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New Yorker Fiction Review #235: "Arizona" by John Edgar Wideman

Review of a short story from the Nov. 25, 2019 issue of The New Yorker...

This story is so multi-layered and complex that I did something I rarely do with short stories in The New Yorker: I read it twice. I'm a firm believer that if a story truly "works" on it's own, you should be able to feel it's full impact (whatever that is) on the first reading. Not that we shouldn't go back and re-read things, or even study them in-depth, but I feel like no writer should be so pretentious or disrespectful of their readers' time as to assume the reader will go back and re-read or study the work in order to find the "deeper" meaning or "get it." On the other hand, sometimes a story is packed with so much meaning and texture that it simply demands to be read again. Such is the case with "Arizona," by John Edgar Wideman.

This story is written in the form of a letter to Freddie Jackson (yes, Michael Jackson's brother) but is really "…

New Yorker Fiction Review #234: "Old Hope" by Clare Sestanovich

Review of a short story from the Dec. 9, 2019 issue of The New Yorker...
I'm always happy to see The New Yorker publishing fiction from young, relatively unknown authors. Clare Sestanovich has been published in The Atlantic and Electric Literature (and, it should be mentioned, is a member of The New Yorker's editorial staff (which makes me feel only slightly queasy)). I'm not sure if that qualifies her as "known" in the literary world, but safe to say, unlike for a lot of the literary titans published in The New Yorker, who've already earned their seat at the table, this publication has probably altered the course of her literary career. 
I'm not quite sure how I feel about this story, frankly. There's a lot going on in the pages of "Old Hope," namely, well... old hope. But also a very "familiar" seeming main character, stuck in an odd mid-20s funk (which some of us know about; others, maybe not). She doesn't know what she wan…

Reza Aslan at Carnegie Music Hall

He's like a stand-up comic who can actually teach you something...

Last night I saw Iranian-American scholar-writer Reza Aslan speak at Carnegie Music Hall, part of the Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures series (which I attend far, far too few of considering the schedule has been hung on my fridge for most of the past year). Despite the fact I've had a postage-stamp sized picture of Reza Aslan staring me in the face while I make my morning coffee everyday, I still did not plan to attend his talk. After all, the subject matter -- his new book entitled God: A Human History -- did not immediately interest me. After hearing the man speak and listening to him sort of summarize the ideas in the book, I think I owe his book at least a rental from the library, if not a much deeper investigation.

Essentially, Reza Aslan studies religion from an anthropological perspective. Specifically, in God: A Human History, he takes a look at the human compulsion and necessity to believe in something o…

New Yorker Fiction Review #233: "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" by Joyce Carol Oates

Review of a short story from the Oct. 14, 2019 issue of The New Yorker...

I think it's about time for me to start reading more stuff by Joyce Carol Oates. God knows there is no shortage of it. But other than her story "Mastiff" from way back in July of 2013, I don't think I've ever read anything else of hers. "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" is not life-changing by any means it's just a damn good short story and if you're going to spend your time reading, you might as well read the best. Joyce Carol Oates, if not the best, is definitely one of the giants of contemporary literature.

Why? If this latest short story is any indication, her prose is so clear and clean, her voice so direct, that she actually accomplishes that trick of making you feel like you're not reading. That's pretty powerful, and I don't come across that very often. Not only that, but she has a gift for creating very vivid characters who are alive with inner st…

Costa Rican Tarrazu, La Pastora - Shenandoah Joe roasters, Charlottesville, Va.

Picked up a pound of this last weekend in Charlottesville, Va. I love Costa Rican coffee. This one tastes a bit smokier and bolder than what I'm used to in the Costa Rican coffee department. But still a damned good cup. I've tried it in the moka pot, pour-over, and drip machine. Actually kind of prefer it from the drip machine.

I've started to stop at local coffee roasters whenever I travel now. This is something I haven't really latched onto until recently. Of course I have known about the local / specialty coffee movement, just like I've known about the craft beer craze, or a billion other "local" and artisanal food/drink obsessions out there. IDK why but lately this is something that interests me. Can a coffee bean taste differently if roasted in Charlottesville, Va. versus Pittsburgh, Pa? My guess is it's not the location but rather what kind of bean and how it was roasted, what method, etc.

But anyway, it's an excuse to drink some damn good …

First Taste of Brook Trout Fishing

Last weekend I fished the North Fork Moorman's River, near Charlottesville, Va. and caught a nice, feisty little brook trout. Throughout the day -- a long and not altogether warm day of fishing -- I got a number of bites, but only actually took into my hands and voluntarily released one fish. That has always been my measure of whether a fish has truly been "caught"; did you actually take the hook out of it's mouth, or did the fish spit it out before you landed it? The former is a catch. The latter is a miss. 
How does brook trout fishing differ from fishing for rainbow trout or brown trout? Well, the fundamentals are basically the same, except for the fact that brook trout almost always live in tiny, somewhat remote streams (or brooks...ha) and are usually native, or wild, meaning they are bred and born in the wild, as opposed to being bred in a hatchery and stocked into the stream by the fish and game commission. 
This makes brook trout fishing different in a coupl…

Having Your Sh*t Together

No, this is not going to be a post about the metaphorical meaning of "having your sh*t together," like we say about a person, he or she "has their sh*t together" as in... they have their life generally sorted out and functioning properly, they are in control, etc. I don't know whether I've ever had or ever will have my "metaphorical" sh*t together, and I don't really care. This post is about something far, far more interesting to me, that is, two of my favorite leisure-time pursuits: camping and fishing.

Camping and fishing each require a lot of equipment. For camping, you essentially need light, packable versions of everything you already have at home. That would be some sort of shelter (tent), a bed (sleeping bag, cot, etc.), some way to cook food (camp stove and fuel), some way to get water (water jugs, water purifier), eating utensils, food, somewhere to sit around the fire, appropriate clothing (a whole other story), etc. etc. For fishin…

New Yorker Fiction Review #232: "Wide Spot" by Thomas McGuane

Review of a short story from the Sept. 23, 2019 issue of The New Yorker...

Nothing overly complex or life-changing going on in this petite story from New Yorker regular Thomas McGuane; however, Thomas McGuane's worlds are almost always fun to inhabit for a few pages.

This story features an aging, small-time Montana politician canvasing his rural district, who bumps into one of his long-lost friends from his 20s, a guy he used to be in a band with. Throw in one or two Thomas McGuane-esque comic details about lame attempts to fight authority (a stuffed vulture placed symbolically in front of a savings & loan), a beautiful woman, and a macho brush with violence in the style of the disappearing Old West that McGuane is forever in love with, and you've got a story.

Thomas McGuane is, for me, one of those writers you don't think about a lot but whose writing I've actually managed to read a lot of over the years and who probably had as much of an affect on my early writin…

Coffee Review: Brandywine Coffee Roasters - Costa Rica, Las Lajas - Black Honey

This is what I'm talking about. A nice light-bodied, tart cup of Central American coffee. Just the way I like it. And with some pretty badass packaging, too.

Brandywine Coffee Roasters is based in Delaware which, as everyone knows, is the epicenter of the U.S. artisan coffee roasting scene. Bought this coffee a few weeks ago and tried it in all three (3) of the different brewing methods I have in my house: drip, pour-over, and Bialetti (moka) pot. As expected, with a coffee like this, the pour-over wins out. The drip machine is, in my opinion, more suitable for average and/or not so great-flavored coffee. The stove-top moka pots are good for dark-roast, finely-ground coffee that only has a short time to get hit by the boiling water. For a complex, lighter-roast coffee you really want to get the most out of...you gotta go pour-over.

The tartness is the main characteristic of this coffee. So tart it's almost kind of refreshing, like drinking lemon-water, but I like that. Light-…

Book Review: Black Leopard, Red Wolf (2019), by Marlon James

Upon reading the first 50 pages of the novel Catch-22, by Joseph Heller, a good friend of mine said: "Clearly a book this clever doesn't need me to read it." That somewhat accurately describes the way I feel about Black Leopard, Red Wolf. There may have been something very intellectual and advanced going on in this dark, violent, swirling, always difficult and at times excruciatingly confusing novel, but I don't think I "got" it. 
This book was a major slog. In fact, the only reason I read to the end of it was because I paid the full, brand-new hardcover price and had pre-ordered it from the bookstore back in like February or something. I remember trying to read it the day I got it and having some difficulty, then putting it down for about 8 months before giving it another try. If I'd rented it from the library I probably would not have felt the need to finish it. But when you've got $30 invested into a book, something compels you onward. 
As the f…

Book Review: If on a winter's night a traveler, by Italo Calvino (1979)

I read this fairly short novel in a single day, but that does not mean it's an easy read. Far from it. This classic work of post-modernist fiction will challenge your abilities as a reader, alternating between being playful and fun at times, to a downright chore. Having said that, I'd probably go back and read it again simply because Italo Calvino has dropped into this book enough profoundly deep observations on the nature of time, story-telling, and the act of reading (to say nothing about life in general) that it would be worth going back to see if there was anything I missed. Also, the book is compact enough that it would not take a Talumdic scholar or a lifetime to go back and do it.

Using a structure I've never before encountered in any book I've ever read, If on a winter's night a traveler consists of 12 "numbered" chapters that tell the story of two people (one of them is the second person, "you") who have bought the book If on a winter&…

New Yorker Fiction Review #231: "To Do" by Kate Walbert

Review of a short story from the Sept. 2, 2019 issue...

There's a lot to like in this story. A lot of stuff "going on," we might say. I'm not exactly sure what it all adds up to, what point the author is trying to make, necessarily, but it was an entertaining read.

In this relatively short story you've got a teenage tennis phenom, a drunken, irresponsible mother, a woman who sleeps with her locksmith after calling him to unlock her door, not one but two instances of a woman balancing spoons on her nipples, and a woman's spoken word night in which the main character -- Constance -- reads one of her mother's to-do lists. Constance's mother apparently kept all her to-do lists over the years, and Constance likes to go through them and look for clues to her mother's psyche, or just to feel closer to her.

Much of the action of the short story takes place in the main character's memories of her mother, when she was middle-aged and drunk much of the t…

Book Review: Difficult Loves (1970), by Italo Calvino

Other than a couple short stories in The New Yorker, I had never read anything by Italo Calvino before reading this book of short stories, Difficult Loves. I knew Calvino only as one of the giants of Italian literature and the author of beautifully written short stories that really did not have a point. I won't say that my opinion of him has changed that much after reading this short story collection; however, I devoured this collection and at least now have an understanding and respect for Calvino as a post-modernist writer and a writer of damned entertaining stories that sometimes have a point and sometimes don't.

If you're unfamiliar with Calvino's work, I would highly recommend this book as an entry point. The stories are very accessible, often beautiful and poetic, sometimes violent, often laugh-out-loud funny, and always insightful, even if it's in a way you can't precisely put your finger on.

While it's impossible to summarize the plot of a short st…

Book Review: Beneath a Scarlet Sky (2017), by Mark Sullivan

You will like this book if a.) you like thrillers and/or historical fiction, b.) you are interested in World War II, c.) you are interested in World War II as it played-out in Italy. If at least two out of three of those do not apply to you, you might as well not even bother reading Beneath a Scarlet Sky. Fortunately, I fall into all three categories.

Beneath a Scarlet Sky is the compelling (and mostly true) story of Pino Lella, a teenager growing up in WWII-ravaged Milan. When he is sent out of the war-torn city to a rural summer camp on the Italian-Swiss border, run by priests, he begins ferrying Jewish refugees across the border into Switzerland. But that's just where the adventures begin for Pino, who ends up (among other things) working as a spy for the Italian resistance, falling in love, and even (***SPOILER ALERT***) coming face-to-face with Benito Mussolini. 
Action-packed, and expertly-paced, this book accomplishes what a great thriller (indeed, any great story) should:…

Just Another Day?

I was sitting in the coffee shop this morning, when I overheard a customer at the register. The barista asked him: "How's your day going?" and he said: "You know, it's just another day."

This struck me for some reason.

Part of me can understand what he meant. As in... "there is nothing particularly odd or different about this day, I have the same stuff to do, nothing in my life has changed, I feel no better or worse about my life than yesterday," etc. Sure. We can all understand this attitude. However...

...saying it's "just another day" could not be further from the truth. Today is September 5th, 2019 A.D. A date that will never, ever come again. Furthermore, in the ever advancing train of seconds, days, weeks, months, years that is your life, today is most certainly a day that will never be repeated. It might look like a lot of other days you've had, but it is not. It's a once in a lifetime (literally) chance to do somethi…

Book Review: Where the Crawdads Sing (2018), by Delia Owens

This is probably not a book I would've gotten hip to on my own, for whatever reason; however, a friend recommended it earlier this summer. I've since found out it's sort of the "it" book of the summer, the beach read everyone is talking about or has at least heard about. And by everyone, I mean women I know who read fiction. I have yet to meet a male who has read this book or intends to read it. But that has nothing to do with the words on the page, and I digress...

Where the Crawdads Sing takes place on the coast of rural North Carolina and spans about 15 years from the mid-50s to 1970, mostly centering on the life of main character Kya Clark, aka "The Marsh Girl." Starting from when her mother leaves the family, in her early childhood, Kya's family one-by-one abandons her until she's left alone, at age 10, to raise herself in the family's shack by an isolated and remote section of marsh. Through the years, Kya has interactions with locals …

New Yorker Fiction Review #230: "Motherless Child" by Elizabeth Strout

Review of a short story from the Aug. 5 & 12, 2019 issue of The New Yorker...
It's interesting to read a short story -- with zero context going in -- and then find out the author is an enormous success and the story's main character has an entire HBO Mini-series based on her. Apparently, Elizabeth Strout is the author of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize winning novel Olive Kitteridge, and many subsequent books afterward featuring the novel's eponymous main character. The latest of which is Olive, Again, a collection of stories to be released this fall and featuring (you guessed it) the story "Motherless Child."  I get a little pissy when authors of this gargantuan level are featured in The New Yorker with fairly mundane short stories which are only meant (clearly meant) to act as advance PR for their forthcoming bizillionth book. I get it. This is the way the publishing industry and the media game work. But I don't have to necessarily like it. I would prefer The …

Album Review: Haiku From Zero (2017), by Cut Copy

So this is going to be more of a recommendation than a review, but whatever. Listen to this album. In fact, if you have any taste for synth-pop or electro-pop at all, you should definitely get into Cut Copy.

This Australia-based band has been putting out albums for about 10 years now. I caught onto them in 2011-ish, saw them live twice, even interviewed the band's creator - Dan Whitford - for NUVO Magazine back in Indy during the time when they were on their Zonoscope tour. Zonoscope is another awesome album which you'll get to if you discover you have any affinity for Cut Copy.

Anyway, I lost track of Cut Copy after their 2013 album Free Your Mind, mostly because they didn't have much output after that other than a couple remix tapes and compilations. Recently, however, I was searching around for new music on Spotify and I decided to see what they'd been up to. That's when I found Haiku From Zero, and I will forever be grateful to Cut Copy for delivering this alb…

New Yorker Fiction Review #229: "Back Pack" by Tony Earley

Review of a short story from the Nov. 5, 2018 issue of The New Yorker...

Really digging through some back issues now, trying to (mostly) get caught up on the short stories I missed over the winter. But my life has improved immeasurably since I gave up on ever again being fully caught up, which waved bye-bye back in the fall of 2017. Oh well. The point was always to read great short stories and chop them up not stay maniacally obsessed with reviewing every single story in The New Yorker. If I sound like I'm excusing myself...I am. But I digress.

I've never heard of Tony Earley before but I tell you one thing: He can construct a damned interesting story about a middle-aged man who decides to abandon the otherwise logical and successful course of his life -- becoming stagnant and boring for reasons we don't really hear a ton about -- and take a trip to Lake Superior in order to kill himself. Why does he need to travel all the way up to Lake Superior in order to kill himself? …

New Yorker Fiction Review #228: "The Presentation on Egypt" by Camille Bordas

Review of a short story from the May 20, 2019 issue of The New Yorker...

One of the best short stories I've read in The New Yorker for a while, mostly because I haven't been reading many short stories in The New Yorker lately. But also because it's a great, well-structured story. Incidentally, it has almost nothing to do with Egypt.

The story functions as sort of a mini, domestic epic spanning about 25 years in the lives of Anna and Danielle, a mother and daughter whose husband and father, respectively, commits suicide when Danielle is about nine or 10.  Anna never actually reveals to her daughter that Paul committed suicide, instead telling their daughter that he had a heart condition. Thus, Danielle grows up with an excess of concern about her heart's heath, among other mild dysfunctions like those we all accrue given enough time (which is to say, almost any amount of time as a human being).

I always appreciate stories that capture big chunks of time in people's …

The Summer of the Woolly Bugger

Got out fly-fishing this past weekend for the third or fourth time this Spring. Can't believe it's already almost Memorial Day and I've only been out four times at most. But time moves fast and fishing days are few.
Went up to Little Mahoning Creek with a friend of mine to fish for trout on a fly (the only way I fish for them). The section we went to was up near Punxatawney, Pennsylvania. where they do the whole ground-hog day thing, yes.
The Little Mahoning is a fairly small creek meaning almost nowhere is it wider than about 10 yards or so and you can wade right across it without much difficulty almost anywhere. Furthermore, it's characterized by what fly-fisherman call "pocket water," that is, much of the stream is shallow enough to be un-fishable -- just because the fish don't have enough room to "hold" in it or it's just too exposed for a trout to be hanging out -- and you have to hunt for the pockets or holes with water deep enough an…

Ella Vos at Brooklyn Steel

Saw Ella Vos the other night at a cool indie venue in Brooklyn called Brooklyn Steel. I had zero idea who Ella Vos was until a few days before that when I literally googled "Live music NYC," listened to a couple of her songs on YouTube, and figured I would be safe committing to spend an evening (only about a half hour, as it turned out) listening to her music. I've spent enough time reviewing music in my life that I can sniff out a promising indie artist pretty quickly.

Usually I don't go for the soulful singer-songwriter kind of stuff. You know..."one dude and his guitar" that kind of thing. But Ella Vos is more hip-hop influenced and electronic than that. And she rocked pretty hard, so...thumbs up. I'll be checking out her album.

New Yorker Fiction Review #227: "Acceptance Journey" by Mary Gaitskill

Review of a short story from the Dec. 24 & 31, 2018 issue of The New Yorker...

As I read more and more short stories, I start to notice them falling into categories or types. What type of story is "Acceptance Journey"? This short story is definitely a "Middle-aged Person Going Through a Difficult Time and Looking For Redemption in a Kooky Way" story.

That said, I have to say I liked the world Mary Gaitskill created here and I think she did a lot in a relatively short amount of space. She takes good care to create and decorate the main character's world with an interesting back story and interesting players. It's just that, frankly, the story didn't have much of an effect on me.


New Yorker Fiction Review #226: "Time for the Eyes to Adjust" by Linn Ullmann

Review of a short story from the Dec. 17, 2018 issue of The New Yorker...

I'm glad that I did not know Linn Ullmann is the daughter of Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman before I read this story. In fact, I probably wouldn't have even been able to pinpoint exactly who Ingmar Bergman was before I looked up Linn Ullmann's bio just a few moments ago. So it likely wouldn't have mattered anyway...

...except it would have meant that her story "Time for the Eyes to Adjust" is less a work of fiction and more a work of creative non-fiction. To me this fact lessens the achievement of this story, but not by much.

What we have here (translated from Norwegian) is an intricate, careful, and finely-tuned piece of memoir-ish fiction from what would appear to be a master writer, or else a master translator. Shout out to Thilo Reinhard (I'm lately of a mind that translators deserve more credit than they get).

Minus the father who is a famous film director (in the actual

New Yorker Fiction Review #225: "Chaunt" by Joy Williams

Review of a short story from the Dec. 10, 2018 issue of The New Yorker...

It's been long enough since I've read a Joy Williams story that I've long-since forgotten how boring I found her writing. And then "Chaunt" comes along and totally disorients me and makes me look at her writing differently.

"Chaunt" is a spectral, anxious, and eerie piece of fiction, so laden with submerged context that it could just as well be part of a 300 page novel. In this story, Joy Williams inhabits the fragile, wounded mind of a woman living in an old-folks home in the desert long before she should be living in an old-folks home, in an effort to escape from a tragedy that took her young son's life.

The story is set in the desert, but even so the environment in "Chaunt" is one of a dying, poisoned and barren dessert.

"Night was best, for, as everyone knows but does not tell, the sobbing of the earth is most audible at night. You can hear it clearly then, b…

New Yorker Fiction Review #224: "Dandelion" by Lore Segal

Review of a short story from the Mar. 25, 2019 issue of The New Yorker...

In this rather short story, Lore Segal takes "meta-fiction" to a level I've personally never encountered before, taking a story she herself wrote in her 20s (she is now 91 years old) and sort of re-visiting and re-writing it in order to smooth out what she perceives as over-wrought turns of phrase and inaccurate metaphors.

In the very first line of the story she excuses herself for this by telling us that Henry James rewrote some of his early work when he himself became old. Does one need an excuse or a reason to write a story in a particular way? In my opinion, the answer is No. And the immediate breaking of the literary "fourth wall" here -- both letting us know that this was going to be a story within a story and also letting us know she had "permission" to do this because Henry James did it -- served as an unnecessary prologue to what was actually a pleasant little amuse bou…

New Yorker Fiction Review #223: "What Can You Do with a General" by Emma Cline

Review of a short story from the Feb. 4, 2019 issue of The New Yorker...

A while back I came up with my own pet name for short stories like "What Can You Do with a General," that is, stories about the "problems" of middle-class urban or suburban white people that aren't really problems to 99% of the world. Sometimes these stories are also about their disillusionment, something which -- although it is very real to the person experiencing it -- is even less of an actual problem. I call these stories "Metro Fiction."

I cast my aspersions on this kind of fiction with more than a slight hint of irony and, deep-down, a bit of affection. After all, I myself am a middle-class white person living in an urban area. Therefore these stories are my stories, those of "my" people. Furthermore, I do not think these stories deserve to be told any less than the stories of, say, black Americans living in urban environments, or rural Thai farmers, or Middle Eas…

New Yorker Fiction Review #222: "Asleep at the Wheel" by T. Coraghessan Boyle

Review of a short story from the Feb. 11, 2019 issue of The New Yorker...

I usually love stories by T.C. (oops, I mean T. Coraghessan) Boyle, but this one took a long time to get into and felt a bit under-wrought. I've noticed that one of the "veins" Boyle likes to write in (and all I've ever read are his short stories in The New Yorker) is the plotting of the future course of societal dysfunction, given just a few more decades of technology. It's like limited-range "spec" fiction.

For example, in "Asleep at the Wheel," Boyle projects maybe 20 years out into a future in which almost all cars are self-driving and connected to our cell phones, home appliances, credit cards, etc. The operating systems in the cars can even tell us whether our kids are at home, what they're doing at any precise moment, and how we should be raising them. Robots scoot around here and there checking on people by asking "What is the situation here?" and r…

New Yorker Fiction Review #221: "All Will Be Well" by Yiyun Li

Review of a short story from the March 11, 2019 issue of The New Yorker...

One of the cool things about reviewing these short stories week-in and week-out is you get exposed to certain authors over and over again and you get a chance to become familiar with a certain (even if small) patch of their work. But that's only if you like the writer's work. If not, then reading the stories becomes a chore.

I haven't been particularly thrilled to see Yiyun Li's name pop up on the table of contents of The New Yorker. Her work always seems a little too ethereal and too caught up in the emotional realm, the infinite spaces between people's ill-defined and unexpressed desires, fears, expectations, etc. I prefer objects, dialogue, observation, humor, conflict, tension. But the short story "All Will Be Well" has a different and much more tangible or physical quality to it than a lot of Yiyun Li's other work that I've read, therefore I actually enjoyed her writin…

New Yorker Fiction Review #220: "The Starlet Apartments" by Jonathan Lethem

Review of a short story from the March 4, 2019 issue of The New Yorker...

Ever since I "released" myself from the burden of having to review every single short story in The New Yorker, my writing life has been much more expansive and relaxed. Now, I just review the short stories from the issues as they come in and as I have time. I find it's much more timely that way and, also, the project has some "meaning" to me again. It is no longer a self-imposed weight dragging me down. On to this highly-layered offering by Jonathan Lethem...

[Please refer to my other reviews of Jonathan Lethem stories for more detailed gushing about what an awesome writer JL is and how I actually met him once during grad school]

One measure of a piece of fiction, in my opinion, is how many levels the story "operates" on. By that measure, "The Starlet Apartments" is a pretty amazing piece of short fiction. There are other ways in which it could be said this story falls…