Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Sense of an Ending

Thanks to the Highlander for hosting our Ninth Annual Holiday BC!  The house looked beautiful, as always, the champagne was flowing, as always, and the level of book club controversy was right where it should be for the holidays.  We started off with hot artichoke dip and a cheese and charcuterie platter, followed by--what else!--beef bourguignon over creamy mashed potatoes, a festive kale salad with ricotta salata and pomegranate seeds, and roasted brussel sprouts.  Not enough calories for this crowd, so the pecan pie and Heath Bar cookies rounded out the evening and all of us.  December book club would not be the same without those Heath Bar cookies!

Julian Barnes' Sense of an Ending scored about a 6.5.  December book club would also not be the same without someone, of the male gender, who puts up a fuss about rating the book.  Come on people, it's just a book club rating, not an official pronouncement of literary criticism!  Unlike last year's uniformly high marks (including the historic "double 10" couples vote!), this novel was more inconsistently received.  There was a camp around the 7 to 8 zone, some haters around 4 and 5, and those who rated it a 6.  Oh, wait, that was Brother D rating Chris a 6.  Never mind... (Incidentally, El Jefe was extremely content to sit back, sip champagne, and let Brother D crack the whip.)  Although the book's rating was lackluster, the discussion was not.  The overarching theme of the novel was about growing old, and how, when we look back upon our lives, we inevitably view our own history through a lens that distorts the truth.  Do we perceive ourselves as better people than we really were?  More fair?  More honest?  More important?  Although somewhat heavy-handed, the author framed these questions in an eloquent and interesting way, first through the classroom discourse in a prep school history class, and then through the events that unfold in the life of everyman Tony Webster, the book's narrator.   Tony sets forth the story of his school years, his best friend, Adrian, his youthful romance with Vanessa, and his innocuous journey into middle age.  The first half of the book progresses slowly, with beautiful prose but not a lot going on.  Until we learn about the venomous letter Tony sent to Vanessa and Adrian, containing a curse that ultimately comes true.  Not only does the letter force Tony to re-evaluate his memories and, in fact, his entire character, but it forces us, as readers, to question everything we have been told.  (A heated debate, El Jefe recalls, ensued over whether Tony being an "unreliable narrator" was a noteworthy feature of the book, or whether all narrators are unreliable and therefore this was an obvious and uninteresting observation.  Ah, the holiday BC!)  We also hotly deliberated over the end of the book.  Why was Vanessa so angry with Tony when she should have been angry with Adrian?  Why did the mother leave Tony the diary?  Why was her bequest to Tony "blood money?"  Although this book was not for everyone, its poignant and ominous ending leaves each of us with much to reflect on, and the disturbing uncertainty of wondering what long-forgotten act may come back to haunt us, compelling the revision of our personal legacy as we believe it to be.

Blood money. noun. 1. a fee paid to a hired murderer. 2. compensation paid to the next of kin of a slain person. 3. money obtained ruthlessly and at a cost of suffering to others. 4. money paid to an informer in order to cause somebody to be arrested, convicted, or especially executed.

We are very excited to start 2012--our 10th year!--by welcoming T-- and R-- into The Club of Books.  Our January meeting will be either at Chez Jefe, or at the Winter Chateau, depending on our construction situation.  Date to be confirmed by separate e-mail.  Our next book is The Poisoner's Handbook:  Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, by Deborah Blum.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all, read early and often!  Until 2012...xoej 

Sunday, November 20, 2011

A Visit From the Goon Squad

You know it's a party when a spontaneous book club meeting breaks out!  Yes, at Red's baby shower today we realized we had a higher hit rate of book club members than on any other day in the month.  Hors d'oeuvres, main course, dessert--all check.  So, our track record remains unbroken:  nine years of The Club of Books, with not a meeting missed!

 Jennifer Egan's A Visit From the Goon Squad was a real dud, scoring a lackluster 5.0.  Everyone read it and everyone seemed to have come away with the same impression:  it was simply too much.  Trying too hard, too zeitgeisty, too post-modern (and too late to be trying to be post-modern), too bizarre, too musical, too masculine, and just kind of irritating.  This story started out with promise, and at first it was fun to piece together the connections between the characters as the book skips back and forth in time, like when you initially realized that Bennie Salazar's assistant Sasha is the kleptomaniac from the first chapter, and also the girl whose uncle goes to track her down after she runs away to Naples, Italy.  But it just didn't hang together tightly enough.  Some of the chapters--like the one about La Doll, who threw the most fabulous event in New York until her VIP guests got burned with hot wax (note to the party "no-no" file) and then tried to redeem herself by doing PR for a Central American dictator--were amusing but overly complicated and random.  The PowerPoint presentation felt played (if you've read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (and have we?) you've been there and done that), and the futuristic chapter at the end where they're all texting on cell phones was kind of lame.  So an "A" for effort and inventiveness, but this author tried to do too much and didn't quite nail it.

This picture seemed to go with both the Thanksgiving and the Baby Shower themes:

As everyone knows our Holiday Book Club is on December 14th, and we're reading Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes.  Read early and often and make sure your spouses do the same!!  xoej

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The 19th Wife

Thanks to Ms. K for hosting BC at her brand... new... house...!  It was so exciting to see your long project come to fruition, and everything looks incredible.  Congrats! 

It's been quite a while since El Jefe reported:  work, Barcelona, San Francisco, kids, life, the Fall Festival, New York--all of that waylaid El Jefe's best laid plans to write the recap.  But, as not one has been missed in 9 years, we're not starting now (in fact, El Jefe currently is writing this post from 15,000 feet above Albuquerque, New Mexico--now that's dedication!).  So, to the best of El Jefe's recollection, we started out with a cheese and charcuterie platter, garnished with some sort of figgy or pineappley jam that was decidedly delish with the goat cheese, followed by a hearty beef stew, perfect for fall, and a green salad, and... wait... why can't El Jefe remember what was for dessert?

We then moved on to a discussion of The 19th Wife.  It would be an utterly unrealistic strain on El Jefe's memory to try and recount this book's rating to the decimal point, but suffice it to say that it was fairly well received with no passionate votes for or against (after all, without La Mademoiselle, the chances for a 0 or 10 have gone way down).  So let's call it 6.5.  The 19th Wife was a fast and entertaining read, melding historic fiction and non-fiction about the life of Ann Eliza Young, the so-called 19th wife of Brigham Young (second prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) with a murder mystery set in current day fundamentalist LDS-land.  Probably the most interesting part of this book was the way that the author switched styles between the various chapters, convincingly imitating an early 19th century editorial from the San Francisco Chronicle or the text of a Wikipedia posting.  While some of our group wrote this book off as "Under the Banner of Heaven-lite," most found it to be sufficiently different and didn't mind a second opportunity to excoriate the LDS institution for first sanctioning, and later attempting to cover up, the deplorable treatment of women in the early days of the church.  Still difficult for El Jefe to understand how this new religion managed to get started within relatively recent history and people actually went for it.  It's one thing to pass down the stories of Moses parting the Red Sea from generation to generation as part of a tradition stretching back more than 2,000 years.  It's another for a regular guy from Vermont to come along in 1830 and claim that he had discovered golden tablets inscribed with the divine truth (but that no one else could see).  Int, very int.

Ann Eliza Young

Sacred Underwear

Our November meeting is this Sunday, November 13th at Red's house in the 'Dena.  Note the new Sunday start time:  5.30.  The Highlander is on dessert, and please volunteer if you're able to bring apps.  The book we will be discussing is A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer, Egan, which, ahem, hopefully everyone has already finished by now or is close to it.

We also have our December book!  We will be reading Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes, which is a holiday-friendly 176 pages, and accordingly finishable by even the most slacker husbands.  Sense of an Ending just won the 2011 Man Booker prize, so it should be a good one.  Date for holiday BC to follow.  xoej

Thursday, September 15, 2011

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin

What sad, sad circumstances led us to congregate at the Fall Chateau last week instead of a cozy bungalow in Venice Beach:  our beloved Mademoiselle rentre au pays, or in case El Jefe butchered that, she is, alas, returning to France.  This is far worse than Blondie moving to Sun Valley.  It's just too damn far!  La Mademoiselle has added so much fun and zest to our little group over the years, it will not be the same without her.  She will always be welcome to send in her extreme votes and feisty commentary from abroad.  Not to mention... Book Club field trip, anyone?!

Who knew that we were in for an impromptu jewelry show?  All the better way to spend our time (and money) while catching up on the month's news and chowing down on a veritable feast of Italian deliciousness:  prosciutto with melon, and burrata with tomato and basil to pile on top of pizza dough foccacia.  It was the perfect lead-in to our dinner of spaghetti carbonara and an arugula salad, followed by fresh fruit topped with a ricotta sauce for dessert.  We definitely were more Mussolini than Hitler on the dinner front, but El Jefe would pick pasta over bratwurst any day.  Lotta carbs.

Eric Larson's In the Garden of Beasts scored about a 7, with quite a few people who didn't finish the book in time.  Needless to say this was not light, summer reading.  The story of William Dodd, the U.S. ambassador to Germany during the first year of Hitler's chancellorship, and Dodd's party-loving daughter Martha was disappointing to some who expected more mystery, intrigue and merdher a la Devil in the White City.  Apparently, the 85 people (at a minimum!) whom Hitler ordered killed on the "Night of the Long Knives" did not constitute an impressive death toll, knowing that monster's capabilities.  There definitely were several chapters (and chapter titles) that led the reader to think that a big reveal was waiting a just a few pages ahead, but no payoff was delivered:  merely another correspondence between Dodd and someone in the state department back home about Germany's debt to American bankers, or a description of a lover's spat between Martha and one of her many paramours.  The group generally also found both Dodds, father and daughter, to be unlikeable.  William Dodd was an overly-stern complainer who didn't know how to have fun, while Martha seemed frivolous and immature.  What's more, the book did not bring to light a particularly interesting relationship between William and Martha themselves.  However, despite these shortcomings, the story was a window onto a fascinating time in history that many of us knew little or nothing about.  Even the descriptions of the foreign service and how members of the diplomatic corps lived and worked--that is, they basically threw or attended lavish parties all week long--were eye-opening.  But what really gave this book its intrigue and omnipresent tension is that we all know how things turned out.  If only . . .

The Bad Guys

Der Führer

Joseph Goebbels, Minister of Propaganda of the Third Reich

Hermann Göring, Commander-in-Chief of the Luftwaffe

Putzi Hanfstaengl, Head of the Foreign Press Bureau in Berlin

Rudolf Diels, first Head of the Geheime Staatspolizei (Gestapo)

Our next meeting is at Ms. K's new house!  And so far it's on our regularly scheduled date, October 5.  The Doctor is bringing apps, and the Highlander dessert.  Our book is The 19th Wife, by David Ebershoff.  It's a long one (but an easy, enjoyable read), so until next time, read early and often!  xoej

Monday, August 22, 2011

Area 51: An Uncensored History of America's Top Secret Military Base

Oy vey, this tardiness by El Jefe is truly becoming unacceptable!  If there was an excuse for posting almost a month late, it would only be that El Jefe actually expected to finish the book one of these days and make an incredibly insightful remark about the ending.... but a no less heartfelt thanks to Ms. K for hosting a lovely summer's evening BC even while up to the elbows in a home renovation--and to Logan's Run for supplying an alternative venue!  You know we've been together a long time when we start swapping houses!

We started off the evening with zucchini keftedes with feta and dill, and a Greek yogurt dipping sauce, followed by a fusilli salad with garden vegetables and breast of chicken, mixed green salad, and chocolate chip cookies--all enjoyed alfresco in a candlelit atrium patio.  Dalish!

Zucchini Keftedes with Feta and Dill

Annie Jacobsen's Area 51:  An Uncensored History of America's Top Secret Military Base certainly was just that:  uncensored.  Clocking in at a whopping 544 pages, in hardcover, this book was anything but light summer reading.

"Area" matched its heavy-duty weight with a heavy-duty score:  8.5.  For those of you in attendance, this may come as a surprise, as you perhaps recalled the book hovering (pun intended) around 6 or 6.5.  However, El Jefe has taken the poetic (or whatever) license to retroactively rate this book to a 10!  You heard me right, Doctor, the mother of all grade inflations!  And that makes two 10s for the group, matched, if El Jefe's memory serves, only by the double-10 given to Zeitoun at the last holiday BC.

Redundant though it may be to say it, this work was truly an oeuvre.  Jacobsen covered, in exacting detail, the entire history of the "Black Ops" at Area 51 from the beginning of the Cold War to the present.  Not only did the book reveal information that the public had never before been exposed to, but it also raised questions about violence, morality, and the place of "America" in the world, both then and now.  The shit that went down at Area 51 was unreal, although unfortunately it does seem to have been real.  While the clandestine development and testing of spy planes is to be expected, what's amazing is the complete lack of governmental oversight--in some cases even the President did not have a "need to know."  Not sure that's such a good idea.  And what certainly is a downright bad idea is sending guys out with a Geiger counter to test radiation levels by hand with no protective clothing or vehicles.  Actually, the entire classified program of nuclear testing, from Operation Crossroads, to the atmospheric testing, to the underground testing, to the testing on animals, to the testing on fighter pilots, was (is?) sickening.  As many of us pointed out, if that was going on then, just think what's going on now. 

Well, that was not entirely a rhetorical point.  One of the things that is going on now is that the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency (or "DARPA," as we know from the book) recently lost its latest and greatest aircraft:  the Falcon HTV-2.  This "hypersonic" aircraft was built to travel at 20 times the speed of sound, or 13,000 miles per hour (remember, the Oxcart traveled at 3 times the speed of sound, or "Mach 3").  The unmanned plane was supposed to be able to fly from Los Angeles to New York in 12 minutes.  However, up, up, and away....!  The $300 million aircraft went missing just minutes after its launch on August 11, when the ground crew "lost contact" with it.  The plane is believed to have crashed into the Pacific Ocean.  Losing a multi-multi-million dollar, state-of-the-art aircraft on a test flight?--that is so 1960's Pentagon!  C'est la vie.  Apparently we'll have to wait a bit longer to be able to strike rogue states anywhere in the world with nuclear weapons in under 60 minutes--the intended use for the Falcon HTV-2. 

Welcome to Area 51.

Operation Crossroads, 1946

Lockheed U-2 Spy Plane, 1957

Oxcart A12, 1964

 Falcon HTV-2, 2011... oops

Our next book (which, El Jefe trusts, everyone is well into by now) is In the Garden of Beasts, by Eric Larson (author of Devil in the White City--our March 2006 book!).  Until next time, which is right around the corner.  xoej 

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

American Pastoral

Thanks to the Highlander for hosting an exceptionally fun BC, especially bold coming off a holiday weekend.  We lounged in the salon nibbling (wolfing down?) two kinds of petite toasts, one with goat cheese and cucumber, the other featuring some sort of cheesy goodness.  Dinner was oven-roasted bruschetta with mozzarella and prosciutto, a simple but lish pasta with Parmesan and fresh ground black pepper (basically, the BFC's take on pasta cacio e pepe), and a butter lettuce salad.  Luckily, there was strawberry rhubarb crumble with vanilla ice cream for dessert--wouldn't want anyone to go hungry!

Around 8:30 we ventured into book territory.  American Pastoral, by Phillip Roth, rated in the low 7's and was described, almost to a person, as "dense" (foreshadowing the feeling after dinner). 

This book generated a lot of conversation, as would be expected from a story by one of the great contemporary American novelists.  But for all the book's prize-winning-ness, it was not unanimously loved or even liked, by any means.  For starters, it was--ah yes, dense.  American Pastoral demanded concentration and determination.  Roth could take up fifteen pages writing about the old Italian glovers on the shop floor and how they stitched each of the fourchettes (if you've forgotten, that's the piece of leather joining the front and back of the glove in between the fingers) by hand.  While la Mademoiselle relished the long passages about glove craftsmanship, the rest of us were wondering what it all had to do with the price of eggs in China.  But to be fair, Roth's minute attention to detail on some pages counterimposed with his folksy, rambling style on others was clearly all part of a master plan:  to construct, with exquisite precision, the "American pastoral" that was the life of Swede Levov--only to tear it down and expose the utter chaos beneath.  What an oeuvre!  But not so fast, there was plenty of criticism of this book apart from its density.  It was somewhat confusing--was the book a biographical account, or a story entirely made up by the narrator who disappeared without trace after the first few chapters?  It wasn't as good as we remembered it--for those who read it in college.  It was too graphic--or perhaps by Phillip Roth standards, too tame.  It was upsetting--Merry and Rita Cohen were too diabolical to read about.  Etc.  There also was quite a bit of disagreement, for example, as to whether the Swede and his wife were good parents.  Some thought they coddled Merry (such as letting her stay the night in New York) and were responsible for her demise.  Others could relate to their attempts to reason with Merry and to avoid alienating her.  Some perceived the kiss in the car as totally creepy, others found it innocently reminiscent of a scene in an old-fashioned film.  Some criticized the ending as disappointing and absurd, others found the absurdity to be a perfectly-crafted finale to the book.  In the end, everyone who finished American Pastoral felt that it was worthwhile to have persevered (except perhaps Red), and those who didn't said they were going to keep on going.  El Jefe has no doubts that everyone has finished it by now.



Nir Adar

Our next meeting is on Tuesday, August 2nd, hosted by Ms. K. at Logan's Run's new home.  El Jefe is on apps, Logan's Run on dessert.  We are reading Area 51: An Uncensored History of America's Top Secret Military Base.  Mystery!  Intrigue!  Conspiracy!  Mehr-dehr!

Please bring your LOD suggestions so we can pick at least two new books.  Until next time, read early and often and have a Happy summer!

Friday, June 10, 2011

The Paris Wife

In June, the Club of Books boldly went where few women have gone before:  through the left-hand doorway off the entryway to the Spring Chateau.  Yes, mini grilled cheese sandwiches with fig jam and jalapenos in Near Earth, video art by My Barbarian on an eternal loop in Middle Earth, and Chinese chicken salad, spring rolls, and cupcakes and coffee in Far Earth.  Not to be seen again (by anyone, that is!) for the next two years.

 My Barbarian, The Golden Age, 2007, two-channel video

Paula McLain's The Paris Wife was well-received, garnering somewhere between 7 and 7.5.  The book was interesting, a fast and engaging read, and took the reader on a vintage adventure that roamed from the cafes of Paris, to the bullfighting ring of Pamplona, to private beaches in the South of France, to chalets in the snowy Austrian ranges.  It was with a mixture of envy, amazement, and disgust that most of us for the first time really learned something about Hemingway the man, who, well, seems to be about the same as Hemingway the myth.  No wonder that guys--BC's Tenth Member included--seem to have placed Hemingway on a pedestal:  ultra-masculine, athletic, charming, a literary genius, devilishly handsome, the talk of Paris, cavorting through Europe with the rich and famous.  Was this dude for real?   Unfortunately, in life as in mythology, someone who lives in such an outsized fashion is bound to be met by a tragic ending (and along the way, a wrecked home life, a gigantic ego, alcoholism and depression).  And what about the wife, number one of four--how could she ever stand up (whether in the book or in reality) to a character of Hemingway's magnitude?  Apparently she didn't, or at least not on their summer vacation where Pauline came along as if they were all one big happy family.  More like Barfalona than Cap d'Antibes if you ask El Jefe.  Overall, the book provided a fascinating window into a time and place that were unique in history:  heady, jazzy, exuberant and gluttonous, and we missed it by a good 50 years.  El Jefe also loved the chance to reminisce about her fave spots in the City of Lights . . .

Cafe Bonaparte, Rue Bonaparte, 6e arrondissement

Bar Hemingway, Ritz Hotel, Place Vendome, 1er arrondissement

Centre Pompidou, 4e arrondissement

Jamin Puech, Rue Madame, 6e arrondissement

Our next meeting is Wednesday, July 6.  As everyone surely remembers (right?!) we are reading Phillip Roth's Pulitzer Prize winner, American Pastoral, postponed from last month.  We also picked an August book:  Area 51:  An Uncensored History of America's Top Secret Military Base, by Annie Jacobson.  Meeting location and volunteers to be sent separately.  Until next time, you truly do need to read early and often.  American Pastoral is like 31 Flavors' French Vanilla:  "Costs a bit more, but worth it!"

Baskin-Robbins announced on July 15, 2010, that to make room for some new combinations, five flavors would have to go.  The oldest was French Vanilla:  launched in 1945, it was one of the first flavors offered by Irv Robbins and Burt Baskin.  

Monday, May 23, 2011

Father of the Rain

Thanks to the Doctor for hosting another great BC evening!  Almost a full house: we only were missing the Highlander, who was busy with last minute wedding preparations.  We started off with a brie tasting (El Jefe’s favorite actually being the domestic triple-crème from New England—in keeping with the theme of the book!) and then made a run for the border for a variety of delicious Argentine empanadas with chimichurri sauce accompanied by a mache salad, with individual-sized cups of Hagen Daaz ice cream in assorted flavors for dessert.  Lish!

On to Lily King’s Father of the Rain, which scored an average of 6 on a scale of 1 to 10.  Apparently all of us West Coasters (plus La Mademoiselle) could not muster up a whole lot of sympathy for these Boston preppies and their high-class problems.  There was at least one person in our group who found each of the characters annoying:  Daley, the narrator, for being one-dimensional and weak;  Jonathan, the black boyfriend, for being a cliché with his dreadlocks and for abandoning Daley on her dad’s porch;  and, of course, Gardiner, Daley’s father, for his crass, drunken antics and home-wrecking behavior.  But on the flip side, there also were compelling elements to the characters and to the story as a whole.  For one thing, it had some interesting resonance with March's book, Love or Something Like It, since both novels involved the dramatic and lasting impact that a father can have on a daughter’s life—sometimes for the worse rather than the better.  Also, there were some humorous and endearing aspects to Gardiner’s personality, for example, his inside jokes (or, at least, the only mildly raunchy ones) and the fatherly rituals that Daley and her brother loved when they were younger, or when he pulled outrageous gags such as streaking naked through his wife’s pool party in front of the "liberal" friends she was trying to impress.  Thus some of us found ourselves really rooting for Gardiner as he tried to pull his life back together through AA.  But at the end of the day, whatever poignant and convincing insights this book might have provided were drowned out in the dated corniness of the last scene:  Gardiner, on his death bed, surrounded by his (now) bi-racial family as they discuss the 2008 Democratic primary run-off between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, with Daley throwing her vote behind Obama and Jonathan behind Clinton.  Really?  Really?

And just because it's such an incredibly great look... Preppies... then, and now.

Preppy on campus, circa 1980

And now

Preppy with a sweet ride, circa 1980

And now
Preppy tennis, circa 1980

And now... lish!

We decided to put a bit of space between heavy father-daughter novels and postpone American Pastoral until July.  Our June book, instead, is The Paris Wife by Paula McLane, a fictional historic account of Hemmingway and his wife in Paris.  We are meeting on our regularly-scheduled first Wednesday of the month at the Foxx’s house. The Highlander is on apps and Ms. K. is on dessert!

Until next time, xoej

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Funny Boy

This BC recap is a pure, selfless act of dedication and love, as El Jefe prepares to torture herself by recounting our usual BC feast at the end of Day One of a three-day juice cleanse.  Salivation ensues, remembering the hot, pan-crisped shrimp and veggie goyza with a ponzu dipping sauce, followed by creamy tomato bisque, filo pizza with caramelized onions, chevre, and kalamata olives, and a green salad with a shallot-white balsamic vinagarette, topped off by decadent cheesecake (much better than cinnamon cashew juice, which is what El Jefe had for dessert).  Best of all, the entree was brought to us via special delivery from Sun Valley.  That's right!  A full house, for the first time in, well ages!  It was great to have everyone together again, and a sad, sad day for the scores of BC hopefuls just waiting for a spot to open up.

Funny Boy was relatively low scoring, only 5.4 on average.  However, it always happens that the books with the lukewarm ratings actually seem to generate much enthusism in our discussion--and this was no exception.  Funny Boy was a combination of many things you wouldn't necessarily expect to find in the same book:  Sri Lanka, homosexuality, Canada, civil war, boarding school.  But, the weaving together of these elements created a novel that, if not a quick read, certainly was an interesting and informative one.  The story of the book's young protagonist, Arjun, was fictional, yet set against a social and political backdrop that was very real:  the tensions and bloody violence between Sri Lanka's Buddhist Sinhalese majority and its Hindu Tamil minority.  It was a sad and fascinating view into the background of a decades-long civil war that ended just recently with the defeat of the Tamil Tigers in 2009, as anyone who listens to NPR on a regular basis heard.  It also was almost unimaginable to think of having to go to school in an environment such as Arjun's where the headmaster inflicts corporal punishment and uses the students as pawns in his political agenda.  Some in our group also were touched by the author's kind and sympathetic portrayal of how Arjun discovered his sexuality and struggled to deal with it in a country that was not at all tolerant of gay people.  The shortcomings of the book were that the writer did not seem to mind dropping threads of the story at a moment's notice (for example, Arjun's mother's childhood lover who was assassinated by the Tamil Tigers, Princess Fatty, and Arjun's family's flight to seek refuge in Canada), which was frustrating.  Also, many of the characters, including most members of Arjun's family, were not likeable and were a turn-off to read about.  Overall, the main takeaway of this book is that we are so fortunate to live in the time and place that we do.  One of the many, many great things about book club (too many to count!) is that every so often we read read a book that reminds us of that.

2009 protest outside 10 Downing Street urging Tony Blair to stop support of the Tamil Tigers.

Tamil Tiger suicide bomber

Our next meeting also is shaping up to have perfect attendance!  We are meeting at the Doctor's house on May 11.  El Jefe is on dessert and not sure about apps--email if you can pitch in.  Until next week...  xoej 

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Love Or Something Like It

Thanks to Logan's Run for hosting a lovely TCOB last week, and to Red for pinch hitting on the apps.  If a last minute fondue pot with apples, baguette slices, mushrooms and broccoli is what you call pulling together apps on the fly, we'll volunteer you every week!  Then, a wild mushroom lasagna with mixed green salad, and a smorgasbord of chocolately goodness--peanut butter cups, dipped pretzels, dipped almonds and more-- for dessert.

We definitely were not in love with Dierdre Shaw's Love or Something Like It.  And not even something like it, either.  More like a lukewarm friendship, coming in at 5.9. 

We were missing a few potential high scorers, in particular, the Highlander (who said the book was a hit with her), but as those votes weren't actually submitted we're stuck with a mediocre rating.  There's no doubt the story was fun and fast-paced, and the writing talented enough, but there's a certain sense of literary snobbery that seems to hold this group back from giving novels "on the lighter side" high praise.  That being said, some things things about this book hit home, including the descriptions of the protagonist, Lacey Brennan's disfunctional family.  As someone who still is not all that tuned into "The Business," El Jefe was somewhat amazed at the sneak peak inside the TV writers' room, and couldn't help but wonder how many hours a day her own writer friends spend discussing take-out food and breasts.  Surely it's an exaggeration, except that the Foxx actually corroborated much of the author's description and in fact thinks that she has identified the real life characters that these fictional characters were modeled after.  There was across the board disapproval of Lacey's ex-husband, Toby, the pot-smoking loser, and didn't anyone think it was completely annoying how they both called each other "Smooch?"  All in all, an enjoyable read, definitely recommendable, especially to others living in L.A., and definitely getting us all ready for a quality book on the next go round.  And speaking of....

The nice thing about being El Jefe is that, well, El Jefe does the recaps and so can take some poetic (not the right word) license in what to write about, and also when it comes to matters of grade inflation.  So let's circle back to the Great House for a brief moment, which El Jefe just finished yesterday.  Who knows why our group, other than La Mademoiselle, couldn't get through this book, and in the last recap La Mademoiselle's score of neuf was described as "high ball."  Well, El Jefe is going to top that with a major retroactive grade inflation of neuf ans et demi, and for those of us English speakers, that's 9 and a half.  El Jefe actually pronounced last night--and granted it was after a margarita, but only one (well, maybe one ans et demi)--that Nicole Krauss, the author of Great House, would ultimately come to be considered among the likes of Walker Percy and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  Ok, well maybe it was one and half margaritas and a michelada, but still, it was a wonderful book.  Nicole Krauss is being featured on the USA network this upcoming Tuesday at 8PM, on a proram called Character Approved:  Honoring the Characters who are Changing American Culture.

The Magic Castle

El Jefe leaves you with these thoughts:  (1) BC field trip to the Magic Castle, anyone? (2) Logan's Run may never be allowed to host again if her husband overhead our dinner conversation, and (3) please make every effort to attend the next meeting and to bring a LOD suggestion.  We torched all titles in the LOD and are starting anew, and we have some important BC business to discuss at the next meeting that requires full participation.

The Foxx will be hosting on Wednesday, April 6.  The Doctor is bringing apps, and El Jefe dessert.  And the Doctor will host May's meeting.  We are reading Funny Boy, by Shyam Selvaduai. 

Until next time...xoej

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Great House

Great evening at Chez Jefe, um, week before last.  We started off with an epic cheese and charcuterie assortment, followed by chicken picatta, these lishy, creamy, golden rosemary polenta triangles, and roasted asparagus topped with reggiano parmigiano.  Then for dessert, a chocolate cream cake worth its weight in gold (literally) that could have served our book club for three months' worth of meetings.  Lish!

The enthusiasm for the book, Nicole Krauss' The Great House, was palpable.  El Jefe could tell because out of the 6 people in attendance 4 had bought the book and 0 finished it.  The rating was 7, boosted by La Mademoiselle's high ball score of 9. 

The biggest complaint was that the story had gotten off to a slow start, there were a lot of characters--all of whom were miserable wretches, and it was hard to see what one story had to do with the next.  Luckily, we had the Highlander with us, who actually had created a Venn diagram and family tree to show how the characters and stories were interconnected.  It had certainly gone over El Jefe's head that Daniel Varsky was the long lost son of the English professor, and that his daughter was the twin in the story at the boarding school.  Given the popularity of this book and the clear sophistication of the author, surely there is a master plan--as yet undiscovered on page 150--by which all of these stories come together in the end.  Despite its slowness, The Great House was filled with compelling characters, whose emotional failings were rendered by the author in heartbreaking tenderness and detail.  As El Jefe remarked, the author's intuition and understanding of the human condition seemed to be way beyond her years, as she could get inside the minds of a college student suffering from depression, an aging, estranged Israeli father, and a middle-aged divorced writer in Manhattan with equal credibility.  There will be a payoff at the end of this book for those with patience, so we can talk to those people and find out what it is.
Our next meeting is at Logan's Run's house, on Wednesday, March 2.  Ms. K. is bringing dessert and the Doctor apps.  And everyone else is bringing a completely read copy of Love or Something Like It, by Dierdre Shaw.  Happy Valentine's Day!

Friday, January 7, 2011

The Thieves of Manhattan

Thanks to Red for hosting our enjoyable and intimate evening last night.  El Jefe was on the verge of threatening to take Red out of the hosting circulation entirely after the hour-long trek out to the Dena (and Red would gladly have accepted!), but the threat was revoked once we started happily slurping down what was easily one of the best BC dinners of all time:  Franco-Vietnamese chicken curry, served not over a traditional bed of rice, but rather with thick slices of crusty baguette for dunking.  It was (literally) a winner, winner chicken dinner.  Created in 1979, it's no wonder this recipe has survived until today.  And for dessert, these incredible congo bars, which were all cookie-ish chocolately goodness.  Only a New Year's resolution kept El Jefe from packing them into a doggie bag to bring home.  And speaking of doggies...  Junior was looking terrific, sporting a snazzy Polo shirt, although clearly still in need of a collar upgrade. 

Pour le pooch avec tout.  Goyard, $500.

Maybe on next year's Christmas list.

This BC was perfect for El Jefe's failing mathematical prowess.  Let's see:  4 in attendance, 75% read the book, each gave it a 6, square that and then take the square root, carry the one....and it scored a 6!  The Thieves of Manhattan received a lukewarm welcome, to say the least. 

El Jefe should be peppering this recap with clever literary code words from the glossary, but alas, the book already has gone back to the library.  (But note that the curry dinner was not "lish" this time;  Red pointed out that in TTOM parlance that would have meant it was deleted.  Deleted out of the pot and into El Jefe's stomach, perhaps!)  The most frequent description of this book was "pretentious."  All three of us who read it were thoroughly annoyed by the author's use of literary references in lieu of words:  an overcoat was a "gogol" (in honor of Nikolai Gogol's The Overcoat);  a speeding train was a "highsmith";  and of course, the ubiquitous "franzens."

Jonathan Franzen, sporting his "franzens."

This convention could have been fun and witty if the references weren't so pervasive and obscure as to require flipping back to the glossary every two minutes.  The snarky jabs at the New York publishing industry also somehow missed their mark.  Instead of coming across as a hilarious spoof, the thinly-veiled (or unveiled) references to real-life agents, publishers, and authors were kind of obnoxious and made the author seem alternately jealous and condescending.  However, El Jefe did get quite a bit of enjoyment out of the Blade Markham character;  after all, why let James Frey off the hook now?  Another high point of the story was Anya.  Langer reduced her Romanian accent to writing perfectly.  "Oh, Ee-yen, I luff it when you mekk me dirty chinaski!"  Brilliant.  As for the plot, it was fast-moving and engaging, although ultimately a bit too complicated with several threads that didn't quite tie up, the most glaring one being:  did Jed and Faye really think that in 2010 they would be able to pass off a forgery of the Tale of Genji as the real deal?  Hmmm, thin-tip Pentel markers on recycled printing stock, versus 11th Century Japanese manuscript illustrated in watercolor on rice paper.  Really?  Well, we seem to have officially de-bunked the myth that books that get reviewed on NPR must be quality reading (case in point:  True to Da Game).  Looks like it's time to start getting our recommendations from Julia Lee again!

The Tale of Genji:  the first modern novel.

Our next meeting is on February 2 at Chez Jefe.  We will be reading Nicole Krauss's Great House.  Please volunteer if you can bring apps or dessert.  Until next time.... xoej