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.