Sunday, March 19, 2017

New Yorker Fiction Review #169: "Are We Not Men?" by T. Coraghessan Boyle

Review of a story from the Nov. 7, 2016 issue of The New Yorker...

Okay, it's official: A T.C. Boyle New Yorker story has, for the first time, failed to impress me.

Lot's of TCB's stories take place in a warped or twisted near-future based on some aspect of the current trajectory of human society, or else completely fantastical. This story takes its plot and surroundings from the idea of "genetic engineering" and how it could be used and mis-used. TCB creates an odd, but not-too-out-of-the-realm-of-possibility future in which we've used genetic engineering to design "wild" and domesticated animals, even give our own children certain desired attributes.

With these kinds of stories, the danger always is that the author spends too much time explaining the "rules" and outlines of the fictional world instead of focusing on the characters and the story. Usually TCB is pretty good about this. Not in this case, however, and the story comes off sounding more like bad paper-back science fiction crossed with a somewhat intriguing domestic humor/drama. The story gets a little more engaging toward the end, but by the time it does, I was already half asleep and just pushing to get through it.

I've read much better from ole T.C. and hope to do so again soon.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

My Found Danish Chair: A victory over time and impatience

My lovely...all cushioned up.
I don't typically blog about home furnishings but...what can I say. I'm in the business half of my 30s. You get older and you start getting more domesticated, like it or not. Such is life.

Seven years ago, in the Spring of 2010, I found this Danish mid-century chair sitting on the side of the street where I lived in Indianapolis, next to someone's garbage, with some ratty disgusting cushions on it. As one does in a college town (or college part of town) when one is in school, I grabbed it. It was and still remains the greatest "dumpster dive" find of my entire life.

Since the existing cushions were a no-go. I had just the frame of the chair. As I said, I was in grad school. Not exactly "flush." But I figured at some point -- soon -- I'd come across some cool looking cushions or find some in a department store, or find someone to make me some, whatever.

Well, the chair sat in my living room, cuhsionless except for when I threw a crappy lawn-chair mat over it and used a folded up sleeping bag at one point, for four or five years, then in the basement of my next apartment, under the stairs, for two more years.

Many times during this process I thought of throwing the chair away. Many, many times. I went through a massive "de-cluttering" phase in which I Goodwill-ed or sold about 3/4 of my possessions and clothes. But the chair survived that even.

I just had a feeling its time would come. I had a feeling that, if I could just ride out my impatience until a time when I was able to find a place to have cushions made (and afford it), the chair would take its rightful place as one of my prized possessions, instead of living in useless limbo.

As you can see, I made it. After seven years and two moves, time spent cushionless, in damp basements, in storage, and in the dustbin of my consciousness, the chair finally is able to have the life it deserves. I can't call it an "investment" since keeping the chair didn't cost me any money. But I must think that my impecunious Grad School self was looking out for my slightly more pecunious grown-ass adult self by holding onto the chair for so long. Something I'm glad I did.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

New Yorker Fiction Review #168: "Back the Way You Went" by Anne Carson

Image result for back the way you went anne carson
Artwork: Chloe Poizat

Review of a short story from the Oct. 31 issue of The New Yorker...

If I thought this story sounded familiar in some way, it's because I reviewed a very similarly un-enjoyable Anne Carson story from The New Yorker almost exactly a year ago. Proving how much farther behind I am now, last year I reviewed, on March 24, 2016, a story from the Jan. 11, 2016 issue. Sigh.

Anne Carson is a poet. So naturally when she writes prose (if that's what you can call this piece) it's going to have that disjointed, stream of consciousness feeling, and she's not going to feel like she has to obey the "rules" that fiction writers have to. At least that's what I've discovered from reading the prose that poets write. Just like when I try to write poetry it comes out distinctly "prosey."

What am I trying to say? I did not enjoy this story on the first read-through, or the second. I get what she was trying to do, it just didn't work for me.


Sunday, March 12, 2017

Celtic v. Rangers: Now THIS is football

Image result for Rangers Goal Hill

This AM while waiting for the FA Cup match between Tottenham and Millwall (which naturally was a depressing 6-0 rout) I caught the tail-end of a match between long-time Scottish Premier League rivals Celtic FC and Rangers FC. Now, I've heard of this rivalry, thanks to Franklin Foer's eye-opening and educational book How Soccer Explains the World, but never actually seen either of these teams play. Never even seen a SPL match before today.

I think you might be able to deduce from the title of this blog post that the game made a big impression on me. I've never seen such speed, physicality, and passion on a football pitch as I witnessed in the final 20 minutes of this game. I'm hesitant to make a generalization about the entire SPL -- after all these two teams are at the absolute top of the league and this rivalry is on the City-United or Yankees-Red Sox level -- but still, talk about a great game to watch as my introduction to Scottish football.

To me, the hallmark of the English Premier League is the speed, precision, and attacking gusto of the play. There is not a lot of shimmy-shammying in midfield; you get the ball, you better do something with it, fast, like go forward and attack, or else you're going to lose it. And what's more, just the passing and trapping abilities of the players is, quite frankly, leagues beyond the MLS in my opinion.

The Bundesliga strikes me as a little bit sloppier but even faster and more desperate than the EPL, which makes for extremely fun soccer.

What struck me about the game I saw today was the raw physicality apparent on the field, but done within the rules. I'm not talking about guys tripping each other or playing dirty, but I'm talking about just extremely physical football. Guys going shoulder to shoulder every play, trying to muscle each other off the ball at every opportunity. There was a real hunger and desperation about the match that made it absolutely the most engaging soccer I've ever seen. It was as though every minute was the last.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

New Yorker Fiction Review #167: "An Honest Woman" by Ottessa Moshfegh

Review of the short story in the Oct. 24, 2016 issue of The New Yorker...

Getting closer to being caught-up here, folks. Sort of...

Became acquainted with Ottessa Moshfegh last year with her incredibly captivating and dark short story "The Beach Boy." While this current story doesn't quite measure up, Mosfegh uses the same sort of dark, suspenseful "stringing-you-along" technique that works pretty well, even if it doesn't ultimately deliver anything, in the case of either story. What I ask myself is: does it really matter what happens at the end as long as you've enjoyed the ride? To borrow a great sentiment from my old friend Andrew (a master of contradiction): "It does and it doesn't."

In this story, a man in his 60s, named Jeb, meets his attractive young neighbor, tries to hook her up with his nephew, and then he himself tries to make a pass at her after inviting her into his home on false pretenses. All the while he makes vague, misogynistic reminiscences about the state of modern womanhood, etc. He ultimately succeeds only in being the creepy old neighbor, not in getting any action.

Both the main characters of this story, Jeb and girl, are a bit 2-D for my tastes. Jeb's corniness and his use of hackneyed, old-timey sentiments seems forced even for the character, and we never get a real sense of what drives Jeb until the very, very end: he's delusional. All the same, I feel like Moshfegh almost gets there with Jeb; almost succeeds in making him a real, 3-D character.

Same with the girl. Moshfegh is good at describing her build and her thighs and the way she walks and all that, but when the girl opens her mouth, something is off. Her dialogue and their interaction seem like bad theater. Like Mosfegh had written the story one way and then said, "Hmmm I need to make something more happen here," while not really making anything else happen.

All the same, I can't completely dismiss this story as a whiff by Moshfegh. There is something here. The story is ripe with tension, but the characters just don't quite get to it. Much like in life, they brush close to it, but don't address it or deal with it. But this is fiction, not life. If I wanted to see people avoid conflict, dance around each other, and ultimately learn nothing, I could just look at my own life.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Barcelona Defeats PSG 6-1 (6-5)

Luis Saurez taking one of his patented dives which, along with another bogus penalty, helped Barca to a victory.

Okay, does anyone else out there think the UEFA Champions League is fixed and ergo complete bullsh*t?

Barcelona FC came into this game down 0-4 to Paris St. Germain after the first leg of their Round of 16 game in Paris. Because of the bizarre way the Europeans do tournaments, the two teams play twice -- once in each team's home grounds -- and the aggregate score is what matters. Meaning, even if Barcelona won this game by a score of 3-0 they still would not have advanced, because the aggregate score would have been 4-3 in favor of PSG. Get it? Yeah, neither do I.

But basically, Barcelona needed to score at least five goals in order to emerge victorious and advance to the next round. And god forbid that not happen...

People are already calling this the greatest comeback in Champions League history. And whatever, who am I to argue, I've been following soccer closely for three years. Maybe Barca deserved it. But to me the whole thing smells a little "match fixy." Why?

The two garbage penalties against PSG, that's why. It's as though Barcelona knew that if they flopped enough in the box the refs, who are doubtless being bribed by Barcelona FC, would simply have to concede a couple of penalty kicks. And since football is a game in which a goal can be excruciatingly hard to get, a single PK can change the course of history. But two penalty kicks? Forgettaboutit. There's no way PSG would be able to come back from that. It would be like asking the goalie to play with his arms tied behind his back or something. Over.

International soccer, though great passion of mine, is a dark, twisted, and unfair sport, my friends. We here in the U.S. cannot possibly comprehend the seriousness with which the Europeans and Latin Americans take their football. It's more than a passion. It's a religion. And people will do strange things in the name of religion. Am I suggesting there is some direct quid-pro-quo going on in which Barcelona, because it's one of the richest clubs in the world, could buy the loyalty of the Champions League refs? I'm not only suggesting that, I suggesting that Barcelona FC is so big and powerful that, like gravity, it is pointless to go against it.

I mean to say that everyone knew Barcelona would somehow emerge victorious in this match and in the round one way or another. Either through actual goal scoring, or dubious penalties, or trickery, or some other means. Europe is the birthplace of socialism and yet Barcelona FC were entitled to win this match just by virtue of being Barcelona. And so it was handed to them on a silver platter, and that's what pisses me off.

Oh and P.S. Luis Suarez is a flop-artist and I hate him worse than I hate Arjen Robben.

Monday, March 6, 2017

New Yorker Fiction Review #166: "The Edge of the Shoal" by Cynan Jones

Review of a short story from the Oct. 17, 2016 issue of The New Yorker...

Easily one of the worst and most difficult to read stories I've read in the NYer in a long time. And I knew it right from the first couple paragraphs. I don't see how you can make someone getting struck by lightning into a boring story, but Cynan Jones has accomplished this.

Plot: A guy goes fishing alone in a boat and gets struck by lighting. He tries to get back to shore. Full stop.

I have a few problems with this story:

1.) I understand that he's Irish, but none of his terms seem to make sense and it's difficult if not impossible to figure out what he's talking about at any one time during the story. A "kayak" to my mind is a covered, canoe-like boat with a hole for person to slide in...but my man's over here talking about a "sail" and a "mast" and about laying down in the boat and about the boat's first-aid kit. Wha? Also, never heard of breaking a fishes neck by snapping it with ones thumb and forefinger, but that could just be difference in technique.

1.b) His writing also makes it really difficult to just basically understand what is happening. For example, after he gets struck by lightning, the character finds himself floating on his back. Okay...what unconscious body has ever floated on its back? And we are meant to believe he's floating in the open ocean on his back?

2.) Jones is one of those prose writers who clearly fancies himself a poet as well, because his writing has -- or attempts to employ -- a certain "prosody" that in my opinion just gets in the way of telling a story. Add this to the already aforementioned clumsiness with terminology and action, and it makes for a terrible read.

There was one phrase I liked in this story, early in, when the man is fishing and thinking about his father. He wonders to himself: "Why do we stop doing the things we enjoy and the things we know are good for us?" I've had this thought every time I go camping or fishing, thinking to myself: "Why the hell don't I do this more often???"

For that phrase and that phrase alone it was worth slogging through this story. Incidentally, I tried the old "John Cheever" trick after I read this story, to moderate success. So I may have to admit I was a little off my game when I read this story, my game or not, the story had some serious and objectively insurmountable problems.