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: http://www.marinij.com/marinnews/ci_12586914?IADID=Search-www.marinij.com-www.marinij.com

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….