29 October 2006


Going to see a play can be a hit or miss affair, but ShawChicago has always offered a consistently splendid theater experience. In spite of the fact that the performances we've seen have been staged readings rather than fully realized productions, the performers' talent and skill are so strong that we're totally absorbed.

Of course, the material--plays by George Bernard Shaw--makes a contribution as well.

Still, material isn't all. Yesterday we went to a production of Moliere's The Miser--fully staged, but so poorly executed that we left after the first act. Experiences like that always make me doubt my affection for theater.

This afternoon that affection was renewed. A marvelous performance of You Never Can Tell. These actors are just phenomenal.

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28 October 2006

My Life without Me

It seems to be weeping season. This was quite a wonderful movie, but I cried and cried.

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25 October 2006

Penelope Lively's The Photograph

I still remember how devastating Moon Tiger was, and I must have read it 20 years ago. Granted, I don't remember much else, except that it was devastating.

This novel was also devastating, it its way; as I read the last sections I was almost continuously in tears. Victor says, No more sad books for a while.

He suggests rereading The Hobbit.

I'm thinking more along the lines of Middlesex. But first, some magazine reading to catch up on...

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20 October 2006

Nicole Krauss' The History of Love

It's possible I read a more moving novel this year; but if I did, I can't remember it. This is a book I never wanted to put down, and when I was finished I went right back to the beginning and started again.


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16 October 2006

Operation Shylock

It's hard to know how to read this novel, which bills itself as "A Confession," purports to be true in its explanatory preface, and features characters named after Philip Roth, Claire Bloom, Aharon Applefeld, and other real people. You know it's fiction, so you want to avoid questions of what really happened, but the autobiographical manner and the recurrent references to real people and events make this difficult.

So when a doppelganger is introduced, you're feeling surprisingly credulous, and you're drawn into an outlandish story step by plausible step. Author Philip Roth has a double, also named Philip Roth (and representing himself to be the author), who is in Israel launching a movement to send its Jews back to Europe. In the process, Roth 2 has made an odd set of alliances—with Lech Walesa, the JDL, and the PLO. Roth 1, in Israel to interview the novelist Aharon Applefeld for the Times, confronts Roth 2, who refuses to desist. Outraged and bemused by turns, Roth 1 allows himself to be mistaken for Roth 2, and even actively impersonates Roth 2.

Adventures ensue.

The story ends with a big chunk missing, it is explained, for security reasons. On the endleaf, a standard disclaimer reminds you that the book is, after all, fiction.

An interesting, well-written novel, but rather unwieldy and exhausting. It's been a while since I've read any metafiction, so I guess I'm out of practice.

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Oryx and Crake

When a "serious" writer engages in science fiction, I'm not sure how to take it. Is science fiction being legitimized, or is the writer slumming?

In Margaret Atwood's case, the genre offers an opportunity to follow current trends to their logical (and deeply unpleasant) conclusions. With Oryx and Crake, she presents us with a fairly standard post-apocalyptic last-man-on-earth story: we get glimpses of the world-that-was (very similar to ours) in flashback and these hints highlight the way that world sowed the seeds of its own destruction.

All well and good; there is nothing in the story that is not compelling.

Unfortunately, there is nothing in the story that is very complicated, either. Which seems a strange thing to say about this author, who, in books like Cat's Eye and The Blind Assassin, has shown herself capable of conveying enormous complications. It's as if the effort of creating a different and believable world has been so great that nothing's left for creating complex characters. Instead, the bad guys are bad, the nuts guys are nuts, the good guys might be confused, but they're good.

The result is an exceptional and thought-provoking science fiction story, not a great novel. The characters don't live, though their dilemmas do.

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27 July 2006

Why Cities Should Fight to Keep Their Middle-Class Residents

I'm irate. I was just reading an article from last Sunday's Times called "Cities Shed Middle Class and Are Richer and Poorer for It," which conveys the not-very-new news that our major cities are becoming enclaves of the very rich and very poor, with the folks in the middle squeezed out and establishing homes in the suburbs or elsewhere in the country. This is a reality I've recognized (and bemoaned) about New York and other big cities for years—what made me irate are the remarks of some of the quoted experts.

Here's W. Michael Cox, chief economist for the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, on the problem of laborers being unable to afford city digs on their smaller salaries: there is no problem—instead of letting them eat cake, let them work two jobs! Firefighters, for example, could benefit from "portfolio diversification in [their] income." Will someone fire this man, please? And then let him get two jobs so next time he's fired he can benefit from the diverseness of his night shift at the 7-11.

Right. Then there's a Harvard economist named Edward Glaeser, whose study of income inequality in cities in the 1960s and 1970s concluded that there's no reason to think they negatively affect housing price growth, income, or population.

Maybe I have a problem with economists, more than anything else. They talk as if all that mattered were growth. Sometimes you need to look past immediate benefits (rich folk move in, drive up prices, buy more products, pay more taxes), and think about the losses: what happens to society when people don't mix anymore—rich live with rich, poor with poor.

The miracle of cities, the energy of cities, the thrill of cities, come from their diversity, not from shiny commercial constructions that cater primarily to the very rich (e.g., New York's Trump Tower and Chicago's 900 N. Michigan). Such luxury super-malls can be (and are) constructed anywhere—in Sun Valley, Idaho, or Columbus, Ohio, and only serve to flatteringly reflect the rich back to themselves.

Cities are special for their ability to contain juxtapositions of glitter and grime, glamour and grit. The glue that holds those contraries together is the people at the middle of the economic spectrum, those who daily traverse the worlds of rich and poor, riding public transit to jobs that pay decently, buying groceries in cheaper neighborhoods, frequenting public parks and beaches, splurging at an expensive department store at Christmas, going out to a fancy restaurant once or twice a year for a special occasion. Without these folks, we eliminate any sort of connection between the extremes, because public amenities tend to deteriorate without their support, enforcing social as well as economic segregation, depriving the poor of hope for a better life, and limiting the rich to a narrow (private) set of activities, interactions, and destinations.

Meanwhile, the middle-class, living in the boonies among the enclaves of the super-duper-rich, become the most isolated group of all, commuting in private vehicles on suburban freeways, never interacting with anyone outside the circles of family, colleague, neighbor, or church. Safety is a value prized above rubies, and the city, with its crime and expense, exists as a place that the middle-class is lucky to be free of; its charms and satisfactions are forgotten, and notions of interdependence, cross-fertilization (of people and ideas), and public good are discarded.

(By the way, this is how Republicans are made.)

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19 June 2006


This tiny sushi place recently opened up around the corner from our apartment. It's run by the same folks who run Ping Pong, across the street, which is a tiny pan-Asian place. The scene is just a little too hip for the likes of me (as is the scene at Ping Pong), but the fish is fresh and tasty enough that we've been back four times in three weeks.

Drawbacks: a bit pricey, pounding music, spotty service, indifferent (and pricey) non-sushi items.

What I mean about service: when my mother-in-law ordered a scallop handroll, it arrived with the scallops cooked. What's with that? Upon complaint, the waitron agreed, O yes, it's cooked. As if sushi places normally cook scallops for handrolls.

On another occasion, I ordered salmon, mackerel, and white tuna over the phone (for delivery). We got salmon, regular tuna, and white tuna. Upon complaint, Victor was told they thought I said maguro. I understand that "mackerel" and "maguro" could sound similar over the phone, but I made my order in English.

Regarding non-sushi items: we keep trying stuff from the "japas" (Japanese tapas—get it?) menu, too, but have found nothing worth getting again (nothing, really, worth getting the first time). So far we've tried wasabi noodles, jalapeno (!!) miso soup, and sunomono (normally a great favorite of ours). We will keep trying, because sibling Ping Pong does such a good job with its small plates, but we are losing hope.

Our repeat visits in spite of these minor but irritating drawbacks testify to the quality of the sushi. We will just be increasingly careful about how we order.

3317 N Broadway
Open daily, 4 PM to midnight

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Col-ubas Steakhouse

Victor and I were biking yesterday and stopped at a very pleasant café off Granville that turned out to have a not-very-impressive menu. So after reading the paper there for a couple of hours, I was hungry. We took an exploratory ride south on Clark and parked by a cluster of restaurants in Edgewater. After due consideration, we stopped at Col-Ubas Steakhouse, having never tasted Colombian food, and having a fondness for Cuban.

This place is definitely not for vegetarians, but omnivores will be delighted. We shared a mixed appetizer plate (platillo variado) that included a Colombian beef empanada, ham croquetas, fried yuca, and tostones. We also ordered a papa rellena. This was all very delicious: crispy and savory. But the highlight of the meal was definitely the steak sandwich (pan con bistec), which was just perfect: marinated steak, savory sauce, sautéed onions, crisp grilled bread….One of those sandwiches you must finish eating, no matter how full you are. All this goodness for under $15.

Col-Ubas also offers an extensive menu of dinner items that includes traditional Cuban dishes like Ropa Vieja and various Colombian combination plates (mostly mixed grills). We are eager to go back to try some of those. Also, I'm tempted to try their lunch buffet, offered weekdays from 11 AM to 3 PM, for $5.95, with a different selection each day.

Col-Ubas Steakhouse
5665 N. Clark Street
Ph. 773-506-1579
Fax. 773-506-1579
Open daily: Su 8 AM to 8 PM; M, W, Th 8 AM to 9 PM; Tu 8 AM to 5 PM; F, Sa 8 AM to 10 PM.

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For years I have been familiar with the term "Rashomon" more as a cultural touchstone than as a dramatic or cinematic artifact—a sort of super-signifier of the idea that everyone has her own way of seeing the same situation: truth is in the eye of the beholder.

So I had always thought that Rashomon (the film) showed that different people could accurately account for the same event in profoundly different ways. The movie doesn't quite live up to this expectation. Each of the four accounts (of a woman's rape and her husband's death) could be simultaneously true only in the most metaphorical sense. Really, there are three contradictory and self-serving accounts, and one account likely to be closest to the truth because the speaker was not involved—the events he described didn't touch upon his ego.

"Rashomon," then, refers less to multifaceted truth than to how we reshape reality as we remember it, to preserve our sense of self. Rashomon (the movie) is beautiful and engaging; directed by Akira Kurosawa and starring Toshiro Mifune in a very stylized performance. The DVD includes a short, interesting introduction by Robert Altman.

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09 June 2006


I just checked for this movie on Rotten Tomatoes and was rather stunned at the poor reception it got. Victor suggested I see it without him after he read he description on the Netflix wrapper:

…[Plath and Hughes'] marriage was rocky, and they eventually separated in 1963 when Hughes broke her heart by taking on another lover. Crushed, Plath committed suicide by sticking her head in her unlit oven.

Sylvia isn't as bad as all that. The tensions of a romance between writers are well portrayed. But the movie was irritating in its (lack of) analysis of the roots of Plath's depression. Often she just seems like a nutcase. The central relationship is treated as a great love that would have been ideal, if only Ted had been faithful and Sylvia hadn't been bonkers. Ugh.

The film shows none of Plath's humor and little of her intelligence. Upon her marriage to Ted, she becomes a caricature of the jealous wife, with no self-consciousness, which is hard to believe.

Still, Sylvia is worth seeing if you've any interest in Plath or Hughes. Gwyneth Paltrow is a pleasure to watch (amazing how much she looks like her mother, Blythe Danner, in this), and Daniel Craig is magnetic as well.

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A Chicago Addition to My Life List

There's more nature available in urban Chicago than you would think. Sure, the most common wildlife here is probably the pigeon, but the city is full of surprises. For example, earlier this week I was walking along the lake shore and heard an unfamiliar noise: some kind of bird call. I looked around and saw some fluttering around a couple of huge white bird condominiums.

My first purple martins!

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Where Has Louis Begley Been All My Life?

The question is the more facetious because I've tried to read Louis Begley before and couldn't get anywhere. But in the past couple of days I've read Wartime Lies and As Max Saw It and was wowed by both. Begley is a splendid writer, and Wartime Lies (a Holocaust story) is particularly haunting. I'm now anxious to read his other books.

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Updike in Person

John Updike has never been my favorite writer…my taste runs to styles less lapidary and more immediate—but I couldn't miss seeing him at the Harold Washington Library Sunday afternoon. While not my favorite, he's certainly a writer I've admired, and how could I not? He's an icon of contemporary fiction—I don't think anyone else is so consistently serious, prolific, and good.

So I took a friend to see the great man—elderly, as he called himself: raised in the Depression as my parents were. He talked a good deal about his new novel, Terrorist, and also spoke interestingly about writers of later generations than his own. It seems that younger writers lack staying power: they shoot their wad with their first book, which is usually extremely impressive in its ambition, and they typically fail to meet their early promise.

I find myself wanting to argue one side or another of this, but it's just silly: why argue a generalization?

Asked if writing is easier for him at this stage, Updike spoke of the challenge of finding fresh material. Indeed, a number of his recent books have felt to me like self-challenges: let's see if I can write a magic realist novel; what happens if I novelize Hamlet from his mother's perspective? Terrorist sounds like a similar writerly dare.

But when my friend expressed skepticism at this 70-year-old man's ability to convincingly portray a teenage Islamic fanatic ("I can't imagine it, how could he?") I pointed out (and reminded myself) that getting into other people's heads is Updike's job.

So Terrorist is probably a very good read and not necessarily worse for being the result of a thought experiment.

Still, it's not at the top of my list.

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31 May 2006

On Rereading Tolstoy

I just finished rereading Anna Karenina. Victor teases me for rereading Tolstoy, suggesting that the reason I've read War and Peace at least half a dozen times and Anna Karenina three or four times is so I can say I've done so.

Probably there's a grain of truth in that.

But it's also true that I reread these novels because I enjoy them. Wait—enjoy is not a strong enough word—in fact, they make me happy. As I scan the first page, I already feel myself smiling. "Happy families are all alike…" I'm instantly drawn back into the Oblonsky family, where Dolly has just discovered that Stiva's affair with the ex-governess. It doesn't matter that I know how it will all end (with Anna under a train, as almost every literate person knows); I still get tremendous enjoyment from watching events unfold. And each time I read, different aspects attract my attention. The first time I read Anna Karenina I had little patience for Levin's philosophizing and skimmed many passages. This time, I found him a much more interesting character, and his musings more pertinent.

I am not certain how much of a difference the translation (Pevear/Volkhonsky) made; it has been such a long time since I last read Anna Karenina that I don't have much basis for comparison. I don't even have my old copy (it was a Constance Garnett, I think) to compare because it fell apart some time ago and had to be discarded. But the prose in this version is good, and feels straightforward and direct. In addition, the substantial endnotes are helpful, although I wish they were footnotes.

I have reread other books and enjoyed them: Lord of the Rings, Jane Austen's novels. But Tolstoy's worlds are both a pleasure to enter into and no hardship to exit. Somehow, in spite of being fictional, they are not fantasies; they do not leave you hankering after an imaginary world that cannot exist. Instead, you feel as if you've been shown aspects of reality you never noticed before, and return to your life refreshed.

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Did I say I was losing my faith in theater?

It's back.

Sunday we went to see Stephen Sondheim's one-act musical, Assassins, at the Storefront Theater (produced by Open Eye). The Storefront Theater is run by the city's Department of Cultural Affairs and showcases the work of (smallcase) storefront theater companies from throughout Chicago in a downtown space, to attract audiences who might not otherwise expose themselves to smaller-scale theater.

Although I'm a Sondheim fan, I wasn't sure what to expect from this production. My theater expectations have sunk so low lately, I've started to count it as a victory if I don't look at my watch much.

I'm pretty sure that I didn't look at my watch at all during Assassins. It was enthralling. An ensemble of fine singer-performers (voice strength varied, but all were at least adequate) collaborated in a rather surreal retelling of American history from the vantage point of its presidential assassins. The music was wonderful, and the lyrics clever and darkly funny (just what you expect from Sondheim); the performances were full of conviction as well as humor.

We had front-row seats, which was a little disconcerting, since the characters point their (prop) guns into the audience on several occasions. Lots of gunshot noise in this show. If you go (which you should), keep that in mind.

Assassins continues at the Storefront Theater, 66 E Randolph, through 18 June.

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25 May 2006

Sold Out, not a Sellout: Eduardo Galeano

A bit of a problem in a city that has so many great things going on: conflicts. You buy tickets in advance for events you don't want to miss, and then something comes up and you're out the money. Maybe not very much money, but it starts to seem wasteful, just the same.

For example, this year I bought tickets for a half dozen Nextbook events and had to miss five of them (mostly due to being out of town).

So I started to think I shouldn't buy tickets until I was absolutely certain I'd be attending.

Which might make sense, except (inevitably), when you wait to buy tickets, you find the event you're absolutely certain you want to attend is SOLD OUT.

This happened to me the other day, when I decided to definitely go see Eduardo Galeano. Actually, I had decided weeks before, but didn't know who (if anyone) would be joining me, so I waited to get the tickets. And the event was SOLD OUT. I was discouraged, but Victor suggested we show up anyhow and see if there were no-shows or ticket returns. (We saw Galeano more than 15 years ago, in Boston, when he was on his Book of Embraces tour. Victor still has his autographed copy.)

So we did, and ended up getting pretty excellent seats. And Galeano was wonderful. Here are some tidbits from his talk.

On being asked "how do you speak truth to power?" Galeano answered, "I don't speak to power. Power is deaf."

On hope: "I refuse to believe that tomorrow is another name for today. Change is possible."

"If you don't want to be mute, begin by not being deaf."

"We are not obliged to repeat history, but to avoid repeating it, we have to know it; we need to recover our memory."

Listening to him made you want to be a better person. Listening to him almost made you feel like you already were a better person. It made you never want to tell another lie, or tolerate one being told to you.

After I get done with Anna Karenina I'm planning to read Victor's dog-eared copy of Open Veins of Latin America. I guess that's part of becoming a better person. For me, reading grim history is always a challenge. I was never able to get through Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, though I did read Harvey Wasserman's. Too depressing. But it's important not to just ignore parts of the past that are unpleasant.

Or parts of the truth that are unpleasant.

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23 May 2006

Manny's Deli

Being carless, going to restaurants that are not in the neighborhood and not "on the way" somewhere is a project. As a lover of food, and one who's always looking for something different, hoping to find something really good where it wasn't expected, I'm typically up for projects, dragging Victor along by main force (he's usually glad when we get there, but would've been happy enough at the diner down the street).

When a restaurant is open only for breakfast and lunch, and closed Sundays, and you have a day job, opportunities for turning it into a project are limited. Until very recently (when I started working from home) Manny's Deli fell into this category. Which was too bad, because I love corned beef (Manny's specialty)!

A couple months ago, I found myself downtown, hungry, and at liberty on a bright, mild weekday morning. So I decided to take a bit of a walk. I arrived at Manny's at around 10 AM. I didn't want breakfast, though. I asked the guy at the counter, who was slicing meat, "Is it too early for corned beef?"

"If it's not too early for you, it's not too early for me."

I grinned. "One corned beef sandwich, please."

"Potato pancake with that?"


I watched him make the sandwich. Talk about giant! A 3-, maybe 4-inch pile of meat.

I'm not so big on masses of meat. I didn't grow up with gargantuan sandwiches. The sandwiches of my childhood were modest: on Levy's rye, smeared with Gulden's on both sides and a just a few slices of kosher corned beef. Corned beef was a big treat; we somehow knew it was expensive. We never got them for school lunches. But I can remember picnic lunches at Jones Beach, unwrapping the foil packages and biting into surprising coolness.

So for me, the taste is the test; not the amount.

And the taste was right. Flavorful, tender, sliced thin as thin. The potato pancake was good, too.

Of course I didn't eat all that meat. Not right away. I asked for a box.

To my shame, I did not give my leftovers to the panhandler I met just outside Target on my way to the L station. I kept them close and took them home, and picked at them (with help from Victor) over the next couple of days.

Manny's is at 1141 S. Jefferson and is open Monday through Saturday from 5 AM to 4 PM. And according to their website, they have free wireless Internet! Hey, now that I'm freelancing, I may be spending A LOT more time there...

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21 May 2006


A couple of weeks ago we saw Love-Lies-Bleeding at Steppenwolf. This is a new play by the novelist Don DeLillo, who is one of my favorite writers (moments of his White Noise still come to mind, more than a dozen years after I first read it, and I find his prose almost matchless). I was also excited to see it because it stars John Heard, who has been a favorite actor of mine for nearly twice as long as I've been reading Don DeLillo. I'm not sure what I first saw him in—it might have been 1983's TV biopic of actress Frances Farmer's life, Will There Really Be a Morning (he played Clifford Odets). I know his performance as Jack Kerouac in 1980's Heart Beat also made a big impression.

The Steppenwolf play, though, was nothing special. For a drama, it wasn't terribly dramatic. Even Heard wasn't exceptional (though I experienced a little thrill, seeing him in person).

An aging artist has had a couple of debilitating strokes and family members argue about whether he should be euthanized. Not a bad play, but one I was glad I had not spent $40 a seat for (got cut-rate tickets via Hot Tix). Sometimes I think I don't like plays anymore, but once in a while I see something that redeems my faith in theater. Shaw plays almost always do.

Obviously this one didn't. Better luck next time.

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20 May 2006

Jaime Lerner at Chase Auditorium

Very inspiring talk last night by Jaime Lerner, former mayor of Curitiba, Brazil. He started with the motto that cities are not a problem but a solution, and touched on several aspects of his success in Curitiba and elsewhere. He emphasized the importance of being willing to work cheaply, on a small scale, and quickly.

He's coined a term, "urban acupuncture," which refers to small-scale successes—wonders of design or usefulness—around which cities cohere. One example was the Paley pocket park in New York. Another was the famous Metropolitain subway entrance in Paris. In Chicago, Millennium Park is clearly another example, though neither cheap nor quick. Just the same, urban life has been drawn to it and the surrounding area continues to evolve in response.

Though I don't think he ever explicitly used the word, beauty is critical. In response to another question, he talked about respect. Respecting all the people, poor as well as rich. This means decent, integral, affordable public housing; transportation systems that serve everyone; abundant public health care; and sufficient child daycare facilities. Though he didn't mention it, this also means public beauty.

Some principles around transportation systems: different modes of transit should never compete in the same space. Thus, he champions dedicated bus lanes. Also, it's all one system; one transit card for all modes, whether a person drives a car, takes a subway, rides a bike, or gets on a bus. With cheaper rates for using public transit (and, presumably, bicycling) than for using an automobile. The transportation system must work well; it must be seamless. In his city, he said, commuters never need to wait more than a minute for a bus. Transfers from mode to mode (e.g., from bus to subway) should be seamless as well.

On the Web this morning, I found this interesting article on what Chicago can learn from Curitiba.

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19 May 2006

Where Are the Squirrels?

For a long time, I've wondered why there aren't any squirrels in my neighborhood, although we have plenty of trees. We often see bunnies, but for squirrels I have to walk to the lakefront.

Last week I was reading an Audubon Society newsletter, and one of the articles referred to a local wildlife biologist, Joel Brown. So I wrote to him. A few days later, he wrote back. Squirrels don't just need trees, he pointed out, they need nut-bearing trees. Oaks, walnuts, hickories. And/or accessible feeders in yards full of stuff they like to eat.

The streets around here are lined with mostly ornamental, flowering trees: crabapple, Eastern redbud, cherry. No oaks. And with so many multi-unit buildings, there aren't many feeders in the area.

Mystery solved. Thank you, Dr. Brown!

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Tick, Tick…BOOM!

Went to see the Pegasus Players' production of Jonathan Larson's musical Tick, Tick…BOOM! at Truman College last night. Didn't really know what to expect, but it turned out to be very enjoyable: catchy, sometimes moving songs (Jonathan Larson also wrote Rent) and fine performances, with simple staging and a small (three-person) cast. The chief drawback was uneven sound—the singers were occasionally hard to understand.

On second thought, the chief drawback was the slightness of the concept. A guy worried about the direction of his life now that he's turning 30. I guess if I were in my 20s, it would be compelling, but having crossed the Rubicon of 40, I found myself less sympathetic.

Still, highly enjoyable; one of the better shows we've seen in the past year.

Playing at the Truman College O'Rourke Center through 25 June. Call 773-878-9761 for tickets.

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10 May 2006

Border Cafe

Speaking of dependent-independent women, the 2005 Iranian film Border Café tells the story of Reyhan, a new widow with two daughters who finds herself unwilling to marry her brother-in-law (becoming his second wife) as local tradition demands. She is from another part of the country, and anyway has a distaste for dependence.

The film tracks her struggle to maintain independence from her insistent brother-in-law in the face of family disapproval. Eventually she reopens her husband's roadside café and makes a success of it, but her brother-in-law's jealousy (he owns a restaurant elsewhere on the road) and sense of "honor" drive him to get her café shut down.

We get a grim picture of the difficulty of struggling against rigid social conventions, but also see the possibility of succeeding. A restaurant cook may seem an unlikely hero, but Reyhan's struggle to sustain herself and her children independently is nothing if not heroic.

Border Cafe is presented as part of Cinema/Chicago's Global Lens series.

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09 May 2006

Washington Square

I am not sure what induced me to see Washington Square again. I guess I was in the mood for something sad. But it's a wonderful movie. I think I cried straight through the last 20 minutes. And then was compelled to stay up and read the short novel on the Internet (I had a copy once, from a high school English class, but it's gone now). I mainly skimmed, in spite of the delicious writing. It was already quite late. But I wanted to understand the differences.

It is a story in which a rather plain, rather simple heiress, Catherine Sloper, falls in love with a very handsome but poor young man, Morris Townsend. The heiress' father, Dr. Sloper, suspects the young man is a fortune hunter, sabotages the relationship as best he can, and ultimately the young couple part. Catherine continues in her father's house a spinster, although the relationship between her father and herself has also ruptured.

Not having read Washington Square in many years, I was surprised by a great deal; not least, that in the novel the father, Dr. Sloper, is right. In the movie, he is not right; the movie's Morris Townsend is sincere (the screenwriter, Carol Doyle, has added a speech for Morris in which he talks about requiring an audience for his vanity—he is drawn to Catherine because she—inexhaustibly—adores him, and he knows he needs someone like that), and Sloper has singlehandedly ruined his daughter's happiness. In the novel, Townsend is more clearly mercenary.

To say Dr. Sloper is right in the novel is not to say that he behaves properly; only that he's correct in his assessment of Morris. The damage he does his daughter is more subtle. He lets Catherine feel his contempt for her, which triggers for Catherine an internal metamorphosis.

In movies, everything has to be externalized and to facilitate this, complexities are often simplified. Albert Finney's Dr. Sloper acts consistently with contempt for his daughter (so the audience sees it), but Jennifer Jason Leigh's Catherine notices only when he makes that contempt explicit, muttering on an Alpine mountaintop, "That your mother died so you could have space on this earth..."

Also externalized is Catherine's desperation to marry and leave her father's "protection." In the novel you feel her desire to marry mainly as a grasp at happiness, what anyone might feel; in the movie you feel the nightmarishness of being stuck in a house with a person who has no respect for you, much less love. Catherine's father had been her chief object of devotion—from there to object of indifference is a long fall for the devotee.

Catherine responds to her misfortunes by internalizing everything, and that is paradoxically easier to convey in the movie, because in novels so much is internal anyhow. And Jennifer Jason Leigh is good at portraying repression. Her eyes are never empty; you sense her brain and spirit working.

Never the fool or quite the romantic Dr. Sloper thinks her, Catherine cannot love any person who deliberately hurts her or does not care for her. Upon recognizing her father's contempt, Catherine separates from him in her soul (since she cannot do so physically). When Morris disappoints her the wound is irreparable—Sloper thinks she does not marry because she is hoping to reunite with Morris upon his death; in fact, she has not married because she has no love left. Since her father has never learned to understand her, Catherine turns her opacity into a matter of pride. So that when he dies and his will is disclosed, largely disinheriting her because of her supposed susceptibility to fortune hunters, she says, "I like it very much."

Finally, Washington Square is the story of a dependent woman with a very independent heart.

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05 May 2006

Bat Out of Wacker Drive

Earlier this week, we were walking out of Victor's office building on North Wacker when we noticed a little dark gray mouse on the sidewalk. No—a bird. No—a mouse. No—a bat. It was not in good shape; when it noticed we had stopped to look at it, it edged a few feet away from us, then went still, wing folded in on one side. We wondered if it was dead. We wondered who we should call. We didn't think Chicago Bird Collision Monitors would be interested in bats. While we were wondering, a seagull swooped down and picked up the little bat in its bill. For a moment. That little bat flapped like mad, startling the gull into dropping it. Now the bat lay on the concrete with its wings spread. We figured it wouldn't be there long. The gull would be back.

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26 February 2006

Shanghai Triad

We should have known better. No, I should have known better (I’m the one who picks the Netflix movies). More than 15 years ago, we saw Yimou Zhang’s Ju Dou, which was one of the saddest movies ever. This kept us away from Zhang’s movies for a long time, in spite of the hype around films like Raise the Red Lantern and To Live. But Shanghai Triad was described as a gangster movie; I thought it would be a thriller.

Wrong. Not a thriller, but a downer, albeit beautifully done, and lovely to look at.

Got up this morning and was still sad.

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25 February 2006

Homestyle Bosnian in New York

One evening as I was heading to Penn Station, I noticed Ben’s Kosher Delicatessen and stopped. I was hungry and wanted to eat before I caught my train. I hesitated, though, because I’d been to Ben’s before, and found the food just adequate, though expensive, and the service indifferent or worse. However, in my walk down W 38th I’d seen nothing that made me suspect I would meet with any treasures between here and the train station.

So I went inside and withstood the unfriendly service to eat my adequate, expensive meal. I came out uncomfortably full (the inevitable result of going to eat at a Jewish delicatessen by yourself) and continued down W 38th, where, to my chagrin, I spotted a downstairs storefront advertising “Authentic Balkan Cuisine.”

Better luck next time. A month or so later, Victor and I found ourselves taking the same route to Penn Station, and decided to check out “Authentic Balkan Cuisine,” otherwise known as Djerdan, which is almost directly across the street from Spandex World (this part of town is full of trim and fabric shops of all types).

Djerdan offers Bosnian specialties, and is particularly proud of its bureks, which are savory, multilayered pies made of flaky pastry with spinach or meat or potato and cheese. We tried a slice of the spinach, which was rich and almost creamy.

We also tried a bowl of the vegetable soup, which was deliciously homemade-tasting, and the Bosnian special. The menu describes this as a vegetable stew (cabbage, peppers, tomatoes, and potatoes) with “bits of veal.” In fact, the stew features rather enormous hunks of tender meat. The amount of meat surprised us, but it was very tasty.

For dessert, we chose the Keks Torta, which was like tiramisu without the coffee. Since I’m not a coffee drinker (and am indifferent to tiramisu for that reason), I found it pretty heavenly.

In general, everything was very savory and homey. My grandmother was Hungarian, not Bosnian, but this was food I could imagine her making. In spite of its downstairs location, Djerdan has a cheerful, bright atmosphere, and we will certainly return when next we’re in the area.

221 W 38th Street
New York, NY 10018

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Afghan in New York

We first happened upon Bamiyan about seven years ago and as a result we check for Afghan restaurants wherever we travel.

We lived in Columbus, Ohio, then, and the roster of ethnic cuisines there was pretty limited. When we came to NYC, we were always on the lookout for ethnic food we didn't have at home. This corner restaurant near “Curry Hill” and (back then) across the street from a retro diner with a line out the door caught our attention as we strolled up Third one afternoon.

Lacking experience with Afghan food, we were interested to learn from the restaurant’s many posted maps that Afghanistan is surrounded by countries with very distinct and delicious cuisines: Iran, Pakistan, China, and three former Soviet Socialist Republics.

The menu reflects the country’s location: appetizers include mantoo, steamed dumplings like Chinese wontons; sambusas, similar to Indian/Pakistani samosas; stuffed grape leaves (Iran); crispy meat or vegetable filled pastries (SSRs); many of them accompanied by savory sauces made from yogurt or lentils (SSRs and Iran). Salads are simple and herb-fresh, with lemon juice or yogurt dressings. Entrees include an assortment of kabobs, rice dishes, and curries; as well as noodles covered with yogurt, meat, or bean-based sauces; and vegetable main dishes featuring spinach, eggplant, squash, or okra.

Today, the trendy diner that was across the street is gone, and we are pleased that Bamiyan (named for the enormous and ancient Buddha statues destroyed by the Taliban in early 2001) has survived. The food consistently delights us, the service is very pleasant, and the atmosphere (which includes window tables where diners can recline on pillows) extremely comfortable; exotic in a way that feels authentic rather than tacky.

358 Third Avenue (at 26th Street)
New York, NY 10010

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16 February 2006

Ice Hazards

Walking around is hazardous downtown this morning. Chunks of ice are flying off buildings. Some of them are tiny, but others are the size of a toaster oven. I saw a big one come down and narrowly miss a pedestrian as I headed into the office. Certainly, being hit would’ve hurt, but it’s sort of surreal to consider how quickly the evidence would disappear. Which makes me think of that old puzzler about the dead person found in a locked room with no murder weapon, but there is a puddle of water.

Stabbed with a dagger made of ice.

So I’m wondering, is that actually possible? Wouldn’t the dagger shatter or melt on contact with body heat? A question for the Straight Dope guy, I guess.

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25 January 2006

Nowhere Man

Alexander Hemon’s Nowhere Man is beautifully written, but ultimately rather cryptic. The end of the book left me perplexed.

Yet it was an enjoyable, involving, and worthwhile read. With great images. I think I’ll remember the phrase “jury of pigeons” my whole life.

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02 January 2006


This is Traffic about the oil business, but with more storylines. Watching this movie, you have to concentrate very hard. You definitely don’t want to get up and go to the bathroom. In two hours and three minutes, director/writer Stephen Gaghan includes oil company machinations overseas, Islamic fundamentalism, terrorism, US interference with foreign governments on behalf of oil companies, the collaboration of supposed watchdogs in all this skullduggery, and the clear message that this is not capitalism. (As when an Arab character notes that awarding a contract to a Chinese firm (the highest bidder) got him labeled “terrorist.”)

I’ve seen this called a cynical film. I suspect it’s simply accurate. But while Syriana leaves you pessimistic and even scared in terms of our energy and world security future, you also feel gratified that such a movie could be made and shown here.

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King Kong

Given the raves for this movie, our expectations were probably a little high, so maybe our disappointment was inevitable. It’s decent, but nothing very remarkable, except the 30s period New York stuff—that was fabulous. The long middle section features special effects magic of the Spielberg variety. Once the crew lands on Skull Island, where Kong is found, they’re besieged by one improbable monster after another.

Cast was all fine; maybe at bottom I just don’t like monster stuff.

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