the 1960s, Ken Kesey lead a group of psychedelic sympathizers (the Merry Pranksters) around the country in a painted bus, presiding over LSD-induced "acid tests" all along the way. Long considered one of the greatest books about the history of the hippies, Wolfe's ability to research like a reporter and simultaneously evoke the hallucinogenic indulgence of the era ensures that this book, written in 1967, will live long in the counter-culture canon of American literature.

Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone (National Book Award) 352 pages
Stone was also a member of the Merry Pranksters.

In Saigon during the waning days of the Vietnam War, a small-time journalist named John Converse thinks he'll find action - and profit - by getting involved in a big-time drug deal. But back in the States, things go horribly wrong for him. Dog Soldiers perfectly captures the underground mood of America in the 1970s, when amateur drug dealers and hippies encountered profiteering cops and professional killers - and the price of survival was dangerously high.

My Name is Will: A Novel of Sex, Drugs & Shakespeare , 320pages
by Jess Winfield, award winning cartoon producer
(could have been a Merry Prankster)

Winfield, cofounder of the comedy troupe Reduced Shakespeare Company, brings an intimate knowledge of the Bard as well as an infectious sense of humor to this witty first novel. In a dual narrative, we follow both Willie Shakespeare Greenberg, a perpetually stoned graduate student, and the young playwright himself as he tentatively feels his way toward his destiny. Having spent the past two years struggling to come up with a master’s thesis in his Shakespeare studies, Willie finds himself desperately short of cash when his father cuts off his funding. He impulsively agrees to deliver drugs, including a gigantic psychedelic mushroom, to a buyer at the Renaissance Faire, traveling to the site with his latest infatuation, a sexy fellow grad student. Meanwhile, 18-year-old William, fond of wordplay and even fonder of women, agrees to deliver a package to an oppressed Catholic firebrand. Each story mirrors the other as the two young men gradually grow wiser about both the ways of the world and their own emotional shortcomings. Bawdy puns, a clever construction, and a deliciously irreverent sense of humor make this debut novel irresistible. --Joanne Wilkinson

Jun 29, 2009

Paul's Parisian Pique

Paul emailed me his thoughts on Tropic of Cancer from Paris. Usually, I bring absentee comments to our meetings (to better ridicule the absent member, Paul) but this time I forgot. So here's Paul, speaking with not a little authority from a cafe in Paris:
I've now been through four books with MBC. Let's once again analyze the common threads:

Male main character? Check.

Main character is unsavory and broadly immoral? Check.

Main character is angst-ridden and given to self-destructive behavior? Check.

Implicit or explicit sex involved? Check.

Women are treated as inferior beings who are abused, abandoned, and/or killed? Check. (OK, I can hear Stan now saying "It's a MAN book club.")

Hmm. In four months, we've gone from testicles to...more testicles. Hence, if Garth regales you all with organic Rocky Mountain oysters, or with a French tart, it will all make sense.

I will now honor the great Hemingway by doing a tour of famous Parisian cafes and determining which espresso is manly enough.

Paul, your points are well-taken. However, to paraphrase Freud, sometimes a French tart is just a dessert....

Enjoy the rest of your trip!

Jun 24, 2009

La gastronomie de Garth

After last night’s extraordinary dinner, I’m at a loss for words. I now understand Henry Miller’s lament that writing is such an inadequate form of expression. Garth, with much assistance from John, served an exquisite eight-course meal that will forever be our platinum standard. Opening with a delightful chilled vichyssoise, breaking midway with a rosemary lime sorbet (John’s own concoction), and ending with a cheese, fruit and double port pairing, Garth kept us happily eating and talking until after midnight.

I could extend these acknowledgments by describing the perfect California setting (poolside, with Noritake on white linens and enough stemware to accommodate 4 successive tastings and pairings), or by reliving the coquilles Saint-Jacques and coquilles d’escargots (both sautéed to perfection), or by praising Garth’s selection of a 1995 Rutherford Hills chardonnay (aged in French limousine oak) to pair with the scallops, or even by fantasizing about the soft Humboldt Fog goat cheese striped with a thin line of ash (derived from the classic French Morbier) and served with a wedge of Anjou pear. But I’ll desist. Garth and John were toasted repeatedly last night. That’s enough. For now. Even if I can’t stop thinking about their meal….

The Book
Tropic of Cancer was a challenge from the outset. Most of us were curious about Henry Miller (whom none had read), but few expected to finish his controversial 1934 novel. Surprise! Six men made it to the end and most everyone else sampled enough of Miller to sustain our 8-course discussion. But during the occasional lull, we were entertained by asides from Tom J, who inadvertently bought and read (to p. 80 before realizing his mistake) Tropic of Capricorn, and who also read (and clearly enjoyed) Anais Nin’s Delta of Venus.

So, why were we initially pessimistic? Because, from the first page, Miller refuses to make it easy for his reader. The writing in Tropic of Cancer ranges from stream of consciousness, to coarse travelogue, to the caustic observations of a degenerate expatriate. Throughout this fictionalized account of his years in Paris during the Depression, Miller assaults the reader with prostitution, gonorrhea, syphilis, depression, poverty, racism, sexism, xenophobia, profanity, and hunger. And yet, despite the crude language and degrading behavior of all of the characters, there’s undeniable passion and energy and honesty in this novel. As Tom A, Glenn, Dean and others acknowledged, the story has peaks and valleys but the brilliant peaks compel the reader to keep reading.

Garth saw in Tropic of Cancer parallels to the Taoist philosophy of flow and balance with nature. And, indeed, Miller uses the metaphor of flow to describe nature. But his metaphor descends into snide references to urinating and bouts of the clap. He ends his commentary with the depressing realization that the flow of writing is “constipated by words and paralyzed by thought.” In between his rants about the state of art and society, Miller’s narrator lives almost entirely in the moment and in pursuit of gratification. According to Armando, if nothing else, Miller’s provocative tone and his cast of hedonists helped spawn a generation of Beat writers and poets.

Despite Larry’s ambivalence (expressed in his observation that Miller’s novel was much like Seinfeld, only without the humor), those of us who read the novel liked it enough to give it a 7.1 rating. I wonder whether it was Miller or the meal that inspired such a positive critique. (And, about that meal, did I mention John's delectable French tarts, whose taste and whose name tickled our fancy? How about Garth's pairing of a Frog's Leap varietal with his frog's legs? Excellent choice, but hardly subtle. Rather like his deft placement of the escargots between the frogs' legs. )
Next Up
Our voting split evenly between Larson’s Devil in the White City and Diaz’ The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Since Larry is hosting, we acceded to his preference for Junot Diaz' 2007 Pulitzer winner. As he has to follow Garth's bravura performance, it was the least we could do.

We also agreed to read Ollestad’s Crazy for the Storm during our bye month of August. Since the publisher (via Carol Fitzgerald and friends at The Book Report Network) has generously offered to send us copies to sample, we’ll come back in September with our thoughts and insights on Ollestad’s touching tribute to his larger-than-life father.

Jun 16, 2009

July U-Pic-M

For July we veer back to our roots: male authors, award winners (a couple anyway) -- you get the picture. The four NO FIVE candidates for your consideration are (in no particular order):

1. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz; 335 pp; Award -- Pulitzer Prize (nuff said).

NY Times Review -- Junot Díaz’s “Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” is a wondrous, not-so-brief first novel that is so original it can only be described as Mario Vargas Llosa meets “Star Trek” meets David Foster Wallace meets Kanye West.

Larry's Review -- Gabriel García Márquez meets Neal (Snowcrash) Stephenson in which it is helpful to be "hip" Dominican (as in the Republic not the local university) and have a grasp of Spanish slang. Its a great book for all you Trujillo-philes out there and a great primer for any aspiring dictators / supreme leader wannabe types (Andrew take note). While I have no idea who Mario Vargas Llosa or David Foster Wallace are and only a rudimentary recognition of Kanye West (rap?), I can tell you that I was able to recognize a brief offhand mention of Juan (high kick) Marichel.

Pros: Its a fast read if you don't stop for the footnotes. And how many times to you get to a book that uses the phrase "pity f--k". The ending is one of the best I've read.

Cons: THE Woman's Book Club just read it last month. It helps to have the Google Spanish translator available. Without getting the Spanish slang or English slang for that matter, you (I) feel left behind at some points.

2. Q and A by Vikas Swarup; 309 pp; Award -- Indirectly as the movie version (Slum Dog Millionaire) won the Oscar for Best Movie

NY Times Review (in 2005) -- When Ram Mohammad Thomas answers 12 questions correctly to win the grand prize on a TV show called ''Who Will Win a Billion?'' (rupees, that is), he is promptly arrested at the behest of the show's producers, who believe the rupeeless waiter must have cheated. ''The brain is not an organ we are authorized to use,'' as Ram says. In jail, he tells his lawyer stories that explain how he learned each fact. . . . The connections between Ram's tales and the quiz-show questions are clever, but Swarup's prose is flat. Still, Swarup, an Indian diplomat and first-time novelist, writes humorously and keeps the surprises coming. When it is turned into the movie it wants to be, ''Q & A'' will be a delight. (Boy was a nice bit of prognostication).

Larry's Review -- The India you won't read about in the Travelogues (except for the Taj Mahal) where Tiny Tim and Huck Finn meet Ghandi.

Pros: Nice story device (the game show context) to string together the protagonist's adventures.

Cons: It ends up being a series of short stories with cutesy twists but not much literary style.

3. Devil in the White City by Erik Larson 432 pps. Award National Book Award Finalist

NY Times Review -- "A Real Life Bates Motel" (The title of the review sez it all)

Larry's Review -- A fascinating read. Freddie Kruger and Jack the Ripper meet Fredrick Olmsted and Daniel Burnham.

Pros: Learn a little Worlds Fair history at the turn of the century (20th) and get a little gore thrown in. Impressive amount of historical research went into this book.

Cons: Its a long 432 pages. It helps to know the layout of Chicago. Book isn't sure if it wants to be a historical rendering or a murder novel.

4. Wolf Totem -- By Jiang Rong, Translated by Howard Goldblatt 527 pp. Award: Recipient of the first Man Asian Literary Prize, November 2007

NY Times Review -- Set during the Cultural Revolution, “Wolf Totem” describes the education of an intellectual from China’s majority Han community living with nomadic herders in the grasslands of Inner Mongolia. Not much was known about the pseudonymous author on the book’s first publication in 2004; only last year was Jiang Rong revealed as Lu Jiamin, a recently retired professor at one of Beijing’s most prestigious academic institutions. It is also now clear that he was one of the former Red Guards who, following Mao’s advice that urban intellectuals re-educate themselves in the countryside, traveled to Inner Mongolia in the late 1960s.

Larry's Review -- One of my favorite reads over the last year. Jack London meets Al Gore meets Charles Darwin meets Genghis Khan at (Cormac McCarthy's) The Crossing.

Pros: Fascinating read on many levels -- as an autobiographical novel, historical fiction, political manifesto, or ecological tome. It has applicability to the history of the American West as well.

Cons: That said the book is long, repetitive, and some of the impact is lost I'm sure in the translation.

5. Crazy for the Storm -- A Memoir of Survival by Norman Ollestad, 272 pp. Award - Starbucks choice (not sure that sez more about the book or the tastes of caffeinated junkies).

NY Times Review -- “Crazy for the Storm” is a Starbucks choice, a decision that makes sense, given the short, punchy chapters and the nonstop emphasis on adrenaline-fueled excitement. This book also arrives in time for Father’s Day, so that families less adventurous than the Ollestads can marvel at the image of a father in the Pacific surf with his baby son strapped to his back. If there were a time capsule celebrating free-range hippie child-rearing styles, “Crazy for the Storm” would fit right in.

Larry's Review -- Not being a coffee drinker (and not wanting to start after seeing the condition of my wife before that first cup in the morning), I can't vouch for the Starbucks choice. In my uncaffinated state, however, the book so far (half way through) does a nice job of capturing the essence of that father-(tweener) son relationship. Leave it Beaver meets the boy and father from The Road and find that they are in Marin County in 2009.

Pros: Learn a lot of narly surf lingo and how to run a summer camp for college songleaders in the morning and still keep your day job as US Attorney under Bobby Kennedy.

Cons: Vans shoes are mentioned way too often dudes. He either had an incredible memory for a 10 year old or he filled in a few spots with a bit of artistic license.

Jun 14, 2009

End of Year Plaudits and Next Week’s Feast

As we call an end to another school year, I just have to indulge in a shameless display of paternal pride. My oldest daughter, Lucy, was just recognized by the Marin I.J. as its female track and field athlete of the year. Although it was Lucy’s mother who was the competitive runner, I will happily take credit for her success. Join me as I re-read all about it at:

Everyone’s invited to share their press clippings, but until you do here are a few, more casual acknowledgments: Roy’s son, David, continues his unbeaten ways in the Marin Swim League in the 13-14 50 Fly and 50 Free; Tom A’s daughter, Simone, was given the top musical award at the DMS spring concert by Dana Trillo, who commented that her recent performance at Great America “brought tears to my eyes”; and John’s daughter, Ali, moves into the summer club season as the best rising sophomore water polo player in Marin (and beyond).

Next week, Garth will host our dinner. Given the variety of meals (both real and fantasized) described in Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, he has much to choose from. George has already put in a request for champagne and caviar (featured about 80 pages from the end, Garth). Let’s see if Garth—just back from a conference in the Greek Islands—can use food to soothe whatever discord his book selection might have generated….

May 23, 2009

Chris' Last Meal

AcknowledgmentsChris did an exemplary job hosting Man Book Club on Tuesday. He asked what we would enjoy as a final meal before being locked up. The universal response: more of the same! (Ok, not from Garth The Vegan.) Chris didn't disappoint. His now-legendary filet mignons were grilled to perfection, and the evening's record turnout reflected their popularity. With 17 guys vying for space at the table, we were seated just in time to toast our kind host. Even our latecomers (Larry caught an early flight to make this dinner!) were graciously attended to by a true Bohemian.

In keeping with the last few meetings, we were presented with a heavily-themed selection of wine and beer, including several bottles of red from the BigHouse Wine Co. (Paul and Dan), an amber ale from Humboldt Brewing with the none-too-subtle Hemp label (Glenn), Rogue Brewery’s Dead Guy Ale and Redhook’s Slim Chance (Tom A.), and—winner of the evening’s grand prize for most fanciful label—Lagunitas’ Undercover Investigation Shut-Down Ale (Garth). Lest we sacrifice quality for cleverness, perhaps we need to “shut down” our label competition (or at least consult Beer Advocate before buying more exotica).

Before turning to our book, we forced our newest member, Judd, to offer up his bona fides. Apart from certain parallels to the life of John McCain (which parallels, he hastened to add, may be biographical but are most certainly not political), we were intrigued to learn that Judd’s family has an interest in a California champagnerie. Judd, we’ll meet in your cellar anytime.

Finally, we toasted George’s return from Pebble Beach, where we hear he honeymooned extravagantly with his golfing wife. Happy nuptials, George!

The BookHow shall I put this without offending our host? How about: The 25th Hour was a pleasant escape into genre fiction? None of us argued that Benioff’s story wasn’t compelling. The hero, Monty Brogan, spends his last night of freedom with two prep school pals, and together they ruminate on (and react to) his obligation to report to federal prison the next morning to start a 7-year sentence for drug dealing.

As a group, we were frustrated that Benioff’s novel delivered so little on its promise (hence, the 5.8 rating). With richer characters and a fleshier story, we might have been satisfied. But no one felt that Benioff’s tight narrative could match the impact of, say, Cormac McCarthy, whose simple lines resonate forever. So instead we were left wondering how much of Monty’s last night of freedom was truly significant to the shallow arc of this spare, first novel. He cleans up some loose ends (his betrayer, Kostya; his dog, Doyle), he says his farewells (to his father, his lover, and his friends), and in the book’s climactic scene he prepares himself physically to face (!) a 7-year stretch.

Despite these carefully plotted moments, Monty’s fantasy en route to Otisville (which divided us for other reasons) is an apt metaphor for his regret and ours, too. While he dreams of the life he could have had, the reader dreams about what this novel might have been. Benioff had within his reach the perfect parable for our time. He leaves us instead with the haunting premise of the book’s final line ("This life came so close to never happening") and a yearning for so much more.
Next Up
Paul noted (complained, actually) that our last three novels have featured badly flawed protagonists with way too much male angst. Perhaps in reaction to this trend, Garth proposed four of the most inflammatory titles to date. Despite his withdrawing Isabel Allende’s “memoir of the senses” (but only after being censured for his flagrant breach of the MBC cardinal rule), Garth’s fem-biased erotica selections already had us flummoxed. Nevertheless, a clear majority rejected Nin and Trevanian and voted for Henry Miller's magnum opus, Tropic of Cancer. Maybe this once-controversial title will interest us as much as it did the 9 justices of the U.S. Supreme Court, who ruled that the book was a work of literary merit (and not obscenity).

May 18, 2009

Garth's Picks for June

Passion exists on many planes, so here are four classic selections which deftly engage the reader's senses in wonderfully exotic settings. Opportunities for great meals exist with each, though some dishes would probably be best eaten at home...

Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller (318 pages)
"No punches are pulled in Henry Miller's most famous work. Still pretty rough going for even our jaded sensibilities, but Tropic of Cancer is an unforgettable novel of self-confession. Maybe the most honest book ever written, this autobiographical fiction about Miller's life as an expatriate American in Paris was deemed obscene and banned from publication in this country for years. When you read this, you see immediately how much modern writers owe Miller."

Delta of Venus, Anais Nin (320 pages)
"In Delta of Venus Anaïs Nin penned a lush, magical world where the characters of her imagination possess the most universal of desires and exceptional of talents. Among these provocative stories, a Hungarian adventurer seduces wealthy women then vanishes with their money; a veiled woman selects strangers from a chic restaurant for private trysts; and a Parisian hatmaker named Mathilde leaves her husband for the opium dens of Peru. Delta of Venus is an extraordinarily rich and exotic collection from the master of erotic writing."

Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses, Isabelle Allende (320 pages)
"Sex and food, once celebrated as two of life's great joys, suffer a lot of bad press these days. Genuine epidemics, coupled with monthly findings of new things that are bad for us, have pushed otherwise happy souls into programs of agonizing denial and, in severe instances, abstinence. Thankfully, in this sophisticated defense of pleasure, novelist Allende (The House of the Spirits) puts the joy back into eating and loving with all the panache that marks the best of her fiction. Though passionate about her subject, she remains consistently whimsical with this mix of anecdotes, recipes and advice designed to enhance any romantic encounter. As always, her secret weapon is honesty: "Some [aphrodisiacs] have a scientific basis, but most are activated by the imagination." Allende's vivacity and wit are in full bloom as she makes her pronouncements: "There are few virtues a man can possess more erotic than culinary skill"; "When you make an omelet, as when you make love, affection counts for more than technique." Her book is filled with succinct wisdom and big laughs. Despite sections titled "The Orgy" and "Supreme Stimulus for Lechery," Allende comes down emphatically for romance over sex and for ritual over flavor in a work that succeeds in being what it intends to be: fun from the first nibble to the last."

Shibumi, Trevanian (496 pages)
"When this novel was first published in 1979, the leading critics had a difficult time classifying the work. It wasn't exactly an espionage thriller or an epic, but it seemed to touch upon many genres and themes. Shibumi is a fictional biography more than anything else, for its central character, Nicholai Hel, is the tale's main concern. A minor character in the story sums up the protagonist superbly at the end of the book by calling him half saintly ascetic, half Vandal marauder - a medieval anti-hero. Nicholai Hel is your vintage 'man-against-the establishment' with a mind like a steel trap and the tastes and lifestyle of an 18th century aristocrat. His pedigree is a throw back to the German/Russian elite, where generations of breeding and culture have contributed to his unusual character. Nicholai is a man without a country, a natural mystic, philosopher, linguist, master of Go, a complex Japanese board game of high strategy, and most importantly, a self trained assassin for hire who is expert in the arts of naked/kill. More than this, he is a seeker of spiritual perfection, his ultimate goal being that hard to define state or condition known as Shibumi."


May 4, 2009

Peter No Lie

Our host teased us with his early menu suggestions of kangaroo meat and his later references to Indo-Chinese fusion. Despite the misdirection, Peter pleased us last Tuesday with vodka on ice and a delicious sampling of chicken breasts, baked salmon, assorted sides, and brown rice (anathema to Asians but perfect for Marin County’s whole grain ethos). With his daughter’s brownies and Roy’s after-dinner spirits, we were more than satisfied as we settled in to our book discussion.

Our dinner was notable for the presence of two new MBC members, Tom A. and Paul, who impressed us with their thematic enterprise. Paul showed up wearing a vintage bulletproof vest, replete with camo coloring and an attached grenade. Tom arrived in mufti but with a bottle of Fly Catcher pinot noir and a six-pack of Ruination IPA, names that evoked characters in O’Brien’s post-Vietnam narrative.

As we introduced ourselves to our new members, it became obvious that mutual respect and civility have no place at our table. Tom and Paul, you gave as good as you got, and we only hope you come back for more.

The Book
O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods is a documentary novel about a Vietnam vet’s political disgrace, his wife’s subsequent disappearance, and his conflicted and confused role in both events. O’Brien asks more questions than he answers, and we obligingly struggled to figure out many of the same issues that perplex the characters in the novel.

None of us pretended to solve the Big Questions, but we were intrigued by the little ones. Peter asked if the protagonist’s flaws were the product of his childhood or of Vietnam. Paul queried the lack of emotional attachment in and between the characters and wondered if the reader was intentionally left with a similar disaffection. Tom A. and John were both taken by the geography of the novel, the vastness of the lake region, and the title’s inference that the answers are to be found in, not at, the lake. Garth and Stan dueled over the dishonesty propagated by all wars (or just some wars), while acknowledging (with Tom J.) that having friends and acquaintances drafted to serve in but not return from Vietnam makes for painful memories.

The story’s narration was a challenge, given the shifting first person, but when it came to the evidentiary chapters and their footnoting, we were all left guessing. Dean proposed that the narrator in the footnotes was Wade himself, returned from the dead and chronicling his own disappearance as the consummate act of magic. Peter questioned the veracity of much of the "record" presented in these chapters, while others suggested that references to an actual record (e.g., the Peers Commission) without context was just as dishonest. I felt that since only one man (Lt. Calley) was ultimately convicted of atrocities at My Lai, the novel’s exposure of Wade and his lie (“my lie”) was O'Brien's indictment of the many who couldn’t or wouldn’t acknowledge their role in this shocking chapter of American military history.

The book drew consistently positive ratings (7’s and 8’s from all but Roy, whose 4 may have reflected his disgust at Wade’s indecision on the eternal question: vodka or gin?). With a 7.2, O’Brien’s stature in the Man Book Club is secure.

Next Up
Next month’s host, Chris, pandered mightily and very nearly hijacked our usually staid book selection process. Playing Barack to my Hillary, he invoked Obama with his call and response (“Yes, we can!”), and he turned on the Bohemian charm (yes, I refer to the conservative SF gentlemen’s club to which he belongs and, yes, irony duly noted). With these antics, Chris sought to force the selection of Tom Robbins’ cartoonish novella, B is for Beer.

Fortunately, taste and tradition withstood Chris' ham-fisted tactics and, after a series of votes in which no one opted for O’Neill’s Netherland and few gave the nod to Lewis’ Coach, we picked The 25th Hour by Christopher Award-winner David Benioff. (The Christopher Award is admittedly a second-tier Hollywood tribute—in Benioff’s case for adapting The Kite Runner to the big screen—but he is married to Amanda Peet!) Let’s see if this venture into crime fiction is the diversion we need as summer approaches.

Apr 29, 2009

Going Unattributed

In the crossfire of emails leading up to last night's meeting, I’ve saved actual quotes from actual MBC members. Since MBC’s policy is to sacrifice personal privacy whenever possible, here are your email comments, with observations from the editorial staff.

Item first:
Regarding his second request to borrow my book just days before the meeting, this man wrote…

“It’s the least you can do for making me your public whipping boy.”

Editor: Never demand a favor with your trousers around your ankles.

Item second:
Explaining why he’s decided to read the book this month…

“It’s national “turn off the TV week” so my only option is to read this week.”

Editor: Some are motivated to read out of intellectual curiosity; others find they have no choice.

Item third:
Commenting on the ground beef at John’s testicle festival…

“For the rest of my life, falafels will remind me of bull testes.”

Editor: Most of us ate the tacos and tried to ignore the filling. But this man made himself falafels! Hmmm, they used to be balls in a sac, so why not?

Item fourth:
Anticipating Peter’s choice of cuisine…

“I am wondering if it will truly be kangaroo meat being served? As such I am respectfully declining dinner.”

Editor: If you don’t like ethnic food, just say so.

Item fifth:
Referring to himself in the third person heightened the suspense…

“The will be a Chirs Browne sighting next Tues”

Editor: The prediction was uncannily accurate. The spelling…not so good.

Apr 27, 2009

Book Ideas for May

In the never ending battle between the two forces of the title - Man and Books, I have presented a wide range of potential readings for our May gathering. Given the short month, all the books below are less than 300 pages. We can discuss tomrrow night.

For the more highbrow (book) minded (We're looking at you, Andrew):
Netherland - Joseph O'Neill -

Hans van den Broek, the Dutch-born narrator of O'Neill's dense, intelligent novel, observes of his friend, Chuck Ramkissoon, a self-mythologizing entrepreneur-gangster, that he never quite believed that people would sooner not have their understanding of the world blown up, even by Chuck Ramkissoon. The image of one's understanding of the world being blown up is poignant—this is Hans's fate after 9/11. He and wife Rachel abandon their downtown loft, and, soon, Rachel leaves him behind at their temporary residence, the Chelsea Hotel, taking their son, Jake, back to London. Hans, an equities analyst, is at loose ends without Rachel, and in the two years he remains Rachel-less in New York City, he gets swept up by Chuck, a Trinidadian expatriate Hans meets at a cricket match. Chuck's dream is to build a cricket stadium in Brooklyn; in the meantime, he operates as a factotum for a Russian gangster. The unlikely (and doomed from the novel's outset) friendship rises and falls in tandem with Hans's marriage, which falls and then, gradually, rises again. O'Neill (This Is the Life) offers an outsider's view of New York bursting with wisdom, authenticity and a sobering jolt of realism.

The 25th Hour - David Benioff -

In 24 hours, handsome 27-year-old drug dealer Monty Brogan will enter Otisville Federal Prison to do seven years hard time. His father wants him to run. His drug-lord boss, Uncle Blue, wants to know if he squealed. His girlfriend isn't sure what she wants, and his two best friends know one thing for sure: after he goes in, he will never be the same. In this character-driven crime novel, first-time novelist Benioff dazzles with a spellbinding portrait of three high school buddies confronting the consequences of their carefree youth on the streets of New York. Monty really wanted to be a fireman, but fell in love with "sway," the deference afforded a young man with important connections. For the past five years, he's been selling drugs for Uncle Blue in Manhattan, to moneyed and celebrity clients. His pal, maverick bond trader Frank Slattery, thirsts for serenity, but dreams of avenging old wrongs while fighting his covert lust for Monty's Puerto Rican girlfriend. Despite Monty's dismal future, shy Jakob Elinsky, an ethical, awkward high school English teacher, envies his friend's self-assurance with women as he struggles to control his own secret hunger for a talented writing student, 17-year-old Mary D'Annunzio. The three friends spend one last night together dancing and drinking at Uncle Blue's nightclub. Amid the false merriment, Monty is summoned upstairs to a heart-stopping confrontation with his former boss. Brilliantly conceived, this gripping crime drama boasts dead-on dialogue, chiaroscuro portraits of New York's social strata and an inescapable crescendo of tension. Monty's solution to his agonizing dilemmas will shock even hardened suspense lovers. Film rights to New Line Cinema for a movie to star Toby McGuire. (Jan.) Forecast: With the hip talk and high tension of Richard Price's Clockers, and the assured prose and grasp of character of a seasoned novelist, Benioff's debut may hit the cash registers right out of the gate. It's no wonder that Benioff has been nominated for the New York Public Library's Young Lions Award, or that the book carries happy blurbs from George P. Pelacanos, Vincent Patric and Ann Patchett.

Lighter faire for the lazier amongst us (My personal bias):

Coach - Michael Lewis -

Lewis (Liar's Poker; Moneyball) remembers his high school baseball coach, Coach Fitz, a man so intense a room felt "more pressurized simply because he was in it." At the New Orleans private school Lewis attended in the late 1970s, Coach Fitz taught kids to fight "the natural instinct to run away from adversity" and to battle their way through all the easy excuses life offers for giving up. He was strict, but he made such an impression on his students that now, 25 years later, alumni want to name a new gym after him. But the parents of today's students aren't as wowed by Coach Fitz's tough love. They call the headmaster with complaints, saying Coach Fitz is too mean to their children and insisting on sitting on his shoulder as he attempts to coach. A desire to set these new parents straight may be the underlying reason for Lewis's slight book, though he'd probably rather have readers believe he's just written it as a paean to a man who taught him some important life lessons. The book's corny subtitle, lack of heft and hackneyed images of kites flying and fireworks exploding may turn off some readers, but those who persevere will come away with a reminder that fear and failure are the "two greatest enemies of a well lived life."

This one was too good to resist -

B is for Beer - Tom Robbins -

In his children's book for grown-ups/grown-up book for children, Robbins (Even Cowgirls Get the Blues) takes readers on a whimsical tour of all things beer, written in the language of a bedtime story. Factoids about everything from how beer is made to the number of gallons of beer sold globally each year (36 billion) are woven into this story about six-year-old Gracie Perkel, who craves time with her beer-guzzling Uncle Moe. When Moe disappoints Gracie, she reaches for a drink and is visited by the Beer Fairy, who flies her through the Seam and offers an education about life and, of course, beer. The drive to inform the reader about malt and hops is sometimes relentless, and the language can be frustratingly dumbed-down (If you're unfamiliar with the word podiatrist, you're not alone. Fortunately for Gracie [and now for you], Uncle Moe was quick to define podiatrist as a doctor who investigates and treats disorders of the feet. A foot specialist). Still, the premise and execution of this unique book lends itself to moments of real humor.

Mar 26, 2009

John Goes Nuts

When we met in 2007 to discuss The Road, John was determined to make our meal memorable, if not palatable. On Tuesday, our meal was both. John evoked the castration scene at the beginning of The Power of the Dog by serving mountain oysters, overnighted from a cattle ranch in Arizona and deep fried with a choice of seasonings (and, for those still not satiated, they were also ground into beef for taco hors d'oeuvres). John then cleansed our palates with a spread that included iceberg salads, seared flank steaks, and a fine strawberry shortcake. As excellent as the main course was, John’s hospitality—much like Savage’s novel—was all about the opening act.

We should also acknowledge the character actors who appeared at our dinner. Paul, in a guest role, presented himself as John’s kin, a cameo he was ill-suited for given his thoughtfulness and intellect. George and Larry, both sporting chambray shirts, denim, and boots, failed to convince us they were the lawful successors to the Burbank ranch. And then there was Stan, flaunting flannel from Abba Dabba and Bitch and sharing ranching insights plagiarized from his Wyoming in-laws.

Finally, displaying a subtlety he is not normally known for, Garth arrived with a six-pack of Two Below, a pale ale from Ft. Collins. However, it wasn’t its taste (quite drinkable) or its provenance (home to those book-loving Great Apes) that captured our fancy; instead, we were impressed at Garth’s clever pairing of beer brand with beef part. From beers to balls to strawberries, our evening was a testicular success.

The Book
Set on a Montana ranch in 1924, The Power of the Dog explores the fraternal tensions between the wealthy Burbank brothers when one (the quiet, plodding George) marries and brings his wife and stepson to live at the ranch. Phil, the accomplished older brother, sets out to destroy the relationship and, in the end, is himself undone. As Garth noted, the opening castration scene is truly the story’s metaphor: the remainder of the novel depicts the end of a way of life, the destruction of longstanding family bonds, and an emerging feminine influence at the ranch.

The book’s most provocative issue (homosexuality) generated a heated discussion, with Stan taking plenty of arrows for his insistence that Annie Proulx, in typical fashion, misrepresented the main character’s sexual orientation. To the rest of us, Phil’s repressed homosexuality was evident, though not central to the plot. We were more interested in who the “dog” of the title referred to, which character deserved the label of hero, and the ranch life so bleakly described by Savage.

We agreed with Tom that this story was heavily character-driven, with Paul that change (and its absence) was a key theme, and with Doug that Phil’s character symbolized a disappearing legacy of the old West. Our few quibbles included Peter’s criticism of the old-fashioned dialog (it was rather cowpoke) and Garth’s claim that all of the characters would have benefited from a regimen of anti-depressants.

The most stimulating discussions aren’t always generated by the best books. In this case, our 7.3 rating—while good—failed to reflect just how engaged we were by this satisfying little novel. Thanks for an excellent recommendation, John.

Next Up
We had a list of fine choices from Peter, and ended up in a tie (7-7) between The Queen’s Gambit and In the Lake of the Woods. In our final round of voting, National Book Award Winner Tim O’Brien bested Nebula Award nominee Walter Tevis. And so we look forward to reading O’Brien’s purposely confusing, possibly fictionalized retrospective on the Vietnam Era.

Mar 23, 2009

Peter's Book Suggestions for April

The books that I have selected for review for the April meeting are a combination of ones that I have read and ones that I want to read. I will not elaborate here too much on each one as I will have that chance on Tuesday 03/24. Needless to say I think all four will provide satisfying reading to such an august literary assembly. Please find the following notes from publishers and a few selected reviews.

In the Lake of the Woods – Tim O’Brien. A novel that, while imbued with the troubled spirit of Vietnam, takes place entirely after the war and in the United States. The main character, John Wade, is a man in crisis: after spending years building a successful political career, he finds his future derailed during a bid for the U.S. Senate by revelations about his past as a soldier in Vietnam. The election lost by a landslide, John and his wife, Kathy, retreat to a small cabin on the shores of a Minnesota lake--from which Kathy mysteriously disappears. Was she murdered? Did she run away? Instead of answering these questions, O'Brien raises even more as he slowly reveals past lives and long-hidden secrets. Included in this third-person narrative are "interviews" with the couple's friends and family as well as footnoted excerpts from a mix of fictionalized newspaper reports on the case and real reports pertaining to historical events--a mélange that lends the novel an eerie sense of verisimilitude.

The Queen's Gambit – Walter Tevis. Eight year-old orphan Beth Harmon is quiet, sullen, and by all appearances unremarkable. That is until she plays her first game of chess. Her senses grow sharper, her thinking clearer, and for the first time in her life she feels herself fully in control. By the age of sixteen, she’s competing for the U.S. Open championship. But as she hones her skills on the professional circuit, the stakes get higher, her isolation grows more frightening, and the thought of escape becomes all the more tempting.
"Ultimately, this is not really a novel about chess....It can be read with intense enjoyment by those who know nothing about the game, as long as they are interested in what it means to be human at the deepest levels." The Washington Post

Crossing to Safety - Wallace Stegner. Since its publication in 1987, Crossing to Safety has established itself as one of the greatest and most cherished American novels of the twentieth century. Tracing the lives, loves, and aspirations of two couples who move between Vermont and Wisconsin, it is a work of quiet majesty, deep compassion, and powerful insight into the alchemy of friendship and marriage.
Review: "A magnificently crafted story of the remarkable friendship between the Langs and Morgans....A novel brimming with wisdom on subjects as diverse as writing for money, solid marriages, and academic promotion policies — with page after page of the superb descriptive writing that has been a hallmark of his (Stegner’s) work. The Washington Post Book World

Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II - Douglas A Blackmon (Non – Fiction). In this groundbreaking historical exposé, Douglas A. Blackmon (Wall Street Journal) brings to light one of the most shameful chapters in American history—an “Age of Neoslavery” that thrived from the aftermath of the Civil War through the dawn of World War II.
Under laws enacted specifically to intimidate blacks, tens of thousands of African Americans were arbitrarily arrested, hit with outrageous fines, and charged for the costs of their own arrests. With no means to pay these ostensible “debts,” prisoners were sold as forced laborers to coal mines, lumber camps, brickyards, railroads, quarries, and farm plantations. The neoslavery system exploited legal loopholes and federal policies that discouraged prosecution of whites for continuing to hold black workers against their wills. Based on a vast record of original documents and personal narratives, Slavery by Another Name unearths the lost stories of slaves and their descendants who journeyed into freedom after the Emancipation Proclamation and then back into the shadow of involuntary servitude.
Review:"Wall Street Journal bureau chief Blackmon gives a groundbreaking and disturbing account of a sordid chapter in American history — the lease (essentially the sale) of convicts to 'commercial interests' between the end of the 19th century and well into the 20th. Blackmon's book reveals in devastating detail the legal and commercial forces that created this neoslavery along with deeply moving and totally appalling personal testimonies of survivors…..." Publishers Weekly