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

Monday, June 17, 2013

The End of Your Life Book Club

Life is good.  Book club, incredible food, beautiful and amazing friends and the beach (sigh). Does it get any better? Thanks Red for the portable feast, enjoyed from a cozy cabana overlooking the Pacific at sundown. I mean does it?! Manchego cheese canapes and homemade spicy mixed nuts, two kinds of quiche, one of which had melted leeks God bless, mixed baby greens and El Jefe's birthday cake! Deee-lishy.

The End of Your Life Book Club, by Will Schwalbe, scored a 6.6 Although not the feel good book of the summer, the poignancy of this story moved our group and gave rise to an emotional discussion.

As Logan's Run put it, TEOYLBC is at its core a story about a relationship and how it was affected by books. Just as reading opened up new areas in her life, the shared love of books transformed the last years the author spent with his mother while she battled pancreatic cancer. This book touched the hearts of our own little book club in many ways. Rarely in our ten-plus years together has there been such a personal and sad conversation. The trust and intimacy among us is truly special; we are lucky for this group of friends, our time together, our families, our intellect, our sense of humor. Herein lies the real value of the book. It was a reaffirmation that time spent with loved ones will never be something to regret. And it shows how there can be opportunities in all kinds of ways to give back to people who are meaningful to us. In this case, the author and his siblings took weeks out of their lives-- otherwise filled with jobs, kids, various other commitments that "busy" people have-- to stay with their mother during her chemotherapy treatments and while she was admitted to the hospital. What a big influence she must have had on her children, how much she must have given them over the years, to receive such love and respect in return. On a lighter note, it was fun to come across books that TEOYLBC had read that we have as well-- A Long Way Gone, Felicia's Journey and the Kite Runner to name a few. 

There were in fairness several points made about some of the shortcomings of TEOYLBC. Like other recent reads, this book was too long! Editor, heal thyself. The Highlander remarked that the story went on and on about the author and his mother talking about books, but left her wanting for an understanding of how books really connected them, and the feeling that the whole premise was somewhat contrived. A few people also complained that the mother's character was depicted as larger than life and as a result came across as implausible-- had she really devoted all her time and efforts to noble causes, did she really impart to her kids that many pearls of wisdom, was her attitude really always so even-keeled. And the author himself got criticized for being WASP-y and over-eager to drive home (likely out of a sense of guilt) the point that he was sooooo lucky that he never had to work. But at the end of the day, the book's flaws did not overshadow its message, which is one that our book club could stand to be reminded of every now and again.

Our next meeting is on July 10 at Logan's Run's house. The Maharani is on apps, Ms. K on dessert. We are reading A Thousand Pardons, by Jonathan Dee. Until next time, read early and often! And come with suggestions for the LOD;  methinks we need an August book. xoej 

Monday, June 3, 2013


Thanks to Ms. K for hosting our May BC.  We started out with a platter of burrata smothered in sun dried tomatoes with crostini for scooping, followed by Thyme Cafe's chicken stew with biscuits and a mixed green salad, with two kinds of cupcakes for dessert.  Lish!

"If the Lies Don't Kill You, the Truth Will."  

Whoa, now that's deep.  The self-published novel Wool, by Hugh Howey, came in just shy of a 7.  Surprisingly, an almost identical score to The Hunger Games, our last pop culture sci-fi sensation, but with different player haters. While Ms. K. excoriated Hunger Games, she bestowed upon this book a solid 7.5.  By contrast, El Jefe was a big time HG fan but found this book to be "meh."  After all, Wool isn't really such a unique piece.  As the Maharani pointed out, it sticks pretty close to sci-fi 101:  post-apocalyptic world, only vague understanding of why, population control, Big Brother suppressing the innate sexual urges of lusty young adults, to no avail. Talk about lish!  This stuff is gratuitous, entertaining and campy; just right for a Hollywood movie. What's not to like? How about 500+ pages, for starters. Wool turned out to be a veritable tome (and wait, there's more-- rumor has it a prequel is in the works).  Logan's Run just couldn't slog through it (truly a sign of not enough editing--where's censorship when we need it?) and Red thought the story was fine but way too drawn out. Other criticisms were that the book came across as overly masculine (int, since there was a female lead), the reveals were obvious, and it made the reader claustrophobic. This latter point, however, seems to be a compliment to the author, whose highly visual writing rendered life in the silos with such detail that it actually caused discomfort in the real world. And, let's give credit that despite all the pulp, there was food for discussion. Of course the most vexing question being the one that the characters in the story couldn't answer themselves:  Why do people clean? Was it out of a sense of euphoria from going outside and (falsely) discovering that the world was alive and full of color? Was it to try and clear the lenses so that others could view the same miracle? Or was it simply out of respect for the tradition, regardless of whether the cleaners knew or suspected the truth? After all, if the lies don't kill you, then, you know.

So, who would we cast?  Because the world in which El Jefe might be able to answer that question is indeed a fictional one, here's the opinion of someone else who knows better:

Rhona Mitra-- as Juliette

Liam Neeson-- as Holsten

Helen Mirren-- as Mayor Jahns

Paul Giamatti-- as Bernard

Andrew Garfield-- as Lukas

Our next meeting is Wednesday night, in Cabana 173 by the Sea. Bring a sweater. Can't wait.  xoej

Monday, May 6, 2013

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief

Thanks to the Foxx for hosting BC. It was such a lovely evening that we will even forgive her for being an SP (see below). We started out with Salsa di Parmigiano, a ridiculously savory blend of chunks of parmesan and Asiago pureed in olive oil with scallions, garlic and red pepper flakes, to be slathered atop crostini (it was almost embarrassing how many of these El Jefe inhaled in the first two minutes upon arrival). Next, a hearty, healthy and delicious stew of kale, cannellini beans and turkey sausage with cornbread to dunk, and brownies with salted caramel sauce a la' mode.  Deee lish.

Michael Chiarellos' Salsa di Parmigiano

On to Lawrence Wright's Going Clear, which garnered a 7.4 rating. In the Scientology world, this is a truly impressive score. After all, OT VII is the second highest level on the Bridge to Total Freedom--well beyond Preclear, and rapidly progressing from Clear to Operating Thetan.  

Not that a suppressive person such as the Foxx would appreciate that.  She described this book as "creepy," "crazy" and "nutty"-- stark evidence of antisocial pathology. Logan's Run, also an SP, compared the devout souls depicted in this book to the real nut jobs in The 19th Wife and Under the Banner of Heaven. Red--another SP--simply put it:  "cray cray!" Finally, the Doctor, in a kind of paranoid twist on the SP, became afraid of getting snatched off her bed while reading the book. Ok, so there was an across the board consensus that Scientology is a cult:  the terminology, the way it sucked in the vulnerable and destroyed their lives, the all-absorbing focus on a single charismatic individual... the way people get snatched off their beds? But let's turn to the book itself. Clearly (ha ha) the author researched this book to the nitty gritty end, as attested to by the dozens of pages of footnotes. However, as is often the case with non-fiction, it's difficult to walk that line between thoroughness and, well, boring your reader to tears. Despite the wacky theology and the star-studded cast of characters, Going Clear could be painfully boring at times, with one person commenting that the subject matter could have been adequately covered in half the pages. After all, this book is being marketed to the public for their reading pleasure, not as a scholarly treatise. Even the Highlander thought there was too much detail on the celebrities. (Wait, surely that sequence of words has never before been typed together, nor will it ever be in the future.) Yet this book raised some interesting questions for discussion. Such as, how could LRH, who was a wife beater and overall horrible man, become the central figure of a worldwide movement whose followers adored and emulated him? How and why is Scientology different from established religions, particularly Catholicism, which is all about mysteries, hierarchy and awesome outfits? To this last question, our group gave a lot of weight to the fact that Catholicism (and Judaism and Islam, etc.) is old (not to mention the Pope-- he is always old, too). Those religions pre-date modern means of communication, or really, almost any means of communication other than oral storytelling and writing on scrolls, and thus it's understandable that the religions' adherents could have accepted the religions' "truths"--whereas today it seems preposterous for some guy to try and convince people that he can multiply loaves and fishes. In any event, the IRS does not agree with our book club, and El Jefe's not going to argue with that.

See you mañana at Ms. K's house to discuss Wool!  xoej

Thursday, April 11, 2013

A Passage to India

Thanks to the Maharani for hosting a marvelous BC last month, and a full house to boot (no surprise, given the culinary expectations!). We dove right into the theme with samosas and two kinds of chutney for dipping, followed by the Maharani's family recipe for chicken curry, saag paneer, naan-- plus, some sort of gluten-free options (how trendy that will seem by next year) and it was all lish! (And re-created last week in Sun Valley--still lish!) Then, thanks to a minor scheduling snafu, we feasted on two kinds of dessert, never a bad thing... cheesecake and homemade ginger cookies.  So excited for another feast tomorrow.

A Passage to India, by E.M. Forster, is such a venerable classic that El Jefe almost-- with an emphasis on "almost"-- hesitates to post a rating. But in the interest of not pulling a J.P., let's fess up and admit that the book scored a 6. Cringe! In a truly surprising display of cultural disloyalty, the Maharani led the charge with a "5," soon to be followed by a cascade of other "5s" by Ms. K., Logan's Run, and Red. El Jefe and the Doctor (rarely do they break ranks) salvaged a bit of dignity for Mr. Forster's masterpiece by bringing the rating up a notch. Lying at the heart of these lackluster numbers is the simple truth that A Passage to India was written in another time and place, with the pacing and languor of another time and place. It just couldn't keep readers' interest in (so cliche El Jefe can barely type) "today's fast paced world," where attention spans are short(er), there are a lot of entertaining books to choose from (funny we can't seem to find any lately) and people expect more easily accessible content. This book took patience. You had to suspend your skepticism and initial boredom and just roll with it. Very hard to do when, 150 pages in, still nothing has happened, it's unclear who the main characters are, and the whole thing is just, well, all narrative and no plot. Yet clearly this novel would not have found a place in the pantheon of literature if that were the end of it. The alternative viewpoint is that this is a poignant, colorful and beautifully-rendered story about nothing less than humanity itself. Yes, it portrays Anglo-India in a particular moment in history, yes it provides an insider's view on another culture, but beyond (or maybe underneath) all that, this was a story about individuals striving to figure out their existence relative to each other. It's too bad the Maharani's mom couldn't be there, as it would have been interesting to get her take on Forster's portrayal of English colonization and, as was pointed out, its lasting effects on Indian culture and behavior (such as a tendency to be overly deferential or purposefully simplistic). We saw some of these traits in Aziz, who alternatively came across as inadvertently bumbling and intentionally deceitful (such as inviting people to his home when he had no intention of hosting them, or telling lies regarding things he knew weren't true just because he wished they were). But overall, the group thought Aziz was a worthy character and El Jefe would defend the worthiness of this book as well, despite the poor rating. Patience, dear readers!  

Our next meeting is, ahem, later today at Chez Fox. Until next time, read early and often. xoej

 Movie adaptation directed by David Lean (1984), L to R: Judy Davis, Victor Banerjee, Peggy Ashcroft (a.k.a. Esmiss Esmoor), James Fox

 The Marabar Caves

This is what we're used to nowadays

Monday, February 25, 2013

Let the Great World Spin

Thanks to the Doctor for hosting a fabulously delish BC.  In back-to-back meetings (gasp), we started with the Barefoot Contessa's tomato and whipped feta crostini (what's wrong with back-to-back deliciousness?) and then followed with what may have catapulted into the top 5 BC entrees of all time:  lamb tagine with chickpeas and apricots over steamed cous cous.  Mouth watering just to think about it.

And then, just in case anyone had forgotten:

Thank goodness for the cake, because some of us actually needed a little reminder given the pretty weak completion rate for Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann.  After all, delivering the message via chocolate and frosting is much more persuasive (and palatable) than El Jefe's alternative idea, namely, that whoever didn't read would be the next host.  But in all fairness--and then we'll get to the book--if we don't hit on a popular book selection prontissimo we'll have to change the name to The Club of Torture. Anyone loving A Passage to India?!

Unfortunately, El Jefe, in her lamb tagine-fueled stupor, forgot her copious notes at Chez Doctor and thus the rating is subject to fuzzy memory:  let's say 6.5-ish.  Lots of us just couldn't get engaged in this novel. That the author made the Irish chapter the longest one in the book and stuck it in front just to daunt the weak of heart is, well, super Irish. (The 10th Member--now the 9th Member?--just leaned over and asked why El Jefe hates the Irish so much.  Hmmmm.)  Even for those who made it through all that Irish, there wasn't necessarily an instant connection. This was yet another book that didn't have a linear story. Clearly the whole "I've come up with a dozen stories that overlap and converge" is a popular convention in the literary world right now, however, this group of readers is weary of always having to stitch clever plot lines together in retrospect.  But wait, ultimately, perseverance was rewarded:  those who finished the book liked it very much in the end.  The story, once all the pieces fit together, was remarkably creative and heartbreaking.  So many characters were developed with love and detail, from Tillie and Jazzlyn in the Bronx to Claire Soderberg on Park Avenue to poor, doomed Corrigan in his apartment in the projects--all revealed to their core. At the same time, the novel was punctuated by one-off vignettes like the early tech-geeks hacking into phone lines on the morning of Philippe Petit's high wire walk, or the subway grafitti photographer; these were funky, pleasantly intriguing intermissions in this otherwise heavy novel. The result was a truly unique mix of chapters that left the reader deeply moved but also pondering the deeper meaning of the book. One final note (no names named): watching the movie Man on Wire was not a substitute for reading the book!

El Jefe is certain that at our March 12 meeting the food will make up for whatever suffering the book inflicts. So, pretend this is written on a cake:  make an effort, until next time, read early and often, and for God sakes bring some good book suggestions. xoej

That is one crazy mo fo.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Ms. Hempel Chronicles

2013 got rolling with Book Club at Chez Jefe.  One would think we were all ready to dry out after the holidays.  Au contraire.  We bellied up to the bar and noshed on bruschetta from the new Contessa cookbook, a medley of baby heirloom tomatoes, fresh basil and pine nuts over whipped feta.  Ina, you never disappoint! Then, an experimental (ahem) foray into a winter gratin of white beans, butternut squash, sage and garlic and an arugula salad, with cake for dessert.  Lish!

Our book was Ms. Hempel Chronicles, by, steady now, deep breath, Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum. 

This petit little novel scored a 7.  The story comprises a series of vignettes, not in chronological order, from the life of elementary school teacher "Ms. Hempel."  Clearly SSLB is a talented writer.  She dips in and out of Ms. Hempel's psyche, rendering the emotions so clearly that the reader almost experiences them for herself, whether it's the rush of an unexpected kiss, or the sinking dread of watching children play a dangerous game that could lead to disaster.  The prose was well-chosen:  delicate, sensitive and interesting with a touch of humor. Those who liked this book thought it was whimsical and full of charming discoveries throughout--like realizing more than half way through that Ms. Hempel is part Asian, or being suddenly deflated to find out, in hindsight, that her engagement broke off.  It also was fun to reminisce and put into context just how young some of our teachers were (mere kids in their 20's!) although at the time, of course, we never would have thought of it that way. On the other hand, there was a tinge of sadness in this book that some of us found depressing.  For example, how Ms. Hempel grew up being told by her father how extraordinary she was--but then wasn't after all-- or how her love life became so misdirected.  The other comment that came up, once again, is that the story didn't go anywhere and was too random.  It's time (although with El Jefe's vision into the future she can tell it won't be next month!) for a good meaty, linear novel that tells a story start to finish with characters you can sink your teeth into.  Let's beef up that list o' death!

Until next time, read early and often!  xoej

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Fooling Houdini

Thanks to the Highlander for hosting the 10th annual Holiday BC!  Hard to believe, but true.  Love that it's become such a tradish, even down to the menu:  hot artichoke dip (the low calorie one), bruschetta, beef bourguignon over garlic mashed potatoes, LOTS of kale salad, haricots verts, brownies and blondies and those famous Heath Bar cookies from Logan's Run. Lots of champers. Lots.  Thank goodness we had enough food. 

Well, it looks like Alex Stone couldn't pull a high rating out of a hat for our December book, Fooling Houdini.

The book on average scored a 5.3.  From the critics, two main themes were repeated:  first, that the book was too "thin"--in other words, not enough tricks in the bag to fill 300+ pages (in fact, the 10th Member said the entire book should have been an 8-page article in Vanity Fair:  snap!)-- and second, the story didn't flow well, skipping around from physics to street hustlers to the author trying to pick up girls in bars using card tricks. While these readers found certain individual elements among this melange of topics to be intriguing (in particular, learning about New York's magic "underground" was a favorite), there wasn't enough overall continuity to keep the audience engaged. Others in our group (haters, all of them) said they just didn't care about the author and that the book got overly technical. This last point is ironic considering how much heat the author took for "revealing" magic tricks in his writing.  It would seem that your average reader doesn't really want that level of detail and certainly isn't going home and trying to replicate the Ambitious Card Routine. On the flip side, the non-haters appreciated the insights into the history of magic, the tie-ins to math and science, the play-by-play instructions on how to run The Monte, and the theory that Jesus Christ himself might have been a magician. Abracadabra, so much for miracles. One thing we all could agree on: the dork factor here was super high. Super. High. Magic Olympics, anyone?

Dai Vernon, a.k.a "the Professor"

Richard Turner, card manipulation expert (and blind!)

 Jim McBride.  Oh so Vegas

Not sexy, right?


In related news, check out this blast from the past!  Our next meeting is at Chez Jefe on Tuesday.  We are reading Ms. Hempel Chronicles.  See you there and then.  xoej