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Showing posts from March, 2016

Learning to Play Chess, Part III: Breaking Through Walls

I look back at Parts I & II of this series and I can't help but scoff, chuckle, and guffaw at how little I actually knew about chess back in December and January, and the absolute rudimentary nature of the information I was imparting to my two readers. Ha! From the mouths of babes, as they say. But that's the point of this series, after all: to chronicle the process of learning a new hobby or skill. And so, Part III: Breaking Through Walls.

When learning any new skill or hobby, there are going to be acceleration phases and plateau phases. During the acceleration phase, you are learning and integrating your new lessons, you are making progress, you are excited. Something about the game (or skill or whatever) seems to finally "make sense." You have had a few "Aha!" moments and believe that you will romp into the sunset with full competency in no time. And then...the progress stops. You hit another snag, some problem you can't figure out. You thought …

New Yorker Fiction Review #130: "1 = 1" by Anne Carson

Issue: Jan. 11, 2016

Story: "1 = 1" by Anne Carson
Rating: $/Meh
Review: Much more of a poetic "meditation" than a story, I found "1 = 1" somewhat difficult to get through (even though it's only two New Yorker pages) and I did not appreciate it's rambling, stream-of-consciousness nature. Furthermore, and especially with a story I didn't really like, I rarely have the patience or time to go back over a story a second time in order to "get it." Though I take my fiction reviewing seriously, we're talking about short stories in a weekly magazine here, not the Torah.

Rarely have I felt so disengaged from what an author was "trying to do" than when reading this story. And I actually did attempt to read it twice through, neither time successfully. I imagine there are people out there who read and enjoyed this story, even loved it. And I'd love to hear from them, but I'm probably not going to, some kind of an explanation o…

New Yorker Fiction Review #129: "The Beach Boy" by Ottessa Moshfegh

Issue: Jan. 4, 2016
Story: "The Beach Boy" by Ottessa Moshfegh
Rating: $$$
Review: I don't know whether I actually liked this story or if I just got hooked into it because I fell for the subtle trick -- intended or not -- that the story pulled on me very early into it, that made me read it with rapt attention and wish that there were about three more pages at the end. But the question I always ask myself is: Does it really matter? The story gripped me by the throat and didn't let go until the the last word. Sometimes you do a story or a film a disservice by asking "why" too much and then ruining the experience.
The story starts off as another "ho-hum" kind of story about a well-to-do white couple living in Manhattan. He's a dermatologist, she's a squash-playing busy-body who clearly wears the pants in the relationship. As the tale begins, they are just back from their vacation trip to a (Caribbean? Southeast Asian?) island to celebrate their …

New Yorker Fiction Review #128: "Bedtimes" by Tim Parks

Issue: Dec. 21 & 28, 2015

Story: "Bedtimes" by Tim Parks

Rating: $/Meh

Review: Following quickly on the heels of his tightly-woven and captivating short story of adolescence, "Vespa," from the Oct. 5, 2015 issue of The New Yorker (TGCB 1/3/2016), Tim Parks is right back in the magazine but, frankly, with a story that lacks anything approaching the same impact or craft. Oh well.

You wouldn't necessarily think so, but domestic life can provide an amazingly fertile ground for art. Some of the greatest paintings in history are still life's of fruit or dead fish or rooms in the artists house. Likewise, some of the greatest poetry and fiction takes place within the four walls of the writer's or main character's home.

The domestic life provides almost limitless topics and objects upon which one can expound or rhapsodize or romanticize. I myself once took dozens of pictures of my favorite tea pot in an attempt to capture what it was that I liked so much ab…

New Yorker Fiction Review #127: "Jelly and Jack" by Dana Spiotta

Issue: Dec. 7, 2015

Story: "Jelly and Jack" by Dana Spiotta

Rating: $$$

Review: This week's story is kind of an interesting case, because it is "derived" from Spiotta's forthcoming novel Innocents and Others, which is set to be released in two days, actually. Jelly and Jack are characters in the upcoming novel, but this story is not an "excerpt" per se. I find the whole notion a tiny bit odd, but whatever it's origins, "Jelly and Jack" stands alone as just about as powerful a piece of short fiction I've ever read in The New Yorker and possibly ever.

Jelly is an overweight woman who lives in upstate New York and develops entirely phone-based relationships with complete strangers, usually Hollywood types, that play out over months or years, before they inevitably have to end when the counter-party asks to see her and Jelly is confronted with her own deeply crippling lack of self-esteem. She has never gone through with a meeting of one…

New Yorker Fiction Review #126: "Oktober" by Martin Amis

Issue: Dec. 7, 2015

Story: "Oktober" by Martin Amis

Rating: $

Review: This makes two somewhat bleak non-fiction-ish "stories" to appear in The New Yorker Fiction section back to back, making me wonder if the Nov. 13th terrorist attacks on Paris had put the NYer editors into a particularly somber mood or if this was all just a co-incidence. Given the lead-time with which most magazines tend to work, this run of realistic stories is probably a co-incidence, but who knows. Not me.

Anyway, "Oktober" is not really a story. In fact, I'm not sure what to call it. It's more like a lightly fictionalized dispatch -- really more like musings -- from the front lines of the 2015 European migrant crisis by a famous writer on a book tour. Most of it takes place in the lobby of a hotel in Munich, where the narrator contrasts the revelings of Oktoberfest, going on right outside in the streets, with the the bourgeois, First World Problems of a fellow Englishman sittin…