Dec 18, 2016

A Sellout at Jack's

The Sellout by Paul Beatty
Dinner and Acknowledgments
We met last Wednesday at Jack's and learned that Jack had spent the day on a project in Sacramento and had hurried back for our meal.  If he had any concern about feeding a small army, he didn't show it. He must have prepared everything the day before, pressed his wife into service, or lied about his work itinerary.  Regardless, when it came time to take our places, we were treated to quintessential American comfort food.  A hearty beef stew, plenty of winter vegetables, a mixed salad, and a fruit dessert that was more healthy than it needed to be.  (Thank goodness for the box of See's Candies that materialized next to the fruit.) Kudos, Jack, for turning out a fine meal under pressure.

Our Review and Discussion of The Sellout

Approaching our meeting, I queried whether Paul Beatty's profane satire about race in America allowed our group of mostly white men to adopt the idiom of Beatty's characters and use the N-word during our discussion of the book.  The quick response from our host:  No.  While we never felt muzzled, this forced awareness of the language of race is one of many subjects Beatty happily skewers in his award-winning roman a clef.  (More on that below.)

Beatty's novel begins and ends with the narrator's appearance before the U.S. Supreme Court to defend his participation in a master-slave relationship (he's the master, albeit unwillingly, of Hominy Jenkins, the last Little Rascal) and his initiative to segregate the local high school by excluding whites and Latinos.  Between those appearances, Beatty's narrator explains his unconventional outlook on race by sharing the details of a zany childhood tormented by a psychologist father whose best experiments were always about race and always on his son. About his tortured upbringing, he says:

Talk about starting life off with a handicap.  Fuck being black.  Try learning to crawl, ride a tricycle, cover both eyes while playing peek-a-boo, and constructing a meaningful theory of mind, all with one hand.

While race stands at the center of his novel, Beatty exposes innumerable cultural stereotypes to comedic effect, even if his range is exhausting and at times impenetrable.  On one randomly selected page, he references Pantone 342, the Sistine Chapel, Banksy, The Thomas Guide, Sacagawea, Surenos, KLON, The Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices, and Fruit Town. Jack summed up our feelings when he declared that he wasn't sure if he got it all. (Terry gave up and said he didn't miss what he didn't understand.) All of which made us wonder how those Man Booker Prize judges in England were able to sift through Beatty's rapid-fire assault on American popular culture and decide it was worth an award.

Since we weren't sure if we were in on the joke or the butt of it (as George noted, the white couple gets chased out of the black comedy club on the novel's last page), we grew more critical as we went around the table.  Larry panned the story as episodic and unlikely to stand the test of time.  Dan agreed and likened the novel to a series of Seinfeld episodes, i.e., all about nothing. Tom and Dean found it funny at times, but not necessarily enjoyable.

Rating The Sellout

A roman a clef is a story whose fictional characters are disguised figures from real life.  The key ("clef") to which characters represent which real people is the reader's challenge.  In The Sellout, Beatty renders certain prominent blacks in cryptic fashion.  His "negro diplomat" is "C _ _ _ n  _ _w _ _ _"; a "noted TV family man" is "_ i _ _   _ _ _b _."  These characters weren't hard to decipher (Powell and Cosby).  Since we couldn't say the same for other characters and cultural references, we were hard pressed to give Beatty better than a _.8.

Next Up:  Ski Weekend and (optionally) A Nation of Sheep by William Lederer

In January, we head to the Sierras for a weekend of skiing.  We didn't select a book.  Instead, George urged us to find a copy of Lederer's 1961 title, A Nation of Sheep  (Lederer co-wrote The Ugly American), and reflect on its commentary about individual liberty falling victim to the media and big government.

Oct 31, 2016

Doug and His Sympathizers

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Dinner and Acknowledgments

Our meeting last Thursday was another fine example of Doug's excellent hospitality. He could have laid out an assortment of banh mi and washed it down with iced coffee and sweetened condensed milk and no one would have complained. But that would have been predictable.  So Doug eschewed tradition and went with a nicely-done London broil accompanied by...everything.  Not to be missed was his chocolate cake made with Guinness Stout and his gigantic chocolate chip cookies.  (The latter were, alas, too large to sneak into my jacket pocket for the trip home.)

Our Review and Discussion of The Sympathizer

Of the 14 titles Doug offered us last month, Viet Thanh Nguyen's The Sympathizer was not the shortest nor the easiest. But it was arguably the most thought-provoking.  Framed as a first-person confession, Nguyen's unnamed narrator takes the reader on a perilous journey from the fall of Saigon to the Vietnamese diaspora in Orange County and back again to the reeducation camps of the Viet Cong and the flight of the boat people.  Along the way, we're treated to a funny, satirical, and at times harshly critical study of America, its values, and their effect on the Vietnamese experience here and abroad.

Doug expected I'd like the novel, with its insights on Asian-American assimilation and identity (Doug, are you profiling?), but we both wondered if others would. The answer came quickly. Though straddling two dinner tables, the group joined together in lauding Nguyen's inventiveness and adroit use of the English language (there's that profiling again!).  Many (Mando, Paul, and Tom) enjoyed the story on historical merit alone; others (Larry and John) were impressed by the novel's cultural ambitions, including its send-up of the entire Vietnam war film genre.  We didn't spend much time comparing it to The Quiet American, although the parallels were obvious since Nguyen's narrator repeatedly alludes to Graham Greene's Saigon.

By the end of the evening, time was our undoing.  We just didn't have enough of it to do justice to Nguyen's richly layered tale of war and its aftermath.  At my insistence, we spent a moment enjoying the significance of the characters' names (e.g., French colonialism and American naivete are conflated in the CIA agent, "Claude"; the despised William Westmoreland character is "Richard Hedd"; the purest of Vietnamese characters, whose death is sadly inevitable, is appropriately named "Bon").  At Doug's instigation, we also tussled with the "meaning" of the book and its narrator's epiphany that "nothing" is the answer.

Rating The Sympathizer

When it came to rating the book, all but one of us was effusive.  Dan was the holdout. He complimented the "great" writing, but felt cheated by the filmmaking scenes and gave it a miserly 5.  Even Stan, who agreed that the scenes in the Philippines slowed the story's progression, was able to muster a 7 for what he felt was extraordinary writing. Dan's dim view didn't prevent The Sympathizer from impressing the rest of us and garnering a formidable 8.2.

Next Up:  The Sellout by Paul Beatty

For our next title, we vacillated between the Patty Hearst story in American Heiress and the summer's most talked-about novel of race relations, The Sellout.  We opted for the latter (persuaded in part by page length) and we'll soon see if the story of one man's cheeky reintroduction of slavery helps us dig deep into America's "original sin."

Oct 12, 2016

Mando Takes Us Out to Sea

The North Water by Ian McGuire
Dinner and Acknowledgments

After a break in August, we returned in September ready for two things: a delicious meal and a vigorous discussion of a truly gruesome seafaring tale.  We had both and weren't disappointed by either. As to the first, Armando grilled an outstanding yellowtail tuna (caught, incidentally, by him on his most recent trip to the Sea of Cortez) and paired it with a perfectly done beef tri tip. To eat so well when discussing the plight of 19th-century sailors trapped in Arctic ice was almost criminal. Almost. But not enough to prevent some of us from reaching for seconds. Thank you, Armando, for setting an outstanding table, as usual.

We should also acknowledge Paul Liberatore, whose lifestyle pieces in the Marin IJ are consistently interesting and enjoyable. Paul was our guest for the evening and we are grateful to him for the positive reaction that followed his recent article about our book group.  Thanks, Paul.  Your profile of us provided a perspective sorely missing in the New York Times' trend piece last May.

Our Review and Discussion of The North Water

First, a disclaimer:  a courtesy copy of The North Water was sent to us by the good folks at Henry Holt & Co. Evidently, they were hoping we'd review it and help them sell a few copies.  Unfortunately, it was several months before Ian McGuire's first novel finally made it into our rotation.  During that time the book was published, got great reviews, and sold plenty of hardcover copies.  Thank goodness, because we genuinely liked the book and wouldn't want anyone to think we'd sing for the price of a lousy hardback.  (We can be bought, just not that cheaply.)

The North Water places the reader aboard the Volunteer, an 1850's whaling ship whose sailors are wretched (to a man), whose voyage is futile, and whose prey has retreated far north of their usual breeding grounds. But if any of us thought these simple themes would combine for a pleasant bit of historical fiction, perhaps with elements of Herman Melville, Patrick O'Brian, or Richard Henry Dana, we were in for a big surprise.  The first page treats the reader to the novel's prime antagonist, Henry Drax, leaving a whorehouse and openly savoring the residue of a night of fornication.  Within a few short pages he has killed a man, sodomized a boy, and shipped out on the Volunteer

All of us found McGuire's novel rich in its language (with all of its coarseness) and peopled with unforgettable characters.  As for universal themes, we kept coming back to the obvious: good vs. evil.  Although, as Roy pointed out, since virtually every character is badly flawed, the contrast is really between Drax's malevolence and the more modest shortcomings of his shipmates.  No one, including the protagonist Sumner, gets a pass from McGuire.

Rating The North Water

While Armando critiqued one of the whaling scenes as "inauthentic," the rest of us were captivated by a story so different from anything we've read to date. According to Larry, the book had the urgency and harshness of The Revenant; Doug found it "unflinchingly violent"; Tom said it was "engrossing" (high praise from the engineer!); Paul fell hard for McGuire's many "well-turned phrases"; and the history geek in Terry was fascinated by the novel's prescient account of a dying industry.  With a rating of 7.8, The North Water landed high on our growing list of books read.

Next Up: The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Doug miscalculated badly when he offered us 14 titles for our consideration.  He subsequently pared the list to four in order to force a decision.  We rejected Barbarian Days when we learned we could read a magazine-length version; Underground Airlines had some confusing it with Underground Railroad; and The Throwback Special simply didn't resonate.  Which left us with Nguyen's much-praised The Sympathizer.  Given how impressed we were with another recent Pulitzer winner (The Orphan Master's Son), we have high hopes for our next selection.

Jul 23, 2016

Tom's Wyoming Evening

Men's book club group review discussion
Dinner and Acknowledgments

No one caters western barbecue like Tom.  Last Saturday, he invited 35 of us to his house for an evening of smoked chicken, barbecued ribs, and a very tender brisket.  The eating was spectacular and so was the setting.  With tables set outside (for sunset views over Peacock Gap) and inside (to avoid the evening chill blowing in from the Bay), and too many side dishes and beverages to count, we were overwhelmed by Tom's generous hospitality.  We were also delighted to see Dorothy, whose recovery we've been cheering these last few months. Thanks for a fine evening indeed, Tom.

Our Discussion and Review of Close Range:  Wyoming Stories

A mea culpa is in order.  In my zeal to catch up with with several men and their spouses, I set aside my notetaking, asked few questions, and came away with only fragments of conversations about Proulx's most famous short story collection.

The common refrain of those at my table was the repeated reference to the quality of Proulx's writing.  Her turn of phrase, her uncanny eye for detail, her ear for dialog, her evocation of a fragile masculinity--all were enjoyed in this stunning collection of stories about life on the range.  Naturally, most of us commented on Brokeback Mountain, whose famously homosexual story line obscures a larger, deeper narrative about love, loss, aging, and other timeless themes.  Everyone was moved by the joy and sadness of the story and the despair of its principal character, Ennis.  One of my many favorite lines was Proulx's quick description of the failure of Ennis' marriage:  "A slow corrosion worked between Ennis and Alma, no real trouble, just widening water."

Among the other stories mentioned by many was Blood Bay, the story of a cold winter night, a pair of finely-tooled boots, two amputated legs, a trio of cowpunchers, and a nervous host.  Everyone was taken by the story's spare dialog and abbreviated ending.  And almost everyone found in the opening story, The Half-Skinned Steer, the gradually building suspense that is the hallmark of fine short form fiction.  For her confident prose and relentless insight, we gave Proulx a much-deserved 8.4, which puts her in the Man Book Club pantheon of greats (well, our current Top Five list).

Next Up:  The North Water by Ian McGuire

For September's meeting, Armando, ever the water wonk, gave us several choices but winnowed them to two:  The Water Knife and The North Water.  While the former is explicitly set in a warming world with severe water shortages, the latter is its near opposite, with a cast of murderous sailors hunting whales off the coast of Greenland in 1859.  We chose Ian McGuire's cold, harsh world of predators--both natural and man-made.  Let's hope this most manly of adventure stories lives up to the hype that accompanied its publication earlier this year.

Jun 19, 2016

A Moonshine Evening at Roy's

men's book club group review discussion The Moonshine War
Dinner and Acknowledgments

We gathered at Roy's house last Tuesday for a novel combination (pun intended):  we got to drink several varieties of Roy's bespoke moonshine while discussing Elmore Leonard's 1969 classic, The Moonshine War.  Accompanying the gin, rye, and corn liquor was a sampling of white lightning (near-pure grain alcohol).  In keeping with the novel's backwoods locale, Roy treated us to venison, boar, and goose--all hunted and dressed by the man himself.  His black-eyed peas and bourbon ice cream were added evidence of Roy's commitment to a true moonshine evening.  Bravo, Roy!

Our Review and Discussion of The Moonshine War
Set during Prohibition, Leonard's novel centers on an impoverished town where the main source of income for many is distilling or bootlegging liquor.  With the arrival of a crooked internal revenue agent, everyone's livelihood is threatened, especially Son Martin's, as he's sitting on 150 barrels of the best hooch in western Kentucky.  The story's "explosive" climax is foreshadowed the moment agent Long is discovered with a Remington in his valise.  As Larry noted, Leonard presents the reader with an overt illustration of the literary principle known as Chekhov's Gun (i.e., if Act I features a gun hanging on the wall, Act III will invariably have it go off).

Though predictable in form, most agreed that Leonard's mastery of the genre (spare dialog, sharply-etched characters, a reluctant hero) makes his story both timeless and compulsively readable. According to Terry, The Moonshine War was the perfect summer read for our group.  We agreed and readily voted  7's across the board.

Next Up

Our next meeting is an evening BBQ at Tom's with spouses and significant others invited.  Eschewing our democratic tradition, Tom has directed us to immerse ourselves in the purest of literary forms:  the cowboy short story.  And who better to render it than Annie Proulx!  Next up is her acclaimed collection, Close Range: Wyoming Stories, featuring among other titles Brokeback Mountain.

May 30, 2016

All Heart and No Fist at Peter's

Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist by Sunil Yapa

Peter's Dinner 

Oh, what to say about a man who assembles his menu from the Food section of The New York Times even after enduring its less-than-flattering portrayal of the Man Book Club?  Poor Peter.  He simply couldn't shake his affection for Melissa Clark's timeless recipes.  Fortunately for us, her curation and Peter's execution last Tuesday of a one-pan entrée of roast chicken, potatoes, and arugula, paired with roast carrots and Brussels sprouts, made for an almost perfect springtime meal. 

The only misstep came at the end.  Thanks to a minor oversight, the organic berries were topped with crème fraiche instead of vanilla ice cream.  Most of us would never have noticed the substitution had the cold vanilla-flavored cream not been dispensed from refrigerated Three Twins pint cartons! 

Our 2016 Quiz

Before we turned our attention to Yapa's debut novel, we all submitted to the Man Book Club 2016 Quiz, which was designed to test how closely we've been listening to one another since our last quiz in 2008. 15 questions were administered, with three guys given chances at each unanswered question.  (Paul was absent; he'll get number 16.) 

The questions were challenging, but men you should still be ashamed!  How many times have we heard Armando talk about his other men's group and George talk about US Rowing?  Maybe our poor performance will make us more sympathetic the next time we see our children's progress reports.  Kudos nonetheless to Terry and Glenn, who showed real test-taking mojo, and honorable mentions to Roy and Doug, whose correct answers to some questions kept them from disgracing themselves.  The rest of you ARE disgraced, so start taking notes.  I'm not waiting 8 years before administering the next quiz.

Other Acknowledgments

We should also acknowledge Peter's daughter, Lulu, whose presence during dinner tempered our outbursts and improved our table manners.  While only an 8th grader, she can already outrow George and outswim Larry.  A low bar, but impressive.  Speaking of impressive, John's daughter Ali was named CWPA player of the year as Michigan headed into the NCAA tournament earlier this month.  John was too shy to share this, so I'm giving Ali the plug she deserves.

Our Review and Discussion of Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist

Sunil Yapa's 2016 novel about the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle had us polarized from the start.  Perhaps it was his ambition (the same event witnessed simultaneously by 7 different characters) or his craftsmanship (there were more than a few clunker sentences--"florid" according to Doug), but his street-level narrative didn't quite work for many of us.

It's hard to summarize Yapa's novel without trivializing his efforts.  The story centers on 12 hours of scripted yet chaotic protest and an ineffectual and at times violent police response.  Through the lens of his various characters, Yapa opines on globalization, illegal immigration, poverty, drugs, family dysfunction, homelessness, and much more.  And therein lay the problem for many of us.  Was the book as simple as its title suggested--an examination of the conflict between love and violence?  I posed the question but no one saw it in such easy terms.

Instead, we argued about Yapa's self-conscious character study and split over whether Victor, Julia, John Henry, Park, et al. were principled in their passion (Peter and Terry seemed to think so; I didn't), reflected a black-and-white clarity (Tom felt they did; Larry felt they didn't), presented as vivid and compelling (John) or muddled and unresolved (Larry and Jack). 

Most of us conceded the novel had its moments, especially in the way its shifting points of view reflected the chaos surrounding the characters (Armando) and captured the same events seven different ways (Glenn).  But if his characters' anguish was palpable, so was Yapa's prose.  He caromed between casual unfinished sentences and digressive high-pitched ones, often in the same scene.  In the hands of a surer stylist, it might have worked.

Rating the Book
Rarely has our post-discussion rating been so polarized.  With two 8's (Peter and Armando) and two 4's (Stan and George), Yapa squeaked by with a passable 6.0 and our grudging recognition of  his undeniable talent.  As Terry noted, if we rated on discussion quality alone, Yapa's number would have risen considerably.

Next Up: The Moonshine War by Elmore Leonard

Roy offered us an interesting set of choices for our reading in June.  Bill Bryson's sentimental favorite A Walk in the Woods was first, followed by Emily Mandel's much-touted Station Eleven, and finally Elmore Leonard's 1969 mass market classic, The Moonshine War.  Many of us had already read Bryson's comedic Appalachian meditation and a few bristled at the idea of reading Mandel lest it be taken as a conciliatory gesture.  Our misgivings were mooted when Roy promised a fine selection of distilled spirits if we chose Leonard's Prohibition era narrative.  An easy choice indeed.  We'll convene next month with our used paperbacks and shot glasses in hand. 

May 8, 2016

An Apologia

[Reader's Note:  The NYT gave you a small glimpse of the Man Book Club.  Please read below for the rest.  Spoiler Alert:  We do read books by women.]

Man Book Club article New York Times
The New York Times Interviews
 Man Book Club
Our Interview with The New York Times

When we were approached by The New York Times, we were flattered but never expected to end up in print.  Nevertheless, we gave a phone interview and provided additional information by email.  When the article came out on May 4, we were dismayed that so little of what we prize about our close-knit group was mentioned or explained. 

The Article's Angle
The Times article opened with our name (manifestly masculine), our location (an affluent county), and our experience eating Rocky Mountain Oysters (aka, calves’ testicles).  These details provided the hook for anyone mildly curious about all-male book clubs.

After such a lead-in, most feature articles would step back and provide context, the very context we’d provided during our interview.  But this wasn’t a feature article; it was a “trend piece.”  And, as in all trend pieces, provocation is better than explanation.
I don’t blame the writer.  This was her assignment and nothing she wrote was incorrect.  But, by omission, the details and quotes in her piece implied that our book club has zero regard for women's contributions to literature.   Nothing could be further from the truth.

A Critical Reaction

While most pundits had fun with the machismo story line, and understood that we and the other book clubs in the article weren't seeking to be taken seriously, there were some who averred that we were shockingly narrow-minded in our book selection criteria and that as rich white men we were modeling abhorrent behavior. One writer even said book clubs like ours perpetuate “the patriarchy’s continued dominance.” 

To address these concerns, a little explanation is in order. 

Why “Man Book Club”

“Man Book Club” was intended as a riff on the "Man Booker Prize." It referred to our original selection criterion, which mandated shortlisted or award-winning authors only.  Like Booker Prize winners, for example.  Except the Booker Prize became the Man Booker Prize when it was "bought" by the Man Financial Group (a UK hedge fund).  So our name was a jab at Man’s cynical entry into the rarefied world of literary awards.

Who We Really Are
Residents of Marin County?  Yes.  Rich?  No.  We all have to work, unfortunately.  All white?  Another no. Anyone who reads our website can see that our so-called "patriarchy" includes men of Mexican, Japanese, and Filipino descent. 

Why We Came Together
We came together for two reasons:  a desire to form a men’s group and a concomitant desire to read.  In 2007, all of us had young kids and our lives were going nonstop. We were busy doing lots of things.  But we weren’t reading.  Half of us had stopped after college; the other half only read intermittently.  Amid all this action (and inaction), we were also seeking more contemplative fellowship with other men.
Learning from Women’s Book Clubs
When we formed our book club, an online search indicated that the vast majority of book clubs were women-only.  Many of these clubs read widely, but others were quite specific:  there were book clubs that read only gothic romance, fantasy, young adult, Jane Austen (yes, only Jane Austen) or other subgenres.  This gave us an idea for our book club:  we would focus on male-themed literature.  Call it our Jane Austen approach to reading.

Our Book Selection Criteria
Our longstanding rule—“No books by women about women”—has apparently caused the most consternation among our critics.  And confusion.  Virtually every critic read our rule as forbidding any books by women. Or any books about women.  Neither is true.  We read books by women and we read books about women.  Confusion over our rule led one critic to claim--incorrectly--that our criteria would exclude Anna Karenina.

Our rule helps us avoid overtly feminine titles that may not appeal to the entire group of us.  It’s a way to rule out Eat, Pray, Love, but rule in Unbroken.  And Anna Karenina.  It’s not perfect and in fact we’ve strayed from it, like when we read Patti Smith's memoir, Just Kids. 
A final and obvious note about our reading.  Once a month we gather to eat and discuss a book that usually emphasizes male themes.  The rest of the month we can and do read anything.  And that includes women's fiction.  
In Conclusion…

We are a group of middle-aged men who have re-discovered the joy of reading after a long hiatus.  Our efforts to read should be encouraged, even if our material isn't as eclectic as some would like.
Slate got it right when it called out the Times and others for grossly distorting the import of our book club.  Its headline read:  Feminists Shouldn’t Roll Our Eyes at Men-Only Book Clubs. We Should Applaud Them.

Thank you, Slate.  We couldn’t have said it better.

Apr 24, 2016

Dinner at the Orphanage with Larry

Men's book club the orphan master's son
If Larry's intent last Tuesday was to serve us something that approximated--in tone or taste--the cuisine of Adam Johnson's North Korea, he did a terrible job.  There was no fresh bird's breast, no toxic peaches, no purloined shrimp, and thankfully no ox secretions.  Larry instead took us south of the 38th parallel so we could feast guilt-free on bulgogi, salmon, rice, kimchi (homemade), and mochi (also homemade).  Well-nourished, and with guest Stuart at our table, we looked across the DMZ and wondered about the strange world that inspired The Orphan Master's Son.

(A special acknowledgment is owed to Tom and Dean, who transported Stan and his new wheelchair to Larry's and back.  Stan's recent motorcycle accident in Mexico and his return odyssey--10 hours to the border in the back of a pickup, and another 9 to the hospital in S.F.!--are quite the story.  Stan, we wish you a fast recovery.)

The Book
Johnson's 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is, on its surface, the story of an Everyman character (named Jun Do) who while navigating the absurdity of modern-day North Korea becomes a symbol of its extremes.  Born to an orphan master, raised among orphans, and later working variously as a kidnapper and an intelligence officer, Jun Do's early years are full of the contradictions of North Korean society.  Johnson ups the ante in Part 2 of the book when the reader realizes that the Commander Ga character from Part 1 has disappeared and Jun Do has assumed his identity.  No longer Everyman, Jun Do's real identity is open to question (literally, as his interrogation spans all of Part 2).

Our positive rating (7.6) belied the mutterings of some (Roy and Dan, I'm talking about you), whose forward progress suffered during the book's transition to Part 2.  With its confusing character changes and relentlessly shifting point of view (back and forth from a literarily omniscient third person to a politically omniscient second person--speaking from a state loudspeaker--to the first person Interrogator posing as our protagonist), not everyone was impressed by Johnson's virtuosity.  Nor was everyone satisfied by the novel's fanciful detour to Texas and that state's later role in the story's climax.

We were all, however, entranced by the many sordid DPRK details extracted (or manufactured) by Johnson.   Replete with gulags, prison mines, foreign kidnappings, widespread hunger, self-criticism sessions, and several Potemkin-style communist paradoxes (e.g., the handmade vintage Mustang using a Lada chassis and Mercedes engine!), Johnson's imagination soars.   Yes, the story is dark (Dean), dystopian (Larry), and surreal (Peter), the narrative saunters (Stan), the "truthiness" quotient is high (thanks for that Colbert reference, Glenn), and there's more than a little misogyny (duly noted by Paul), but many of us thought Johnson did a superb job in grappling with our often conflicting notions of truth, identity, and the nature of power and relationships.  As Doug also noted, Johnson beautifully fictionalizes a society whose reality is already stranger than fiction.   For Terry and me and a couple others, The Orphan Master's Son landed at or near the top of the MBC booklist. 

Next Up
Peter challenged us with his offerings for next month.  With two (!) titles about racism and a failed criminal justice system, another about disease and mortality, and a fourth about Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik, we shuddered and instead picked Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist.  A novel centered around the WTO protests in Seattle, YHMSF has landed on many recent Best Picks lists.  We'll see if it makes ours.

Mar 17, 2016

John's Immortal Evening

men's book club group discussion review Being Mortal Atul Gawande
The meal John prepared on Tuesday would rank among our top five--if we had such rankings.  Aided by Dean, Tom, and Mark, John prepared and named the following courses, each reflecting a different sentiment evoked by our book:

Blood, heart, and liver.  Essential to our circulation, blood was transfused as bloody martinis, served from a hanging IV drip bag.  Our most important muscle, heart was rendered into skewered calves hearts sourced from a grass-fed beef producer in West Marin.  And liver was transformed into a foie gras brought in fresh from Sonoma and served on toast. A fine starting course.

Eat Your Veggies.  With this life-enhancing mandate, we weren't allowed to be choosy.  John served us a soup pureed from his own selection of organic vegetables from the farmers market.

Last Supper.  When confronted with one's mortality, only the best will do.  John obliged with a filet mignon, sous vide, accompanied by mashed cauliflower and bacon jam and smashed potatoes with caramelized shallots.

Brain Brownies.  What else but scratch brownies and vanilla ice cream topped with a bourbon and orange bitters drizzle?  Well, here's what else: for a touch of verisimilitude, mini brain lobes in the form of walnut halves atop each brownie.

Thank you, John, and we hope you enjoy your well-deserved trip to Iceland.  We also owe thanks to Paul (and his ever-patient and absent wife Jane) for allowing us, our guests, and a photographer to take over his beautiful home for a night. 

The Book
Atul Gawande's Being Mortal is one physician's attempt, in plain English, to expose our frequent resort to aggressive medical intervention as we approach the end of life.  Whether through experimental therapies, life-sustaining assistance, or institutional confinement, we too often seek to extend life without understanding the implications or the alternatives.

Gawande's presentation was disturbing and enlightening at the same time. I felt that his book was a barometer (measured by one's level of unease while reading it) for our readiness to make the hard decisions that lie ahead. Almost everyone shared his own story of family illness and death to illustrate our collective discomfort with what may be an unclear or even false choice as the end nears (i.e., quality over quantity).  While Armando, always the naturalist, read Being Mortal as a field guide to getting old, the scientist in Roy wasn't persuaded.  He found Gawande's prescriptions premature in a world of constant innovation and advancement.

Gawande's recurring question to end-stage patients is:  what do you most want and what are you willing to give up in order to get it? Illustrated by the stories of his patients, Gawande claims that quality of life is desired most and that, surprisingly, less intervention can prolong rather than shorten life.  We discussed his premise and the anecdotes sprinkled through the book (guest Mark declared the book a sales pitch for hospice care; guest Keith noted his personal connection to Sara Monopoli, one of Gawande's featured patients).  In the end, Paul pronounced Being Mortal the "most relevant" book we've read given its insistence that we set clear expectations for the end of our lives.  Tom then exhorted us to have our affairs in order by year end (with a current estate plan and advance healthcare directive).  Amen, Tom!

More disturbing than the book's focus on mortality (and Glenn's recent brush with same) was the tragic coincidence that longtime MBC friend and guest, Charlie, was killed and his wife Dorothy injured in an auto accident that same afternoon in New Jersey.  Present at our progressive holiday party in December, Charlie was a thoughtful, artistic man whose presence will be sorely missed.  Recover quickly, Dorothy.  Charlie remains in our thoughts.

RIP Charlie Kleiman

Next Up
For April, Larry made us choose between several outstanding writers: Adam Johnson (new to MBC), Annie Proulx (gasp! a woman!), E.L. Doctorow (the title--Andrew's Brain--gave it zero chance), and David Lipsky (recounting his five days with David Foster Wallace).  We went with Johnson's 2013 Pulitzer winner, The Orphan Master's Son. Here's to an evening of political and social repression, Pyongyang-style.  I trust Larry, our Dear Leader for the evening, will not visit famine upon us.

Feb 29, 2016

Dean Delivers, Mongolian Style

Men's book club review Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World Jack Weatherford
Tuesday's dinner was an impressive act of culinary celerity.  Dean rushed back from a father-son ski trip at Kirkwood to research and prepare an all-Mongol feast. (Meaning the food, not the guests--or not all of them anyway.)  With Mongolian beef and scallions accompanied by buuz (those delicious steamed dumplings) and a Mongolian carrot salad, Dean met his own--and our--high standards.  The Tsingtao beer and San Marino Cellars washed it all down nicely.

The only false note, Dean, was the pure butter shortbread in your yogurt dessert.  Unlike the rest of your menu, it wasn't home-made and its provenance was disturbing.  (Did I see a Walker's box in the trash? You know Genghis never made it past Gaul!)

The Book
Jack Weatherford's history of Genghis Khan makes a bold claim:  that as Khan and his progeny advanced westward, and established their dominion throughout the Caucasus, the Middle East, and into central Europe, their ideas and technology helped produce the Age of Enlightenment.  Who knew that this barbarian on horseback had such a civilizing effect?

We didn't, and so we questioned Weatherford's thesis and wondered if his research was as rigorous as it purported to be.  (His constant references to the so-called Secret History and his refusal to footnote any of his conclusions didn't inspire confidence.)  Our most reliable cynic--who shall go unnamed--offered an alternate sub-title:  "...and the Great Mongolian Blow Job."

Cynicism aside, we were treated to a litany of fun facts by Weatherford.  The Mongols were the first all-cavalry warriors and their speed accounted for much of their success.  They were the first to use gunpowder and shrapnel-laden projectiles in war.  They invented paper currency and standardized monetary units of measurement throughout their empire. They institutionalized diplomatic immunity, eschewed torture, guaranteed freedom of religion, created a professional class of administrators, and offered advancement based on merit not family. Among those they conquered, they decapitated the aristocracy and created new democratic structures loosely modeled after their khuriltai.  They invaded and united China, laid out modern Beijing, and built the Forbidden City.  Whew! But, as Larry notes with ethnic pride, they never conquered Japan.  (Editor's own ethnic observation:  nor did they take the Philippines, leaving that task for Larry's ancestors some 500 years later.)

Weatherford posits that the Mongolian empire was brought down by the lowly Chinese rat and its rapid transmission of the bubonic plague.  Wait, what?  Oh, who cares.  A fascinating story--albeit one laced with repetitive details and dubious scholarship--prompted us to give Weatherford a decent 6.5.

Next Up
John hosts us in March and, in light of his mother's recent diagnosis, asked us to select from several titles about the very difficult subject of death and dying.  We picked Atul Gawande's Being Mortal.  Until our next meeting, we'll continue to keep John's family in our thoughts. 

Jan 11, 2016

2015 Redux

Redux notwithstanding, I'll start with our early January 2016 ski trip.  The point is, after years of terrible conditions, we finally had enough snow for good skiing.  A day at Sugar Bowl and, for some, a day of cross-country at Royal Gorge, were appropriately exhausting.  They were also necessary, as they provided the spacing between Tom's lasagna, Peter's ribs, Dean's chicken piccata, and endless bottles of wine. Below, we tuck into that famous lasagna....

(L to R: Moguls, Aussie, Crash, Steeps, Hydro, 2XC4US)
Apologies to "Crash," who finally made our ski weekend only to have his wife's beautiful red SUV scarred by an errant (but honest) snowplow driver.

men's book club group discussion review The Financial Lives of the Poets Jess Walter
Our ski trip was only slightly consumed with reading.  We had a too-abbreviated conversation about Jess Walter's The Financial Lives of the Poets.  Proposed by Terry, and inspired in part by our appreciation of Walter's short story, Anything Helps, Walter's novel about one man's midlife travails was a comic if bittersweet glance back at the Great Recession.  His protagonist felt a little too like any of us:  middle-aged man (check), with kids (check), and beautiful wife whose fidelity is suspect (hmm...not going there), making bad decisions (sometimes), aware of those bad decisions (always), and with an epiphany at the end (time will tell).  We truncated our discussion to avoid spoiling it for those who hadn't yet finished.  But the consensus seemed to be one of great ambivalence.  Sort of funny, sort of painful, sort of true, sort of compelling.  An emailed rating later of 7.0 was surprisingly good for all the sort ofs.

In December, after a 6-year hiatus, we reprised our progressive holiday party. As before, we started at Larry's for appetizers (thank you for the fried lumpia, Larry!), had our entrees and sides at yours truly, and finished with dessert, mulled wine, and more at Terry's.  As usual, every man did more than he was asked to pull off this moving feast for 35 guests.  Special thanks to Tom (two days spent preparing Julia Child's boeuf bourgignon!), Peter (who, too sick to attend, still dropped off his slow-cooked ribs), and John (whose flourless chocolate cake was to die for, but who also sent each of us home with an individually-wrapped persimmon loaf from his kitchen). 

men's book club group discussion review Heart of Darkness Joseph Conrad
We traveled up to Petaluma in November for a midday meal with Glenn.  Ostensibly, we were there to discuss Conrad's Heart of Darkness, but most of us were happy touring Glenn's new/old house and listening to his plans for the barn (built, we were told, before Conrad penned his magnum opus).  Since he had no recipes from the Congo, and since Belgian food is French food ruined, Glenn turned to Apocalypse Now for inspiration and prepared an excellent dejeuner Indochine. With guest Rob contributing, we shared our thoughts on Marlow's tale of his quest for Mr. Kurtz. Despite the fact that everything has already been said about this story (most of it by college freshmen), our discussion was lively. Was the journey simply one long acid trip (Rob, speaking metaphorically, I think), intentionally purposeless (Terry), exploring darkness in the map's white spaces (Glenn), an indictment of corporatism (or was that mercantilism, Paul?), or just a vehicle for terrific writing (most of us)?  Regardless, our own quest to find Glenn up in Sonoma County left us amply (ful)filled. Enough so that, for the second month running, we lifted a title into our current top five, with an 8.4 rating.

men's book club group discussion review Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff Christopher Moore
In October, we repaired to Dan's for dinner al fresco and an opportunity to discuss one of the more original works we've read to date.  Violating our selection protocol by offering us only one title, Dan had us read Christopher Moore's Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal.  The title was incongruous, but the book managed to capture our collective fancy.  Whimsical, comic, irreverent--none of these does justice to Moore's re-creation of the Christ story with Biff as his cartoonish narrator.  Like Aslan's Zealot, Moore's Lamb acknowledges that so little is known about Christ's upbringing.  But in Moore's telling, absolutely anything is fair game.  Our comments ranged from "sophomoric" (Doug) and "juvenile" (me) to "refreshing" (Peter) and "meaningful" (Tom).  Quibbles aside, almost everyone found Moore funny and highly creative.  And that, to my surprise, propelled Dan's solo title into our current top five with an 8.7.  Creativity was also to be found on our vino, courtesy of San Marino Cellars' Label Division:
Dan and his Disciples
 (P.S.:  Dan, your Jerusalem-inspired meal of lamb and chicken shawarma more than compensated for your rules violation.  But don't tell anyone I said that. Otherwise, I'll let the world know that your own guest, Miguel, confessed that while Lamb may have been funny, it had "no depth.")

men's book club group discussioni review The Onion Field Joseph Wambaugh
We convened in September wondering what Paul had in store for us.  In fairness, we'd been warned that our book's title should be taken literally.  And it was.  Paul's dinner dropped us right into the onion field described by Joseph Wambaugh. Seated outside and in the dark, we all took notice of the table's centerpiece, which was an artful arrangement of planted onion bulbs.  To make sure we got the point, each part of our meal featured onions, starting with an onion dip, then onion soup, and continuing with a delicious onion quiche.  The food unfortunately outdid the book.  Perhaps we were spoiled by Truman Capote, but everything about Wambaugh's true crime account suffered in comparison to In Cold Blood.  Most disappointing was the writing.  Plodding and tedious, the book's best moment was the actual homicide in the onion field north of Los Angeles.  While we all decried the writing, Larry further complained that the story had no protagonist worth caring about.  Indeed, had we cared more, we might not have been content to rate The Onion Field a 5.5.