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New Yorker Fiction Review #207: "The Wind Cave" by Haruki Murakami

Review of a short story from the Sept. 3, 2018 issue of The New Yorker...

Nothing particularly ground-breaking here, but then again Haruki Murakami short stories never are and are not attempting to be and, frankly, even most short stories that are attempting to be ground-breaking rarely are. That's the nice thing about short stories, the shorter format and time commitment means they are free to just exist. They don't necessarily have to take you anywhere, like you expect a full-length novel to do.

And Haruki Murukami is one of the masters of the "story that simply exists." I wonder if it is something cultural? I find that authors from outside the U.S. seem to be a bit more free to use elements like magical realism (which Murakami uses a lot of) and also to write these stories that are beautiful but don't really go anywhere (P.S. in comparison to most of those kinds of stories, "The Wind Cave" is like an action/adventure story). It would take someone wit…

Quills Coffee's Zephyr Summer Blend

Why am I writing about summer blend coffee in the middle of fall? For the same reason I wrote about Octoberfest beer in the middle of winter. Because I'm always running behind on the million gazillion projects I've got on the to-do list in my head. One of those is this blog.

Found this at Quills Coffee in Louisville, Ky. when I visited on Labor Day weekend. Frankly, I bought this coffee mostly for the odd, pastel, 80s, Miami Vice-like packaging. I have always been a sucker for good advertising and good graphic design work. So what if it actually looks like some 7th graders art project from 1987, the fact is it triggered nostalgia inside me, an emotional response...which naturally led me to take out my wallet and buy some.

It also happens to be pretty damn good coffee.

Although it took me a while to "get it right" on which brewing method was the best. Lucky for me I have at least three coffee brewing systems in my home: a drip coffee machine, a stove-top Bialetti moka…

New Yorker Fiction Review #206: "Ways and Means" by Sana Krasikov

Review of a short story from the August 27, 2018 issue of The New Yorker...

It took me a page or two to really get into this ultimately compelling look at the #metoo movement from a perspective I've personally not heard yet, that of a woman who actually sympathizes with one of the perpetrators of the sexual misconduct.

In this story, the main character, Hal (female) is the former and still currently the co-worker of Oliver, a celebrity of sorts at the public radio station where they work. Oliver has become the target of not only a number of accusations of sexual misconduct from female co-workers, but now an official investigation by an outside agency and the implied threat of actual charges. Oliver calls Hal to apologize for anything that he's done and also to ask her to give a deposition on his behalf. Most of the story is spent inside Hal's head as she struggles with whether to do so. She finally agrees but then has a change of heart when a certain additional piece of in…

New Yorker Fiction Review #205: "A Refugee Crisis" by Callan Wink

Review of a short story from the August 20, 2018 issue of The New Yorker...

While I liked Callan Wink's voice at certain points, I've got to give this story a great big "meh." Seems to me like Wink is just taking some scenes from his life that are lying around and turning them into "fiction." In fact, his main character even says as much in the story.

You see, not only is this story about a writer, but it's about a writer writing about a writer. How mind-numbingly post-modern and navel-gazy can you get? The writer in this story is living in Montana, working (or trying to work) on a book while his former girlfriend, just returned from working at a refugee camp in Greece, languishes around his house cooking curries, watching movies on her laptop, and taking it easy before she gets an abortion (she was pregnant by a refugee she met in one of the camps).

I suppose this kind of story has to exist, but sometimes I don't understand why. I think a lot of wr…

New Yorker Fiction Review #204: "Christina the Astonishing (1150 - 1224)" by Kristin Valdez Quade

Review of a short story from the July 31, 2017 issue of The New Yorker...

Interesting concept for a short story here as Kristin Valdez Quade takes a first-person observer approach to the life of Saint Christina the Astonishing, a woman from what is now Belgium who supposedly died at age 21 and then came back to life and lived another 50 or so odd years, roaming the countryside and apparently hurling accusations and prophesies at people.

This story is told through the eyes of Christina's older sister, Mara, who watches as Christina grows from troublesome infant, to moody, seemingly-possessed child, and then watches as she dies the first time and is resurrected.

As the main character struggles to understand and cope with her sister's condition (which today we'd probably have a medical name for) the story really becomes about how we love our family members in spite of not being able to understand them and, very often, feeling distant from the people we should feel closest too…

New Yorker Fiction Review #203: "Displaced" by Richard Ford

Review of a short story from the August 6 & 13, 2018 issue of The New Yorker...
(I normally do these short story reviews in chronological order, but two things have happened: a.) I've fallen more than a year behind, b.) I started subscribing to the print edition of the magazine again. Meaning, as I am getting caught up on past editions, I will be reviewing the short stories in the current issues of The New Yorker...until I get behind on those again, too...)
I'd hesitate to call Richard Ford one of the "giants" of American letters -- a title I dole out pretty liberally -- but most serious American readers will recognize him as the author of that great piece of American middle-aged existential angst, The Sportswriter
I liked The Sportswriter so much that after I read the last page I literally turned back to the front page and started the book over again. Such was the power of Richard Ford's insights into life, careers, middle-aged post-divorce romance, etc. B…

New Yorker Fiction Review #202: "Everything is Far from Here" by Cristina Henriquez

Review of a short story from the July 24, 2017 issue of The New Yorker...

"Everything is Far from Here" is not light reading. The story tackles one of the great geopolitical issues of our time: illegal/undocumented immigration. It's pretty difficult to comment on this story without getting into deep essay on immigration policy, which I'm not prepared to do right now.

In general, I am not in favor of tackling huge political issues in fiction, although it's been done for centuries and will continue to be done as long as we have books. I feel as though, if you have a political statement to make, you should write an essay. Granted, I'm sure just about anyone could argue against this and tell me that some number (any number) of my favorite novels have deep political statements. Fine.

As a "story" in and of itself, "Everything is Far from Here" was extremely compelling. The close third-person perspective and the "carousel" type of feel…

New Yorker Fiction Review #201: "Caring for Plants" by Hye-yung Pyun

Review of a short story from the July 10 & 17, 2017 issue of The New Yorker...
If you're going to read a painfully depressing short story, it's best if it be really short, unlike "Caring for Plants" by Hye-yung Pyun, which weighs-in at approximately 7,000 words. The subject matter of this story, the main character, is a man named Oghi who is recovering after a tragic car accident which left him paralyzed from the waist down and his wife dead.
Oghi watches as his mother-in-law (does every Asian short story have to have a mean mother-in-law in it?), grieving over the loss of her only child, Oghi's wife, takes over more and more facets of his life, firing his caregiver, then his physical therapist, then his psycho-therapist, then -- so Oghi thinks -- gradually attempting to poison him. 
Reading this story was like being held under water. I don't think I can remember reading many stories after which I felt such sheer relief that it was over. You might say th…

Steel Cup Coffee Roasters Certified Organic Honduras Light Roast

This is why I love living in the 21st century. There's a small-batch, source-to-store, organic coffee roasting company right here in Pittsburgh, Pa. What's next? Driver-less cars??

Bought this bag of coffee in Whole Foods recently. I shop at Whole Foods when I get tired of saving too much money shopping at Giant Eagle or Aldi, and decide I want to spend $75 for one bag of groceries. On the plus side, you get introduced to things like Steel Cup Coffee Roasters.

I like Central American coffee for the dry, crisp, delicately acidic flavors. This bag of Honduran coffee fits the bill but is missing just a little something in the flavor department, which I'm not quite sure doesn't have to do with my brewing method. With light roast, you can't expect any of the smoky, tongue-rasping boldness you might get in other types of coffee. No, the Central American light roast, particularly this one from Steel Cup, is an oil-free, smooth, low-acidity coffee with just a bit of that …

New Yorker Fiction Review #200: "The Adventure of a Skier" by Italo Calvino

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

As an American of Italian descent, and a self-proclaimed man of letters, I am ashamed to admit that this is the very first thing I've ever read by Italo Calvino, an Italian writer who, at the time of his death in 1985 (so I just learned), was the most translated Italian contemporary writer.

When I read a story like this one -- short, beautiful, ethereal, almost magical, and totally lacking in any kind of plot -- it makes me reflect very seriously on my own writing, in a way that would take pages and pages to properly unfold. So I won't get into it right now, but...

In this story, Italo Calvino basically takes us for an hour's trip on the ski slopes of some region in northern Italy where, through the eyes of a pack of younger teenage boys, then narrowed down to one in particular, we watch a delightful vision of a young woman skiing alongside them. She remains at a distant remove until one of the boys h…

New Yorker Fiction Review #199: "The Piano Teacher's Pupil" by William Trevor

Review of a short story from the June 26th, 2017 issue of The New Yorker...

Really hustling here to try and get caught up on my short story reviewing. I am still more than a year behind, but trying to do a couple reviews per week so that I can (hopefully?) get all the way caught up by the end of the year. The problem is that issues of The New Yorker just keep coming out. But as John Lennon said, "There are no problems, only solutions."

I think back to the reasons why I started this project back in 2013. The primary reason was to read more short fiction and also so that I could be exposed to the best short fiction being written today, The New Yorker being one of the premier venues for the best of the best political, cultural, and literary writing in the English language.

Secondarily, I wanted to hone my critical skills and consistently force myself to take a closer look at why certain pieces of writing resonate, what "works" about certain pieces of fiction vs. other…

New Yorker Fiction Review #198: "It's a Summer Day" by Andrew Sean Greer

Review of a short story from the June 19th, 2017 issue of The New Yorker...

A middle-aged writer travels to Italy to appear in an award ceremony -- for a literary prize he is not sure yet if he's won -- in order to get out of the country while his former lover is getting married. In the process, he reminisces about a love affair he had with a much older, an much more famous writer, who won the Pulitzer Prize while they were together.

"It's a Summer Day" is a humorous and touching story about how our past lives, our past loves, continue to echo through our current lives, and also about our innate need for recognition, our need to be noticed, even if we know the attention is superficial.

There is something very human, very honest, about Andrew Sean Greer's writing, at least in this story. It's always much easier to like a character when you can understand their baggage, understand what it is that weighs them down. And Greer reveal's the main character's…

New Yorker Fiction Review #197: "Crossing the River No Name" by Will Mackin

Review of a short story from the June 5 & 12 issue of The New Yorker...
A recognizable style -- whether it's in writing, music, art, film, fashion -- is the hallmark of a true professional. Five years ago, on this blog, I read and reviewed Will Mackin's short story "Kattekoppen," about the war in Afghanistan. It's a testament to the distinctiveness of Mackin's style and talent that, even five years on, reading this story, I thought back to "Kattekoppen" and knew, without even checking, that both stories had been written by the same author. 
Will Mackin's material is war. Specifically, the war in Afghanistan. I've heard it said that it takes about eight to 10 years for really good writing about a war to start coming out, and Mackin has quickly positioned himself as one of the foremost bards to come out of the seemingly decade-long war in Afghanistan. 
In "Crossing the River No Name," Mackin writes about being part of an interce…

New Yorker Fiction Review #196: "The Size of Things" by Samantha Schweblin

Review of a short story from the May 29th, 2017 issue of The New Yorker...
Yeah, I'm more than a year behind now. Well more than a year. Going to try and correct that over the summer months here, but... promises.
This is an intriguing, sort of tragic story by Argentine writer Samantha Schweblin bearing some of the distinct hallmarks of good old Latin American magic realism, but there are no ghosts or spirits or flying witches or disappearing objects. Just a local rich kid (man) named Enrique Duvel who, in an attempt to escape his domineering mother, wanders into a local toy shop and becomes their live-in employee for a few weeks until his mother comes to collect him.
All short stories should be this length, under 3,000 words that is. Nice, compact and easy to read in under 20 minutes or so; however, having said that, this particular story feels incomplete, feels like a story fragment rather than a complete tale. Perhaps a little bit more about Enrique Duvel and his domineering mo…

Movie Review: Won't You Be My Neighbor

Who was Mr. Fred Rogers...really? In this 21st century, internet-bound world we live in, everyone -- public figures at least -- seems to be masquerading as something else. That's why it's a huge relief to discover, thanks to the film Won't You Be My Neighbor, that America's favorite and most lovable old man next door, Mr. Rogers, actually was what he was pretending to be: a kind, patient, sincere man who really cared about children and tried to make the world a better place. Imagine that!
Other things you will learn about Mr. Rogers in this film:
Mr. Rogers was not, as goes the urban myth, in the Navy or any other branch of the military...did not have arms covered in tattoos...was trained to be a Presbyterian minister before going to work for WQED in Pittsburgh...was not gay...had a wife and two sons (which is really bizarre to think about for some reason, I don't know why)...started working with hand-puppets on live TV broadcasts as a way to fill in dead air when …

2018: The Summer of Zima

If you were of legal drinking age in the mid-90s -- or if you weren't of legal drinking age, but drank anyway -- you probably remember Zima drifting through popular culture for a few years.

Yeah, you remember Zima...that clear, wine-cooler type beverage marketed in the wake of the early 90s "clear beverage" fascination and right around the time of "ice" beers. What was the 90s fascination with "ice brewing," by the way?

Zima, as it's creators probably imagined it, was best drunk in bars in Miami with sleek glass counter-tops, lots of neon lighting, and people who wore "power suits" with shoulder pads. Come to think of it, Zima was probably best drank in the 80s.

What actually happened was Zima ended up in the hands of either a.) women who did not like to drink, or b.) fascinated high school kids who didn't know better and quickly found out what the word "hangover" actually meant. Therefore, I think it's oddly fitting t…

Sunny Jim's Restaurant in Emsworth

We went out looking for a local bar and grill in which to have dinner, and Sunny Jim's magically appeared. The restaurant is tucked into a hollow outside Emsworth (which sits on the north side of the Ohio River, on Camp Horne Road). It's the kind of local joint where you find construction workers sitting at the bar after a long day's work, parents taking their kids out for dinner after little league games, couples canoodling in the back booths, and probably a healthy dose of trouble on Friday or Saturday nights (though maybe I'm just projecting). Great beer selection and great prices. The ribs and wings are worth making the 20 minute trip outside of the city for. So is the interesting setting -- the restaurant is built over top of a creek.

I'd rather have dinner at a place like Sunny Jim's a million times over a chain restaurant, and I think from now on I'm going to go out of my way to do so.

Rooney's Lager

If you can walk by a beer called "Rooney's Lager" and not at least consider buying it, then I submit that you a.) are lacking in true Steeler fandom, b.) are not a real Pittsburgher, and c.) may not even have a heart at all. Seriously, this is why it pays to take a chance every once in a while, especially on a local product. 
At $5.99 for a six-pack, I fully expected this beer to be one of those light American lager beers that we know and love and which have formed the backbone of our beer drinking culture, but which are ultimately forgettable flavor-wise. Also, the name doesn't really help. Although it is named after the legendary Rooney family (owners of the Pittsburgh Steelers) and bears some amount of history with it, in a weird way the name almost turned me off. I thought for sure this was some "white-label" promotion done by the Pittsburgh Brewing Co. in which they slap a new label on a six-pack of Iron City. I could not have been more wrong. Rooney&…

Book Review: Runnin' with the Devil, by Noel Monk

"For one thing that goes wrong...one...one single thing that goes wrong, a hundred things go right.  Do you know what I spend my time doing? I sleep two or three hours a night. There's no sex and drugs for Ian, David.  Do you know what I do?  I find lost luggage.  I locate mandolin strings in the middle of Austin! You know? I prise the rent out of the local Hebrews. That's what I do!" -- Ian Faith, manager of Spinal Tap

Though that quote was said by the manager of a fictional rock n' roll band, it could probably apply to any rock band's manager, ever, and certainly could apply to the author of this book, Noel Monk, who managed Van Halen during the first and best era of the band's history: 1978 to 1984.

If you're a child of the 80s or lived through any of the 80s as a fairly young adult, or even if you just love rock n' roll, you have to have at least a little spot in your heart for Van Halen. Their music is such a permanent fixture of radio statio…

Learning to Play Backgammon, Part I

As if my obsession with the game of Chess does not provide me enough cause for frustration and mid-day time wasting, I've picked up Backgammon over the past month or so. I mean, I already knew the rules and how to play (even own a cool "briefcase" Backgammon set my Aunt got me for Christmas one year), it is not a complicated game; however, I'm at a point now where I'm playing online every couple days (at least) and trying to learn and use some strategy.

Fundamentally, Backgammon is a pretty simple, two-player "racing" game. You and your opponent both have a certain number of pieces (called checkers) on the board and you roll the dice to try and get them home as quickly as you can. Really, it's like a much more simplified and stripped down version of Chutes & Ladders or Life, or any other game in which you have to get somewhere before your opponent.

A couple subtle nuances aside, such as "bearing off," and "hitting," and &quo…

New Yorker Fiction Review #195: "A Love Story" by Samantha Hunt

Review of a short story in the May 22, 2017 issue of The New Yorker...

For the first time since I started reviewing the short stories in The New Yorker (back in the winter of 2013) I am nearly a full year behind. How has this happened? Sigh... The weeks keep coming and they don't stop coming. Meantime, you get occupied writing about other stuff, reading other stuff, you slip further and further behind, so far behind it doesn't even seem like you should take-up the project again at all. But I don't know...something always draws me back to it.

Anyway...

"A Love Story" is not so much a "story" as it is a stream of consciousness piece from inside the head of a middle-aged mother of three under-going a mid-life personal, marital, emotional, and sexual crisis. The first part of the story reads as a bunch one-off observations and scenarios from her life. But gradually, the scenarios and observations get more complex until we get a much better and clearer sense…

Book Review: "The Ice Harvest" by Scott Phillips (2000)

I like to read and write noir/crime fiction, so years ago a buddy of mine recommended I watch the movie The Ice Harvest (2005) with John Cusak and Billy Bob Thornton. It was so long ago I can't even remember what I thought of the movie (which probably means it sucked). Anyway, I was in the used bookstore the other day and found a copy of the book so I figured what the heck.

This book is such amateurish garbage, I don't even understand how it got published in the first place. Frankly, it reads like some of my first attempts at fiction: the characters go from place to place having meaningless conversations and not really accomplishing anything, and then by the time something starts to "happen" the book is over. This book is divided into Parts I & II (evenly) and the entire Part I is unnecessary.

I'm not going to say it's not at least somewhat fun to read about characters getting drunk and going from bar to bar, acting like idiots on Christmas eve in suburb…

Book Review: "Mr. Mercedes" by Stephen King (2014)

I'm not the biggest Stephen King fan (not an SK hater either, mind you), but I heard him talking about this book on NPR one morning last fall, around the time of the TV mini-series debut, and decided to check it out. What I liked was the idea that the book is a crime story and has nothing to do with the supernatural, something I'm not a huge fan of in fiction.

In an age in which there seems to be some kind of mass killing every other week in the actual news, one can't help but be sort of mesmerized into buying a book -- by perhaps the world's greatest living genre fiction writer -- in which a man drives a Mercedes into a crowd of job-seekers at a job-fair and gets away with it, only to be hunted by a detective who comes out of retirement to chase him.

In typical Stephen King style, the book takes a wide-angle view on things. It's 500 pages where it probably could have been 200. There are, say eight characters where there probably could have been five, etc. But I s…

Saying Goodbye to The Wellington (from afar)

My favorite bar in Indianapolis -- and probably my favorite bar ever -- The Wellington, closed it's doors forever yesterday. I found out via a text message from my good friend Chris on Tuesday. I hoped I would have enough time to go back to Indy and have one last pint in The Wellington's cozy, wood-paneled interior, and commune one last time with the bar that was like a second home to my friends and I during grad school, but there was not enough time. As it is with certain people who leave us too soon: I never got to say goodbye.

It bothers me that I'll never know exactly when I had my last drink at The Wellington, but it was probably during the summer of 2016, my last summer in Indy. By then The Welly had become like an old reliable friend that you've stopped hanging out with regularly but whom you still go out of your way to visit. The days when I could show up at the bar and reliably find one or two of my friends there, or a familiar regular, or someone I knew behi…