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.