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Friday, January 31, 2020

Cultivating the Vine

From the Literary Vault Dept.: Did this piece actually run in Metroland? I can’t remember, and I’m not curious enough to go digging through my attic-clogging stacks. But I enjoyed Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland enough to write two reviews of it. One ran in the Schenectady Gazette; it’s reprinted here. The one below would have run under the pseudonym I used at Metroland for while to hide my activities from a witless editor at Albany’s long-defunct Knickerbocker News, who insisted that I write for his paper exclusively (even through they were paying me the grand sum of twenty bucks for the once- or twice-a-week notices I filed).


SOME CRITICS HAVE BEEN HUFFING AND PUFFING in the papers that Vineland isn’t the novel they were expecting from Thomas Pynchon, especially after waiting 17 years. It’s stirred up interest enough among readers, however, to shoot it up near the top of the best-seller lists, which is a credit to this mind-jarring novel.

Is it important to go on record with once-and-for-all opinions? That’s a handy critical crutch but it tells you more about the critic than about the work in question. So I’ll restrain myself from taking pot-shots at posterity and simply say this: Vineland is a hell of a terrific read.

It’s a roller-coaster of a book, which you expect from the author, but it goes beyond mere bouncy thrills. It’s an exquisitely crafted work, layered like a gooey French pastry. You bite through those layers in the course of digesting the book, and each holds another sweet – or sometimes tangy – surprise.

Foremost of the delights is Pynchon’s screwy sense of humor. It comes through in everything from character names (Brock Vond, Frenesi Gates) to lunatic plot twists to the insanest of puns (my favorite is a dizzying jingle for a lawn-care specialist calling himself the Marquis de Sod, part of a TV ad ...

Monday, January 27, 2020

Climbing the Wall

From the Vault Dept.: Some thirty years ago, Proctors in Schenectady tried a noble experiment by inaugurating a small, separate theater series dubbed Proctor’s Too. An engaging lineup of not-so-well-knowns was engaged, and every performance I witnessed was a dazzler. The first space was a small brick building across Broadway from the Proctors block, but the brief lease ran out and it was turned into a car wash before being demolished. The second incarnation was on the grounds of Union College. There was no third incarnation.


AT THE HEART OF THE SHOW – and the stage – is a large brick wall. It has ledges and hidden doors. It has an alcove. A clever fellow might climb that alcove with his back to one side and his feet jammed against the other, inching upward like a beetle.

Mur-Mur, but from a much more recent performance.
But the DynamO Théâtre, a Montreal-based group, sees much more of a challenge in such a wall. This quintet of acrobats, clowns, jugglers and mimes used it both as challenge and impediment during their short, furious show at Proctor’s Too last week. It was there to be conquered; it was also there to play against.

They assigned themselves roles as a sort of family of superannuated children. Two couples pair off right from the start, dancing their way into adolescent romance, while the fifth wheel, the Huntz Hall-like “Ralphie,” is a puckish mischief-maker.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Tours de Force

From Somebody Else’s Vault Dept.: Here’s an unsigned piece from the Chatham (NY) Courier’s “Rough Notes” section. That it comes from nearly 90 years ago seems incredible. It could have been written yesterday.


THIS IS THE SEASON for tourists to stop at carefully restored old homes, castles, etc., for the guided tour and the spiel that often goes like this: “G’afternoon, everyone, and welcome to the 4:15 tour of Sprawling Mansion and Palatial Gardens. My name is Jeri and I’ll be your guide of one of New York's most historic landmarks which – after a 13-minute stop – should.get us back here by approximately 5:27.

Remain with the group at all times and I don’t mean the fringes. Dawdling is prohibited by state law. Anyone who goes into a roped-off room will be apprehended by a Landmarks Commissioner. Refrain from touching anything, take pictures only in designated Snapshot Areas.

There will be 17 opportunities for Personal Looking. When I’m not talking, feel free to gaze at Official Interesting Things, marked by placards, along the way. Avoid poking your head around a corner before others arrive. You will be given the signal to advance 2½ steps into the next room, then halt. Speak only in hushed tones so as not to disturb the antiquities. No sitting down except where yellow stickers mark Official Tired Zone. Leaning is hazardous except in posted Slouch Areas.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Hidden Treasure

From the Food Vault Dept.: I ran into Joseph Soliman while food shopping today (I buy in large-enough quantities to justify going where the restaurateurs shop), who assured me that his excellent restaurant, Sage Bistro, is still going strong. I’ve never had a disappointing meal at either of his establishments. My Metroland review of Sage Bistro is here, and I’m accompanying it now with my two reviews of his Hidden Café, which is where we met, and which, I should warn, has long since closed. Go to Sage Bistro for the kind of meal described below.


GAZE THROUGH THE LARGE WINDOWS at the front of the restaurant and you see ... a white wall on the other side of an alley. It’s hidden, all right, tucked into the apex of the two major wings of Delaware Plaza.

The Hidden Café opened less than two months ago in a space that “unassuming” hardly begins to describe. A dozen tables, a long bar, a register near the door, white walls, few decorations – it’s a place in the throes of first life, but it’ eager and the food is good and dinner business, the owner assures me, is already taking off.

The lunch menu leads with the welcome surprise of omelettes ($4.25-$5.25), with even more welcome variations. The house omelette, for example, sports garlic and mozzarella, seasoned with cumin and cilantro; the “oinking omelette” has bacon and ham. Burgers, wraps, salads and specialty sandwiches are all priced under $7, and scaled-down versions of dinner specials also are available.

Those burgers, wraps and salads are repeated on the dinner menu, some priced slightly higher to accommodate more side-dish offerings. Among the specialty sandwiches are grilled chicken breast with pesto sauce ($8), Reuben ($7) and grilled veggies (onions, carrots, portobello mushrooms and zucchini, among other ingredients, $7).

Friday, January 17, 2020


AS A TERM OF SOCIAL IMPORT, sustainable, like so many politically charged buzzwords, threatens to blur into non-specificity. “Sustainable,” the documentary by Matt Wechsler and Annie Speicher, seeks to re-focus the term into a term of art. And they do so by making the best kind of argument in favor of a social ideal: a look at its successful implementation. “Sustainable” won the 2016 Accolade Global Humanitarian Award for Outstanding Achievement.

Wechsler and Speicher are the creative talents behind Hourglass Films, which also produced the Emmy-nominated documentary “Different Is the New Normal, Living a Life with Tourette’s” (2012), which was shown on PBS, and “Right to Harm: A Public Health Crisis Too Big to Ignore” about the health effects of factory farming on rural Americans, which premiered in 2019.

Acclaimed chef Rick Bayless opens the award-winning “Sustainable,” asking simply, “How am I going to make great food if I don’t have any connection with the people who are growing that food?” Bayless, host of the Emmy Award-winning PBS series “Mexico: One Plate at a Time,” has famously made a point of working with local suppliers in his Chicago-area restaurants.

It’s one of those suppliers who is the focus of the next ninety minutes. Marty Travis and his family own and operate Spence Farm, a 160-acre farm about two hours southwest of Chicago. He’s the seventh generation of his family to work the farm; with his son, Will, alongside him, there are eight generations in the fields. Twenty years ago, Marty returned to a family property that had been factory-farmed for many years and then left fallow. He applied an eco-responsible approach that has turned his farm into something both profitable and exciting, and the film follows his family and farm through a cycle of the four seasons, reminding us of the seasonality of all these efforts.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Bacon Grabbers

From the Food Vault Dept.: It was a mob scene. The 2012 Bacon Fest in Hudson, NY, attracted so many attendees that almost no food remained by the time I got there to be one of the judges. I described the experience in the Metroland article below.


IN A PERFECT WORLD, there would be no bacon. A perfect world, that is, for nutritionists and vegetarians. In a perfect world, there would be bacon galore. A perfect world for those who’ve succumbed to the rasher’s charm. In the imperfect world of Hudson’s first-ever Bacon Fest, we experienced both, which is a fancy way of noting that the festival’s many charms were overshadowed by the fact that it was visited by the worst possible problem: the bacon ran out.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Sunday, Sept. 2 – the Sunday of the holiday weekend – the morning was warm and clear and the day seemed to grow hotter and sunnier. I’d been invited to the festival as a judge, and who can turn down an opportunity to sample a varied canvas of bacon?

This came on the heels of a tasting a I attended last month, at a whitewashed gallery space on Manhattan’s Mulberry St. It was the launch of Jennie-O brand turkey bacon, joining a line of other processed-turkey products made by this Hormel subsidiary, and it was presented as a healthy alternative to the traditional stuff, with high-energy TV chef Devin Alexander on hand to guide us through a quartet of breakfast-y preparations, each of which substituted altruism for flavor.

Turkey bacon is like a frozen dinner – a simulacrum that should be taken on its own merit. When real bacon sizzles at you from the stove, there’s no mistaking it for any other foodstuff. For many, it’s a cheerful link to childhood. For some, it’s a rebellion against our over-protective age. But I’m guessing for most it’s purely sybaritic. The combination of fat and crunch and meat and salt is as compelling a culinary experience as you could desire.

Monday, January 06, 2020

The Power of Hatred

From the Vault Dept.: Lully’s “Armide” won that composer his greatest acclaim, and the 2005 production by Toronto’s Opera Atelier was successful enough to warrant revivals in 2012 and 2015, both of which traveled to Versailles. The 2012 production was also part of the Glimmerglass Festival season. My review is below.


WHEN THE FIRST CONFLAGRATION ERUPTED, it was a charming kerfluffle of lighting and drums. The next one was more frightening, because by that time I’d settled into more of a 17th-century sensibility and thus was more susceptible to the power of vintage theatrical magic. An audience witnessing “Armide” in its own era – it debuted in 1686 – probably got the bejabbers scared out of them when all hell – literally – broke loose in the piece.

Karli Cadel/Glimmerglass Opera
The Glimmerglass Festival is presenting a co-production of Lully’s most-praised opera, with Toronto’s Opera Atelier, which nets the bonus of several fine singers associated with that company and an excellent ballet ensemble.

And ballet is crucial to a piece like this in two respects. It’s part of the story-telling mechanism, able to impart emotional abstractions that play against the more straightforward music-and-words combination. And it reinforces the stylized look of Baroque acting, in which what we’d now consider exaggerated gesture is crucial to the piece.

Armide (soprano Peggy Kriha Dye), a sorceress, has been thwarted by the crusader Renaud (tenor Colin Ainsworth), whom she vows to destroy – unless her burgeoning love for him gets in the way. And the heart of the opera is her journey through these conflicting feelings, culminating at the end of Act Two, when she triumphantly declares that the enchanted Renaud is now in her power and then quickly vacillates among many shadings of passion.

Friday, January 03, 2020

The Fat Man’s Diet (Chapter Four)

Lost Masterpieces Dept.: I wrote a few chapters of a book to be titled The Fat Man’s Diet many years ago and could persuade no publisher of its timeliness and charm. Now that the World Obesity Movement has gained so much more momentum, I might try again. Meanwhile, here’s the fourth chapter. You’ll find chapter one here and chapter two here. I have yet to write chapter three.


George Friderick Handel
Portrait by Thomas Hudson
The Fat Man is settled in front of the TV set, cool brown bottle of beer in one hand and an hors d’oeuvre of pepperoni-and-cheese-on-a-cracker in the other.
And it happens again: another ad for a diet cola. Lissome bodies of dewey nubility writhing to a snappy beat, pretty striplings laughing and splashing on a butter-cream beach. Lose that weight, pal, drink the product and these babes are yours!
A minor tremor shakes the living room floor as the Fat Man laughs softly to himself, vast belly acknowledging his merriment with a quiver. Because he has no desire for these silly unfortunates, these hipless, breastless clones. So much running around, especially on a beach, he knows, is bad for the heart. And besides: he has yet to meet a skinny woman who can cook half as well as he can . . .