Month: August 2014

Restaurant Review – Throwbacks Bar and Grill – Delran, NJ

I haven’t had the best dining experiences lately. Between the screaming children, 55 gallon drums of vegetable soup and the $11 can of spinach that took an hour-and-a-half to prepare, I really felt the need to throw one back. While out one day I made the adventitious discovery of Throwbacks Bar and Grill in Delran, NJ. Feeling that this may be destiny calling, I stopped in.

It had nice décor for a sports bar. Big screen televisions flanked the room so all patrons could see them. The bar had an odd shape similar to a square route symbol. As service turned out to be excellent I suspected this design facilitated customer service.

Throwbacks used a theme menu with the appearance of an old time newspaper. The company logo appeared faintly in the background. I thought that a very nice touch.

As far as I’m concerned no “bar and grill” has the right to use that expression unless they can make a good Reuben. Throwbacks earned it. They prepared the most interesting one I’ve ever had. I can’t recall ever having one on whole grain bread. The preparer didn’t drown it in Russian Dressing, either. The sandwich had just enough to add the proper flavor. I never would’ve expected a bar to come up with a way to make a Reuben seem healthy.

It came with a side of cole slaw, pickle and French Fries. The later were thinner that the ones I’m used to eating in bars, but they tasted great. I thought the $9.99 price tag for this platter perfectly reasonable.

I liked the place so much I stopped by again for lunch. This time I ordered the Crab Cake Sandwich Lunch Combo. This was another great value at $10.00. I thought the crab tasted a bit plain, but the cocktail sauce spiced it up for me. It came with the same things I listed above plus an option of soup of the day, chili or salad. I opted for the soup of the day and it just happened to be (gulp!) Vegetable Soup. They did serve it in a cup as advertised. The chef prepared it with more pepper than other vegetable soups I’ve had. The broth had just the right pop.

The staff conducted themselves in an exceptional manner. I received my crab cake sandwich with cocktail sauce. My server offered to get me some tartar sauce without my having to ask her for it.

I know I’ve raised an issue about dining around screaming children in an earlier review I wrote. Ironically, on one of my trips to Throwbacks a child started wailing. In this case, the woman behind the bar asked if she could provide ice or assist in some way. Another server went over to see if she could do anything to help. This showed some outstanding customer service that entailed going beyond my normal expectations. I give the staff a lot of credit for it.

Since Throwbacks is a bar, I should point out that they serve the usual array of beer on tap. I drank iced tea as it contains about the same amount of alcohol as domestic beers. (For people outside the United States who are reading this: that’s not far from the truth.)

Throwbacks served up a great dining experience. I anticipate returning to this sports bar once Football season gets underway. Depending on how the Eagles season goes, I may be drinking something a little stronger than iced tea. I might also be screaming louder than the children, as well.

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Restaurant Review – Akira 2 – Moorestown, NJ

This afternoon, I decided to leave my comfort zone and try some Japanese food. I guess that makes me the adventurous type. Many people I know get leery when I ask if they’d like to go out for Oriental cuisine. This response always mystifies me. I don’t find it that much different from typical American dishes. Many times, they entail either a different combination or preparation of foods people are already familiar with. The Pad Thai I had today served as a great example.

Upon entering Akira 2, guests are treated to an elegant interior. Yellow walls flank dark tables. A large wooden figure of Buddah sits over a small pond. Lights that alternate from red to green to blue illuminate the statue. This makes for a very inviting atmosphere. They also have outdoor seating overlooking downtown Moorestown.

The chef prepares the meals in full view of the patrons. This always puts me at ease. The current issue of Columbia University’s Journal of International Affairs addresses the topic of global food security. The fact that the kitchen is out in the open shows me that the preparers have nothing to hide.

I started off with a green iced tea. I’m a big tea drinker and Akira 2’s version pleasantly surprised me. I ordered the unsweetened variety as I’ve been told that obesity is the second leading cause of death for internet food critics. (In case you wondered, homicide is the first.) It tasted much more tangy than what I’m used to. This was one of those rare cases where I didn’t feel the need to sweeten my drink.

The main course made me glad I didn’t. I ordered the Pad Thai with Chicken and Shrimp. What an original tasting meal. The chef prepared this dish with a sweet sauce. Between that and the peanuts, it gave the noodles a flavor reminiscent of peanut butter and maple syrup. This made for a very interesting combination. I’ve had Pad Thai in the past, but not like this. I mentioned the sugary nature of the sauce, right? After I finished, my plate looked like I’d just finished off a stack of pancakes with all the syrup left over. In fact, it was so sugary a bee nearly flew into my mouth when I left the building. (That’s true, folks. I’m not making it up.)

I can’t fault the chef for the sweetness of the meal. Pad Thai is one of the more “sauce heavy” dishes I’m familiar with. To be fair if there is a food worth drowning in something it would be rice noodles. They don’t have much of a flavor as it is, so any addition is worthwhile. For that reason, I can’t in good conscience write that Akira 2 overdid it. Pad Thai is a unique combination of ingredients and may not be to everybody’s liking. For those not allergic to peanuts or suffering from diverticulitis: putting on the bucket list is worthwhile, however.

I thought the price $14.99, pretty reasonable. I may have misread the menu, though. When I ordered, I thought it came with soup, salad and a vegetable, which it did not. I’d suggest the management make clearer what does and does not come with additional food. I went away full, but I would’ve been curious to try some soup.

I enjoyed my visit to Akira 2. They offer a host of Oriental dishes, including Sushi and Hibachi prepared meals. If peanuts and sugar aren’t to your liking, I’m sure they serve something that is. I’d encourage others to do the deuce and check out Akira 2.

Book Review – “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy” – By Isaac Bashevis Singer

I don’t typically review short stories, but “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy” was not a typical short story. As far as I’m concerned, Isaac Bashevis Singer earned his Nobel Prize for this piece alone. Some reviewers call it a novel. Based on the structure, I would classify it as a short story. I’m in awe of the way every facet of this complex tale wove together at the end. At the same time the author included a bit of a cliff-hanger. What an amazing utilization of the short story form.

I’ve never read a work of fiction with such well-developed conflict. The brevity of the story added to my awe of this achievement. The protagonist was a young Jewish woman who longed to live like a man and become a Rabbi. In spite of “the Torah’s prohibition against wearing the clothes of the other sex” (page 155), Yentl took on the male persona, Anshel. While doing this, she met another Rabbinical student (Avigdor) with whom she fell in love. He loved another woman (Hadass) whom Yentl (as Anshel) married to preserve for Avigdor since her father refused to allow him to marry her. This tale had conflict in so many different forms it astonished me that the author could fit it all in. None of it came across as contrived or too cluttered to follow, either. All I can write is: WOW!

I liked the way “Yentl” explored gender roles. At the beginning of the tale when she asked her father why she wasn’t born a boy he explained, “Even Heaven makes mistakes.” (Page 149) In the guise of Ashel, Yentl studied to become a Rabbi, and performed as well as her peers. No one discovered her gender until she chose to reveal it herself. If I hadn’t known the author’s sex before reading, I would’ve assumed the writer a female. I’ve never encountered a story with such latent feminist undertones written by a man. Once again, I admired Mr. Singer’s skill.

While about young Rabbinical students studying the Jewish faith, Mr. Singer presented it in a way that made it accessible to a much wider audience. As someone who attended Catholic schools for 13 years, I understood the story. Not once did I get lost or find the subject matter dull. The story grabbed me from the beginning and made me want to keep reading until the conclusion. The fact the author achieved this writing about a world totally alien to me again, showed his proficiency as a teller of tales.

My only criticism involved Anshel’s (Yentl’s male persona’s) marriage to Hadass. Did she have no brain? I didn’t understand how she could have possibly lived as Anshel’s wife and not had any idea as to her real gender. The sentence “Anshel had found a way to deflower the bride” (Page 161) served as Singer’s only hint as to how this occurred. I’m struggling to wrap my mind around this one. It reminded me why we writers are always told to “show don’t tell.”

I read “Yentl” out of The Collected Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer. The quality inspired me to read more of the author’s work. I’m glad to have more of it on hand. If I may paraphrase Mr. Singer, “A writer is essentially a story teller. Not a scholar or a redeemer of mankind.” With the greatest respect to Mr. Singer, he schooled me on just how a writer can add copious conflict no matter what length a work may be. He also redeemed my faith in the artistic integrity of the short story. He did all this while telling a great story, too.

Drama Review – Glengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet

Out of respect for sensitive readers, I shall not mimic Mr. Mamet’s raw use of vernacular during the course of this review.

Glengarry Glen Ross explored the harsh, cut throat world of real estate sales. Through the drama’s presentation Mr. Mamet took a trip into the cul-de-sacs and tenements at the depths of the human psyche. The playwright melded the techniques of wit, humor and cynicism to provide an engaging illustration of cold-hard realism.

When one envisions people behaving at their self-serving worst, professions such as politicians, corporate executives or blogging drama critics come to mind. The telling choice of real estate illustrated much. These characters were modern “everymen”, with all the fears and flaws that drive a man to his worst. (Oddly, the play contained no female characters.) If the Marquis de Sade had been around in 1982, he would’ve struggled to create characters the likes of Richard Roma and Dave Moss.

One of the pitfalls of writing drama entails limiting the author’s ability to truly show a character’s essence. This is especially true for the written version. It didn’t inhibit Mamet at all. In fact, he thrived. The best example I’ve ever read of how to show a character’s true essence follows. Below Dave Moss attempted to talk George Aaranow into committing a robbery for him.

Moss: Listen to this. I have an alibi, I’m going to the Como Inn, why? Why? The place gets robbed, they’re going to come looking for me. Why? Because I probably did it. Are you going to turn me in? (Pause) George? Are you going to turn me in?
Aaronow: What if you don’t get caught?
Moss: They come to you, you going to turn me in?
Aaronow: Why would they come to me?
Moss: They’re going to come to everyone.
Aaronow: Why would I do it?
Moss: You wouldn’t, George, that’s why I’m talking to you. Answer me. They come to you. You going to turn me in?
Aaronow: No.
Moss: Are you sure?
Aaranow: Yes. I’m sure.
Moss: Then listen to this: I have to get those leads tonight. That’s something I have to do. If I’m not at the movies…if I’m not eating over at the inn…If I don’t do this then I have to come in here…
Aaranow:…then you don’t have to come in…
Moss:…and rob the place…
Aaranow:..I thought we were only talking….
Moss:…they take me, then. They’re going to ask me who were my accomplices.
Aaranow: Me?
Moss: Absolutely.
Aaranow: That’s ridiculous.
Moss: Well, to the law, you’re an accessory. Before the fact.
Aaranow: I didn’t ask to be.
Moss: The tough luck, George, because you are.
Aaranow: Why? Why, because you only told me about it?
Moss: That’s right. (Page 44)

While the play described a fictitious real estate office, I could swear I bought a car off of Moss at some point. He certainly knew how to talk people into doing what he wanted.

I read a number of other outstanding uses of language. Due to the length of the preceding passage, I’ll only reference one. At one point, master exploiter Richard Roma said, “Always tell the truth. It’s the easiest thing to remember.” (Page 61) He later showed monumental skill as a fabulist nearly conning someone out of $82K. In this case, I know I definitely bought a car off of this guy.

Mamet’s character development impressed me the most. I mentioned Roma and Moss already, but I found Shelly “The Machine” Levine the most thought-provoking. From the playwright’s depiction, I visualized him as a cross between Willy Loman from Death of a Salesman and “Old Gil” from The Simpsons television series. The guy took the concept of a loser to a whole new depth. (I won’t give spoilers.) I applaud Mamet for keeping me interested in this character’s fate in spite of his pathetic nature.

While I greatly enjoyed the play, I had two criticisms. First, I didn’t like the title. I’ve seen the movie and read the play and didn’t understand. I looked it up on Wikipedia and the entry said it came from two different real estate developments the salesmen attempted to peddle. The author’s intention escaped me both times. (For those unaware: Mamet also wrote the screenplay for the movie version.)

I also didn’t like the way the true office thief got caught. It came across as extremely contrived and too convenient. (I won’t express the identity of the thief or his revelation for those unfamiliar with the work.) I thought the rest of the play outstanding, so this lapse at a critical point in the story stood out.

While the narrative showed that one should “always be closing”, I couldn’t put the play down once. Now that I’ve finished, I’m heading out for damned Chinese food. Aw, that’s one lapse into swearing. Not bad for a Mamet fan.

Restaurant Review – Jade Bistro in Mount Laurel, NJ

To give an example of just how slow the service, one of my dining companions ate General Tso’s Chicken. When she ordered, it was Sgt. Tso’s Chicken. It moved up the entire military hierarchy in the time it took to prepare it. I attended with a party of twenty. The time it took for them to deliver everyone’s meal was about twice as long as all Liz Taylor’s marriages combined. I would’ve thought with my group having reservations on a Saturday night, the establishment would’ve been much more prepared.

In addition, they didn’t have enough brown rice available for our group. Did I mention this is a Chinese restaurant? They did cook some more but it took a while to prepare. A number of people had to wait quite some time. I think some of the men in our group needed to shave at least once before they brought it out. One of the lucky people in my group received his meal early. He ended up sending it back for reheating so he could have it with his brown rice.

I started off my dining adventure with a pint of the Mixed Vegetable Soup. They served me a quart of it. The dish reminded me of Pho Thai only substituting vegetables for the meats and noodles. I explained to the server that I ordered the pint. She responded that particular appetizer didn’t come in that size. When I made it to the bowl’s half-way point, it became light enough for me to move. I checked the menu and, sure enough, it did specifically state that the Mixed Vegetable Soup came in a pint. While I liked the soup and certainly thought it a value for $4.00, the restaurant didn’t give me what I ordered.

After invidiously watching all of my dining companions receive their meals ahead of me, I finally got mine. The enormous size of the appetizer turned out to be rather serendipitous. It was a good thing I filled up on soup first.

Whenever I go to places that serve ethnic foods, I like to try something different. I’m not a vegetarian, but I do enjoy vegetables, especially spinach. I read something on the menu called Garlic Water Spinach. I had to try it. As it turned out I’ll be telling the great-grandkids about this dinner.

The server brought over a plate containing a lump of spinach interspersed with garlic. That was it. That was dinner: a $10.95 plate of spinach. I eat spinach on a regular basis, this was, well, different. I had to twirl it on my fork like spaghetti and eat it like cotton candy. I looked for a knife to cut the coarse texture, but I didn’t have one. None of the servers came around to ask if I needed anything.

Spinach gives a person strength which worked out well for me here. I needed as much energy as possible to eat dinner. Imagine eating garlic flavored Big League Chew. I thought I’d need to see a trainer about muscle strains in my jaw. I’ve never eaten anything this tough: and this was a vegetable!

When I got home I spoke to my Step-Mom, Pat, about my experience. She’s an excellent cook. She informed me that microwaving spinach makes it very tough. I’ve microwaved spinach many times, but never encountered this issue in the past. Prior to writing this review, I nuked some. It tasted very soft and went down smooth. I’m not sure what the Jade Bistro did to prepare it.

Needless to say I had plenty of room for jello when I finished dining. To accompany my “dinner”, they gave me a small cup of white rice. I didn’t like that I didn’t have a choice of white or brown. With that noted, if I did order the brown rice I’d probably still be there waiting for it.

And there’s more. They didn’t give my party checks. We went up to the register and told the person what we ordered. (I should add that a malfunction with the register delayed the payment process.) While doing this, I wondered what it would be like if companies like IBM and Microsoft billed customers this way. I liked that the Jade Bistro felt they could trust me. I still don’t think the honor system is the best way to run a business.

To be fair to our servers: they did the best they could. I don’t fault them for the slow service. I only saw two of them in the entire establishment, though. As I mentioned prior: I would’ve thought a restaurant would’ve been better prepared for a large party that had a prior reservation.

My mother, rest her soul, would’ve been proud of me for eating my greens. That’s my only positive take on the dining experience. I expected to come away from this meal feeling jaded, instead I left disappointed. I guess I should’ve gone out for steak instead.

Drama Review – Ashes to Ashes by Harold Pinter

When I read the list of characters in Ashes to Ashes I felt flattered. The great Harold Pinter imitated me. He also crafted a play encompassing only two characters. Unfortunately for yours truly, all the similarities between the two of us end there. Works such as Ashes to Ashes show why Pinter earned the Nobel Prize in literature; becoming the only British playwright to be so honored. (Shaw and his hero Beckett were Irish.) And this play isn’t even his best. It still bears the hallmarks of an outstanding Pinter drama.

I remember a lyric David Gilmour included in Pink Floyd’s “Sorrow”: “There’s silence that speaks so much louder than words.” I’m wondering if he read Pinter at the time he wrote it. Pinter wouldn’t be Pinter without including pauses throughout the text. They’re one of the very few stage directions he included in his work. He used them rather liberally as in this exchange.

Rebecca: Oh yes. I kissed his fist. The knuckles. And then he’d open his hand and give me the palm of his hand…to kiss…which I kissed.
(Pause)
And then I would speak.
Devlin: What did you say? You said what? What did you say?
(Pause)
Rebecca: I said “put your hand round my throat.” I murmured it through his hand, as I was kissing it, but he heard my voice, he heard it through his hand, he felt my voice in his hand, he heard it there.
(Silence) (Page 5)

And this is the beginning of the play.

WOW! What a method to draw attention to great dialog. The interesting thing is that the pauses and silences are just as important to the text as the dialog. Pinter used them in a way comparable to how a composer would use a rest in music.

Ashes to Ashes atypically included a line that stood out to me.

Devlin: A man who doesn’t give a shit.
A man with a rigid sense of duty.
(Pause)
There’s no contradiction between those last two statements. Believe me.
(Pause)
Do you follow the drift of my argument? (Page 47)

I don’t, but this gave me something to work on if I chose to do explications du texte again.

Another section that showed Pinter’s genius occurred when Rebecca discussed a divorced couple she knew. Devlin asked her questions that she ducked. Pinter could’ve easily resorted to his pauses and silences to convey that. Instead, he used clever dialog with the pauses added at critical times in the conversation.

Rebecca: (…) He says he misses the kids.
(Pause)
Devlin: Does he miss his wife?
Rebecca: He says he’s given the other one up. He says it was never serious, you know, it was only sex.
Devlin: Ah.
(Pause)
And Kim?
(Pause)
And Kim?
Rebecca: She’ll never have him back. Never. She says she’ll never share a bed with him again. Never. Ever.
Devlin: Why not?
Rebecca: Never ever.
Devlin: Buy why not?
Rebecca: Of course I saw Kim and the kids. I had tea with them. Why did you ask? Did you think I didn’t see them? (Page 61)


Dialog like that shows why people like Harold Pinter win Nobel Prizes and people like me can only admire them. I think I’m going to leave the writing plays with only two characters to him.

The Royal Court Theater first performed Ashes to Ashes in 1996. The strength of Pinter’s writing at this stage of his career impressed me. While an outstanding play in its own right, Ashes to Ashes doesn’t compare with the quality of Pinter’s earlier works. With the exception of Shakespeare’s plays, The Birthday Party and Betrayal were the best dramatic works written in the English language. The man’s talent was quantum. Ashes to Ashes would serve as a good introduction to his plays.

Restaurant Review – Blue Fig Café – Moorestown, NJ

Nestled away in the Moorestown Commons off of Young Avenue, The Blue Fig Café offers a host of delicacies from the Eastern Mediterranean. This afternoon, they treated me to the pleasure of dining on the best lunch I’ve ever had.

As the tag line “the Essence of Mediterranean Cuisine” intrigued me, I decided to partake of the full experience. I started off with a Lebanese Tea with Mint. The small glass it came in added to the cultural ambiance. What an outstanding beverage. I discovered that it tasted just as good with or without sweetener. I’ve never written that about tea before. For tea-totallers interested in something with more of a punch than regular tea without the harsh, spicy aftertaste of Indian tea, my recommendation would be as strong as this tea itself. Just don’t drink it less than two hours before bed time.

My server brought over some flat bread with an olive spread. The later had the texture of ground meat, so the olive taste did surprise me. I’ve had them on many occasions, but I give the chef credit: he included just the right amount of olive oil. My server offered to bring more bread. I took advantage just so I could have more of the spread. With the greatest of respect to the folks who make olive loaf: that’s the first time I recall making a provision so I could eat more olives.

For my main entrée I ordered the Shish Tawook. The menu described it as, “Tender marinated char-grilled chicken cubes with a touch of our house spice blend. Served over rice or couscous and grilled vegetable.” In essence, think Shish Kebob while substituting chicken for meat. I had mine with the couscous. It tasted excellent, but I wouldn’t call it spicy. However, the meal included a creamy dipping sauce. That may explain why I didn’t find it very zesty; either that or I’m mentally comparing it to Indian food. Let’s face it: after eating Indian, not even jalapenos taste spicy.

I didn’t see it listed on the menu, but the lunch even came with a salad: a real salad. The later contained very fresh cucumbers, tomatoes and lettuce. The unexpected addition to my lunch pleasantly surprised me. The café didn’t just deliver what it promised: it over-delivered. I can’t think of a previous time I’ve encountered that.

I liked the authentic Eastern music adding to the ambiance. The three large pictures on the wall of the sea and some Grecian rock formations enhanced the overall decor. My one criticism involved the size of the interior. I went at an odd time and was the only patron in the building for most of my visit. It still seemed cramped. I thought a lot of the tables very close together. If I’d eaten at a peak time, I would’ve been concerned about elbowing the person sitting next to me.

To be fair, the Blue Fig Café offered outdoor seating. I noticed plenty of space outside. In fact, one of the reasons I was the sole diner in the building was because the other patrons chose to eat there. The next few months will be a great time to do so, especially in the evenings. The establishment also provides take out, and, much to their credit, delivers.

Without doubt, the Blue Fig Café served the finest meal I’ve ever had for $12. While I did have the chicken, they serve a number of meat-based lunches for only a dollar more. They also provide kid’s meals. Zagat’s rated them, as well. For those looking for quality, value and a taste of the East, I’d strongly recommend the Blue Fig Café in Moorestown, NJ.

Theater Review – A Man of No Importance – Burlington County Footlighters Intern Co.

What an outstanding effort by an “Intern Company”! I attended a performance of A Man of No Importance at Burlington County Footlighters in Cinnaminson, New Jersey. The cast, crew and band performed an exceptional job of staging this production set in 1964 Dublin. They did so well with the costuming, dancing and Irish accents, that I could taste the Guiness. When I got up to leave the theater I caught myself looking around for my Nehru jacket. Talk about getting into a play!

A Man of No Importance was the most challenging musical I’ve ever seen. A number of scenes entailed solo singing without the benefit of musical accompaniment. To make matters tougher for the actors, but I can’t imagine the ardors of trying this in a thick Irish Brogue in front of a live audience. I give Ryan Kiernan (Alfie) great credit for taking on such a demanding role, I’d give him even more kudos for the outstanding way he pulled it off. Anthony Ieradi (Robbie) and Allie Payne (Lily) turned in exceptional vocal performances as well.

I liked the overall premise of the story. It showed the travails of a theater group attempting to put on a scandalous play in a church; that performance being Oscar Wilde’s Salome. (Hey, this was the 1960s.) As the drama progressed, the figure of Salome (Moira Miller) periodically danced in the background. Each time she’d appear, she’d remove one of her veils to reflect the further revealing of the tale. I won’t give away spoilers, but Oscar Wilde figured into the story and even spoke to Alfie on several occasions.

It surprised me to discover that (according to Wikipedia) the play was based on a 1994 film. I didn’t think that the major issues explored in the drama would have the same impact with a modern audience as they would in 1964 Dublin. Today, the ideas of a single mother, homosexuality and marital infidelity are blasé ideas to incorporate into a story. I realized the real point centered on how the protagonist (Alfie) responded to them. His friend Robbie told him he needed to see more of real Dublin. Alfie’s sister explained that he had a lot of books. The story served as an enlightening peek at one man’s voyage of self-discovery in a supposedly conservative society.

One issue I usually have with musicals in that the constant singing tends to break up the narrative flow. The songs in A Man of No Importance, helped advance the story. Mr. Kiernan’s rendition of “Welcome to the World” drew me into the character’s emotional state. I’ve never heard a song that achieved this so well.

Moira Miller (Salome) did an exceptional job with costume design. Everyone dressed just like someone from the period. I got a true sense that the action took place in the 1960s based on the actors’ attire. The added touch of the janitor’s “Yardbirds” tee shirt showed phenomenal attention to detail.

I have to admit that I liked the performers much more than I enjoyed the show itself. I’m always impressed by the skill level of the actors in so-called “community theater.” The traditional Irish dance at the opening of Act II was absolutely phenomenal. I couldn’t believe that the performers in this show either attended high school or college. They seemed much too advanced in the craft for “interns”. They may be men/women of supposedly no importance now, but they’ll be big somebodies on Broadway someday if they keep turning in solid performances like they did today.

Book Review – Happy Valley by Patrick White

Reading Patrick White reminded me of the old Foster’s marketing campaign on “How to Speak Australian”. In one add a rugby player put a band aid on his head. He ran out to the field as an Australian voice over said, “Helmet.” The next screen showed a can of Foster’s getting slammed on a table. A voice over with an Australian accent said, “Beer. Foster’s: It’s Australian for beer.” Reading his works makes me feel like the name “Patrick White” is Australian for “Novelist.”

Mr. White held the distinction of being the Land Down Under’s sole Nobel Laureate in Literature; receiving the award in 1973. His novels presented a unique approach to writing that made his works extremely challenging (to be charitable) and perplexing (to be realistic). While still trying to wrap my mind around complex works such as The Vivisector and The Eye of the Storm, I discovered his first novel still extant. Wanting to see if some of White’s unusual approach to writing germinated in that effort, I checked it out. To my both my delight and consternation, many of the elements of his later work appeared in his 1937 debut, Happy Valley.

I struggled with this book. As I wrote above, White’s work has a reputation for difficulty. The overall premise challenged me. Nine characters, most of them major, appeared in his narrative. He depicted two unhappy marriages with the other persons playing supporting roles. After battling through Happy Valley, I have a better understanding as to why we refer to players in a novel as “characters.”

In addition, White pioneered an original approach to point of view. He wrote in third person POV. He’d center on one character and then would transition into the second person point of view. For readers scratching their heads, here’s an example.

Going home, Alys Browne felt calm and detached. She trod on a frozen puddle and heard it crack. I wanted to escape, she said, this, after all, is California, its true significance. Understanding, you felt no pain in your body, that ice did not touch, in your mind that was a fortress against pain, and Happy Valley, and because of this you lived. (Location 4862)

This section presented a unique challenge. It had the White POV transition combined with a character speaking about herself in the first person. This writing style made Ulysses seem like a light read. I didn’t commit a typo when I left out the quotation marks, either. The author chose not to include any in the text. Passages such as this provide a good example why many readers experience difficulty with this author’s work.

While understanding Happy Valley vexed me, I did find it a worthwhile read. White presented a number of exceptional lyrical flourishes that justified the effort. I liked the following poetic expression: “Words beat on the border of her mind, but did not penetrate.” (Location 1321)

In another line that I enjoyed the author exhibited outstanding imagery: “You could see the surf whiten the shore through the darkness.” (Location 1342)

I found the following one of the best chapter endings I’ve ever read.

So on, so on, with the diversity of detail and the pathetically compulsory unity of purpose that informs a town asleep. Smoke mounts faintly skywards from the chimney-pots. Dream is broken, turns, sighs. She said, she said, the wind. The cat walking on the water-butt touches with her cold pad a star, claiming it as her own, like Happy Valley extinguished by the darkness, achieving a momentary significance. (Location 1639)

After reading the above paragraph I could mentally see a book being slammed down. A voice over with an Australian accent said, “Novel.”

I appreciated reading Happy Valley even though the complexity of the plot and writing style confused me. At times my head felt like I’d just thrown back a few pints of Foster’s. With all that out of the way, I do plan on reading this book again. Now that I understand what I’m in for and have a background, I’d like to go through it once again. This time I’ll focus on mining it for the story. The way I see it, if I get flustered and the attempt drives me to drink, I’ll know just what to pick-up.

Book Review – One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

Ken Kesey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest ranks among the best of the Penguin Great Books of the 20th Century series. It’s the last book in the chain that I read. Had I realized the exceptional quality of the writing, I would’ve explored it much sooner. I never thought a story about inmates in an asylum could engross me so much. It sounds trite, but the more I read the more the story appealed to me. Kesey did a monumental job with his allegorical style, plot and character development and choice of point of view. It amazed me to see all three of these elements done so well in the same book.

I enjoyed the underlying subtext. While ostensibly about a group of mental patients, the theme addressed issues of conformity and submission to authority. As I read, I kept thinking the book came out in the late 1960’s. The 1962 publication date astonished me. That showed the visionary genius of its author. Mr. Kesey recognized some underlying currents in society before mainstream audiences did. That’s one reason why we regard One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest a classic today.

Most authors choose to present a narrative that is either character driven or plot driven. One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest demonstrated that rare exception where I witnessed both. The author created a host of unusual characters for the novel. The protagonist, McMurphy stood out as a true original in the annals of American literature. The author introduced him as such.

He’s got on work farm pants and shirt, sunned out till they’re the color of watered milk. His face and neck and arms are the color of oxblood leather from working long in the fields. He’s got a primer-black motorcycle cap stuck in his hair and a leather jacket over one arm, and he’s got on boots gray and dusty and heavy enough to kick a man half in two. He walks away from Cheswick and takes off the cap and goes to beating a dust storm out of his thigh. One of the black boys circles him with a thermometer but he’s too quick for them; he slips in among the Acutes and starts moving around shaking hands before the black boy can take good aim. The way he talks, his wink, his loud talk, his swagger all remind me of a car salesman or stock auctioneer- or one of those pitchmen you see on a side show stage, out in front of his flapping banners, standing there in a striped shirt with yellow buttons, drawing the faces off the sawdust like a magnet. (Page 11)

Kesey left no doubt as to what readers could expect from McMurphy through his opening description. I liked the way the author showed him walking through the group shaking hands. This passage demonstrated the character’s persona while at the same time advancing the plot. I’ve never read an author who did this so proficiently.

I don’t think it possible to have selected a better narrator than Chief Bromden. I always enjoy works with “unreliable” narrators, but Bromden took this to another level. He falsely portrayed himself as deaf and dumb to the other inmates. This gave him access to information other potential narrators wouldn’t have. He obviously suffered from mental illness as evidenced by his belief the hospital staff put a transmitter into his pills. This gave Kesey the leeway for Bromden to express what he believed other characters were thinking similar to omniscient point of view. He achieved this while staying in the mind of just one character. Brilliant!

I’d recommend One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest to anyone looking for a good read. I’d place it on a list of “must reads” for aspiring novelists. Someone once said about Peter Sellers, “The man was so talented, you can’t emulate him: you can only admire him.” Those words aptly apply to Ken Kesey’s craftsmanship of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.