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!