Reviews

My Take on Reviews

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I was in Indianapolis for a convention, wandering the streets with my good friend around lunchtime, when we found ourselves in front a brewpub. There were no lines – a rarity at this hour – and my stomach was making the rumbiles.

“Let’s grab a bite,” I said.

“Hang on,” said my friend, and he took out his smartphone.

“Who are you calling?”

“Nobody. I want to check the reviews.”

“Reviews?” I asked. “It’s a brewpub. It’ll have hamburgers and beer and cost around twenty bucks. There’s no line. Come on.”

He looked up. “But are they good hamburgers and beer?”

“We won’t know until we try them.”

“We will if we check the reviews.”

This is utterly, completely … alien behavior.

I understand that reviews drive a lot of consumer activity, but it’s never made sense to me. In the days before the internet made everyone a critic, we had a professional class to tell one what to watch, what to read, where to eat. I remember that they existed, but I can’t remember a single time I took their advice.

I’m not sure why. It may just be a contrarian streak, or a dislike of presumed authority, but mostly it’s because I know I like a lot of things other people don’t enjoy. For instance, it’s difficult to imagine anyone I trust giving a five-star rating to even the most remarkable plate of haggis. My favorite whiskies have been described by trusted friends as tasting like “a mouthful of wet dirt.” And I take comfort in the existence of a Never Mind the Bollocks cover album performed by bhangra musicians.

Aside from my own quirks, thanks to the internet things have spiraled completely out of control. Anyone with access to a public library’s internet connection and two working fingers can now take part in elevating or torpedoing anyone else’s endeavors.

My favorite to date? “Honestly one of the worst masses I have ever been to. Boring, uninspired, sloppy and irrelevant”—Marilisa A., reviewing Our Lady of Good Counsel Church in Manhattan.

Seriously, who decides what church to attend based on semi-anonymous reviews? Presumably the same kind of people who take the time to write them.

I’ve tried to fold reviews into my recent larger purchases –a car, for instance. But with these items, it always seems to come down to hooting tribalism around someone’s personal preferences wedded to a certainty that all OTHER preferences are the work of Bealzebub himself.

Now, that’s at the consumer level. At the creator level, it’s naturally a different story. I have to recognize that reviews are considered an important part of the buying process by many people. I don’t have to understand it, necessarily; but I do have to engage with it.

What I *can* understand is this: It’s always pleasant to hear your work praised, and it’s always useful to receive constructive criticism, and it’s always a pain in the ass to slog through the pointless and unconstructive criticism. One way to counterbalance the unconstructive criticism is to provide more positive or constructive reviews for your fellow workers, slogging away in the word / note / jeté mines.

To my mind, the best review isn’t one which seeks to influence others into purchasing (or refusing to purchase) some piece of work. Rather, it’s a means of letting the creator know their work was seen, that there was a connection made. It exchanges just a bit more of my time for their work, lets them inhabit my mind for few hours longer. I suppose, perhaps, that’s the point that many reviewers make. A tip of the hat to someone’s best efforts, whether it was fully appreciated or not.

For the record, I didn’t review the brewpub. But the burger was fine and the lager was lager.

Review: Play to Innovate, by Bret Schwalb

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Play to Innovate isn’t my usual read. Generally speaking, I find books on business practice to be either tiresome slogs or condescending managerial tripe. Finding a book filled with solid advice that still clips along at a rapid clip is a wonderful change of pace.

Bret Schwalb’s central concept might not be brand new – brainstorming has, of course, been around longer than most of us have. What Play to Innovate does is shift the focus of a brainstorm away from the gray, safe, dry-erase corporate boardroom and towards a method of freeing our minds, individually or in a group.

While we’ve heard “there are no bad ideas” in countless sessions, none of them have felt true until running through one of Bret’s meetings. By encouraging a safe place, Play to Innovate unlocks something many of us buried long ago – the capacity for wonder, the ability to dream something larger than we have before.

When we hear of history’s great innovators, not one of them played it safe or focused on the realistic. They dared to think beyond the minds around them, to stretch the boundaries of imagination and pluck something tangible from a dream. Bret’s methods provide a framework to help your team do just that.

Perhaps the most eye-opening piece of advice is to let those individuals who take pleasure in dragging things down simply opt out. It’s rare, in my experience, to hear someone admit their method won’t please everyone. I can name with certainty the people in my company who would roll their eyes, drag their feet, and refuse to engage with this process; and seeing this acknowledged by an author is a refreshing thing.

I recommend Play to Innovate to anyone who has struggled with a thorny problem at work, or been challenged by seemingly impossible requests. Because with just a touch of play, the impossible can become innovation.

Stagecoach Mary, by Jess Nevins

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(Full disclosure: Jess Nevins has “Tuckerized” me – which is to say, named a character after me – in this book, so if you’re expecting solid literary criticism you should go talk to an academic he’s annoyed. However, I’m being as candid as my massive ego permits.)

Stagecoach Mary is a Weird Western pulp-style collection set in an alternate Montana in the 1890s. Consisting of eight short stories and encompassing elements of horror, westerns, steampunk and modern sensibilities regarding such things as race and gender; it’s a delightful read in the summer and, I suspect, will be even more fun come Halloween.

If you’re unfamiliar with the historical “Stagecoach” Mary Fields, well, you’re in for a treat. In our reality, she was the first African-American woman star route mail carrier in the United States. Tough, stubborn, independent and successful, she was a remarkable woman. Actor and Montana native Gary Cooper wrote an article for Ebony in which he said, “Born a slave somewhere in Tennessee, Mary lived to become one of the freest souls ever to draw a breath, or a .38,” which sounds like high praise in any era.

Jess doesn’t shy away from the racial elements of the time – you really can’t, writing about such a woman – but to my mind he handles it with grace. Alongside Mary’s own racial issues, the Blackfoot tribe and the trials of the Chinese in the American West are all presented with heroes of their own. (I will confess that Cool Hand Liú is, perhaps, one of my new favorite names.)

He writes each of the stories through the eyes of a young white American man, however, never trying to put himself into the shoes of the other characters; and while the narrator and the sheriff are perhaps remarkable for their tolerance in this time, if you can accept ghosts and river serpents you should be able to accept softer edges in a social milieu.

For the most part, the stories read with the quick action and tense excitement one would expect from this style. As in any clever collection, the two strongest stories serve as bookends. “The Hitchhiker” is a perhaps classic ghost story, but one with enough twists and turns, not to mention exciting scenes, to make one forget the urban legend at its core. And in “Stagecoach Mary’s Last Ride-Out,” a half-dozen more legends of the fictional Wild West make an appearance to fight alongside our erstwhile heroine, culminating in a shootout described with all the breathless intensity of the OK Corral.

Other solid stories include “Omahksoyisksiksina,” about those creatures the Blackfoot tribe may have left behind and to whom they eventually return; “The Phantom Airship of ’98,” featuring members of several tribes attempting to right a historically tragic wrong; and the aforementioned “Cool Hand Liú,” in which an alternate Paladin has his guns, and has certainly travelled. Each of these were well-crafted and enjoyable tales, with characters deeper than your average pulp and creatures described with feverish intensity.

The two weak stories, to my mind, are “Stagecoach Mary Outwits the Devil” and “The Madness That Overtook Cascade.” While “Outwits” is certainly well-written, and I enjoyed Jess’ Devil immensely, I was still unable to decouple it from its well-known inspiration, which you will recognize within a few pages.

My shrug at “The Madness” is, in a word, maddening, because I’m a huge fan of the work I believe inspired this one – HP Lovecraft’s Dreamlands stories – and I believe I simultaneously wished for more mythic and doomed poetry while being unable to envision the story’s events taking place in a stolid American plains town.

That being said, Jess Nevins has an excellent grasp of the way people speak. His dialogue throughout gave me different tones and voices in the ear, and his descriptions of Cascade and its surroundings made me feel as though I was there myself. Unsurprisingly, given his reference works, Jess also knows how the pulp heart beats, and makes copious use of that knowledge.

I found Stagecoach Mary to be a wonderful collection of stories by a writer who is solidly in his wheelhouse, about a woman who deserves to be more well-known and regarded in the modern day. Pick it up and review it for yourself, if you’ve the time and inclination – you won’t regret it for a moment.

Currently Eating: Duck Duck Goat

Duck Duck Goat is star chef Stephanie Izard’s “reasonably authentic” take on Chinese food, located in Chicago’s West Loop – the Fulton Market District. My friends Carl and Nancy snagged reservations in late May and invited us along for the ride.

First off, let’s discuss the decor. Each room in this multi-room, high-ceilinged restaurant is decorated in a different but striking style. The lounge area is a lovely jade green, with a small but well-tended bar behind which rises an old fashioned mirror and about two dozen statues of goats. Many with lucky coins, others without. The room in which we ate was also jade green, but festooned with around sixteen different Bob Ross style paintings of calm forest waterfalls. You think they’re all the same at a casual glance, but if you look more closely you’ll pick up on the differences. The ceilings were dark cork for style and sound-dampening properties, inset with colorful crests and ornamentation.

The main room feels taller as well as larger thanks to the exposed pipes and the mahogany shelves up where our ceilings were, filled with goods that give the feel of an Indiana Jones market set-place, well-lit against the scarlet walls. I could spend a happy hour just walking through the place and taking in the feel.

We started in the lounge with Blind Goat Old Fashioneds: J. Henry Blind Goat Bourbon, Birch-Sarsaparilla, Angostura Bitters and an orange peel the likes of which I’ve never seen. Their mixologist really knows what he’s doing – not a hint of pith, and about as wide as a woman’s palm.

Our lovely server Sara recommended two dishes apiece for a group of four, as the food is served family-style typically in sets of 3-5 items. We wound up with eleven dishes total, plus dessert and perhaps another cocktail apiece.

Starters were possibly my favorite item of the evening: goat and duck skin spring rolls, lightly fried and served with two sauces. These little morsels could be a lunch for me and I’d be well pleased. The snap of the roll against the slightly musty flavor of good goat’s meat combined with the richness of rendered duck skin and the wonderfully hot mustard.

After that, wood-grilled duck hearts in horseradish aioli sauce. The lovely copper tang of organ meats blended with a perfect amount of smoke, with sliced scallions offering some vegetal relief from the supreme richness of the meat and sauce combination. At the same time we were served scallion pancakes with hoisin sauce and cabbage coleslaw. I’ve never had scallion pancakes this light and airy – thin, crisp, and warmed just so to balance the coolness of the slaw. These two together were a lovely combination.

After that we got pickled cucumbers as a palate cleanser followed by pork fried rice. I’m not normally a fan of fried rice, but the manner in which we were eating was protein-heavy, and carbs sounded like a good idea. (I would have preferred to try the Forbidden Goat, black rice with goat and pickled quail eggs, but I wasn’t about to push anyone at this stage.) The dish wasn’t as heavy or greasy as most fried rice, as I expected, and the pork belly and sausage were a real treat.

Frankly, I could have stopped here and been immensely satisfied. But no, oh no! There was more on the way.

Horn Shu Rao – braised pork belly – which was properly prepared, but a bit gelatinous for some members of our party. I enjoyed the entire thing immensely and wound up enjoying their servings as well. A plate of pickled mixed vegetables and a dish of the most amazing green beans in black bean sauce with fried onions and cashews I have ever had. These two vegetable dishes together gave me a world of enjoyment.

Barbecue pork Bao buns, half apiece, really put me over the edge. These were good, and it may be my increasing discomfort, but I don’t think I’d get them again personally. On top of that pork we got jiazao – fried potstickers of short rib and bone marrow – which would rank as my second favorite items of the night after the spring rolls we started with. Completely different profiles, with these being rich and dark and smoky and divine; much better suited for the end of an evening.

Of course, then we saw a plate of regular wood grilled short ribs being served at the next table and, being who we are, added an order of those. Again, I’m afraid I wound up eating more than my share as some in the party had believed they would be boneless rather than bone-in. Saucy, sesame-laden, and pillow-soft to the tooth once you got through the tantalizingly crisp wood crust.

For dessert, blueberry and bullet chili sorbet topped with shaved rhubarb ice, “crunchy corn cereal” which I believe – but cannot prove – came from a certain Captain of the cereal industry – caramelized condensed milk, blueberries, and an incredibly delicious take on rhubarb slices that melted in the mouth.

The bill was also … remarkably low. I have honestly had much less food at a similar price here in the suburbs, routinely. I had fully planned to spend twice what I did for this experience, which makes it all the sweeter.

Admittedly, sleeping was an issue after that much rich and incredible food, but I’ll gladly trade a good night’s sleep for a meal I’ll still be thinking about for years to come. I am an unabashed fan of Duck Duck Goat and look forward to trying Chef Izard’s other locations in the near future.

Lyrics, And The Importance Thereof.

So here’s the story about how lyrics I’ve known for over 30 years brought me to happy tears tonight.

You first need to know that my wife, Leanne, is a fabulous artist. She makes amazing jewelry, and she had the courage to strike out on her own several years ago. Since then, the economy has performed its usual fol-de-rol, and as such she’s decided to take on a side job at a grocery chain.

Her shift this morning was 6 AM – 2 PM, and she left the house before I was out of bed. As such, when I came home at 4:30 (PM), she was cocooned in a blanket on the sofa. While I am often out of bed before she is, it’s rare that I have a chance to see her sleeping and at peace; which brought this song to mind.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JnuCo6jAgz0

My late father Craig Ewert loved Jethro Tull, and I inherited that love when he shared it with me. Several old friends have told me they think of me when they hear Ian Anderson sing, and that makes me happy.

I kinda wanted to send Leanne this song, after watching her sleep this afternoon. But I’ve been burned by lyrics before, so I decided to double-check. And my mind, it was blown.

This song was recorded before I was born, and I’ve been mis-hearing the lyrics forever. In my head, they always went like this:

What a reason for waiting
And dreaming of dreams
So here’s hoping you’ll fail
In impossible schemes

A very Scots warning against over-reaching yourself. A very reasonable note that you won’t always succeed, that it’s all right to aim lower than you could, that nobody could blame you for settling. That really, in the end, you’re always going to fail.

But tonight, before sending them to my sleeping beauty, I looked up the lyrics on Google Play.

What a reason for waiting
And dreaming of dreams
So here’s hoping you’ve faith
In impossible schemes

I’m still in tears, frankly, over this confusion. That for thirty or more years, I’ve held back. And that I’m not too old yet for faith.

Thank you, Ian. Thank you, the long-gone Mr. Tull. Thank you to the Blades. Thank you to Leanne for this gift, and thank you to my father, who bequeathed me with cynicism and hope in equal measures.

Right. It’s a work night. No more tears, but thirty years of memories to unpack.

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