Ithaca Blog

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Book Review: "Sweet Talk" by Stephanie Vaughn

As an avid reader generally, and good Cornell alum particularly, I cultivate in my home library (humble as it is) a catalog of books by other alumni, and Big Red faculty.

As a well-reading Ithacan yourself (don't be humble), you know the stalwarts: E.B. White, Nabokov, Toni Morrison, Thomas Pynchon, Archie Ammons, Richard Price. (Personally, I would add Albert Goldbarth, one of America's greatest poets, and my funniest teacher.)

Among newcomers, most prominent is Tea Obreht (MFA, Cornell 2009), whose 2011 debut, "The Tiger's Wife," was named a top-five novel of the year by the New York Times.

No doubt, there are many more I don't know. Which means they must not be as good, right?

Not necessarily. Stephanie Vaughn teaches at Cornell, and has for a long time, and her book of short stories, "Sweet Talk", unknown to me until now, is splendid.

So it must be new, if unknown?

Yes and no. The book is a re-release. It was published in 1990, and has long been out of print.

Who rediscovered it, I don't know. But they're to be commended and thanked.

Research shows that "Sweet Talk" got good notice when first published. Critics praised Ms. Vaughn, and connected her to the popular "minimalist" movement of the time. She was compared to two of its foremost figures, Raymond Carver and Lorrie Moore (both of whom, coincidently, like Ms.Vaughn, lived in and wrote about upstate New York).

The critiques and comparisons, heady as they were, should have helped Ms. Vaughn's career. Apparently, they didn't. She never published another book.

It might be that the critics missed the mark, and though well-meaning, sold Ms. Vaughn short, not reflecting her true strengths.

In truth, Ms. Vaughn's work is quite dissimilar to the minimalists. Their so-called "KMart Lit" was unadorned fare about ordinary people in circumstances generally ranging from cloudy to doomed. The writing was plain, to reflect the grimness and gloom.

Ms. Vaughn's characters are ordinary, but that's about as far as she goes with the minimalists. Her characters' problems are mundane, but are presented with enough absurdity or complexity (betrayal and lice, in one story; a failing relationship and a broken car radio on a cross-country trip, in another), to make them not deflating, but delightful, at least in the telling.

The minimalists' world is empty bottles, rusty cars, and thrift-shop shoes. Ms. Vaughn's is not so threadbare. But even when she treads there, she is extravagant, as in the start of the story called "Other Women":

Suddenly the world is composed of infinitely divisible parts, and things, it seems,  grow bigger as they grow smaller. An atom, once a tiny creature, is now a giant compared to a quark. And inside the quark, who knows? Maybe a whole universe of colliding specks, some of them red-haired, some blond, some sleek and dusky-skinned, some of them with silicone implants, and some of the plainer ones, like me, still going to the shopping center in thrift-shop shoes.

To put Ms. Vaughn in a school with minimalists is to hold her back. She is scientist, philosopher, poet.

Above all, she is simply a great and painstaking writer. Throughout, in every story, she supplies great sentences. Some are poignant (and scannable):

Then Megan slides into sleep, where she may say something strange or terrible, which no one will hear, a message spoken to herself but kept forever secret. 

Some are plain and clear-eyed, without luster (though not without humor):

Uncle Roofer was a big, friendly, gap-toothed man, a little heavy in the handshake, hot-tempered and smiling all at once. 

Uncle Roofer was a diabetic who drank bourbon.

Uncle Roofer was an alcoholic who ate lithium for lunch.

One day Uncle Roofer and the bourbon and the lithium got into the same car and drove to a Browns game in Cleveland. On the way back, they met a concrete retaining wall.

Last but not least, as seen here, Ms. Vaughn is funny: without sarcasm, slapstick or silliness, thank goodness. She is seriously funny. She made me laugh at a character's death with sounds of the vowels she chose.

Altogether, this is a writer. Cornell and Ithaca would be proud of her, if they only knew her. We hope she will become well-known with these stories, and with new ones, soon.


Saturday, June 23, 2012

Juneteenth 2012 At Southside Today

We city-o's who left the Big Apple to make Ithaca home will sometimes refer to town as the sixth borough.

The Southside neighborhood, where I live, is the main stem.

The feeling's there today at the annual Juneteenth event, celebrating African-American history and culture, at the Southside Community Center on South Plain Street.

It's a beautiful day, so come visit. Try the Ethiopian food, or Roy's Cuban fare, or the excellent fresh-juice drinks. There's music, and a great, friendly crowd to welcome you.

Steve Burke
for Ithaca NY Blog

Friday, June 22, 2012

MLK Sculpture on the Commons

The new Martin Luther King sculpture was unveiled on the Commons today, and suddenly it seems like a weightier place.

See it at the Cayuga Street entrance to the Commons.

Steve Burke
for Ithaca NY Blog

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Taste of The Nation Sets Record

Last night's Taste of the Nation event was the largest in its history in Ithaca, raising a record $54,500.

Underwriting by the Sysco Company, the Strebel Planning Group, and others allows the full money raised to go to the event's beneficiaries, local groups working against hunger among children.

Ithaca is the smallest city in the country to hold an annual Taste of the Nation event. Not surprising, given the giving nature of this town.

Over 50 restaurants, wineries, and breweries provided food and drink.

Southeast Asian seems to be the hot cuisine of the moment among local chefs. GreenStar Co-op (first-time participant in the event) and Hazlenut Cafe, of Trumansburg, were among many offering stellar stuff in this style.

The wineries were too numerously good to pick a best. For presentation and fervor, however, we will mention Ravines Wine Cellars of Hammondsport. H'port is one of the local towns we always mean to visit. Now we have an extra reason.

Steve Burke
for Ithaca NY Blog

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

GrassRoots Schedule Up

The schedule for the 2012 GrassRoots Festival is posted today.

Among the highlights are George Jones at 8 p.m. Thursday, and Rebirth Brass Band at 9:30 p.m. Friday.

The schedule and other info are available at

Steve Burke
for Ithaca NY Blog

Saturday, June 16, 2012

The State of Love

I thought of that old Woody Allen movie the other day, where he divides life into two categories, the Miserable and the Horrible. Those are the conditions he sees.

I thought of it because I was discussing with a friend the state of relationships. I have been single a long time. She has been busy with a string of relationships, but not happy.

We talked of a lot of things, but what it comes down to, I said, is the choice of being alone, and possibly lonely, or involved, and generally annoyed.

This annoyed her, which seemed to prove my point. And we're just friends.

"That's what you need," she said. "A t-shirt that says, 'I'd Rather Be Lonely Than Annoyed'."

"Yeah, except I'm not lonely," I said.

My personal option seems best to me, because the involved people, who are annoyed, can also be lonely. The double whammy. But you can't be alone and annoyed - annoyed at someone who doesn't exist? That's not metaphysically possible.

Of course, I suppose there is the state of possibly being happy.

As Damon Runyon says, though, anything in life is 6 to 5 against - and a proposition like happiness, in a relationship, much heavier, no doubt.

Steve Burke
for Ithaca NY Blog

Friday, June 15, 2012

Days Ahead For Doing Good & Having Fun

This is a big weekend for peace and fun in our community with the 3rd annual Peter De Mott Trot on Sunday, and events surrounding it.

Then on Tuesday, there is the Taste of the Nation event, with restaurateurs and other food professionals hosting a gala event for fighting hunger.

The De Mott Trot is preceded by a concert tonight at the Finger Lakes Wine Center, an interesting place to congregate. Double E, the Evil City String Band, and the Grady Girls perform. We imagine wine is available.

Peace activities continue on Saturday with an afternoon rally by the Ithaca Catholic Worker and others at the corner of Clinton and Meadow Streets.

And on Sunday, the crowd will be having a picnic at North Point at Taughannock Park, a beautiful spot, if you've never been. And a convivial group.

Steve Burke
for Ithaca NY Blog

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Demonstration At City Hall For Pyramid Studios, Wed. 13 June

Amy Puryear of the Double E band (and the music scene in general) just stopped in here to Angry Mom Records/Small World Music to tell us there's a demonstration going on tomorrow out our back door, at City Hall, to protest the destruction of historic Pyramid Studios on Clinton Street.

It's a musical demonstration. Amy's band will be there, and Sim Redmond's, and Richie Stearns, plus as many musicians as can make it. The music community cares about Pyramid, and its owner, Alex Perialis.

And everybody should care about this situation, which comprises issues of communication, and lack of transparency, or what you might call sneakiness and lying, more plainly.

The mayor needs to know that public opinion counts. Please come out and be part of the effort.

Steve Burke
for Ithaca NY Blog

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Third Annual Peter De Mott Peace Trot, Sun. 17 June

The third annual Peter De Mott Peace Trot takes place on Father's Day, Sunday 17 June, 10 a.m., at Cornell Plantations.

The three-kilometer run (or trot, or walk) is in memory and celebration of Pete De Mott, a friend to many in Ithaca, an activist for peace, a great family man, and an avid runner.

Pete served in the U.S. Army and in the Marines in the 1960's. His experiences in Viet Nam lead him to oppose war. Pete was among the most prominent anti-war activists in the world, committed in action and eloquent in words.

The Trot was created by his family and friends to honor and benefit Pete's work.

Details are available on the Trot's Facebook page, where you can register, or volunteer.

There will also be a benefit concert this year, on Friday the 15th, at 7 p.m. at the Finger Lakes Wine Center on South Cayuga Street, across from the Holiday Inn.

The concert features country rock from Double E, old-timey music from the Evil City String Band, and Irish music from the Grady Girls, comprising nieces and daughters of Pete and his wife, Ellen Grady.

Steve Burke
for Ithaca NY Blog

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Fred Eaglesmith at the Haunt, Thurs. 7 June

Fred Eaglesmith is a musician with a good career - dozens of albums, thousands of shows - and an exceeding popularity in Ithaca. He comes to Ithaca annually, it seems. He plays tonight at the Haunt.

Eaglesmith is like a rural Steve Earle, or a Canadian Tom Waits, although we don't know if he is Canadian.

Tonight's show is at 9 p.m.
Steve Burke
for Ithaca NY Blog

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Space Is The Place: Sun Ra and the Sounds of Venus

It would be great if everyone who is interested at looking at Venus skipping across the sun today also gave a listen to "Rocket Number Nine Take Off To The Planet Venus."

It is a great piece of music from the Sun Ra Arkestra that presents as clearly as possible the spirit of a rocket christened Number Nine taking off to the planet Venus to considerable enthusiasm, if for no particular purpose or reason.

Sun Ra was a great jazz musician and bandleader who gave his birthplace as Saturn, and lived in Philadelphia. His band of at least a dozen musicians played a lot of gigs in New York City and got there by Amtrak, all aboard with instruments and costumes.

Sun Ra looked at the world (and the cosmos) in a great way.

Steve Burke
for Ithaca NY Blog

Sunday, June 03, 2012

One-Dollar Volvo, at Ithaca Festival

A 1997 Volvo can be yours tonight for one dollar.

Ithaca Foreign Car Service donates a car each year for a raffle for the Ithaca Festival.

Tickets are one dollar, or 10 for $5.

I'll be among the crew hawking tickets in front of the car at Cayuga and State Streets.

All it takes is a dollar and a dream, the NY Lottery says. We say that actually all it takes is a dollar.

Come by and say hi and buy a ticket. You could be walking around lucky today and not even know it.

Steve Burke
for Ithaca NY Blog