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New Yorker Fiction Review #265: "Dietrologia" by Paul Theroux

Review of the short story from the Dec. 7, 2020 issue of The New Yorker... Paul Theroux -- American travel writer and novelist, author of The Mosquito Coast , among many other works -- used to write about traveling, adventuring, and romancing in far-flung locations. Now he's writing about kindly old men sitting on their porches, telling stories to the neighborhood children. Time catches up with us all.  In "Dietrologia," an old Italian man living in Hawaii, Sal Frezzolini, sits and talks to a group of local kids who live in his neighborhood, discussing with them various episodes from his life that he struggles to understand. The kids don't really, fully understand either, but for a different reason: they're kids. They mostly marvel at how old Sal is and await the chance to get cookies from his cookie jar. Meanwhile, Sal is at conflict with his wife about the fact they must soon relocate into a smaller home, more suitable to people in their waning years.  Not exact

New Yorker Fiction Review #264: "The Winged Thing" by Patricia Lockwood

Review of the short story from the Nov. 30, 2020 issue of The New Yorker... I feel like like I ought to be familiar with Patricia Lockwood, but I'm not. After about 30 seconds of Wikipedia research (literally performed between writing that last sentence and this one) I see that she's under 40, from Indiana (my second home, so extra points there), and has at least five books under her belt.  From the 30 minutes I spent reading her short story "The Winged Thing," I get a bit of a Lorrie Moore feel: funny, snarky, jaded, but in the end tender-hearted and ultimately hopeful. I'm sure that revisionist description of Lorrie Moore's oeuvre would manage to make a true Lorrie Moore fan want to puke. But, I'm doing my best. My point is, "The Winged Thing" is the story of a real human crisis shot-through with dark humor and some not-inconsiderable snark, but behind (almost) every jaded snarkster is, in my opinion, someone who has been hurt or had their own

New Yorker Fiction Review #263: "The Old Man in the Piazza" by Salman Rushdie

Review of the short story from the Nov. 23, 2020 issue of The New Yorker... My experience with the fiction of Salman Rushdie includes all of (now) two short stories in The New Yorker , the other one from way back in 2015 called "The Duniazat," which I loved little more than I loved "The Old Man in the Piazza." That said, this current effort met with my approval, which I am sure Salman Rushdie is relieved to hear. Salman Rushdie seems to write in "fables" which -- unlike Aesop's fables (the only other fables I really know about (are there any others?)) -- are not readily translated into some easy, spoon-feedable meaning like "careful what you wish for!" or whatever. No, Salman Rushdie's fables are much more nuanced and encompass a much broader sweep of humanity. Furthermore, thankfully, they do not seem to put a value judgement or some kind of prescription on human behavior. Rather, like "The Old Man in the Piazza," they come fro

Two Great Show-Biz Autobiographies: "They Call Me Supermensch" and "When I Stop Talking You'll Know I'm Dead"

Over the past month I've listened to two autobiographies by two famous talent agents: Jerry Weintraub and Shep Gordon. These two books have a lot in common and these two men have a lot in common. They are both Jewish, they are both from New York, they both had careers that crossed-over many genres of show-business but mostly music and film. Furthermore, both books were read by the authors themselves, which is always a real treat. I don't know what either of these guys are (or were , in the case of Jerry Weintraub...R.I.P.) actually like as individuals, but after listening to these two books I feel like I'm best friends with both of them and I didn't want either book to end.  They Call Me Supermensch (2016) - This book is a follow-on to the 2013 documentary Supermensch directed by Mike Meyers of SNL and Austin Powers fame. The documentary is spectacular and if you haven't seen it, I highly, highly recommend it. It's so good, you wonder why exactly there needed

New Yorker Fiction Review #262: "Hansa and Gretyl and Piece of Shit" by Rebecca Curtis

Review of the short story from the Nov.16, 2020 issue of The New Yorker...  Unless I'm forgetting something, or my eyes deceive me (both equally possible, let's face it), it's been about six years since I've read anything by Rebecca Curtis. Her story "The Pink House" still sticks in my head after all these years, even though I had forgotten -- until today -- who wrote it.  Rebecca Curtis is one of the most darkly funny contemporary writers, and while "Hansa and Gretyl and Piece of Shit" is not her best work, to me it was an impossibly intriguing read. It made me a bit uncomfortable, in a way, as art -- good art -- often does, and was shot through with a thread of tension strong enough to pull you through any boring parts, of which there weren't many.  I'm not a big fan of the "fairy-tale retold" genre. In fact, I pretty-much hate the "fairy-tale retold" genre. However, "Hansa and Gretyl and Piece of Shit," thankf

Breckenridge Brewery

The other night, I needed to grab a couple six packs of decent beer, and I didn't have much time. I was in a beer store I didn't know well, and so the task was daunting. Somehow, I made a really good choice, grabbing two sixers of beer from Colorado-based Breckenridge Brewery: their Christmas Ale and their Oatmeal Stout.  Christmas Ale -- At 7.1% alcohol this malty, full-bodied ale with just a hint of Christmas spices will warm you up, and fast. I want to say it tastes "thick" but that's not a great descriptor. Let's just say, it tastes "hearty," what you want a Christmas Ale to taste like.  Oatmeal Stout -- A smoky, dry oatmeal stout registering at a solid but not overly powerful 5% ABV. Really, the chief thing about this beer is the smoked flavor. It's almost -- in a weird way -- like drinking liquid bacon. But it actually works.  Being my first exposure to Breckenridge, I have no idea what their other beers taste like, but I'll definitel

New Yorker Fiction Review #261: "Ghoul" by George Saunders

Review of the short story from the Nov. 2, 2020 issue of The New Yorker... The fiction of George Saunders is like Forrest Gump's box of chocolates. You truly never know what you're going to get. You do know, however, that it's going to be bizarre, dark, funny, and damn good, and make you scratch your head in the process. His short story "Ghoul" took me a while to get into and to figure out what he was doing, but in the end, the payoff is worth it.  Essentially, George Saunders has created a world -- presumably some version of Hell -- in which humanoid "ghouls" scrabble around in an underground world a bit like "the upside down" in Stranger Things. Except, in this world, there is a strict code of laws and expectations -- if not exactly "morals" -- which the inhabitants are expected to follow. Expected by exactly who is not certain, and the inhabitants themselves are not even certain. And so, they go around snitching on each other and r

New Yorker Fiction Review #260: "A for Alone" by Curtis Sittenfeld

  Review of the short story from the Nov. 2, 2020 issue of The New Yorker... It's been a few weeks now since I read "A for Alone" so this review will be less nuanced than I would like; however, let me start by saying this is a damn good short story. Well-constructed, loaded with tension, and it actually delivers the goods. Furthermore, it delivers the goods without being moralistic or trying to shove any kind of "meaning" down your throat. It's complex enough that it leaves you with questions to ponder afterward. In "A for Alone," the main character -- Irene -- undertakes a quest to probe deeper into the level of knowledge and acceptance of the Modesto Manifesto, something of which I'd not been aware before I read this short story. Apparently the Modesto Manifesto it is a set of standards for religious leaders, developed by Billy Graham (it is nicknamed the "Billy Graham" rule and sometimes the "Mike Pence" rule, as well), w

Saying Goodbye to Diego Maradona

"He was overwhelmed by the weight of his own personality. Ever since that day when fans first chanted his name, his spinal column caused him grief. Maradona carried a burden named Maradona that bent his back out of shape. The body as a metaphor: his legs ached, he couldn't sleep without pills. It did not take him long to realize it was impossible to live with responsibility of being a god on the field, but from the begining he knew that stopping was out of the question. 'I need them to need me,' he confessed after many years of living under the tyrannical halo of superhuman performance, swollen with cortisone and analgesics and praise, harassed by the demands of his devotees and by the hatred of those he offended....The pleasure of demolishing idols is directly proportional to the need to erect them." -from Soccer in Sun and Shadow , by Eduardo Galeano Given my affinity for soccer, and Argentina, and the man himself...I would be remiss if I did not take a moment

New Yorker Fiction Review #259: "Nettle" by Joy Williams

Review of the short story from the Oct. 26, 2020 issue of The New Yorker... American fiction writer Joy Williams is an author whose writing has wormed its way into my favor slowly, over the course of the past seven years, much like one of her often-inscrutable stories bores its way from the realm of the apparent and literal, into the realm of the unconscious, and then back (if you're lucky). Her short story "Chaunt" from the Dec. 10, 2018 issue was eerie and unsettling on a much more surface way than this current effort, "Nettle," but still there is that underlying vibration of the super-natural, of a narrative being pieced together on some level beyond the normal, waking, 3-D world. "Nettle" feels a bit like the film Inception , and makes the reader ask the same kinds of questions: "What is real? Is this a dream? Is this a dream within a dream?" It plays with reality in way that, frankly, is not even apparent at the end.  The story, if we ar

Sno-Seal: The sacred ritual of winterizing your leather boots

Why is winterizing your leather boots a sacred ritual? Because it must be done properly, regularly, and the proper treatment to use on your leather boots and shoes is called Sno-Seal. Full stop.  Every winter I apply a good coat (actually about five coats) of Sno-Seal to my L.L. Bean boots and any other leather boots or shoes I'll be wearing in the wet conditions that are to ensue for the next 4-5 months. I even Sno-Seal certain pairs of my boat shoes, as long as the finish of the leather will absorb it. To give you an idea how well Sno-Seal works... recently I had to wade in my Bean boots (fully submerged in water, for a long time) and because I had properly sealed the leather, the submersion in water had almost no affect on the leather.  The recommended (actually, the only ) method to apply Sno-Seal is the "oven" method...as follows: 1.) Make sure the boots are clean and dry. There must be no dirt, films, or other polishes on the boots and they must be completely dry i

New Yorker Fiction Review #258: "Life Without Children" by Roddy Doyle

  Review of the short story from the Oct. 19, 2020 issue of The New Yorker... This short story is just a fun, light snack from Roddy Doyle, an author whose long-form fiction I've never read but whose short fiction I've come to enjoy over the past five or six years I've been doing this. Roddy Doyle writes, mostly, about the domestic life -- families, parents, children, dogs, etc -- and the tensions wrought by people who live together and love each other, over many many years. He usually does so in a fairly light-hearted way (I have never read a Roddy Doyle tragedy story, I don't think), and thus his stuff is fun and easy to read. In other words, he's just a good writer who has found his material.  The actual meat of this story is one night in the life of "Alan" a man entering late-middle age, who goes out one night on a work trip, during the early days of COVID, and fantasizes a life in which he is not the father of a few 20-something kids, does not have a

New Yorker Fiction Review #257: "Suffocation Theory" by David Rabe

  Review of the short story from the Oct. 12, 2020 issue of The New Yorker... The level of modern-day anxiety, environmental panic, looming violence, and social dis-ease in this story, and the immediacy of the writing, made me think this was the product of a 20-something writer imagining a world she was going to have to inhabit in the very near future. This did not strike me as the work of a writer nearly 80 years old (which it is) drawing a nightmarish picture of a world he will very likely not have to inhabit, as it seems about 20 years away or so (we hope), assuming it ever gets this bad and it may already be for some people. The reality depicted in "Suffocation Theory" is not hard to imagine, just turn up the volume on some of the problems we have today -- fast-moving environmental degradation, a reckless, egomaniacal president, climate-induced migration, gun violence, economic disruption -- from level three to about level eight (hopefully not to 11...). Does this kind of

Big Turnpike

Some people rail against Big Tobacco. Some people hate Big Pharma, or even Big Soda. I have a cousin whose enemy is Big Umbrella. So, I say this with a slight amount of humor (as with most of my writing) but in this case an extra amount of seriousness... My enemy is Big Turnpike. The Pennsylvania Turnpike, specifically -- in conjunction with EZ Pass -- is a racket set up to get their hands on your bank account and essentially put a monitoring device in your car. This all might sound a bit alarmist, but I don't care. This isn't necessarily the hill I want to die on, but I plan to fight as long as I can.  What's my problem? Basically, Big Turnpike -- at least in PA -- is using financially coercive and unfair tactics to force people to use EZ Pass.  The facts: COVID caused Pennsylvania to eliminate all in-person toll collectors 18 months before they were going to do it anyway; all toll collection is now done by EZ Pass or "toll-by-plate" in which they send you a bill

New Yorker Fiction Review #256: "Rainbows," by Joseph O'Neill

Review of the short story from the Oct. 5, 2020 issue of The New Yorker... This is the third short story I've read and reviewed from Joseph O'Neill in the pages of The New Yorker since I started this project back in 2013. His short story "The Referees" from the Sept. 1, 2014 issue and his "Pardon Edward Snowden" from the Dec. 12, 2016 issue both failed to impress me and even seem to have been so bad they pissed me off.  Not so with "Rainbows," a short story about an Irish immigrant to the U.S. (modern day) who lives in Manhattan. What is this story "about"? It's hard to say, specifically. On one level, it is about a young woman who comes to the U.S. who takes to a (purely platonic) liking to one of her hip college professors, also a woman, who advises her to just "get over" an incident that sounds like a sexual assault, and then years later has to go through a somewhat similar experience with her own daughter.  One could als

New Yorker Fiction Review #255: "Face Time" by Lorrie Moore

Review of the short story from the Sept. 28, 2020 issue of The New Yorker... For as familiar as the name Lorrie Moore is to me, and as many short stories as she's had published -- and published in The New Yorker -- I've never reviewed her on this blog and I had trouble calling to mind a single piece of fiction she's written. My point is to say that, although Lorrie Moore's name is definitely out there in the ether of the literature world (I'm sure I read some of her stuff in grad school), I'm not a particularly big enthusiast of her work. I don't think it's unfair to put her in the same category as Alice Munro, they are both writers of realist fiction that attempts to deal with the actual, micro-level tragedies of regular lives -- the death of a loved one, divorce, sickness, abandonment, aging -- on a mostly light-hearted and even, at times, sardonic level. When I say "realist" it's because most of the characters, settings, and situations,

New Yorker Fiction Review #254: "Switzerland" by Nicole Krauss

Review of the short story from the Sept. 21, 2020 issue of The New Yorker... If there's one thing I've learned over the past six years of reading and reviewing the short fiction in The New Yorker , it's that the modern literary scene can produce new writers and new books far faster than I'll ever be able to keep up with them. Hell, most of the time I can't even read and review a short story a week let alone get my arms around every literary heavy hitter out there writing books in the English language. The best I can do is, well, what I do: just read whatever comes across my transom and be open to recommendations and hope that covers it.  What I'm saying, more specifically, is that I'd never heard of Nicole Krauss before reading this dark tale of adolescence and sexual awakening. How? I'm not really sure. She's written four books. Her list of short story publications is basically a list of the most prominent literary magazines in the country. And she

Should You Fish With a Guide?

  The answer is most definitely, Yes (if you can afford it). Two Saturdays ago my sister was visiting from town and wanted to go trout fishing. At her suggestion, we hired guides from TCO Fly Shop in State College, Pa. for a morning of fishing on a nearby creek. I was against the idea, at first. Guides usually do not come cheap and also, armed with the internet and my own personal stubbornness, I usually just strike out on my own and do okay...or kill an entire day flogging the water and not catching anything. To me it's all part of the experience of being a fly-fisherman. However, my sister did not have much time and wanted: a.) to learn something, and b.) to actually catch some fish. In such a case, it is almost always preferable to get a guide if you can.  As it turned out, we were -- quite appropriately -- fishing on International Women's Fly Fishing Day, though none of us knew it at the time. My sister learned a lot and hooked a few fish. I caught the lunker pictured abov

New Yorker Fiction Review #253: "The Englishman" by Douglas Stuart

Review of a short s tory from the Sept. 14, 2020 issue of The New Yorker... This is Douglas Stuart's second story in The New Yorker this year -- second of all time, I think -- following on his story called "Found Wanting" from the Jan. 13, 2020 issue. Since that story was published pre-COVID and before I went through my renewed New Yorker obsession and finally got caught up again on reviewing the stories as they come out each week, I did not read "Found Wanting."  However, based on some literary triangulation -- i.e. reading this current effort,"The Englishman,"and a quick reading of a couple of Douglas Stuart's interviews -- one can get a pretty decent idea what Douglas Stuart is all about and what material he's working with. Essentially, it seems he is exploring what it means (or what it meant) to grow up gay in rural Scotland in the 80s and 90s. Throw in some poverty, family dysfunction, and drug abuse, and you've got his 2020 novel S

New Yorker Fiction Review #252: "Flashlight," by Susan Choi

Review of a short story from the Sept. 7, 2020 issue of The New Yorker...  I'm not familiar with the work of American novelist Susan Choi, but I feel like I should be. Her name sounds familiar, her writing style seems familiar, and her face even seems familiar. It appears, however, as though I've never reviewed any of her fiction on this blog (this may be her first short story ever to appear in The New Yorker ) and a quick glance at her list of published books reveals I've not read any of them. Oh well...  What we have here is an emotionally gripping story that starts slow but -- much like the undertow which (***spoiler alert***) takes the life of the main character's father -- eventually sucks you in. The story is told in close third person, through the perspective of Louisa, a 10-year old girl whose father has been killed in an accident. Not only was the father killed in an accident, but Louisa was there when it happened and must cope with the aftermath.  In that afte

New Yorker Fiction Review #251: "The Sand Banks, 1861," by David Wright Falade

  Review of a short story from the Aug. 31, 2020 issue of The New Yorker... David Wright -- who sometimes writes as David Wright Falade (there should be an accent aigu on the "e" of his last name but I can't figure out how to do that on this keyboard) -- is an American writer who has written a couple of non-fiction books, one of them about the first all-black rescue vessel in the Outer Banks of North Carolina in 1871. The book, called Fire on the Beach (2002), as well as a documentary and some TV journalism work related to the same subject, have earned apparently earned him enough literary street cred that he's now plugging his novel in The New Yorker , via short stories like this. According to the customary "This Week in Fiction" interview, with the author of that week's published New Yorker  short story, Falade says the story is "adapted" from his forthcoming novel Nigh on a Border (2022) which takes place in the Outer Banks in the early d

Album Review: Freeze, Melt (2020), by Cut Copy

  Australian synth-pop outfit Cut Copy have developed quite a bit since they started making music about 20 years ago. Specifically, they've gone from making 80s-inspired, dance hall, "get you out of your seat" type music to something much more atmospheric and cerebral. But they've always, in my opinion, combined the old and the new, the intellectual and the guttural, and stayed on the cutting edge artistically, better than any other band I know. For me, Cut Copy continue to stand in a league of their own, resisting categorization as they continue to make good albums you want to listen to over and over.  The group's latest album,  Freeze, Melt , is an eight-song, 40 minute effort that follows on 2017's Haiku from Zero , my personal favorite Cut Copy album. Haiku from Zero  was a sprawling, varied album that at times felt like a journey around the world and through time, as the band borrowed from the musical traditions of seemingly every continent but kept it, f

New Yorker Fiction Review #250: "Cicadia," by David Gilbert

  Review of a short story from the Aug. 24, 2020 issue of The New Yorker... David Gilbert was born in 1967, so I don't think it's fair to call him a "young" writer but there is something about his prose that seems injected with the electricity and aimless existential angst of youth. Or maybe that's just because his short story last week -- "Cicadia" -- is about a group of suburban teenagers goofing off during the summertime.  Citing the film  Ferris Bueller's Day Off  (1986) as one of the influences of this story, it reads more like Superbad (2007). The characters steal some weed from a sleeping older brother, they drive around the neighborhood looking for a house party at which to sell said weed. Naturally, one of them is obsessing over a girl who is supposed to be there. Not so naturally, one of them is struggling with whether or not to begin the process from separating himself from his friends who seem bound for mediocrity. It's an interesting

New Yorker Fiction Review #249: "You Are My Dear Friend," by Madhuri Vijay

Review of a short story from the Aug. 17, 2020 issue of The New Yorker... I'm not always a big fan of everything published in The New Yorker fiction section. How could one be? They occasionally publish mediocre stuff by very famous authors, or novel excerpts meant to gin-up interest in an author's upcoming book, and I wish they published more work by truly "emerging" and/or younger authors. However, occasionally I do come across a short story that makes me take notice of a new young author for the first time, and that's one of the main reasons why I do this. Madhuri Vijay is definitely an author to watch. Her debut novel, The Far Field (2019), won India's highest literary prize, The JCB Prize for literature. She's also won a Pushcart Prize and been published in The New Yorker and Best American Non-Required Reading . I'm not one to swoon at these kinds of achievements. I feel like the work ought to speak for itself, awards or not. But after having re

Book Review: A Wild Sheep Chase (1982), by Haruki Murakami

I am reading my way chronologically through the works of Japanese writer Haruki Murakami. A Wild Sheep Chase is his third novel... For those seeking an entry point into the often mysterious and at times completely inscrutable world of Haruki Murakami fiction, I can definitively say that A Wild Sheep Chase is not it. Taken by itself, out of context, just purely as a work of fiction, it does not "work" at all, in my opinion. Even placed within the context of Murakami's works, which I am endeavoring to completely wrap my arms around (by reading all of them, in order) I have to feel that this is a forgettable effort.  From a purely mechanical perspective, the book is a failure. The "chase" part of the story doesn't start until half-way through the book and, even when the chase begins, it's just not very exciting. The main character ends up in an abandoned farm house just waiting around for the answer to the mystery to come to him while he smokes, drinks, ea