Nov 4, 2018

Larry Puts A Bug in the River

men's book club review rating v.s. naipaul a bend in the river
Dinner and Acknowledgments

Glenn, who picked our previous two books set in Africa, served us Ethiopian food (Dark Star Safari) and Vietnamese food (Heart of Darkness).  Last Tuesday, Larry aimed for a different kind of authenticity.  He eschewed our novel's references to French food, Indian curry, and American fast food, and instead opted for the native food disdained by Naipaul's fastidious narrator.  Yes, Larry served us insects.  BUGS!! Accompanied by a delicious Ethiopian chicken paired with skewers of beef, couscous, and rice, Larry used high-protein cricket flour for his appetizers and dessert.  Although FDA-approved, his main ingredient was nevertheless milled crickets. Larry, thanks for the reminder that we are only a few notches up the food chain from what we eat.

We must also acknowledge George's presence at our dinner.  He drove down from Reno expecting our hospitality and instead ended up in a hotel room.  Next time, George, don't be so coy in your emails.  Ask for a place to stay!  Or, even better, drive down with John and shack up in the Bambi. 

Our Review and Discussion of A Bend in the River by V.S. Naipaul

Its author a noted fixture of post-war British fiction and purveyor of post-colonial anxiety, A Bend In the River's narrative about a recently-independent African country showcased a well-crafted story (Doug), a fascinating geographic setting (Tom), and memorable images of people and places (Terry).  Those were the positive comments.  For most of us, though, Naipaul's writing served up a series of interesting vignettes punctuated by lengthy introspection.  Too lengthy, for some (Dan).

Set in the 1960's, Naipaul's protagonist, Salim, moves from his family's home on the coast inland to the "town at the bend in the river" where he sets himself up as a local merchant.  The town, and its country, go unnamed but the details in the story and the timing of Naipaul's writing suggest the setting is Zaire (formerly, and once again, the Congo) during the rule of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.  Salim, a descendant of Indian settlers and therefore a perpetual outsider, bears witness to the upheaval caused by the Big Man's consolidation of power in the face of tribal unrest and a persistent colonial influence.  He observes--with irony and detachment--the African "culture" overlaid on European-funded aid projects, the Big Man's increasing cult of personality, and the shifting allegiances within the local population, including among his friends.

Naipaul's novel has all the earmarks of a Great Novel:  family and politics, race and assimilation,  money and violence, plus lots of literary acclaim.  And yet, as a group, we mustered more respect than affection for Naipaul's storytelling.  We enjoyed the history lesson (Dean), compared it to our own experiences in Africa (Stan, Paul, Tom), and yet still found it wanting.  Paul's headline review (schizophrenia, annoyance, misogyny, conflict) was almost as damning as Dan's refusal to read beyond the halfway point. In the end, our patience was tried more by Naipaul's style (a colonial languor seems to infect his writing) than his substance.  Too bad, because a good story definitely lurks within the book's four long chapters.  

Our Rating of A Bend in the River

Despite all the kvetching, when it came time to rate Naipaul, we gave him the benefit of the doubt with a very decent 6.5.  Notably, our ratings were all within a 5-8 range, which indicates a closer consensus than our comments suggested when we sat down for dinner.  Larry, thanks for pushing us to read a title we had previously rejected but clearly found of interest last Tuesday.  

Next Up:  American Prison by Shane Bauer

Stan could not have argued for a more eclectic set of titles.  He gave us three options:  1)  The Old Man and the Sea paired with Animal Farm, which we rejected as two titles with nothing in common except their length; 2) The Swerve (Greenblatt's prizewinning historiography), which Doug warned us would be slow going and some suspected might be just another Sapiens (you know, the Convenient-Theory-That-Explains-It-All kind of book); and 3) American Prison, whose author infiltrated a for-profit prison and then wrote about it in Mother Jones.  We picked the last option and will steel ourselves for the polemic we know is coming (this did appear in Mother Jones, after all).

Jan 31, 2018

At our 100th, Tom's the Gentleman

Dinner and Acknowledgments

Tom had a choice to make last night:  he could have focused his efforts on the cuisine of the fictional Metropol Hotel or he could have commemorated the Man Book Club's 100th book.  To our delight, he chose both. For dinner, we enjoyed his slow-cooked rendition of beef stroganoff--which proved a worthy competitor to the Tyler Florence version Dan served when we read The Fixer.  His stroganoff was accompanied by a "Russian" salad.  How Russian was it?  I'm not sure, because I was too focused on what came before and after. 

For an appetizer, Tom teamed up with Roy, who harvested fresh caviar from an 80-lb sturgeon he caught in San Pablo Bay.  (Naturally, the caviar was paired with Russian vodka.)  And for dessert, Tom made a delicious carrot cake topped with candles celebrating our 100th book.  Spasibo, tovarisch Tom!

Cake, caviar, and vodka...all for our 100th book

Our Review and Discussion of A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

The conceit behind Towles' latest novel is simple:  a young Russian aristocrat, who is sentenced to "house" arrest five years after the Bolshevik Revolution, learns what it means to be a true gentleman in a society bent on ending class distinctions.  During his decades of confinement in the Hotel Metropol, Count Rostov mingles with party loyalists, foreign diplomats, KGB agents, and--most importantly--the hotel staff.  It is his relationship with the staff, and his adoption of an orphaned girl, that hastens Rostov's conversion from aristocrat to gentleman.  

Most of us discovered a very enjoyable story in Towles' surprise bestseller (although Dean and Jack found it slow going, and Dan actually disliked it). What we didn't discover was a traditional historical novel.  For those hoping to learn more about the Bolsheviks, Stalinism, or the rise of Nikita Khrushchev, few of those details seep into the narrative.  It is, as Larry described it, more akin to Eloise at the Plaza than conventional historical fiction. Indeed, I found myself wondering whether the upcoming paperback edition might get pitched to Young Adult readers. 

Towles' narrator begs our indulgence by addressing the reader directly and through occasional wordy footnotes.  While most of us found these asides amusing, Stan did not.  Pedantic and condescending were his words.  By contrast, Paul (who loved the book) found gems scattered throughout the novel, including references to two of our prior titles (The Tender Bar and The Maltese Falcon).  And Terry, who listened to the audio book, was entranced by the narration and  not distracted by the commentary.  He called it one of his favorite books of the year.  

Our Rating of A Gentleman in Moscow

Tom asked us to read Towles' novel because, after hearing about it from his wife, he was convinced we would enjoy it--all 462 pages of it. With a respectable 7.4 rating, he was vindicated in his choice (and in listening to his wife). 

Next Up:  Ski Weekend The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston

We meet next on the ski slopes around Lake Tahoe.  No book has been assigned.  Instead, George and I look forward to playing host and repeating the fun we had last year.
Editor's Afterword:  To correct the record...the ski trip disappeared when the snow disappeared.  So we convened at my house in February to discuss an old favorite--The Great Gatsby--at the request of our friends at Nutopia.  We meet next in March to discuss Mando's suggested title about the recent discovery of an ancient city deep in the rain forest of Central America.