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...