15 December 2008

White Hunter, Black Heart

Somewhere I got the idea that this was a great movie we had overlooked.

We wished we had left it overlooked.

A movie about a disaster should not be a disaster.


We could not get through this one, in spite of our admiration for Robert Downey, Jr.; Ian McKellen; and other fine actors in this terrible, terrible movie.

"D'oh" Moment of the Day

Watching North by Northwest at home last night (for the umpteenth time--it's a great favorite of ours) and suddenly noticed all the diagonals in the shots--from the opening credits, which feature the exposed steel grid of a modern office building on the bias, to scenes of Cary Grant clambering among the unusually angled support stilts of an ultramodern house near the Mt. Rushmore national monument in South Dakota.

I wondered why that was, throughout the movie, and was still wondering this morning, so I decided to try a Google search.

The "D'oh" came as I was typing in the words "north by northwest diagonals" into the Google search box.

At least I didn't have to see the search results before I had my "aha." And this is not to say that there aren't all sorts of other good reasons to shoot on the diagonal--adding to the sense of action, of things being off-kilter, and so forth.

But, clearly, N-NW is a diagonal.

05 December 2008


Saw this again on video last night and was struck by all the recognizable actors, with strong presences, in (relatively) small parts. Jason Statham has one line. Debi Mazar has a bit in a cab. You never want to take your eyes off Mark Ruffalo when he's on screen; he's just not on screen that much.

On screen most of the time are Jamie Foxx and Tom Cruise, of course, and they do a pretty good job of holding your attention. Collateral is another entry in the ordinary-guy-gets-thrust-into-extraordinary-situation-and-becomes-hero genre--Michael Mann's version of North by Northwest, but taking itself way more seriously.

Still, very enjoyable.

The Wind and the Lion


04 December 2008

Recent Deaths

Reading my high school alumni newsletter, I learned that a man I graduated with died of cancer last spring. I think he was the valedictorian. I have only the vaguest memory of his face and his big glasses.

And I learned that my eighth-grade English teacher died in June. "Before he became a teacher, he performed professionally as a jazz drummer." Who knew? If we had known, most of us would probably have shrugged and said, What is jazz?

Eighth graders are idiots.

I remember a person who was passionate about literature, ironic, and impatient with stupidity--yet, sometimes, resigned to it. I think we read Macbeth in his class, and Julius Caesar. Maybe Romeo and Juliet, too. I didn't learn to love Shakespeare then, but I learned the plays. Even though I have not reread Julius Caesar since, I remember it.

He had us read the plays out loud, even though we stank at it, even though you could tell he relished reading them himself.

A good teacher. RIP.

03 December 2008

Team of Rivals

I ordered this book a few months ago,after reading or hearing about a group of books that Obama has mentioned influenced him, which also included Alinsky's Rules for Radicals and Niebuhr's Moral Man and Immoral Society.

I started reading it after the election and was enthralled. Goodwin writes beautifully, and she brings Lincoln and his contemporaries to vivid life. I think I haven't read much history from this period, and my mental picture of Lincoln dates from high school social studies: a secular saint.

Goodwin both presents Lincoln as an authentic human being and highlights the elements of his character that made him such a great president at such a critical time. The book also greatly improved my understanding of the Civil War--in school I learned it was about slavery, and later I bought the notion that this was a naive view (like thinking we fought WW2 to save the Jews); at least as Goodwin describes it, slavery was an increasingly critical issue as the war progressed.

Of course I was thinking a lot about Obama as I read, and there are many parallels in their political careers and in their (apparent) temperaments. Reading about how Lincoln assembled his cabinet as Obama assembled his was a very interesting experience. A key trait of Lincoln's was his refusal to hold grudges, or to act on them. Others thought him simple, or naive for that refusal, but his insistence on seeing and expecting the best of others served him extremely well.

Finally, Lincoln assembled a cabinet of strong personalities. The strongest, Seward, thought he would be the "power behind the throne," and throughout Lincoln's presidency, there were some observers who believed that. Seward, however, was quickly disabused of his notion of Lincoln as a simpleton who needed to be led by the hand, and became his great friend and support.

Lincoln was able to manage a team of strong personalities because he was himself a confident and insightful leader. He understood his own strengths as well as the strengths of the individuals on his team, and he trusted no one's judgement so well as he trusted his own. He was idealistic, but also pragmatic.

Sound familiar?

A measure of the effectiveness of Goodwin's work: when Lincoln was assassinated, I cried and cried. I even cried for Seward and his son, who were attacked the same night. You felt the loss of something tremendous and abstract, and you also felt the loss of people you loved.

I don't know when I've read a better history book.

Taking on the System

In this tumultuous election year, I've become interested in the mechanics of how social change happens. This book by Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, purports to map out exactly that process, in the context of our digital, media-saturated environment.

It's an easy, straightforward read, with some insightful analysis and an ultimately optimistic--and frankly democratic--vision, which helps you see how you can take (meaningful) part in making change happen. It didn't knock my socks off, but I liked its clarity, and the many compelling examples.

02 December 2008


This might be the best movie I almost didn't finish watching. The opening section is certainly excruciating: it's hard to watch a spoiled 13-year-old ruin lives--you see it all coming. I was ready to eject the DVD, but Victor counseled patience, and he was right.

Happily, the movie skips through time. You don't sit in jail with the wrongly convicted character; you don't pine away with the unjustly bereft character. What the movie does show, is sad enough--I think after the midpoint I was pretty constantly in tears--but at least you're not sure how things are going to unfold.

Recommended if you're in the mood for a weeper; if not, not.

01 December 2008

The Exquisite City

Chicago is just full of people with fabulous, creative ideas. The Exquisite City is one of these. In a riff on the Surrealists' exquisite corpse technique, diverse artists were asked to create a city block out of cardboard and sundry other materials, in their own style; the result, arranged in grids in the dark interior of the Viaduct Theater on Western off Belmont, is a dreamy concoction--part fantasy, part nightmare.

One of those exhibits you just have to experience--complete with Chicago sound effects and huddling hipsters. It's open through 12 December.

If you miss it, perhaps it will return. Certainly, the show's worth repeating.

Site Unseen 2008

After hearing about the Chicago Cultural Center's annual festival of site-specific installations and performance for at least three years, I finally made it for its fifth iteration, last 12 November.

There is something especially exciting about the specific and ephemeral. The festival lasts only one evening, and its components are designed for execution only in the Cultural Center's particular space during that particular evening. By its nature, video is less ephemeral, and so I found myself not so interested in the video installations scattered about the building, but rather drawn to the performances.

All of which demonstrated some degree of oddness, humor, eclecticism, and spectacle. The freedom to come and go from the various performance events makes typically challenging work less intimidating and more approachable. (You're not committed to witnessing some incomprehensible weirdness for hours.)

A very worthwhile commitment by the Cultural Center, and an event I look forward to revisiting in the future.

16 November 2008


Under what circumstances could a full-length reading of an 83-year-old novel be entertaining? How, indeed, could you get an audience to sit through the requisite six or eight hours straight?

Perhaps it goes without saying that you'd have to start with a damned good novel. The Elevator Repair Service theater troupe has met this requirement, choosing what many would say is the very best: F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.

It's a genius idea, really: in a rattletrap office, a frustrated clerk (his computer hangs every time it boots up) finds a dogeared copy of the novel in an unexpected location (a disk storage box on his desk) and begins to read. Aloud. His colleagues ignore him at first, intent on their own business--carrying on phone conversations, typing, filing. The noise of the contemporary world--car horns, the urban roar--loudens every time the door opens to admit another coworker or usher one out. Colleagues approach to get help finding a file, or ask for a favor. Still, he reads on. He pauses a moment to try his computer again. No dice, and the fellow reads on.

Before long, parallels between the office world and the novel's world emerge. The phone rings in the office, and a ringing phone is described in the novel. The colleagues begin to take on the personalities--and ultimately the roles--of various characters in the novel. Gradually, the real business of the office (whatever that is) is subsumed by the imaginary business of Fitzgerald's story. The ambient noise transforms from a contemporary urban roar to an idyllic suburban symphony of crickets and birdsong.

Gatz is a tremendous accomplishment. The externalization of the clerk's psychological absorption in his book is often humorous, and finally very moving. It goes without saying that the effort is something to admire, but the fact is that the play is also great entertainment.

Highly recommended, if you ever get a chance to see it. But we suggest you bring a cushion. Theater seats are a little hard on the bottom after so many hours.

15 November 2008

Quantum of Solace

A lot of our friends would be surprised that Victor and I often see James Bond movies opening weekend, placing us more as the kind of people who would go and see Synecdoche, New York or Happy-Go-Lucky the first chance we got.

Victor reminds me that I brought James Bond into our lives. When we met, Victor inclined more towards the art house and revival house stuff. I did, too, but I grew up with James Bond movies and wouldn't miss a new one. There's something nostalgic and satisfying about an entertaining Hollywood action movie.

There's nothing particularly nostalgic about the new James Bond movie, though. For one thing, there's nothing nostalgic about Daniel Craig. I enjoy his Bond, but the character he's created is a very different quantity than the sly charmers portrayed by Sean Connery and Roger Moore. Craig's Bond is all subtext--he delivers on the action, but you might wish he weren't so sad about it.

The newest iteration of the Batman series shares this broodiness. I happen to enjoy it (being fond of heroes with consciences); I can understand, though, the disappointment of those who prefer their fun unadulterated by qualms.

The shift in the emotional tenor of blockbuster action movies may be due in part to our living in a more thoughtful time, I suppose (wouldn't it be pretty to think so). It is likely more directly due to the enlistment of serious creative talent--Marc Forster (Monster's Ball) directing a James Bond movie?


And the writers include Paul Haggis (Crash)?


Yes and yes.

As long as Hollywood keeps recruiting indie talent into blockbuster projects, blockbuster projects are going to keep delivering angst-ridden heroes along with spectacular explosions.

After all, audiences seem to like it.

Chicago Publishers Gallery

Was back at the Chicago Cultural Center Wednesday night for the first time in a while and found the Chicago Publishers Gallery in a cozy corner on the first floor. What a great idea! Chicago-grown books and periodicals fill overflowing shelves, there are chairs and rugs that look comfy if you have time to sit and peruse, and if you feel inclined to purchase, you can go around the corner to the gift shop to complete the experience.

The website is nice as well. A real boon for Chicago book and magazine lovers, and a great resource for writers considering publishers.

And another reason to love Chicago.

12 November 2008

Garrison Keillor (almost) Gets It Right

Very amusing article today. I would beg to differ on one point, though: Chicago has been cool for a long time.

Admittedly, Obama is making it cooler.

Another Letter to the Editor

I just got an email from Al Gore's Repower America asking me to send a letter to the editor about renewable energy. Here's what I wrote:

The unprecedented environmental, national security, and economic challenges we face share a common thread: energy.

Our dependence on dirty fuels wreaks environmental devastation; our dependence on foreign energy sources poses tremendous security risks; our dependence on increasingly scarce (and expensive) natural resources renders our economy unsustainable.

We can address all three of these formidable challenges by Repowering America with 100 percent clean electricity within 10 years, as Al Gore has proposed. Details on the plan are available at repoweramerica.org. Key steps include energy efficiency, generation of power from renewable sources, and an upgraded national power grid.

The result will be high-paying green jobs, lower energy costs, reduced foreign debt, increased security, and (not least) decreased impact on global climate change.

I want our leaders to know that we in Chicago understand it's time for big solutions.

I've done these before, but never got published (I mean, using these automated tools. I did get a letter published in the Boston Herald that I had sent by snail mail, but that was more than 20 years ago. OUCH!). But maybe if enough people send letters on this subject, some of them will be published.

Which is what counts.

The Great Buck Howard

During the Chicago Film Festival, we saw this sweet movie starring Tom Hanks' son Colin as well as John Malkovich and Emily Blunt (in a nice turn after not being so nice in The Devil Wears Prada). I almost forgot about it, but yesterday our shiny film festival catalog arrived in the mail(a month after the festival?!) and as I was browsing through, the page happened to open to a picture from the movie.

So, not terribly memorable, but a good-hearted, pleasant tribute to a certain kind of entertainer (John Malkovich impersonates the Amazing Kreskin, on whom Buck Howard is based) and a certain kind of show business, still clinging to the edges of popular culture.

Told as a coming-of-age story, the movie is great DVD fodder, but not particularly exciting in a movie theater. For what it is, it is highly recommended.

11 November 2008

Obama Love

I find that in spite of the election being over, I am still obsessed with Obama and company. Here are some videos and links that make me smile and/or feed my obsession.

Obama supporter of the parrot persuasion:

True facts about Rahm Emanuel.

Hip hop Obama:

Obama pictures that make me weepy.

That's all I can think of right now. More later.

10 November 2008

My Name Is Red

I picked up this novel by Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk a while ago. Someone had given a copy to Victor and it had been sitting on our dresser for weeks.

It took me a while to get through, but it was a very interesting, textured book: a love story combined with a murder mystery and a complex meditation on the power of images. The writing is good, overall, but I sometimes got impatient with the philosophizing.

So I skimmed.

On the whole, though, a worthwhile read.

The Pale Blue Eye

My friend Stef recommended this novel by Louis Bayard recently, so I checked it out. Turned out to be excellent. The narrator is a retired 19th century constable who lives near West Point. He's invited to help solve a gruesome murder, and eventually takes as an assistant a young cadet named Edgar Allan Poe.

Very well written and terribly clever. I stayed up late to finish it.


09 November 2008

Obama's Luck, and Other Inantities

I went to a panel Friday here in Chicago (in which kos happened to be participating) about the recent election, what it means, etc.. Along with kos, the panel included Laura Washington and Lynn Sweet of the Chicago Sun-Times, Jonathan Alter of Newsweek, and was moderated by Charles Madigan of the Chicago Tribune. Per Laura Washington, who happens to be African-American (the sole African-American member of the panel), as she discussed the enormous about of luck Barack Obama has had in his life and career, Obama is also lucky in that he is “not African American.”


Did I hear that right?

Yes: she said it again. Because he doesn’t share (in his blood, presumably) this country’s history of slavery, he’s not African-American.

And this makes him lucky.

Ironically, before I heard Washington make this comment, before the panel started, I fell into conversation with a couple of (white, 60-ish) women sitting near me. They appreciated the historic nature of Obama’s candidacy, but wanted to be clear that Obama didn’t get their vote because he was black.

OK, that wasn’t why he got my vote, either.

Then one of the women pointed out that he was “both” (white and black). I mentioned this Garry Trudeau cartoon, which had me laughing till I cried the day after the election.

Then the other woman said, “But I think he should remember that he’s half white.”


The first woman pointed out that he could hardly forget that, having been raised in a white family.

“Well, of course he knows it, but he should…” I can’t remember the exact words. “…act like it?”

Thankfully, the panel started before I could formulate a response. And then, in her introductory remarks, Laura Washington said Obama is not African-American.

Well, guess what. That’s exactly what he is. Having a father from Kenya makes him African-American, just as my husband’s having parents from Germany and Egypt makes him German-Egyptian American. My two grandparents from Hungary, one from Poland, and Russian great-grandparents make me another kind of mutt (mutt, by the way, appears to be the new black).

The fact is, there is nothing particularly lucky about being born nonwhite in America. It’s not like bigots ask you to fill out a genealogical questionnaire before they discriminate against you.

I’m paraphrasing kos here: you want to talk about lucky? Being born George W Bush—that’s lucky.

Being born half-white, half-Kenyan and being raised by your single white mom and/or your grandparents—for most people that would fall under the category of lemons out of which you try to make lemonade.

By definition, we are all lucky: whatever happens to us is largely a matter of chance. But luck does not define how we respond to and leverage what happens to us. That is defined by character, skill, knowledge, experience, and other highly personal qualities (partly genetic, no doubt, but also willfully, effortfully developed).

I am frankly sick of commentary about Obama’s “luck”—whether it’s inanity about his not being African-American, or the “luck” of the financial crisis occurring when it did, or the “luck” that the Jeremiah Wright business came up so early.

The fact is that Barack Obama has proven able, over and over again, to master the circumstances he’s been presented with. That’s not luck. That’s a demonstration of the kind of skills we need in a president, after having suffered one who managed to squander just about every bit of luck that ever came his way.

31 October 2008

Lawrence Lessig at the Chicago Humanities Festival

Last night's talk by Lawrence Lessig was pretty phenomenal. He gave a very effective presentation on the influence of money in politics, basically contending that its most pernicious effect is the obliteration of trust--the people's trust in their government.

You can view the presentation here.

And if you want to join the movement to change congress, you can learn more here.

FYI, Lessig is also the founder of Creative Commons.

Jeffrey Sachs at the Chicago Humanities Festival

First of all, my hat is off to anyone who can talk coherently for 45 extemporaneous minutes. No podium, no notes, no overheads. An amazing feat.

I really didn't know what to expect from Jeffrey Sachs; I was vaguely aware of him as someone who had "converted" from being a more free-market capitalism guy to a sustainable development guy.

There was no evidence of the free-market capitalism guy at last night's lecture. He spent the first 20 minutes or so of his talk trying to put the current financial crisis in context. He reminded us of the collapse of the Asian bubble in the late 1990s, the subsequent dot.com bubble, and the most recent real estate bubble. All interconnected--nothing about them should have been unpredictable.

From there, he segued into bubbles that he deemed more critical--the climate bubble, the population bubble, and the water scarcity bubble. When these burst, he pointed out, we won't just be looking at a recession.

He made a good case for pumping up our aid to impoverished parts of the world and taking a larger role in helping solve apparently intractable problems. He made connections between climate change, water scarcity, population explosion, and the situation in Darfur. He connected human encroachment on wildlife with the rise in diseases that cross from animals to people (including AIDS and SARS).

And all along the way he pointed to Tuesday's election as the first step to get real traction on these issues. He called Barack Obama "incredibly smart," which is something, coming from a guy who's clearly pretty darned smart himself.

Well, we are all hopeful. But of course the real work starts after Tuesday.

Lisa Randall at the Chicago Humanities Festival

Lisa Randall is a rare specimen: a renowned cosmologist who happens to be female. We listened to her give a talk the other night based on her 2005 book Warped Passages, about the possibility of "hidden" dimensions in space-time.

Randall explained that the investigations into additional dimensions are triggered by the desire to make quantum theory consistent with relativity theory. The existence of higher dimensions may explain apparent inconsistencies. One thing that was striking is how the mathematics drives the investigation. For example, "there is nothing in the mathematics that rules out the existence of other dimensions." It reminds me of another talk we went to--last year, I think--where the scientist talked about how there is nothing in the math of physics to explain why we can go forward in time but not backward.

So the work is to a considerable extent mathematical rather than physical (though this is physics). But there's nothing particularly new about that--Einstein used mathematics, too, and it was a long time before his theories could be proved empirically.

Randall claimed that the theories about higher dimensions may well be proved (or disproved) by experiments at the new CERN hadron collider in Switzerland, starting next year.

It is exceedingly hard to imagine higher spatial dimensions, though Randall tried her darnedest to help us do so. She explained that it is much easier to imagine them mathematically than visually. After her talk, I wondered if the whole question of what higher dimensions would look like is meaningless--as the cosmologist Rocky Kolb once said my question--what existed before the universe?--was meaningless after one of his lectures. We can't picture higher dimensions anymore than a point can picture a line. I wondered if the best way to think about dimensions is as projections. For example, you can look at a point as the one-dimensional projection of a line; a square is the two-dimensional projection of a cube; so a cube would be a three-dimensional projection of a four-dimensional object.

Which means there are hidden worlds we can't perceive directly. But that's not new, is it? The microscopic world--was largely hidden from us for most of human history, and even now some of what we know about this world is due to inference rather than direct observation. You could say something similar about the astronomical world.

Anyway, it was all very interesting and thought provoking. One of these days I'll try reading Randall's book, which I bought in 2005 but haven't gotten to yet.

25 October 2008

The Garden

Victor and I went to see this movie last night--the first screening on our 2008 Chicago International Film Festival schedule.

A group of Latinos in South Central LA spent more than a decade tending a 14-acre community garden, until a backroom deal involving a member of the City Council threatened their eviction. While this pretty much is a classic good guys/bad guys story, the movie also manages to convey a lot of the complexities of personality and politics that have been involved. We're not that familiar with LA politics, but we had thought highly of its mayor. The movie made us wonder about him. It also made us wonder how many stories like this take place in the background of Chicago politics. The movie reminds us that we urgently need a different kind of politics.

One of the fun things about seeing movies at the Chicago Film Festival is sometimes the directors, or other key players show up. In this case, director Scott Hamilton Kennedy took questions after the screening. He was wearing a tee shirt with Barack Obama's face on it. It's wonderful to see people who are doing such great things in the flesh.

On the ballot provided by the film festival, we both gave The Garden our highest rating.

14 October 2008

Threepenny Opera

We caught this Hypocrites production on the day it closed. We were impressed with the tremendous energy, creativity, and talent on display. The Hypocrites made Threepenny Opera their own while remaining fundamentally true to the original.

This was our first Hypocrites show, but it won’t be the last.

The Chicago Humanities Festival in Hyde Park

Saturday we went down to Hyde Park for a special program of Chicago Humanities Festival. Usually the festival starts at the end of October and runs through the first couple weeks of November, but this year they scheduled this early taste in Hyde Park. So Victor and I rode our bikes to the Belmont Red Line stop and took the train (with bikes) down to Garfield.

We got up early to try and catch a bird watching group that meets Saturday mornings at 8 in Jackson Park, but the trip ended up taking too long, and we missed the group. But—wow—Jackson Park was beautiful, especially the Japanese Garden. We’re determined to go back.

The first event we attended was in Mandel Hall, a beautiful venue that looks like it used to be a chapel. The speaker, Gary Becker, is a Nobel-Prize winning economist, but his talk wasn’t so great. His thesis was basically that actions to resolve fears have unintended consequences, including the generation of new fears.


His theme was involved the importance of education in ameliorating the impact of unexpected consequences (fears). The most interesting data he presented was on the contribution of higher education to higher quality of life in various respects. But the main thesis was simple-minded at best.

Presumably his academic work is more interesting. I can only imagine he believed he had to dumb the stuff down for a general audience.
Next, we entered the Smart Museum of Art for the first time. Looks like a great space. In a classroom there, we listened to Deidre Chetham and Orville Schell, who discussed the new dam on the Yangtze River. Chetham talked about the impact of displacement on families who had lived in the areas that are now submerged. Schell focused more on the bigness of the projects that China is engaging in.

Our third and final event was a performance by the Silk Road Theatre Project of a new verse play by Yusef Komunyakaa, an adaptation of the ancient epic Gilgamesh. I’m afraid Victor fell asleep, but I really enjoyed it. I thought the performers were pretty wonderful.

After this we took a quick tour through at the Hyde Park Art Center, and then had a beautiful ride home. But long. We usually don’t ride more than 5 miles or so. The ride home was about 10 miles.

I was awfully tired the next day.

29 September 2008

Goodbye, Chicago Tribune

Today, I called to cancel our subscription to the Sunday Chicago Tribune. I wrote this letter (submitted online) to explain why:

My husband and I moved to Chicago about four years ago, and shortly afterward began our subscription to the Chicago Tribune. Only Sundays, because we frankly haven’t time to read the newspaper daily. Like many people, we spend so many hours working during the week, most of our news comes from the radio and internet.

Sundays are different, however, and we’ve enjoyed dedicating our Sunday morning hours to reading the Sunday Tribune and the New York Times. It is with regret that we choose to stop including the Chicago Tribune in this ritual. We cannot continue to support a newspaper that publishes intellectually dishonest editorials.

A number of recent editorials have disturbed us, but the latest, “Scapegoating Markets,” was the last straw.

The headline is ironic. While the editorial argues against scapegoating capitalism as the cause of the current financial crisis, instead, attempts to “increase homeownership, particularly by minorities and the less affluent” are scapegoated.

The editorial claims that if deregulation were the problem, “it would be the commercial banks, not the investment banks, that were in trouble,” ignoring the failures of Indy Mac and Washington Mutual, and the shaky status of Wachovia. “The demise of Glass-Steagall turns out to be a boon,” the editorial adds, noting that its absence enabled Bank of America to purchase Merrill Lynch.

The editorial ignores the fact that if the regulations eliminated in the past 20 or so years had still been in place, Merrill Lynch might not have required rescue.

Instead, the editorial blames the current crisis on “an attack on underwriting standards [that] was undertaken by virtually every branch of government.”

Which “underwriting standards” are we talking about? Standards that facilitated discrimination against whole classes of borrowers, including single women and minorities? Redlining of neighborhoods? Certainly U.S. courts and the legislative branch have been instrumental in attempts to eliminate such “standards,” and I hope we are all proud of this.

But where the government has urged relaxation of fiscal lending standards, such relaxation was backed and promoted first by lending industry lobbyists, like—for example—Rick Davis, John McCain’s campaign manager and former president of Homeownership Alliance, a lobbying firm funded by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. (Which were (until recently) private corporations, by the way, not “mixed” public-private enterprises as your editorial suggests.)

We thought a lot about whether it’s appropriate to cancel our subscription to a newspaper because of its editorials. They’re just a reflection of opinion, after all, and we wouldn’t cancel a subscription because of a disagreement with a columnist. We think that unsigned editorials are different, though, because they represent the opinion of the newspaper as an institution, and we find we can’t continue to support an institution that demonstrates such low standards. If we want to read editorial fueled by ideology instead of facts, we can find lots of that online. From a newspaper, we expect measured and reality-based news and commentary.

We understand that your newspaper is launching a redesign tomorrow: more pictures, less words.

Good luck with that.


Dave DaVinci Saves the Universe

In the past couple years, Victor and I have become big fans of the House Theatre, which is noted for its creative presentations of fairly simple stories and its terrifically high energy. At the Chopin Theatre, the House is now performing an earlier work, Dave DaVinci Saves the Universe. While this science fiction tale is perhaps less substantial than runaway success The Sparrow or even The Magnificents (which got less enthusiastic notices, but which we enjoyed very much) both in script and in execution, it remains an appealing story, performed by a talented cast.

Recommended, especially if you can pick up discounted tickets via Goldstar or HotTix.

26 September 2008

Promoting Science

The other night, I attended a presentation sponsored by the Chicago Council on Science and Technology, which seeks to promote more (and accurate) understanding of science and technology. The speaker was Alan Leshner, head of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and he talked about science challenges for the new millennium.

These mainly involve the disconnect between a large swath of American opinion and the goals and conclusions of science. Where science conflicts with what Leshner called "core values," Americans tend to just look the other way. So we have a remarkable proportion of citizens who don't accept that humans developed from a simian ancestor, or that the earth is billions of years old. A remarkable proportion of Americans simply don't trust scientists, and look at scientific conclusions as opinions they can take or leave.

Leshner proposed that to deal with this problem, scientists need to do a better job of communicating with the public rather than to the public.

This response seems rather facile. A preposition change is not sufficient. I think the problem needs to be dealt with by dramatizing why these scientific conclusions matter. I am not entirely sure how to do this, but I think it's crucial. For example, millions of Americans are able to reject Darwin's theory of evolution (particularly as it pertains to human beings) because ultimately they feel it doesn't make any difference what they think about it.

We do not live in a society where truth/reality is valued for its own sake. Our public discourse is riddled with lies and spin, and we pretty much have to decide what we think before we decide who we're going to listen to. People are treating scientific conclusions the same way. After all, there are so many scientific conclusions, and they frequently contradict each other: coffee is good for you; coffee is bad for you. In a society where we're overloaded with information, we largely ignore stuff we don't see a way to use or doesn't fit with our world view.

Scientists (and their communicators and policymakers) need to figure out how to make critical scientific conclusions relevant to Americans. Maybe it's by reminding us of why the practice of science is important. What happens when you don't do science properly? How do problems get solved if you pick and choose the conclusions you like best? As some scientists like to joke (with regard to creationists who call evolution "just a theory"), gravity is just a theory--how would you like to jump out that window?

Maybe what we need is an ad campaign that warns us of the consequences of bad science and of ignoring scientific conclusions. People hear about the rewards all the time; they're all around us. The rewards of science are so ubiquitous that we almost feel they're natural occurences. So let's focus on what happens when we don't teach kids to be good scientists, and when our decision makers and policy makers are science ignoramuses (ignorami?).

Our society in recent years has come perilously close to valorizing ignorance (see Idiocracy).

Let's change that.

25 September 2008

Robin Robertson and Simon Armitage

Went to see these two British poets the other night at Loyola University's downtown Rubloff Auditorium (as distinct from Northwestern University's downtown Rubloff Building--Thorne Auditorium--and the Art Institute of Chicago's Rubloff Auditorium--all, no doubt, the result of donations by Arthur Rubloff of the real estate firm) in an event presented by the Poetry Foundation.

Victor has read Simon Armitage's recent translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, so Robin Robertson was the real surprise to me. Firstly, he has a wonderfully sonorous reading voice--I could listen to him forever. Secondly, his poems are chock full of gorgeous sounds. Only a few were not entirely convincing or took an easy way to closure. I was delighted to discover this fine poet.

Simon Armitage who is--at least by appearance--a good deal younger than Robertson, also delivered a good performance, but I liked him more for his manner--the patter between poems--than the work itself. A couple of poems--especially the first one he read, about a sperm whale--were knockouts, but on the whole I wasn't so impressed. I still look forward to reading Gawain, which Victor liked very much, but I wasn't wowed enough to buy another Armitage book.

On the other hand, I bought Robertson's translation of Euripedes' Medea without hesitation, and plan to get to it just as soon as I finish (or abandon) Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine.

13 August 2008

The Dark Side

This book by Jane Mayer is a cogent account of our government's post-9/11 embrace of torture as an interrogation technique. The purpose is not to document the kinds of torture that have been applied (though there is some of that), but rather to trace the genesis of decisions and policies that led to it. The story of the past seven years is cast as a struggle between the rule of law and the belief that the president is the law (i.e., if the president does it/wants it/orders it, it can't be illegal). The result is a chilling picture of an administration sorely unprepared to govern in a time of crisis, unwilling to tolerate sound advice that runs counter to its assumptions, and a president utterly insulated from dissent and bad news.

While there is nothing new about the broad outlines of this account, Mayer manages to make the details gripping. The book is upsetting and enraging, but at the same time hard to put down--rather like watching a car crash.

Highly recommended.

The Keep

This novel by Jennifer Egan was a good read--stayed up to finish it. A strange, gothic sort of story. You keep thinking you know how things are going to go, but you don't. At the beginning I expected it to be just creepy, but finally it was almost anti-creepy.

Look forward to reading more of Egan's stuff.

07 August 2008

Then We Came to the End

This book by Joshua Ferris made a big splash when it came out last year, and it's easy to see why. A tour-de-force written in the first-person-plural, it's remarkable in that it sustains the tone and humor of satire for the length of an entire novel.

Well, that's not entirely accurate. There's a diversion about halfway through in which the "we" voice takes a break. Still, the feat is remarkable.

Beyond stylistic interest, the book is highly readable, with plenty of sharp and entertaining observations about how we behave at work. It's sort of like the TV show The Office, but in text, so it necessarily has some more emotional depth.

But, frankly, not a whole lot more. This is a book that's fun to read, but doesn't have a lot of staying power.

Well written, well done, but not much to it.

Easy Rawlins/Walter Mosley

I don't remember anymore how I got turned on to Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins detective novels. I remember that Bill Clinton was president but I learned of his famous remark about Mosley being one of his favorite writers after I'd started reading the books. I remember lending them and giving them as presents to friends and to my brother, to combat his belief that my taste only runs to the highfalutin'.

When I find a writer I like, I tend to collect and devour everything I can by him, and when I found Devil in a Blue Dress, I did the same. I think there were about four novels out at the time, and I ate them all up. The subsequent ones came out too slow for me. I read many of the non-Rawlins books, too, and liked them fine, but my addiction was definitely for Easy.

Years passed and I moved on to other things, but recently I noticed that four Easy Rawlins books existed that I had not read. Scandalous! So last week I had the pleasure of remedying that: Six Easy Pieces (a set of linked short stories in which Mouse is (happily) resurrected), Little Scarlet, Cinnamon Kiss, and Blonde Faith.

My Rawlins-fest has left me with few complaints. Happy to have Mouse back, and the older Easy does not disappoint. The books look at recent American history with a sharp race-sensitive perspective, unlike any other writer.

Only, I don't see why Easy had to die.

There, I said it. Mosley may be tired of him, but I'm not.

05 August 2008

Native Speaker

I suppose I bought this book by Chang-Rae Lee because I had heard the author's name and it had won a lot of prizes, but I really didn't know anything about it. As I started to read, I began to dread what was coming: another sad story of immigrant displacement and alienation. And it is (though perhaps not so sad as anticipated), but Native Speaker is also a love story and a thriller, and succeeds rather well at its multiple genres.

Lee is a fine writer. I look forward to reading more of him.

04 August 2008

Manhattan Melodrama

Got this movie as part of a set of non-Thin Man DVDs with William Powell and Myrna Loy. It also stars Clark Gable, who's awfully charming, and Mickey Rooney (playing Clark Gable's character, Blackie, as a boy) who looks and sounds pretty much the same as he does in more recent films where he's an old man.

We had to laugh at the harmony between this movie's title and its plot, since it is probably one of the most melodramatic movies we have ever seen, and yet it's remarkably watchable.

I guess it's hard for a movie with Powell, Gable, and Loy not to be watchable.

City of God

We watched this Brazilian film on DVD from Netflix the other night and weren't sure what to expect. Turned out to be an excellent depiction of life in a Rio de Janeiro favela (slum), with terrific performances, and also a fascinating documentary reflecting on the history of the drug/gang wars in Rio's favelas.

Highly recommended.

01 August 2008

Another Cyclist Killed

Yesterday I was home reading a book when I heard a blaring car horn and then a crash. I live right above Lake Shore Drive, so (unfortunately) that sequence of sounds isn't terribly unusual, but when I got up to look out the window I expected a fender-bender on the Inner Drive and not to see a bicyclist sprawled in the middle of the Outer Drive. I watched as crowds gathered, emergency vehicles arrived, and the cyclist was (finally) zipped into a body bag (I really wanted to know if he was still alive; the body bag told me, finally, that he was not).

It was terribly sad, and, more, I couldn't understand it--what was the cyclist doing on the Outer Drive? News accounts have been no help. The Trib and Sun-Times both posted inaccurate and incomplete stories about the event (one says the cyclist died enroute to the hospital, the other says a man was trying to cross LSD and makes no mention of the bicyclist).

A witness, in the Sun-Times story comments, says,

This report is inaccurate. The cyclist was going northbound on inner LSD when he was hit by a cab (who fled the scene), thrown into southbound outer LSD where he was hit by another vehicle. I live at this site and was there when it happened.
It's not good to disparage the dead by insinuating he was trying to do someting stupid like walking/riding accross outer LSD!

It is frustrating that our local papers are not getting reporters out there to cover this very local story. And meanwhile, this cyclist is assumed by most folks who hear about this to be a suicidal idiot and not a victim of typical motorist carelessness (I don't mean the motorists on the Outer Drive, but the cab on the Inner Drive).

19 July 2008


This is one of those movies with a great cast (unbelievably great--a very young Kevin Spacey, even, in a tiny role) that nonetheless ends up being a dud. Nothing really happens in this movie--at least nothing of much interest. For a while you earnestly wait for something to happen, and then you sort of give up, and just sustain yourself with Meryl Streep occasionally doing something interesting onscreen--Jack Nicholson almost never does--and then the movie ends, and you shake your head and say, "That's it?"

Yes, that's it. Unfortunately.

18 July 2008


It's hard to know what to make of this movie, which takes place entirely underground, in Budapest's subway system. The protagonists are the system's ticket checkers, who have the unenviable job of demanding passengers show their tickets or passes and levying a fine if proof of payment is not forthcoming.

The ticket checkers work in teams, and the film follows a team that is on probation--for newness, presumably, but it may also be for lameness (the team includes a narcoleptic).

The atmosphere underground at times seems disarmingly normal and other times is flatly sinister--there's a killer loose: a self-styled grim reaper who shoves random passengers into the path of oncoming trains and disappears. And manages to do this without being captured by the ubiquitous security cameras.

Our hero is a young man who seems clearly overqualified for his role--and indeed, we find out that he had been a big success in the above-surface world but chucked it all. We watch the movie because we want this directionless fellow to find his direction: when he does, the movie takes off.

14 July 2008

Funk It Up about Nothin'

This hip-hop adaptation of Shakespeare's Much Ado about Nothing could have been awful, but instead is so creative and energetic and full of good spirits that it's wonderful instead: As the show opens, Don Pedro and crew are returning from a rapping competition; as his evil plans unfold Don John rubs his hands together and snarls "Gon' funk it UP!"; Borrachio accomplishes his deception with a blow-up doll.

Like I said, could have been awful. Instead: terrific.

11 July 2008


Once in a while, I have an "aha" moment that makes me feel like a total idiot. I've been a tea drinker for a long time, but recently we got a new teapot after a long time without one (previous pots had broken or been lost). This enabled me to use (for the first time in a while) our tea warmer, which is a thick glass almost-cylinder with a hollowed-out space in the middle that fits a tealight candle.

Have you guessed my "aha" moment yet?

Oh, they're called tea-light candles because they fit in tea warmers!

Who knew?

(I know...everybody but me.)

Lake Wobegon Summer 1956

Previously I had not had much success reading Garrison Keillor novels, but somehow when I opened this book this time, it clicked with me, and I read it straight through (it goes quick).

We bought the book back when we lived in Columbus. We'd seen Keillor read from it, but we weren't patient enough to wait in line for his autograph. I still remember the pleasure of listening to Keillor read; not that different from the pleasure of listening to his radio show. And as I read the novel yesterday, I could hear his voice in my head, as if it were reciting a single closing monologue.

The book offers the pleasures of a closing monologue: a homespun voice poking gentle fun at religion and delighting in dirty jokes (the protagonist is a 14-year-old boy). It is by no means a serious book--I can't say I learned anything much--but it is an enjoyable one, and offers a pleasantly nostalgic remembrance of life in a midwestern small town in the 1950s, which includes not only its charms, but also the urgent need to escape those charms.

Let the Trumpet Sound

It took me a while to finish biography of Martin Luther King by Stephen Oates, not because it was boring or even difficult, but just because it was dense with information. Growing up in the 1970s, I thought I knew all about the civil rights movement because it was constantly referenced, and I was able to follow the references. Over time, though, I realized that my knowledge of the period was terribly shallow. This book has been quite a help in fleshing out the outline I'm familiar with with details I was not so familiar with. The MLK who was an enemy of racial injustice is well-remembered; the MLK who was an enemy of economic injustice is nearly forgotten, and the MLK who vehemently opposed the war in Vietnam has utterly disappeared, I think.

The parts of this book that trace the conduct of the war in Vietnam and opposition to it are eerily reminiscent of what's currently going on with the war in Iraq. It is just crazy how history repeats and nothing changes.

Well, not nothing. Barack Obama is another public figure with a remarkable ability to move his audience with oratory, but he is running for president, a path MLK rejected.

07 July 2008

Iron Man

We went to see this movie a few weeks ago, with some trepidation due to mixed reviews, but also eagerness because I'm such a big Robert Downey, Jr., fan. In the end, we were surprised and delighted with it and have been recommending it to hesitant friends and family.


This movie has received some rotten reviews, but we didn't think it was bad at all. Certainly no masterpiece, but highly enjoyable performances from Will Smith, Jason Bateman, and Charlize Theron, some excellent jokes (visual and verbal), and some real surprises. Very much satisfies the desire for a summer action movie.

S is for Silence

I can't remember the last time I read one of Sue Grafton's alphabetical mysteries but I was quite a devotee until around F or G. The novelty was in their smart, tough, frank female protagonist, who was not insusceptible to male attraction, but generally did not let such attraction rule her behavior (in my late teens to early 20s, this was a refreshing attitude to encounter).

Still, after more than a half dozen in a row, I started to get tired of Kinsey Milhone, and moved on to other things. But, finding myself bookless in San Diego a couple weeks ago, I happened on this novel and decided to give her another shot.

Like most respectable mysteries, S is for Silence is hard to put down, but I found myself less than impressed with the writing. Dialogue often seemed stilted, working too hard to convey too much information. I closed the book thinking that, after all, this stuff wasn't very good.

However. Days later I was still thinking about the story, pondering the twists and turns of the plot and the various characters. So while perhaps the writing could be tightened up, you can't really ask too much more of a (fairly lightweight) mystery novel than that its effect lingers significantly after the book's been closed.


This novel by Vladimir Nabokov is beautifully done and reminds me more of Tolstoy than anything else. Certainly it doesn't have that scope; the resemblance is in the construction of characters and their thought. I enjoyed it very much.

18 June 2008


This novel by Charles Johnson is a fiction about a real person: Martin Luther King. Many of the events described are factual, but Johnson has introduced an imaginary character: King's double. The collisions between reality and imagination are dizzying and don't always tend toward persuasiveness. Still, it's a compelling read that inspires you to learn more about King and think about what might have been and could still be.

The Enchantress of Florence

Some people don't care much for Salman Rushdie the tale spinner as opposed to Rushdie the more-or-less realist. I have to say I'm more attached to the realist, in spite of my fondness for fantasy: Fury blew me away. But this novel has its charms; you just have to be patient with hyperbole and with a narrator who takes his sweet time.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

My best advice about this movie is to make other plans. Go out for a nice dinner. Take in a baseball game. Hit the sack early. Rent one of the first three Indiana Jones movies.

Whatever. Just stay away from this one, which does nobody proud.

Nine Queens

This movie is sort of an Argentine version of The Sting, only you're not quite sure who's being stung. As it draws to a close, you can make a good guess, and you're probably right, but that doesn't detract from the fun of this clever and engaging con artist movie.

The Good German (movie)

Boy, was this one bad. We couldn't finish watching it. Of course most movies made of novels conflate characters and change plot threads, but having read the book so recently, both of us had trouble tolerating the changes which--as far as we could tell--were made for no good reason.

So, in spite of sporting a wonderful cast (headed by my idea of a Cary Grant successor: George Clooney) and an even better director (Steven Soderbergh), this was impossible to watch.

Ah well.

08 May 2008

Predictably Irrational

Just finished this book by Dan Ariely, which got a lot of notice when it came out, including pieces on NPR and in the New Yorker. Ariely is a social economist (or something like that) who studies the way we make decisions. And his "startling" conclusion is that, while we think we are rational, we make decisions for all sorts of irrational reasons.


While some of the observations are no-brainers, the detailed mechanics of how we make decisions (when provided) can be very interesting. For example, he talks about how we have a hard time deciding between two different things (e.g., a colonial house and a modern one), but if we have three things to choose from, and one is a defective version of another (e.g., a colonial house, a colonial house with a leaking roof, and a modern one), we tend to have an easier time, choosing the thing that is not defective, but has a defective version (e.g., the intact colonial house). Also, in general, our sense of what things are worth can be dependent on an unrelated number we have in our head (a price anchor).

The book as a whole is conversational and jokey (irritatingly so, Victor thought) but offers some interesting ideas to chew on.

A quick read.

07 May 2008

Exhausted and Relieved

I couldn't get to sleep last night because I was waiting for the results of the Indiana primary. I kept flipping between news sites and blogs, hoping that Obama would pull an upset there.

Almost, but it looks like close does get the cigar. It looks like nobody is suggesting she can win anymore, and attention is turning to the November race.

I'm thrilled that Obama has stayed ahead in spite of (one hopes, because of) a campaign that has been remarkably free of cant and catering to small interests. Brother-in-law Bob pointed out this blog entry, which pretty much lays out how I feel. Some things are more important than winning; it's nice to have a candidate who lives by that, for once.

06 May 2008

From Terns to Technology...

Sat for a while out by the lake and listened to Caspian terns as they soared over me, back and forth between Belmont Harbor and Lake Michigan. For such a beautiful bird, they make a pretty awful sound; that's not too unusual, though. Great blue herons, also great beauties, don't sound too pretty, either.

Which brings me to a poem by Charles Reznikoff, which all this puts in my mind, and which I would never be able to put my hand on so quickly were it not for the wonders of Google. This is a poem that an old teacher of mine copied out for me ages ago (and his 20-odd-year-old letter is doubtless at the bottom of a box somewhere) in response to my guilty confession that I wasn't very productive. Here's the snippet, from Reznikoff's "Jerusalem the Golden":

You tell me that you write only a little now.
I wrote this a year or two ago
about a girl whose stories I had read
and wished to meet:

The traveller
whom a bird's notes surprise--
his eyes
search the trees

And when I met her she was plain enough.
So is the nightingale, they say--
And I am glad that you do not belong
To those whose beauty is all song

How did I find this obscure poem without going into the other room and poring through the several volumes of Reznikoff sitting on my bookshelf? Simply typing "beauty is all song" and "nightingale" into the search box brought up not simply the proper book, but the page.

Google. What did we ever do without it?

05 May 2008

Bride and Prejudice

This movie is a silly idea that turns out to be highly entertaining: tell a Jane Austen story Bollywood style. It certainly doesn't lead to any profound understandings, and I can't say the script improves at all on the original, but it is fun to watch.

03 May 2008

The Man with a Shattered World

I've been a fan of Oliver Sacks for many years. Hie empathic accounts of people with bizarrely specialized neurological problems (people who can't see parts but can see wholes, people who can't remember what happened 5 minutes ago but can remember their childhoods, people who can't stop swearing) have always enthralled me. What drew me was both the way the physical details seemed to resonate so richly with more commonly metaphorical ways of experiencing the world, and also Sacks' evident humanity.

I learned about this book, by A.R. Luria, from Sacks; he often mentions Luria as a hero and cites this book as an example of what he's trying to do. It is a case study--collaboration between doctor and patient--of a man who suffered severe effects from a brain injury incurred during the Second World War; he's lost most of his memory, including his education and how to do the simplest things; however his brain's intact when it comes to his personality. He's in the worst possible position, in a way, because he's conscious of all his deficiencies, but he's almost powerless to correct them.

Almost. But he can try. The part of him that can try is intact. This is a great book to read when you're depressed and feeling sorry for yourself because it makes you feel how lucky you are. The patient tries to get his life back back by writing about his experiences: what he can do, what he can't do, what he's trying to do. It's heartbreaking but also stunning, what can be accomplished by will alone--will is pretty much all the patient has left.

A fascinating and moving book.

The Cyclist

I wanted to like this book, by Viken Berberian, better. The prose is lovely and strange (even rhyming at times), but in the end I couldn't make head or tail of it. Yes, the narrator is a prospective terrorist, yes, he's planning--with his comrades--to blow up a fancy Beirut hotel, but why is more mysterious. There's anger and determination, but the focus of those emotions is unclear. What's clear is that the character loves food and loves his girlfriend; with so much focused love, it's hard to credit the muddled motivation to violence.

02 May 2008

The Hungry Tide

This book by Amitav Ghosh kept me up past my bedtime last night, although I found it not entirely convincing. Still, parts were enthralling. Ghosh throws together an American cetacean researcher of Indian descent, a translator from New Delhi, an illiterate fisherman, and the turbulent landscape of the Sundarbans, and comes up with a tale that is part adventure story, part romance, part history and resonates with the hybrid mythology of its location throughout.

But while there is much to be savored in this novel, it flounders a bit in describing straightforward adult interactions--people explain themselves (in their thoughts and out loud) rather woodenly.

Still, it kept me reading, and I was glad to learn about a part of the world I'd barely even heard of. But I've enjoyed other Ghosh books more.

UPDATE: Days later, I'm still thinking about it, so it has had more of an impact than I'd have imagined.

UPDATE 2: Coincidentally, just read a fascinating article about the Sundarbans in a recent New Yorker. Isn't it funny how things converge?

01 May 2008

Spring is Back

We've had the nuttiest weather this year. It's only our fourth winter in Chicago, and we were told that this was more like a real Chicago winter--the past three were unusually mild.

The coldness of the winter wasn't the worst part, though. The worst part has been the reluctance of spring to really settle in. Some warm days here and there, enough to get you excited, and then all of a sudden, snow.

But today temperatures are in the 60s, the sun is out, and I'm remembering that it's never consistently nice until Mother's Day, so I shouldn't be surprised. And also, the bonus is that it typically stays nice until almost Thanksgiving, which isn't bad at all.

The migrating birds have been doing their thing regardless of the weather's fickleness; brown creepers and other woodpeckers are visible, and a variety of sparrows and wrens. In the lake, we have seen various grebes passing through; I think the buffleheads and goldeneyes (winter visitors) are gone now.

And the bunnies have been back for a few weeks already, but the grassy fenced lot on Sheridan Road, where I always look for them, has a sign posted announcing construction of a new apartment building.

30 April 2008

The Good German

I loved this book. It's by no means a great work of literature, but it delivers a compelling story, intriguing characters, and ponder-worthy moral questions. Maybe a little too conspicuously moralizing, but after all, the book's setting (Berlin in the aftermath of Germany's loss to the Allies in WWII) presents an array of moral conundrums. Must be hard for a period writer to resist.

Surprisingly, there are also interesting parallels to be drawn between postwar Berlin and postwar Baghdad... I guess the issues associated with occupation are largely universal.

This was a book I never wanted to put down, though I was frequently obliged to. Last night, though, I read the last third straight through.

A great pleasure.

29 April 2008

Aladdin and the Enchanted Lamp

We read this children's picture book primarily because its author is Philip Pullman, the creator of the wonderful His Dark Materials trilogy for young adults.

While I can certainly recommend this book for children (it is a great story, and the pictures, by Sophy Williams, are quite beautiful), it is of limited interest to the Philip Pullman junkie. The story is retold well, but you'd never know Pullman wrote it, as opposed to anyone else.

28 April 2008

The Mission Song

John LeCarre can do no wrong, as far as I'm concerned; this novel--about a naive young man, eager to do good for his country (the UK) as well as the African nation he was born in, who gets mixed up in a cynical plot--can do no wrong, either. Things turn out both better and worse than you expect.

Highly recommended.

27 April 2008

Alvin Ailey

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater comes to Chicago once a year, and this year I decided not to miss it, even though Victor was out of town. The program I saw included "Firebird" as well as "Flower" and "Revelations," which has you leaving the theater doing a little dance inside. Just terrific performers, and inspiring choreography. "Flower" was my least favorite, though I could appreciate it. I had seen "Revelations" before--I think it's kind of a signature work. But "Firebird" was new to me, and I thought it was just spectacular.

The Auditorium Theater is a wonderful venue: beautiful space, great acoustics. Every time I return there I'm amazed again.


We finally made it to the Hopper and Homer shows at the Art Institute of Chicago a few weeks ago, after a couple of failed attempts. There are constantly lines out the door to see these exhibits!

And they are totally worth it. Some art can be appreciated pretty well in reproduction and some art is a revelation in person. I would never have thought seeing Hopper's stuff in person would be so amazing, but that's because the reproductions capture his achievement so poorly. In reproduction, I had loved Hopper's work, but for what I felt as loneliness and alienation portrayed there. I never had a clue about what he achieved with light.

In person, the light is almost all you see. The paintings seem to contain their own light, and even the most familiar (like Nighthawks at the Diner) are much brighter than you remember them. This was a phenomenal exhibit, and the Homer exhibit was a beautiful complement to it, for of course Homer, too, is all about light, though his effects show more clearly in reproduction.

Very beautiful work. So happy and proud to have the opportunity to see these exhibits here in Chicago.


We made it to ArtChicago a couple years ago, when it was paired with the Antiques Fair in the Merchandise Mart for the first time. But we missed it last year, which was the introduction of Artropolis--even more art. I think this year was bigger than ever, with five shows in one weekend: ArtChicago, the Antiques Fair, Next, The Artist Project, and the Intuit show.

We spent hours there yesterday. Of course, it was enormous and overwhelming. But wonderful to see so many beautiful things. And since there are such big crowds, you don't feel self-conscious just looking, as you may when gallery hopping. Some of the galleries represented were displaying amazing stuff: Chagalls, Renoirs, and other work by artists perhaps not so famous, but wonderful to see. And unlike at museums, you can get as close as you like (though I imagine touching is still out of the question).

But while the ArtChicago show was impressive, some of the most interesting stuff was in the Intuit Show of Outsider Art.


This Will Smith vehicle is exactly what we expected: fairly predictable romantic comedy with many embarrassing-funny moments.

But perhaps more likable than we would have predicted.

You're an Animal, Viskovitz!

This is one of the most disappointing books I've read in a while. I mean, I love animals, I love mythology, I love parables, but this collection, in which the main character is a different animal in each tale, is essentially one pretty easy joke after another. I was hoping for something like Italo Calvino's Cosmicomics, and got something with much less feeling, and a lot of self-satisfied cleverness.

Ah, well.