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New Yorker Fiction Review #186: "The I.O.U." by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Review of a short story from the Mar. 20, 2017 issue of The New Yorker...

This story, "The I.O.U." is part of a collection of F. Scott Fitzgerald's unpublished works soon to be released (maybe already has been released). Now, I love F. Scott Fitzgerald as much as the next guy (actually, I probably love F. Scott Fitzgerald at least 75% to 90% more than the next guy) but this story could have stayed in whatever forgotten pile of papers they dug it up from, and my life would not have changed one iota.

Like a lot of people whose seminal exposure to literature took place in high school, The Great Gatsby is one of my absolute favorite books. I agree with those (in slowly diminishing numbers) who believe that it is the Great American Novel. I love Fitzgerald's personal story (tragic, though it is), his place in literary history and legend, and the legacy he has left us by writing this enduring American gem of a novel.

At the same time, in my opinion, F. Scott Fitzgerald wro…

Thoughts on Game of Thrones Season 7 Finale

Frankly, I thought the Season 7 Finale of Game of Thrones was a little weak. The final episode of a Game of Thrones season is never the "craziest" episode. The really whacko stuff usually happens in the second to last (or penulitmate, as they say) episode. Even so, this episode just felt a little tepid. The dialogue was forced, nothing was as dramatic as it was "supposed" to be, and it seemed like they just had to tie up a bunch of plotlines in a hurry. Then, of course, there is the astonishingly un-sexy consummation of Danaerys and Jon Snow's "flirtation," in some ship cabin sex.

Here are my bullet-point thoughts on the episode:
Euron Greyjoy. I called B.S. the moment Euron Greyjoy fled the King's Landing summit/conference in fear upon seeing one of the living dead. And I was right: it was a bluff. But my questions are: a.) How did Euron and Cersei plan for being shown one of the living dead? Did the guards look inside the box and tip them off? T…

Wine Review: Penya Viognier 2016 Cotes Catalanes

It takes a lot to get me to write about wine these days. There was a time (on this very blog) when I used to write about wine regularly, but a.) I stopped drinking as much of it, and b.) I started writing about other things. Which is why, IMHO, Penya Viognier 2016 Cotes Catalanes is that much more remarkable; it is such a good wine for your money that it spurred me to start writing about wine again.

If you see some of this in your local wine store, buy it. This bottle set me back all of about $9.99+tax and has so far provided two evenings of extremely pleasurable drinking. The first night we drank it (as our 2nd bottle) with some breaded pork chops and sauteed garlic spinach; now we sip the remainer of the bottle unaccompanied by any food, two days later. The wine has kept it's body and freshness.

Cotes Catalanes is an AOC that lies in the Languedoc-Roussillon region in the glorious wine country of the Southwest of France. I personally do not have much experience with the Viognie…

New Yorker Review #185: "Solstice" by Anne Enright

Review of a short story from the Mar. 13, 2017 issue of The New Yorker...

Eventually I will resume writing about things other than short stories from The New Yorker...that is...when I get caught up to present day and am not multiple months behind. But I just feel like if I don't stop everything and burn through these stories now, I'll become so hopelessly behind that I will quit this project...and I can't do that. I've been reveiwing the short fiction in The New Yorker for more than four years now. Gotta keep it going! And so...we have "Solstice" by Anne Enright.

When you read enough literary short stories, you start to notice trends or categories that emerge. Take for example my post from July 13th about "metro fiction." This story falls into a category you might refer to as "domestic fiction," or fiction that takes place within the walls of a home and usually explores some theme or themes related to family life, growing older, becoming a…

New Yorker Fiction Review #184: "Crazy They Call Me" by Zadie Smith

Review of a short story from the Mar. 6, 2017 issue of The New Yorker...

I had a little trouble getting into this story before I realized it was about Billie Holliday (somehow I missed or did not recognize the picture of Holliday used as the cover image), and even after Zadie Smith "pulls the punch" by referencing the song "Strange Fruit" I was still not crazy about it, simply as a work of fiction.

It is an interesting character study about an artist whose life begins to unravel as she puts politics (specifically Civil Rights) more at the forefront of her work, and now that I know it's about Holliday I would like to go back and re-read it to see if there were any clues I missed (other than...yunno...the photograph).

As stories go, however, first person character explorations like this -- especially when they have a central pillar as large and overwhelming as being about Billie Holliday -- just seem like Creative Writing Workshop excercises, and I was a little d…

New Yorker Fiction Review #183: "Ladies' Lunch" by Lore Segal

Review of a short story from the Feb. 27, 2017 issue of The New Yorker...

There's no way around it: getting old sucks. And it really sucks when someone gets so old that they lose their independence, as does the main character "Lotte" in this short story by Lore Segal.

It's an old story: a senior citizen begins to lose more and more of their mobility and their mental faculties, until their children (if they are lucky enough to have any) start to exert pressure to move them out of their residence into the old folks' home. The senior citizen resents this and resists this until finally something happens -- some kind of accident -- and finally they lose their right to resist.

Sadly there is almost no way around this end, for those of us who are fortunate enough to even grow old enough to lose our independence. The story has the same arch (and certainly the same end), but the details differ and they will always be a bit heart-rending.

There was nothing particularly bad…

New Yorker Fiction Review #182: "The Prarie Wife" by Curtis Sittenfeld

Review of a short story from the Feb. 13 & 20, 2017 issue of The New Yorker...

If you want to make a story interesting, include a lesbian love affair that takes place between counselors at a summer camp...

I wish I could say my brain had evolved to a point where the first thing that I remembered about Curtis (f.) Sittenfeld's "The Prarie Wife" was not the sex scenes between Kirsten and Lucy -- which take place on hot, dusty couches of locked common areas at a summer camp, in the sweaty, lazy, tragic, waning days of August -- but I can't say that. And frankly, its my feeling that whatever provides an entry point (no pun intended) into a further understanding of a story's deeper message is fair game. After all, the Odyssey had one-eyed monsters and murderous singing enchantresses in it; Hamlet had a talking ghost. NEITHER of those famous stories had lesbian love affairs, however. Advantage Sittenfeld...except that the deeper meaning in this story ultimately rem…

New Yorker Fiction Review #181: "Underground" by David Gilbert

Review of a short story from the Feb. 6, 2017 issue of The New Yorker...

A couple posts ago I wrote about what I called "metro" stories -- those concerning middle-class, urban white people with problems that aren't really problems -- and David Gilbert's effort here, "Underground," almost qualifies except that the main character is really rich, and gay, so it's a bit more intriguing than your average ho-hum metro story.

If you're looking for a way to kill 45 minutes before you drift off to sleep (as I was last night) then sure, you can allow yourself to be pulled into the world of a 47 year old gay man in Manhattan, from a wealthy family that owns original Marc Chagall paintings and thinks that $70,000 is "cheap" for a piece of art; a man who came out of the closet only two years before and is feeling all the ups and downs of his new life, the freedom, the restrictions, the new dating possibilities, the effect it's had on him as a fathe…

New Yorker Fiction Review #180: "Quarantine" by Alex Ohlin

Review of a short story from the Jan. 30, 2017 issue of The New Yorker...

It's difficult to encapsulate a person's entire adult life into a short story, perhaps the most difficult thing to do. It is the act of squeezing the entire horizon of someone's view -- their whole context for being alive on this planet, for understanding their own existence and all their experiences -- into 4,000 words or 30 minutes. So it's forgivable if the result -- the story -- makes for less-than-compelling reading material at times; there is just no way to make it interesting the whole way through. The only hope is to cover the important and most poignant emotions and experiences and hope to tie it up properly at the end, which Alex Ohlin does extremely well.

This particular short story follows the adult life of Bridget, a young Canadian woman living in Barcelona in her early 20s. Much like most people's actual lives (hope I'm not sounding to jaded here but let's face it) the m…

New Yorker Fiction Review #179: "Constructed Worlds" by Elif Batuman

Review of a short story from the Jan. 23, 2017 issue of The New Yorker...

Many times a short story starts off slow and it takes a while to get into it. Many times a short story starts out so slowly that you never get into it at all. Not the case with "Constructed Worlds," by Elif Batuman. In this case, the story started out really well but kind of tapered out to the finish. Still, it was good.

Set in the mid-90s, the story covers the main character's (presumably Batuman's own) first semester at college. There is something heart-breakingly touching about Batuman's re-telling of this phase of her life. Perhaps heart-breaking because it reminds me of my own first days at college and how everything -- every new person I met, every new adventure I had, every success and failure -- all felt heightened and more significant in a way that it probably never will again.

Batuman really hooked me with her opening passages in which she describes her first encounters with the n…

New Yorker Fiction Review #178: "Chairman Spaceman" by Thomas Pierce

Review of a short story from the Jan. 16, 2017 issue of The New Yorker...

This is the third time in four and half years that I've been exposed to the work of Thomas Pierce in the pages of The New Yorker and this story, "Chairman Spaceman," is undoubtedly my favorite yet. His other two New Yorker stories -- "Ba Baboon" and "This is an Alert" -- were both entertaining but felt ill-formed and half-baked, as I recall. In "Chairman Spaceman," Thomas Pierce comes a lot closer to what I'd call a fully-functional short story...and still there seems to be something missing.

By way of a slight recap: Dom Whipple, a reformed corporate tyrant, has joined a "church" that is sending a mission to a far-off, recently-discovered planet. He will travel for 15 years in a frozen state, and live out his days as a colonist on the new planet. It's not 100% clear why Whipple wants to do this, but it sounds like he feels guilty for being such a bad-…

New Yorker Fiction Review #177: "On the Street Where You Live," by Yiyun Li

Review of a short story from the Jan. 9, 2017 issue of The New Yorker...

Since my subscription to The New Yorker has elapsed (first time in four years!) I've had to start listening to the short stories online, instead of reading them in the physical issue. I've had to do this periodically over the years when I lost a particular issue or occasionally just felt like it. Thankfully, The New Yorker publishes a full transcript of each of its short stories as well as (for most of them) an audio feed of the actual author reading the story. It's almost as if they want to make it as easy as possible for people to have access to good fiction so... thanks, New Yorker. Some day I promise to start subscribing again.

Anyway, "On the Street Where You Live," by Yiyun Li, is a rather long short story about a young mother, Becky, coping with her six year old son's autism. Told in close third person, the story examines Becky's internal struggles to process and deal with her…

New Yorker Fiction Review #176: "Most Die Young" by Camille Bordas

Review of a short story from the Jan. 2, 2017 (!!) issue of The New Yorker...

Yes, I'm six (6) months behind in my New Yorker short story reviewing. Almost seven. But, no time for self-flagellation. I do plenty of that in the course my normal, every day life. So...
The short story "Most Die Young," by Camille Bordas, fits neatly into a category I have come to call a "metro fiction" (not to be confused  with the early-2000s term "metrosexual"). To me, metro stories are those about urban, educated, middle-class or upper-middle-class white people in their 30s, 40s, and 50s whose problems are mostly existential (things such as: does Billy like me, I feel alone, did I marry the wrong person, should I break up with this person, should I date this person, what should I do with my life, did my parents really love me, etc., etc. as opposed to: I have a terminal disease or I'm starving or the local cheiftan is trying to kill me, etc.) and about them dealing…

The Tour de France

Most people know the Tour de France is a bicycle race that takes place in France, and that's about it. In fact, that is precisely all I knew about the Tour de France until last summer when I got hooked on it. My goal is for you to get hooked on it as well or at least come away from reading this post with some degree of understanding of what the race is.

In case you didn't know, La Grande Boucle (the Tour's nickname, meaning "the big loop") happens to be going on right now, and will be going on for just about the next two weeks. So if you've ever had any interest in the race whatsoever, now is the time to tune-in and at least attempt to get sucked-in. First, let me help you out with this (very) beginners guide to the Tour de France:

What You Need to Know About the Tour de France (the absolute basics):

The full Tour de France is 3,500 km (2,200 mi) longThe race is completed in 21 phases or "stages" that take place throughout France; one stage is comple…

Movie Review: Baby Driver (2017)

Saw this film at the Manor Theater in Squirrell Hill last night (which, incidentally, is a great place to see a film; there's a little bar/lounge area inside and you can take your drink into the movie). If a poster has ever sold a film, this film's poster sold me. All I needed to know was a.) it was called Baby Driver, which alone was enough for me, b.) it looked like a classic block-buster summer action movie, precisely the kind of movie you need to see on a hot summer night in the comfort of your local air-conditioned theater. I mean...look at that poster. 
I love a good car chase film, and haven't really seen a good one since Drive (2011) which absolutely blew me away. Baby Driver has some of the arty, carefully-produced and stylized qualities of Drive, but Baby Driver tries to be -- and succeeds -- at being a bit more light-hearted and fun. 
What are some of the high-points of this film?
Incredible car-chase scenes, naturally; some of the best I've ever seenKiller s…

USMNT 2 - 0 Trinidad & Tobago

This was the win the U.S. needed and wanted, but based on what I saw last night, I'm not feeling real great about our chances vs. Mexico.

Trinidad & Tobago looked like they were suffering from altitude sickness most of the night (so did the U.S. in the first half), and at some point the game felt like target practice until -- thanks to the magic of Christian Pulisic -- we managed to build two nice goals. Mexico will not be as forgiving.

I think we can stagger our way into the World Cup finals in Russia thanks to, let's face it, pretty weak competition in the CONCACAF other than Mexico, but I don't see us walking away from Sunday night's game in Mexico City with any points to show for it.

The Indianapolis 500

I lived in Indianapolis for five years before I made it to my first Indianapolis 500, but since then I've been to every single one. This year's -- the race's 101st running -- was my fourth in a row, and though I no longer live in Indianapolis, I will be going back every single year I possibly can, for as long as I can. It is without a doubt my favorite holiday and my favorite day of the year.

Here's basically how a typical day at the Indy 500 breaks down (well, my typical day at the Indy 500):
Assuming you're staying in Indy, you leave for the track at about 8:00 AMTraffic depending, you get to your parking spot by about 9:00 AM9:01 AM start drinking11:45 AM leave for the walk to the trackNoon, get settled in for all the pre-race festivities ("America the Beautiful," "Back Home in Indiana," and the "National Anthem")Noon - 3:00 PM watch cars go whizzing by you at 200+ MPH3:00 PM to 5:00 PM work on getting back to your car and clear of a…

Review: Death of a Salesman, starring Zach Grenier, at the O'Reilly Theater (Pittsburgh)

Most of the works of fiction and theater that are closest to my heart are those that I read or saw first in my high school years. Not sure why this is, except that I had a couple outstanding literature teachers at the Linsly School -- specific shout-outs to Mssrs. Robert Hunter and Robert Fisher -- who breathed life into such American classics like Death of a Salesman at a time when my mind was more supple and impressionable than it is now and (perhaps more importantly) I had more time to pore over works of literature and absorb them. For this reason I have always had a soft spot for Death of a Salesman, by Arthur Miller...and also because it's a fantastic play.

What's amazing when you go back and re-read or re-watch something that you were first exposed to as a teenager is how differently it resonates with you. Reading this play at age 17 meant something completely different to me than watching it 20 years later. At 17 I pitied and even scoffed at the desperate characters of…

Restaurant Review: Gaucho Parrilla Argentina (Pittsburgh)

Let's start with the good stuff first:

Great atmosphere. Ate at this restaurant on a beautiful spring evening recently, out on their side patio, with a nice view overlooking the North Side of Pittsburgh. It has a great rustic yet contemporary South American feel. Great menu. If you're a meat-lover you'll have tons of options (after all parrilla means grill in Spanish) at Gaucho Parrilla Argentina. So many great steak-based dishes, one trip is not nearly enough.  Now, to the kvetches:
Bad logistical setup. Gaucho Parrilla Argentina has chosen to eschew the normal restaurant format of "sit down, order the meal, have someone bring it to you, eat" in favor of the format of "stand in line for 30 minutes and order at the counter" format. I don't know why this seemed like a good idea to them, but I can personally attest that I never even encountered this style of restaurant when I was in Argentina myself. So...idk what's up here. Portions are a little m…

New Yorker Fiction Review #174: "Pardon Edward Snowden"

Review of a short story from the Dec. 12, 2016 issue of The New Yorker...

This is a short story about a poet (meta) who gets asked to sign a petition regarding Edward Snowden. The petition is in the form of a poem -- called, in the story, a "poetician" -- and in the story the poet, Mark McClain thinks to himself: "...why not just have a petition in the form of a petition? Why drag the poem into the muck?"

Well...I might ask Joseph O'Neill why, if he wants to make a grandiose statement about the purity of the poetic art form, the noble struggles of the unheralded keepers of the flame of "real" poetry, about what a travesty it is that Bob Dylan got the Noble Prize for Literature, then drag this short story into the muck, why not just write an essay about it? The essay would have been far more entertaining, intersting, and convincing than this insipid and pretentious piece of "fiction."

The older I get, the less and less "serious" I g…

International Soccer Star Zlatan Ibrahimovic Treated at UPMC

Rarely do the worlds of top-level international football and the city of Pittsburgh collide but...apparently, Swedish soccer legend Zlatan Ibrahimovic had knee surgery this week at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, and is still here in town recovering. Granted, for all the actual impact this has on my life, he might as well be having surgery on Mars. But what kind of football fan would I be if the news that one of the all-time legends of the sport was being treated in my town -- hell, in my neighborhood -- didn't make me at least a little bit excited.

For those of you who don't know, Zlatan is a living legend and one of the most prolific goal-scorers in soccer history, having put more than 400 balls into the back of the onion bag in his professional career, a career which started when he was 17, with Malmo FF. He has since played for the likes of AFC Ajax, Juventus FC, FC Internazionale Milano, FC Barcelona, AC Milan, Paris St-Germain FC, and currently Manchester U…