07 December 2009

John Henry Days

I confess to being awed by Colson Whitehead. This novel is just astonishing. I am pretty sure my mouth dropped open at several points. A sort of fantasia around the fictional release of a commemorative stamp honoring the folk hero John Henry, the book convincingly imagines a wide range of American lives--all the people associated with the festivities planned to launch the new stamp, including journalists, publicists, a small town's officials and citizens, assorted guests (such as a stamp collector and the daughter of a collector of John Henry-ana), and John Henry himself.

The book is full of really terrific writing: some of it satire, some of it straight-out storytelling, and some of it jaw-droppingly beautiful. I'm especially fond of a short section set at a fair, in which we observe individuals in the crowd from the inside as well as the outside (as though we're passing angels, as in Wings of Desire).

As I was reading this book, I thought, "This guy should get a genius prize." Turns out he did, in 2002.

Look forward to reading more of his work.

The Life of Pi

I read this a few weeks ago, feeling very late (the book came out in 2002, to enormous acclaim). I knew it had something to do with a young man on a boat with a tiger, in the middle of the sea, and I guess this seemed to me so odd on its face that I doubted I'd find anything to relate to in it.

Shame on me. Talk about failure of imagination!

Yann Martel's accomplishment is extraordinary: a deeply involving story as well as a philosophical meditation on the nature of Story. Beautifully written and (in this edition) illustrated.

04 December 2009

Up in the Air

Victor and I had a free pass to see this movie last night; the latest work of Jason Reitman, who also made Juno and Thank You for Smoking. Like those movies, this one dips into the zeitgeist: our increasingly disconnected lives, the irony of "loyalty rewards" in an age where traditional kinds of loyalty are typically rewarded by a literal or figurative pink slip.

George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, an avatar and proponent of the rootless lifestyle--he works for a firm that companies hire to carry out layoffs and travels around the country firing people. He is most comfortable when he's on the go, and he delivers termination news as if he's doing the employee a favor: offering the freedom to do whatever he/she really wants to do. Clooney even delivers inspirational talks on the subject--he asks his audiences to imagine carrying around everything important to them in a backpack and then tells them to burn the backpack.

While the movie is full of acutely observed, wry and funny moments about life on the go and the crappy way we treat each other, of course things come to a head for Ryan (otherwise, no movie). He encounters a woman with almost as many frequent flyer cards as he has; potentially a soulmate? Shortly thereafter, a scrappy young MBA in the home office argues that the firing process can be handled virtually, via teleconference--no need for Ryan and his colleagues to be jetting all around the country, blowing expense accounts. After Ryan demonstrates, in front of the boss, just how little she knows about firing people, the boss insists he show her the ropes, and they set off together on a whirlwind firing tour.

In the face of the innocent conventionality of his young colleague, the apparent perfection of his occasional lover, the likely termination of his current career once layoffs by teleconference take hold, and the impending marriage of one of his sisters, can Ryan continue to skate across the surface of his life, or will the lightness of his life become unbearable?

Watch this thoroughly enjoyable, smart, frequently laugh-out-loud funny, occasionally poignant and even sad movie to find out. Particularly recommended for frequent flyers.

Melissa Thodos Dance Chicago

Victor and I went to see this company's Fall Concert last weekend. The program included a series of short dances originally choreographed by Bob Fosse, and set on the Thodos performers by Ann Reinking. We have always liked Thodos' company (since we first saw them at Dance Chicago in 2004, where they really stood out), but we're by no means regulars...it was the fanfare for the Fosse dances that pushed me to get the tickets. Fosse directed Cabaret and All That Jazz, two favorite films of mine, and Pippin, a Broadway musical I've never seen but the flashy TV commercial for it thrilled me when I was a kid, and I taught myself to play most of the songs on the piano.

In the event, the Fosse stuff turned out to be the least interesting, though the most hyped. Prefaced by a short video documentary featuring interviews with Reinking and the dancers, the dances were recreations of short pieces created for Gwen Verdon to perform on the Ed Sullivan show. In the video, Ann Reinking suggested that if you hadn't seen the Ed Sullivan show, "you have never seen this."

But we had. Fosse's choreography may have been cutting edge in the 50s and 60s, but by now we have seen it all before: female dancers in bowler hats, muscular midriffs showing, wearing denim and leather. The rolled shoulder, the wink, the shadowed face, the snap. These pieces, designed for television, were mostly shine.

Whereas the other dances in the evening's program (two hours long, with an intermission) were full of beautiful, intriguing, moving, and even thrilling moments. We would certainly still return to Thodos, but not because of resurrected Fosse numbers--the company's own creativity and excellence is reason enough.

01 December 2009

Radio Days

When we lived in Columbus, we listened to the radio a lot more. We were always in the car, driving to work, to shopping, to see friends. NPR was the soundtrack of our lives, or at least our Honda.

Here in Chicago, ,Victor wears radio headphones when he rides his bike to work, and we often listen together on weekend mornings (Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me is a favorite Saturday morning show, and we like to listen to the puzzle master while we read the Times on Sundays). But we sometimes go out on weekend mornings, and Victor travels a lot on business.

So we've been missing our radio, but lately we've taken steps to correct this. On black Friday, we made our contribution to the economy by buying a radio! While technically we can play our living room stereo or our spare room DVD player (which also has a radio) loud enough to hear it in our bedroom, we typically don't do it (and our neighbors are likely grateful). Plus, it's a radio that can dock my iPhone or our iPod, so we can have a wide selection of music in the bedroom, too.

Still, there's the issue of missing favorite programs. I figured there must be an app. And there is! The Public Radio Player app lets you listen live to stations around the country or just choose your favorite shows. I am so excited!

Now we just need a radio in the kitchen and life will be about perfect...

19 November 2009

Switching to the Cloud

I used to love Microsoft Outlook. It has a pretty interface, especially compared with Lotus Notes, which was the application installed at work years and years ago. Compared to Lotus Notes, counterintuitive and clunky, Outlook seemed wonderfully quick and light on its feet.

Until fairly recently, when I began to notice Outlook activity slowing my computer to a crawl.

But in general, I remained comfortable with Outlook, which retrieved my mail from my Internet provider's server on a scheduled basis--every half hour, or every minute; however I requested. The obvious advantage of more frequent retrieval: getting my mail faster. The disadvantage: my laptop tended to pause for the occasion.

Then I got an iPhone. And wondered how I could get my Outlook mail synchronized with it. Certainly the mail came into my Inbox just fine, but the folders didn't match. A little research, and I discovered IMAP. And Gmail.

I had known of Gmail for a long time and found it resistible. The interface didn't attract me. Busy, dense with text...frankly ugly. However, since my alternative was sticking with email that didn't match my iPhone, or paying Microsoft $99 a year for a new email address (MobileMe), I decided to give Gmail a try.

I now use not only Gmail, but Google Calendar and Google Tasks, as well as Google Contacts. The advantage? All this information is simultaneously available not only via my iPhone, but via any computer, using my Google account. Further, I haven't opened Outlook in months and don't miss it. I've started using GoogleDocs more, too.

Now the application that slows my laptop most is iTunes.

11 November 2009

A Slight Complaint

I have nothing to complain about, really. It's silly. But I will anyway: why does everything happen at the same time? During the Chicago Humanities Festival, I'm typically completely booked--how can you miss stuff like John Hodgman, or the Guerrilla Girls, or Robert Reich, or Irene Pepperberg, or Lynda Barry? Tonight, for example, I'm going to see Dave Frishberg, who I adore.

But this same evening, Jaume Plensa, who designed and created the Crown Fountain in Millennium Park, will be talking about public art at the Art Institute's Rubloff Auditorium, free. And all through these CHF weeks, there have been intriguing, though unrelated, programs--Margaret Atwood reading from her new book, backed up by a chorus. Science lectures, talks on Lincoln, readings by an array of novelists, a Parks Department meeting requesting public input on what should be done with Northerly Island. Why do they schedule everything at the same time?

OK, end of complaint. Really, I couldn't be happier. And Victor would probably explode, or collapse, or something if I dragged him to one more event.

04 November 2009

The Hypocrites' Frankenstein

The Hypocrites has become one of our favorite Chicago theater companies--it's gotten so we'd hate to miss any of its productions. So that meant we went to see Frankenstein at MCA a couple of weeks ago, even though Frankenstein is not one of my favorite stories, and it seemed likely that the performance would be made especially spooky since it was running during the Halloween season.

Indeed, the production included lots of creepy touches, not least, a bunch of disturbing dolls hanging from the ceiling, as well as plenty of blood, and an old black and white Frankenstein movie playing overhead pretty much throughout. Like Oedipus, which we saw last season, it was performed in "promenade" style--meaning the play goes on as the audience promenades around the "stage." Also like Oedipus, anachronisms mixed with literary and historic references--you often weren't quite sure where/when you were supposed to be. Ultimately, though, as has happened for us in every Hypocrites show, we were finally, inescapably moved: the story was retold, and somehow strengthened by the fringe-y stuff.

While I liked other Hypocrites productions better (again, Frankenstein is not a favorite story of mine), Victor liked this one best (at least until I reminded him of Threepenny Opera), and we look forward to seeing what the company does with No Exit and Cabaret later this season.

Animal Crackers

Last month I paid to see this show twice. And enjoyed it enormously both times.

Animal Crackers is a musical originally written for the Marx Brothers to perform on Broadway, which they later made into a movie. So the key cast members of this show are not just playing their parts, but playing a Marx Brother playing their parts. (Even though cast members have repeatedly said they are not doing impersonations, of course they are--Groucho, Chico, and Harpo are recognizably on the stage.)

But the show's success is not just based on pitch-perfect impersonations (Joey Slotnick as Groucho is terrific, but my personal favorite, Molly Brennan of 500 Clowns, is a swell Harpo, and Jonathan Brody even plays the piano like Chico did), but also great music (some of the songs are still stuck in my head), and choreography. Who expected dancing in a Marx Brothers show? I didn't. The set was beautifully designed--everything made you feel like you were watching a show 80 years ago.

Except the jokes, which were as fresh as ever. (But for the one about shooting an elephant in his pajamas...nothing could make that new.)

This was just a completely outstanding production. I have heard no whispers about it going to New York, but it ought to...it ought to go everywhere.

Loud & Rich at the Vic

Last Thursday, Victor and I went to see Loudon Wainwright III and Richard Thompson at the Vic. I was conflicted about getting tickets for the show, not because I had any doubts about the performers--we've seen Richard Thompson a couple of times before, and he has always been electrifying--but because our live music experiences in the past few years have been less than rewarding. We've come to feel too old for pop/rock concerts--they start late, seats tend to be uncomfortable or nonexistent, we have no patience for junior opening bands, the regular act starts just around our bedtime, etc., etc. Basically, they make us feel like we're old fogies.

Well, perhaps one key to success is to see 60-something-year-old performers. More likely to start right on time because they want to make their bedtime. Also, know the opening act. Loudon Wainwright was outstanding, especially when performing his latest music, from a collection he's calling Songs for the New Depression. And the most important requirement is probably to make sure you're seeing someone who's terrific live...Richard Thompson is a thrilling performer. The new songs are all good, and he plays the old ones in such a way that you happily recognize them, but he also changes them--speeds them up, usually, or does something else to make you realize (and be glad) that you're at a live performance, not just listening to the same music you could've heard at home.

Much has been made of Richard Thompson's virtuoso guitar playing, and, indeed, it's great--especially compared with Wainwright's more straightforward strumming. But I'm also a big fan of Thompson's voice--it seems to me like nobody else's, and not something you particularly expect to hear based on his speaking voice (as opposed to Wainwright, who has an especially pleasant speaking voice as well as a lovely singing voice--they seem to flow into each other). I'm not sure where else these guys are taking their tour, but this concert should not be missed.

22 October 2009


Victor and I went to see Jonathan Lear speak on irony at the Chicago Humanities Festival in Hyde Park last month. Lear is a philosophy professor at the University of Chicago who has made irony into a specialty.

It's a pleasure to listen to a really thoughtful person. Jonathan Lear reminded me that philosophers are concerned not just with ideas, but how ideas can fuel a good (or better) life. In his discussion of irony, Lear started with a dictionary definition, which I thought an unworthy sort of straw man, but as his argument developed, I appreciated the simplistic beginning. Lear argues that the ironic stance is far from unserious; the ironist may be absolutely earnest in his quest for genuine meaning. The ironist observes that in a roomful of "Christians" there is not a single true Christian; that in a hospital ostensibly devoted to the care of the sick, there are no real healers, that in the world's greatest democracy only a minority of citizens regularly vote.

It has often been said that we live in an age of irony; the ironic stance is seen as hip, perhaps, but lacking in substance. Certainly the ironist is seen as the opposite of sincere (after all, the dictionary definition insists that irony involves saying the opposite of what you mean). On the contrary, Lear argues that the ironist is the one who feels most deeply: unable to bear hypocrisy, he exposes it with assertions designed to make others as uncomfortable as he already is. Lear sees the moment of ironic recognition (for example, the moment the teacher realizes that all this effort he expends in grading papers really has nothing to do with students' learning) as a profound one; potentially the first step we can take toward living a more authentic life.

It is important, of course, not to get stuck in the ironic moment, but to figure out, once you recognize the fake, how to generate the real--how to be a real teacher, citizen, etc. Because when we call out something as fake, we implicitly acknowledge that the real thing exists. Somewhere, somehow.

So, in a way, ironists are actually romantics, in love with ideals. Disappointed romantics, perhaps, but also earnest romantics. (Things always contain their opposites.)

My Neighbor, My Killer

This documentary by filmmaker Anne Aghion (another Chicago International Film Festival screening) examines Rwanda as it recovers from years of genocide. It documents the system of informal, community-based justice--gacaca--that is being used to help reconcile Rwandans to their horrific past. While the very biggest offenders continue to be dealt with by Rwanda's formal justice system, the Rwandan government has implemented the gacaca system to deal with less serious criminals, based on the rationale that it doesn't help anyone for a huge proportion of the population to languish in jail--provided room and board on the public dime.

But it's crucial to recognize that these "less serious" criminals are only less serious in the context of widespread genocide. Often, the people being dealt with in gacaca are still mass murderers, or facilitators of mass murder. The documentary identifies the goals of the gacaca: that the accused will acknowledge, explain, and ask forgiveness for his crimes from the community; that the community has its say; that there is reconciliation, and the accused rejoins the community.

It sounds beautiful, but--as Aghion documents--it is easier said than done. We see several of the accused insisting on their innocence even when multiple witnesses identify them. More often, we see men (for only accused men are shown) admitting to lesser crimes, insisting they did their best; they didn't know, they were afraid...the Nuremberg defense.

In short, the process is less than satisfying. But Aghion allows us to see how the community seems to survive anyhow. Rwanda comes across as a gorgeous country; it is hard to reconcile past atrocities with the verdant scenery.

This beautifully done documentary is evidence of how we can really survive anything, if we have to.

16 October 2009

Chicago Overcoat

This movie was a big favorite at the Chicago International Film Festival, largely because it was made here with a local crew and lots of local cast members, and written, directed, and produced by graduates of Columbia College, which is right downtown. Plus, it's a gangster movie, and Chicagoans are perversely proud of the city's violent heritage.

The movie turns on some pretty familiar situations: a retired hitman puts himself back into action to earn the cash he needs to make things right with his family and buy himself a more interesting retirement. At the same time, a lonely honest member of the Chicago police force sees an opportunity to redeem his sad career by connecting a string of 20-year-old murders with a couple of newer ones. In the process, he convinces his new, young partner to adopt his old-fashioned methods.

The movie is told in voice-over from the hitman's point of view. This is consistent with some noir traditions, but by the end of the movie I was finding the voiceover inconsistent with the hitman's character. He just didn't seem like an introspective guy--I couldn't fathom who he was talking to or why he was telling his story.

Also, I enjoyed the Chicago settings a lot less than I thought I would. Seeing a movie like Batman Begins in recognizable Chicago settings is one thing. That movie is obviously a fantasy. Chicago Overcoat takes place here and now, and it was jarring and unpleasant (rather than exciting) to experience for a while its vision of an an ongoing violent underworld in our own neighborhoods, facilitated by viciously corrupt police and elected officials. An alderman is murdered in his own office. A shootout transpires in a rooftop parking lot. Ick!

Maybe as I get older violent movies come to seem more real to me and less like cartoons. In any case, Chicago Overcoat is an admirable accomplishment for a group of recent film school graduates, but I wasn't a big fan.


We caught this excellent French thriller last weekend at the Chicago International Film Festival. An airport worker, Vincent, gets caught up in a terrorist plot and is recruited--somewhat against his will--into spying for MI-5. From the start, we know the fellow is brighter than his job and companion would indicate (he's reading when we meet him, and can't put his book down), but it's impossible to predict how he'll do in the new situations he's thrust into.

This movie is full of terrific performances--particularly by Guillaume Canet, who plays Vincent; Geraldine Pailhas, who plays Claire, the mark he's meant to seduce and recruit in turn; and Stephen Rea, who plays Palmer, Vincent's MI-5 controller. It keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout. What more can you ask from a thriller?


We caught this rather slow-moving French movie by Claude Chabrol and starring Gerard Depardieu last week during the Chicago International Film Festival. The movie starts with a pretty conventional detective movie premise: a vacationing policeman is presented with a case he just can't ignore. There are lots of twists and turns, but they only matter if you care about the characters--Victor didn't and I did.

And I'm afraid I did only because Depardieu is such a favorite of mine--with anyone else in the lead, I probably would have fallen asleep, too.

Animal Crackers

I have paid to see this show twice in a week, and was glad to do it. The cast has brought the Marx brothers and the vaudeville era to life in a way I had not previously seen on stage. I was frankly amazed by the level of talent in this group of performers--actors, musicians, and dancers, not to mention the direction and choreography that shaped this realization of the 80-year-old show.

We experienced a couple of serious disappointments at the Goodman in the past and had largely avoided its productions for that reason.

We won't be avoiding it anymore.

06 October 2009


Penelope Lively is one of the most consistently rewarding novelists I know of. Is it a British female thing? Because it occurs to me I could say the same of Anita Brookner and Iris Murdoch (and Jane Austen, for that matter).

In Consequences, Lively's subject is how happenstance shapes our lives. In a way, it's a no-brainer: things happen, and so Things Happen. As the story begins, two young people from very different backgrounds happen to sit on the same bench in a London park and effect a very unconventional union--particularly unusual in the 1930s, I imagine. The novel essentially tells of the consequences of that meeting, for themselves, their families, and their descendants.

Beautifully written and deeply moving.

05 October 2009

Mistakes Were Made

This play, put on by A Red Orchid Theatre, stars Michael Shannon (nominated for the Oscar last year for his turn as a mentally ill man befriended by the couple in Revolutionary Road) in a tour-de-force performance of what is almost a one-man show. Splendidly written, the play centers on a New York theater producer, Felix Artifax, desperately trying to make the deals necessary to bring to the stage an unlikely production about the French Revolution. Mistakes Were Made is often hysterically funny--Felix brags about having previously produced Medea, starring Suzanne Somers--but over the course of its nearly two hours, you get uncomfortable. Shannon brings tremendous physicality to the role, and it's a small theater. Some of the folks in the front rows were visibly disturbed. And after a while Felix's troubles come to seem anything but funny--even tragic. You wonder how the play can possibly resolve itself.

And then it does, with a deft gesture.

Highly recommended.

The Company

This movie is of interest for great performances by the Joffrey Ballet, but as a movie, it is a mess. Not recommended except for dance junkies.

28 September 2009

District 9

We'd heard mostly good things about this movie, but the string of previews AMC put on before screening District 9 almost frightened us into leaving the theater: a revenge fantasy, a zombie horror comedy, an apocalyptic fantasy, and Saw VI.

I mean, would you find this encouraging?

In the event, though, we were pretty blown away by District 9. With an array of pretty cheap-looking special effects, and a spectacular script, this South African production manages to create a strikingly resonant metaphor for human bigotry and capitalist exploitation while also telling a very satisfying science fiction story about aliens who look rather like 6-foot-tall lobsters.

Recommended! Recommended! Recommended!

12 September 2009

Am I Turning into Julie Powell?

Not really. But Victor came home from a business trip last night to find me cooking with a vengeance. I'd settled on ratatouille, and maybe some broiled chicken. When I decided on ratatouille, I was thinking of it as a sort of sloppy stew with eggplant, tomato, and zucchini, that you sop up with a nice arborio rice...easy. But the recipe in Mastering the Art of French Cooking is for something completely different: a composed casserole, with each vegetable distinct, in its place--you wouldn't believe the hours that go into making it.

However, the result was quite outstanding. Victor was not sure if it was outstanding enough to go through all that again, but I suggested it might be worth doing it for company (it doesn't just taste impressive, it looks pretty beautiful, too). And then after a few more bites, I decided it really might be worth doing again just for us.

By comparison with the ratatouille, the broiled chicken was a breeze. And its preparation neatly fit in the gaps of the ratatouille routine. Never broiled chicken before. Turned out delicious. But, overall, I have to say that cooking meat is a messy business. (We're not--by any means--vegetarians, but we cook mostly vegetarian at home.) All that grease! I remember thinking the same thing some months ago after I'd made a bunch of chicken stock...

So, what was so tough about the ratatouille? First you peel and slice the eggplant--quarter-inch thick, 3-inch long, 1-inch wide slices. Then you scrub and slice the zucchini--pieces roughly the same size. Toss the slices in a bowl with some salt and let them sit for half an hour, to draw the water out. Drain. Dry the slices with a towel. Then you separate the eggplant from the zucchini and saute the eggplant in olive oil in a single layer at a time, turning to brown lightly. Remove to a plate. Saute the zucchini the same way. I added a step, which was to layer the browned slices between paper towels to blot some of the oil.

All this browning takes a lot of oil.

Then you saute onions and peppers, throw in some garlic, pepper and salt. Meanwhile, you peel, seed, and juice a bunch of tomatoes. Cut them into strips. Lay them on top of the onion-pepper mixture. Season with salt and pepper. Cover, lower heat, wait for the liquid to be drawn out. When liquid has been drawn out, uncover, raise heat, and cook off all the liquid.

Take out a stovetop casserole. Divide your ingredients (fresh herbs (parsley, basil), tomato mixture) into thirds; divide the eggplant/zucchini slices in half. Put a third of the tomato mixture at the bottom of the casserole. Top with a third of the herbs. Then half the eggplant/zucchini (place the slices nicely). Then another third of the tomato mixture and another third of the herbs. Then the rest of the eggplant/zucchini. Then the rest of the tomato mixture and herbs. Cook covered on low heat till there's liquid at the bottom when you tip the casserole. Baste with the liquid. Then cook, uncovered, basting, till there's no more liquid.

When you're done, you have this very elegant, very beautiful, and very delicious casserole. In this case, taking all that care produces terrific results.

11 September 2009


Victor asked me to watch this one--a quasi-sequel to In the Mood for Love--without him. Probably a good decision. This movie has even less narrative drive than the previous one, but I was--if anything--more enthralled.

And are there any beautiful Asian actresses who aren't in this movie?

Recommended for Wong Kar Wai lovers. Others are likely to be annoyed.

Julie & Julia

Though reviews we'd seen were lukewarm (except for universal praise of Meryl Streep's turn as Julia Child) all our friends (and it really does seem like all our friends have seen this movie) told us it was great, so we went to see Julie & Julia last weekend.

We were not disappointed. It's a really enjoyable movie about marriage, finding your life's passion, and--of course--food. Also inspiring. After the movie, we took Mastering the Art of French Cooking off the shelf and started browsing through it again. And found some Julia Child snippets on YouTube. And found Julia Powell's blog, which is still online.

As a result, we ate well last weekend: Victor learned to make a really delicious omelet from this video and I made potage parmentier and a simple vinaigrette for a salad. The most important thing I learned was that adding butter to a boiled soup tastes as good as adding water (or stock) to sauteed ingredients.

But I digress. And that tells you something, doesn't it? It's nice when movies do that: give you an hour or two of enjoyment and then send you back, energized, into your own life.

Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa's Greatest Explorer

This biography by Tim Jeal is sort of a biographer's biography, I think--it's not just the story of a life, but the argument of a man with a mission: to reform the reputation of Henry Morton Stanley (the "Dr. Livingstone, I presume" guy), who made not one but three great journeys into Africa, and died just at the dawn of the 20th century.

For those of us who weren't aware of Stanley's tarnished reputation (he was damaged by his association with men far more brutal and scheming than he) this thick volume is a bemusing read. From the book's Dickensian start, with Stanley--born John Rowlands--growing up in a workhouse in Wales, the author is at pains to do multiple things at once: tell the story of Stanley's life, point out that previous biographies have been wrong, and convince us of why he's right.

It seems that previous biographers have been misled because until recently many primary sources, including Stanley's own writings, have not been available. These cast light on the fact that Stanley lied a lot. He was ashamed of his impoverished, illegitimate background, and gave himself a new personal history as well as a new name. He was also prone to exaggeration. Also, others--for various reasons--lied about Stanley.

One gets the sense that Jeal is very proud of himself about finding the truth, and, indeed, it seems a very impressive accomplishment, but I would have enjoyed a more straightforward biography, I think. Too often it feels like the author is apologizing for Stanley.

Still, the content is fascinating, and provides some keen insights about how the explorations of the past helped create the Africa we see today.

03 September 2009

Vera Drake

I remember when this movie made a big splash (way back in 2004!); it was nominated for a number of Oscars, but it did not win any (however, it won a bunch of awards in Britain and elsewhere). Imelda Staunton plays the title character, a working-class woman who cleans houses for a living, takes care of her aging mother, her husband, her two grown children, and almost everyone else she knows, with a smile on her face and a song on her lips.

Vera is one of those stalwart Englishwomen who think a cup of tea can fix anything--she's sympathetic to other people's problems and helps where she can, but she's so at peace with herself that other people's troubles don't take her down--they're an occasion to help, and also to recall her own good fortune.

Unknown to her family and all her acquaintance except one, her activities include inducing miscarriages in pregnant women who wish they weren't. She takes no money for the service. She sees it as "helping girls out."

Eventually she is caught, and the movie traces the impact of this conflict between personal conviction and the law on Vera and her family. By including a vignette about the daughter of one of Vera's employers, the movie also lets us see that things were very different for the upper class, so we feel that there are multiple levels of fairness (or unfairness).

In the end it's a grueling movie to watch. No one likes to see a good woman--a really good woman--ground down. But you feel it's true. The system has no mercy.

After checking what Vera Drake was competing against at the 2005 Academy Awards, it seems to me that Imelda Staunton was robbed (Hilary Swank won for Million Dollar Baby--she's good, but not that good) and Mike Leigh was robbed (Clint Eastwood can be a fine director--I really admire Mystic River and Unforgiven--but Million Dollar Baby is a tearjerker-and=nothing-but-a-tearjerker--set against Vera Drake, there is really no contest).

So this is the kind of movie Vera Drake is: you not only enjoy the movie--laugh, cry, empathize and all that--but it makes you want to fight for it.

17 August 2009

The Minister's Wife

Once again, Victor and I went to see an acclaimed show just moments (OK, I'm exaggerating a little) before it was set to close. The Minister's Wife is a new musical based on George Bernard Shaw's Candida. I am not sure what I expected from the show, but I found it really unusual for a musical. For one thing, there were only three musicians, and they were invisible until curtain call. For another, the music was lovely, but not catchy. You're entranced while you're there, but you don't walk out humming under your breath.

Another way to put it is that the music enhanced the story, but it didn't outshine the story--out of context, what would you do with a song like "Candida's Coming" (in which three of the play's characters reflect on a fourth character's return home)?--it's not like, say "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair," which you could sing, enjoy, and understand without ever having seen South Pacific.

So glad we didn't miss this one, and hope to never miss another effort by composer Josh Schmidt (we didn't make his Adding Machine in 2007).

14 August 2009

Flame and Citron

This 2008 Danish movie, now being released in the United States for the first time, is about two resistance fighters in Copenhagen toward the end of the Second World War. Essentially, they're killers for a good cause--Flame (a redhead) shoots and Citron drives.

Until things go a little screwy. Then they both shoot.

The movie is based on the lives of two real World War II heroes (both were posthumously issued the U.S. Medal of Freedom), and the story reveals the complexity of trying to be a hero in a world not sorted out into good and evil as neatly as we could wish.

It reminded me a bit of Army of Shadows, but it is even more grim. In Army of Shadows, no one survived the war and you weren't sure if their work had a lasting impact. But there is no question, really, about trusting the people in charge. In Flame and Citron, you meet some of the people in charge and you're not sure about them.

Imagine doing assassins' work for people you're not sure about. This is one of the saddest movies we've ever seen.

Beautifully, convincingly done, but sad, sad, sad.

11 August 2009

Public Enemies

We saw this movie partly because it was filmed here in Chicago, partly because Johnny Depp stars in it, and partly because we usually like gangster movies (we recently watched namesake Public Enemy on DVD at home). As it happened, there wasn't that much Chicago background in it (I think a lot of the scenery was digitized), and--on the whole--the movie was a disappointment. Far more style than substance.

Which is hardly a surprise, when the movie was directed by Michael Mann, but we have liked some of his movies very much (e.g., Collateral, The Insider). Those movies had better plots, though, and more interesting characters. Depp does his best with Dillinger, and Marion Cotillard is wonderful as his love interest--when these two are on screen together, you're happy.

But mostly the movie is a grim, violent, stylish spectacle. There's little to care about here, though it's very pretty to look at.

06 August 2009

In the Mood for Love

After a while, Victor lost patience with this movie, but I remained enthralled. It is a visually stunning, moody, romantic movie about a devastatingly handsome man, and a jaw-droppingly gorgeous woman who live next door to each other and come to realize that their spouses are having an affair with each other.

In trying to understand how their spouses could have embarked on the affair, they find themselves falling in love in spite of their resolution not to "be like them."

It sounds formulaic, perhaps, but it doesn't feel like that. The movie progresses dreamily, even lazily. Often, you are not sure what's just happened, but you are always sure what you feel. These two are meant for each other, but they deny themselves. (Mostly.)

Check out this movie if you don't mind seeing something slow and lovely. And also if you want to see an elegant woman in a succession of terrifically beautiful dresses.

The Challenge for Africa

Wangari Maathai, of Kenya, won the Nobel Peace Prize for her work with the Green Belt Movement in 2004. Victor and I had the opportunity to hear her speak here in Chicago last winter and found her tremendously inspiring. Almost as soon as we got home, I ordered a few of her books, and this one is the first I've completed.

It's not a long book, but not a page-turner, either. I read it in snatches while I ate breakfast or lunch at the dining room table. Maathai presents a lucid, convincing account of how Africa got where it is and how the continent as a whole can move forward. She is able to rationalize why Africa's people have tolerated so much bad government and still express urgency and hope about ending such tolerance.

Her vision for a sustainble future for Africa, one which encompasses environmental sustainability as well as economic growth, is persuasive. I was struck by the parallels between what she describes in Africa and what has been going on here.

We are really not so far apart.

04 August 2009

Why Facebook?

I find myself repeatedly trying to articulate to others why I'm finding my first couple of weeks on Facebook so enthralling. I've decided that Facebook's genius is in virtualizing trivial communication--the kind of chat that happens when you see someone every day.

"I dreamed last night that everyone in the world sent me a french fry."

"On my long haul to the Bronx I get a lot of reading done. Now I am reading Pride and Prejudice and Zombies."

"I almost fell down the stairs while looking at my iPhone with my reading glasses on. The dog looked away."

These are approximations of actual posts by friends I rarely see, or haven't seen in 20 years or more (OUCH!), but which make me feel they are still part of my life, even though they are not physically present.

These are folks with whom I'm unable to sustain an email relationship--either they don't write, I don't write, or there's not really enough to say. But if our life circumstances were different (still living in the same city, working in the same office, going to the same classes, not consumed by work, children, or other passions), we'd still be hanging out.

I've also rekindled a couple close friendships via Facebook, but find myself inclined to pursue those outside of Facebook. Email and phone calls are more appropriate for deep conversations and reminiscing. But for a virtual sense of community, virtual water cooler, or virtual corner cafe or bar, Facebook is consummately effective.

03 August 2009

Dee Alexander at the Green Mill

With friends the other night, we went to see Dee Alexander at the Green Mill. We lucked out with perfect seats--a banquette close to the stage--and with a really stupendous performance. Dee Alexander's voice is everything you want in a jazz singer: warm, melodious, textured. But it is also surprisingly versatile. Alexander can--literally--sing like a bird, and in one self-written number, "Rossignol," she does just that. She can also sound like a trumpet--and I wouldn't be surprised if she harbors an arsenal of other musical instrument imitations. But she doesn't need to mimic a piano, bass, or drumset, because the talented remainder of her quartet is outstanding.

Going to this show reminded us that we don't see enough live music. Part of the problem is that we're no longer night owls--a lot of good shows start at 9, 10, or later, and we're generally asleep by 11.

So maybe we need to start taking naps...

02 August 2009

A guy after my own heart

(via Daily Kos)

Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter is moving from his famed rustic farmhouse in Weare, N.H., to nearby Hopkinton, where he's purchased a much larger, more modern Cape Cod because his current residence, which is 200 years old and has been in his family for generations, "wasn't structurally sound enough to hold the thousands of books that make up his library," according to the Concord Monitor. Now that is a true bibliophile: buy a new house rather than shed beloved books.

31 July 2009

10,000 Birds

I was trying to confirm whether I'd seen a cedar waxwing or bohemian waxwing this morning over at the Jarvis Sanctuary, and came across this interesting blog as a result of this very helpful post. Nice to have a look at what really serious birders are doing...

Me, I'm pretty happy with my cedar waxwing (and catbird, and purple martins, and immature robins, and even house sparrows).

30 July 2009

Reading on My iPhone

So I recently got an iPhone, which I'm satisfied really is the greatest thing since sliced bread. What's the greatest part? Oh, it's hard to choose: surfing the Web on a street corner, to find out whether the restaurant I'm thinking about going to is any good; using built-in GPS to make sure I'm walking in the right direction; being able to instantly find out whether my bus will arrive within the next 10 minutes; having access to my complete calendar wherever I go...let alone email and telephone functionality. It's like a tricorder on Star Trek (which seems to do just about everything), combined with a communicator, but it's real! And it's cool!

Plus, I can read books on it. So far, I have read HG Wells' The Time Machine and am in the middle of The Jungle Book. Reading on the iPhone is easy and fun (some of the reader applications have page-turning visuals and even sound effects), and best of all I don't have to carry an extra book around. If you know me, you know I love books, but the convenience of this device is just amazing. When I think of the pain in the butt it was to haul War and Peace around...

Also, am crazy about iBird Pro, a field guide app. Not only does it eliminate the need to lug a field guide along when birdwatching, but it plays bird calls. Totally cool!

Anyhow, I'm just enchanted with my new device. A bit too addicted to the Scrabble app, though...

All right, all right, I've joined Facebook...

And it is really distracting.

21 July 2009

The Counter

Victor and I were on our way to a show when we passed by this new(ish) outpost of California-based The Counter, a burger joint. I hadn't heard of this place before, but our decision to stop was somewhat influenced by an ad posted several hundred feet east on Diversey claiming Oprah had called it "Best Burger."

Do I watch Oprah? No. But for some reason I imagine she knows her burgers.

So we tried it. The build-your-own-burger concept is way fun: you get a checklist and choose everything from meat (beef, turkey, veggie, chicken) to toppings (options include various cheeses, vegetables, and relishes--up to four of these are included), to premium toppings (such as sauteed mushrooms, bacon, or avocado--these cost another dollar each), to buns. We built one burger and chose their special burger of the day (or was it month?). We weren't so crazy, as it turned out, about the special burger of the month--it was a lamb burger, which sounded intriguing, but--who knew?--we don't much like lamb burgers. We built ourselves a burger with corn and black bean salsa, sprouts, avocado, tomato, and sauteed onions. Perfectly cooked and quite delicious. We had a side of fries and onion strings. The fries were fine, but the onion strings were excellent, if greasy. Beautiful crunch.

So. Not a virtuous meal, but very tasty. In future, we'd share a burger. (Even the smallest--1/3 lb--burger was plenty big.)

Pizza Roundup

So in the past few months, Victor and I have finally been to a few of the trendy new pizza places in town--spots that boast 800 degree coal- or wood-burning ovens that produce authentic Neopolitan pizza.

Trendy and new? I'm afraid we are rather behind the curve. They were trendy and new; they are now a Chicago institution.

Closest to us is Sapore di Napoli, which was the first one we tried. We ordered a Margherita pizza and liked it: particularly the tasty sauce. Not NYC pizza, but a nice alternative.

My painting class was very close to Spacca Napoli, so I went there once without Victor and had a pizza marinara (no cheese), which I thought was delicious. But yesterday evening Victor and I tried the Margherita and the one with mushrooms and sausage--we loved the crust, which was nice and chewy, but the tomato sauce and cheese were surprisingly bland.

And a couple of weeks ago, we checked out Coalfire, which recently made some list for best Chicago pizza. Our verdict: okay. Nice crust, but the sauce (again) didn't turn us on.

Wanted to love these places, but just...didn't.

On the bright side, we'll be in NYC this weekend, and I'm sure we'll be eating some real pizza.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

The fact that we saw this movie Saturday night and I'm only mentioning it now indicates something. Not that it was bad. No. On the contrary, the movie was fully engaging.

But quite forgettable.

It did make Victor want to peruse the book again, and so we learned that someone has borrowed it and not given it back.

I hate when that happens.

Assassin Tango

I think this is what they mean by "vanity picture." I have seen it described as Robert Duvall's tribute to tango, and the tango is, in fact, the best thing in it, but tango would have been better served by a movie showcasing tango, rather Duvall's moody acting.

20 July 2009

Million Dollar Quartet

We saw this show last night. It's one of those productions that seems designed to be a hit--how can you go wrong with a show about an evening that Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis make music together?

By presenting bad impersonations, no doubt. But in this case, the impersonators are superb, and the audience was mesmerized. While listening to old rockabilly songs was fun, I was most reminded of my fondness for Johnny Cash (the performer portraying him was particularly good) and today I have been listening to his gravely voice for hours (iTunes makes that easy).

Not much more to say about the show. Thin plot, but you don't go to see Million Dollar Quartet for plot. The music is just terrific. Absolutely recommended.

17 July 2009

The History Boys

I went to this show without much idea of what to expect. Certainly I'd heard of it, and knew it had been a hit in New York and made into a Hollywood movie, and I knew it had been consistently sold out in Chicago (since the Timeline Theatre probably holds fewer than 80 audience members, selling out is not the challenge it might be), but I hadn't been thrilled by a couple of previous Timeline productions, so when the person at the ticket desk remarked that the production would be three hours long, my heart sank.

In the event, the play's length was no hardship. It's a spectacular--even thrilling--production, with terrific performances by the entire cast. Creative staging makes for a particularly involving show; while most of the action occurs in a classroom (situated in the middle of the theater), the boys' dorm rooms are reproduced in two levels at one end of the theater (so you see them retreat there when they leave class), and an upper-level set at the other end of the theater represents the headmaster's office and other out-of-class locations.

The subject matter of the play, is perhaps well known: a young history teacher is hired to help a class of grammar school boys get admitted to Oxford or Cambridge. While the boys are bright and competent, they face stiff competition from those who have been groomed from birth for attendance at the elite universities. Their young teacher, Irwin, suggests that--rather than focus on memorized facts--they should seek to entertain their examiners, so as to stand out from the crowd, by proposing unlikely ideas (whether or not they believe in them), and backing them up. Ultimately, Irwin calls the value of truth and sincerity into question.

This brings him into direct conflict with the boys' other (and beloved) English teacher, Hector, who valorizes and romanticizes Truth, which he finds (and insists the boys find) in poetry and literature that he challenges them to learn by heart. He is fond of paradoxical pronouncements; e.g., that schools are the enemy of education. He detests what Irwin is teaching the boys.

Frankly, I found the philosophical debate pretty uninteresting. It's something of a false argument: truth wears more than one dress. Instead, what was interesting was the action of the play--the behavior of the boys and their teachers in class, and the intimate dramas that unfolded. While I might not have been lit up by the play's intellectual content, I was lit up by my belief that the characters were (intellectually, spiritually) lit up.

Some great music, too, which was utterly unexpected.

Altogether, a terrific show.

16 July 2009

What's So Great about Lurpak?

So Victor and I were in one of the nice neighborhood grocery stores I've started to trek out to (it was Andy's Fruit Ranch, on Kedzie near Lawrence), and noticed this Danish butter.

I should say right out, I'm a butter lover. You won't find margarine in my house; my mother can insist all she likes. Nothing will convince me that butter is bad. Luckily, Victor agrees with me on this, though for cooking we tend more toward olive oil than butter as a sauteing medium.

So after years of buying Land o' Lakes, or whatever organic product was available (when we were feeling flush) or whatever was cheapest (when we weren't), we decided to splurge on Lurpak, which we had seen before, and heard about (as in, "I knew it was a decent supermarket when I saw Lurpak in the cooler"), but never tried. When I saw the price (something like $3.69), for a moment I imagined it was cheaper than the more run-of-the-mill stuff I was used to (for which I've gotten accustomed to paying around five bucks), and then I realized that the Lurpak package contained only a half pound.


Still, we splurged. And it was good.

How good? Well, despite my fondness for butter, I'm not a connoisseur. There are doubtless specialized terms that demarcate the boundary between the good and the really good. One thing, though, is that it's remarkably creamy. Just out of the refrigerator, you can spread it on toast without much trouble (as opposed to a stick of Land o' Lakes, which is damned hard when it comes out of the fridge). It tastes great on toast.

But, finally, not great enough to spend almost twice as much for it. I might buy it again when we expect houseguests--guests we expect to serve buttered bread. Otherwise, when I'm feeling flush I'll buy organic.

15 July 2009

Five Guys

We weren't intending to go to Five Guys. We were on our way to meet friends at Bar Louie in Oak Park, and as we were parking the car, I noticed the Five Guys sign across the street. Here's how I've heard of Five Guys: a mention of their great fries in TimeOut Chicago recently (can't find it now), and listening to two friends dish about the place. They turned to me at one point and said, "Have you been to Five Guys yet?"


"Oh, you have to go."

So when we pulled up across the street from one, it seemed like kismet.

It's a retro little place, kind of like a Johnny Rocket's but without so many tables. Like any fast food joint, you give your order at the counter and get a number. There aren't too many choices: burgers, hot dogs, fries, grilled cheese (for, I suppose, the poor vegetarians whose omnivorous friends have dragged them along). But burgers automatically come with a host of toppings that many places charge for: sauteed mushrooms and sauteed onions, for example. And you can add other toppings just for the asking.

So, in a way, the Five Guys Burger is a burger version of a Chicago hot dog, if you want to eat it that way. And if you do, it's a very rewarding burger: messy, but tasty. Plus, the fries are hands-down the best fast-food fries I've tasted. Skin-on, crispy, potatoey.

Not to be compared with a steakhouse burger, or even a bar-and-grill burger--it's a different entity. But for a quick, $5 bite, this is a great addition to our burger options.

I guess I should be glad that there isn't one too close to our home.

Follow the Fleet

Last night, tired after a solitary evening putting away groceries and chopping vegetables, I put this DVD into the machine, and almost immediately started smiling. There is something about Fred Astaire--especially Fred Astaire singing (even more than his dancing, I think), that evokes a world of ease you can't help but want to sink into.

And then when Ginger Rogers joins him--well, if you can still worry about things like credit card bills and the state of the healthcare system, more power to you.

The movie is, truly, not much. A lot of good songs, sung and danced by a quartet of lovely people skating over a very thin plot. But there are particular charms--not least, the music of Irving Berlin. (Gershwin and Porter get so much attention, it's easy to overlook Berlin.) Also, a small role for a very young Lucille Ball, who apparently got an early start at perfecting the dumb look.

Still, it's Fred who makes this movie. Not from singing talent or dancing talent, but from sheer likability--when his face fills the screen, and he winks or even raises his eyebrows, you're in on the joke and out of whatever minor discontent you were in.

13 July 2009

Oedipus, by The Hypocrites

Several months ago, Victor and I saw The Hypocrites' production of Threepenny Opera, and I was smitten. So when I realized Oedipus was closing this past weekend, I quickly got tickets for one of the final performances.

I was not disappointed. The Hypocrites are one of the most successfully inventive theater companies I have ever encountered. Plenty of theater companies have energy and creativity, but The Hypocrites really push the boundaries of what's possible--innovative staging, self-referential jokes, and frequent anachronisms. I call them successfully inventive because (like 500 Clown), they manage to effectively convey the source material's central themes and leave us profoundly moved by those themes, in spite of self-conscious theatricality and avant-garde gestures.

Next season, I think we're going to subscribe.

500 Clown and the Elephant Deal

This show, the most recent concoction by Chicago's 500 Clown troupe, closed this past weekend at Steppenwolf, where it was playing as part of the venue's Visiting Company initiative. If you missed it, too bad for you, because this was a terrific production.

I always find 500 Clown a little hard to explain. First of all, there aren't 500 clowns, only three. (Although, in this production, there are five; plus a small cortege of musicians.) Secondly, they aren't just clowns. The wonderfully talented performers sing, dance, act, perform death-defying leaps... The clownishness isn't only physical; it's also verbal. They sometimes make me think of Monty Python, sometimes the Marx Brothers, and sometimes Looney Tunes. (It doesn't surprise me that at least a couple 500 Clown members are going to be involved in this fall's Goodman Theatre production of Animal Crackers.)

The previous 500 Clown shows I've seen took an established work (Frankenstein, Macbeth) and retold it. Because clowns were doing the retelling, threads of the story inevitably got lost or knotted, but to me the brilliance of 500 Clown productions is that somehow via jokes, digressions, pratfalls, and death-defying leaps, they manage to convey the most central themes of the source works, profoundly moving the audience as a result.

Although I consider myself an enthusiastic fan, until this production I didn't know that 500 Clown's members could sing. Boy, can they sing! 500 Clown and the Elephant Deal is a musical, with clever, irreverent songs written by John Fournier and performed mainly by the remarkable Molly Brennan. While the show took Bertolt Brecht's Man Is Man as a jumping-off point, not much is left of the original source. Instead, what we have is a cabaret show--with hints of vaudeville and many interruptions, digressions, pratfalls, and death-defying leaps--that persistently nudges around concepts of identity: changed identities, what it costs to maintain your identity, under what circumstances you're willing to give your identity up.

High-energy, high-creativity, highly recommended.

23 June 2009

Bye, Bye Dopplr

Sometimes social media seems cool, but is pretty pointless. Example: Dopplr.com, a "social atlas." Travelers post their upcoming trips and make their journeys visible to other travelers they choose. The site also contains a crowd-sourced travel guide for user destinations.

Someone sent me a link for this recently, and it sounded cool, so I joined. I even passed the link on to a couple of other people. But after an email reminder led me to populate my account with some travel data today, I realized I anticipated no benefit from the investment of time and effort. I know where I'm going, and the people I know who care about where I'm going also know where I'm going (or else I don't want them to know).

A key function of Dopplr is to point out "coincidences"; e.g., "1250 people are going to NYC at the same time as you." Perhaps I'm unusual, or maybe it's a generational thing, but I'm just not that interested in such coincidences. No doubt, many thousands of people are going to NYC at the same time as me--I'll see some of them at the airport when I arrive. Why should I be curious about the travel habits of Dopplr members I don't know?

It might be sort of cool if everyone I ever met was on Dopplr and let me see their schedules--wow, that girl who sat across from me in French class (and nearly failed) is going to Paris! Or, OMG, my ex-boyfriend is vacationing in Orlando at the same time as I am! That sort of critical mass is probably the inherent attraction of something like Facebook.

But then, I don't have a Facebook account, either.

I do have a TripAdvisor account. Occasionally I write reviews of hotels I've stayed in; more often I read the reviews. And I minimally keep track of my travel there, because the site provides a truly cool bonus for populating my travel data--a Travel Map, with pushpins indicating the places I've been.

And this is perhaps a critical difference between Dopplr.com and social media that I do (at least occasionally) use: without its social component, Dopplr serves no purpose at all. I don't need a website to keep track of my upcoming trips: I already do that using my calendar. I don't need Dopplr for travel advice: there are plenty of crowd-sourced travel guides.

I visit my account at LibraryThing not because I'm dying to know what thousands of strangers have on their shelves, but because it provides a useful tool to catalog my books.

Maybe I'm not hip enough. Regardless, this afternoon I closed my Dopplr account. Life's too short.

22 June 2009

Diversifying Our Diet

Each week I try to get one "different" item of produce--something we've never eaten before or don't usually eat or cook with. Some of these start getting added to the regular repertoire--like beets, which I now buy a couple of most weeks when Victor isn't traveling, because he likes them so much. Some of them won't ever get added to the regular repertoire--like sweet potatoes, because I just don't like them that much, and jicama, because Victor just doesn't like it that much.

Why not more than one? At least for us, one has experimentally proven to be a manageable number. When I pick one, I can start thinking right away how I might use it--when I pick several, it's just too complicated and food tends to get wasted.

Last week we tried chayote for the first time. It has a very mild taste, sort of like a cross between a pear (texture) and cucumber (flavor). Most sources say it doesn't need to be peeled, and I have no doubt that the peel is edible, but I found the peel unpalatable--it smelled (and therefore tasted) just like grass, which is not something I care to eat.

We cut the (peeled) chayote into pieces and included it in a tomato-beet-cucumber salad, with a basil-herb vinagrette and walnuts. I hardly noticed it was there, but Victor said he particularly liked it.

Like most whole foods, chayote is associated with particular health benefits; some cultures use the fruit medicinally. And this is part of the point of trying to diversify the mix of things we eat: periodically one food or another becomes a kind of fad--oats are good for your heart, or broccoli fights cancer--as if the fact that food is good for you is news. I imagine some people do add huge quantities of broccoli, or oats, or whatever to their diet as a result of such studies, but that seems misguided.

We just figure that if you vary what you eat, you end up getting the benefits of a lot of different foods. It's easy to fall into dietary ruts. Consciously trying to add something new to the mix each week helps make those ruts shallower, and potentially promotes good health by introducing diverse nutrients and other beneficial properties.

19 June 2009

Arabian Nights

To celebrate our anniversary a couple of weeks ago, Victor took me to see this show at Lookingglass. It was a great surprise, which I might not have selected on my own due to past disappointments at that theater (I was not a huge fan of their Alice or Coast of Chicago). The production of Arabian Nights is exhilarating: creative, energetic, full of splendid moments. Just heard that it is being extended through to the start of August.

Don't miss it.

18 June 2009

Jarvis Sanctuary

There's a fenced bird refuge about half a mile from our apartment, and I've been trying to visit almost daily. Of course, migration season is pretty much past, so year-round residents are mainly what's visible, but it's terrifically peaceful and pleasant to just stand quietly, listen, and watch.

Sometimes, there seems to be nothing at all, besides the low squawking of newly fledged starlings and the chittering of swallows. Other times, the trees seem busy with songs and calls, even if I can't spot much with my binoculars.

I'm easily satisfied. Yesterday, I was pretty delighted to catch the acrobatics of a black-capped chickadee in a nearby tree, and a turtle sunning itself on a log. I have been anxiously hoping to see raccoons (I have spotted at least one family of them in previous years), but not a hint of them so far. Chipmunks have been some consolation--we've missed these charming creatures since we left Columbus (where our generous bird feeding activities supported the propagation of multiple and vast generations of chipmunks in our back yard)--they skitter across the mulched paths around the sanctuary and sometimes favor us with their loud chip...chip calls.

17 June 2009

Bob le Flambeur/The Good Thief

We enjoyed The Good Thief, starring Nick Nolte and directed by Neil Jordan, when we saw it on DVD a week or so ago, so I advanced Bob le Flambeur, written and directed by Jean-Paul Melville, in our Netflix queue, thinking it had to be even better.

Wrong. Strange to say, but we liked the remake a lot more. Maybe we're just not cut out for French noir; we've seen Meville's Le Doulos and (more recently) Le Samurai, and both left us feeling a bit less than satisfied. On the other hand, we loved Classe Tous Risques, directed by Claude Sautet, and starring Lino Ventura. Can you not love anything with Lino Ventura?

What was wrong with Bob Le Flambeur? Come to think of it, what's wrong with Le Doulos and Le Samurai? Quite frankly, nobody to like. Or like enough. In Le Doulos, I remember having trouble feeling sympathetic to anyone. In Le Samurai, I thought Alain Delon was a knockout, but didn't much care what happened to him. In Bob Le Flambeur, I get that everybody in the movie likes Bob--he has a kind of honor, a history, a code. But he does enough unlikable things--hitting a girl, for one--that he loses any emotional hook in me. And none of the other characters come close.

In The Good Thief, many of the characters are likable, even when they're jerks. This helps pull you through the slow parts of the movie. Sometimes you're not sure what's going on, but your liking for the characters makes you give the movie some slack.

Bob Le Flambeur doesn't have much slack--it's very tightly assembled. Perhaps too tightly--it's a bit hermetic. There's no space for the viewer.

Still, plenty of gorgeous shots of Paris. Someday I'll go back...

05 June 2009

The Benefits of Advance Work

Who wants to cut up carrot sticks when you're feeling peckish? Or trim radishes? These are not difficult things to do, but when I'm hungry, I want something to eat immediately. So I've taken to making sure there's always a small supply of cut carrots (peeling the carrots when I'm not hungry) in the refrigerator drawer, and I wash, trim, and store the radishes as soon as I buy them.

We enjoy cut-up beets in salad, but baking a beet takes up to two hours. So I've added beet-baking to my post-grocery run routine. The peeled baked beet goes into the fridge, ready to be cut up and eaten.

One of my favorite nibbles is a simple marinated cucumber-dill salad from the Second Avenue Deli Cookbook. Overnight marination is recommended before consumption, which is a deterrent if you want your cucumber salad right away. But I am starting to just make it routinely--again, shortly after I get back with the groceries--so it's always waiting in the fridge.

These simple prep tasks make for healthier snacking and foster a little more variety in the diet.

04 June 2009

Soup Secrets

The economic downturn has us eating home a lot more. Just about every week, I make soup. Victor takes it to the office , and I eat it at home. If Victor takes his lunch to work every day and I stay home at lunchtime, three quarts of soup are gone in three days--time to make more soup.

I used to think making soup was hard--felt like I couldn't get it to taste quite right, or there was some secret I couldn't master. Once in a while, I'd produce a soup I deemed good, but I couldn't reliably repeat myself.

Mostly, I think I lacked confidence, which is probably normal when you don't cook that often.

In 2003, when I left my job in Columbus, I got a lot more cooking practice because I had a lot more time at home. At the same time, we subscribed to a local CSA farm, so I was always getting surprising things in the grocery box, in quantities that forced creativity. My cookbooks got a tremendous amount of use.

And I learned a few soups that are reliably delicious--vegetarian borscht from my Russian cookbook, Potage St. Germain (split pea soup) from my Belgian cookbook, gazpacho from one of my vegetarian cookbooks.

These soups were occasional, though; the stuff of holidays and dinner parties. Making at least one soup a week teaches you what soups have in common, and what makes for a promising experiment. Now I mostly improvise. Sometimes I use soup to compensate for deficiencies I perceive elsewhere in our diet. For example, if I think we're not getting enough green vegetables, I put greens in the soup; if we haven't eaten beans lately, I throw some chickpeas in. Here are some things I have learned:
  • When you have onions, celery, carrots, and butter or olive oil, you have enough to start a soup. You can almost always find something in the pantry or refrigerator to help fill it out and finish it.
  • Using canned stock or bouillon cubes is nothing to be ashamed of. When using canned, I prefer a proportion of 1 can stock to 2 cans water, unless I am making a very brothy soup without much other flavoring (then it's 1 to 1). I use the same proportion when I am using homemade stock. As for bouillon, I sometimes saute it first with the aromatics.
  • Potatoes, beans, and grains (rice, barley) give a soup body.
  • Puree, puree, puree. I have a stick blender (you can immerse it right in the soup pot)--one of my favorite things. But a pureed soup seems to need quite a bit more salt than a brothy one. (There's probably a scientific reason for this...)
  • Canned tomatoes can do wonders for flavor. Also, a small amount of sugar (like a half-teaspoon).
  • Not everything belongs in every soup. That old Napa cabbage might not be such a good complement to the mushroom barley soup you're concocting; broccoli can be overpowering; bitter greens should probably be blanched before being added to your soup.
Nothing terribly secret about these secrets, really. Happy souping!

03 June 2009

Olafur Eliasson: Take Your Time

We had an opportunity to take a docent-led tour of this exhibit by the Danish artist Olafur Eliasson. A conceptual artist, he explores how art audiences participate in the aesthetic experience, and the installations he designs target all the senses. There's a wall of reindeer moss (very fragrant--even pungent); a whirring fan that seems to track its observers; a wall of volcanic tile shingles that begs to be touched. Eliasson seems to have a strong interest in kaleidoscopes--a couple of installations give you the impression of being inside one.

I most appreciated, though, installations that appealed to the visual sense; especially a round room suffused with color (the colors change every 40 seconds). Another striking exhibit is a wall of mist installed in a dark room; the light shining on the mist creates a gorgeous rainbow. And if you go around to the back of the installation, there's no rainbow, but you feel exactly as if you were standing behind a waterfall.

Which you are.

It's really quite a wonderful exhibit, worth multiple visits. I am not sure when I last enjoyed an MCA Chicago exhibit so much--probably it was Massive Change, a few years ago.

02 June 2009

Star Trek

A couple of weeks ago, Victor and I went to see Star Trek with some trepidation. A couple of months back we caught a preview for it, which we found incomprehensible. And one of our favorite reviewers, Anthony Lane, panned it in the New Yorker. But, in the event, we were enthralled by the new movie.

Maybe it's best to always go to the movies with diminished expectations. For example, we had terrifically high expectations for Duplicity--a few months ago--and it let us down enormously. Who would guess that a movie directed and scripted by Tony Gilroy (who did the same for Michael Clayton, which we loved) could be predictable? Who would expect that a movie with Julia Roberts and Clive Owen could drag?

Anyhow, Star Trek does not drag. It utilizes an ingenious mechanism to relaunch an old franchise and its familiar characters with a new cast; due to this mechanism, complaints about departures from patterns set up in the original series seem like fussy quibbles--very large things have changed, it is established quite early; small changes are only to be expected, and savored.

As many reviews have pointed out, the movie is chock-full of action, but the creative reconception of the characters I grew up with is what I enjoyed most. We look forward to the inevitable sequels. The universe has changed, and a whole new set of adventures is possible.

In Defense of Food

This is one of those books that potentially changes your life, by eloquently pointing out what's wrong with the status quo. Michael Pollan writes clearly and persuasively about the pitfalls--not just of how America eats, but of how we think about eating. He debunks nutritionism as a science by pointing out how the whole nutritionist paradigm (focusing on the consumption of individual nutrients rather than whole foods) benefits food processors.

While traditional nutritionists and other scientists have traced our high incidence of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and other diseases to high-fat diets, or high-carb diets, Pollan looks at the big picture and points out that the most striking difference between the modern American diet and traditional diets is the modern prevalence of processed foods--foods that have been engineered to ship and store well, be palatable, and contain the nutrients we need. Pollan suggests that we just don't know enough about how whole foods work in our bodies to reproduce their full benefits in processed foods. He characterizes whole foods as systems--nutrients in whole foods may work together to provide important benefits that are otherwise unavailable.

Pollan's arguments are convincing, and are leading me to reevaluate my consumption of white bread and white rice. I still love these foods, but I'm thinking I should consider them treats--like cake--rather than as staples. I should keep brown rice in the pantry, and make sandwiches with whole-grain bread.

But then I think about the beautiful bread we had in Paris, which was white, and Pollan often points to the French as healthier than we are, so I think maybe a little (or more than a little) white bread really isn't so bad. I'm much pickier about whole-grain bread than white--I guess it's a matter of what I'm used to.

The book made me feel a little proud and self-satisfied that Victor and I have already been eating at home and cooking for ourselves so much more in the past few months. And I have already been trying to vary the vegetables and fruits in our diet; going to ethnic grocery stores in different neighborhoods exposes us to an impressive range of foods. But eating well is an ongoing process. Sometimes we get stuck in ruts and it is tempting fall back on what's easy. We're very good at making excuses for not doing what we should (see my rationale for continuing to eat white bread, above).

I like Pollan's notion that food preparation and consumption should take more time and even cost more--it's that important.

06 May 2009

Clever Maids

I have had a hard time finishing books lately. I finally set aside Miss Leavitt's Stars, about how we learned to determine the distances between the stars and between the earth and the stars. It was interesting, but I have a kind of blind spot or handicap when it comes to the details of physics. (I love the big concepts, though.) A sort of mental fog keeps me from comprehending basic mechanics. Ah well.

I have also been rereading Ward Just's 21 Stories, which is a mass-market paperback, and so fits nicely in my purse. And the stories are really excellent. But they seem to get rather more depressing as the book proceeds, so I have been correspondingly less inclined to take it out of my purse.

With Clever Maids, I've finally finished something. It's a decent read, about the female sources of the fairy tales we're accustomed to attributing to the Brothers Grimm, and has some biographical interest. But the author seems to have an axe to grind, which can get annoying. She keeps noting that the Grimms never thanked their female sources by name in their publications. Surely it would've been nice if they had, but I wonder if such public acknowledgment was really the custom in the early 1800s. The Grimms were folklorists--they never claimed to be the tales' original authors.

Still, nice to know a bit more about the Grimms and their process for collecting and setting down stories. The book is less interesting for its analysis of the tales, which is (to say say the least) not subtle. For fairy tale analysis, I prefer Maria Tatar's Off With Their Heads.

05 May 2009

Painting Class

Taking an art class as an adult feels funny. It's like kindergarten all over again: you wear a smock, make messes, cover your hands and forearms with multicolored streaks. It brings back memories: how it always seemed impossible to get the paintbrush clean just by swirling it in a cup of water.

Now I do manage to get the brush clean, but I remain pretty inept at things like circles and straight lines.

Today's class was about colors--we mixed primary colors with each other in different percentages to make a color triangle and mixed primary colors with complementary colors in different percentages to make earthier tones. Cool! But I definitely felt kindergartenish--using my finger would have worked better and been a lot more satisfying than mixing globs of paint on my palette with a knife.

04 May 2009

Chinese Broccoli

Last week I visited two different Asian markets for the first time: Tai Nam, which is in a shopping center on N Broadway just south of Argyle, and Golden Pacific, which is about three blocks north of Argyle on N Broadway. Part of the reason I wanted to check out these markets is I had read that they offer Japanese products, and for some time I have been looking for this dressing, which we used to get from our local Japanese market when we lived in Columbus. I have had a hard time finding it here, except at Mitsuwa, but since we don't have a car, we don't get out to Arlington Heights very often.

Anyhow, while I didn't find this dressing, I did find all sorts of other fun stuff, including pan-fried noodles, fried onions and fried garlic (makes a tasty garnish for stir-fries and salads), miso soup mix, pomelos, and chinese broccoli.

I didn't know for sure it was chinese broccoli until I looked it up; in Tai Nam there was such a tremendous array of unknown (to me) green vegetables that I just picked a bunch and hoped it would be good. It was. Strong-flavored when raw, but cooked with a sweet chili sauce and served over those pan-fried noodles, chinese broccoli tastes just delicious.

Hunting around the ethnic neighborhoods and markets around the city for groceries makes eating at home a terrific adventure. And cheap!

01 May 2009

April Showers, Chicago Style

It's been a pretty cold, wet spring, and everybody's complaining about it. I don't know how many times I've heard people say that Chicago doesn't have a spring; just (beautiful) fall, (brutal) winter, and (beatific) summer.

It isn't true. Chicago absolutely does have a spring, but those of us who've lived in warmer climes just expect it to start sooner and be milder. Since March began, we've rarely had snow (and snow sometimes in spring is only to be expected--think of Yukio Mishima's Spring Snow) and temperatures have rarely--if ever--descended into the 20s. Crocuses and daffodils started to appear in March; migratory birds have been passing through since late February.

The tremendously rainy, chilly April has demoralized everyone, but rain in April is hardly out of place.

(Don't make me repeat that old rhyme.)

I'm no particular fan of freezing or searing temperatures, but I really enjoy having four seasons. There are so many ways we lose touch with the outdoors; changes in weather remind us that we are subject to something beyond our own little plans. In winter, I make a point of watching for wintering ducks, and tracking how the harbor freezes and thaws. We stay home a lot more, but our lives are usually so outward-focused that it feels kind of like vacation. We rent a lot more DVDs and cook heartier meals.

In spite of the damp chill of the current spring, I've been delighted with the new flowers, the trees just beginning to bud and leaf out, the determined (and euphoric) singing of birds, and spotting species I haven't seen since before winter began. In the harbor, on the lake, and in nearby ponds I've noticed ducks and geese pairing up. In the parks, red-winged blackbirds have been extremely vocal about their territories.

So what if it's been cloudy and gray?

The sun will return in good time.

30 April 2009

Rereading From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankenweiler

This was one of my favorite books when I was a kid growing up in New York City. E.L. Konigsburg tells the story of two suburban children who run away from home; their chosen refuge is the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

As a child I took arts and crafts classes on Saturdays at the Met, and I judged it the most beautiful place in the world. The idea of living there just completely enchanted me. A home to get lost in! (As opposed to the snug 2-BR, 1-BA apartment I shared with my parents and older brother.) I still have a fondness for sprawling residences, with counterintuitive floorplans, expanses that seem to go on forever, and/or limited sightlines, so you can't quite tell where the next turn will take you.

So the book was a treasure to me when I first found it, and when I recently saw it still in print, I decided to get two copies: one for my niece in Washington Heights, and one for me.

Rereading it was more about remembering pleasure than experiencing it fresh. Of course I noticed the many discrepancies: the Met is no longer free (even when I first read the book, there was a suggested donation, as there is today), the restaurant has moved, and I believe security has been much enhanced. There is no Automat nearby (I'm not sure there was even when I was going there, in the mid-70s) and prices have increased significantly, for everything from bus rides to meals.

But the yearnings, enthusiasms, and achievements described still feel true, and I imagine my niece will have as good a time with it as I did.