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.