Five Star Book: Empire Falls by Richard Russo

Like I’ve mentioned before I have a Goodreads account, where I do most of my book reviewing, mostly because I read a lot, and I don’t want this to just be a blog about what I happened to pick up a used bookstore last week. But I’ve decided that when something is so spectacular that I give it a 5-star rating that means that it has risen to the level of obsession, and therefore gets a blog entry.

 

I’ve had Empire Falls by Richard Russo on my bookshelf for a long time. I picked up mostly based on the fact that Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward were in the miniseries, that I remember seeing like 5 minutes of when I used to get HBO. Basically the novel recounts the history of a dying mill town in Maine, through the dramas of two interconnected families. Familiar territory really, but Russo is such a great writer that it avoids feeling formulaic.

The book won the Pulitzer Prize, which it completely deserved, because the characters, especially the central charcter sweet if a bit naive soon to be divorced dad Miles Roby, are so incredibly well drawn. I feel like I could meet them on the street anywhere in New England. (In fact a few of them I feel like I have met.) As my mom said, at the end of this book you want to call up Mr. Russo and ask him to write more about these people, and maybe their children, and their grandchilren.

A small warning though, the tone shifts really quickly in the last couple of chapters. It’s actually part of why the book is so good, it both builds suspense and manages to completly surprise you when the climax comes. And now I get to watch the miniseries!

Weekly Adventure: The Iceman Cometh at the Goodman

So when you’re having a long, tiring week, what’s the best way to relax? A five hour Euguene O’Neill play? Yeah. I really wasn’t in the best emotional space to be attending last night’s performance of The Iceman Cometh, but my friend somehow managed to get 3 tickets to a show I thought was sold out, and I can’t turn down a chance to see Brian Dennehy in person. So five hours fo Eugene O’Neill it was.

I had never seen Iceman on stage, it’s not often produced, because you really need a pairing as talented as Dennehy and Nathan Lane to keep an audience engaged, even with three intermissions. And while I’ll admit to drifting a little during act 2 (the lead up to the birthday party), I was totally riveted to the heartbreaking last scene, where Lane’s Hicky reveals where all of his “peace” really came from. And by rivted I mean crying and sharing tissues with the stranger sitting next to me.

O’Neill does not do light, and this play is the epitome of his work: long, dense, and heartbreaking from start to finish, but also perfectly crafted for the stage. During the third intermission I started to compose this entry in my head. I had a lot of things I was going to say about unnecessary bleakness, and O’Neill’s torturing the audience like Hicky tortues the poor alcoholics onstage, but then the last act came and I realized I had kind of been missing the point. The moral in the end isn’t really about the advisability of “pipe dreams,” at least not to me – I don’t think he comes down clear on either side. And that’s the point. Larry (Dennehy) says his curse in life is that he’ll always be able to see both sides of an argument, and I think that was O’Neill’s curse too. (Maybe that’s why he doesn’t truly hate his mother at the end of Long Day’s Journey Into Night – he can see the pain she was in.)

Andrews and Dennehy in rehersals

I could go on and on, because this is a production I will be thinking about for a very long time. And not just because the text is so rich, the actor’s were extraordinary. Dennehy and Lane as expected, but also Lee Wilkoff (who I love a singer) was amazing at the aging anarchist Hugo, and Patrick Andrews really held his own as the angsty young Parrit. My absolute favorite performance though was by Stephen Ouimette as the poor, deluded Harry Hope. He conveyed the blind optimism and tragic dissapointment of his character so well that I literally ached for him.

If you can score a ticket, go.

The show runs through June 17th at the Goodman Theater, 170 N. Dearborn

Reactions: Girls Episode 2

Too real, Lena, too real. (Yes, I have started to referring to the show’s creator and star by her first name. After watching this week’s episode and pretty much every interview she has done in the last month – except her segment on The View with John Cusack, does anyone know where I can find that? – I feel I am entitled to first name basis since I now know way too much about her.)

So you know how last week I talked all about how I wasn’t going to discuss the sex, because I didn’t think it was point. Well this episode, classily titled “Vagina Panic,” was the one where the sex most definitely was the point. (Coincidentally this is also the week my father started reading my blog – Hi Dad!) I won’t go into the graphic awkwardness of the first 5 minutes except to say that Adams exist in real life and I just wish Hannah would slap him. Just once. It would be a really big cathartic moment for a lot of people. Really anyone could slap him, Marni seems on the verge of snapping, maybe send her over there. I’m so set on this because I don’t think at heart he is that bad of a guy. He’s just been allowed by too many women to be an asshole, a slap would do him good. (Coincidentally it would also help out Brian – Marni’s way too nice boyfriend. Like creepy nice, like I think he must be hiding something nice. That whole relationship smacks of college relationship that shouldn’t have gradutated with them.)

Anyway onto the things I will talk about. Weirdly everyone on Twitter seemed to think that this episode was funnier than the pilot, but I totally disagreed. I laughed out loud multiple times watching the first episode, and while I enjoyed the second I found it to be much subtler and mixed emotionally. I mean, the vast majority of the action took place in the waiting room of a women’s center, while Jessa is skipping her own abortion. I don’t see this as grounds for laugh out loud stuff, but Lena did manage to slip a few gems in there. I especially loved Marni’s awkward confession of hitting a puppy with her car in response to Shoshana blurting out that she’s a virgin. I don’t think that she was equating the two, more like she felt weird having heard something so personal without being able to reciprocate. I’ve totally been there.

There was a lot of discussion of HIV/AIDS and the fear of “the stuff that comes up around the sides of condoms” in this episode. So much discussion that I have a friend who says she can’t watch Girls at all anymore, because it hit too close to home. I completely get that and there were a few times in the episode that I wanted to slam my laptop screen shut rather than hear the next line (Hannah’s ill-timed date-rape joke in a job interview comes to mind), but there were enough moments of wonderful identification to keep me hooked.

What I mean by that is there were wonderful little references to things I thought were just mine and my friends’, both good and bad. It’s a wonderful, little self-centered thrill to see yourself mirrored back on screen. And, I’m sorry Jamie Etkin , though you are totally right about the cupcake in the bath and the peeing while fighting, I have definitely: seen RENT enough times that it influenced my life choices, talked with my friends about which Sex & the City character I am, googled irrational health related things, and come up with things like the “totem of chat” while walking down the street with a friend (ask me what a 5 is sometime if you don’t believe me.)

I think my biggest thrill of the episode (other than seeing Mike Birbiglia as a guest star!) was the scene where Soshana, Hannah, and Jessa discuss a book called Listen, Ladies it is clearly just a riff on their feelings towards He’s Just Not That Into You.

Like Hannah admits on the show I once read it all really quickly in one sitting. (She read it in airport, I while sitting in a Barnes & Noble so I wouldn’t have to spend money on a self help book.) I have literally uttered the sentence that Hannah uses to rationalize this behavior to a disapproving Jessa, “I know it has a stupid pink cover, but it actually has some great insights.”

And now I feel like I’ve revealed enough about myself for the day…

Weekly Adventure: Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind

One of oldest friends came to visit me from New York this weekend, and we literally exhausted ourselves staying up talking. (I’m seriously hoarse.) We had a lot of adventures (she had never been to Chicago before, and so I may have been a little overboard with the activity planning.) But the best one that I can really recommend, is The Neo-Futurists show Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind.

I really have no excuse for the fact that I had never been to the show before, it’s been running my whole life, and now it’s really close to my apartment. (Like we walked.)

A mix between theater, comedy, improv and performance art, the show consists of 30 short plays within an hour. Or I should say, it strives to consist of 30 shows. We saw 27 and the beginning of the next, because at the hour mark a buzzer sounds and they are done. No matter what.

The show was strange and wonderful as an overall experience, (there are bound to be some rough patches, I mean it’s 30 plays.) And the casts’ energy was infectious – which is good, because the show starts at 11 and as much as a I try to be a “funky young person” – as Lena Dunham would say – I have trained my body to wake up very early for work and therefore go to sleep before this show even got underway.

The coolest part is that I get to go back! They change the show every week by taking some plays out and putting new ones in, so after about a month it’s a completely new show. And I feel like I may have to start making a habit of going.

 

 

They have shows every Friday and Saturday at 11, and Sundays at 7. The theater is on the corner of Foster and Ashland, above the Nelson Funeral Home. 

Girls: My Inevitable Review

Unless you are living under a rock, or I guess unless you are living under a different rock from me, then you know that Lena Dunham’s new show Girls premiered on HBO this past Sunday. I of course didn’t see it until Monday, when the network very kindly put it up on YouTube. I wasn’t going to write about it, I mean it’s only one episode and though I enjoyed it I don’t know if I’m ready to say “obsessed” yet, but then I realized that over the course of the last two days, I’ve watched it 3 times. I think that means I have some thoughts about it.

The show, for those of you that don’t live under my “white girl just out of college living in a city” rock, is written by, directed by, and stars Dunham (whose first movie Tiny Furniture came out last year) and is about, well, living under that rock.

So much has been written about the show, that I’m not really even sure where to begin. I’m not going to dwell on the sex scene here, because one – my mother reads this blog (Hi Mom) and two – it’s been discussed to death already. (The Slate round up was the most entertaing for me.) And anyway to me the sex wasn’t the point anyway, it was the relationships between the “girls” that seemed to matter, which is probably I wouldn’t even remember the boys’ names if I hadn’t read so many reviews of this show. And I think that show really captures those dynamics really well. (I particularly connected to the jealousy that straightlaced Marni has for free spirit Jessa, it was so real, even if we don’t want to it admit it.)

I particularly enjoyed the rif on Sex & the City, which the Slate writers found contrived, but any girl my age knows that second four women are sitting at a table, it is almost inevitable you start categorizing yourself. (I’m a Charlotte by the way, for better or for worse. Except that writing this makes me kind of a Carrie right…etc). And other than just being hilarious it pointed out the central premise of the show, and to a certain extent my life, girls my age grew up watching Sex & the City and Friends we expected our lives to be like that after we graduated from college and “became who we are.” Even though logically we knew that those shows portray a lifestyle where everyone seems to magically have enough money to do whatever they want, it’s sort of ingrained in our heads that we will too somehow. And then we graduated into a recession moved into cities we can’t afford, or home to our parents’ houses. Girls is sort of the reality check, yes it’s still a privleged reality, but it’s still nice to see it portrayed in an honest, funny/heartbreaking way.

A lot of the criticism about the show has focused on the fact that it is about a privleged section of the population and ignores everyone elses – and I can’t really argue with that except to say that it really doesn’t claim to be about anyone other than Lena and her friends, who are a lot like my friends (to the extent where at times it made me cringe – is that really how spoiled we come across?)

Anyway I’ll be watching (and probably writing) for the next 10 episodes, I mean it’s also Judd Apatow’s return to TV (he’s Executive Producer) that’s enough for me right there.  

 

 

Thing I Love: Backstreet Hour

I had a lot of trouble, coming up with something to write yesterday, so I didn’t write anything, and felt lazy. Combine that with exhaustion (I had a fun but busy weekend) and I was in a bit of a funk. And then while I was cleaning my apartment “I Want It That Way” by the Backstreet Boys came onto my iPod’s shuffle, and everything was instantly better.

I have been a longtime believer in the healing power of the Backstreet Boys, in the eternal 90’s girl debate between BSB and ‘NSYNC, I was so committed to my side that my next door neighbor and I would have actual fights about it. I thought I was going to marry Brian when grew up (ignoring the fact that he was obviously far too old for me, and much more religious than me – but he was so dreamy:

I'm pretty sure I had this actual picture on my wall

 My mom and I used to have a weekly ritual of belting “I’ll Never Break Your Heart” as loudly as we could in the car on the way home from dance class. (I have a distinct memory of one week, when it hadn’t come on the radio during the drive sitting in the driveway until it did.) Yes my tastes have evolved, and when I’m actively choosing what to listen to, I’m far more likely to pick something I heard on a hipster podcast, but the Backstreet Boys are nevertheless still very important in my life, because of one thing: the Backstreet Hour. The Backstreet Hour was invented by me and my freshman year roommate out of dire necessity. In college (or at least where I went to college) there is the unescapable lull on weekend night between dinner and when you’re going out. It’s too early to start getting ready, unless you want to sit around in your room in full makeup for an hour waiting for everyone else to get ready, and because it’s Friday or Saturday you aren’t going to get anything productive done during that time. For a few months my roommate and I would fall into a little mini-sulk, playing music randomly from our laptops and starting to drink way to early in the night. And then one night this came through my shuffle:  We instantly started singing along and trying to remember the dance from the above video. Then she looked at my computer and realized that I had the BSB Greatest Hits collection. We basically played through the whole thing. And from then on at about 7:45 on a Friday she would turn and declare it time for Backstreet hour. I’ve brought this tradition along with me to a lot of different places, my sorority house, Ireland, my cramped senior year apartment. And it’s evolved, it no longer simply includes Backstreet music, but I do require it to end with “I Want It That Way.” And the cheesier the sing-a-long songs the better. Because even out fo college there’s always random time to kill and what better way to kill it than singing along with these guys: 

Weekly Adventure: Dinner at Twin Anchors

One of my favorite, favorite people in the whole wide world, my friend Julia,  is visiting Chicago this weekend, and we had a lovely reunion dinner last night. Not only because I missed her tons, and probably would have been happy splitting some fast food and a bottle of wine, but also because we discovered (through the magic that is Dining Chicago) a wonderful place called Twin Anchors.

Jules had said she wanted something really Chicago-y, and this place came through in spades. (I can’t believe I just typed that sentence, who talks like that? Definitely not me.) It has a great bar area, where you will have to wait for a table, but there’s room enough to mingle and this is Chicago, so the old guys at the bar watching the Hawks lose (tear) will probably offer you a stool.

The food is good, standard huge portions of fried things, but the real point is the history. According to the menu and website, Twin Anchors is one of the oldest restaurants in Chicago, which is cool and everything, but much more importantly:

1. It was in The Dark Knight

 

2. It was Frank Sinatra’s “favorite Chicago restaurant” – which is saying something, he really liked to come here and pretend to be in the mob. (He was friendly with members of The Outfit – at least according to this book.) He had his own booth at Twin Anchors, and would apparently have them ship him ribs and coleslaw when he was on tour…

Signing autographs in his booth

 Overall it deserved its reputation (and the food was cheap considering it’s in Old Town.) 

 

Twin Anchors is located at 1655 N. Sedgwick St. They don’t take reservations.

Thing I Love: Wiretap

I have a bit of an addiction to podcasts. I named my iPod “My Sanity” on my computer, because when you work in data management (really just a fancy way of saying data entry most days) there is a lot of time where you are sitting a computer, looking a spreadsheet and not talking to anyone. To avoid going insane I listen to other people talk. Most of my podcasts I’ve been listening to for years, it has gotten to the point where I talk about the hosts as if they were my actual friends. But every now and then I stumble across something new and delightful. That happened a couple of months ago with Wiretap with Jonathan Goldstein.

A contributor to one of my other favorite audio shows This American Life, I’ve been aware of Jonathan (as I now feel I can call him since I’ve been listening to him almost non-stop for a couple of weeks) is Canadian (which is awesome, and means that the show is full of slightly adorable pronunciations of words like “sorry”) and has written a book of retellings of Bible stories. (His stories sometimes come up on his show and TAL, they’re pretty awesome.)

The show is hard to describe. It’s a collage of short stories – often about deep subjects like love or the after life – combined with interviews and conversations that Jonathan has with his parents and friends. The great trick of the show is that some of these interviews are real, and some comedy pieces that are completely invented. It’s not hard to tell the difference most of the time, but it’s fun when a conversation starts to try to guess which it’s going to be.

Here’s a few episodes to get you started:

1. Circle of Friends – Includes one of my favorite of David Eagleman’s stories about the afterlife. Also includes a good introduction to the craziness that is Howard – Jonathan’s man-child “good friend.”

2. All Lies Great and Small – Includes an adorable interview with a round table of children about whether or not it’s OK to lie.

3. Girls Gone WildFeaturing resident party girl Cookie, who teaches us to remain party girls far out of our college years.

4. The Advice Show Special episode the highlights the mixed up cast of the show. Jonathan assembles an advice panel featuring his father and god-daughter and an in-character Howard.

5. Lust – Part of a series they’ve been doing this year about the Seven Deadly Sins…plus it includes Dan Savage on Romeo & Juliet. You can’t go wrong.

 

Plus while researching this post I found out Jonathan Goldstein is a lot cuter than I initially thought:

Bonus “Adventure”: F**ing A at the Beacon Street Hull House

So I hesitated to label seeing Fucking A yesterday an “adventure,” (in fact I hesitated about writing about it at all.) Not because it was bad, but because it was so “searing” (to quote the program) that I can’t in good conscience say that I enjoyed it. (I tend to reserve the word “adventure” for something that I at least find humor in.)

This may seem harsh, and I really don’t mean it to. The Urban Theater Company did a wonderful job of creating a violent, dystopian world, where you believe that characters like Hester and ‘Monster’ could exist. The play, written by Suzan-Lori Parks – who was one of my favorite subjects in the Black List exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery – is supposedly a “riff” on The Scarlet Letter, but don’t make the mistake I did and go based just on that.

I love The Scarlet Letter- it combines my New England heritage with my love of literature and my love for women who do what they want – and I think I would even enjoy a play modernizing the themes of that novel. (I mean I love Easy A.) But beyond the name of the central heroine (Hester) and the branding of an A (here meant to signify not “adultress” but “abortionist) there weren’t really that many parallels between Parks’ play and Hawthorne’s novel.

But that of course doesn’t need to be a criticism, it’s just a personal disappointment (which is honestly my own fault for going without reading a single review.) My real issue with the show was just how gruesome it was. By the end of the second act I had to basically keep my eyes shut, simply because there was too much blood on the stage, and I was afraid I would get nauseated.

Also the songs (I can’t call it a musical, but there were songs) were inserted in a way that reminded me of Brecht – and again this is personal preference only, but I really hate Brechtian theater. Character development and emotional connection is important to me. In fact it’s basically the reason I go to live shows.

The one bright spot in all the bleak – was the performance of Kelly Owens as Hester.

She not only convinced me so totally of her character’s pain, but when she was hurt (both physically and emotionally) I felt it really viscerally watching her. If you have a thick skin and love great acting, her performance is almost worth the gore of the show. (It’s running for one more weekend.)

Weekly Adventure: Wild Flag at Metro

Last night was a night of many firsts for me. It was the first time I ever went to a concert by myself, the first time I ever went to see a band based on knowing only one song, and the first time I ever left before an encore (but honestly that was just because it was late and I needed to beat the rush to get a cab.)

I bought a ticket months ago to see Wild Flag completely spontaneously after reading the listing in the Reader. (Literally I bought the ticket on my phone, on the el, balancing my credit card on my knee to read the secruity code.) I figured that I would get someone to buy a ticket and come with me, and then I forgot completely about it. Till last week when I got an e-mail from the Metro telling me the time of the show had changed, and by that time the show had sold out. I really wavered on whether I was still going to go up until the point where I was putting make up on last night, but I decided that I had paid for it, and I really, really like this song:

And I’m really glad I went. I’m not going to say that the wait between the opening act,  pretty good band called Hospitality (which is a cute name, but makes them hard to Google) and Wild Flag’s set wasn’t awkward, but with the glory of smartphones I managed to keep myself occupied. And the awkward drunken banter of the two guys next to me, in town from Northern Indiana – as they kept informing people, was definitely amusing enought to get me through.

When they finally came on, it was just as exhilirating as I wanted it to be. Carrie Brownstein (who you probably know from Portlandia if we’re friends) has a really distinctive voice, that I somehow have always associated with darkness, but overwhelming feeling that I got from all the members of the band was fun. They seemed to be having a blast just playing togther, and it was really infectious. By the time they played “Romance” at the end of the set the entire crowd was dancing (I mean how could you not to that song?) (Though side note: I am now obsessed with the way hipsters, mostly male white ones, “dance” by bobbing their heads and vagulely moving their torsos – they look like bobblehead dolls, albeit cute ones.)

I think my biggest discovery of the night was the rest of the ladies’ voices, which really balanced Carrie’s (yes I’ve decided we are now on a first name basis) well. I especially loved this song

I am still without a real camera…but here are some bad quality cell phone shots of the night:

Hospitatlity

 

Amber Papini - lead singer of Hospitatlity

Carrie Brownstein

 

Wild Flag

 

My attempt to show how much the ladies of Wild Flag jumped around - but again this was with a cell phone