Jul 12, 2015

Our Appointment at Jack's

men's book club review Appointment in Samarra John O'Hara
As Dean observed, Jack treated us to the "two-fifty dinner" last Wednesday with his chopped iceberg salads and surf and turf entrees.  The ambience was further enhanced by the bottles of Speakeasy beer and small batch rye whiskey that made the rounds.  With a black tie optional dress code, it was as close to O'Hara's fictional Lantenengo Country Club as this group will ever see.  Special thanks to Jack's guest, also named Jack and also a Cantab, who good naturedly played along--sartorially and otherwise.

(Note to photo ed.: Photoshop trousers onto Jack R before publishing)
The Book
Published in 1934, Appointment in Samarra was John O'Hara's first novel and was an immediate literary and commercial success.  With both the Great Depression and Prohibition as its backdrop, O'Hara's novel exposes the social pretensions and economic friction of Gibbsville's arriviste country club set by charting the tragic downfall of its protagonist, Julian English. His demise is foretold in the book's title, which is taken from the book's epigraph by Somerset Maugham.  (Thanks to Doug for letting us in on the licensing fee O'Hara paid, and then passed on, in order to use this excerpt from Maugham's 1933 play, Sheppey.)

Despite my misgivings that O'Hara might read as a lesser Fitzgerald, none of us felt let down.  Instead, we enjoyed dissecting the social stratification at the heart of the novel and, as Tom put it, found a little of everything for the Man Book Club.  Several noted that the principal characters were irredeemable (Jack, Doug, Tom), and Paul--with his commentary about deception--found a suitably twisted/misogynistic cast of characters among the Lantenengo set. I was struck by the anti-Catholic bias that animated much of the story (and suffused so much of O'Hara's later writing). For Stan and Terry, it was the setting (Depression/Prohibition) that was especially vivid.  For Larry, it was Julian's impulsive act with the ice cube.  As the novel's set piece, this breach of decorum sets in motion the events that lead to Julian's suicide.  Finally, in a shameless display of male sensitivity, our guest noted that O'Hara's story features unusually strong, sexy female characters.  I'd accuse Jack of pandering, but who among us didn't love Caroline?!

There were some protests (our host openly admitted he liked Ten North Frederick better and George walked out when we told him the ending), but unlike one critic's headline reaction to O'Hara's next novel (Butterfield 8), our consensus 7.7 rating showed no "Disappointment in O'Hara." By the same token, none of us was willing to agree with Stan's conclusion that Appointment in Samarra is our best read to date. (But it was better than Hunger, Stan!)

Next Up
We read next Joseph Wambaugh's powerful true crime work, The Onion Field.  Paul couldn't persuade us to orient our moral compasses thru martial arts, nor could he nudge us back to Afghanistan with The Kite Runner.  So we will meet in September to discuss Powell and Smith's notorious 1963 police kidnapping.  Extra credit will be awarded to those who also watch the movie, starring James Woods and--in his film debut--a young Ted Danson.

Jun 6, 2015

Love Requited, at George's

men's book club group review Love in the Time of Cholera Gabriel Garcia Marquez
George deserves kudos on several fronts.  First, when his proposed titles were challenged, he promptly offered us an alternative that met with our approval. Second, the title he proffered had so much personal meaning that he had us close to tears when he recounted why.  Finally, his eggplant parmesan would have joined Fermina Daza and her mother-in-law in gustatory harmony, and his chess pie might well have convinced Dr. Juvenal Urbino that dessert is better than the game itself.

The Book
If One Hundred Years of Solitude put Gabriel Garcia Marquez on the map, Love in the Time of Cholera cemented his stature as one of the greatest novelists of the 20th century.  Our 7.9 rating confirms how easily we were persuaded by the exquisite storytelling that is the hallmark of Garcia Marquez’ writing.  Set in a fictional city on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, Love in the Time of Cholera tells the compelling if convoluted story of unrequited love, with Fermina Daza at the middle of the triangle formed by her husband, Dr. Juvenal Urbino, and her first love, Florentino Ariza. 

Despite our collective thumbs up, our individual reactions were anything but uniform.  Indeed, many were quite cryptic—according to my paltry notes. Here are some examples:  the book “wrote itself” according to Larry, who nevertheless labored to finish it; the female protagonist wasn’t sufficiently endearing and neither were the long paragraphs (Jack); the plot benefited from “parallel male characters” (Doug, to whom I do no justice with this paraphrasing); the book “mesmerized” Roy until he reached the halfway point (or was it the halfway point of his family vacation in Southeast Asia?); the repeated use of symbols fascinated Stan, who still puzzled over the significance of the birds and refused all of our explanations; and, finally, the book seduced Glenn from the very first paragraph, even though he’d read it before. As for me, yes, I spiked the ratings with a 10, but I had to.  The characters are unforgettable, but it was the extraordinary dialogue—with all of its insight into human relationships—that had me from the beginning.

Next Up
Jack gave us the chance to step further back in time and read one of the few American novelists who compares closely (and favorably) to F. Scott Fitzgerald.  We'll see in July if John O'Hara deserved the accolades he received upon the publication of his first and arguably best novel, Appointment in Samarra.

Apr 27, 2015

The First Trimester of 2015: No Snow But Some Diverting Reads

Product DetailsLike last year, January’s ski trip was a bust.  Too little snow too early in the season canceled our Sierra excursion. Instead we met in February at Tom’s to see if Irving Stone’s 1938 work of biographical fiction (think The Agony and the Ecstasy, only much earlier and mercifully shorter) justified its selection as our first title of 2015. The verdict on Sailor on Horseback:  with a middling 6.4 rating, it didn’t quite deliver the goods. It certainly wasn’t the subject matter, as we all have a soft spot for local favorite and hero of Tales of the Fish Patrol, Jack London.  (Indeed, Irving Stone himself was a San Francisco native.)  Maybe it was the dated writing, the clutter of detail, or—as Stan put it—the fact that Stone “kept droning on,” but no one was actively applauding when the votes were tallied (except perhaps Tom, our resident Jack London fan).  No matter.  All in attendance enjoyed Tom’s food and wine pairings.  (Was it really Mondavi, Tom?)

Product DetailsMarch had us only two years removed from Sailor, as we brought back another local writer and past MBC author, John Steinbeck, but this time on an adventure down to Baja with his 1940 travelogue, The Log from the Sea of Cortez.  With fellow traveler and field biologist Ed Ricketts providing some of the narration, Steinbeck took cover from the furor over The Grapes of Wrath by embarking on a collecting expedition to Baja California with a notebook in hand.  His descriptions of marine life were frequently interrupted by a variety of philosophical and humanistic meditations.  Stan called them rants, and for once I had to agree.  While I criticized his constant riffing as self-indulgent and repetitive, others were much more forgiving. Larry and Glenn found the digressions refreshing, and Paul who likened these digressions to those in Moby Dick found enough to keep himself reading the interesting parts.   All of us, however, enjoyed Armando’s stories of his field work in the Sea of Cortez and especially the slide show of his most recent trip just a week before our dinner.  As an added touch, Armando’s main course (blue fin tuna) was caught, cleaned, and packed in the very locale described by Steinbeck. For that we gave Mando a huge thumbs-up and Steinbeck a very respectable 6.8.
For April, Doug convinced us to give short form fiction a try, and he sealed the deal when he offered to prepare and email us a packet of short stories with a combined page count of less than 100!  Not only were we engrossed by his selected stories (George Saunders’ Sea Oak took top honors in the length-of-discussion category), but every one of us claimed to have done the reading (impressive, even if some were embellishing a little).  With selections from Jess Walters (Anything Helps), Tom Perrotta (The Smile on Happy Chang’s Face), Dennis Lehane (Until Gwen), Steve Almond (Donkey Greedy, Donkey Gets Punched), and others, there was something for everyone.  With such impressive writing, I had high hopes our next selection would be from one of these men, but George tortured us and then steered us back to Gabriel Garcia Marquez (recall, we read News of a Kidnapping) and the work that sealed his Nobel Prize, Love in the Time of Cholera. In June, we'll find out whether a 50-year deferred romance in the Caribbean piques our interest as much as Bernie's lost appendages did in Sea Oak.

Jan 1, 2015

2014 In Review

With apologies, here’s a belated summary of our meetings in 2014, following our evening imbibing Joy Juice with Dan:

In March, I hosted and had the highest hopes for my favorite novel of 2012, Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars.  This first-person narrative chronicles the post-apocalyptic angst of a pilot (Hig) holed up in a rural Colorado airport with an ornery fellow survivor (Bangley), an aging dog (Jasper), and miles of open (and threatening) prairie around the airfield.  I thought Hig’s obsession with and eventual exploration of the world beyond would capture everyone’s imagination.  It did, but with reservations about Heller's plot contrivances.  At rating time, we gave the novel a modestly positive 7.1.  At least the Filipino food from Ma’s was a hit.
Glenn hosted us in April, with Rory graciously providing the venue.  The dark interior of the McNear House dining room was the perfect atmosphere as we ate stew and discussed Miller’s Cold War classic, A Canticle for Leibowitz.  Most were glad they read (for the second month in a row) this post-apocalyptic novel, but some quibbled with the narrative’s intentionally slow progression (yes, it took centuries before those monks figured out the meaning of a grocery list).  The church/state tension and the hostility towards science were fascinating, as was society's fate in repeating its cycle of self-destruction (barring a technological, not spiritual salvation at the novel's end). Were it not for the novel’s plodding pace, we might have rated it higher than 6.7.

In May, Terry had us reading another period piece, this time from the French Indo-Chinese conflict in the 1950’s.  Graham Greene’s The Quiet American generated ambivalence, as we struggled with the opium-laced duplicity of the English correspondent, Fowler, and the implausibly naïve American diplomat, Pyle.  The book had no likeable characters and instead was an interesting, if disturbing harbinger of the war that followed a decade later in Vietnam.  Following Stan’s loud protestations that Greene’s novel was “not a war book” (no one said it was, Stan), we gave it a thumbs-up rating of 7.1.

Stan hosted us for a twofer in June.  Our chosen book, Saramago’s Cain, was (thanks to the sudden generosity of Random House) twinned with a pre-publication edition of Alan Furst’s latest novel, Midnight in Europe.  Those of us who read Furst’s pre-WWII spy thriller were disappointed.  Thin, poorly plotted, and with unfinished characters.  Enough said.  Cain, on the other hand, was a provocative read for even those whose recollection of the Old Testament had grown dim.  From the Garden of Eden through Cain’s lengthy exile, Saramago's final novel moved along with an almost mystical hum.  Impressed but unpersuaded that Saramago had achieved anything close to the standard he set with Blindness, we gave him the benefit of the doubt with a 6.5 rating.
Following Doug’s summer party in July (thanks again, Doug), we met at Dean’s in August to chew over Reza Aslan’s critically-acclaimed Zealot.  It was mere coincidence that Zealot picked up where Cain left off.  And while no one was pining at the end of the meal for yet another story about the Bible, we were all quite taken by the extraordinary research Aslan poured into this latest account of the story of Jesus of Nazareth.  His thesis that Jesus was less a proselytizer than an overt revolutionary provided plenty of conversation to accompany our meal and as a story was impressive enough to earn a 7.6. And about that meal, Dean did a superb job replicating the cuisine of Israel while operating with a balky hip.  (Glad the bionic version is working well, Dean.)

In September, Larry persuaded us to read Steven Kotler’s controversial work examining the state of “flow.”  In The Rise of Superman, Kotler posits that today’s generation of extreme athletes is achieving extraordinary success by hacking (his term) flow and that this state of being holds promise for all manner of human endeavor.  As a group, we weren’t buying it.  And I mean that literally, as some of us felt that Kotler’s book-length exposition was designed in part to sell his accompanying workshops, seminars, and the like.  While some felt that a state of flow was achievable (Stan and Dan, in particular), no one was willing to defend Kotler’s view that flow is the sine qua non of ultimate performance.  The anecdotes were interesting, but the hyperbole relegated The Rise of Superman to a subpar 5.7.

With the arrival of rain and colder weather, we convened at Peter’s to mull over Dan Brown’s best-selling account of the University of Washington’s 1936 Olympic rowing team, The Boys in the Boat.  To a man, we enjoyed the core story with its (obvious) themes of teamwork, redemption, sacrifice, honor, and the like. But, led by Larry, we panned Brown for larding up a compelling story with extraneous detail and trying too hard to eulogize an entire generation (yes, THAT generation).  We also decried the formula: part Laura Hillenbrand, part Erik Larson, Brown doesn’t quite do justice to either. George shared his early rowing experience in Pocock shells and that rowing gradually disappeared from the national consciousness not only because of the rise of televised sports, but also due to the taint of too many betting scandals. Notwithstanding our quibbles, The Boys in the Boat generated a healthy 7.1 in our final rating.

Roy hosted us—well most of us—in December to share reactions to Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story.  Ok, let’s cut to the chase. Since I didn’t attend, I can’t do justice to the conversation.  But I did collect the votes afterwards and was surprised that Shteyngart, whose peculiar brand of Russian émigré satire isn’t for everyone, managed to pull down a 7.5.  Either Roy’s distillations were especially powerful or I misjudged my fellow MBCers.  Regardless, kudos to Roy for a fine meal (according to my sources), and that’s a wrap for 2014!