Reading: Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East: 1776 to the Present, by Michael Oren
Time/Date: 6:30 pm / September 15, 2009
Location: Khyber Pass, Hillcrest, San Diego
Attendees: Eric, Suraj, Dan, Carlos, Rusty, Lee, Alan, Glenn

oren book coverWhat a treat this meeting was! The entire Eight Men Out were present. We were seated in a private loft room, with low bench seats arranged in a square at low tables, with plush red cushion.  I have no idea if it was authentically Middle Eastern or Afghani, but it was certainly enjoyable.

I only finished the first 1/3 of this long book.  Dense yet immensely readable, Michael Oren’s book surveyed America’s involvement in the Middle East since America’s start in 1776.  What may be as interesting a side story is that Michael Oren, Israel’s current Ambassador to the United States was for most of his life a U.S. citizen.  His credentials make him immensely suitable to serve in that capacity, but Israel’s policy is that its Ambassador must hold sole citizenship in Israel. Thus, Mr. Oren had to renunciate his U.S. citizenship to take his current position.

Although I have gleaned much history from literature, I was fascinated by this book, how little I really knew about a subject matter that is daily in the news today and whose history informs current diplomatic relations between the U.S. and contemporary Middle Eastern states.  Here is a summary of Oren’s book:

“Given the confusion and general polarization that our country suffers from our present political and military intrusions into the Middle Eastern areas, it would seem sensible in forming our opinions to understand the history of events that have taken us to this point. Oren has provided us with such documentation as covers the 230 years of our relationship with this crucial area, which should be helpful to better understand how we got into such entanglements as we now face. This book takes us from the founding of our country after breaking the colonizing bonds of the British, to early conflicts and attempted resolutions to effect commerce with Arab cities of the North African Barbary Coast, through the ultimate dissolution of the Ottoman Empire with formation of independent countries, and finally to extensions of events in such countries as have a majority of Islamic people. There is considerable focus on the foundation, politics, and military actions of Israel, including strife vis. a’ vis. Jewish and PLO Arabs within its present borders and with the larger numbers of Islamic peoples in surrounding areas such as Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. In text-like but readable fashion, the book details the principal people, actions, treatises, and dates. Sufficient and reasonable sources are cited.” (by Don McCormick – http://www.uuview.org/Power,Faith and Fantasy.htm)

Whether the book presents a balanced view or not, that’s up to your own book club members to decide.

As much as anything though, the evening was enhanced by the superb selection of restaurant to accompany this work.  Khyber Pass is an Afghani restaurant and the food (whether truly Afghani or not) is first-rate, so much so that it prompted a return trip with my wife.  We shared several platters of appetizers and shared portions of main dishes as well.  Everyone seemed to enjoy themselves immensely.

khyber pass

We decided to try a new genre this time, invoking Achar’s rule (no work shall be over 700 pages long, or all works must be under x pages long (precipitated by the fact that Oren’s book was very long) – the rule has yet to be ratified as the work we chose is 703 or 708 pages long!).   We chose science fiction as a genre, and in consulting a list of the best science fiction books for non-geeks, we were involved in a split-decision, with some members choosing one work, and the other side of the room choosing another.  The “another” won.  Stay tuned to find out just how successful that choice was.

Keep reading.

Reading: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, by Dave Eggers
Time/Date: 6:30 pm / Tuesday, July 14, 2009
Location: Urban Solace, North Park, San Diego
Attendees: Eric, Suraj, Carlos, Rusty, Alan, Glenn

AHWoSG book cover After some debate about just what book to read for this meeting, we decided upon our first choice, Dave Eggers’ masterful, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.  AHWOSG, as it is affectionately referred to in some circles, is a literary triumph of the first order.  Eggers’ narrator is presumably a rendition of himself, in this memoir, a hyperactive, young, reality-tv-driven, publicity hound seeking his 15 minutes + of fame during his early 20s in 1990s Berkeley, having cast off from his hometown Chicago upon the death, within 5 months of each other, of his parents, which left him as caretaker of his young brother, Toph.  But Eggers is not one to write a straight-forward memoir.  His is a literary pursuit of the highest order, a reclamation of meta-fiction (read the hilarious copyright page that precedes the title page) for a ritalin-addicted audience of 20 somethings.

Unfortunately, book club met on the evening before I was sailing to Catalina for the first time, and boat preparations took longer than anticipated.  I was thus unable to attend the discussion!  I believe Dan was also absent, attending t0 family duties.

I will leave it to one of the guys to discuss the restaurant, Urban Solace, which, from their Web site, sounded intriguing, described as “new American comfort food.”

urban solace restaurantEven though I missed the discussion, I did finish the book.  During a busy time, I read it in stop-go fashion.  I finished it the night before the meeting, which made missing the meeting even more disappointing.   My goal has become: no more missing book club.

Keep reading.

Reading: The Janissary Tree, by Jason Goodwin
Time/Date: 6:30 pm / Tuesday, June 2, 2009
Location: Aladdin Cafe, Clairemont Mesa, San Diego
Attendees: Eric, Suraj, Carlos, Rusty, Lee, Alan, Glenn

Janissary Tree book coverOnce again, book club attempted to match cuisine with reading selection with this new selection, the Edgar Award winner, The Janissary Tree, by Jason Goodwin.   Goodwin, a British writer and historian who studied Byzantine history at Cambridge, fashions an old-fashioned mystery complete with smart, detail-oriented sleuth, double-crosses, historical puzzles, and epic campaigns of evil, along with some prized cooking, starring the sleuth who is a Eunuch who, nevertheless, …. performs admirably!

One of the livelier discussions we’ve had, The Janissary Tree provided much to talk about and brought out the good nature in all.  Or perhaps it was the food and the new company. This time around, we welcomed Glenn to the group, and though we were without Dan, we now could say for the first time that there were eight of us.

It’s a shame to give a good mystery away, so in keeping with presenting the synopses of the other books, here is a snippet of a summary from Jason Goodwin’s Official Web site:

“The Janissary Tree won the Best Novel category at the prestigious Edgar Allen Poe Awards, organised by the Mystery Writers of America and described as the Oscars of the mystery/thriller world.

The Janissary Tree is a fast-paced literary thriller set in Istanbul in 1836, starring Yashim, the Ottoman investigator. It’s the first in a series which has been translated into 38 languages worldwide.

The Janissary Tree is set in an extraordinary world– extraordinary, but real. It certainly features a most extra-ordinary sleuth. The New York Times calls it ‘the perfect escapist mystery.’”

Our discussion was matched with the exquisite food of the Aladdin Cafe, a middle eastern themed restaurant whose owner was born in Jerusalem.  He had much to say about how we, as a group, should leave our women behind and travel to the old country.

aladdin cafe top

If we had Yashim to show us around and cook for us, we could be tempted to go.

At the height of summer, we left with a feeling that we could actually make the 6 weeks per book schedule stick, deciding tentatively on a selection and the next date to meet as July 14.

Keep reading.

Reading: Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen
Date: Tuesday, April 21, 2009
Location: Spice & Rice Thai Kitchen, La Jolla
Attendees: Eric, Suraj, Dan, Carlos, Rusty, Lee, Alan

Water for Elephants coverFor lighter fare, compared to the WWII Holocaust and the Trujillo Massacres, we welcomed old-fashioned circus animal abuse and murder! Sara Gruen’s novel Water for Elephants was by far, thus far, the fastest reading of book club’s books, at least for me it was.  It was also the first book I read entirely on a Kindle.  Part nostalgic tramp through the circus lifestyle during the depression, part treatise on the life of senior citizens and the perils of memory and aging, part murder mystery with a twist, this best-selling novel (#1 as a paperback on the NY Times Bestseller list in July 2007) featured Jacob Jankowski in a coming-of-age novel as a young man whose fate was seemingly decided by the loss of the family fortune during the crash of the Great Depression and who subsequently ran away with the circus.

Book teaser summary: “Read about Jacob, a 90-something-year old that is now in a retirement home. He recounts his youth and tells about how he joined the circus during the Great Depression era. Jacob meets the beautiful horse trainer, Marlena. He befriends Walter the midget. And one of Jacob’s best friends is Rosie, an abused elephant.

Water for Elephants reveals what circus life and the Depression may have been like. It is filled with some memorable characters. Who can ever forget Walter and his beloved dog? Or Rosie the stubborn, but heroic elephant?

Be warned that this book deals with circuses from the past before there were any regulations to protect animals. There are many scenes dealing with animal abuse. Some of them are quite graphic and disturbing.

Water for Elephants does require a bit of suspension of disbelief. There are some plot points that are hard to accept. The book also has a somewhat fairytale ending. Don’t let that stop you from appreciating this book. Just go with the fantasy and enjoy it.” (summary from http://hubpages.com/hub/Water-for-Elephants-Review)

Our dinner for the evening was the excellent Thai food at Spice & Rice Thai Kitchen in La Jolla.  Everything was first-rate.  In addition, we had the added pleasure of women approaching one book club member, with the utmost appreciation and admiration for his hair!  I believe blackmail pictures may still be available somewhere. 🙂

spice and rice restaurant

The circus proved to be so much of a reprieve from the heavy hand of war and history that we chose to continue on our flight of fancy for the next book club meeting, this time adventuring to Turkey of the 1830s.  Join us for the continuing adventures of Eight Men Out.  Keep reading.

Reading: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz
Date: Tuesday, March 10, 2009
Location: Berta’s Restaurant, Old Town, San Diego
Attendees: Eric, Suraj, Dan, Carlos, Rusty, Lee

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar WaoFor the book club’s third selection, we chose from a list of Pulitzer Prize winners.  What a delight this book was.  The title is a play on words of Hemingway’s short story, “The Short Happy Life of Frances McComber” with the added twist of the name “Oscar Wao” being a permutation of “Oscar Wilde.”  But the story of Oscar is anything but “happy.”  More anti-hero than conventional protagonist, Oscar Wao is atypical in every respect both within and with-out the narrative.

This novel, Diaz’s first (his only other published work is a short story collection, Drown, that appeared 10 years earlier), is set partly during the vicious Trujillo’s dictatorship during the 50s and 60s in the Dominican Republic, and partly in New Jersey.  Oscar himself is a misfit, a Dominican who lacks the machismo of his Dominican brethren, and a nerd who becomes nerdier and fatter as the narrative progresses.

His passion, however, is unmatched, and it is this passion and fire that sets him apart from the other characters and draws us to him.

Here is the summary from the book jacket:  “Things have never been easy for Oscar, a sweet but disastrously overweight ghetto nerd, a New Jersey romantic who dreams of becoming the Dominican J.R.R. Tolkien and, most of all, of finding love.  But he may never get what he wants, thanks to the fuku – the ancient curse that has haunted Oscar’s family for generations, dooming them to prison, torture, tragic accidents, and, above all, ill-starred love. Oscar, still dreaming of his first kiss, is only its most recent victim – until the fateful summer that he decides to be its last. With dazzling energy and insight, Junot Diaz immerses us in the uproarious lives of our hero Oscar, his runaway sister Lola, and their ferocious beauty-queen mother Belicia, and in the family’s epic journey from Santo Domingo to Washington Heights to New Jersey’s Bergenline and back again. Rendered with uncommon warmth and humor, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao presents an astonishing vision of the contemporary American experience and the endless human capacity to persevere – and to risk it all – in the name of love.  A true literary triumph, this novel confirms Junot Diaz as one of the best and most exciting writers of our time.”

While discussing Oscar, Diaz, Trujillo, et. al., we enjoyed a Latin American dinner at Berta’s, a well-established restaurant in Old Town, San Diego.  Everything was wonderful, with the freshest of spices.  Berta's restaurant logoAfter discussing the Holocaust and Trujillo’s atrocities for the past two book club meetings, we decided that our next meeting would present lighter fare, or so we had hoped.  Until then, keep reading.

Reading: The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story, by Diane Ackerman
Date: Tuesday, January 27, 2009
Location: Di-Chan Thai, Clairemont Mesa, San Diego
Attendees: Eric, Suraj, Dan, Lee, Carlos, Rusty.

The Zookeeper's WifePart zoological catalog, part WWII suspense story, part treatise on naturalism, Diane Ackerman’s The Zookeeper’s Wife, a War Story served as the 2nd book for the Men’s Book Club.

Present were Eric, Suraj, Dan, Lee and this time we welcomed Carlos R. and Rusty K. to the group.

Dan led the meeting, and book nerds that we all are, I believe we all looked up Ackerman on Wikipedia or somewhere on the Internet and came prepared with a vast quantity of background material and reams of printed notes.

We met at Di-Chan Thai, a terrific Thai restaurant on Clairemont Mesa Blvd.

I think we all agreed that The Zookeeper’s Wife is an important and original book, written in a both an engaging and objective style that heightens the horror a reader feels at the atrocities committed and the pride felt that there are others who will risk their own lives for those of strangers.

Ackerman’s book was chosen as the 2009 One Book, One San Diego selection.  The following blurb was taken from the KPBS.org One Book, One San Diego Web site:

The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman is the remarkable true-story of Jan and Antonina Zabinski, the keepers of the Warsaw Zoo, who, with extraordinary courage, compassion, and calm under pressure, managed to save hundreds of people from Nazi hands. With her inimitable blend of lyricism and insight into the natural world, Ackerman reveals in this book how empathy for nature can, occasionally, allow us to triumph over the worst in human nature.

Thanks to Di-Chan Thai for serving us family style.

Di-Chan Thai Restaurant

At the end of that meeting, we chose the next book.  Most of us had come prepared with a list or two to choose new books from.  As it turns out, our next adventure would land us in the Dominican Republic during the time of the dictator Trujillo and in contemporary New Jersey.

The White Tiger – 2 Dec 2008

Reading: The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga
Date: Tuesday, December 2, 2008
Location: Karl Strauss Brewery, Sorrento Valley, San Diego
Attendees: Eric, Suraj, Dan, Lee

The White TigerOn a chilly Tuesday evening, during the rush of the holiday season, I got lost in the maze of the QualComm complex in Sorrento Valley.

My wife planned to shop while I attend the first book club meeting.  We share a car so she had to first drop me off.  We were hopelessly late, almost 7:00 pm for the 6:30 meeting. It was dark, we were late, there were no neighboring stores, so she decided to eat and wait — on the other side of the restaurant at a distance from the Men’s Book Club, that unknown quantity.

As I was so late, I joined in quietly, seemingly mid-story.  First meetings are always a tad awkward for me, and in most circumstances, I’m not a talkative person anyway.  I listen.

Eric J and Suraj A were already there, waiting for their colleague, Dan S, and for me.  Dan arrived shortly after me. We shared appetizers and ate individual meals, standard Brewhouse fare and excellent hand-crafted beer at the Kar Strauss brewery.

Karl Strauss Brewery logo

I had read Adiga’s book, and it was amazing.  deserved winner of the Man Booker Prize.  Though I’m not sure what the purpose of this blog is, I don’t want to just write all about the book in case someone who reads this wants to read the book himself.  So I offer this synopsis from The Man Booker Prize page, including a short bio sketch of Adiga:

Synopsis: Born in a village in heartland India, the son of a rickshaw puller, Balram is taken out of school by his family and put to work in a teashop. As he crushes coals and wipes tables, he nurses a dream of escape – of breaking away from the banks of Mother Ganga, into whose depths have seeped the remains of a hundred generations. The White Tiger is a tale of two Indias. Balram’s journey from darkness of village life to the light of entrepreneurial success is utterly amoral, brilliantly irreverent, deeply endearing and altogether unforgettable.

Author Biography: Aravind Adiga was born in Madras in 1974 and was raised partly in Australia. He studied at Columbia and Oxford Universities. A former correspondent in India for TIME magazine, his articles have also appeared in publications like The Financial Times, The Independent, and The Sunday Times. He lives in Mumbai.

Adiga’s hyper narrator, cynical yet hopeful, obsessed and obsessive yet calm and collected, possesses a power of voice that leaves most other 1st person narrators flat and limp. The great attraction of this book is the narrator’s voice, and his uncanny way of presenting the dual nature of today’s India.

I waited like a child for book club–impatiently–looking forward again to sharing a love of literature with others.

Book club had arrived, and with it, new friends.

A Men’s Book Club is Born

When I moved to San Diego, I left behind a long career in language and linguistics.  Or so I thought.  I told my wife, “One of the first things I’m going to do is find and join a book club, maybe at the public library downtown.”  Sure enough, San Diego boasts many fine book clubs, far more than were available in Kansas.  Three years later, as the city and a job swallowed my life, I still had yet to join a book club.   On a recent routine trip to the doctor, I carried an ever-present book with me, this time a selection from Time Magazine’s All-Time 100 Novels since 1923.  The doctor, whom I had just briefly met for the first time in the elevator–a story in its own right– inquired.



Dr.: What are you reading?

LH: Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, which won the Man Booker Prize.

Dr.: Do you read a lot?

LH: Yes. I’m a former English major, studied for a Ph.D. but didn’t take it.  Kept up the reading habit, though.

Dr.: Would you be interested in joining a book club?



Bingo. Serendipity.

Often people say things, make plans, dream, but they rarely follow through.  About 6 weeks later, we had our first meeting.  We’re approaching the year anniversary of our Men’s Book Club, having doubled the members from that initial meeting.

The meetings  started as small informal gatherings at a local restaurant, with talk focused on the books and related topics.  As busy professionals, we take seriously the job of reading the book, though our professional lives have led to some of us being a few pages short a time or two. As one of our members once said, “… am rushing to finish – this is like college!!!”  We meet once every 6 weeks or so.  A leader is chosen to informally present the book and to find and secure a reservation at a restaurant to accommodate the group. Choosing the restaurant has become a “theme-ing” task, matching the food to the character of the book. Choosing the book has become a group task.  Conversation about the book dominates. The talk is enlightening, often exhilarating, certainly animated.

Our Men’s Book Club only has one rule.  It is NOT don’t talk about book club, though after the “hair” episode, sometimes it’s better to whisper.

Our one rule is that the books we choose must not have been read by any member in attendance, a tall order given the vast reading this group does.

We don’t really have a group name.  We started to bat around a couple of names at the last meeting, including The Crazy 8s, but nothing was decided.  One day it hit me – Eight Men Out.  Baseball is always good for a literary metaphor or two.  Of course, when the group grows, the name may need to change.  It’s good enough for now.

And now we also have a blog, my gift to the guys – Eric, Suraj, Dan, Carlos, Rusty, Alan, Glenn.


Lee H.,

(aka Vinnie)