The Nutella Cafe – Nope

A latte and a crepe with banana slices and whipped cream.

Yesterday night, my wife and walked past the Nutella Cafe on 13th Street at University Place in Manhattan on our way to New York Health and Racquet Club. My wife commented that the line had finally died down, though the place was still busy inside. My first thought was that it was the middle of the week, but thinking about it, this place has had a line out the door and around the corner of the block since it opened early last month.

We went to check it out right away too. Without realizing it, we got in the line to get inside the restaurant after it had already been closed to new customers. When the guy watching the door noticed, he let us in anyway. Maybe he didn’t want to disappoint potential new customers, or he was trying to maximize the cafe’s earnings that night. I don’t know. I’m not even sure if he just worked the door or he owned the place.

The ordering process was pretty straightforward, though the selection seemed pretty limited. Most of the things on the menu weren’t all that exciting and looked like the sort of stuff that would be pulled out of a freezer and reheated in a microwave oven. The crepes are basically carrying the menu, and that’s what we ordered.

Was it worth it? Not really. Not for the prices they’re charging. You get a crepe with some Nutella. You want fruit? Extra. You want whipped cream? Extra. I’d be ok with the “extra” if it was a reasonable price, but if I remember right, the crepe pictured above wound up being about $10 and there wasn’t even that much banana in it. Maybe just a quarter of an average sized banana, and that doesn’t really make sense. I can two bananas for what they charged to add it as a topping.

The latte was good, but I could get a better crepe at Mitsuwa Marketplace in Edgewater, NJ. Probably in Manhattan, too. And in any of the boroughs. And for less money. With Nutella, and with more fruit.

So how do you get away with selling decent coffee and so-so desserts at inflated prices? You make it fashionable by throwing a name on it and hyping it up. The higher price itself is part of the plan. You make it fashionable to go there. Showing up at the Nutella Cafe becomes less about the quality of what you’re consuming and more about the image you’re projecting. Like Starbucks, where you pay $6 for coffee that tastes like burnt asshole so you can show everyone you have a Starbucks holiday cup when you get to the office. As much as I shit on Dunkin’ Donuts, at least they don’t pretend that they’re selling a premium product.

Nothing about the Nutella Cafe really thrilled me and I wouldn’t go back. For a better cafe atmosphere, The Bean is nearby on Broadway and 12th. For better desserts, Veniero’s is over on 11th and 1st, and it’s really worth the walk.

A dessert I picked up from Veniero’s and brought home. The cheesecake (Italian/Sicilian/NY Style) is amazing too.

Thoughts on “The View From Flyover Country”

When I picked up The View From Flyover Country by Sarah Kendzior, I thought the book was going present a conservative or at least rural perspective on life and politics in the United States. I’m bombarded with the liberal and progressive viewpoint every day in almost every single news broadcast and social media post. The right-leaning viewpoints that do get airtime seem to be too far to the right of the political spectrum to be worth listening to. I was hoping for something center right, or traditional right, I guess.

Unfortunately, this book is written by a liberal from a Midwest city. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with that. It’s just not what I wanted. The book is a collection of essays and, after having finished reading the book, they come across as kind of mixed bag. The most impressive point of the book so far is how prescient some of the author’s insights were, considering that she wrote most of the essays prior to the 2016 election cycle for Al Jazeera.

Kendzior’s diatribe against gentrification is well-intended but comes across as shallow and offensive. She had an opportunity to look at how class differences and the concentration of wealth were playing out in urban environments. Instead, she uses the issue to present whites as evil oppressors of minorities, forgetting that not all gentrifiers are white because not all wealthy people are white. “Hipsters” are a visible and catchy way to present gentrification but it ignores economic realities. Gentrification isn’t a race issue; it’s an economic issue and a class issue. Kendzior could have used gentrification as a segue into a discussion of income inequality but she chose to go the easy and provocative but less informative route of blaming white people.

The section on underemployment and low pay are masterful. Kendzior isn’t saying anything that I haven’t heard before, but she said it before it was common discourse and her arguments are clear and well made. The situation she describes is maddening. Kendzior’s essay sounds more like she’s describing the plot of a dystopian fiction than reality.

How does an adjunct lecturer work for a college for decades and die making penniless while still only making $10k a year? It sounds like the money in universities, like in the rest of US society, is being funneled into bureaucratic bloat instead of into paying educators. It should be illegal for companies to pay wages so low that costs are shifted onto taxpayers in the form of social welfare programs.

But how can we implement a system of enforcement that won’t result in companies further reducing their workforces and overworking those who remain? It is something that will have to be forced. And it can be done. Companies paid living wages before. We had living wages and dignity. We can get there again. Will it take massive riots and strikes before our aristocratic Congress finally acts on behalf of the American people? Before they remember that they work for us and not for corporations?

Regarding how Islam is portrayed, she writes under the assumption that US news organizations want to tell the news in an accurate and unbiased way, but they don’t. Of course, she probably had her suspicions about that when she was writing, but the true extent of the news industry’s dishonesty didn’t become apparent until after the 2016 election, when people simply couldn’t reconcile Hillary’s guaranteed win with the actual outcome. It’s almost as if the media industry was trying to create reality and expected the American people to act according to the narrative that they had presented.

The disillusionment and shock people felt after the 2016 election cycle was heightened all the more by the clash between what they thought the US was, what they thought it stood for, and the reality of the country’s situation. Honesty and complex reporting don’t get clicks. It doesn’t generate ad revenue. It doesn’t sell because most people don’t want to read the truth. They don’t have time. With the wealth disparity in this country, most people spend so much time working or thinking about working, that they can’t find the energy or will to engage with social or political discourse in any meaningful way. So, they look for cheap entertainment that doesn’t require thought. They want to hear about Snooki’s butt implants, so news producers have turned reporting news into another form of reality entertainment. The more spin there is, the better for ratings, ad impressions, and revenue.

For me, there were two big takeaways from The View From Flyover Country. One, the impact of income inquality, the wealth gap, on US society has far reaching consequences. Combined with a failure by our news organizations to maintain journalistic principles and keep the public informed can undermine our republic and cause more damage to US society than any foreign attacker.

Book Review: Soul of the Fire, by Terry Goodkind

Soul of the Fire, by Terry Goodkind

Soul of the Fire, by Terry Goodkind

I enjoyed the exercise in world building that this book seems to represent. The author laid out the history of Anderith and then used that foundation to give us a story about political intrigue and domination.

I also enjoyed how things played out at the end, though I’m not sure it made much sense. The common people would be the ones to suffer the most, while the elites who manipulated them in the first place would likely escape retribution, like Dalton. So, could that really satisfy Richard’s desire for vengeance? It does make his actions seem more juvenile. What he’s doing at the end of the story is pretty juvenile too. “They don’t like me so I’m going home!” Isn’t this guy supposed to be Lord Rahl? Wouldn’t his past experiences have hardened him up and made a man out of him by this point? Are his actions believable?

I feel like Goodkind spends a lot of time building new characters up and developing them in really creative ways, only to have them meet their ends in extremely anti-climactic situations that felt rushed and left me wondering what the point of learning about them was in the first place.

That rushed feeling permeates the last 60 pages or so of the book. One moment everything is fine, and then suddenly the enemy is there and everything quickly wraps up in catastrophe. It doesn’t feel measured. It doesn’t feel like good storytelling. It feels like the author put too much time into the build-up and then realized he only had 50 pages to find some sort of conclusion. The ending was choppy and unsatisfying. Goodkind also puts too much weight on weak storylines. The prime example is using Franka’s situation at the end of the book to explain Dalton’s change of heart, but for that to be believable Dalton’s relationship with Franka should have been more deeply examined.

The story could have been better if Goodkind had spent less time detailing characters and a culture that were disposable and had spent more time developing the main characters instead. Throughout the story, all of the main characters fail to work together. The actions they take aren’t believable given their situations. Kahlan doubting Richard and the mud people elder about the chicken is the most glaring example. Why would they lie about it, and if it had turned out to be untrue, so what? They’d have checked and maybe killed a few chickens and then they could have settled things. Instead, she gets portrayed as a doubting, whining bitch that slows down story progression, which isn’t fair to her considering who she is supposed to be. Richard has his turn to be an idiot when he doesn’t trust Kahlan’s opinion later on in the story.

The story just feels like a wasted opportunity, or like filler material.

The Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark book cover image

Wide Awake: Christopher Clark’s “The Sleepwalkers” and World War I

Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers is an eminently readable account of the events that led up to the outbreak of World War I. Written in a narrative style, but rich with detail and innovative arguments about the origins of the war, Clark’s work is meant for a general audience but will also appeal to scholars looking to broaden their understanding of the events leading up to World War I. Clark is well versed in his subject matter. He is currently the Regius Professor of History at Cambridge University with a focus on European history. His prior works include a study of Christian-Jewish relations in Prussia (The Politics of Conversion. Missionary Protestantism and the Jews in Prussia, 1728-1941, Oxford University Press, 1995), a general history of Prussia (Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947, Penguin, 2006), and a biography of Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany (Kaiser Wilhelm II, Longman, 2000).

In The Sleepwalkers, Clark attempts to fundamentally change the way the origins of the war are discussed. Rather than trying to make a claim about who bears the most responsibility for the outbreak of World War I, the author is instead more concerned with the agency of individuals within the state power structures, the decisions they made, and why. Using a wealth of primary documents in state archives as well as secondary sources, Clark brings these “characters” to life in a story that begins with the assassination of King Alexander and Queen Draga in Serbia in June of 1903 and ends with European mobilization in August of 1914.

The scope of Clark’s narrative is impressive, despite being limited. The focus is placed primarily on Serbia, the Habsburg Empire, Russia, Germany, and France. Clark goes into detail regarding meetings, conversations, letters, and press publications in these countries. Other nations that played important roles in World War I are only touched upon briefly, including Italy, Britain, and the Ottoman Empire. Does it make sense to limit the narrative to these countries? For the most part, yes. Clark demonstrates that the rivalries between Russia and the Habsburgs and between the French and the Germans were the driving forces behind the outbreak of war; the assassination of the Archduke and Archduchess of Austria-Hungary by Serbian assassins was simply a pretext used by these nations to pursue other goals. On the other hand, Clark positions the ongoing decline of the Ottoman Empire and the loss of Ottoman lands to other states as a primary cause of continuing unrest not only in the Balkans, but in Europe as well. If the loss of Libya to Italy and Russia’s longstanding conflict with the Ottomans over the Dardanelles and Bosphorus was so crucial in laying the groundwork for the events that led up to World War I, why was the Ottoman Empire (the so-called “sick man of Europe”) not given a greater place at the table in Clark’s narrative?

The role Clark attributes to the Ottoman Empire in The Sleepwalkers ties into one of his larger themes, in which he presents the alliance bloc system as a driving force behind the outbreak of hostilities. The new bi-polar system (Entente vs Central Powers) developed out of an earlier multi-polar system which hinged on the maintenance of the status quo, including the propping up of the Ottoman Empire as a vital part of the European political establishment. The formation of powerful alliance blocs coupled with the linkage of diplomacy to military power, as well as the lack of available colonial territories to barter and trade away in international diplomacy, created a situation that was inherently volatile. Clark writes that war was not inevitable, that it was the result of actions taken by individuals. The evidence Clark presents strongly supports his thesis. Clark clearly shows that the French elite were agitating for war to regain territories previously lost to Germany. Russian elites were looking for an excuse to finally capture the Dardanelles and Bosphorus. They understood that they would likely trigger a continental war, but decided to push forward with their plans anyway. These players were not sleepwalking towards war; they were wide awake, even if they were unaware of the scale of the consequences their actions would bring.

One of the larger problems with Clark’s work is that he places so much emphasis on Serbia and Serbian history when his narrative clearly shows that events in Serbia and Sarajevo were merely a pretext that France and Russia used to start a war that they hoped would allow them to achieve their own national goals. The amount of space in the book devoted to Serbian history seems disproportionate to the country’s influence on events. Without Russian backing, would a larger continental war have started at all? In his introduction, Clark writes that he is not interested in placing blame, but based on the evidence he presents, Russia is responsible for the start of World War I. Serbia was not a part of the Entente Alliance of 1907. Had Russia not intervened on its behalf, the treaty stipulations would not have been triggered. Germany, by contrast, comes across as an underdog in The Sleepwalkers.

Two minor issues stood out to me in this book. One is the mention of but lack of development of the idea that a new trend in masculinity affected diplomatic relations between the countries involved. The second is the repeated use of “public opinion” to explain events without developing the reader’s understanding of the actual relationship between the media or government and the public. Who was “the public”? The elite, or all classes? What was the literacy rate? Did people consume news by reading or through word-of-mouth in public spaces? Did people understand that some news was camouflaged diplomacy? Clark indicates that the outbreak of war surprised rural populations in Russia and France and they did not understand what was going on, so how could “public opinion” have played such a crucial role in government policy formation?

Overall, Clark’s presentation of the backdrop to World War I in The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 is brilliant. It is written in a way that is informative and yet entertaining. He opens an old topic to fresh discussion by revealing the complicated web of interactions between individuals in the state governmental systems, calling into question anew who is responsible for the start of World War I, even if that is not the author’s intention. More importantly, Clark’s work is a solid reminder that wars do not start themselves; people start wars and bad decisions by people in key positions can have devastating consequences.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing book cover

Review: “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing”

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo is really inspiring. I would say the hardest thing about the book was trying to hold off on implementing the recommendations until I finished reading. The way the author describes the end-result is incredibly appealing.

Kondo is repetitive in some sections, but not in an irritating way. She reinforces the concepts she’s trying to convey by referencing them multiple times throughout the text. The way that the author refers to things in a house and houses themselves was confusing and a bit odd until I understood that this was a reflection of her Shinto beliefs regarding divine essences being present in all things. When she talks about things having energy or life or greeting your objects, that’s part of her religious belief, but it makes sense to take care of and to value and appreciate your belongings. The better you care for them, the longer they’ll last.

What did I get out of this book? It helped me to reevaluate the way that I surround myself with things. It helped me to think about my apartment as a place for living rather than for storing. Do I really need these old knick-knacks from 5 years ago? Do I even look at them? When did I see this pair of pants last? Should I hang onto this shirt because I spent money on it and haven’t used it much, or get rid of it because it isn’t something I enjoy wearing?

Kondo encourages her readers to treat the places they live as living spaces rather than as storage spaces. She wants people to understand that surrounding themselves with just those things that bring joy will improve their lives. She also thinks it can help provide direction for people’s lives because, when you pare down your possessions to what you really value, it can help you discover what you’re genuine interests are.

KonMari (as she is often called) made me think of what’s really important to me and inspired me to turn my living space into a place that I really enjoy being in. I don’t expect my screwdriver or every undershirt to spark joy in my life, but as much as possible I want to limit my possessions to just those things that I derive joy or inspiration from.

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