Dec 28, 2013

2013 Redux

In June we gathered at Roy's, ate well from his table loaded with food from Sol, and discussed Michael Ondaatje's second-most famous novel, The Cat's Table. Recalled from a much later vantage point, Ondaatje's narrator describes his journey as an 11-year old from Ceylon to England.  Ostensibly an account of 21 days aboard ship, the novel proved to us to be so much more.  Ondaatje gave us a beautiful examination of wayward youth, lost innocence, misplaced recollections, and the pain of  friendships also misplaced. With no one dissenting, we happily awarded Ondaatje an 8.1 for a story so well told.

July arrived and, instead of simple afternoon cocktails at Doug's, we dined and discussed Dave Eggers' A Hologram for the King.  Surprisingly, we were to a man slightly underwhelmed by a novel that otherwise boasted so many of the elements necessary for our approval.  Eggers' protagonist, Alan Clay, an American businessman in his mid-fifties, has bottomed out financially and is desperate to redeem himself with a sales commission on a deal with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.  The product:  a holographic telecommunications system.  The client:  King Abdullah.  The setting:  a speculative city waiting to be built in the desert. With a huge nod to Waiting for Godot,  Eggers' story of ambition and failure, of a father's love and a spouse's betrayal, of a disappearing old economy and a mystifying new economy unfolds in a series of reflections and diversions as Clay waits and waits for the King to appear for a promised presentation of the hologram. We found Clay alternatingly pathetic and sympathetic, and perhaps because none of us has suffered so keenly the emotional toll of middle age, we couldn't quite forgive Clay his inability and unwillingness to move ahead.  A mildly pessimistic novel tempered our optimism and produced merely a solid rating (6.5).  Like Eggers' protagonist, our rating could and should have been better.

We declared a bye in August and reconvened in September at George's house for a fine German dinner, with schnapps from Roy and a drinkable Malbec (with an Urban label!) from Doug.  We had to decide whether we erred in selecting The Book Thief as our reading for the month.  Amid criticisms that Zusak's novel was written for young adults, boasts a female protagonist, and exceeded our 500-page limit, we nevertheless concluded that it was well worth the extra pages.  Set during WWII in Munich, and told from Death's perspective (yes, Death is the first-person narrator), Zusak's story centers on young Liesel Meminger, a girl whose poverty combined with her fondness of reading compels her to steal books.  With heartbreaking commentary on Jews, Jesse Owens, hunger, schoolyard bullies, bombs, Nazism, heroism and selflessness, and above all parental love, Zusak had us early in his story.  We all but admitted that our 7.7 rating would have been higher but for the book's YA designation.  Shame on us!

We met at Jack's in October and, with mouthfuls of tri tip and roasted autumn root soup, we dug into The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint.  Written by Brady Udall (to us baby boomers, better known for his relationship to Reps. Morris and Stewart Udall), Edgar Mint is about as bleak a novel as we've read to date.  Yes, there is redemption and closure (of sorts) at the end, and more than a little black humor en route, but Edgar's journey is filled with so much pain that the reader can only cringe as the obstacles mount. His story begins when, while living with his alcoholic mother, his head is run over by a mail truck.  He is taken to a hospital where his only solace is--you're not going to believe it--a urinal puck! Thence to an Indian reservation reform school where bullying and beatings are routine and supervision absent.  And then to the dysfunction of an adoptive Mormon family.  And all the while, in the background lurks the strange and seemingly predatory surgeon to whom Edgar owes his life.  We argued over the transitions between first and third person POV (Doug and Stan), we agreed that Udall is wildly imaginative (Paul and Larry), we found in Edgar the consummate survivor (John), and generally marveled at the co-existence of stereotypes and eccentrics in this coming-of-age/survival/nativist tale.  Udall really made us work for it, so we gave him a solid 6.8 for his and our combined efforts.

We bypassed November and met at Paul's in December. In recognition of Dashiell Hammett's role in the development of the noir genre (both book and film), Paul's menu went berserk.  Starting with a black truffle brie and black olives, then to an entrĂ©e of black rice, black beans, and blackened chicken, Paul had us wash it down with sips of Johnnie Walker Black. Dessert, naturally, featured blackberries.  Way to go, Paul!  As for Hammett, his The Maltese Falcon managed to stand up to the passage of time.  But since the entire genre has been co-opted, adapted, and reinvented many times over, the novelty was absent.  Dean felt it read a little like a Law & Order episode.  Moreover, the dry, potboiler writing felt stilted when compared to the sharp dialog we recalled from the movie.  Several of us (Larry, Tom, and Paul) found ourselves mentally toggling back and forth between Hammett's original tough-talking Spade and Bogart's archly classic cinematic version. All of us, though, enjoyed the 1920's San Francisco backdrop, from old street and hotel names to the city's colorful and checkered history as a port of embarkation to the far east.  As a quick read and a sentimental mood piece, we favored TMF with a 6.9 rating.

Apr 28, 2013

Tom Takes Us Down the Colorado

Last Monday, Tom did what John Wesley Powell was unable to do:  he fed his men exceedingly well as he took them on a journey down the Colorado River.  How?  He prepared Julia Child's ineffable boeuf bourguignon, paired it with roasted potatoes and two salads (thanks to John for contributing the garlic radicchio), and concluded with man-size helpings of his legendary strawberry shortcake.  With bottles of the always drinkable San Marino Cellars followed by Roy's distilled spirits, the meal washed down well.  As for the book, well...see below.

The Book
Powell's account of his 1869 expedition down the unexplored canyons of the Green and Colorado Rivers made for tough reading.  According to Wallace Stegner, Powell publicized his expedition hoping Congress would appropriate funds for further exploration of the Colorado River.  But to broaden its appeal (and, I dare say, extend its serialization in Scribner's), Powell prefaced his account with a lengthy exposition on the geology of the region, inserted pictures and commentary on random native artifacts, and embellished his diary notes with details from later expeditions.

Our 4.3 rating says it all.  Those who read all of the 400-page Penguin edition (fewer than half the group) were disappointed to learn that Dean and Dan had managed to find a 135-page hardcover edition containing only Powell's account of the actual expedition.  Gentlemen, thanks for sharing.

Bitterness aside, we were taken by the arduousness of Powell's trip (how many times did they lose their oars and have to fashion new ones from downed trees?), the primitive instruments (who knew you could calculate altitude with a barometer?), and the meager rations they subsisted on (only tobacco and coffee were in generous supply; Powell's men had their priorities).   As a self-funded, one-armed Civil War veteran supported by a ragtag group of men, John Wesley Powell's exploration of the Colorado frontier was truly remarkable.  His account, however, wasn't.

Next Up
We dine next at Roy's, armed with (unabridged) copies of The Cat's Table, Michael Ondaatje's recent follow-up to his Booker Prize-winning novel, The English Patient.  We will decide if this novel is--despite the afterword's disclaimer--a thinly-disguised memoir of Ondaatje's boyhood journey from Ceylon to England.

Apr 24, 2013

Middle America, Middlesex, and an Ending

With apologies to John, Larry, and Peter, here is an abbreviated and belated summary of three outstanding evenings in the preceding months.

Last December, we arrived at John's house with exceedingly low expectations.  With 1950's Iowa as his backdrop, and knowing that Roy had already mined the era to produce his Midwestern Manhattan-style sandwiches for our discussion of In Cold Blood, John's menu choices appeared limited. Or so we thought. John surprised us by pulling from his warming oven individual foil boxes he'd hand-filled with gourmet meat loaf, organic spuds, and fresh veggies.  Not Swanson's.  Not Hungry-Man.  Just outstanding!

Our reaction to The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid was more muted. We enjoyed Bryson's many references to a childhood that resembled our own.  From Glenn's memory of the x-ray measuring machines in shoe stores, to Larry's recollection of hi-fi cabinets and early color TV's, to our collective memories of delivering newspapers and driving to Disneyland--Bryson had us reminiscing about simpler times.  But it wasn't enough to achieve more than a middling 7.0 rating.  As noted by Paul, Bryson's memoir, while funny and evocative, is a book about not very much.  There is an aimlessness to the narrative that left many of us wanting more.  So we helped ourselves to dessert, talked about growing up, and relaxed in the company of John's excellent guests, Mark and Don.

In early January,  we went skiing.  And a good thing, too.  By late January the snow in the Sierras was declining fast and very little more came our way.  Fortunately, our bye month gave us an extra 30 days to finish reading Jeffrey Eugenides' best known work, Middlesex.

When we met in February, Larry's dinner nicely captured the Greek immigrant story at the heart of Middlesex with servings of lamb and beef gyros (on two types of homemade pita bread!) followed by  assimilationist brownies a la mode (yes, the vanilla ice cream was also homemade).  The book was received almost as well as the dinner.

Many considered it a rich, evocative tale (multi-layered, according to John) that suffered from a single, significant distraction:  the lengthy revelation that the main character, Callie, is a hermaphrodite.  Doug, who was born only 5 miles from Greek Town, wasn't convinced of its import but figured it was Callie's fate given the secret of her forebears. Contrast that with Paul who, having read the novel on his iPhone, complained that the first 2100 pages were mere foreplay to the main act (presumably the reader's epiphany about Callie, but as usual Paul wasn't saying). From there our discussion evolved into commentary about the Greek  diaspora (who knew Peter's hometown of Melbourne boasts the second largest expat Greek community?) and of course hermaphrodites (Terry warned us not to research the subject via Google images; Armando noted that post-coital snails eat their penises to separate). (Editor:  My notes are quite specific on this last point.)  Our 7.5 rating was boosted by Stan who proclaimed the novel "a brilliant work of art," despite having read it over five years ago and retaining only the dimmest recollection of the story line.

Peter's dinner on March 19 was a well-conceived and even better executed St. Patrick's Day meal, replete with corned beef, cabbage, potatoes, carrots, and competing apple and rhubarb pies.  Maybe it's his Commonwealth upbringing, but leave it to Peter to serve up Irish food to accompany our discussion of Julian Barnes, an oh-so-English contemporary novelist.

Barnes' The Sense of an Ending generated an unpredictable reaction.  Unlike Banville's The Sea, an equally introspective novel that had most of us on the fence, we all genuinely liked Barnes' effort.  Like Banville, Barnes delves deeply into the fissures of unreliable memory, in this instance through the perspective of Tony Webster, a retiree who discovers a painful part of his past.  For most of us, the pleasure of this novel was the gradually building suspense that precedes the narrator's realization of the pain he'd caused his school friends long ago.  But not quite all were entranced by Barnes' skillful prose.  Paul, always the contrarian, found the characters uniformly unlikable. His dissenting 5 failed to keep this gem of a novel from pulling down a very respectable 7.5 (an above average rating, especially for a Booker Prize winner).

Apr 22, 2013

Roy's Picks for May

For our consideration in May, Roy offers us the following titles, all thematically linked (in various ways) to the colonial legacy still connecting South Asia and Africa.

Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese (667 pages), 2010.  

Verghese turns his formidable talents to fiction, mining his own life and experiences in a magnificent, sweeping novel that moves from India to Ethiopia to an inner-city hospital in New York City over decades and generations. Sister Mary Joseph Praise, a devout young nun, leaves the south Indian state of Kerala in 1947 for a missionary post in Yemen. During the arduous sea voyage, she saves the life of an English doctor bound for Ethiopia, Thomas Stone, who becomes a key player in her destiny when they meet up again at Missing Hospital in Addis Ababa. Seven years later, Sister Praise dies birthing twin boys: Shiva and Marion, the latter narrating his own and his brothers long, dramatic, biblical story set against the backdrop of political turmoil in Ethiopia, the life of the hospital compound in which they grow up and the love story of their adopted parents, both doctors at Missing. The boys become doctors as well and Vergheses weaving of the practice of medicine into the narrative is fascinating even as the story bobs and weaves with the power and coincidences of the best 19th-century novel.  (Publisher’s Weekly)

The Cat’s Table, Michael Ondaatje (290 pages), 2011. 

Michael Ondaatje's finely wrought new novel chronicles a young boy's passage from Sri Lanka to London onboard the Oronsay, both as it unfolds and in hindsight. Glancing off the author's own biography, the story follows 11-year-old Michael as he immerses himself in the hidden corners and relationships of a temporary floating world, overcoming its physical boundaries with the expanse of his imagination. The boy's companions at the so-called cat's table, where the ship’s unconnected strays dine together, become his friends and teachers, each leading him closer to the key that unlocks the Oronsay's mystery decades later. Elegantly structured and completely absorbing, The Cat's Table is a quiet masterpiece by a writer at the height of his craft.  (Amazon Review)

A Bend In the River, V.S. Naipaul (288 pages), 1989.   

A Bend in the River tells the story of an Indian man whose family has lived on the coast of Africa for three generations. He travels to an unnamed country in the interior to open a store, at the bend of the river. The town there has been a thriving European-run city, but is now largely ruins after a revolution, which put "The Big Man" in power. The protagonist's life there is a cycle of fairly stable times with rebuilding, and times of fear and dread, as counter-revolutions and government crack-downs repeatedly threaten the area. He encounters other Indian businessmen, young Africans trying to find a place in their new world, Europeans trying to adapt themselves to the new order. It is basically a story told through the eyes of an outsider of a country trying to find a balance between the modern world and the past and traditions of Africa, where tribal warfare is an inescapable fact of life.  (Amazon Review)

Life of Pi, Yann Martel (326 pages), 2003.   

Piscine Molitor Patel, named after a French swimming pool, grew up in a Zoo in India. One would think that would be enough to make him unique, but there is more, much more.  He survives the sinking of a ship that killed his entire family and most of the zoo animals, he lived for 227 days in the company of a bengal tiger named Richard Parker, discovers a carnivorous island populated by meerkats. Eventually he lands in Mexico. Sounds insane? Pure fiction? Read the book, then you decide. A beautiful, terrible story, a glimpse inside the mind of a truly unique person, richly detailed, you will have difficulty putting it down.  (Amazon Review)