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Showing posts from 2020

1812 Brewery in Cumberland, Md.

I stumbled upon 1812 Brewery while fishing Evitts Creek one day earlier this spring, during the early days of the COVID quarantine. The micro-brewery -- housed in an old barn (built in 1812) -- is situated on a small rise on Mason Rd. where it separates from the creek for a while. Most businesses, at that time, were closed. But I saw a small, flashing "open" sign in the window, so I went in to have a look. 
Since then I've tried most of their styles of beer, my favorites being the Base Camp Cream Ale and the Farm Use Lager. Also just recently tried the Moro Blood Orange ale, which was awesome. Not only is it a way to support a small local business but they make damn good beer and you know it's always fresh. 
Unless you're staying or live somewhere near Cumberland, it's probably unlikely you're going to get off the highway and make it out to 1812 Brewery, but if you're a micro-brew connoisseur (I am not, necessarily, I just love beer) it's absolutely…

New Yorker Fiction Review #246: "Jack and Della," by Marilynne Robinson

Review of a short story from the July 20, 2020 issue of The New Yorker...
Again we have a short story printed in The New Yorker as advance publicity for the author's forthcoming book. But I've come to realize that's just how the magazine operates -- most magazines, probably -- and also, if it keeps exposing me to new authors and quality new fiction, what's the problem? We're all unwittingly part of some economic machine or other, and it's ludicrous to think there is not an Arts & Literature Machine out there as well, determining what you watch and listen to.
Jeeze...did that get political fast? Anyway...
"Jack and Della" is, apparently, an expansion of an episode in one of Marilynne Robinson's novels, entitled Gilead (2004). Jack is the recovering alcoholic, ex-convict son of a preacher, recently released from jail and living on the fringes of abject poverty. He is shaken-down by local thugs daily. He sleeps on park benches when he is not spendin…

Book Review: The Nickel Boys (2019), by Colson Whitehead

Found this (audio) book because I had to take a long car trip and I needed something that was a.) contemporary, and b.) certified good. The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead is definitely both, having won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2020. 
The Nickel Boys is a novel set in an abusive boys reform school in Florida in the mid-1960s. Although it is fiction, the book was inspired by the real-life investigation into the Dozier School, and several of the characters and incidents in the story parallel the lives and stories of actual students at the Dozier School, a group of whom are still alive and who still keep in touch. 
Without getting into the at times graphic details of the abuse the boys suffered at the school (and, ergo, in the real life Dozier School) I will just say that at times this book can be pretty upsetting to listen to, and probably not a great "beach read" or something you read when you want to just escape into a good read and drift away. No, The Nickel Boys bri…

Western Virginia Brook Trout Fishing

To me, fly-fishing for brook trout has become almost an obsession this season, and I feel like there is no going back. It is an experience that brings you to some of the most beautiful streams you could possibly imagine and puts you in contact with native trout who have been breeding and living in those streams since the beginning of time. Furthermore, to me, fly-fishing for brook trout is as close as you can get to the way trout fishing was meant to be. 
This past weekend I went fly-fishing for brookies in western Virginia with my uncle and had the best two days' worth of trout fishing I've ever had. The stream was remote and cold. The fish were small and feisty. Most importantly, they were hungry. I put my uncle onto his first-ever trout on a fly-rod (how many people can say their first trout on a fly was a native brookie??) and I myself caught eight total throughout the two days, including some 8-9 inchers. 
The challenge and the excitement of brook trout fishing -- unlike al…

Book Review: Pinball, 1973, by Haruki Murakami (1980)

I am working my way chronologically through Haruki Murakami's catalog. Pinball, 1973 is his second novel, published in 1980...
In the Wikipedia entry about Pinball, 1973 (yes, we here at The Grant Catton Blog always do at least 15 seconds of research before every post) it says that Haruki Murakami never even intended his first two books -- Hear the Wind Sing, and this one -- to be published outside Japan and they were, in fact, extremely difficult to get a hold of until 2009 when they were re-printed. I can completely understand why: both books are amateurish, self-indulgent, and virtually plotless (those could actually be thought of as synonyms). But, there is a significant jump in quality from Hear the Wind Sing to Pinball, 1973
Pinball, 1973 is a continuation of the story from Hear the Wind Sing which mainly involves a character called The Rat and entails a lot of sitting around bars; however, there is (at the very least) the addition of two interesting elements that work to dr…

New Yorker Fiction Review #245: "A Transparent Woman" by Hari Kunzru

Review of a short story from the July 6 & 13, 2020 issue of The New Yorker...
First of all, I have to commend The New Yorker on publishing what I consider to be the best single issue in quite a while. I stopped watching TV at some vague point during COVID (sometime after finishing Mad Men for the fourth time and finally taking action on what is a perpetual lament of mine and of nearly all modern-day literary types: "I need to read more."). Having forsaken television (streamed and cable) the weekly arrival of The New Yorker has taken on a much greater significance in my life. Whereas at one time I only read the fiction (if I even got around to opening the issue) and maybe one other story, now I tend to read at least 75% of the issue. 
This particular issue is a real home run. There is a review of Joyce Carol Oates' new novel. An extensive piece on the Falkland Islands. A shocking examination of the history and current controversy surrounding dollar stores. An article by…

Book Review: Hear the Wind Sing (1979), by Haruki Murakami

Hear the Wind Sing is the first novel by Haruki Murakami, a writer who, if you have been reading this blog faithfully (hey Luke), you will know has become one of my favorite writers over the past year or so. Having recently finished his 2011 behemoth 1Q84 I figured I would go back and start at the beginning, try and acquaint myself with his entire body of work. 
Hear the Wind Sing sits a lean (one might say meager) 101 pages and, I suspect for that reason, is usually published together with Murakami's second novel Pinball, 1973, which was published the year after, in 1980. I plan to start reading Pinball, 1973 here soon, but certainly not because Hear the Wind Sing was so compelling or anything. Mainly, just because I already bought it and it also looks short. 
Hear the Wind Sing is like a lot of first novels by famous 20th century novelists: it kinda sucks. Sometimes I'm amazed that these things get published. But then I learned that, in this case, the novel was first published…

New Yorker Fiction Review #244: "Grief" by Scholastique Mukasonga

Review of a short story from the June 22, 2020 issue of The New Yorker...
A heavy short story, in the middle of a heavy issue of The New Yorker, covering what has been a heavy series of weeks in America. The issue itself focuses mostly on racial injustice, acutely focusing on the killing of George Floyd last month and the civil upheaval it has caused just as our quarantine-weary country is taking it's first steps out of hiding and into something akin to a pre-COVID normal. A lot to be reported, digested, and pondered upon. Far too much to be covered in one issue of The New Yorker or certainly here, in an entry that's meant to review a short story.
The short story in question -- "Grief" -- is the first person account of a Rwandan Tutsi woman living in France in the wake of the 1994 Rwandan Civil War and the mass killing of the Tutsi people. We can only assume the year to be late 1994 or early 1995, as the woman attempts to grieve for family, most of whom she assumes wer…

New Yorker Fiction Reviews #242 & #243: Stories by Ernest Hemingway and Haruki Murakami

Review of two short stories from the June 8 & 15, 2020 Fiction Issue of The New Yorker...
The arrival of a New Yorker "Fiction Issue" always kind of fills me with mixed emotions. On one hand: awesome. It's an issue of The New Yorker filled almost completely with the very content for which I mostly read The New Yorker anyway: the fiction. On the other hand, it's always a bit of a challenge to pick out which stories to read and I also know I'm going to end up leaving a lot of good fiction on the table (not that that should bother me too much anyway, after having lost at least 18 months worth of issues here and there). This time, however; it was very clear which two stories I would read.
It's not often that two of my favorite authors appear in one issue of The New Yorker. And, in the case of Ernest Hemingway and Haruki Murakami, I have to imagine it doesn't happen often in any context, because I can't think of two authors whose work shares less in comm…

Book Review: The Sporting Club, by Thomas McGuane (1969)

I have a long history with Thomas McGuane. I first read The Sporting Club when I was about 19 or 20, along with some of McGuane's writing which was current at the time such as The Longest Silence (1999) and The Cadence of Grass (2002). At that time I was making my first forays into what can even barely be called the "adult world" -- but which I now realize is not the adult world at all -- and looking around for writers who liked the outdoors, as I do, specifically fishermen. I think I also read Ninety-Two in the Shade (1975) around that time. Since then, I have read his short stories in The New Yorker, mostly to great delight.
Suffice it to say, I am probably in the 99.9th percentile of the American reading public in my familiarity with Thomas McGuane. And I actually really, really like his writing; however, The Sporting Club kinda sucks. I can't even put a shiny gloss on it in case I one day meet Thomas McGuane and he has read and holds a grudge against me for postin…

New Yorker Fiction Review #241: "Two Nurses, Smoking" by David Means

Review of a short story from the June 1, 2020 issue of The New Yorker...
Now that I've given up any semblance of ever being "caught up" on all my New Yorker fiction reviews, and just review the latest short stories as they come to me through the mail slot...my reviews can at least be somewhat timely again. 
I knew I had heard of David Means before somewhere. As it turns out, I had heard of him in the pages of The New Yorker, and his story "Two Ruminations on a Homeless Brother," from May 1, 2017 (reviewed on this blog on Dec. 21, 2017; clearly, at that point I was trying to get caught up on back issues in a last, hopeless attempt to get caught up on all the issues I had missed. I think I remember this period). Anyway, I recall being amused by the form and experimental nature of "Two Ruminations on a Homeless Brother," if not exactly the short story itself. In "Two Nurses, Smoking," David Means also plays with form in an interesting way, but de…

Book Review: Babbitt, by Sinclair Lewis (1922)

Yes, I am "reviewing" a book that's nearly 100 years old. I don't know why that seems funny right now, but don't expect me to say **SPOILER ALERT** or anything. You've had your entire life to get around to reading Babbitt, by Sinclair Lewis...which I can't really recommend anyway.

You already know where this review is going: Babbitt sucked. Why?

For one thing...it's more of a character study than a book. For nearly 300 pages we read about the life of George Babbitt, a 46 year-old real estate salesman from the town of "Zenith" -- a fictitious mid-western city that could very easily be Indianapolis, except he mentions Indianapolis in the book. Babbitt is middle-of-the-road in every way. His politics, his married life, his professional life, his ambitions, even the ways he has fun or gets angry -- even the way he "rebels" against his staid bourgeois existence -- are all typical of what was the 1920s (and probably 2020s) middle-Americ…

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…