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.