Category Archives: Books

The Luncheon Society/John Lennon biographer and NPR Commentator Tim Riley/Boston—Sandrine’s May 25, 2012/Manhattan—PrimeHouse June 8, 2012

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A complicated subject always makes for a fascinating biography.  When it comes to John Lennon, the fascination only multiplies. 

With Lennon, there is the dichotomy between the art and the artist, an understanding of the “London and New York  John Lennons,” complete with the annoying contradictions and prickly outbursts that drove his persona. Finally we are left with a guess of what might have been as Lennon was emerging from a mid-decade sabbatical from recording and performing before he was killed outside his home in 1980. 

Lennon’s early death meant that thirty years later, most of the primary sources are still alive and willing to share stories that would have kept to themselves. Now that some of the horrible biographies on Lennon–like Albert Goldman’s–have passed through our systems, perhaps it’s time for a reflective biography that covers the arc of his life.  It take time and distance to make sense of life’s most complex subjects but Tim Riley brings it together in his well-regarded biography, “John Lennon, The Man, the Myth, The Music—The Definitive Life.”

Graciously hostng the luncheon in Boston was our old friend Rucker Alex; Heading the table in Manhattan was the always-amazing Shari Foos. 

Why the Beatles were different. Unlike Elvis or the pop stars of the early 1960’s, the Beatles wrote their own material; it wasn’t Lieber and Stoller but Lennon-McCartney. They made it mandatory for anybody who followed to do the same if they ever wanted to be taken seriously.

They were neatly packaged by Brian Epstein and blessed by Ed Sullivan in their televised American debut. They were nice working class boys with haircuts just long enough to be edgy and their two movies, “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Help!” stayed clear of the psychedelics and protest that drove youth culture in the second half of the decade.

More importantly, the Beatles got better because of the natural competition between Lennon and McCartney. While everything written was published as Lennon-McCartney, their competitive juices matured into who could build the better song.  It is hard to believe that only five years passed between when  “Love Me Do” hit the shelves and when “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” transformed the social landscape. Continue reading

The Luncheon Society/The Father of Cognitive Neuroscience, Michael Gazzaniga MD, on Free Will/ San Francisco –Palio D’asti /January 5, 2012/Manhattan—Prime House/June 7, 2012

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Where does our brain end and where does our mind begin? Are we controlled by our own internal wiring or can we rise above our circumstances through free will? This is a luncheon where the physical collides with the metaphysical.

In the novel (and later a movie) “The Boys from Brazil,” a fictional Joseph Mengele implants genetic clones of Adolf Hitler into a the wombs of over 90 women in the hopes of creating the Next Reich. However, Mengele takes things one more step because he tries to recreate the emotional mindset of the young Hitler, complete with a domineering older father against the backdrop of a much younger and pliant mother. As the novel winds through the jungles of Brazil and then spirals outward to where these genetic Hitlers are growing up in a modern world, Mengele engineers the sudden deaths of the fathers to mirror the sudden death of Hitler’s father when he was a teen. A fictional version of Simon Wiesenthal is able to break up Mengele’s final medical experiment, but the novel leaves you hanging because in the final pages, one of the surviving teenage-Hitlers now begins to exhibit delusions of grandeur.

Can you replicate past behavior? Can the mind be that predictive? Does one impact the other—does the mind enable or constrain the brain?

Located in the private room at Palio D’asti to an overflow group of guests in January and in June to a group of group of smart Manhattan diners at Prime House, Dr. Michael Gazzaniga spent a good two hours with us debating that very point. In his latest book, “Who’s in Charge: Free Will and the Science of the Brain,” he tackles this subject in book form, based on the series of his Gifford Lectures, which for the past century has been the home prestigious conversations on religion, science, and philosophy.

As author of “The Ethical Brain,” his current introduction reads, “Known as the father of Cognitive Neuroscience, Gazzaniga makes a powerful argument for free will. The question of free will versus determinism continues to vex scientists, psychologists and philosophers, but the biological evidence is not as stridently deterministic as it is often presented. Dr. Gazzaniga argues that the human mind constrains the brain and monitors our behavior, much as a government constrains its citizens. Drawing on cutting-edge neuroscience and psychology, as well as ethics and law, he offers a deeply considered case for human responsibility.”

We have moved miles since the popularization of pseudo-sciences like Phrenology, that suggested that bumps on our head would determine our behavior. However, as we learn more about the physiology of the brain and unlock those secrets, we will soon wander to where the black-and-white meets the grey—understanding how the mind works. Meshing science with philosophy will be the great race of the 21st century but advertising aggregators, like Google and others, are hard at work building out algorithmic proxies on how we think based on what we buy.

Continue reading

The Luncheon Society/Paul Krugman on his book, “End This Depression Now!”/San Francisco—Fior D’Italia/May 25, 2012

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We said good-bye to an old friend in late May when Fior D’Italia closed.  It seemed to be extra poignant that our Luncheon Society conversation with Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman on the current economic troubles also coincided with the final day that the oldest continuously run Italian restaurant west of the Mississippi.

After our luncheon, the staff prepared for their final dinner before the locks were placed on the front door. We hope that they will return under new ownership. If we were going to have a last bash with Fior, the Paul Krugman would be a grand way to bid farewell to a long time San Francisco favorite.

We were pleased that Paul Krugman joined us to discuss his new book End This Recession Now.  In the largest Luncheon Society gathering to date, we all managed to huddle together for a great conversational “back and forth” that took the better part of two hours.

As the nation’s most elegant Keynesian economist, what frustrates Paul Krugman most was that during the Collapse of 2008 and its aftermath, the lessons learned from The Great Depressions are equally applicable to the Great Recession but policymakers (especially those on the far right) aimed for an austerity program, even if it does more harm than good.

Krugman makes the case that the United States would find full employment within a 2 year period and fund it with an inflationary rate in the 3-4% range. Runaway inflation is a scary matter for those who went through the 1970’s and now worry that any savings might be wiped away, but to those who worry about their 401K retirement programs, the lack of progress from the global economy upward has more of a financial drag.

Instead of supporting an austerity budgetary plan that fires teachers, firefighters and other civil servants, Krugman argues that policymakers should double-down on investing in people and projects.  He felt that Obama’s actions amounted to half-measures when he arrived in office as the wheels were coming off the economy were too little, almost too late.  Krugman argues that Obama lost an opportunity to be truly bold on the economic front and that made things far worse. Continue reading

The Luncheon Society/ MBD2K Series/ Christina Haag, Jillian Lauren, Anne-Marie O’Connor/LA-Stefan’s Farm House/April 23, 2012

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The Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know Series returned for its third outing, once again in Los Angeles. Thus far there have been two gatherings in LA and a third in Manhattan, and there will be more to come.  These gatherings are a wonderful opportunity to highlight writers who should have their books on every nightstand.

There were three great writers. Christina Haag and Jillian Lauren  joined us in Manhattan at the end of 2011 and we were pleased to have them discuss their books in Los Angeles. Anne-Marie O’Connor joined us for the first of many gatherings. We hope to have them in other TLS cities soon. Continue reading

The Luncheon Society/Best-selling Author of “Imagine” Jonah Lehrer on creativity and grit/SF—Fior D’Italia/April 5, 2012

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Note:  The luncheon took place only weeks before Jonah Lehrer’s reputation collapsed around him with charges of plagiarism.  This was a great luncheon, nonetheless.  We thought we would leave things in their original state.

One of the coolest things about The Luncheon Society is to sit with an author who telescopes ahead to his next project.  

That was the case when The Luncheon Society sat down with Wired Contributing Editor and frequent New Yorker columnist to discuss his latest book Imagine, which is Lehrer’s attempt to put together a series of metrics on how creativity bubbles new ideas upward.

The takeaway: before the breakthrough happens, we have to work through the block.  Its more than a magic trick of the mind.

TLS friend Betsy Burroughs has a great take on the Luncheon with her post at The Five-Stir and I would recommend that you check it out.

What Lehrer does—and does quite well—is to think about putting metrics to life’s intangibles.   Can we figure out why athletes choke in critical situations?  Can it be studied and avoided—or at least better understood?  Lehrer’s thoughts on daydreaming might open the window to more thoughtful creativity.  His piece on cognitive dissonance ponders why so many so many people reject Darwin’s evolution in these scientific times.

With that in mind, Jonah Lehrer zeroed in on “grit,” that notion of sticking to something that was dear to one’s heart even if the odds appeared to be long.  Out of the variables proposed by Angela Lee Duckworth , this might be the magic bullet on bringing ideas to their successful fore. It will be a future article in The New Yorker.

Since we often view success through the rear view mirror, delving back onto the hard work after the fact, we often find ourselves building metrics of what made it successful.  Edison said that he never really invented the light bulb but discovered hundreds of filaments would not work incandescently.  That was grit in all of its beauty. Continue reading

The Luncheon Society/Historian Taylor Branch takes on the NCAA in “The Cartel”/Manhattan—PrimeHouse Restaurant/March 15. 2012

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From Taylor Branch’s vantage point, the shame of the NCAA is that it has grown into a multi-billion-dollar monopoly that benefits everybody except those who play the game. 

The sum total of the tickets, jerseys, corporate sponsors, shoe contracts, boosters, luxury boxes, and other souvenirs has made collegiate sports branding in a multi-billion dollar enterprise. Even with the baby steps of reform, the players will get next to nothing. To Branch, the contrast of poverty from those who pay the game against the backdrop of overflowing riches of the universities and the NCAA who acts as the judge, jury, and executioner is overpowering. This premise underscores his latest book, The Cartel: Inside the Rise and Immenent Fall of the NCAA ,  which was serialized in The Atlantic.


Thirty five years ago, nobody could have foreseen the explosion of cable sports and how it funneled a Comstock Lode of money into the NCAA as well as the university sports programs.  According to Taylor Branch, all of that money creates the opportunity for large-scale fraud and nobody should be surprised that this environment has produced scandal after scandal. Cam Newton fell under a cloud because his father allegedly tried to broker a deal that would have his son return to a top-ranked collegiate program. Reggie Bush returned his Heisman Trophy because of an inappropriate relationship with sports boosters who paid his expenses while at USC. Countless coaches have been fined, fired, or had their programs sanctioned due to various violations. As more dollars enter into the fray, the scale of corruption only increases.

Branch joined The Luncheon Society for his third appearance over the years, this time at Prime House in Manhattan.  We were thankful our friend Steve Schlesinger was able to host the gathering and it was a filmed affair, part of a larger documentary on Taylor’s book.

Taylor Branch is not some disdainful academic who looks down his nose at college athletics. While growing up in the Atlanta area, Taylor Branch was one of the top ranked high school football players in the state and turned down a scholarship to Georgia Tech.  He then ran a post-pattern into academia and has distinguished himself as one of the best historians of his age. Continue reading

The Luncheon Society/Criminologist David Kennedy on his memoir “Don’t Shoot” on how to decrease urban violence/Manhattan–PrimeHouse/February 24, 2012

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Most people view urban crime from the safety of the own living rooms. However, criminologist David Kennedy grabs the problem by the scruff of the neck and has created a template, if deployed correctly, might end the cycle of violence that has become commonplace for so many lawless urban neighborhoods.

David Kennedy joined us in Manhattan after a wonderful luncheon late last year in San Francisco.  We hope to have him join us in Los Angeles as well as Boston near term.

The Luncheon Society has looked at crime (its sources and its impact) though a number of authors. Our friend and sociologist Peter Moskos published a book detailing his field world as a police officer in Baltimore’s roughest neighborhoods, which was seen in HBO’s The Wire titled, “Cop in the Hood.” This year he published a sly polemic titled, “In Praise of the Lash” which takes another look at how we punish offenders. Time magazine’ Ioan Grillo joined us in San Francisco and Manhattan for a stark conversation about the growth of “El Narco,” the drug-fueled insurgency that is slowly strangling Mexico’s national sovereignty.

In Kennedy’s book , Don’t Shoot: One Man, A Street Fellowship, and the End to Violence in Inner-City America, he pens an impassioned memoir of how his approach had improved the worst of neighborhoods plagued by drug violence.

Crime is down—but where is it up? When you look at FBI statistics, crime rates—including violent crime—continue to decrease incrementally. However, this is not the case in some of the roughest urban communities, where an African-American male has a 1:200 chance to getting killed by gunfire. It has devolved to the point where some first responders may think twice before entering into some of the neighborhoods. Traditional law enforcement of governmental assistance has failed to stem the tide and as a result, these neighborhoods are essentially written off by municipal leaders. As a result, the festering cancer of criminal behavior becomes multigenerational in scope with no jobs, no future, and no hope.

What David Kennedy has done—even though he is an academic as director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice—is to immerse himself into the worst of the neighborhoods and figure out answers to build solutions. Continue reading

The Luncheon Society/Rock and Roll Groupie Queens Pamela Des Barres and Catherine James discuss “Let’s Spend the Night Together”/LA—Napa Valley Grille January 31, 2012/SF–Fior d’Italia April 18, 2012

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Being present at the creation has its own rewards. Thankfully, Pamela Des Barres had the presence of mind to write everything down. Long before she became “The Queen of the Rock and Roll Groupies” and hung out with Whisky-a-Go-Go house bands that soon became household names, Pamela Des Barres was a compulsive diarist who filled up notebooks and pined about the musicians she idolized.

She desperately wanted to meet them. And she did.

Joining us in Los Angeles, Pamela Des Barres and her close friend Catherine James gave us the inside view of a rock and roll courtesan (Des Barres prefers the term groupie) during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s when we let our hair grow, loosened our conventions, and rock and roll simply ruled. It was a life lived out-loud and it took place in London, Paris, New York, Los Angeles, and all parts in-between.

How it began for Pamela. A high school friend of Pamela’s was the cousin of Captain Beefheart, who along with Frank Zappa, influenced a generation of musicians during the 1960’s. Pamela eventually went to work for the Zappa family as their nanny before founding The GTOs (Girls Together Outrageously), which served as an opening act for Zappa’s Mothers of Invention. The GTOs were young women who hung out on The Sunset Strip and were very much part of the scene. Within the space of a couple of years, she had gone from fantasizing about popular music to being in the eye of the hurricane. She remained somewhat anonymous to those outside of the LA music scene until she published I’m with the Band in 1986. It was an immediate best-seller and she followed up with two other memoirs, Take Another Little Piece of My Heart, and “Rock Bottom: Dark Moments in Music Babylon.”

Catherine James emerged from a difficult childhood. She was abandoned by both parents but after a chance meeting with a young Bob Dylan, who said that “it was her life, her gift, and she did not have to follow anybody’s rules.” She escaped from the orphanage and made her way to Greenwich Village. She was 15. By 19, she had a son with Denny Laine of the Moody Blues and later with Paul McCartney’s Wings, lived with Mick Jagger in London, modeled for Wilhelmina, and found herself in Andy Warhol’s crowd. When she doubled for Diane Keaton on a number of her films, the actress encouraged her to write and Catherine published “Dandelion the Memoir of a Free Spirit” in 2007. Continue reading

The Luncheon Society/Thomas Frank and his book “Pity the Billionaire/San Francisco—Fior D’Italia/ January 26, 2012

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After a two year absence, Thomas Frank rejoined The Luncheon Society in San Francisco to discuss his latest book, “Pity the Billionaire, The Hard Time Swindle and the Unlikely comeback of the Right.” 

Called “The Thinking Man’s Michael Moore” by Michael Kinsley and the author of What’s  the Matter with Kansas and The-Wrecking-Crew , Frank took us through the deregulatory environment that turned a blind eye to the housing bubble that finally burst in 2008, only weeks before the national election.  This started the long chain of events that became The Great Recession, the biggest economic mess since the Herbert Hoover gave us The Great Depression.

However, the big surprise came in the spring of 2009, when the Tea Party movement purged their moderates and demanded a return, with a sense of amnesiac incredulity, to the same circumstances that led to the “Train Wreck of 2008.”

It would be, as Frank describes, “as if the public had demanded dozens of new nuclear power plants in the days after the Three Mile Island disaster.”


On NPR, Franked continued, “The central paradox of our time is that we’ve just come through this extraordinary financial collapse. We know that this was almost directly the result of 30 years of bank deregulation and of all the sort of financial experimentation that our government encouraged. This disaster was caused by this ideology.”

And what the Tea Party movement and what the conservative revival generally is telling us to do,” Frank notes, “is instead of reversing course, instead of going back and saying, OK, maybe we should have a well-funded Securities Exchange Commission. Maybe we should go back and break up the too-big-to-fail banks.”

He concludes, “What they’re saying is, no, no. Get government out of the picture altogether. We need not to reverse course. We need to double down on that ideology that we’ve been following all these years. Only when we get to that sort of pure state of complete free markets, then our problems will be solved. And until that day, none of this stuff matters.” Continue reading

The Luncheon Society/The 2011 “Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know” Woman’s Reading Series/ Jamie Rose, Samantha Dunn, Carrie White, Hunter Drohojowska-Philp, Christina Haag and Jillian Lauren/ Los Angeles—Napa Valley Grille October 20, 2011/Manhattan—Prime House/November 10, 2011

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Lady Caroline may have described Lord Byron that way but it certainly fits The Luncheon Society.  We had two wonderful luncheons on both  coasts.   These are smart women who are great writers.

In Los Angeles and New York, we convened  at locations we know and enjoy; Napa Valley Grille  in Westwood and Prime House in Manhattan.   Jamie Rose, Samantha DunnCarrie White and Hunter Drohojowska-Philp joined us in LA; Jamie, Christina Haag, and Jillian Lauren joined us in NY.

The History. Back in 2008, I called a couple of LA writer friends  to have a reading.  Joining us around the table at La Terza were Erika Schickel, who read from just-published memoir, “You’re Not the Boss of Me,” a whip-smart tome on being a hip parent. Anne Beatts , a pioneering writer who became the first woman to helm The Harvard Lampoon and the first female writer at Saturday Night Live, read from her unpublished memoir about attending a funeral with John Belushi.  It screams to be published. Writer and memoirist Eve Brandstein, who with Anne has created a ton of stellar television, read poetry and reflected upon her childhood in New York City. Rachel Resnick read from the galleys of her soon-to-be-published memoir titled “Love Junkie,” a harrowing life story of somebody coming to grips with her own demons as a love and sex addict. Rounding out the group was our old pal Colleen Wainwright, an LA blogger extraordinaire who did something wonderful in 2011 by raising $50,000 for Writegirl, an LA nonprofit which partners women writers with at-risk teenage girls for creative writing workshops and one-on-one mentoring.  It was part of her milestone birthday; when she exceeded the figure, she gladly shaved her head as a crowd of friends cheered.   All five are equal parts vibrant, brilliant, and cool.

For some reason, I never got around to scheduling another “Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know” (MBDTK) gathering until I sent out a few emails in late summer 2011. Eve Brandstein was directing a play in Los Angeles and mentioned that one of her actors, Jamie Rose,  was ready to publish a memoir on how Tango allowed her to “let go.”   A few phone calls later and we had luncheons scheduled in Los Angeles and Manhattan; I hosted the gathering in Los Angeles and Eve ran the show in Manhattan. Jamie was critical in building out the roster of writers.

Perhaps The Great Recession sapped the marketing guts from the publishing industry because good writing remains unsupported and stillborn on the shelf.  So The Luncheon Society will step in and do what it can. As we move forward, MBDTK will be one of those fun gatherings, the kind where calendars are kept open and people disappear down into our world of “Adult Drop-In Daycare,” a Luncheon Society stylemark since 1997. Continue reading