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.

Filed in:


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.

Filed in:

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.

Filed in:

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...

Filed in:

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.

Filed in:

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.

Filed in:

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!

Filed in:

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.

Filed in:

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.

Filed in:

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.

Filed in: ,

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.

Filed in: