Jun 2, 2019

Roy's Success

shteyngart Lake Success Review Rating Men's Book Club
Dinner and Acknowledgments

When it comes to preparing our group's dinner, Roy sets an exceedingly high bar...for himself.  With few exceptions (a delivery from Sol Food comes to mind), he's always worked from scratch and aimed for something a little different.  Remember his Dungeness crab?  Manhattan-style sandwiches?  Anzac biscuits and dirty rice balls?  Well, last Tuesday was more of the same.

To accompany Shteyngart's financier-on-the-run escapade, and with the protagonist's $30,000 Japanese whiskey firmly in mind, Roy started us with a Caesar salad followed by a bouillabaisse stuffed with local halibut.  His main course was a delicious pasta seasoned with mentaiko (buttery fish roe), Korean chili threads, and shiso leaf.  For dessert, he served his own kumquat ice cream over son David's citrus cake. To wash it down, Roy laid out shot glasses of home-distilled brandy.  If it was all too rich and too much, we didn't care; we had a book about excess that needed pairing. 

Our Review and Discussion of Lake Success by Gary Shteyngart

In his latest novel, the gilded ego of Gary Shteyngart's New York is contrasted with America's wholesomeness west of the Hudson River.  Well, sort of. The novel opens with an introduction to Barry Cohen, a hedge fund manager ("hedgie") whose fund's assets ("AUM") are declining rapidly, whose recent trades are under investigation, whose young child is autistic, and whose wife is looking elsewhere for affection.  Facing such challenges, Barry does what any red-blooded American would do:  he skips town in a Greyhound bus in search of a long-ago college girlfriend.  This being a journey of self-discovery, Barry gets to learn about himself while the reader learns about automatic watches, Greyhound buses, and--oh, yes--today's America.  

That's the trite summary.  Thankfully, Shteyngart's writing is not nearly so trite.  But neither is it free from criticism, at least from us.  Shteyngart commits the cardinal sin of saddling his reader with a repugnant main character.  As host Roy noted, Barry is both unlikable and implausible. Glen called him a narcissist and a sociopath; George described him as irredeemable. Paul said he fits nicely into almost any Woody Allen film (in a twisted, misogynistic way, of course).  Terry charitably noted that Barry merely voices the thoughts many have but are afraid to express.  Regardless, Barry's antagonizing presence in the narrative spoiled what should have been an amusing 21st century take on the Gatsby story.  

Our Rating of Lake Success 

If it weren't for Doug, we might have ended our discussion still moaning about Barry's shortcomings.  But Doug, with his usual insight, pushed us to appreciate Barry's quest for an ideal (love? success? contentment?) that is every bit as elusive for the other, more sympathetic characters in the story.  In fact, whether it stems from his own autism, his certitude about success and money, his luck of Kokura, or just native resilience, Barry returns to New York and his perch atop Wall Street a far cry from the man who fled in the middle of the night.  Because he challenges us to question everything we thought we knew about success and failure, we partially forgave Shteyngart his Barry Cohen and coughed up a grudgingly positive 5.8.

Next Up:  The Devil's Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea

Again we were presented with a Jack London doubleheader (Call of the Wild and White Fang) and again we resisted.  We also turned down Bad Blood and The Devil in the White City (second time) so we could instead read Luis Alberto Urrea's Pulitzer-nominated account of 26 men, an unforgiving frontier, and an immigration policy that continues to defy partisan solutions.  Next month we'll discuss whether anything has changed along our southern border in the last 18 years.

May 4, 2019

Peter Celebrates the Flower Moon

Killer of the Flower Moon mens book club review rating
Dinner and Acknowledgments

April's book selection took us back to 1921 and told us, in unsparing detail, what lay at the end of the Trail of Tears for the Osage Nation.  As our host last Tuesday, Peter had to devise a menu that referenced, without trivializing, the subject matter of The Killers of the Flower Moon.  Our consensus:  his fry bread tacos were the perfect accompaniment to our book.

Now common to Native American tribes throughout the southwest, fry bread was concocted by the Navajo during their forced relocation to New Mexico.  The Navajo used the only ingredients offered by the US government (flour, salt, lard) to sustain them on land too poor to grow their traditional foods. Fry bread tacos later became part of the southwestern indigenous cultures that spanned the border with Mexico.  (Note:  no big beautiful wall then existed.)

Preceding the fry bread tacos was a tasty Three Sisters Stew, another Indian recipe and an overt reference to the three Osage sisters whose murders open Grann's story.  Dessert was a bowl of strawberries and brownies topped with vanilla ice cream.  Delicious, yes.  Subtle, no.  No one missed the symbolism of white over red and brown.  Well done, Peter!

Our Review and Discussion of The Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

Thanks to the popularity of The Killers of the Flower Moon, Grann has successfully reminded Americans of a painful, long-forgotten chapter in American history.  During the decade following World War I, two notable events occurred on the Osage reservation in Oklahoma:  the discovery of large deposits of oil made the Osage enormously wealthy, and a series of Osage homicides began and persisted with the connivance of local authorities. Grann's non-fiction account sifts through trial transcripts, newspaper articles, first-person accounts, and other primary sources to re-tell the disturbing story of how prominent whites not only exploited the Osage but--to bypass the "headrights" of the Osage--also killed them.

Grann also describes how the then-named Bureau of Investigation was called in to find the killers after the efforts of the county prosecutor and state attorney general were deemed corrupt by the Osage and others.   The personal involvement of J. Edgar Hoover and the convictions obtained by his agents and federal prosecutors are the climax of Grann's narrative.

Despite our differences, we all found the story of the Osage fascinating.  We were, to a man, appalled by the treatment of the Osage by otherwise upstanding white citizens.  At every opportunity, the white establishment stole the wealth and dignity of a tribe that was, by the 1920's, greatly reduced in population and forced to survive on land whose spectacular oil wealth had already begun to diminish by the time the FBI concluded its investigation.  As Peter noted, Grann's book takes direct aim at the myth of American exceptionalism. And, as Larry and Dean pointed out, the suffering of the Osage was the logical result of the westward expansion foretold in Undaunted Courage.

Our Rating of The Killers of the Flower Moon

While The Killers of the Flower Moon features a compelling story, many of us faulted Grann for trying too hard. After selling us on the shocking killings that rocked the Osage Nation, Grann then tries to convince us that Hoover's legacy and today's FBI were both forged in the crucible of the ensuing investigation. (They weren't.)  If that weren't enough, he devotes the final pages of his narrative to his own investigation in which he purports to discover innumerable additional victims along with suspects never charged in their deaths.  (We weren't persuaded, as the sources he relies on had already made similar claims.)  Partly for these reasons, and partly to revoke Grann's poetic license (Paul and I complained about his occasional, awkward lyricism), we pulled back from a stronger rating and awarded Grann a still-healthy 7.3.

Next Up:  Lake Success by Gary Shteyngart

For May, Roy offered us The Overstory by Richard Powers, The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver, Rules of Civility of Amor Towles, and Lake Success by Gary Shteyngart.  In the end, Roy's desire to reprise Shteyngart (after our enjoyment reading Super Sad True Love Story) broke a tie with The Overstory.  We will see if Shteyngart's latest novel about Wall Street hubris lives up to his growing reputation as an American satirist.

Feb 14, 2019

2019 Ski Weekend--Edited!

Stan prefers Squaw to Lahontan
[Editor's Note: What follows is Larry's overly generous, somewhat snarky take on our ski weekend. Naturally, I've added my own annotations to counter Larry's exuberance.]

A big thanks to Andrew for opening up his new cottagecabin, mansion to us this weekend.  While my room felt a bit like being back at summer camp, especially when bunking with John and Dan, upscale resort living was the theme of the weekend.  Although we had to dig out of snow drifts a couple of times, nobody complained when we were forced to stay an extra day living the aprés-ski life.  [Ed. Note: I would have complained were it not for Dean's tasty Sunday dinner.]

As has become standard for these weekends, the meals were MBC calorie-and-cholesterol-be-damned masterpieces.  Dean's lamb (and lamb-less) curry, Tom's lasagna, and  Paul's crepes were highlights along with the seemingly endless supply of great wines.  [Ed. Note: Don't forget Terry's breakfast feast, your own lunches-to-go, and Dan's soothing Manhattans.]
Larry's almonds, a few cookies, and an empty bottle...dinner's over
Entertainment is always an attraction of these weekends and this weekend was extra special once we determined how to access Andrew's Pay-Per-View account. It was money well spent as we focused on the most highbrow of movies: Clash of the Titans and Venom.  It was also a good weekend to watch golfers of our vintage at Pebble show the young Turks how it's done  -- thanks Phil Mickelson and Bill Murray!  That said, Andrew, we need a bigger screen next year with a better aspect ratio. I'm partial to the one in this URL https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=br9yftCP9Mg (just saying). [Ed. Note:  If you buy it, I'll install it.]

When we were forced into direct conversation due to numerous lapses in Andrew's high-tech entertainment system, we found ourselves engaged in manly topics such as pickup trucks (see related WSJ article https://www.wsj.com/articles/detroits-latest-offering-big-pickups-at-bigger-prices-11549886400), driving in snow, and our favorite -- what ails you?  [Ed. Note:  Well, that was mostly what ails Stan, since he's endured every possible sportsman's trauma in the last couple years.]

The driveway that defeated Tom's 4-wheel drive
The highlights of the weekend were several forays into the wild to search out the local coffee scene.  One trip required a carpool to town where we learned from one of our members how to chat up a 20-something barista using poetry (who knew?).  Another required breaking a trail through thigh deep snow, only to be rewarded with $9 cappuccinos.  The last, however, was truly MBC perfect.  We were treated (i.e., as in they were free) to custom made espresso drinks and affogatos by Andrew's affable neighbor, who's an espresso aficionado, whose equipment and knowledge rival the best San Francisco restaurants (hint -- bean uniformity), and whose home is the one Andrew should have built.  [Ed. Note: Yes, John and Nancy's company, their coffee bar (viva Tinito Rose Café!), and their stylish new home were all lovely.]     

So THANK YOU AGAIN ANDREW for a truly memorable MBC weekend in a new and wonderful place.  Of course Andrew will need to top this next year, so I can't wait to claim my comped room at the Ritz Carlton-Northstar (or can you at least figure out how to directly access the Martis lift from the cabin?).  [Ed. Note:  If Stan or George won't trade up to Martis Camp, maybe Doug will negotiate access rights for us.]

[Ed. Postscript:  The abundant snow at Northstar made for a terrific ski day--terrific, that is, if one ignores the 30,000-vertical-foot goal that Dean scripted for those foolish enough to hang with him.  The overnight snowfall forced Tom to put chains on at the bottom of the driveway and buried Dan's car at the top.  But the worst was Stan's treacherous drive back to Squaw Valley: what should have taken 20 minutes took 2 hours. We can only hope for this kind of snow next year....In the meantime, a brief photo gallery below.]

A simple walk proves chancy...thanks to John 
Still cold, but spectacular weather

Dan's car, covered by a snow angel

When brushing in the dark, Terry errs
Looking down the Martis run from the top of Lookout

John digs out