Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Last Ballad

In 1929, Ella May Wiggins is a poor white single mother living in a black community in Gaston County, North Carolina. Tired of putting in twelve-hour days at a local textile mill while her children grew sick without her, she quits and becomes both an organizer and a singer for a labor union, which she hopes to integrate. As Ella Mae’s songs become more popular, she wins more recognition within the labor movement and more scorn from mill owners and the local police, and her fate becomes intertwined with those of several.

In recent years, Wiley Cash has emerged as one of North Carolina’s best storytellers. He captures the sense-of-place of the state’s western rural communities and the hardnosed sensibility of its inhabitants as well as anyone this side of Ron Rash. The Last Ballad, Cash’s third novel, sees him wed these skills to an exploration of local history. Ella Mae Wiggins and the Loray Mill Strike may be little remembered these days, but Cash gives them their due and then some in a powerful and evocative novel.

Though Ella Mae is the book’s central character, The Last Ballad does not read like a fictionalized biography. It alternates tales of her trials and tribulations with explorations of those in her orbit: the hapless drunk Verchel Parks, the young black organizer Hampton Haywood, the privileged but socially conscious McAdam family, and Ella Mae’s own daughter, who narrates periodically from a much later date. These shifts in focus allow Ella Mae to retain a mythical quality (for if the novel stayed with her the whole time, such a saintly depiction would invite incredulity) and also show how the injustices that Ella Mae fought against reached across lines of geography, gender, race, and class.

In this way, The Last Ballad is something of a Southern cousin to Dennis Lehane’s brilliant The Given Day, an equally broad-ranging look at the 1919 Boston Police Strike. But whereas Lehane’s book built toward a crescendo of violence, Cash’s keeps its tension at a steady low boil, erupting in devastating moments without fully spilling over. This ensures that The Last Ballad’s losses still sting even when readers know they are coming.

While some readers won’t cotton (pun not intended) to the book’s abundance of perspectives and the contrivance of their connectivity, others may be put off by its perceived schilling for a Communist-affiliated union. This is a shallow criticism if there ever was one. Readers needn’t sing Soviet praises to sympathize with Ella Mae, and in truth, the book isn’t particularly flattering toward union leadership. A more worthwhile source of disappointment is the abundance of sentimentality in the book’s final chapters. So much sorrow arises organically that it makes little sense for Cash to consciously (and clumsily) ratchet it up, yet he did so anyway.

Richly immersive and teeming with personal struggles and crises of conscience, The Last Ballad is a book not easily forgotten.


The Village Diner

Located at 600 W. King Street in Hillsborough, The Village Diner offers Southern fare for breakfast and lunch seven days a week. Food specials change regularly.

This decades-old greasy spoon was recently taken over by Joel Bohlin of the Fetch Hot Dog Co. food truck, who looks to provide some much-needed renovation and rehabilitation. As of January 2018, this is very much a work in progress. Only half of the building is open, the menu is limited, and the staff is still getting its bearings. However, if the food quality offers a glimpse of something to look forward to when the update is complete.

From the outside, the nondescript diner looks unchanged and untouched by time. The inside maintains a homey feel (brick walls and minimal décor) albeit with a few updates (i.e. hanging mason jar lights). It’s currently a smallish space, but that will change when the revamp of the currently-closed main dining room is complete.

Speaking of small, don’t expect an expansive menu during the revamp (or many meatless options, for that matter). What is offered, however, fits The Village Diner’s concept well: fried chicken, meatloaf, Southern sides (collards, green beans, etc.) and a few sandwiches were among the lunch offerings. Those seeking a homestyle meal will not be disappointed.

For our first time in, my wife and I opted for the Reuben and the chili dog, respectively, both with home fries as the side. The Reuben was a good-sized sandwich, none too greasy, with a quality dressing. The chili dog was beer-infused for extra flavor and had a firm bite. The fries were crisp and well-seasoned, and a tiny portion of slaw generated no complaints.

Those accustomed to the old Village Diner’s pricing are likely in for some sticker shock. My chili dog/fries/bit of slaw ran $7.50 while the Reuben and fries was north of $10. While not outrageous, these prices are definitely reaching given the location.

In its current state, The Village Diner is a worthwhile – if limited and slightly overpriced – lunch option. However, when the revamp is complete, it has the potential to be something considerably more.


Monday, January 1, 2018


In the 17th century, young Portuguese Jesuit priests Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver) travel to Japan in search of their fellow priest and mentor Cristovao Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who is rumored to have apostatized. Guided by disgraced fisherman Kichichiro (Yosuke Kobuzaka), the priests come across a Christian community that is being persecuted by the Tokugawa shogunate and its inquisitor, Inoue (Issey Ogata). Though Rodrigues arrives hopeful and determined, watching the converts’ suffering repeatedly tests his faith.

Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s novel is not a film with mass appeal: it’s long (2 hours and 40 minutes), talky, and full of torture. In lesser hands, that would make it unbearable. But Silence is a passion project for Scorsese, and the effort shows. It’s still a somewhat divisive film albeit a rewarding one for those who have the patience and the stomach for it.

Working in Silence’s favor are lush visuals, well-written characters, and a complex treatment of theme. The film makes the most of its setting, juxtaposing the natural beauty of Japan with the harsh realities of feudal village life. Jay Cocks’s script allows for a good deal of character ambiguity, and the cast is largely successful in playing that out. Kichichiro repeatedly renounces his Christian faith when threatened yet seeks Rodrigues’s forgiveness every time. Through Kobuzaka’s anguish, we see him as a sympathetic figure rather than a treacherous weasel. As Rodrigues, Garfield is sort of an anti-Thomas More. His attempts to remain resolute invite horrible consequences, and the film toys with the idea that he is motivated by a desire for the glory of martyrdom rather than mere benevolence. Ogata plays Inoue as genial rather than sadistic even though the punishments that he inflicts become crueler and crueler. The film works to raise questions about the cost of belief, but it wisely avoids providing obvious and ham-handed answers.

As with many longer films, Silence drags at times, and the score is too understated to impart much tension. A bigger distraction, however, is the film’s treatment of language. English stands in for Portuguese here, a pragmatic choice that nevertheless invites several problems. At one point, a character remarks about the confusion between “son” and “sun,” something that would not exist in Portuguese. Garfield and Driver begin with unconvincing Portuguese accents that are not consistent throughout the film while Neeson doesn’t even bother. Meanwhile, Ogata’s English evokes racist stereotypes and would not sound out of place in a World War II-era propaganda reel. Given how much attention was paid to other elements of the film’s production, it is puzzling to see communication get short shrift.

Despite his deep personal commitment to it (the film was in development for years as the director took other projects solely to secure financing), Silence is not among Scorsese’s best works. It is, however, still thought-provoking and well-crafted in its own right.


Friday, December 29, 2017

Dinner at the Center of the Earth

For more than a decade, Prisoner Z has been housed off the books in a covert prison in the Negev Desert, his only company a lone guard. An American by birth, Z was formerly an Israeli Mossad operative who later betrayed his adopted country. He bides his time writing letters to The General, the man who sentenced him to his fate and the only one who can set him free. He is unaware that the General is in a comatose limbo, trapped by his memories, largely unresponsive to the outside world, and watched over by his trusted confidant Ruthi, who happens to be the guard’s mother.

Nathan Englander’s 2017 novel is an ambitious book, equal parts captivating and frustrating. It’s an existential character study that wears the trappings of a historical spy novel, engrossing in its complexity yet nearly undone by a contrived ending and by leaving too much off the page.

Dinner at the Center of the Earth alternates between several different times, places, and viewpoints. The “present-day” (actually, 2014) chapters reveal a codependent relationship between guard and prisoner (an odd, co-dependent friendship) and mother and son (the latter cannot fathom the former’s fanatical devotion). The “past” chapters take us to 2002 where Z falls for an Italian-Jewish waitress in Paris (to be named Shira in later chapters) as his espionage career unravels. Other past chapters focus on Farid, a Palestinian ex-pat living in Berlin whose life is upended when he meets a Canadian businessman. The quick movement from one perspective to another will alienate some readers, but for those who are willing to keep up, this structure sustains the story’s momentum by drawing the audience to a point where past and present converge.

Englander also takes care not to stereotype his characters. The General is Ariel Sharon in all but name, and the novel does not shy away from confronting the controversial legacy of his long and bloody military career. However, it also shows the affection he had for his family and the veneration he inspired in those such as Ruthi. Contrastingly, Farid is shown in a relatively sympathetic light, but the dark path that he takes is not excused let alone exalted.

In light of this character development, however, Z comes across as a weak protagonist both inside and outside of the story. Within, Shira continuously points out his deficiencies as a spy and his mother his inadequacies as a son. For us as readers, he comes across as a naïve fool too easily swayed to take up one cause and then another. Were Englander to show more of him working his way from A to B and B to C, he would be both more believable and worthier of taking up so much of the book’s focus.

Given the novel’s content and tone, the title seems completely out of place, as is the incident it refers to: a romantic rendezvous between Shira and a Palestinian mapmaker in a tunnel beneath disputed territory. Their relationship is supposed to serve as a counterpoint to Shira’s years-ago (but not forgotten) relationship with Z, but whereas the book’s other parallels seemed more organic, this one is clumsily forced, and the distracting build-up to it makes the latter quarter of the book something of a letdown.

In The Dinner at the Center of the Earth, Englander bites off more weighty concerns (questions of culpability, the efficacy of vengeance, etc.) than his trim 250-page-book can effectively chew. It's an admirable attempt but one that comes across as underdeveloped.


Scratch Handcrafted Donuts and Fried Chicken

Located at 1220 Battleground Avenue in Midtown Greensboro, Scratch Handcrafted Donuts and Fried Chicken offers its namesake items as well as breakfast and lunch sandwiches and coffee drinks. It is open from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily, and specialty donuts rotate regularly.

The brainchild of Buddalicious Food Truck owner Jimmy Chhay, Scratch is Greensboro’s first chicken-and-donut shop. Given that the city lost both Rise and DonuTime in recent months, its arrival is fortuitous. It also brings a breakfast option and a lower-priced lunch alternative to the Midtown stretch of Battleground. However, neither novelty nor proximity will keep a restaurant afloat in the long run. Fortunately, Scratch has several indicators that point to staying power.

For starters, the selection here is commendable. Regular donut flavors range from simple glazes to pb&j and maple bacon to fritters. Breakfast sandwiches come on your choice of a biscuit, a donut bun (unglazed), or a glazed donut. Chicken is available in dry or wet flavors that evoke Southern (BBQ or buttermilk ranch) and Asian (Siracha honey or Korean) influences.

For my first time out, I went with one of the specialty donuts (caramel macchiato) and a fried chicken, egg, and cheese sandwich on a donut bun. The execution wasn’t flawless, but there was more good than bad. The donut’s icing was deliciously sweet and delivered both of the expected flavors. The donut itself tasted fresh though it was not especially remarkable. The breakfast sandwich was substantially bigger than a McMuffin clone, and the donut bun, though odd at first, held everything in place nicely. The chicken was a thin cutlet, crisply breaded and surprisingly moist. The sandwich as a whole, however, was frustratingly dry, and the establishment should definitely consider offering sauces and/or spreads as add-ons.

Scratch’s pricing won’t leave you feeling gouged. The donuts are mostly either $1.25 or $1.75 (only apple fritters run more). Breakfast sandwiches start at $1.50 with one topping included and 50 cents for each additional topping ($2.00 if that topping is fried chicken). For the quality and quantity, those rates are tough to beat.

Though Scratch is minimally decorated – unadorned tables and bare brick walls – it isn’t an eyesore. Seating, for a donut shop, is more than adequate. The counter staff seemed a bit harried at times, but no one was rude, and food came out relatively quickly (a sign by the menu advises patrons to expect a fifteen-minute wait on fried chicken orders).

All told, Scratch is no Rise, and there is room for improvement, but there are definite high notes, and its concept is one that does more than just sound good on paper. For anyone with an eclectic donut itch, Scratch is worth a try.


Saturday, December 23, 2017

Liberty Oak Restaurant & Bar

Located at 100 W. Washington Street in Downtown Greensboro, Liberty Oak offers upscale cuisine for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday and a brunch menu on Saturdays. There is a full bar, food and drink specials rotate regularly, and patio seating is available. Reservations are recommended.

Liberty Oak is a venerable name within Greensboro’s dining scene, and it isn’t hard to figure out why. The restaurant goes back several decades, and its current location – the historic Vernon Building – is convenient to just everything downtown. Add to that the restaurant’s potentially revitalizing acquisition by chef Kristopher Reid, and all the ingredients are here for Liberty Oak to continue to thrive. Unfortunately, the actual dining experience falls short of realizing this potential.

First, the good: Liberty Oak has a fantastic menu. Apps include the ever-popular dynamite shrimp and a selection of ravioli that rotates daily while dinner offerings feature new interpretations of classics (i.e. buttermilk fried chicken with a tropical fruit and black bean salsa and a chipotle glaze) as well as several permutations of risotto. Options run the gamut from entrée-sized salads and vegetarian plates to 10-ounce strip steaks with two sides.

For the most part, the kitchen executes well. The salmon in my wife’s salad was grilled perfectly, and the accompanying citrus vinaigrette was bright and tangy. My seafood risotto carbonara was nicely plated and seasoned and featured sizeable shrimp as well as a welcome hint of sweetness from the corn. However, the risotto was al dente verging on undercooked and not as creamy as expected.

Liberty Oak recently received an interior remodel, and though the palette isn’t terribly exciting (lots of tans and beiges), this isn’t a bad-looking space (though my wife was convinced that it smelled like an old school). Staff are courteous and service is efficient if a bit distant.

When it comes to pricing, however, Liberty Oak’s reach definitely exceeds its grasp. Entrees run in the twenties, which puts Liberty Oak in Undercurrent/Print Works/Green Valley Grill territory. Unfortunately, compared to those establishments, Liberty Oak lacks the precision, creativity, and depth.

If a walkable downtown location is important and bang for your buck is not, then Liberty Oak offers a chance to enjoy a mostly satisfying meal in a historically significant venue and experience what was probably once the best restaurant in Greensboro. These days, however, there exist better options.


Liberty Oak Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Monday, December 18, 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Pursued through space by the nefarious First Order, the Resistance faces dwindling fuel and a leadership crisis. Former stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), mechanic Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), and droid BB8 travel to resort planet Canto Bright to recruit a master codebreaker who will allow the Resistance to disable the First Order’s tracking device. They are aided by ace pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), whom General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) recently reprimanded for his recklessness. Meanwhile, former scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley) has journeyed to remote Ahch-To to recruit Jedi master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to the Resistance’s cause and learn more about her burgeoning Jedi abilities. Luke, however, wants nothing more than to be left alone as he is still stung by the defection of his nephew Ben Solo (Adam Driver) to the dark side. Now, as the First Order operative Kylo Ren, Ben uses his psychic link to Rey to try to win her allegiance while she does the same to secure his.

For all of George Lucas’s half-baked ideas and for all of the valuable contributions made by others (his ex-wife/editor Marcia, screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, and producer Gary Kurtz especially), Star Wars films have, for the most part, been a continuation of a story Lucas began telling forty years ago. Even 2015’s The Force Awakens, a Lucas-free affair helmed by J.J. Abrams – owed an obvious debt to 1977’s A New Hope. The eighth episode in the series sees not only a new writer/director (Rian Johnson, best known for Brick and Looper) but one who would dare take the franchise in a different direction. This, of course, raised the ire of longtime fans, for whom such deviations are heresy. Factor out such allegiances, however, and The Last Jedi is still a divisive film: beautifully shot and convincingly acted but poorly plotted and clumsy in its messaging.

At two-and-a-half hours, The Last Jedi is the longest Star Wars film to date, but it does not have the feel of a long movie. It’s a fluid film that maintains tension and excitement throughout. Spacecraft combat, chase sequences, and hand-to-hand fights make for lively viewing. From the creepy caves of Ahch-To to the blood red mineral deposits of the planet Crait, there are some striking visuals. Johnson complements this rich palette with a preference for practical effects and puppetry rather than conspicuous CGI. Were it not for a ridiculous shot of Leia using Force powers to twirl through space, this would easily be best-looking Star Wars film to date. John Williams’ music remains as fitting as ever.

While Johnson thrives as a director, his writing very nearly sinks this film. Not since Dawn of Justice has an otherwise credible big-budget affair been this badly plotted, and a large chunk of the problem boils down to misplaced priorities. The Finn/Rose sidequest to Canto Bright comes across as a waste of time when the codebreaker they retrieve (Benicio Del Toro in an underwritten role) proves not all that he cracked (pun intended) up to be. Instead, it not only pads the film but also plays as a flimsy pretext for tossing in broadsides against economic exploitation and animal cruelty. This is still more that can be said for the needless conflict between Poe and awkwardly introduced Resistance Vice Admiral Holdo (a purple-haired Laura Dern, who is given more to work with), a point of contention that could have easily been avoided had Holdo filled Poe in on her plan when he asked. Frustratingly, Johnson chose these threads as worthy of emphasis while deeming an explanation for the First Order’s sinister Supreme Leader Snoke (voiced by Andy Serkis) surplus to requirements.

Johnson also likely won few admirers by transforming Luke from a triumphant symbol of hope into a bitter and scared old man. However, this decision actually pays off: it adds an edge to Luke’s do-gooder character that was previously missing, and it gives Hamill a chance to do more actual acting. Though best known for his voicework these days, he proves up to the task. He’s in good company: with the exception of Del Toro (who, again, had very little to work with), most of the cast puts on a good showing. The late, much-missed Fisher gives one hell of a final performance as Leia, imbuing the ex-princess with both steely resolve and well-timed sarcasm. Isaac and Boyega continue to grow their characters as Poe learns some measure of restraint while Finn gains the willingness to lay his life on the line for a cause. The Rey-Kylo dynamic continues to fascinate, and both Ridley and Driver do a great job of projecting inner anguish.

Like its predecessors, The Last Jedi offers annoying kid-friendly critters. This time, they take the form of porgs, a type of big-eyed bird. The best that can be said is that the audience isn’t the only one suffering in their presence: they are a thorn in Chewie’s side throughout the film, something that is played for laughs. Speaking of humor, The Last Jedi consciously plays it up at times. It’s a great deal more conspicuous than the improvised Han Solo quips of yore. Sometimes, it works (Luke acknowledges that Rey’s home planet is pretty much nowhere); in other places, it feels forced.

At one point in The Last Jedi, Kylo comes to the conclusion that the only way for him and Rey to find a way forward is to destroy what remains of the past. At first glance, Johnson seems all too comfortable with that notion, but by the end, The Last Jedi has sewn hope for the future, both in story and out. It is unfortunate that getting there was such a contrived, if exhilarating, mess.