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Showing posts from July, 2017

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…