In for the kill

This week I was excited to go and see Dredd. As a teen Judge Dredd was one of my favorite comics. Sly Stallone made a sad attempt back in the 90’s to portray the cool, severe judge but failed miserably. I don’t recall Judge Dredd ever removing his helmet and allowing his face to be seen.

In this new rendition, which is NOT a remake or a sequel merely a British take on the comic, Karl Urban (LOTR and Chronicles of Riddick) dons the helmet. He carries it well with only the curl of a lip showing. What really helps him to pull off the role is his low, rough voice that betrays no emotion, even when doling out death sentences. Known throughout Megacity as the judge not to toy with, Dredd is assigned a fresh out of the academy rookie to assess in the field. Olivia Thirlby (Juno) turns up as rookie Anderson, a mutant with psychic abilities from the radiation that destroyed most of the world.

As they leave the Hall of Justice on assessment day Anderson chooses what would seem to be a simple triple homicide in Peach Trees, a 200 story slum block. While there they end up in a drug bust where they detain a high level supplier of the Ma-Ma gang. Headed up by Ma-Ma, an ex-hooker played by a too-soft Lena Headey, they are the single producer/supplier of an all new drug called Slo-Mo that is all the rage In Mega City 1. Upon learning of the capture of her Associate, Ma-Ma locks down the building and informs everyone inside that until the two judges are dead the building will remain under lock down.

What ensues is massive hour long shoot ’em up. Anderson uses her psychic ability, indicated by a goldish glow around her head, to learn and gather information that will help them in their pursuit of Ma-Ma who spends most of her time in her 200th story sanctum. At one point her computer guy is able to “trap” the judges so that she can kill them. However even the three gatling guns she uses to pulverize the entire floor and its inhabitants does not kill the judges. They proceed on their quest, guns blazing, until Anderson is taken captive. Dredd continues his pursuit and eventually catches up to Ma-ma on the 200th floor, where he is reunited with Anderson, who has been accidentally freed by a moron. After a final battle Dredd is able to overpower and outwit Ma-Ma, save the residents of Peach Trees and walk out ready to fight another day with Anderson by his side.

What I haven’t told you is that this movie is available in both digital and 3-d. Now, the digital version is a blast and will keep you on the edge of your seat. I did not see it in 3-d because I often become ill in 3-d movies. However, I think that other than a few elevator shafts I probably would have enjoyed the 3-d version. With all the gun fire the audience would have been “showered” in glass and debris as well as been engulfed by Anderson’s psychic aura and the exhaled Slo-mo from the criminals inhalers.

Prohibition, Tom Hardy, and Guy Pearce get down and dirty

For my first ever movie blog I offer up “Lawless”. Based on the book “The Wettest County in the World” by Matt Bondurant a grandson of one of the infamous Bondurant boys.

As our story opens up in rural Virginia we find the Bondurant boys, Shia Lebouf, Tom Hardy, and Jason Clarke , distributing mason jars full of their homemade moonshine amongst the county. Known to have the best whiskey around the boys are in high demand and raking in the profits.

Enter Guy Pearce as Special Agent Charlie Rakes. When first entering the county his attempt to blackmail the boys fails. This denial from the Forrest, the brother in charge, is just the catalyst needed for Mr. Pearce to turn on the creep button. I have rarely seen him in a movie where he wasn’t spot on. But in Lawless he is able to turn himself into what can only be described as an eyebrow-less, egomaniacal creep who comes off as hiding some type of perversion you would expect to find in the Silence of the Lambs. His portrayal of the special deputy gets you right on board and cheering on the boys and their bootlegging.

While Forrest runs the operation youngest brother Jake is aching to become part of the action and earn the snappy suit and pimped out ride the likes that mobster Gary Oldham drives. His chance arrives after Forrest and a new waitress at the family run gas stop and restaurant are attacked one night. Shia Lebouf took a lot of flack about his acting skills in this movie. I however found him to exactly what was needed to portray the whiney younger brother who constantly gets picked on despite his best intentions.  As Jake grows the business and heads towards his dream of high fashion mobster a mis step with the local preacher’s daughter lands the boys in a sticky spot.

As the climax approaches we see the town coming together in a good versus evil stand-off leading to the much anticipated final interaction between the brothers and the deputy. Without giving away the ending I will stop here and encourage you to see for yourself how the Bondurant boys changed the face of bootleggers and how sometimes you just can’t help but root for the criminals.

Late Night Bites: Sidelines with the Ladies’ Beer Circle

Our second regular haunt for the Ladies’ Beer Circle is Sidelines Bar in Millvale on Monday Nights. Unlike our Wednesday night option, the Sharp Edge Beer Emporium in Friendship, you’ve probably never heard of Sidelines unless you live in Millvale or know somebody who is a regular there. Sidelines notoriety may be on the rise, now that they have added a location in Sewickley, but I have known about Sidelines for years precisely because the Spiher/Robinson household have been such dedicated regulars.

“Regulars” may be understating it.

One of the main features of Sidelines is its beer club. Upon joining the club, one gets a cardstock beer list, which is kept on file at the bar until it is filled out. The list contains various categories, such as domestic beers, European beers, draft beers and beers “from everywhere else.” All beers at Sidelines count for the list, but you can’t drink the same beer twice while working on one particular list (with the exception of using up your five “freebie” slots), and you have to fill up each category entirely for the list to be considered complete. I suspect the beer list choices become more challenging as the list narrows; I only started a list a few months ago, so pretty much everything and anything I want to drink counts.

Sabrina and Ted, however, are beer list veterans. I don’t even remember what list, precisely, Sabrina is on right now. 13? 15? Keep in mind that it takes 50 beers to fill each list. The bar offers a diminishing system of rewards for completing lists. The first list complete earns the patron a t-shirt commemorating the event. The second list garners the beer aficionado a personalized beer mug. This mug is kept at the bar and the patron is served drafts from it. The mug is a little bigger than the standard pint, so beer club accomplishment means heartier drafts. Ten lists in, the Sidelines bar fly gets the all-coveted black mug, which affords all the advantages of the first mug, but with the added status it conveys (and at this point the patron gets to take the first mug home).

Both Sabrina and Ted have black mugs and they are working toward a new reward at 20 lists (that’s 1000 beers, folks) that hasn’t entirely been determined because so few people ever make it that far.

And that is why we go to Sidelines on Monday for Ladies’ Beer Circle, because it’s beer club special night. Every beer we drink that counts for the list is $1 off. Now, this special might not be so great at a lot of bars. In fact, a $1 off beers as Sharp Edge wouldn’t be so impressive a special at all; but Sidelines has a ton of beers in the $3 to $4 range, as well as more expensive beers, and beers for $2.50 and $2.75. A dollar off makes a big difference on those cheap brews. Apparently there are also $2.50 well drinks on Monday nights, but we’ve been so dedicated to our beer lists we haven’t taken advantage, but there is also a 1/2 off appetizer special from 10 to midnight, and we frequently take advantage of that.

The appetizers at Sidelines definitely win out over the appetizers at Sharp Edge. For starters, the appetizer prices range from $3 to $6, so getting half off is an attractive special. The appetizers are also just better. The stuffed pretzel is a good one because it is hearty for sopping up beer in the belly, but also relatively cheap ($3.99, regular price); Dayle and I have enjoyed it on a few occasions. The provolone sticks are a favorite all around. I have enjoyed the fried zucchini on many occasions, and it’s always a generous portion (seriously, it may be a whole zucchini, or at least half of a large one). The beer cheese in bread bowl is fun and tasty. The only appetizer I’ve been a little disappointed in was the chicken strips, not because they weren’t tasty, but because it’s only four strips and they aren’t terribly large. I was hungrier at the end of my strips basket than when I walked in. On occasions past, Sabrina and Ted have enjoyed the quesadillas and give good credit to the tastiness of the wings. I’m not a wing person, myself, so I wouldn’t know.

When it comes right down to it, Sidelines is definitely a comparable spot to Sharp Edge in terms of beer value. The beer special on Mondays isn’t quite as good as the Sharp Edge half off drafts on Wednesdays, but the appetizers and wider selection of bargain beers makes up for it. The promise of beer club glory also adds a fun dimension to the bar, as it actively encourages us to try new beers at every turn. Admittedly, Sidelines may be a trek from points south, but for those living in northern areas of the city, Lawrenceville, Bloomfield, East End, it may just be the best bar you’re completely unaware of!

Late Night Bites: Sharp Edge with the Ladies Beer Circle

Earlier this summer, while looking for a place where we could enjoy quality brews after work, our Ladies’ Beer Circle discovered Sharp Edge Wednesdays.

Of course, we all knew about the Sharp Edge previously; anyone who lives in the city and even remotely qualifies as an occasional beer aficionado has heard of the Sharp Edge. Known for its plethora of drafts, augmented by an extensive selection of bottles, the Sharp Edge Beer Emporium in Friendship has a long-standing reputation among beer lovers in the city.

What I didn’t realize was that since the last time I found my way to the Sharp Edge, they have since opened several additional locations throughout our metro area, and have instituted a half priced craft drafts special on Wednesdays.

That’s right, Wednesdays. Not happy hour on Wednesdays, or for some limited number of weird hours on Wednesdays, but all day Wednesdays. And that’s a full half price off every draft on their craft list. That makes it the single best beer special we’ve found.

The craft list features upwards of thirty beers (check out the current beer menu online); in the time since we’ve been going there it appears that some beers (perhaps the most popular) are kept on tap perennially, whereas other beers show up seasonally and/or occasionally and then are replaced by new selections when the keg runs out. The drafts on the craft list at regular price are not cheap, ranging from $4.50 (for Yuengling? That’s extortion) to $6.50 for the bulk of their selections, with some special beers being as much as $8, $9 or even over $10. Thus, one can see why half price nights are such a find. We can enjoy some pretty awesome craft brews at what is fundamentally 2 for 1 (and two is usually all I can drink since they close at midnight during the week)!

When we go to Sharp Edge on Wednesdays, we usually meet up when I get off work, which means around 10 or 10:30pm. This means that our meetings of the Ladies’ Beer Circle typically fall during the Sharp Edge’s nightly half priced food specials, including deals on wings, appetizers and pizzas. And a good thing, too, as many of their munchies are also pretty darn expensive at regular price.

As far as beer specials are concerned, the Sharp Edge wins hands down in terms of quality for the price. The food specials… well, it’s not quite as enthusiastic a recommendation. As I mentioned, the appetizer prices are rather expensive to begin with, so the half price special takes them down to what I consider ordinary prices for bar food.

Some of the appetizers we’ve found enjoyable, if nothing to write home about. The Mediterranean nachos (basically a spinach artichoke dip) and the Double Dipper plate have served us well, especially the later when ordered with the option of avocado salsa (which is fundamentally a tasty guacamole). The fried appetizers haven’t been as great. We’ve had bad experiences with the boneless chicken wings and the fried provolone wedges. Other fried items have been okay; the fried pita wedges that come with dips have never given us trouble, and I recently had an order of sweet potato fries with no ill consequences.. but we are left reluctant to order chicken bites or provolone again.

But our Ladies’ Beer Circle is looking for precisely that: beer, not dinner. We keep going back to enjoy the best beer special in town!

Sharp Edge Beer Emporium on Urbanspoon

The Golden Pig: Far-flung Korean Worth the Drive

Some things are worth traveling for.

Today I went on a little road trip adventure!  Everyone has been raving about Golden Pig, the tiniest Korean restaurant, clear out in Cecil.  When I say “clear out in Cecil”, I have to say, before I set out today in Marshall, my Honda Accord, I didn’t have the faintest idea where Cecil was.  Honestly.  I’d read and heard people going on about Golden Pig, and they’d be like, “It’s in Cecil,” and from that I figured out that Cecil was 1) within relatively reasonable driving distance of Pittsburgh, and 2) … *cricket cricket*.  It turns out that Cecil is south and west.  It’s actually easy to get to Golden Pig, it just takes a while.  The thing I find curious about Pittsburgh is that there’s the city, which is a city like any major urban center (except better), and then there’re the inner-ring suburbs, which could easily be mistaken for part of the city proper, and then — nothing.  Nothing whatsoever of interest.  Highways.  Trees.  The odd small town, but really, just nothing.  It’s instantly rural, like, 20 minutes outside the city in all directions.  It’s bizarre, frankly.  But so anyway, to get to Cecil, go through the Fort Pitt Tunnel, get on 79 South, get on 50 West, keep an eye out on your left after a few miles, and there you go.


Desolation.  Picturesque enough, though.


So wee.


Golden Pig is about the wee-est place I’ve ever eaten.  There are 11 seats inside.  The cooking happens in the same room as the eating, and everything is prepared fresh by two very nice Korean ladies.  Friend Mark J. joined me for lunch, and I don’t know about him, but I liked the atmosphere.  It was homey.


There’s a theme, you see.

I ordered us a “Korean pancake” to share.  I’m not sure what it was made of, though Mark surmised buckwheat flour.  It was crispy on the edges and had the particular glutinous consistency that I have only ever encountered in Chinese and Korean cooking.  It was filled with kimchi and quite tasty; we also got little dishes of kimchi and other pickled vegetables, which we nommed at with stainless steel chopsticks.  I mention the chopsticks because it occurred to me that I had never seen stainless steel chopsticks before — I’d eaten off very nice, lacquered wood chopsticks, but never stainless.  Well, there you go.


Pancake and various yummy pickled things.


For our entrees, both Mark and I ordered the daeji bulgogi, which was thinly sliced, stir fried pork in a super rich (but not thick), spicy, succulent, just fantastic sauce, plus a side of truly delicious sticky rice.  Good rice is easy to make and common — great rice is an art.


*Homer Simpson gargle*




Seriously.  And my half of the meal came to $12.57.  Plus whatever I spent on gas, but, whatever, I practically never leave the city, so it’s good to burn a little gas from time to time.  I listened (sang along to) Hot Hot Heat on the drive home and just generally was pleased as punch.


**I returned the Golden Pig just recently, with my mother.  I’m a little embarrassed to report that I ate exactly the same things I ate the first time I went there.  They were just so good!  The quality of everything was just as good as I’d remembered, and the owner was even friendlier.  Next time I’m there, I swear I’ll try something different.

Golden Pig Authentic Korean Cuisine on Urbanspoon

Brasserie 33: What the Hell?

The silver lining is, it’s always more enjoyable to write — and read — blogs about things that suck.


Oh, Groupon.  There was a time when you were a wonderland of cheap, delicious meals.  I think restaurants caught on to what a bad deal that was for them, though, and now it may be the case that only embattled and benighted eateries like Brasserie 33 offer Groupons.  Alas.  Alas!


The wine was actually crisp and pleasant. And the label was adorable.

Our Brasserie Groupon was about to expire, so on Monday night, we made reservations for this French restaurant in Shadyside, on Ellsworth.  The space itself is quite well done, with a lovely marble bar and an open kitchen.  The food was OK – Good (though overpriced) even.  But the service.   Ay yi yi.


Problem one: the menu is printed on paper, which would be fine if they offered a new, seasonally inspired menu every day, but they don’t.  After being handled many times, the pathetic, wilting sheet I was handed was damp, wrinkled, and soiled — not particularly appetizing.  Nor were the wine and water glasses placed on our table, which had water marks and fingerprints all over them.


We were sat promptly, but then waited for many minutes before our server came over to greet us.  I was also given no wine list.  I finally hailed down the food runner to bring one to us, and he brought it over a moment before the server finally arrived.  Our server, it turned out, was actually French.  And friendly.  Too friendly.  Look, if I’m in some mom ‘n’ pop diner, and the sassy woman behind the counter wants to call me “Hon”, that all just makes sense.  But at a semi-fine dining establishment, I’m not there to make a new friend.  I expect the service to be courteous, competent, and efficient.  I don’t want to banter with the server.  I want him to have a good working knowledge of the wine list.  Ours didn’t.  He also — and I know I’m a dick for bringing this up — had truly terrible teeth, yellow and rotten, which, I’ve gotta tell you, is not the most appetizing thing to be faced with when choosing your appetizer.


So anyway, the server arrived a moment after the wine list, though after many minutes of waiting, and when I told him we needed another moment with the list, he disappeared again, after some more friendly prattle.  Great.  When he finally returned, he seemed unable to tell me much about the Cote du Rhone blanc I asked him about, and told us we should order all of our food at once, if we wanted it to come out of the kitchen in a timely fashion.  Right.  Right.  He also promised us bread was on the way.


The oysters tasted nice and fresh, though they got a bit overwhelmed by the butter.

To start with, we ordered the oysters rockefeller, which was good, if perhaps a bit greasy.  The arrival of this appetizer, by the way, took probably 25 minutes.  No small plates were given to us, so we used our bread plates — naturally, the bread arrived after the oysters, and by then our plates had been overwhelmed by shellfish drippings, making them useless as bread plates.  We were so hungry at that point we just spread our butter and ate our bread without putting it down; it was a good thing the bread was warm, because the butter was ice cold and hard as a rock.  Our server finally reappeared, bent down towards the plate with the oyster shells on it, real close like, stood up, made a “cuckoo” finger-rotating hand motion against his forehead at Ted, and walked away, without taking the plate.  I shit you not.  I said to Ted, “I think there’s a bit of oyster left in one shell.”  I was just trying to guess what action would result in my plates being cleared.  Ted ate the wee morsel, and when the server returned, he took the plate — but not the wee soiled bread plates, nor did he offer us more bread.  Those soiled bread plates remained on the table for an hour.


More waiting, more waiting, more nursing of our bottle of wine.  Another server came over and refilled our water, and began to tell us, apropos of nothing, about how the air conditioner broke last week, and all the trouble that caused.  What the fuck, people?  I want my goddamn entree, not to chat.


Our main courses finally arrived.  I ordered the half a roast chicken with frites.  The thigh was perfect, moist and tender, with a nice crispy skin covered in a peppery pan jus.  Naturally, therefore, the drumstick and breast were hopelessly dried out and overcooked.  I appreciate that this is the great problem of chicken roasting: since the breast meat finishes cooking before the thigh meat is safely up to temperature, how do you keep the breast from drying out while you wait on the thigh?  This has plagued home cooks since time immemorial, so it’s not that I don’t understand the problem.  But for $22, I expect a restaurant to have had this problem solved.  The frites were fine, but nowhere near as good as Point Brugge’s.  (Or Park Bruges’s, for that matter.)  Ted ordered the coq au van, and he liked his meal a great deal. I tasted it, and it was good, though I thought it was a bit heavily seasoned and a bit too rich for a hot June night.  There was absolutely nothing seasonal on the menu, and many of the offerings, like lamb shank, beef bourguinon, and the coq au van, were heavy, wintertime dishes.  I realize that these are staples of French cooking, but I don’t believe for a moment that the French don’t eat lighter fare in the summer.


Tasty in the center, dried out at the edges. Meh.

Anyway, we finished our meals, all of our plates were finally cleared, and then … we sat.  No appearance from our server.  Ted was determined to order the chocolate mousse, so eventually we flagged down the chatty water woman to put our order in.  The food runner brought the mousse out, and at that point, we hadn’t seen our own server for almost an hour.  Ted finished his dessert, and still no appearance.  We waited another 20 minutes for our French waiter to reappear.  He took my Groupon information, and came back with our check … which he hadn’t deducted our Groupon from.  He had also, natch, disappeared again.  So again we flagged down the woman, who acted confused by what she was seeing on the check, even though I spelled it out for her quite clearly.  “Here is our appetizer, here are our entrees, he didn’t charge us for our dessert, here is our bottle of wine.”  She took the check, and finally our waiter reemerged, to chastise me.

“I was trying to give you a free dessert.  You don’t want a free dessert?”

“I want my Groupon deducted.”

“But you turned down a free dessert.”

Are you fucking serious?  Fuck your $7 dessert, I want my $40 discount removed from the check.  He goes, “But you’re religious, I respect that.”  You see, our priest had stopped into the restaurant, quite by happenstance, and been assigned the table next to ours.  When we told him about the service, he decided not to order anything, though he did chat with us for a while.  When the server had looked at me quizzically, I had volunteered, “That’s our priest.”


Look, Buddy.  Monsieur.  Too familiar, and way unprofessional.  What the fuck?  In the end, he charged us for the dessert, but did subtract the $40.  We still ended up paying, with tip, a hundred bucks, and with that money could have gone down the street to Soba or up the street to Casbah and had an infinity better experience, both food- and (especially) service-wise.  I will not be returning to Brasserie 33, and you shouldn’t go there, either.  I honestly don’t know what the hell whoever owns that place is thinking.  There are reviews all over Yelp and Urbanspoon about how bad the service is, and how the food is overpriced for the quality, as it turns out.  (Here’s one by my friend, Carley, for example.) You’d think eventually a restauranteur would take action to remedy such imminently remediable problems, but nope!


Ugh.  Just ugh.

Brasserie 33 on Urbanspoon

My Frustrations with Ian McEwan’s Atonement

I don’t know about you, but I always have a collection of unread books on my shelves, picked up from used book stores or library sales. I always intend to get to them when I buy them, but sometimes they languish. Such was the case with a book by Ian McEwan, Atonement. I actually have two of his books on my shelves (the other is Saturday), but about a month ago a friend of mine recommended him as an author generally, and Atonement in particular, so I pulled the volume down and put it in the summer reading list stack.

On one hand, I should have good things to say about this book: I read it quickly, in two non-consecutive days, and so I can fairly say that I found it compelling. Additionally, McEwan’s prose itself is rendered with remarkable skill: it is evocative, with pitch-perfect tone. Despite my many frustrations with this novel, his writing alone makes me think that I’ll still get around to reading Saturday someday.

But oh, those frustrations. There were a few. Most notably how much I hated the main character of the book (I don’t think I, as the reader, was supposed to, no), but we’ll get to her in a moment.

Firstly, McEwan is a writer writing about writing in many parts of this novel, which is a pet peeve of mine. The above-mentioned main character begins to write little stories at the age of 10 (we see her primarily pursuing this hobby at 13). This is fair enough — I think that is about when kids who are so inclined start writing. But it is not merely a part of her character outline that she writes stories; rather, McEwan takes the opportunity to rhapsodize about the craft of storytelling. I’m exaggerating only slightly with my snarky italics. The problem with this sort of going on about the profound art of writing stories is that it’s self-aggrandizing horseshit. It is one thing to describe a character as one who likes to construct fiction, and to tease out what that might imply about that character: they have a tendency to live in their own mind; they are, perhaps, particularly observant; they are, perhaps, abstractly empathetic, by which I mean, while they can easily suss out the feelings and predict the (re)actions of others, they nonetheless are at a remove from other people, seeing others as objects of consideration rather than fellow subjects in the world. These are just my thoughts on the subject, perhaps others’ would be different, but my point is, it’s not a bad project for an author per se to make a character a writer. But there is some line past which the belaboring of the craft of storytelling becomes a reflection not on the writer character but on the author, and oh my, what a god of imagination he or she can be! In short, it becomes obnoxious, because all of the author’s reflections on the writer character and their pursuit of writing as an art are necessarily reflections on the author him/herself as artist.

I find this especially obnoxious because, as a failed writer myself, let me dispel a little conceit: writing is not a mystical labor of godlike intuition and profoundly creative compulsion. Being a writer requires natural talent, yes, and when one really feels inspired to write, doing so can be exciting and rewarding. But being a writer also requires practice, tedium, and, frankly, drudgery. Most writers are not successful; I certainly wasn’t. Being a writer is also a lot of luck, like any career in the fine arts. Most of the time, writing is just staring at drafts in frustration, and, let’s be honest, most writing doesn’t contain blinding insights into the human condition. It’s a skilled art, but its end result is usually not much more than an entertainment for consumers, and while it can rarely transcend that to become Important, that moment of importance is even still a brief brief moment in the life of a writer overall.

So basically, let’s take the self-importance down a few dozen pegs, OK Ian?

Moving on. The book itself as it’s crafted presented me with some quandaries. For one, the writing, although lovely, occasionally turns towards the … improbable. Take this passage:

“The silence hissed in her ears and her vision was faintly distorted — her hands in her lap appeared unusually large and at the same time remote, as though viewed across an immense distance. She raised one hand and flexed its fingers and wondered, as she had sometimes before, how this thing, this machine for gripping, this fleshy spider at the end of her arm, came to be hers, entirely at her command. Or did it have some little life of its own? She bent her finger and straightened it. The mystery was in the instant before it moved, the dividing moment between not moving and moving, when her intention took effect. It was like a wave breaking. If she could only find herself at the crest, she thought, she might find the secret of herself, that part of her that was really in charge. She brought her forefinger closer to her face and stared at it, urging it to move. It remained still because she was pretending, she was not entirely serious, and because willing it to move, or being about to move it, was not the same as actually moving it. And when she did crook it finally, the action seemed to start in her finger itself, not in some part of her mind. When did it know to move, when did she know to move it? There was no catching herself out. It was either-or. There was no stitching, no seam, and yet she knew that behind the smooth continuous fabric was the real self — was it her soul? — which took the decision to cease pretending, and gave the final command.”

Now that sounds just lovely. But seriously, what the fuck? Go back. Read the passage again. In the first place, these are the supposed musings of a sheltered 13-year-old — really? For another, 5 demerits for describing the human hand as a “fleshy spider” at the end of one’s arm and “a machine for gripping”. Additionally, there is something just too precious about looking for one’s soul(!) in the “crest” of one’s intention to move a finger. This looking for the “real self” (NB: dear fellow writers, if you find yourself musing about the “real self”, stop, take a nap, and come back to reconsider) by navel-gazing one’s own reflexes is writerly and unrealistic — this is not how humans, even very thoughtful, precocious humans, consider the world, and especially not in such abstract language.

But it sounds nice! It sounds … deep. This sort of tipping into absurdity is a problem McEwan has occasionally, it would seem.

Another problem with the way the novel is crafted: its engagement with World War II left me puzzled. Let me explain. The novel happens in three parts. The first occurs in 1935, on a single day and night during which we are eloquently introduced to a family and its moving parts (including that main character, the 13-year-old, whom I dislike so much), as they throw a small garden party in midsummer at their quasi-aristocratic British estate. This makes up the first half of the book or so (my copy is 350 pages), and it builds slowly, acquainting us with the characters of the novel until it concludes with an event the consequences of which play out in parts two and three. Part two of the book is set four years later; one of the characters is retreating from the Germans in northern France. I have sat and tried to think of why McEwan decided to stage this novel, at least in part, in battle in WWII. In the first place, the book did not seem to readily provide the answer to this question on its own. Don’t misunderstand, the book makes chronological sense and the plot is adequately tied to the setting, but: war is a loaded topic, McEwan is describing a loaded historical moment, and surely an author wouldn’t deploy such a time casually, for shits and giggles. I have considered that the transition from prewar to wartime Britain might usefully reflect on the maturation of the novel’s central character (the third part of the book takes place in London in 1940), and might parallel in some way the traumas and the strippings away of Briony’s (my loathed 13-year-old’s) adolescence, particularly in light of her crimes in the conclusion of Part One. (We’ll get there!) But that explains only the trajectory of the first and the third parts of the novel; the second part is set squarely in war-torn France as British forces fall back in hasty retreat, and again, this setting and this historical context seem too full, too fraught, to be deployed without larger symbolic purpose. One of the characters is at war, and it’s a trial for him, surely. But is that enough to justify 100 pages of disgraced battlefield? I kept looking for something that I don’t think was there, a significance the reader anticipates but is never rendered up. I am left with this feeling that McEwan — whom one can tell researched this portion of the novel ruthlessly for historical accuracy — wrote about the flight to Dunkirk because he thought it would be neat; I challenge this as a good decision, or, at least, as a fully realized component of the novel. McEwan left a lot on the field in this portion of the book.

Finally, let me come to Briony herself. To begin with, I should confess that books, movies, and television shows that are primarily about children and their concerns bore me. I have no desire to revisit the growing pains of my own youth, and I never found the reiteration of such struggles in art to be particularly useful or engaging for the adult version of myself. Again, frankly, I find children boring. But the recommender of this book does also, and so I took it on faith that McEwan must be doing something different in rendering youth.

Not really. Oh, how I hated Briony. The character as a young teen is precociously self-assured despite being so breathtakingly naive that I could not stop myself from spontaneously composing dialogue in my mind for the other characters to utter for the sheer purpose of humiliating Briony. She is also self-important and self-involved to the point of narcissism. These are deep character flaws, and yet they go unremarked upon by other characters or the author. And these flaws are not harmless — by the end of the first part of the book, her undeserved conceit — and her willingness to lie (though the character herself refuses to own up to the fact that she was lying, throughout the entire book, rather calling herself confused) — ruin the lives of a family friend and her own sister.

In the third part of the book, Briony is 18, but still cowardly, still apparently unclear as to the full dimensions of her own actions in the world, and, to me, still irritating for all that. But at this point in the book, I perked up a bit, as there seemed to be some hope for her — she seemed to be finally maturing, finally realizing her flaws. But then comes an epilogue. I don’t spoil much to tell you that it turns out a conceit of the book is that it is actually a non-fiction novel written by Briony, whom we encounter again in a first-person epilogue supposedly written in her late 70s. Still self-involved, still prattling about writing, the elder version of Briony is revealed to be profoundly uncharitable in her judgments of others, despite how much charity the forgiveness of her own young life requires. I was especially shocked by Briony’s lack of charity towards the character of her slightly older cousin (now an old woman as well) who was — again, I don’t spoil much here — a rape victim at 15. This ugly misogyny could be as much the unconscious fault of McEwan as of the character Briony, I couldn’t say for sure. But regardless, it’s a nasty note to bring the character out on.

And speaking of nasty, the “author” herself feels compelled in the final pages of the book to ruin its ending for “her” readers, out of what comes off as a selfish need to fulfill her own supposed obligations to truth, a compulsion I found laughably undeserving of the reader’s consideration; Briony, you have not earned the right to claim that you value truth above all else, or to be its defender in spite of its unpleasantness.

Long story short, I hated this bitch her whole life long. And I could be wrong, but I don’t think I was supposed to — I don’t think it was one of those books. So, you know, given that, that’s a problem, right? It actually might have been interesting if I thought I was supposed to hate Briony, given that the book is supposedly a true story written by her: the psychological implications of that are noteworthy. But even if that is the case, the revelation that the book is patially autobiographical comes too late, and is not given enough space on the page, for the reader to really work through those potential psychological implications. So while I don’t think I’m supposed to hate Briony, even if I am, the book still fails to give that idea the space and time it needs to really work on the reader’s experience with the character, assuming that forcing the reader to fully flip flop their understanding of a book after it’s already over is a cheap trick. (Which it is.)

Oh, Lordy, Ian McEwan. I don’t know what to say. McEwan’s writing talent is self-evident (not just in his prose, but in his composition’s balance and momentum, his characterizations, and his emotional acuity). But as I couldn’t stop myself from going on about above, this novel so frustrated me that I don’t know if I can call this a good book or not. I’ll leave it for you to decide. As I said, I will probably take on Saturday in the not-so-distant future, if you want to consider that. I hope there are no children in that one.

Thoughts on Gentrification, Race, and Some Delicious, Fraught Fried Chicken

If you like to go out to restaurants in Pittsburgh, you probably know the name Kevin Sousa. He’s the chef behind Salt of the Earth, arguably the best fine dining restaurant in town; he was nominated for a James Beard award this year. He also owns two other restaurant properties, Station Street Hot Dog, which is kind off by itself over on Broad Street, across the busway from the Target, by the East Liberty post office; and Union Pig and Chicken, which is on Highland Avenue, a block back from Penn Circle North. Station Street Hot Dog has been a hot dog place on and off since 1915. Likewise, Union Pig and Chicken is in a store front that has been variably occupied for as long as I’ve lived in the city, but was most recently Steel City Rib House.

I’ve been to Salt twice and it really is amazing food. Sousa put the restaurant into a formerly abandoned building in Garfield, just up Penn from Negley, several years ago. If you live in the city, you know that the Penn Avenue corridor has been slowly improving for years. Fancy lofts came to meet Sousa’s Salt, as did the upscale Mexican restaurant Verde (which is also very tasty). Penn is the dividing line between Garfield to the north and Friendship to the south, running more or less west to east up from where it divides Bloomfield to the south from Lawrenceville to the north. On the Larryville side of Penn, UPMC built the new Children’s Hospital, which has been a boon to the more westerly end of Penn. Likewise, East Liberty, which had at one time been one of the largest commercial districts in the commonwealth, but then was destroyed by terrible city planning in the 1960s, becoming a poor black neighborhood thereafter, has in recent years shaken off its blight and is now home to trendy bars and restaurants along Centre Avenue, which runs into Penn at the Target. The transformation in the neighborhood is now creeping onto Penn as well at this easterly end, which currently houses a number of predominately black businesses — and a fair number of empty store fronts. With the rehabilitation of the Highland Building into upscale apartments now underway, I don’t see how Penn Avenue can fail to go the way of Centre in this area.

My Mom and the Unfinished Boards.

So look, what’s the problem? Well, on one hand, there isn’t a problem, right? I mean, Kevin Sousa put three very good restaurants at three different price points into three empty store fronts in a somewhat blighted neighborhood. It’s hard to argue that something isn’t better for a neighborhood than nothing, and something good and popular isn’t even better than that. And though I haven’t been to Station Street yet, I can tell you that Union Pig and Chicken has some of the most delicious fried chicken I’ve ever had in my mouth, a fact I discovered on Friday when my mother and I went there for lunch.

But on the other hand, we know how gentrification works: a poor neighborhood, often a predominately black neighborhood, is down in the dumps. Working from a variety of intentions, from an honest desire to see a neighborhood get back on its feet to the cold calculation that you’ll make a killing if you get in on the ground floor of the Brooklynification of a city neighborhood, a crowd of wealthier, predominately white folks moves in and starts sprucing up the place. Except they always seem to spruce it up for themselves rather than the people who already live there — let’s be honest, it would seem that the Venn diagram of what black Americans and white Americans like to do with their disposable income does not completely overlap, which is fine, unless all of the businesses in a black neighborhood that catered to the black community get pushed out in favor of Stuff White People Like. Or, a worse scenario perhaps, or at least a more disconcerting one: where there is overlap in what black folks and white folks like, a black business providing it gets supplanted by a white business doing the same damn thing — like selling ribs and fried chicken.

Lemonade is served in mason jars. For some reason.

Look, Sousa didn’t push Steel City Ribs out of business: its doors had been shuttered for a couple of years before he started selling his pig and chicken. And I’d never eaten at Steel City, so I couldn’t tell you how good the food was. (Sad to say, I, like a lot of people I bet, feel more interested in trying Sousa’s comfort food joint — and maybe a little more comfortable — than an anonymous black business owner’s comfort food joint.) So I don’t want to sound as if I’m blaming Sousa for the gentrification of East Liberty, or for running the black residents of the neighborhood out of town, though that is likely to happen eventually if history is a reliable guide to what happens when trendy young white people get ahold of lower class black neighborhoods. I’m just saying that Union is emblematic of something happening in East Liberty right now that’s a bit fraught. I wish improving the neighborhood would raise all boats, so to speak, but I doubt that’s going to happen. And to disclose my own small responsibility in the affair, I’m sort of happily complicit in this — I patronize the new, gentrified businesses in East Liberty a fair amount: Abay, BRGR, Kelly’s, Plum, et cetera, and now Union Pig and Chicken. I prefer having a nice neighborhood full of shit I like right nearby to having an uninviting (to me), kind-of-run down neighborhood there instead.

It is the case that the Urban Redevelopment Authority has tried to keep new housing in the area at a mixed income level, and I hope they continue in that effort. And, to go back to an earlier point, it’s fair enough that the Kevin Sousas of the world would look at an empty store front in a neighborhood that’s had some tough times and say, “I can put something good in there and make this whole block better” — that’s not a bad inclination, nor one I’m trying to fault him or anyone else for.

I’m just saying the whole thing’s sort of fraught, OK?

This fried chicken was so fucking moist and wonderful.

For what it’s worth, here’s the restaurant review. The atmosphere of Union Pig and Chicken is almost satirically spot on to what a fancy version of a Southern/soul food restaurant should be: unfinished wooden boards make the walls, wooden tables and benches make the seating, and there is a single head-high slit in the back wall allowing the staff to see the customers without being so exposed as to interrupt the New Northeast Picnic feeling of it all; they play bluegrass on the stereo. There are three yummy sauces at every table setting, a BBQ sauce, a hot sauce, and a vinegar sauce. Half a fried chicken is $11, and it is absolutely delicious. Seriously, I want more of this chicken in my mouth, though next time I go back, I feel I should try something else, like the ribs or the pork shoulder — I also hear great things about the brisket. The sides don’t come with, and are $3-$5 apiece. I had the mac and cheese, and frankly, though it was absolutely fine, I was expecting more from Kevin Sousa mac and cheese. Mom got the potato salad and thought the same thing. Next time I’ll try the greens. I also got a fancy lemonade, which had lemonade, mango, vanilla, and rose in it, and it was very good. They have a nice cocktail list that I avoided because I was already suffering from a hangover, but I would definitely try a whiskey drink when next I’m there. So, anyway, there you have it. I’ll totally go back.

I’ll just feel a little fraught about it.

Union Pig and Chicken  on Urbanspoon

Mintt, second by a nose

After hearing many positive recommendations of Mintt from friends in the southerly area of town, and discovering from their website ( that they operate a lunch buffet every day of the week, Sabrina and I decided to venture out to Banksville road to see what all the fuss was about.

MinttOne thing that struck me about Mintt when we first walked in was the more upscale decor. Delicate track lighting, dark wood shutters, shiny wood tables… Mintt is perhaps the more chic looking Indian Buffet we’ve been to (though, oddly enough, nothing like the picture of the interior on their website. A stock photo, perhaps?).

The buffet was quite large at first glance, to the point where it nearly has its own room at Mintt. As it turned out, many items on the buffet were dishes and accompaniments that Sabrina and I had not encountered often or at all, such that I ended up having to taken some notes and do some online research when I got home. The first item on the buffet was one such mystery: paani puri, which I can only describe as a puffy cracker, literally fully puffed up nearly into a ball with an empty center. As I gather, they are meant to be filled with items such as vegetable bits and chick peas, but Sabrina and I ate them alone, and used them as scoops for the curry.

Next up was tandoori chicken, offered freshly sizzling on some sort of plate overtop a brazier. I don’t go in for the tandoori chicken myself, but Sabrina was impressed with the heating system, and later confirmed that the chicken was quite juicy. Next came pakora and bhajis, both relatively crispy (buffets may be the fried appetizer’s worst enemy), followed by naan and idly, a type of bread I had not seen before. It is something of a dense, thick pancake made from lentil and rice flour, apparently for sopping up sambar (which came later on the buffet). They were tasty enough, but given the choice I preferred the naan. Sabrina enjoyed some in a small bowl of sambar, which she found pleasantly thick, as opposed to more watery sambars she has encountered in the past.

From there, Mintt offered an assortment of meat curries. There was an Achari chicken curry that, for once, I did not pass up. It had visible seeds (that’s a good thing) in the sauce, and so looked more intriguing than the ubiquitous orange chicken curry that seems to find its way to every buffet. Indeed I found the Achari curry tasty, but ultimately the Butter Chicken far eclipsed it. The latter turned out to be my favorite item on the entire buffet. There was no lamb, but a goat curry was offered. Both Sabrina and I passed it by, however. I have decided that I don’t like goat curry, not because of the taste, but because it seems to be served everywhere with a wealth of bone pieces in the sauce. Sabrina simply had visions of cute, furry goats and opted to walk by. Rounding off the meat dishes was the chicken biryani, which I found tasty enough, but Sabrina found a bit off-putting, as she found bones in that dish as well.

Off to the vegetable wing of the buffet for many pleasant surprises. Here was served the sambar, as well as peas pilaf and an Indo-chinese dish of noodles. I don’t believe that Sabrina or I tried either of these two–there were just too many other great options and they were the most boring looking items on the buffet. This vegetarian portion of the buffet offered some typical items, some interesting twists, and some things we’d never seen before. There was Saag Paneer, and I loved it. Sabrina, being consistently skeptical of saag, admitted it was good, and credited it with being non-greasy, but cited its favoring of creaminess over vegetable-ness as the reason for it not being her favorite saag ever. There was an Aloo Tikka Masala, which we both enjoyed, but found to be very little like any Tikka Masala we’ve had in the past. There was a dish that appeared to be something of a banana pepper curry. We couldn’t puzzle it out at the time (the handwriting on some of the labels was difficult to read), but after coming home to research, I have determined it is most likely a Bottle Gourd Kadi. Neither of us had tried such a thing before. Apparently it is a yogurt and turmeric based sauce (it was neon yellow, after all), with bottle gourds (shrug?) and green chilis. I liked it well enough, and I trust that it is a shining example of its sort, but given the choice, I would pick other curries–however, I’m glad I got a chance to try it via the buffet. One standout among the vegetables was the Channa Ponyal, a dry-ish mix of chick peas, green beans and spices. It also had visible seeds (mustard, perhaps?) and I enjoyed its rich flavor of spices, among which I could swear I detected the piquancy of clove. Finally, on the vegetable bar, was a Carrot Halwa, a sweet-ish, curry-like mixture of pulped carrots with nuts and golden raisins and a strong cardamom tone; it added a nice variety to the flavors on our plates.

For dessert, there was the requisite rice pudding, of which Sabrina never partakes, but I always do. This one had a good cardamom flavor, my primary requirement for a good kheer. Additionally, there was hot chai, which both of us enjoyed.

On the ride home, we faced a tough decision. Mightily impressed with Mintt, we had to weigh our experience against the other buffets on our list. The buffet at Mintt received substantial points all around for rich and surprising flavors, for variety and unexpected offerings, and for amenities such as the tandoori chicken sizzler and the chai. Weighing it against all of our top choices one by one we did not find a rival for it until we reached our sitting second place buffet, People’s in Bloomfield. The food was of comparable tastiness, we decided, allowing for the possibility that People’s might be just a little bit better (it would have to come down to a taste test of greater proximity to tell for sure). However, in the end, the larger size of the buffet, the variety of dishes, including many we had not tried before (I had almost forgotten that was one of the reasons I like going to buffets to begin with, such have been my same-old-same-old experiences of late), and the extras and amenities offered by Mintt tipped it just over the edge into the second place slot!

Mintt Indian Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Dead Reckoning by Charlaine Harris

I recently finished the most recent Sookie Stackhouse book, Dead Reckoning, and I’ve been debating whether it’s worth writing a review. I’ve written a couple Sookie Stackhouse book reviews before (Dead in the Family, All Together Dead and so I think my general feelings of affection for this series of books is well known and had not changed with the reading of this latest book.

Dead ReckoningSince I really have nothing new to add about my appreciation of Sookie Stackhouse, another option would be to comment on the quality of this book in comparison to others in the series. In all honesty, however, I hate when people nit-pick about how the most recent book or most recent season/installment, etc. of some line of previously beloved fiction is not as good or didn’t live up to expectations. Unless there is a serious, steep decline, or anomalous direction taken in a series, why be picky? What happens, I think, is that the first encounter with good fiction is such an unexpected and, in many ways, pure, unblemished experience that people put it up on a pedestal, and nothing can ever compare to that first, fresh encounter. I’m of the mind that good fiction is hard enough to find, and we shouldn’t nit-pick when we do.

This is not to say I found Dead Reckoning to be sub-par in any way. What I can say is that it was “quieter” than the last book, Dead in the Family, where there were a lot of conflicts crossing paths and stories coming to fruition. There are two major climactic moments in Dead Reckoning, and one, at least, is quite large in scale, but for the rest of the time this book is more mellow in terms of plot action.

A couple of things I noticed and appreciated about this book. First, the development of Sookie as a character gets more interesting and complex as the story goes forward. While the character of Sookie (and the books as a whole) don’t lose their whimsical, folksy nature, the dark and violent parts are well balanced; this point is increasingly an issue, as we would expect repeated trauma and violence to have an effect on our main character by this time in the series. Harris does a good job developing Sookie’s inner conflict of morality, without letting the story get bogged down by moralizing. Sookie struggles with, but for the most part accepts, her reality where she has become, not only a victim of the violence, but also a part of the violence. How much violence is too much for Sookie? Where does she reach her breaking point? These are major themes dealt with practically and believably.

The other thing I’ve been enjoying about the most recent books is that Charlaine Harris seems to be engaging in an odd sort of meta-fictional conversation with the television series based on her books. Sometimes it can be as simple as an inside reference (in the last book, folks in Merlotte’s bar are listening to the True Blood theme song on the jukebox), but other times she seems to be reclaiming her story as her own. Maybe it’s because she figures the TV show will never get as far as she has written now and so it doesn’t matter. The first major change was in the last book when she wrote her own version of the story of Bill being changed by Lorena, an element of back-story that the tv show had taken the liberty of making up already, and in doing so she is essentially reclaiming that plot element as her own.

In Dead Reckoning, she seems to be openly defying the show, albeit in a playful and good-natured way. One aspect of the books that was purposefully left out of the tv series was the vampire Elvis character. Supposedly, getting the rights from the Elvis estate to use his name and likeness would have been too complex and/or expensive. In the books, the character of Bubba, who acts as a body-guard and enforcer for the other vampires, is purported to be the actual Elvis brought over as a vampire right after death; however, because he was so drug-addled at the time, the vampire Bubba suffers from some mental and emotional limitations. Hearing his real name or references to his past life sends him into a state of rage and emotional distress, so people can only call him Bubba (and perhaps that’s how Charlaine Harris got around the name rights issue; I don’t believe the name “Elvis” even appears in the books, only clear, but euphemistic references like “the king” or “the man from Memphis”). While the Bubba character has always been largely cursory to the plot, in this book, he is made a pivotal and central part of the biggest plot point in the book.

Last but not least, Harris also reveals–again, in a rather quiet way–the true source of Sookie’s telepathic powers. Not only is this a major reveal for the series (perhaps the longest-awaited reveal), but it takes yet another stab at the mythology of the TV series, which has already taken the liberty of postulating the source of Sookie’s powers.