Dec 12, 2010

February book choices.

Four books are up for selection for the February meeting. Since we have about two months some of the titles are a bit longer than usual. Three of the books were published last month. All to great acclaim. The general thread of my choices surrounds two themes. The first is the search for truth using science and how humans can be brilliant, idiotic, funny or bizarre in the search for those truths. The other theme is the triumph of the human spirit when faced with unimaginable circumstances. - John

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer
, Siddhartha Mukherjee, 592 pages

Starred Review. Mukherjee's debut book is a sweeping epic of obsession, brilliant researchers, dramatic new treatments, euphoric success and tragic failure, and the relentless battle by scientists and patients alike against an equally relentless, wily, and elusive enemy. From the first chemotherapy developed from textile dyes to the possibilities emerging from our understanding of cancer cells, Mukherjee shapes a massive amount of history into a coherent story with a roller-coaster trajectory: the discovery of a new treatment--surgery, radiation, chemotherapy--followed by the notion that if a little is good, more must be better, ending in disfiguring radical mastectomy and multidrug chemo so toxic the treatment ended up being almost worse than the disease. The first part of the book is driven by the obsession of Sidney Farber and philanthropist Mary Lasker to find a unitary cure for all cancers. (Farber developed the first successful chemotherapy for childhood leukemia.) The last and most exciting part is driven by the race of brilliant, maverick scientists to understand how cells become cancerous. Each new discovery was small, but as Mukherjee, a Columbia professor of medicine, writes, "Incremental advances can add up to transformative changes." Mukherjee's formidable intelligence and compassion produce a stunning account of the effort to disrobe the "emperor of maladies." (Nov.) (c) Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. (From Publishers Weekly)

Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain. Antonio Damasio, 384 pages
As he has done previously, USC neuroscientist Damasio (Descartes' Error) explores the process that leads to consciousness. And as he has also done previously, he alternates between some exquisite passages that represent the best popular science has to offer and some technical verbiage that few will be able to follow. He draws meaningful distinctions among points on the continuum from brain to mind, consciousness to self, constantly attempting to understand the evolutionary reasons why each arose and attempting to tie each to an underlying physical reality. Damasio goes to great lengths to explain that many species, such as social insects, have minds, but humans are distinguished by the "autobiographical self," which adds flexibility and creativity, and has led to the development of culture, a "radical novelty" in natural history. Damasio ends with a speculative chapter on the evolutionary process by which mind developed and then gave rise to self. In the Pleistocene, he suggests, humans developed emotive responses to shapes and sounds that helped lead to the development of the arts. Readers fascinated from both a philosophical and scientific perspective with the question of the relationships among brain, mind, and self will be rewarded for making the effort to follow Damasio's arguments. (Nov.) (c)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


"Exquisite…Readers fascinated from both a philosophical and scientific perspective with the question of the relationship among brain, mind, and self will be rewarded."
Publishers Weekly

"The marvel of reading Damasio's book is to be convinced one can follow the brain at work as it makes the private reality that is the deepest self."
—V.S. Naipaul, Nobel Laureate and author of A Bend in the River and the Enigma of Arrival

“Damasio makes a grand transition from higher-brain views of emotions to deeply evolutionary, lower-brain contributions to emotional, sensory and homeostatic experiences. He affirms that the roots of consciousness are affective and shared by our fellow animals. Damasio's creative vision leads relentlessly toward a natural understanding of the very font of being.”
—Jaak Panksepp, author of Affective Neuroscience and Baily Endowed Professor of Animal Well-Being Science, Washington State University

“I was totally captivated by Self Comes to Mind. In this work Antonio Damasio presents his seminal discoveries in the field of neuroscience in the broader contexts of evolutionary biology and cultural development. This trailblazing book gives us a new way of thinking about ourselves, our history, and the importance of culture in shaping our common future.”
—Yo-Yo Ma, musician

Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, Mary Roach, 334 pages
Amazon Best Books of the Month, August 2010: With her wry humor and inextinguishable curiosity, Mary Roach has crafted her own quirky niche in the somewhat staid world of science writing, showing no fear (or shame) in the face of cadavers, ectoplasm, or sex. In Packing for Mars, Roach tackles the strange science of space travel, and the psychology, technology, and politics that go into sending a crew into orbit. Roach is unfailingly inquisitive (Why is it impolite for astronauts to float upside down during conversations? Just how smelly does a spacecraft get after a two week mission?), and she eagerly seeks out the stories that don't make it onto NASA's website--from SPCA-certified space suits for chimps, to the trial-and-error approach to crafting menus during the space program's early years (when the chefs are former livestock veterinarians, taste isn't high on the priority list). Packing for Mars is a book for grownups who still secretly dream of being astronauts, and Roach lives it up on their behalf--weightless in a C-9 aircraft, she just can't resist the opportunity to go "Supermanning" around the cabin. Her zeal for discovery, combined with her love of the absurd, amazing, and stranger-than-fiction, make Packing for Mars an uproarious trip into the world of space travel. --Lynette Mong

Unbroken a World War II Story of Survival. Resilience. and Redemption, Laura Hillenbrand, 496 pages.
Starred Review. From the 1936 Olympics to WWII Japan's most brutal POW camps, Hillenbrand's heart-wrenching new book is thousands of miles and a world away from the racing circuit of her bestselling Seabiscuit. But it's just as much a page-turner, and its hero, Louie Zamperini, is just as loveable: a disciplined champion racer who ran in the Berlin Olympics, he's a wit, a prankster, and a reformed juvenile delinquent who put his thieving skills to good use in the POW camps, In other words, Louie is a total charmer, a lover of life--whose will to live is cruelly tested when he becomes an Army Air Corps bombardier in 1941. The young Italian-American from Torrance, Calif., was expected to be the first to run a four-minute mile. After an astonishing but losing race at the 1936 Olympics, Louie was hoping for gold in the 1940 games. But war ended those dreams forever. In May 1943 his B-24 crashed into the Pacific. After a record-breaking 47 days adrift on a shark-encircled life raft with his pal and pilot, Russell Allen "Phil" Phillips, they were captured by the Japanese. In the "theater of cruelty" that was the Japanese POW camp network, Louie landed in the cruelest theaters of all: Omori and Naoetsu, under the control of Corp. Mutsuhiro Watanabe, a pathologically brutal sadist (called the Bird by camp inmates) who never killed his victims outright--his pleasure came from their slow, unending torment. After one beating, as Watanabe left Louie's cell, Louie saw on his face a "soft languor.... It was an expression of sexual rapture." And Louie, with his defiant and unbreakable spirit, was Watanabe's victim of choice. By war's end, Louie was near death. When Naoetsu was liberated in mid-August 1945, a depleted Louie's only thought was "I'm free! I'm free! I'm free!" But as Hillenbrand shows, Louie was not yet free. Even as, returning stateside, he impulsively married the beautiful Cynthia Applewhite and tried to build a life, Louie remained in the Bird's clutches, haunted in his dreams, drinking to forget, and obsessed with vengeance. In one of several sections where Hillenbrand steps back for a larger view, she writes movingly of the thousands of postwar Pacific PTSD sufferers. With no help for their as yet unrecognized illness, Hillenbrand says, "there was no one right way to peace; each man had to find his own path...." The book's final section is the story of how, with Cynthia's help, Louie found his path. It is impossible to condense the rich, granular detail of Hillenbrand's narrative of the atrocities committed (one man was exhibited naked in a Tokyo zoo for the Japanese to "gawk at his filthy, sore-encrusted body") against American POWs in Japan, and the courage of Louie and his fellow POWs, who made attempts on Watanabe's life, committed sabotage, and risked their own lives to save others. Hillenbrand's triumph is that in telling Louie's story (he's now in his 90s), she tells the stories of thousands whose suffering has been mostly forgotten. She restores to our collective memory this tale of heroism, cruelty, life, death, joy, suffering, remorselessness, and redemption. (Nov.) -Reviewed by Sarah F. Gold (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved. (Publishers Weekly)

Nov 14, 2010

Dean Lets the Thugs In

Last Tuesday, Dean opened up his home to an uncivilized lot:  footballers, wankers, thugs, and the like.  In keeping with Buford’s decidedly lowbrow motif, Dean served up bangers and mash and peas and pudding.  But it was like no workingman’s meal I ever tasted during my years in England.  Dean’s bangers, for example, were a gourmand’s dream, made by the Lockeford Meat and Sausage Company near Stockton.  His blue Stilton and aged cheddar were direct from the UK.  The only false note was the dessert. The English don’t get our style of pudding and most of them believe that fresh fruit is an affectation of the rich!

Among the thugs who crossed Dean’s threshold were two of Marin County's more reprehensible knaves.  John and Garth appeared to have arrived straight from the terraces at Old Trafford or Stamford Bridge.  In the picture below, they are flanking Stan, who needs no makeup for the part….

The Book 
Buford’s seminal study of crowd behavior—specifically the behavior of football fans in England—has been hailed by no less than Newsweek as one of the most important works of the 20th century.  Whether it’s his academic pedigree (UC Berkeley, Cambridge, and publisher of Granta), his peculiarly American perspective, or his willingness to immerse himself fully in the subject matter, we all agreed that Buford’s examination of the phenomenon of football hooliganism was utterly absorbing.  Our fascination, however, came with all the enjoyment of watching a train crash (or, as Peter insisted on reading aloud, a man extracting and bursting a police officer’s eyeball--using his mouth!). 

Dan’s story about his brother’s employee in Manchester added to our discomfort with Buford's thesis.  According to Dan, the employee was unequivocal in his hatred of Liverpool and its supporters.  Not rivalry, not competitive dislike—but pure hatred.  Doug asked why such animosity—and its accompanying violence—doesn’t exist here.  None of us could say why, other than to fall back on some of Buford’s own suppositions (cultural differences, chronic unemployment, island mentality, lost imperial glory, etc.).  Roy felt that such violence wouldn’t be condoned here:  at the first sign of agitation, the guns would come out.  Of course, that prompted George’s recollection of Kent State, where the guardsman’s warning shot precipitated rather than prevented violence.  Against the backdrop of street riots in Oakland stemming from Johannes Mehserle’s light sentence for killing Oscar Grant, we all appreciate how sometimes even the most foreseeable crowd behavior can’t be averted. 

Our consensus was that Buford’s treatise was an unexpected if disturbing pleasure.  The voting was uniformly high, coming in at a respectable 7.3 and vindicating Dean’s persistence these last three years.  Dean, I apologize for my steadfast opposition to Thugs; I was wrong.  (And, Garth, I apologize for all the colons and semi-colons in this write-up.)

Next Up
Next month we read J.R. Moehringer’s much-acclaimed memoir, The Tender Bar.  It was sufficiently compelling that Andre Agassi allegedly kept putting the book down so as not to finish it too quickly.  When he finally did finish the book, he immediately called Moehringer and persuaded him to ghost write his own memoir, Open, which was published last year under Agassi's name only.  Explaining his absence from the title page, Moehringer told the New York Times that "the midwife doesn't go home with the baby."  Let's hope that we share Agassi's enthusiasm for The Tender Bar when we meet next month.

Nov 9, 2010

December's Nominations

Here are three picks for December.  They are all beautifully written, coming-of-age memoirs by three men who are forced to overcome (and come to terms with) their "broken" families.  All are unforgettable.

Life On the Color Line, Greg Williams, 304 pages (1996)

Williams, the former dean of the Ohio State University College of Law, tells the affecting and absorbing story of his most unusual youth. Born to a white mother and a black father who passed for white, Williams was raised as white in Virginia until he was 10, when his mother left. His father brought his two sons back home to Muncie, Ind., in 1954 and sank further into drink. The two boys were eventually taken in by Miss Dora, a poor black widow. Williams's many anecdotes are a mixture of pain, struggle and triumph: learning "hustles" from Dad, receiving guidance from a friend's mother, facing racism from teachers and classmates, beginning a clandestine romance with a white girl he eventually married. And while his scarred, grandiloquent father was never reliable, he did instill in young Greg-though not in Greg's brother-sustaining dreams of professional success. Along the way the author decided, despite his appearance, he would proudly claim the black identity that white Muncie wouldn't let him forget. Williams ends his narrative when he reaches college; in the epilogue, he regrets that "there were too many who were unable to break the mold Muncie cast." (Publisher’s Weekly)

The Color of Water, James McBride, 294 pages (1996)

The author, a man whose mother was white and his father black, tells two stories: that of his mother and his own. Tautly written, it is a wonderful story of a bi-racial family who achieved the American dream, despite enormous societal obstacles. The author's mother was a Polish Orthodox Jew who migrated to America at the age of two with her family during the early nineteen twenties. They ultimately settled down in Virginia, where she was raised in a predominantly black neighborhood. At age nineteen, she left Virginia for New York, where she married a black man. The author tells of his childhood growing up in predominantly black neighborhoods, where his mother stood out like a sore thumb because of the color of her skin. From this narrative emerges a fascinating look at race, as well as religion. A very personal story also emerges. While the author's family was economically disadvantaged, his eccentric and independent mother was a strict disciplinarian who brooked no nonsense from her twelve children, all of whom eventually went to college. McBride’s personal story is an extraordinary one, but his relationship with and profound love for his mother dominates this beautifully written book.

The Tender Bar, J.R. Moehringer, 432 pages (2006)

Take one part Charming Billy, a dash of Frank McCourt, add a shot of "Cheers," serve straight up, and you'll have the charming concoction that is The Tender Bar. J.R. Moehringer fondly reflects on his youth, however misspent, within the cooling shadows of the town's local bar.

In Manhasset, Long Island the place to go was Dickens (later renamed Publicans) on Plandome Road. Like the pubs of old, it was the place to celebrate, commiserate and pontificate. Sooner or later, everyone wound up at its door, thanks largely to its kind and commanding owner, Steve. In the mid-seventies, J.R. Moehringer was an adolescent badly in need of a father figure. His dedicated mother worked as many as three jobs to keep them on their feet. J.R.was named after his father, a radio disc jockey who has little to do with his son. Moehringer listens to his late-night radio broadcasts and refers to him only as "The Voice," a far away, unknowable being who flits in and out of his young son's life only briefly.

Poignant and heartfelt, with just the right amount of sentimentality, The Tender Bar is an absorbing read that goes down nice and easy. Moehringer skillfully recreates life at the local bar and the colorful characters inside as a sort of celebration, almost memorializing a part of American life that doesn't exist the way it used to, while also serving as a homage to the powerful love between a mother and son, struggling to get by but still managing to enjoy a "Happy Hour" now and then.

Oct 14, 2010

Terry Takes Us to War

How does one prepare a meal designed to showcase a book devoted to the details of modern combat?  If you're Terry, you avoid the partisan temptation of eating MRE's alongside our soldiers and instead you set your meal in the once lush valleys of Afghanistan.  On Tuesday, Terry invited us to dine on Afghan stew and a selection of middle eastern flatbreads (home-cooked by Gail, no less).  We didn't eat on the floor, using only our right hands, but we did appreciate some of the hardship faced by Afghan villagers caught in an unforgiving war between insurgents and occupiers.

Of course, there were a couple among us who had to bring their artifacts of war into Terry's demilitarized zone.  Roy showed up with a selection of bullets of various calibers, and we were duly impressed by the size of the 50 cal. rounds as well as the sniper casings.  Paul, on the other hand, came dressed as a modern-day recon grunt with an appreciation for Coppola's Apocalypse Now.  Wearing an Arab headdress and camo fatigues, and slinging a six-pack of Budweiser, Paul was ready to celebrate his distance from the front lines.

The Book
In War, Sebastian Junger plunges himself and the reader headlong into the war in Afghanistan by repeatedly embedding with a platoon of the 173rd Airborne Brigade over a 12-month span in 2007 and 2008.  Marooned on a rocky outpost in the Korengal Valley, the platoon faces (and initiates) multiple attacks with insurgents from Pakistan and elsewhere.  Junger describes the ferocity of combat and digs deeply into the relationships and attitudes of the men involved.  With Junger's story as our backdrop, we found our discussion veering again and again back to Vietnam or, in Larry's case, WWII and the legacy of his father's Japanese-American unit. 

Our reaction to War was unusual among the books we've read:  we found much to criticize in the narrative, but we forgave Junger and applauded his ability to show us the reality of combat without the customary political filter (and filler).  While Stan dismissed the book as a glorification of combat without the necessary context (this after proclaiming that he'd "read every major book about war"--Stan,  I wrote down those very words!), most of us disagreed and felt that the exhilaration of battle described by Junger was accompanied by plenty of reflection on its emotional consequences. 

With a 7.8, Junger's expose of combat in the Korengal Valley ranks high on our list of rated titles. 

Next Up
Dean's choices for next month  featured his perennial favorite, Among the Thugs.  In a deft series of parliamentary maneuvers (and, I'm sure, backroom dealings), Dean engineered a surprising upset and foisted on us Bill Buford's famous study of football hooligans, a la Manchester United.  Next month will tell us if Buford's treatise is the answer to a question no one has ever cared to ask.  (Sorry, Dean, but I couldn't resist one more jibe.)

Oct 11, 2010

Dean's Book Choices for November

Here are the titles proposed for our reading in November:

Among the Thugs, by Bill Buford:  Non-fiction.  
An embedded reporter goes into the underworld of the Manchester United Soccer Club’s fan base and examines the psychology behind crowd violence and mob mentality.  Newsweek Top 50 books to be read in your lifetime.  (Recommended)

The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad: Fiction. (Referenced in Dark Star Safari)
Early 1900 adventure up the Congo River by English explorers. 110 pages, Short, engaging read. One of my favorite books.

The story tells of Charles Marlow, an Englishman who took a foreign assignment from a Belgian trading company as a ferry-boat captain in Africa . Heart of Darkness exposes the myth behind colonization while exploring the three levels of darkness that the protagonist, Marlow, encounters--the darkness of the Congo wilderness, the darkness of the European's cruel treatment of the natives, and the unfathomable darkness within every human being for committing heinous acts of evil.  Although Conrad does not give the name of the river, at the time of writing the Congo Free State, the location of the large and important Congo River, was a private colony of Belgium 's King Leopold II. Marlow is employed to transport ivory downriver. However, his more pressing assignment is to return Kurtz, another ivory trader, to civilization, in a cover-up. Kurtz has a reputation throughout the region.

This symbolic story is a story within a story or frame narrative. It follows Marlow as he recounts from dusk through to late night, to a group of men aboard a ship anchored in the Thames Estuary his Congolese adventure. The passage of time and the darkening sky during the fictitious narrative-within-the-narrative parallel the atmosphere of the story.

Three Cups of Tea (One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace One School at a Time) by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin.   Non-fiction.

In Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Time , Greg Mortenson, and journalist David Oliver Relin, recount the journey that led Mortenson from a failed 1993 attempt to climb Pakistan’s K2, the world’s second highest mountain, to successfully establish schools in some of the most remote regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan. By replacing guns with pencils, rhetoric with reading, Mortenson combines his unique background with his intimate knowledge of the third-world to promote peace with books, not bombs, and successfully bring education and hope to remote communities in central Asia . Three Cups of Tea is at once an unforgettable adventure and the inspiring true story of how one man really is changing the world—one school at a time.

In 1993 Mortenson was descending from his failed attempt to reach the peak of K2 . Exhausted and disoriented, he wandered away from his group into the most desolate reaches of northern Pakistan . Alone, without food, water, or shelter he stumbled into an impoverished Pakistani village where he was nursed back to health.

While recovering he observed the village’s 84 children sitting outdoors, scratching their lessons in the dirt with sticks. The village was so poor that it could not afford the $1-a-day salary to hire a teacher. When he left the village, he promised that he would return to build them a school. From that rash, heartfelt promise grew one of the most incredible humanitarian campaigns of our time.

Beat the Reaper by Josh Bazel (300 pages)

A new book and author that has not received any awards but will if he keeps going (also is a friend of a good friend of mine and met him at an Obama inauguration celebration party; might be able to have him come to the meeting); NY Times book review:

In the opening scene of “Beat the Reaper,” the former mob hit man Dr. Peter Brown pauses in the act of disabling a mugger to give readers a paragraph-length tutorial on the architecture of the human arm. Halfway through the paragraph he throws in an asterisk, and in a footnote points out that the lower leg is a lot like the forearm, only less fragile. That footnote had me worried.   Fortunately, Brown’s creator, the novelist (and doctor) Josh Bazell, is an unusually talented writer. Most of the many digressions in “Beat the Reaper,” his first book, are genuinely entertaining, and the few that don’t work — the footnotes are the most common culprit — annoy primarily because the story is so engaging that you don’t want to be yanked out of it even for the time it takes to glance at the bottom of the page.

Bazell’s protagonist, né Pietro Brnwa, used to be a contract killer for the Mafia, as mentioned. But eight years ago, following a work-­related dispute that involved throwing his best friend out a window, he had a change of heart, entered a witness-protection program and enrolled in medical school. Now he heals people instead of murdering them — although, as the incident with the mugger shows, he hasn’t entirely given up his old ways.

It will not be giving too much away to say that Brown’s old employers eventually do learn where he is. The climax of “Beat the Reaper” finds him locked in a medical freezer, waiting for his arch­nemesis to arrive and finish him off. The plan Brown concocts to save himself is the novel’s most original flourish. It is also completely outrageous, so much so that I had to stop and think about whether I could really suspend my disbelief. In the end I decided that, as with the footnotes, Bazell had more than earned my indulgence as a reader. If there’s a better recommendation for a story than that, I don’t know what it is.


Sep 16, 2010

On Safari With Glenn

For those of us able to find Glenn's house in the outer reaches of Novato (Peter, how long did you drive around the block?), his hospitality was far more generous than that encountered by Theroux on his return to Africa.  Glenn thought briefly about cooking an all-Ethiopian meal, and then prudence took over.  He ordered a complete dinner from a reliably excellent Ethiopian restaurant in Oakland and brought it all the way to Marin for us to enjoy.  Starting with the Tusker beer (thanks Paul and Dan) and samosas, we then moved on to Theroux's personal favorite:  a variety of entrees (in this case, chicken, lamb, lentils, and greens) eaten with a gluten-free bread wrap called injera, which Theroux likened to the taste of a dirty bathmat.  It certainly tasted fine to us, and except for a few carpet spills and aching knees (from eating native style in the living room), our meal was utterly without complaint.

The Book
Paul Theroux's return to Africa, after a 40-year hiatus following his Peace Corps stint in Malawi, proved both eye-opening and profoundly disappointing.  In Dark Star Safari, Theroux reflects upon the Africa he once knew and a new Africa overrun with NGOs whose project-driven handouts perpetuate a legacy of dependency and false hope.

Our response to Theroux's response was equally ambivalent.  Almost everyone used the word "informative" to describe this 485-page travelogue, but thereafter our opinions diverged significantly.  The book was anecdotal, insightful, superficial, repetitive, interesting, and always crotchety.  Every last one of us found the trip through Egypt as tedious as Theroux apparently did, which is puzzling given his willingness to devote 53 pages to his trip down the Nile with a boat full of ugly westerners.

Ultimately, our 7.2 rating reflected a certain intolerance for a book that came quite close to our maximum page length and yet still failed to inspire us.  We were more impressed by Paul's and Stan's African reflections than we were by Theroux's.  In an experiment that likely won't be repeated, we did a blind vote beforehand and came up with a rating a half turn lower (6.7), which suggests that our open voting system may not be as objective as we hope.

Next Up
Terry presented us with several fine options for next month, all of which address America's military experience in Afghanistan.  Our decision:  we're going to war with Sebastian Junger!

Sep 13, 2010

Terry's Picks for October

Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman, Jon Krakauer

From Amazon: The bestselling author of Into the Wild, Into Thin Air, and Under the Banner of Heaven delivers a stunning, eloquent account of a remarkable young man’s haunting journey. Like the men whose epic stories Jon Krakauer has told in his previous bestsellers, Pat Tillman was an irrepressible individualist and iconoclast. In May 2002, Tillman walked away from his $3.6 million NFL contract to enlist in the United States Army. He was deeply troubled by 9/11, and he felt a strong moral obligation to join the fight against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Two years later, he died on a desolate hillside in southeastern Afghanistan.

Though obvious to most of the two dozen soldiers on the scene that a ranger in Tillman’s own platoon had fired the fatal shots, the Army aggressively maneuvered to keep this information from Tillman’s wife, other family members, and the American public for five weeks following his death. During this time, President Bush repeatedly invoked Tillman’s name to promote his administration’s foreign policy. Long after Tillman’s nationally televised memorial service, the Army grudgingly notified his closest relatives that he had “probably” been killed by friendly fire while it continued to dissemble about the details of his death and who was responsible.

In Where Men Win Glory, Jon Krakauer draws on Tillman’s journals and letters, interviews with his wife and friends, conversations with the soldiers who served alongside him, and extensive research on the ground in Afghanistan to render an intricate mosaic of this driven, complex, and uncommonly compelling figure as well as the definitive account of the events and actions that led to his death. Before he enlisted in the army, Tillman was familiar to sports aficionados as an undersized, overachieving Arizona Cardinals safety whose virtuosity in the defensive backfield was spellbinding. With his shoulder-length hair, outspoken views, and boundless intellectual curiosity, Tillman was considered a maverick. America was fascinated when he traded the bright lights and riches of the NFL for boot camp and a buzz cut. Sent first to Iraq—a war he would openly declare was “illegal as hell” —and eventually to Afghanistan, Tillman was driven by complicated, emotionally charged, sometimes contradictory notions of duty, honor, justice, patriotism, and masculine pride, and he was determined to serve his entire three-year commitment. But on April 22, 2004, his life would end in a barrage of bullets fired by his fellow soldiers.

Krakauer chronicles Tillman’s riveting, tragic odyssey in engrossing detail highlighting his remarkable character and personality while closely examining the murky, heartbreaking circumstances of his death. Infused with the power and authenticity readers have come to expect from Krakauer’s storytelling, Where Men Win Glory exposes shattering truths about men and war.

War, Sebastian Junger

From Publishers Weekly: War is insanely exciting.... Don't underestimate the power of that revelation, warns bestselling author and Vanity Fair contributing editor Junger (The Perfect Storm). The war in Afghanistan contains brutal trauma but also transcendent purpose in this riveting combat narrative. Junger spent 14 months in 2007–2008 intermittently embedded with a platoon of the 173rd Airborne brigade in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley, one of the bloodiest corners of the conflict. The soldiers are a scruffy, warped lot, with unkempt uniforms—they sometimes do battle in shorts and flip-flops—and a ritual of administering friendly beatings to new arrivals, but Junger finds them to be superlative soldiers. Junger experiences everything they do—nerve-racking patrols, terrifying roadside bombings and ambushes, stultifying weeks in camp when they long for a firefight to relieve the tedium. Despite the stress and the grief when buddies die, the author finds war to be something of an exalted state: soldiers experience an almost sexual thrill in the excitement of a firefight—a response Junger struggles to understand—and a profound sense of commitment to subordinating their self-interests to the good of the unit. Junger mixes visceral combat scenes—raptly aware of his own fear and exhaustion—with quieter reportage and insightful discussions of the physiology, social psychology, and even genetics of soldiering. The result is an unforgettable portrait of men under fire.

In the Graveyard of Empires: Americas War in Afghanistan, Seth Jones

Various reviews:

No one understands the successes and failures of American policy in Afghanistan better than Seth Jones....If you read just one book about the Taliban, terrorism, and the United States, this is the place to start. (Jeremi Suri, Professor of history, University of Wisconsin )

[D]estined to become the standard text on America's involvement in Afghanistan. It is a timely and important work, without peer in terms of both its scholarship and the author's intimate knowledge of the country, the insurgency threatening it, and the challenges in defeating it. (Professor Bruce Hoffman, Georgetown University and author of Inside Terrorism )

A deeply researched, clearly written, and well-analyzed account of the failures of American policies in Afghanistan, In the Graveyard of Empires lays out a plan to avoid a potential quagmire. This timely book will be mandatory reading for policymakers from Washington to Kabul but it will also help to inform Americans who want to understand what is likely to be the greatest foreign policy challenge of the Obama administration. (Peter Bergen, author of Holy War, Inc. and The Osama bin Laden I Know )

Seth Jones has the answer to the million-dollar question….until Seth Jones, nobody actually sought an empirical answer. Nobody crunched the numbers. (John H. Richardson - Esquire )

I've just started reading Seth Jones's book on the war in Afghanistan, In the Graveyard of Empires, which someone told me is going to be the Fiasco of that war. (Thomas E. Ricks, bestselling author of Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, Foreign Policy )

[Jones] zero[es] in on what went awry after America’s successful routing of the Taliban in late 2001. His narrative is fleshed out with information from declassified government documents and interviews with military officers, diplomats and national security experts familiar with events on the ground in Afghanistan. (Michiko Kakutani - The New York Times )


Jul 26, 2010

Glenn's Picks for September

The three choices are...

Dark Star Safari, Theroux
From Publishers Weekly: "You'll have a terrible time," one diplomat tells Theroux upon discovering the prolific writer's plans to hitch a ride hundreds of miles along a desolate road to Nairobi instead of taking a plane. "You'll have some great stuff for your book." That seems to be the strategy for Theroux's extended "experience of vanishing" into the African continent, where disparate incidents reveal Theroux as well as the people he meets. At times, he goes out of his way to satisfy some perverse curmudgeonly desire to pick theological disputes with Christian missionaries. But his encounters with the natives, aid workers and occasional tourists make for rollicking entertainment, even as they offer a sobering look at the social and political chaos in which much of Africa finds itself. Theroux occasionally strays into theorizing about the underlying causes for the conditions he finds, but his cogent insights are well integrated. He doesn't shy away from the literary aspects of his tale, either, frequently invoking Conrad and Rimbaud, and dropping in at the homes of Naguib Mahfouz and Nadine Gordimer at the beginning and end of his trip. His trip fuels the book's ongoing obsession with his approaching 60th birthday and his insistence that he isn't old yet. As a travel guide, Theroux can both rankle and beguile, but after reading this marvelous report, readers will probably agree with the priest who observes, "Wonderful people. Terrible government. The African story."

Devil in the White City, Larson
From Publishers Weekly: Not long after Jack the Ripper haunted the ill-lit streets of 1888 London, H.H. Holmes dispatched somewhere between 27 and 200 people, mostly single young women, in the churning new metropolis of Chicago; many of the murders occurred during (and exploited) the city's finest moment, the World's Fair of 1893. Larson's breathtaking new history is a novelistic yet wholly factual account of the fair and the mass murderer who lurked within it. Bestselling author Larson (Isaac's Storm) strikes a fine balance between the planning and execution of the vast fair and Holmes's relentless, ghastly activities. The passages about Holmes are compelling and aptly claustrophobic; readers will be glad for the frequent escapes to the relative sanity of Holmes's co-star, architect and fair overseer Daniel Hudson Burnham, who managed the thousands of workers and engineers who pulled the sprawling fair together on an astonishingly tight two-year schedule. A natural charlatan, Holmes exploited the inability of authorities to coordinate, creating a small commercial empire entirely on unpaid debts and constructing a personal cadaver-disposal system. Larson is most interested in industriousness and the new opportunities for mayhem afforded by the advent of widespread public anonymity. This book is everything popular history should be, meticulously recreating a rich, pre-automobile America on the cusp of modernity, in which the sale of "articulated" corpses was a semi-respectable trade and serial killers could go well-nigh unnoticed.

When Engulfed in Flames, Sedaris
Summary from Booklist: Sometimes the originators of a certain trend in literature are surpassed by their own disciples—but, this is Sedaris we’re talking about. When it comes to fashioning the sardonic wisecrack, the humiliating circumstance, and the absurdist fantasy, there’s nobody better. Unfortunately, being in a league of your own often means competing with yourself. This latest collection of 22 essays proves that not only does Sedaris still have it, but he’s also getting better. True, the terrain is familiar. The essays “Old Faithful” and “That’s Amore” again feature Sedaris’ overly competent boyfriend, Hugh. And nutty sister Amy can be found leafing through bestial pornography in “Town and Country.” Present also are Sedaris’ favored topics: death, compulsion, unwanted sexual advances, corporal decay, and more death. Nevertheless, Sedaris’ best stuff will still move, surprise, and entertain.


Jul 17, 2010

Tinkering at Armando's

Armando raced back from Merced and, with a little help from Garth, put together a fine meal of good old fashioned meatloaf.  Just the right menu for a cool fall night spent contemplating a novel whose most vivid settings were in the cold outdoors.  As comfort food, it was the perfect accompaniment for the conversation that followed, with its emphasis on death and dying.  We were especially touched by  Armando's account of the joy and pathos surrounding his mother's recent funeral.

The Book
Paul Harding's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Tinkers, had the virtue of brevity, which compensated for the disjointed narrative style.  According to Doug, after Harding had drafted this story of a dying father's reminiscences about his own father (and son), he shuffled its chapters in order to collapse the generations (and, according to some of us, confuse the reader).  

Our comments were all across the board.  But many reflected an appreciation for Harding's elegance with language, the visceral impact of his story, and the various metaphors (especially that clock!) for our mortality.  Nevertheless, Peter griped about the deathbed obsession with mortality, Garth saw a plot suffused with mental illness, Dan found the story haphazard even though he insisted he read it while sober, and Paul and Tom A were both underwhelmed by the spareness of the story.  

Our voting produced a miserly 4.8--faint praise for such an acclaimed title but certainly in keeping with our mixed feelings about this elegiacal father-son novella.  

Next Up
Glenn gave us several fine choices for September, but the vote came down to a nailbiter between serial murder and magnificent architecture in turn-of-the-century Chicago and the musings of Paul Theroux as he revisits eastern Africa.  With a little prompting from Garth, who clearly felt our political sensibilities have been dulled by too much award-winning fiction, we went with Dark Star Safari.

Jun 30, 2010

Rest in Peace Katie Quintero

We learned that Armando's mother passed away on Sunday.  With sadness and sympathy, we extend our condolences to Armando and his family.  Below is Katie's obituary. 

Catherine Rangel Quintero, loving matriarch of a long-time Martinez family, passed away peacefully with her family by her side on June 27th, 2010. Born February 23, 1931 in Ontario, California, she moved to Martinez in the 1940‘s. She met and married her brothers best friend, the late Frank Quintero, in 1955, and raised eight children.

She loved to sing, and was a member of the St. Catherine’s of Siena choir throughout her 55 years as a dedicated parishioner. She was a “Singing Messenger”, entertaining the elderly community with song, dance and humor. She danced her way through life, both literally and figuratively, gracefully embracing life challenges, as well as taking to the floor with her husband and her closest companion, Gloria Quintero, nearly every weekend. As a member of the Guadalupana Society, she volunteered her time and services by creating a local Ballet Folklorico dance troupe when her children were young, teaching dancing and organizing performances for local events. When she and her husband Frank bought a Union 76 gas station in downtown Martinez, she became the iconic “service with a smile” for all local residents. She was a member of Chi Lambda, Young Ladies Institute, Maria Auxiliadora and in her final years, kept active in the Forget-Me-Nots program at the Martinez Senior Center.

Known as “Katie” to most, as “Cat” to long-time friends and family, and as “Uela” or “Ueli” to her grandchildren, she will always be remembered for her unconditional love and acceptance of everyone whose path she crossed, providing gentle reminders to live each moment with the grace of God, and to live by the golden rule-- to treat others exactly the way you wish to be treated. She leaves her legacy as inspired joy within each person who knew her well, and will continue to live on as a constant presence, angel and spiritual guide.

Catherine was the youngest of eleven children. She was predeceased by her husband Frank Quintero, her brothers Catalino Mora, Lupe Rangel, Benjamin Rangel, Salvador Rangel and Alfonso Rangel, and her sisters Dolores Mora Perez, and Sister Maria Teresa, O.S.F. She is survived by her sisters Ester Perez of Concord, CA. and Grace Arellano of Ontario, CA., and her brother Louis Rangel of Martinez. She leaves eight children and their families, Armando Quintero and Brigid Breen and their daughters Lily and Isabella; Eduardo and Phyllis Quintero, their children Joshua and Maria, and their daughter-in-law Heather; Patricia and Dave Brouillette and their sons Wiley and Jesse; Juanita Lynn Quintero and her children Mickey, Mikaela, Frank, Karleena and Corigan; Marialicia and George Pangilla and their children Preston and Sadie; Leticia and Bill Ralls and their children Katie and Jack; Raquel and Jim Lakeman and their sons Frank and Louie, and Shanti Kim Quintero and Brian Johnson and their daughters Sidy and Miya. The family extends their love and deep appreciation to her longtime friend and caregiver, Maria Luisa.

Visitation will be on Wednesday, June 30th, beginning at 5:00 p.m. to be immediately followed with the Rosary at 7:00 p.m. The funeral mass will be held at 10:00 a.m. on July 1st. All services will take place at Saint Catherine of Siena Church.

In lieu of flowers or other contributions, donations may be made to Hospice of the East Bay, 3470 Buskirk Avenue, Pleasant Hill 94523 and Alzheimer’s Association at Northern California and Northern Nevada, 1060 La Avenida Street, Mountain View, CA 94043.

Jun 24, 2010

Paul's Perfect Paella

On Monday evening, we were invited to dine in the hills of Larkspur—or, as one of our more parochial members put it, the rump of Marin. The address was not 32 Avenida del Tibidabo, the venue was not the Aldaya Mansion, and none of Fermin Romero de Torres’ signature sandwiches was on our menu. Instead, Paul’s home and his hospitality met and raised Zafon on every count. His beautifully rebuilt house, nestled atop a ridge with views of both Mt. Tamalpais and San Francisco Bay, exceeded anything described in Daniel Sempere’s post-war Barcelona.

Once inside, the literary atmospherics escalated. Paul printed out menu cards, featuring selected quotes from The Shadow of the Wind, for each place setting.  Other excerpts from the book were typed up and strewn around the kitchen.  Nice touches, yes. But while his prominently displayed Library of Forgotten Books may have struck some as a clever riff on Zafon’s Cemetery of Forgotten Books, others were not amused by this cruel jab at the collected works of the Man Book Club.

As always, though, our evening was sustained by food. In this case, excellent food. From the Spanish cava to the Catalonian bruschetta, our appetites were duly prepared for a well-rehearsed and perfectly executed paella, preceded by gazpacho and followed by a Catalonian custard. Buen provecho, Paul!

The Book
The Shadow of the Wind traces the parallel lives (and forbidden loves) of Daniel Sempere, the young narrator, and Julian Carax, a local author whose disappearance becomes Daniel’s obsession and very nearly his undoing.  Despite the sound and the fury that followed our selection of The Shadow of the Wind, the surprise was that most of us actually enjoyed reading Zafon’s international bestseller. (And that includes Doug, even if he did liken the book to Harry Potter.)

We argued whether it was high lit, low lit, or even good lit (with takers for all three), whether the characters measured up to the florid prose (yes for me and Tom J.), whether the book was memorable (Paul) or forgettable (Glenn), and—most polarizing of all—whether this novel was written for a young adult audience (Tom A. argued the contrary, while conceding that teen fiction is where Zafon made his name).

Apart from all this disputation, the consensus was that Zafon had created an enjoyable narrative with an evocative and authentic style. This consensus, and our herd instinct (or pussy voting, according to the namecallers), produced a narrow voting range, with a middle-of-the-road result of 6.9. Interestingly, our rating would have been in the 7’s were it not for Stan (6) and Garth (5), the only men who didn’t finish the book.

Next Up
Armando proposed an eclectic set of titles for our consideration for next month's meeting. His absence, however, resulted in an extended debate over our selection process. Without the slightest irony, one of us (who notoriously relies on his father for book ideas) insisted that the upcoming host should first read the titles he puts forward.  In the end, we reverted to tradition and overwhelmingly opted for Tinkers, Paul Harding’s winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Next month we’ll see if this neatly mannered family history meets our exacting summer reading standards.

Jun 20, 2010

Armando's Books for July

Lost City of Z by David Grann

Grann's awards include: Samuel Johnson Prize, shortlist 2009, Michael Kelly award, finalist 2005 ,Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, 1989.

This is about the adventures of explorer Lt Colonel Percy Harrison, famous fellow who disappeared in the Amazon. David Grann takes you on his travels as he ravels and unravels this mystery. #1 on the NYTimes Bestseller list.

Manhood for Amateurs by Michael Chabon

Chabon received the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2007. Folks love and hate this book. This is his take on being a Dad, today. He takes us on daily life, with stories and tangents, and explores societal expectations about Dads.

The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin

An English novelist and travel writer, Chatwin won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for his novel On the Black Hill (1982).

Bruce Chatwin's book is ostensibly an examination of the Australian Aboriginal notion of the Songline: a song that relates a series of geographical locations ranging from one coast to another, tied to the (mythical) creation of an animal, that in a variety of languages unified by tune sings out the geography of the route. He explores this abstract concept through the agency of Arkady and a cast of other Whites who live and work amongst the Aborigines in the harsh heart of Australia, defending their rights and interpreting their rites.

Tinkers by Paul Harding

Tinkers (2009) won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.  The board called the novel "a powerful celebration of life in which a New England father and son, through suffering and joy, transcend their imprisoning lives and offer new ways of perceiving the world and mortality." Tinkers was also shortlisted for the Mercantile Library First Novel Award, named one of the hundred Best Novels of 2009 by Publishers Weekly and, and one of the Best Books of 2009 by NPR and by Library Journal.


May 12, 2010

Hunger - it's what's for dinner!

I was unable to write. Everything around bothered me and distracted me; everything I saw obsessed me. If only one good thought would rush in, then words would come!

The setting sun bounced off the deep blue horizon, like a medicine ball dropped on a Doberman Pinscher from a great height, then rolling into a fireplace and immolating itself like a Phoenix turned to ash. (Paul) I went to a friend's house. His name was Stan. He gave me food, for my writing. (John) Stan is a very controlling host. I wonder what his next book will be. Seems like he enjoys the senses (Blindness, Hunger), so what's next? (unsigned) Yes, Stan is testing us. But we cannot be fooled! We want our food!!! (Tom J.) F&*# this! (Andrew)

They try to divert me, with stories of voyeuristic children's toys and tales of home construction, men riding high on giant wooden beams suspended from cranes, like Slim Pickens in Dr. Strangelove. Young people are triumphing in lacrosse and water polo, going to new high schools and new colleges. They have hopes and futures to look forward to. I have a blog entry.

"One roast beef!" I said. I started eating; gradually I became more and more ravenous and swallowed whole pieces without chewing them. I tore at the meat like a cannibal. Chips, guacamole, salsa, salad, potatoes. How can such foods fuel my masterpiece? Bread, yes bread is my friend, but so much good wine and beer makes my writing insane, or annoying (but not funny).

Thoughts of last night's adventure flooded over me, made me almost delirious. I remember that they talked of the book. (That twit translator George Egerton! That thoughtless writer-of-other-people's-forewords Paul Auster! I will not waste my spit on them.) It was like a vein opening, one word followed the other, arranged themselves in right order, created situations; scene piled on scene, actions and conversations welled up. Every word I set down came from somewhere else:

  • "It gave me a better perspective on homeless people and the psychosis of hunger." (Dean)

  • "It reminds us that homeless people have a lot going on inside." (George)

  • "It was a stream of consciousness, but of a bipolar schizo. His writing was more intelligent than his actions. I like to see characters change and grow, to be affected by something." (Larry)

  • "It was a boring, irritating, honest character study of someone going crazy. Did he imagine the woman? Who would be attracted to him?" (Paul)

  • "My ADD and his psychosis didn't match. I kept falling asleep after reading only 2 pages; it was brutal. All acute angles, with no rhyme or reason." (John)

  • "The book is amazing in a historical context, portraying the amorphous life of the subconscious. But no one progressed - was there a method to his madness or was he just a whack job? It reminded me of the fish in the Citi Card commercial." (Doug)
    (at 0:20 mark in )

  • "I struggled to like it at first, but it grew on me. Why was he honest with the girl? He had a compulsion to be outdoors and on the outskirts." (Andrew)

  • "I tried to hate it, but I ended up loving it. It's funnier than crap, because the guy is such a moron." (Dan)

  • "I skipped ahead 50 pages, and the same things were still happening." (Dean)

  • "This book is an important byway of literature, but really hard to read, like Crime and Punishment, but without all the happy, fun parts. What would great fictional characters be like if they were medicated?" (Tom A.)

  • "It was almost comical, but reading it was such torture that reaching the ending came as a relief. The author keeps putting him in "no, don't do that" situations, but he's completely self-destructive, and he keeps trying to drag in God. You can see how this book is related to Kafka, Camus and Nietzsche." (Stan)

  • "It was OK." (Tom J.)

  • They say the protagonist denied himself opportunities, but maybe deprivation is exactly what he needed to bring out the worst in his writing. It has worked for me.

    It was the best piece I had ever read in my life. I became giddy with contentment, gladness swelled up in me, I felt myself to be magnificent. Then I stopped, my head was empty, I couldn't do any more. It was time to end the whole business now! I began staring with eyes wide open at these final words, at this unfinished page. At the end, I couldn't understand what was going on, I had no thoughts at all.

    May 11, 2010

    Paul's Book Suggestions for June

    I’m departing a bit from the usual “here is the long review of each book from some famous source” and distilling this (or dropping this down to) a level that makes it easier to decide. I’ve included what I think are the two key decision points for this group – identifying each books’ level of misogynism, and outlining the likely dinner for the evening. After all, if you’d known you’d be eating gonads, would you have voted for Power of the Dog?

    The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, 541 pages

    Review quotes: “Brilliant and hugely ambitious…it’s the kind of book that can be life changing” (New York Times) “Thought provoking, life-affirming, triumphant, and tragic” (The Guardian)

    My take: While we’re just coming out of a reading of another one of Stan’s depression and claustrophobia inducing books, Zusak’s view of Nazi Germany in the early years of the war through both the eyes of Death and a young girl is intriguing and thought provoking. It also addresses the Jewish persecution in a slightly different way. OK, it’s a bit north of 500 pages, but many of those pages are short ones with “Death” commentary, and it’s a decidedly different view of the war. The pages turn quickly.

    Level of Misogynism: Moderate.

    Dinner: I ain’t cooking German because it’s not my thing, but I’ll take some liberties with this and say I can choose any country they conquered during the first couple years of the war. I’m thinking a big Greek party meal on the patio with a view of the bay.

    The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, 480 pages

    Review quotes: “Gabriel Garcia Marquez meets Umberto Eco meets Jorge Luis Borges for a sprawling magic show” (NY Times) “Anyone who enjoys novels that are scary, erotic, touching, tragic, and thrilling should rush right out to the nearest bookstore and pick up Shadow of the Wind” (Washington Post)

    My take: Totally biased, given what I did last summer (that would be my vacation to Spain, not those other things you’re not supposed to mention). This book is set in Barcelona over the years following WWII, as a young boy is growing up and dealing with love, evil characters, mystery, and especially, books. He works in his father’s antiquarian bookstore, makes friends with odd and fascinating people, faces danger and women (sometimes both at once) and tries to reconcile the present with the past. The story is good. The writing is great. I found myself frequently stopping and reading quotes to anyone around me; I found it that well written.

    Level of Misogynism: Moderate.

    Dinner: Think Spain. Sangria, homemade gazpacho, tapas, various meats, a wonderful spread of tastes and good Rioja.

    The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein, 321 pages

    Review quotes: “Joyful in its language, creative in its narration, and affecting in its story, this is a terrific book” (Seattle Times) “…had me riveted to its pages until the book was finished…just read it” (Peter Egan, Road & Track)

    My take: This isn’t a book with massive gravitas, but if you want an enjoyable, fast-paced summer read, this is the book of the bunch to plump for. The story is told through the eyes of Enzo, a dog, who is probably smarter than humans but of course can’t actually talk. His “owner” is an amateur race car driver. We see a life story (of the human) as seen from Enzo’s perspective. Sort of a more adult Marley and Me, but don’t let that put you off. It’s not a book that will score at the top of our ratings because it’s not some serious, dark novel. But who cares? You don’t have to like racing to like this book, but if you do, bonus. And, if you don’t like racing, you’re not a real man (remember, Hemingway said “There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.”)

    Level of Misogynism:  N/A

    Dinner: A bit of a wild card. Then again, as Enzo and his human love watching Formula One Grands Prix, I can probably pick any track’s country for the dinner. Let’s see…there is a Spanish Grand Prix…

    Women by Charles Bukowski, 290 pages

    Review quotes: Doesn’t matter. It’s Bukowski.

    My take: OK, let’s get past the fact that I can love this book simply for the fact that its title seems anathema to our club, yet it’s written by one of the crustiest misogynists who ever lived. What fun. It is raw, direct, and foul. The level of sex and drinking in this makes Tropic of Cancer look minor league by comparison. What’s not to like about a book that starts out “I was 50 years old and hadn’t been to bed with a woman for four years”, then has our (protagonist? AntiChrist? whatever) go berserk with women. He becomes a famous poet, “reveling in his sudden rock star life, running three hundred hangovers a year, and maintaining a sex life that would cripple Casanova”. You won’t vote for this as best book of the year, but it doesn’t matter. Just don’t let your kids pick it up.

    Level of Misogynism: High.

    Dinner: Whisky. Beer. Wine. Hard liquor drinks. More whisky. And something to eat to keep it all down.

    Apr 2, 2010

    Interesting criticisms of Superfreakonomics

    Just to make our next discussion more lively, check out these criticisms of various parts of Superfreakonomics (not surprisingly, the climate change section has drawn the most fire). I'll be interested to hear what everyone has to say:

    Mar 26, 2010

    The Battle of Grand Avenue

    The core of what it is to be human: your life is wondrous, and it won’t last forever.(The Cellist of Sarajevo, paraphrase, page 5)
    Streaming in from scattered daytime haunts, surrounded by a warm, welcoming home full of the smells of good food, the group shares chosen details of their lives, large and small. They pause to remember a local high school baseball player in critical condition at a hospital. Some absent group members are grappling with health issues too, their parents’ or their own. Three around the table share stories of pride in their daughters on memorable and momentous trips: national ski championships in Oregon, a life-changing month in Thailand and the Philippines, continued community-building in a small town in Mexico. Southeast Asia provides the lightest badinage, wandering down the byways of elephant riding, swarming beach vendors, baby back ribs made from real babies (?), and dwarves.

    There is always more than enough good food and good drink. This night, it’s three kinds of lasagna (pesto, artichoke, and “boeuf”, all somehow evocative of woodlands), two kinds of salad, several wines, slivovitz plum brandy, rakia peach brandy, and Karlovacko, a Croatian pilsner in 20-ounce bottles. Later, delicious cakes appear. The men “eat until their stomachs can hold no more” (as characters in the book can only dream of - page 188). Doug, the host, clearly outdoes himself.


    Talk drifts to the book, Stephen Galloway’s The Cellist of Sarajevo. The once harmonious group separates into two distinct camps, like the men in the hills and the people down in the streets. The men in the hills see the book as a finely-wrought work of art, viewing it from above and outside, admiring its technique and its essential distillation of the thoughts and emotions of civilians trapped inside a war. The men in the streets long to inhabit the story and know its characters, resisting its abstract qualities and wishing it had more real history and fully-formed people. Some find themselves passing between the two camps, agreeing with both the lofty praise and the trenchant criticism.

    An army of one, sticking to his guns, loaded or not, Stan first reviews another book, one he had advocated choosing a month earlier, like a Serb partisan rehashing Prince Lazar's crushing defeat at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. The others avert their gazes, unmoved even by vivid tales of flaming buttocks. But Stan's criticisms of the book that was chosen hit home for many (save Doug, who, flabbergasted, finds Stan's approach somewhat "irrational"). Though they may not find it "weak on almost every point", as he does, his assessments of its style and characters clearly set the tone for most of the discussion that follows.

    Up in the hills, Armando says, “It fits this time in my life; it’s perfect”, and “I like that it isn’t clear on the history.” Andrew thinks it “extraordinary”, finding the character development “terrific” and saying, “My breath was taken away.” Paul (by email) thinks that “Galloway does a great job of evoking emotions ranging from desperation to hope” and finds Arrow’s end moving. He believes it’s “one of the best crafted and most compelling books [he’s] read in a number of months, and probably the best that [he’s] read of the club selections in the past year.” [Editor’s note: This contrast of "months" vs. "years" seems to indicate that Paul either 1) thinks his non-MBC reading is better than our book club selections, or 2) doesn’t read many of our club’s selections.] Larry (also by email) sees fiction as “exactly the right vehicle” to describe the experience of the siege of Sarajevo. He and Tom A. both point out the nuanced use of dilemmas. Is it better to cling to the past or accept the present? Is it better to die quickly or slowly? At the same time, Larry dislikes the characters' resignation and the book’s lack of resolution, finding Arrow’s final choice especially unconvincing (as does Roy). He wishes the snipers in the hills had been given voice and faces too. Doug praises the book but acknowledges that the structure and occasionally “heavy-handed” writing become obstacles at times.

    Dean, and many of his comrades down below in the streets, thinks grayness has seeped too much into the book’s bones. (Oddly, a similar bleakness was also a theme of last month’s Bad Land.) Larry questions whether any of the writing rises to true greatness, finding no passages truly memorable. Several members find the style suffocating and the characters flat, aptly described by George as “caring about the situations but not the characters.” Garth suggests that had he heard a recording of the Albinoni Adagio before reading the book, its remembered sounds might have served as a welcome embellishment to the text’s spare language. He wishes the unrelenting terror (something that Tom J. found to go on far too long) had been combined with more about the war itself. Terry thinks the book is overwrought, verging on maudlin, as if “written by a 15-year-old girl”. Finally, several members point out that, though the book is called The Cellist of Sarajevo, the cellist is little more than a plot device, a cipher.

    Later, looking back at passages while writing his summary, the scribe of San Rafael finds more in Kenan and Dragan than he’d remembered. When Dragan sees surprising strength in Emina, when Kenan banters with his wife about buying cakes, when Dragan chooses to believe in a future and says “Good afternoon” to a stranger, or when he realizes he doesn’t wish that he were in Italy - these are choices to remain human. Perhaps these short and rare passages aren’t enough, maybe the ghosts of what the people once were are the ghosts of what the book might have been. But the strongly held and sharply divided opinions about The Cellist of Sarajevo clearly make for a more lively and interesting discussion. As pointed out by several, its modest length also helps, since, for the first time in recent memory, nearly everyone actually finishes the book.


    For next month, the group chooses life, hope, and excitement, as embodied in Steven Levitt's and Stephen Dubner's SuperFreakonomics, rumored to be the story of an exercise routine accompanied by Rick James music.

    Feb 4, 2010

    March Book Suggestions

    Hi Bookmen,

    Here are my suggestions for our March book. Two of them, Far Bright Star and The Cellist of Sarajevo, are serious books about war (see descriptions below). Both are relatively short and fairly easy to borrow at the library or purchase on the cheap on line. This Is Where I Leave You is much lighter. Its not as well written, but is a lot of fun. Its a relatively new book, so its tougher to get from the library and might cost you a little more on line. The White Tiger won the 2008 Booker Prize, but don't hold that against it. Its actually a very fun read. I think its pretty easy to borrow or purchase. I can tell you more about the books Wednesday night, if you like.


    Far Bright Star, by Robert Olmstead.

    Set in 1916, Far Bright Star follows Napoleon Childs, an aging cavalryman, as he leads an expedition of inexperienced soldiers into the mountains of Mexico to hunt down Pancho Villa and bring him to justice. Though he is seasoned at such missions, things go terribly wrong and the patrol is brutally attacked. After witnessing the demise of his troops, Napoleon is left by his captors to die in the desert.
    Through him we enter the conflicted mind of a warrior as he tries to survive against all odds, as he seeks to make sense of a lifetime of senseless wars and to reckon with the reasons a man would choose a life on the battlefield. Olmstead, an award-winning writer, uses his precise, descriptive prose to explore the endurance and fate of the last horse soldiers. The result is a tightly wound novel that is as moving as it is terrifying.

    The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway

    A spare and haunting, wise and beautiful novel about the endurance of the human spirit and the subtle ways individuals reclaim their humanity in a city ravaged by war.
    In a city under siege, four people whose lives have been upended are ultimately reminded of what it is to be human. From his window, a musician sees twenty-two of his friends and neighbors waiting in a breadline. Then, in a flash, they are killed by a mortar attack. In an act of defiance, the man picks up his cello and decides to play at the site of the shelling for twenty-two days, honoring their memory. Elsewhere, a young man leaves home to collect drinking water for his family and, in the face of danger, must weigh the value of generosity against selfish survivalism. A third man, older, sets off in search of bread and distraction and instead runs into a long-ago friend who reminds him of the city he thought he had lost, and the man he once was. As both men are drawn into the orbit of cello music, a fourth character — a young woman, a sniper — holds the fate of the cellist in her hands. As she protects him with her life, her own army prepares to challenge the kind of person she has become.
    A novel of great intensity and power, and inspired by a true story, The Cellist of Sarajevo poignantly explores how war can change one's definition of humanity, the effect of music on our emotional endurance, and how a romance with the rituals of daily life can itself be a form of resistance.

    This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper.

    The death of Judd Foxman's father marks the first time that the entire Foxman family-including Judd's mother, brothers, and sister-have been together in years. Conspicuously absent: Judd's wife, Jen, whose fourteen-month affair with Judd's radio-shock-jock boss has recently become painfully public.
    Simultaneously mourning the death of his father and the demise of his marriage, Judd joins the rest of the Foxmans as they reluctantly submit to their patriarch's dying request: to spend the seven days following the funeral together. In the same house. Like a family.
    As the week quickly spins out of control, longstanding grudges resurface, secrets are revealed, and old passions reawakened. For Judd, it's a weeklong attempt to make sense of the mess his life has become while trying in vain not to get sucked into the regressive battles of his madly dysfunctional family. All of which would be hard enough without the bomb Jen dropped the day Judd's father died: She's pregnant.

    The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga.

    Balram Halwai is a complicated man. Servant. Philosopher. Entrepreneur. Murderer. Over the course of seven nights, by the scattered light of a preposterous chandelier, Balram tells us the terrible and transfixing story of how he came to be a success in life — having nothing but his own wits to help him along.
    Born in the dark heart of India, Balram gets a break when he is hired as a driver for his village's wealthiest man, two house Pomeranians (Puddles and Cuddles), and the rich man's (very unlucky) son. From behind the wheel of their Honda City car, Balram's new world is a revelation. While his peers flip through the pages of Murder Weekly ("Love — Rape — Revenge!"), barter for girls, drink liquor (Thunderbolt), and perpetuate the Great Rooster Coop of Indian society, Balram watches his employers bribe foreign ministers for tax breaks, barter for girls, drink liquor (single-malt whiskey), and play their own role in the Rooster Coop. Balram learns how to siphon gas, deal with corrupt mechanics, and refill and resell Johnnie Walker Black Label bottles (all but one). He also finds a way out of the Coop that no one else inside it can perceive.
    Balram's eyes penetrate India as few outsiders can: the cockroaches and the call centers; the prostitutes and the worshippers; the ancient and Internet cultures; the water buffalo and, trapped in so many kinds of cages that escape is (almost) impossible, the white tiger. And with a charisma as undeniable as it is unexpected, Balram teaches us that religion doesn't create virtue, and money doesn't solve every problem — but decency can still be found in a corrupt world, and you can get what you want out of life if you eavesdrop on the right conversations.