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Showing posts from 2017

New Yorker Fiction Review #189: "Northeast Regional" by Emma Cline

Review of a short story from the April 10, 2017 issue of The New Yorker...

I loved this story and I loved this character. Emma Cline does a really good job of bringing depth and significance to what might have otherwise been a pretty boring "metro" story.

A metro story, as you might recall (though probably not) from one of my past posts is a story about middle- or upper-middle class white people, set in an urban or suburban setting, and in which the characters deal with problems that aren't really problems, and in which nothing much happens.

"Northeast Regional" fits in precisely into the the mold of a metro story (hell, the story is named after a train) but somehow did not come off as boring and uninspired as most metro stories do. I think that's because Emma Cline really took the time to develop the main character fully. Even if nothing happens (Richard travels by train to his son's prep school, thinks about his much-younger girlfriend, talks to his s…

New Yorker Fiction Review #188: "Signal" by John Lanchester

Review of a short story from the April 3, 2017 issue of The New Yorker...

Amidst all the high-minded (read: boring), supposedly literary fiction that shows up in the pages of The New Yorker -- you know, the beautifully-written stuff in which nothing actually happens -- we the faithful readers of this august publication are occasionally treated to a story by someone like John Lanchester who really knows how to weave a tale and does so in a compact, compelling, cant-turn-away-from-it-for-a-moment kind of way.

Someone once said (and I'm paraphrasing): If you're going to write about someone, write about a king. Meaning, essentially, that writing about outlandishly rich or powerful characters is the way to go because, let's face it, who among us is not captivated by the idea of extreme wealth and/or power? Maybe a few of us. But in the case of "Signal," John Lanchester (a former journalist who writes a lot about money) does well to set up this story in the unbelievabl…

Restaurant Review: Acorn, in Shadyside

You may remember a long-time Shadyside fixture called Thai Place that sat on the East end of the Walnut St. business district, near the intersection of Ivy St. It was a good place to get some better-than-average Thai food, even if the service was a little less than friendly. Thai Place had been around so long, I distinctly remember going there for dinner when I was in college back in the late 90s. Anyway...it's gone. And a restaurant called Acorn has taken it's place.


My girlfriend and I ate at Acorn last week on a whim and had an excellent meal. We had the salt beets as the appetizer (I get beet salad literally ever chance I get). She had a pork chop, I had the lamb. Washed down with a couple glasses each of a nice Cotes du Rhone and a dessert, the name of which I cannot remember.

Rarely have I had American cuisine done so complexly and with so much "going on" on my plate. My lamb came with a little merguez sausage on the side, done over top some lentils, and with …

New Yorker Fiction Review #187: "Herman Melville, Vol. 1" by Victor Lodato

Review of a short story from the March 21, 2017 issue of The New Yorker...

Victor Lodato is the author of two novels (one just recently released this past Spring), and three New Yorker short stories. One of those stories was "Jack, July," one of the best short stories I've ever read in The New Yorker, in nearly five years of doing this.

But whereas "Jack, July" had a kind of seductive, woozy urgency to it, "Herman Melville, Vol. 1" just kind of plods along for page after page and feels bloated, interminable, and overwrought, just a swirling mass of excessive detail, memories, and needlessly detailed conversations. I don't know what happened to Victor Lodato between the writing of "Jack, July" and now (maybe success?) but I'm much less compelled now than I was when I first read his stuff.

"Herman Melville, Vol. 1" is the story of a runaway in her late teens / early 20s whose eccentric, enigmatic, and selfish traveling compan…

I Listened to All 25 Hours of James Joyce's Ulysses and it Was Horrible

As a "literary person" (whatever that even means) the specter of James Joyce's Ulysses is always out there haunting you. You know you should read it. You know you need to read it. You've probably tried to read it, and failed. I myself have read the first four pages of Ulysses at least five times over the past 20 years, but always stopped because it's absolutely excruciating. And yet...

...it continued to loom like a gigantic boulder in my mind, casting a long shadow over my claim of being a "well-read" person and a lover of books and literature. I needed to climb to the top of that boulder, just to do it. Even if it was a slow and torturous process.

Well, instead of scaling the boulder the old fashioned way -- by reading the 800 page tome -- I took an escalator to the top...and it was still slow and torturous. Listening to James Joyce's Ulysses on audiobook took me 25 hours spread out over two months of my life. I listened to it in the car, at the …

A Piece of Advice I Learned From My Grandfather

My grandfather was one of the most learned men I know. He read widely and voraciously, and not just in the sciences (he was a doctor); he loved politics, philosophy, and great literature as well. Whenever he finished a book he would write his thoughts about the book in the front cover and then sign and date it. To this day every once in a while I will open a book from my bookshelf or my mother's bookshelf, or at one of my family members' homes, and there will be my grandfather's handwriting. He was also a great giver of his books; if you remarked that you liked a particular one or wanted to read it, you were almost sure to take it home with you.

Reading is a very solitary pursuit but my grandfather was not a solitary person. He relished having family and friends around him which is convenient because he was blessed with a lot of both. And he carried out his intellectual life in a very "public" way as well. He was, in some ways, an intellectual evangelist. If he r…

Taking a Moment to Acknowledge the End of an Era...

I don't often blog about "personal" things. I keep this blog limited to mostly neutral subjects like fiction, sports, restaurants, etc. But tonight I wanted to break that habit because I felt the occasion called for it.

Today my maternal grandfather passed away peacefully at the age of 92. He had six children, 15 grandchildren, and 12 great-grand children. He was married for 72 years to my grandmother and during most of that time they kept one of the warmest, busiest, most open and comforting households I've ever known and am likely to ever know. He was a doctor in a small city in West Virginia and at one point must have known almost everyone in the town. You certainly could not mention his name (which I've omitted here for privacy reasons) to anyone in the town without eliciting some positive reaction or at least recognition from 99 out of 100 people you asked. He was a pillar of his community and a rock of strength and wisdom to his family. Any words I could s…

Restaurant Review: "Spinach" in Shadyside

Spinach, located on Copeland St. in Shadyside (right across the street from the Starbucks) is not the kind of place you're going to just stumble upon one night while out and about on Walnut St. looking for a place to eat. Hell, we were looking for it and could barely find it. It's a small and unassuming restaurant tucked in the quasi-basement level (sort of a "false" first floor) of a building that houses a few other Shadyside-esque businesses like a Yoga studio, some kind of antique store, and the very not un-assuming Italian restaurant Girasole.

Spinach's "thing" is that it serves vegetarian, vegan, and gluten free cuisine, but it also has non-vegetarian dishes as well. I got the salmon salad, which was excellent, with a nice, tangy lemon-juice based dressing, shaved radishes (and some other vegetables), with a couple nice pieces of cured salmon on it.

According to the chef/owner, who spoke to us briefly, Spinach has been around in its current iterati…

Book Review: A Life in Parts, by Bryan Cranston

Bryan Cranston's autobiography, A Life in Parts, is just the kind of book I like to read these days: easy, straightforward, short, engaging...and by Walter friggin White!

Like his acting, the book is funny, direct, effective, and at times deeply emotional. It is not grandiose. It does not overreach. Cranston does not attempt to portray his craft as "magic" or more important than it is. Instead, he talks about his craft just as a really intelligent brick layer would talk about his. He clearly loves acting and has dedicated his life to it, but it's his work, he does it for pay and at the end of the day he doesn't let it define him. I think this is an effect caused by the fact that he achieved "fame" so late in his career. He spent his 20s, 30s, and 40s, hacking out a living doing bit parts and whatever TV roles came his way until Malcolm in the Middle and then ultimately Breaking Bad in his 50s. And he's got the humility to prove it.
Highlights of the…

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…