Saturday, January 25, 2014

Burning Marguerite

Thanks to Ms. K for ringing in 2014 with a lovely BC at her home.  We started off the evening with delicious spinach and pine nut spanakopita from Thyme CafĂ©, followed by an outstanding and seasonally-appropriate corn and chicken chili, and double desserts in honor of the Maharani’s birthday:  homemade cupcakes and chocolate peanut butter bars.  Lish!

Burning Marguerite, by Elizabeth Ennis-Brown, scored a 7.6.  

This was a languid, poignant and delicate jewel of a story about Tante, a spinster living in a remote area somewhere very, very cold, and Jack John, the orphan who grew up in her care. The book was largely a character piece, and more than one of us commented on how well we felt we came to know the characters. Both Tante and Jack John were lovingly revealed as the story looked back in time to the formative events of their childhood and young adult years. Indeed, it took a while to get one's bearings in this book: the story's geographic setting is not immediately evident (is it ever evident?), and it also migrates back and forth over a fifty-plus year span. Nonetheless, these conventions were clearly effective. Across the board we praised the author for her beautiful writing. The Maharani said she had the impression of reading a poem, while the Foxx remarked how the descriptions were so vivid that she felt a sensory connection to the events in the story. Despite the craftmanship that went into this novel, it got dinged for being a bit too soap opera-y. After all... turns out Tante was a lesbian, forced to have an abortion by her parents, resulting in her sterilization, after which her father killed her boyfriend with a dagger through the heart, etc. Nonetheless, the unfolding of these tragedies ultimately led the reader to understand the ties between Tante and Jack John, and the final catharsis in sending Tante's body up in flames on the frozen lake, setting her spirit free.

Our next book is Jumpa Lahiri's The Lowland. Until next time, read early and often! xoej

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Dinner

Just when you thought El Jefe had abandoned her post.  Take yourselves back in time, way back, to early December.  Fake snow on the front porch, the aroma of rich winter cooking in the air, Christmas trees alight, and avid readers drunk on champagne.  It could be none other than the twelfth annual holiday Book Club! Even better because Blondie was all up in the hizzy!  Once in BC, always… 

Thanks to The Highlander and Mr. Matty once again for hosting.  Seems like just yesterday there were a million calories worth of artichoke dip and cured meats set forth before us, to be followed by beef bourguignon (new recipe—a winner!) ladled over truffled mashed potatoes (it’s always early January before El Jefe recovers from potato mashing carpal tunnel syndrome), roasted brussel sprouts, non-under-saladed salad (a bounty in fact!), crusty baguettes and Heath Bar cookies galore.  Deee lishy! All El Jefe wants for Christmas is to never stray from that menu.  And the other thing El Jefe wants is for Carmen not to take ALL the leftovers home. Ever. Again.

Our December book, The Dinner, by Herman Koch, is an international best-seller but did not fly off the shelves among our group.  It came in at a lackluster 6.7. To refresh our collective memories, this was the story of two families living in Amsterdam:  Paul, an ex-schoolteacher (dishonorably discharged as we later discover), his wife Claire, and their son; and Paul’s brother Serge, Dutch presidential hopeful, his wife Babette, and their two sons, one adopted from Africa.  The children of these two families commit a heinous crime when they set a homeless person on fire inside an ATM booth, and the story deals with the parents’ discovery of this incident and the ensuing consequences—all recounted during the course of a dinner at one of Amsterdam’s hottest restaurants. Despite the violence and psychological twists in this book, several people commented that it was a slow read:  long stretches between inflection points, disjointed chapters flipping back and forth in time, and a pace that just generally dragged.  As a counterpoint, it was noted that the pace of the book was deliberately measured in order to match the theme and setting, that is, it took place over multiple courses of an elegant meal rather than being served up in one shot like fast food.  The Dinner also was criticized for not having a single likeable character and for the fact that Paul, the protagonist, did not wrestle with the moral issues in the story at all. On the other hand, the author clearly intended the readers to grapple with the significant moral questions presented, and we went around the room and talked about what we each would have done if our own child had committed the crime but had not been apprehended.  Would we keep silent and hope the authorities never figured it out?  Or would we turn our kids’ asses in? In addition, the book was highly successful in its stunning 180 degree flip of the reader’s expectations as to which family was “normal” and “happy.”  The book is narrated by Paul, and at the outset he depicts himself and Claire as the upstanding couple and casts doubt over Serge and Babette.  Most of us really enjoyed the way Paul’s utter depravity was developed little by little—his uncontrolled episodes of remorseless violence brought on by some unidentified (and, according to The Doctor, fictional) genetic flaw—and then of all things Claire turned out to be a total psychopath, instructing her own son to kill his cousin and slashing Serge’s face to pieces with the stem of a broken wine glass so the truth wouldn’t come out. Dang! Finally, because of the fact that Paul turns out to be so cray-cray, he is an unreliable narrator and the reader is left questioning whether there are parts of the story that never even happened at all.  In sum, better than last year’s book on magic tricks but a far cry from Zeitoun

Who needs dinner in Amsterdam?  Just snacks when you get the munchies.

 Deceptively peaceful.

Cate Blanchett will make her directorial debut adapting The Dinner-- easy, Claire.

The January recap is right on the heels, stay tuned. xoej

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

A Hundred Summers

A woefully belated recap of our end-o'-the-season BC hosted by The Doctor at the Autumn Chateau.  Methinks El Jefe was a little saucy that night, as the entire meal, start to finish, is hazy to say the least.  Ah yes, due to the fact that some of us started off the evening with Salty Dogs, note the plural (whose idea could that possibly have been??). Pretty sure that the hors d'oeuvres involved burrata and were lishy.  Less sure that dinner was a hearty Tuscan soup involving sausage. And drawing a complete blank on dessert, clearly just plain hammered by that point.  Thank goodness that El Jefe knows the holiday menu by heart after ten years, so have no fear for next month.

What is crystal clear in El Jefe's memory (ahem, notes) is the abysmal review of Beatriz Williams' A Hundred Summers.  Three 2's, two apiece of 4 and 5, and one 6, for an overall average score of 4.5.  Yowsa, but not the lowest rating in BC history! True to da Game scored a 3.6 so this book is well in the clear. Nonetheless, when an author writes stuff like "Her lips formed a perfect 'O' around his…."  you know we are not talking about great literature. Those at the low end described the book as "atrocious," "wretched," and "it made me angry." Another complaint was that the Kiki reveal was obvious (recall, Kiki was the love child of Lily's mom and Nick Greenwald's father).  And Red said that she would rather read F. Scott Fitzgerald than someone copying the voice of that era and doing a shitty job (maybe we should read him, then!). Those at the high end, as it were, found the book to be more silly than repulsive-- for example, all the characters riding on the doors of houses through the hurricane to safety-- and at least credited it with having some fun drama and intrigue (but really poor sex scenes, unfortsch). We all agreed that there was simply not much to talk about here, so let's leave it at that and look forward to Thursday's holiday BC where there will be plenty of discussion! Can't wait to drink many glasses of champagne with all of you, not to mention the added treat that Blondie will be in town for the festivities!

Two days to read The Dinner by Herman Koch if you haven't already.  xoej

P.S. Just remembered that the dessert was a caramel pie!

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Interestings

We had a great meeting Chez Jefe last week, getting together over a mega cheese and charcuterie platter, duck liver and all, followed by Prune Restaurant's lamb-chuck burgers with parsley butter on English muffins, and finally Sweet Rose Creamery ice cream sandwiches. Like bears hoarding calories in preparation for winter hibernation.

The Only Cheeseburger Recipe You'll Ever Need

The Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer, may or may not have deserved its title. 

The book scored a respectable 7.6, partially the result of a 10 dragged down by a few 6's. OK, admittedly the 10 came from a once-every-few-years El Jefe rave review, and disappointingly the Doctor broke ranks. So much for loyalty en la familia. Starting with the praise: the book was exceptionally well written and had excellent character development, a la Jeffrey Eugenides (who wrote the book jacket quote). There was a little of everything in this story-- some drama, primarily around Goodman's alleged rape of "Cathy Kiplinger" and his subsequent flight to Iceland, a bit of humor, a bit of romance, and plentiful references to current or recent historical events, such as the AIDS epidemic, the "Moonies" cult and the obvious reference in Ethan's character to Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons. Also, the sheer breadth of this story was impressive, in that it deeply explored social, emotional and career-related themes involving characters with widely varied personalities and over a long period of time, from the early teen years through adulthood. Finally, for at least one of us the book resonated on a personal level with reaching an age where you look both backwards and forwards at the trajectory of your life, partially with nostalgia and partially with adult objectivity, reassessing long-held perceptions of friends and family in light of the way they, or you, have changed. 

And then, of course, the irony-- that these fabulous youngsters riding atop the world, profoundly impressed by their own ideas and opportunities, poised for greatness and yearning to conquer New York, were at the end of the day not all that interesting. While this undoubtedly was part of the book's message, and in fact the author expressly acknowledged it on the last page, it didn't necessarily make for good reading according to several in our group. Boring, self-indulgent, young, lacking in forward trajectory. The characters were stereotypical (in fact, several people disliked Jules, the main character, finding her weak and annoying), certain of the writing conventions were obvious and the whole thing was just, well, uninteresting. 

Our next meeting is on Tuesday, November 5. The Doctor is hosting (in her new (temporary) house!), the Highlander is on apps and the Foxx on dessert. Having read ahead, El Jefe can guarantee that the November book, A Hundred Summers, will be a fun and pulpy change of pace. Highlander, don't miss this one, it's right up your alley!

 Ethan... fo' sho'

Mass wedding performed by the Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity under Rev. Sun Myung Moon

1980s. We have come a long way.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Kitchen House

Thanks to the Foxx for hosting a lovely BC. We started out with artichoke dip spread over crostini and pesto-topped hummus with sweet potato chips, courtesy of Logan's Run, followed by a fresh and delicious saute of shrimp, spinach and tomatoes, and polished off with a berry pie baked by Quakers in Idaho and lovingly transported by El Jefe 14 hours back to Cali in a cooler. An homage to our well-intentioned but ultimately futile Sun Valley BC.

The Kitchen House, by Kathleen Grissom, cooked in at a meager 5.3. This was the story of an Irish girl named Lavinia ("Abinia" in the author's rendition of southern slave dialect) who was an indentured servant and was raised by the plantation slaves with whom she worked. On the positive side, several of us really got into this story (albeit after a slow start) and found it to be riveting enough to overcome the frankly depressing nature of the subject matter. Also, the characters were well developed and therefore interesting, even if not likeable. The detractors found the story to be overly dramatic-- the Maharani actually compared it to a telenovella-- with rape followed by beating followed by molestation followed by morphine abuse. Although these tragedies undoubtedly were all too commonplace in the sad and harsh world portrayed by The Kitchen House, our group felt that the novel was so packed with them that it dulled the effect on the reader. For example, one person mentioned that by the time Ben's ear got cut off, the gruesome incident came across as just one more violent act in a parade of horribles rather than a shocking scene that stopped the reader in her tracks. Some also simply didn't like Abinia: although she struggled with her place between the white and black worlds, she was a people pleaser and a weak character who didn't garner much sympathy. In fact, there was more discussion over Marshall, who suffered years of cruelty and molestation at the hands of his tutor and emerged a ruined and abusive man himself. The trauma of his childhood resulted in Marshall growing up to be more comfortable banding together with the diabolical slavemaster Rankin that with his own family members. Finally, Ms. K. felt that that the book was a "Roots" copycat-- not very original except for the indentured servant twist; a historically interesting theme but ultimately not enough to salvage the overall rating.

Admittedly, having real trouble figuring out what pictures to include....

Stay tuned for the recap of The Interestings! Until next time, read early and often.. xoej

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Dark Places

Dark Places, by Gillian Flynn, was our August book, read in L.A. and Sun Valley, and discussed by the L.A. team over dinner at Le Zinque.

Overall the book scored an 8.4.  It was entertaining, easy to read and suspenseful. So much so that The Highlander snuggled up every night to read (wha??), dying to find out what happened. Possible pun intended. Apparently people were pretty fooled, thinking it was Diondra who was the killer. A very effective thriller, this was better liked than Gone Girl. Want to hear something weird? In going back through the blog to get that link, El Jefe noted that the Gone Girl recap was September 4, 2012-- one year to the day ago.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

A Thousand Pardons

Oy, El Jefe has really slacked off this summer and is relegated to backdating the blog posts. But why call it slacking off when we can call it "being flexible?" A way belated thanks to Logan's Run for hosting July BC, with a special appearance by none other than Blondie- once in BC, always in BC: it was just like old times! Glad we proved we still hold the bar high as far as food is concerned. We shared CA and ID gossip over bruschetta with three kinds of toppings (pesto and parm, roasted beets with fresh feta, and roasted red bell peppers with chives), followed by orzo with roasted veggies and an amazing salad (maple syrup dressing from Gwenyth's cookbook, right?) and assorted French pastries and cookies. Lish!!

A Thousand Pardons by Jonathan Dee garnered a 5.7. It was a full house, and everybody voted. One or two high scores were countered by a number of votes in the 4-5 range, with a lot of consistency in the comments. To refresh memories: this was the story of the housewife, Helen, whose husband cheated with the law firm summer intern and went broke from the resulting legal battle. Helen was forced to move to NYC and take a job in crisis management PR. She runs into an old high school flame now movie star, Hamilton Barth, and subsequently "rescues" him from a drunken oblivion and hides him in her ex-husband's house while trying to locate Hamilton's one-night stand and prove she (the one-night stand) is still alive. Meanwhile, the adopted daughter is getting into all kinds of delinquency. And then at the end, um, they move back in together? That part is pretty fuzzy in El Jefe's memory which is exactly the problem people had: the first half of the book was fun and sensationalist, while the second half just kind of went nowhere, despite the high expectations that maybe there would be a murder! Maybe Helen and Hamilton would get together in a sizzling romance! Maybe the adopted daughter would do something really crazy! But, no, they all just kind of resumed their post-divorce, post-scandal, post-trouble-making-African American boyfriend lives. At the worst, Ms. K wondered why an author would even write this, setting up the reader for nothing to happen. Anopther critique was that the author treated Helen very harshly. We were all picturing her as middle aged and dowdy, loathed by her teenage daughter, struggling to get back into the workforce. But then we find out she's only like-- our age! Ouch. On the flip side, a couple of people thought that for all its hints towards celebrity and drama, the book had a streak of realiam and, going even further, the author actually was deliberate in giving the book a somewhat drab ending. That is, neither marriage nor divorce may be all that exciting, affairs don't always end in a huge dramatic flame out, and resuming commonplace lives is, well, just what happens most of the time.

Stay tuned for the next installment of The Club of Books to find out what happened to the Sun Valley book club which turned into the LA and Sun Valley book clubs which turned into just the LA book club. Funny how natural disasters can do that. See everyone tomorrow to discuss our August and September books. And happy End o' Summer! xoej