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Small Press Feature




Salvatore Pane’s Last Call in the City of Bridges (Braddock Avenue Books, 2012)


                                                                      Ed Simon



Back in May Time Magazine ran a cover piece with the title The Me Me Me Generation: Millennials are lazy, entitled narcissists who still live with their parents. If not a corrective to this sentiment then Salvatore Pane’s novel Last Call in the City of Bridges at least evokes some explanatory sympathy for Generation Y. Pane’s characters, especially the narrator Michael Bishop, sometimes do seem lazy and entitled even if they don’t live with their parents (at least not all of them). But what Pane’s novel largely gets right that articles like the one in Time get wrong, is what the actual experience of being a millennial is like. Pane accomplishes this with endless pop-culture references, the use of the Facebook post as a narrative device, and with purposefully navel-gazing prose, but he always deploys these methods with an empathetic voice. While the results are mixed, the novel is very much an artifact of our recent times and that in itself can make it a book worth reading.


        Last Call in the City of Bridges follows several incidents in the Pittsburgh life of the aforementioned Michael Bishop between January of 2008 and the election of Barrack Obama with several flashbacks to his past. We’re introduced to his friends–whose dialogue can often run together or seem a little too stilted or rehearsed–including his dude-bro college buddy Noah, his roommate Oz who is a pretentious literature grad student at Pitt, a cute barista at Squirrel Hill’s coffee shop Arefa named Sloane who is engaged to Noah (and who both Michael and Oz have pined for at various times,), and Ivy Chase a Pittsburgher who has just moved home who Michael falls in love with (or who he thinks he falls in love with). The zigzagging plot works well and goes a long way to recreating the ways in which memory–especially wounded memory–works.


        The plot is standard young slacker stuff. It’s pretty clear that Pane must have a creased copy of Michael Chabon’s Mysteries of Pittsburgh somewhere. Is the title character’s name an homage perhaps? I don’t have my Chabon handy, but I think Chuck Kinder is named in the acknowledgments of both. Like his literary processor Pane makes a good attempt at capturing the experience of being this certain age at this certain time. Though he isn’t totally successful, one of the most powerful aspects of Last Call in the City of Bridges is the way in which it’s able to capture the particular transitory schizophrenia of those of us born in the mid-80s. Michael was in elementary school when the Berlin Wall fell, in high school when the Twin Towers fell, and in college during the nightmare of the Bush administration. And Pane is right to ruminate that the most notable and universal experience of Generation Y isn’t those aforementioned events of geopolitical import, but rather the emergence of Facebook and Twitter, millions of young men and women howling their barbaric yawps not from the rooftops but onto a computer hoping that someone will listen. We’re all guilty of that.


        Michael is incapable of conceptualizing or communicating any genuine or authentic emotion without recourse to 80s movies or video games, the “fragments shorn” against his ruin are Ghostbusters II and Super Mario Bros., fed through an endless way-back machine of reference upon reference. The novel makes it seem that perhaps the hallmark of Generation Y is not the usual litany that is trotted out in articles like the one in Time, but rather that we’re continually nostalgic about a past we don’t necessarily have a right to be nostalgic about, that we feel far older than anyone in their late 20s or early 30s should. If you’re unconvinced that this is the idea fix of a generation spend five minutes on Thought Catalog or BuzzFeed. If this novel has any one big theme I think it’s this: that the seemingly endless technology of personal expression forces us to speak even when we have nothing to say and as a consequence we have become the first generation that’s nostalgic for the present. True to his voice, this theme is offered without judgment.


        Sometimes Mr. Pane’s dialogue can be a little too unnatural or sound as if it is processed all through one voice. The details he gives become tiresome, like a friend telling you the minutia about their dream that was very important to them. This is most apparent in sections where Michael recounts his Pittsburgh experiences, like when he writes that he “watched a red incline climb out of the decadence of Station Square–home of the Hard Rock Cafe and Matrix Dance Lounge.” Last Call in the City of Bridges is filled with moments like that, encyclopedic recounting of Pittsburgh-facts that read as if they’re more fit for Pittsburgh Magazine than they are for a novel. And would anyone describe Station Square as “decadent?” A lot of adjectives could be applied to the Hard Rock Cafe (few that are positive) but “decadent” calls to mind foppish libertines at a Restoration orgy more than it does suburbanites eating jalapeño poppers. It’s clear that the characters in the novel have a clear affection for the city, but sometimes that enthusiasm falls flat and fails to translate for the reader since it’s always expressed so literally and so earnestly. With a character as obsessed with hiding his emotions through irony as much as Michael, the one certainty seems to be his love of Pittsburgh. One of his tragedies is that his expression of this can often feel so lame.


        But despite this tic, Pane is a writer of honest potential. When engaging with the foibles of technology that serve to permanently separate people he writes some scenes that are pitch perfect. The ways in which Michael and Ivy have a relationship mediated through Facebook, Sloane’s bizarre performance art project that involves her counting on the Internet, and a well-written scene where Michael confronts two 11-year-olds texting each other as they sit across from one another all speak to Pane’s eye for our present moment. Also, two sections should be singled out for being particularly well written: “This is How the Century was Born”, an incredibly moving chapter about halfway through the novel, and the final few paragraphs of the book where changing a word wouldn’t improve a thing are among the better things I’ve read recently.


        The best sentence, and the truest sentence, and the most relevant sentence in all of Last Call in the City of Bridges is when Michael says, “I just want you to know how much this all means.” I think it gets to the core of why Pane’s characters and why all of us spend hours on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, etc, etc, etc. It’s a desperate need to breathlessly tell someone else how much all of this means even if we’re not actually sure it means anything at all. It’s that uncertainty that Pane has a gift at capturing. There is a scene where Sloane asks Michael if he’s bothered that Generation Y has yet to produce truly great art, that “all we’ve managed to do is regurgitate pop culture on YouTube and Facebook and Twitter.” Last Call in the City of Bridges isn’t Generation Y’s great work, but it’s a good work, and it’s worth reading. And I think that Salvatore Pane has something worth saying, so much so that I wouldn’t be surprised if he at least gets close to answering Sloane’s challenge someday.






Aubrey Hirsch's Why We Never Talk About Sugar (Braddock Avenue Books, 2013)


                                                               Holly Coleman



Aubrey Hirsch has written a quick, yet fantastic read. This book contains a wondrous variety of science fiction, magic realism, suspense and mortality that will keep you flipping the pages. The author pulls you into each narrative with her engaging writing creating involvement and genuine interest in the characters. Imagination is alive in this book. The topics of Hirsch's stories range from disease to the god particle, to abortion, and gender identity.


        In “Pinocchio”, Pinocchio’s true identity is that of a woman. He must struggle with telling his the truth to his father, who had longed for a son. Pinocchio’s approach to his coming out to Geppetto reflects the idea, can God (Geppetto) "screw up"? Assign someone the wrong physical gender? How does Pinocchio continue to have a relationship with Geppetto after this revelation?


        The Disappearance of Maliseet Lake” is a fantastic story of suspended reality. Yes, the lake vanishes. What happens in this small town, whose economy is based on the lake, is where our story begins. News of the empty lake spreads and outsiders invade the town. Environmental protesters, scientists, and tourists all want a piece of Maliseet Lake. How do the residents deal with this recent loss and then subsequent invasion? Are they able to sustain an economy in their small town without the lake? Does the lake ever return? This story is a personal favorite of mine. I really enjoyed the style and pace of Hirsch’s storytelling as well as the imagery.


        My heart shattered as I read “Strategy #13: Journal”. The narrator reflects on her father’s multiple sclerosis through medical brochures and coping pamphlets: her family coming apart, her father deteriorating, and herself becoming his sole caregiver. The pain of watching someone who once cared for and protect you, now unable to care for themselves. The slow process. The emotional destruction. The loss of identity and freedom for the afflicted as well as caretaker.


        In the title story “Why We Never Talk About Sugar”, a pandemic holds the women of earth hostage by impregnating them with anything they thought they truly love. Women across the globe become pregnant with and give birth to items such as diamonds and chocolate. Hirsch resolves this mass pregnancy by forcing the women to be virtually emotionless and loveless in order to avoid these pregnancies. Love is met with punishment and consequences. Only for women. Pregnancy, which was once a joyful event, is now to be avoided, dangerous and shameful. The narrator’s sister still yearns and attempts to get pregnant, despite the warnings and stigmas.


        Hirsch has a gift for formulating worlds that take us away from the environment we are currently in. I read this book during my daily commute. The noise of the bus chatter and traffic were silenced as I dived into Hirsch’s stories. Her writing is real enough that you don’t think this is happening in a fantasy world, but perhaps a parallel dimension. I re-read this book multiple times and I still want more.


        Why We Never Talk About Sugar is one of the first books to be published from a fresh local press, Braddock Avenue Books. I look forward to possibly purchasing more books from Hirsch through Braddock Avenue Books. I hope and speculate that she will continue to  explore more topics like genetic engineering or reality television, and their cultural impact. Hirsch’s writing has left me wanting more. And I eagerly wait.






Della Watson & Jessica Wickens' Everything Reused in the Sea: The Crow and Benjamin Letters (Mission Cleaners Books, 2013)


                                                    Teresa Schartel Narey



In their debut poetry collection, Everything Reused in the Sea: The Crow and Benjamin Letters, Della Watson and Jessica Wickens imagine an apocalypse, where the Internet is the only place to seek life’s meaning. Watson and Wickens invent the online epistolary by writing poems comprised of exchanges made on social media between aliases BnjmnR (Benjamin) and alma_crow (Crow). The poems relate each character’s observations and experiences as they try to navigate the Internet, a metaphorical sea where bits and pieces of a pre-technological world remain. As the reader wades through the remnants, she has to wonder: is it possible for the Internet Age to produce any kind of nostalgia, or are Watson and Wickens right when they say, “maybe we’ve come too far as a civilization?”


        Sailing the sea of the Internet is quite the catastrophe. Human communication is endangered, as “the machine is a better reader of lips”, and because of industrial noise pollution, there is “a low mechanical hum that won’t stop.” Early in the apocalypse, Watson and Wickens assert, “I don’t like to think in absolutes / but no healthy cyborgs will come from this.” Humans have become so involved with machines and technology that they are evolving, though the warning in Watson and Wickens’ tone suggests that this evolution may be pathological.


        The making of identity is a critical component of Everything Reused... In Benjamin and Crow’s first online exchange, Crow is looking for Benjamin on Twitter. Unclear of Benjamin’s settings, she asks, “Are you public?” to which he replies, “I want everyone to see me. Is that wrong?” The strength of their online presence is hard to determine. In another Twitter exchange, Benjamin invites @hellabiscuits to be in their book, which suggests they have an audience. However, when Crow later writes, “The internet is a pasta strainer and some parts of our lives are water and some parts are noodles,” the reader has to wonder what has been lost. If the only evidence of our identities is online, and a search does not return everything about us, then how can we really know each other? Personal identity becomes a relic, because Google, Yahoo, or any other search engine can generate what it wants about us. Watson and Wickens caution that some of our important qualities could be in the water, and if that is true, then significant aspects of our identities are being washed away.


        Written language also becomes a thing of the past, as these poets surmise:


        this is mostly what the archaeologists find—contracts,

        grocery lists, receipts.


        an occasional love letter.


        in five billion years [1] , all words will be erased.


As tangible forms of communication dwindle, Watson and Wickens describe people as bored and desensitized. In one letter, Crow tells Benjamin:


        i made a bet

        that nothing interesting would happen





        so far, i am winning


Later she reveals, “There are dull days when we drink out of boredom.” The reader learns that courtesy is completely voided when Crow becomes sick because “people are coughing everywhere.” She expresses her disdain in a tweet with the tag, “#coveryourfuckingmouthspeople.”


        Most important is what Benjamin and Crow remember about a time when the Internet was just in its infancy. In the middle of the apocalypse, Benjamin writes, “In the 90s, we weren’t very advanced. Still / stringing popcorn,” to which Crow extends, “I do miss the grunge ease of 1995. Mine spent / in corn mazes and rabbit farms. . . . my best recollections leave me time sick.” When Crow asserts in correspondence on Twitter that “the internet is where ghosts live,” the reader begins to equate the online world with something like a graveyard of sunken ships; we imagine these artifacts—stringing popcorn, corn mazes, and rabbit farms—floating around, vastly apart, almost irretrievable. When “no light attracts [Benjamin and Crow] like the tv” and presumably the computer screen, how can we believe that there is hope for them to reclaim a time of fewer distractions and intimate activity?


        By the end, it is clear that the world Watson and Wickens have created is forever changed. Benjamin writes, “Incarnate us” in his final letter to Crow, suggesting that their only escape is to become something entirely different. While the weight of the book is carried in those lines, an earlier poem invites the reader to consider the impact of online activity before a catastrophe happens:


        imagine a world without transcendent sentences


        if we continue

        we will be forced to live below sea level


        spelling lost to the current


        text me / text me


        the water lapping at our feet


        In Everything Reused... people have sacrificed written language for digital communication. Among the tangible things remaining are cell phone buttons and computer keys. People are so entranced with these devices that they too are almost mechanical. While Everything Reused... uses email, tweets, and links to inform its readers of the Internet apocalypse, it makes its point by appearing in print. We have more control over what appears in print, that is, what can be edited and revised by our own hands. Once information is distributed online to the masses, it becomes out of our control, or “lost to the current.” If Watson and Wickens make anything clear, it is that we do not want to be nostalgic for that time when we had control over our own words.






Ed Simon is a PhD Candidate in the English department of Lehigh University. His writing and research focuses on culture, religion, and literature. He has been published in The Revealer, the Journal of the Northern Renaissance, and The Public Domain Review among other places. Born and raised in the city of Pittsburgh, he has always been particularly fascinated with that strange and wonderful transcendent mysticism which seems to radiate from his hometown.




Holly Coleman is a yinzer who lives on Troy Hill and works downtown. She co-manages and emcees the monthly reading series, The New Yinzer Presents.




Teresa Schartel Narey’s poetry and book reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in wicked alice, No Tokens, Poets’ Quarterly, The Mom Egg, and Apeiron Review, among others.  She is a recipient of an Academy of American Poets University Prize and has a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Chatham University.