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New Yorker Fiction Review #240: "The Resident Poet" by Katherine Dunn

Review of a short story from the May 11, 2020 issue of The New Yorker...

I love going into a story with absolutely zero context, especially when I have never heard of the author. I find it's much, much better to read a story without bringing anything to the table in terms of expectations or preconceived notions about what I'm about to read.

Apparently, "The Resident Poet" was written by the late Katherine Dunn (author of Geek Love, died in 2016) back in the early 1970s. From the context clues in the story -- the lack of cell phones , certain lingo, the way the characters dress -- I could definitely have guessed the story was set in the pre-80s. However, Katherine Dunn's prose is as fresh as if it were written today. 
If there is a way to make an elicit affair between a professor and a college student seem "un-sexy," then Katherine Dunn found it in "The Resident Poet." Which is convenient, because that was precisely the story's intention. 

New Yorker Fiction Review #239: "The Afterlife" by Jonathan Lethem

Review of a short story from the May 18, 2020 issue of The New Yorker...

It's a complete coincidence that the last short story I reviewed on this blog was also a story by Jonathan Lethem. There have been at least a dozen issues of The New Yorker since then. Apparently Letham has a new novel -- The Arrest -- coming out in November. Which might (or might not) explain the advance publicity.

Anyway, "The Afterlife" is a plotless but fun piece of imagination concerning one possible scenario of what the afterlife might look like, through the eyes of a famous sculptor who gets sent there a bit prematurely. As always, what Lethem brings to the table is a trip directly inside the main character's head -- even in the third person -- giving you thoughts and feelings to identify with, and bringing some of the same "everyday" sort of worries and concerns into something that is completely out of the realm of daily experience. It's a short, fun read, and that's th…

"If" by Rudyard Kipling

I'm not sure why, but this classic poem was on my mind today....


If
If you can keep your head when all about you Are losing theirs and blaming it on you, If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, But make allowance for their doubting too; If you can wait and not be tired by waiting, Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies, Or being hated, don’t give way to hating, And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master; If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim; If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster And treat those two impostors just the same; If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools, Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken, And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss, And lose, and start again at your beginnings And never breathe a word about your loss; If you can force your heart …

Book Review (Part II): 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

Sorry, but I have to come back to 1Q84 for  moment. I feel like a 1200 page novel deserves a better review than what I gave it in my last entry. It's just really difficult to get a handle on why I enjoyed this bizarre novel enough to stay with it for the hours and hours it took to finish it. I haven't even read War and Peace or The Count of Monte Cristo because the sheer volume (the sheer weight) of those books makes my spine shiver. And yet...I read a novel at least as long as those by a 21st century Japanese writer whose novels -- 10 years ago -- I could barely stand. Why?

First of all, it's something about "mood." From the very opening pages of the book, Murakami creates an eerie feel. He has a way of tapping into the weirdness of every day life, and staying with it, giving the reader just enough information to be intrigued, but not enough so you can see where the story is headed. The opening scene, for example, takes place on a heavily jammed Toyko highway o…

Book Review: 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami (2011)

I am allergic to reading novels longer than 500 pages. Yes. I said it. I'm a writer. And an avid reader since I was a kid. I may have read a few books longer than 500 pages in my life -- cover to cover -- but I honestly cannot tell you the last one. Which is why I take great pride in telling you that I just finished reading Haruki Murakami's 1Q84, which weighs in at precisely 1157 pages and is big enough you can use it as a booster seat for your kid. 
I am also a chronic abandoner of books in midstream. I have no patience for books -- specifically novels -- that don't keep my attention. Less than no patience. I in fact look for reasons to abandon a book that's anything less than compelling. Anything less than that feeling of "damn, I can't wait to read more of that book" and I need to move on. Life's too short. Do you watch TV shows that bore you? No. You change the channel (or pick a new one, whatever) and find something that does. Sure, reading Cri…

A Sad Day for Preppies Everywhere...

J. Crew has filed for bankruptcy. Of all the things to get cancelled, postponed, prohibited, or whatever, during the COVID-19 crisis, this has got to be one of the most painful. Seriously.
While I do not think of myself as a "preppy" per se, I have always loved preppy-ish clothes. They're classic, they never really go out of style (cause they're never really "in" style (unless you live in a John Hughes movie or on Martha's Vineyard)), furthermore...that's just the style I know best and what I will always default back to. 
Thus I was hit with a very un-welcome surprise this morning to learn the above news about J. Crew. Along with Banana Republic, L.L. Bean, and The Gap, J. Crew is undoubtedly one of my favorite clothing brands. Hell, I'm wearing a J. Crew shirt right now, and that's just a coincidence. One of the things I was most looking forward to post-COVID was going to J. Crew and buying some new shirts. I'll probably still be able …

Patagonia Torrentshell 3L

I don't often shill for products (actually, maybe I do) but this jacket is so good, I couldn't resist. If you're looking for a light-weight, rain-shell this is an absolute must-buy. It will set you back about $150 but it's well-worth it instead of buying a crappy one that cost half as much and having to replace it because it sucks. I've owned this jacket for about two months now and already had the chance to test it in heavy rain at least a half-dozen times (I live in Western Pa. and it's spring).

The best things about this jacket:


The 3-layer nylon is super water-proof, and thick enough so you don't get that "sticking to you" kind of feeling, even when things get super wet.It's thick enough to trap heat yet somehow doesn't trap moisture. In other words, you can wear it as an extra "warmth" layer without getting the above-mentioned, slimy "inside of the rain-coat" feelingCan be used as a wind-breakerWorn over a fleece, …

Training Yourself: What are you becoming?

The other morning I was out on a walk and I saw a woman coming out of her house with a little Husky puppy in her hands. She was carrying the puppy as though it had just started peeing and she wanted to make sure it didn't pee on her any more. I'm guessing she had caught the puppy in the act of peeing on her floor and, in order to train the dog, had carried him outside the instant he started peeing, so he would get the idea that he was supposed to start going outside.

I looked at the puppy dangling there in the woman's hands and I thought: "Today the puppy is 12 weeks old and having accidents on the floor. But in a couple weeks he'll know he's supposed to pee outside, on walks, and he'll be having fewer accidents. Then, before you know it, he'll be a full-grown dog, heading over to the door and scratching or whimpering whenever he has to be let out, even training his masters to pay attention to him."
It's all just a process. There he is, a pre…

Tour de France Postponed

I was very sad to learn yesterday that my beloved Tour de France has been postponed, with no make-up date set yet. Faithful readers of this blog (Luke) will know that over the past 3-4 years I've become a bit of a Tour de France fanatic. Ever since the summer of 2016 when I first got into it, watching the Tour de France has become a sort of summer ritual for me.

Starting in late June or early July and lasting three weeks, the Tour de France is a 21 stage bike race that covers about 3,500 km (2,200 miles (yeah, I just went Euro on you)) mostly inside France -- although the race does sometimes go through Spain, Belgium, and other bordering countries -- always ending up in Paris, beneath the Arc de Triomphe.

I do not follow bike racing throughout the year, other than a couple news updates here and there, and I barely know a thing about pro cycling, other than what I've learned by watching the TdF. But this postponement hits hard, maybe even worse than the postponement (cancellat…

Evan Williams Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey

I am a bourbon man. Give me the sweet, brown, fiery, distilled corn juice over the smoky Scotch or the smooth Irish whisky any day of the week. And the brand I love best is Evan Williams. You know Evan Williams. It's the one with the square bottle and the black label just like Jack Daniel's. Many people think of Evan Williams as inferior, bottom-shelf whiskey. Well, all I can say is: they are entitled to their stupid opinion. 
I've tried fancy bourbons. I have had Pappy Van Winkle a few times, done my rounds with Blantons, used to love Basil Hayden's for a while, even Bulleit and Buffalo Trace used to be frequent residents of my liquor cabinet. However, day to day, week in and week out, I always come back to Evan Williams. 
Bourbon is something I believe is best when it's unrefined, just like something else I love: Italian food. To me there is no use eating "fancy" or gourmet Italian food. It's best when it's simple and hearty, peasant food, like…

New Yorker Fiction Review #238: "Super Goat Man" by Jonathan Lethem

Review of a short story from the Dec. 30, 2019 Archival Issue of The New Yorker (reprinted from the April 5, 2004 issue)...

I kept this particular issue of The New Yorker around solely because of this story by the great Jonathan Lethem and I'm glad I did. The genius of this story is how Jonathan Lethem writes about an ex-hippie, half-man/half-goat who used to be a minor super hero but now teaches literature, almost as though goat people and aging, over-the-hill super heroes were part of every day life. In a story such as this, you can't help but expect an undertone of humor, but Lethem manages to keep it subtle and focus on the essential, driving narrative of the story: a young man looking back with mixed emotions on an enigmatic, mysterious -- as turns out, charismatic -- presence who haunted him over several epochs of his life.

Come to think of it, I don't even really know what this story is about. But it's funny, intelligent, and has an ex-hippie, half-man/half-goat…

The Orvis Clearwater fly rod (103-4)

This is the first time I've ever reviewed a fly-fishing rod on my blog. Because I just realized it's the first time I've ever actually had to buy a fly rod. My father bought me or passed down to me every fly rod I've ever owned. But as I've moved beyond his tutelage I've now had to supplement his very impressive rod collection -- and my own -- with an Orvis Clearwater 10 foot / 3 weight / 4 piece rod.

I bought this rod because I have been trying to get the hang of Euro-nymphing, and the consensus of everyone to whom I looked for advice seemed to be that this size of rod was best because it's long enough to get your leader and nymphs way out into the stream, and yet the light weight makes it sensitive enough to feel the fish biting. 
Overall:
A great rod for the money. I spent about $205.00 on this rod, including shipping. While Orvis may not be the best or most cutting edge supplier of fly-fishing gear, you can pretty much always rely on their products, they…

New Yorker Fiction Review #237: "Kid Positive" by Adam Levin

Review of a short story from the March 2, 2020 issue of The New Yorker...

I wouldn't call this a "story" so much as a pastiche, or collage; a bunch of independent but related, stand-alone pieces sewn together to accomplish an overall goal. In this case, the goal is to contrast the writer's own childhood -- in which he was at turns conniving, bullying, violent, and self-obsessed -- with what he perceives (now, as an adult) to be the state of modern childhood, in which, at least in his mind, children seem far more innocent and pure-hearted than he ever was.

I don't know if this piece "works" in the sense it was intended to work, as a broader statement on 80s childhood vs. modern day childhood. We all know that childhood looked pretty different in the 80s than it does today. Even given the way memory distorts things, there were certain basic differences: no computers or cell phones, and no bike helmets, for starters. The world was a lot less "connecte…

New Yorker Fiction Review #236: "With the Beatles" by Haruki Murakami

Review of a short story from the Feb. 17 & 24 issue of The New Yorker...

Sometimes I look back and marvel at the fact I was able to read and review every short story in The New Yorker for about five years. Sometimes it was a real chore, but I managed to do it. Then, somewhere in 2018 (or maybe 2017? A man loses track...), I missed a bunch of issues and gave myself "permission" to skip them and just start back up again with the current issue. Well, once you open the floodgates, things are never the same again. I will never have time to go back and read/review all the stories that I've missed, nor will I -- probably ever again -- make this project such a priority that I'll be caught up for anything more than a few weeks at a time.

What I do now is just grab my stack of New Yorkers and start flipping to the Table of Contents of each issue. When I see a story by an author I know -- or that looks remotely interesting -- I set it aside and (at least try to) review it a…

Book Review: "Wonder Boys" by Michael Chabon (1995)

Finally got around to reading Michael Chabon's second novel Wonder Boys. Much as I love Michael Chabon's writing, his ties to Pittsburgh, and my own personal connection to this book, I found it a bit of a slog. That said, Chabon, of course, has some priceless moments and turns of phrase that -- in the end -- made the book worth getting under my belt.

Brief Personal Note: They filmed the movie version of Wonder Boys (2000) on the campus of Carnegie Mellon University during the brief time I went to school there. In fact, I distinctly remember standing near the set for the "dog in the trunk" scene outside Margaret Morrison Hall, on a cold winter night, with two friends and a bottle of Bacardi limon, trying to catch a glimpse of Michael Douglas or Robert Downey Jr. or really anyone. We waited for like three hours for filming to begin before realizing what anyone in the film industry already knows: anything related to filming a big-budget movie takes a long, long, long ti…