Five Star Book: Eleanor & Park

I knew I was going to love this book based on the cover. For some reason that simple drawing of a young couple with old school headphones grabbed on to something in my brain and basically said “Kathryn, read me…you will love me…” And that little voice was right.

But this book, by the whimsically named Rainbow Rowell, was more than I could have guess from the sugar-sweet cover. Yes it is the “outcast kids fall in love” tale that I was expecting, but those kids (Eleanor and Park, obviously) are so much richer and more interesting than I could have expected. Although set years before I was born, in a city far away from where I grew up (Omaha, NE) I felt like I could have known these kids.

But the appeal of this novel goes so far beyond relatability (though the descriptions of desire are some of the best I’ve ever read honestly). Eleanor especially lives in a world that I (thankfully) could never really imagine living in, real deep poverty with a cold at best dangerous at worst family situation, and yet Rowell makes it feel immediate and heartbreaking. I just pray that people stuck in situations like hers in real life are able to find families like Park’s to welcome them.

This could have been a sob story, but Rowell has created a wonderful heroine who is strong and vulnerable, a real teenager who wallows without being swallowed up in hard to read self pity. I finished this book with so many feelings, and I think they’ll stay with me longer than any of the plot details of this story, which is pretty remarkable for a young adult novel I think.

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Soundtrack for Winter Walking

Well winter has finally settled over Chicago (though it’s actually sort of warm today…) which means by half mile walk to the train has stopped being “great cardio” and started being a race against the wind. Here are the songs that have been motivating me. (Disclaimer: Most of these songs are really cheesy, I do not care.) [Second Disclaimer: Many of these songs have been on other playlists on this blog before, again I do not care.)

Man in the Mirror – Michael Jackson

Golden – Kelly Hogan

Many the Miles – Sara Bareilles

I Need A Dollar – Aloe Blacc

I Want It That Way – Backstreet Boys

Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For – U2

(This live version is specifically inspirational to me, so sorry about the kind of awful video quality.)

Fairytale – Sarah Bareilles

Lightning Bug – Jake Bugg

This one helps in the “visualize summer” area of staying warm…

Some Nights – FUN.

And She Was – Talking Heads

 

Six Degrees of Cinema: Brief Interviews with Hideous Men

So I broke one of my English major cardinal rules on this one and watched the movie before reading the book (by the late great David Foster Wallace), but I’m glad that I hadn’t. Not because there was some sort of plot twist to be given away, the book is a short story collection, and the movie’s plot never really comes together, but because Wallace is such a great writer I might have had higher expectations for this movie coming in.

This is essentially a series of monologues interspersed with shots of Julianne Nicholson having emotional reactions. Or a stone face. Some of the individual stories are really compelling. I especially loved the piece with an older African-American man talking about how his dad had been a restroom attendant in a fancy building:

As a series of monologues this is great, I almost wish they would have left the interviewer off-screen (the way apparently she is apparently anonymous in the original text), because she is the weak point here for me. I don’t really care about her heartbreak, because she doesn’t seem like a real person. These men (for the most part) seem real, and they are cast wonderfully. Timothy Hutton? Josh Charles? Chris Messina? With John Krasinski? In the same movie? Damn…

Krasinski also adapted and directed the film, and while it (clearly) wasn’t my favorite movie, I love the ambition of attempting to tackle DFW with your non-acting screen debut. So I’m using him as my link, not as an actor (because I’ve seen most of those movies already) but as a writer, which will allow me to play a little catch up from last year and watch Promised Land which he co-wrote with Matt Damon and was directed by Gus van Sant, which I guess makes Krasinski the Affleck replacement? We’ll see…

In this chain:

A Royal AffairCoco Chanel & Igor StravinskyPriceless Midnight in Paris – Brief Interviews with Hideous Men

Weekly Adventure: Colin Meloy at Park West

My friend Maggie asked me to tag along with her to see Colin Meloy at Park West awhile ago, and I agreed because I’ve always mostly liked The Decemberists (though some of their songs are so creepy that when they come up on my shuffle when I’m home alone at night I have to turn them off.) I am so glad I did, he basically led the crowd in a Sing-a-Long last night and it was beautiful.

But first I was introduced to my new obsession, his opening act Eleanor Firedberger. Basically I want to be her:

 eleanor friedberger

Then came Colin, who was as adorable and talented and funny as I wanted him to be:

Colin Meloy

Also for those who were curious he and his wife just bought a farm with llamas, because of course they did.

More importantly – his encore was this, and singing along with every part was one of the best communal musical moments I’ve ever had:

Weekly Adventure: The Killer Angels at Lifeline Theater

I guess it’s fitting that I’m getting this post up today for Veteran’s Day. As The Killer Angels, which has just been extended till November 24th at the Lifeline Theater in Rogers Park, is about the most American of wars, our Civil War.

I knew nothing about this play going in, except that it was about the Civil War, apparently it’s based on a pretty famous novel, which in turn was also the basis for the movie Gettysburg, which my older brother definitely forced me to watch many times when we were children. But I hadn’t put that together.

Not that it would have really mattered if I did, I mean it’s tough to worry too much about spoilers about a show with the Civil War. (I know who won the Battle of Gettysburg after all, though it was a fun mental game to try to remember as it went who survives the battle.)

The Lifeline space is beautiful, but it is an-off-Loop black box, so there’s no wonder that director Matt Miller has chosen to double cast his actors as both Union and Confederate soldiers. This for the most part works, and at times is used really effectively to remind us that there were full human beings with hopes and dreams and friends on both sides of the conflict for example having one actor change nothing but his jacket onstage and dialect to switch from North to South. (Though sometimes it’s clear that they are just actors making a quick change and that’s less affecting.)

The most interesting innovation in this production is the inclusion of Matt Fletcher as the Troubadour who sings Civil War anthems (from both sides) over the scene transitions. He also serves as a narrator, but other than helping to keep the various characters (especially those played by the same actor) straight, this can feel a bit like the adapter just wanted to find a way to include their favorite passages from the novel.

That being said, the way the show opens, with the full cast slowly joining Fletcher in “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” was the most stirring opening of a show that I’ve seen in a long time. (And that song has been stuck in my head since.)

The show runs through November 24th at the Lifeline Theater at 6912 N. Glenwood Ave

Best Picture Baking Project: All the King’s Men

All the King's Men

Picking a dessert for this movie was pretty simple, basically because the only thing I knew about it going in was that it was set in Louisiana and had the word “King” in the title. So I decided to make Mardi Gras King Cake, but I live in Chicago not New Orleans, and my apartment was not going to get to the recommended 85 degrees in November, so we had a slightly deflated version (it still tasted pretty good though.) Also you’re supposed to use three different (Mardi Gras themed) colors of sprinkles, but my baking budget is limited so I went with blue, because it was the only non-Christmasy color on the baking shelf at Target. Anyway, onto the movie:

Had I seen this one before?

Nope. I saw the trailer for the Sean Penn remake a few years ago. I knew it was a book, and that it was loosely based on Huey Long, whom I am vaguely aware of.

Top 3 observations on this viewing:

  1. This movie is very, very forties. There are wonderful close-ups on newspaper headlines, slow noir-y voice over, great outerwear, indeterminate accents.

(Side observation: no one in this movie ever takes their cigarette out of their mouth to talk)

2. John Ireland (who plays the actual protagonist of this story (despite his own protestations)– rich kid reporter Jack Burden) has a wonderful physicality, he hunches his shoulders in wonderful discomfort from his first realizations that Willie Stark isn’t the “honest man” he thought he was. I was not as big of a fan of Joanne Dru’s physical acting choices, which seemed to mostly consist of twisting her neck dramatically back and forth.

3. I’ve always heard that this is a cynical story about how politics will turn even an honest man into a corrupt power broker, which in a lot of ways it is, but I think if you pay close attention in the early scenes to Broderick Crawford as Stark, I don’t know if he was ever really a ‘pure good man,’ I think he was a well meaning but overall ambitious man, but I do feel bad for his wife and son.

What did it beat? Did it deserve to win?

Battleground – I’ve never heard of it.

The Heiress – I have seen this one! I liked it, but it’s less dynamic than AtKM

A Letter to Three Wives – Never heard of it, but based on the DVD cover I’m going to add it to my Netflix queue

Twelve O’Clock High – This title sounds vaguely familiar, but I feel like I wouldn’t have forgotten a Gregory Peck movie so I guess I haven’t seen this one either

Obviously once again I haven’t seen enough to really make a judgment on this one, but it does seem at least to be the most enduring movie from this year.

Bechdel Test Pass?

Not technically, no. There are three named women and they talk to each other, but every conversation in this movie is about either Willie or Jack – but I want to give it an honorary pass simply for the character of Sadie, played by the wonderful Mercedes McCambridge, who I’m very happy to report won an Oscar for this role. Sadie is a political schemer, a willing mistress, and an all around amoral woman, but she is smart and she is funny and she is completely honest about how she is and I love her.

And you know what else I love? Cake…

Mardi Gras King Cake

(Note: the recipe I linked to is for 2 cakes, the ingredient measures below are my estimates for one cake, it worked out pretty well.)

Ingredients for cake:

–          8oz sour cream (1 cup)

–          6 tablespoons sugar

–          2 tablespoons butter

–          ½ teaspoon salt

–          1 envelope active dry yeast

–          ¼ cup warm water

–          1 teaspoon sugar

–          1 large egg, lightly beaten

–          3 to 3 ½ cups all-purpose flour

–          1/3 sugar

–          8oz package of cream cheese, softened

–          2 teaspoons vanilla extract

–          Creamy glaze

–          Sparkling sugar sprinkles

Ingredients for glaze:

–          3 cups powdered sugar

–          2 tablespoons butter, melted

–          2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

–          ¼ teaspoons milk

Directions:

–          Cook first 4 ingredients in a medium saucepan over low heat, stirring often, until butter melts.

–          Set aside and let cool

–          Stir together yeast, ¼ cup warm water, and 1 teaspoon sugar in a 1-cup glass measuring cup

–          Let stand 5 minutes

–          Beat sour cream mixture, yeast mixture, egg, and 1 cup flour at medium speed with a heavy-duty mixer until smooth.

–          Reduce speed to low, gradually add enough flour until a soft dough forms

–          Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface

–          Knead dough until smooth and elastic (about 10 min.) (Note: Be sure to coat your hand in flour, I always forget and then have to pry my hands out of the dough.)

–          Place in a greased bowl

–          Cover and let rise in a warm place, free from drafts 1 hour or until dough is doubled in bulk

–          Punch down dough

–          Roll out into a rectangle

–          Beat 1/3 cup sugar, cream cheese, and vanilla at medium speed with an electric mixer until smooth

–          Spread cream cheese mixture evenly on the dough rectangle, leaving a 1 inch border

–          Roll up the rectangle jelly-roll style starting at a long side

–          Place roll, seam side down, on a lightly greased baking sheet

–          Bring ends of roll together to form an oval ring, pinching edges together to seal

–          Cover and let rise in a warm place, free from drafts, 20 to 30 minutes or until doubled in bulk

–          Bake at 375 degrees for 15 min or until golden

–          While it’s baking: stir together the first 4 glaze ingredients, stir in 2 tablespoons milk, adding additional milk, 1 teaspoon at a time, until spreading consistency

–          Slightly cool cakes on pans on wire racks (about 10 minutes)

–          Drizzle glaze evenly over warm cake

–          Sprinkle with colored sugars

–          Let cool completely

Bonus Adventure: Anne Carson at the Harold Washington Library

So as you might have surmised from the increasing blurriness of my concert pictures from Friday night, I was a bit worse for wear yesterday morning, but I pulled myself out of bed and trekked all the way down to the loop to hear Anne Carson read as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival.

I’ve been intrigued by Carson’s poetry for a long time, she’s a trained classicist and a lot of her work references a lot of philosophy and mythology that just goes over my head, but when I saw she was coming as part of this year’s CHF I ran out to buy her much praised memoir/novel/elegy Nox at The Book Cellar in Lincoln Square, but it is written on was a little bit more expensive than I was expecting, so on a whim I picked up her “novel in verse” Autobiography of Red and then proceeded to read the whole thing in a day, underlining whole paragraphs and nearly crying as I went.

It too is steeped in classical mythology, the myth of Geryon and Hercules, but having absolutely no knowledge of that story going in, I still felt swept up by the humanity of the main character (which is notable as he is supposed to be a red-winged monster) and the unfortunate relatability of his tale of gut wrenching heartbreak. Although it says on the title page that it is a novel, it reads like a collage, like a journal or notes, that come together just enough to give you a sense of the story.

It turns out that Carson had just published a sequel to Autobiography of Red, Red Doc>, so I assumed that she would be reading from that yesterday, but instead she read us an essay (she called it an essay but it was again a mix of genres, facts combined with a lovely short story about a journalist and his friend – a crow named Shortpants – that fight organized crime lords) which I think I overheard her say she hasn’t published yet. It was lyrical and surprisingly funny, and she wore her “cow wrangling shirt” to fit the festival’s ‘Animal’ theme.

Plus this is how she signs books – I love that my name is so much bigger here than her initials:

photo

 

Weekly Adventure: Hawaiian Lion/The Belle Game/Bear Mountain at The Empty Bottle

Somehow I have lived in the Chicago area for over 6 years and hadn’t been to The Empty Bottle until last night, which is a shame because it’s a really cool venue, and if you show up really early (as Jules and I tend to do) you will be right in front of the band, and it will feel like you are having your own private dance party, or at least that’s how it felt for me.

First up were Hawaiian Lion, who are a local Chicago band I had never heard of but now plan to become a huge fan of. Julia and I had a lot of fun listing all the people they reminded us of (everyone from Weezer to Johnny Cash) and then just settled on the image of taking my iTunes and wringing it out like a sponge, the resulting band would sound like these guys. I’m so glad they’re local, because I can’t wait to see them again.

Next up was The Belle Game, who I also love (so much in fact that I am wearing the awesome tee-shirt I bought from them last night today – like the big dork that I am. But seriously listen to these songs:

They are just as cool onstage as their music sounds, (side note the couple of them that I met after the show were also really nice…)

photo

The Belle Game with Ian from Bear Mountain

That second picture is the perfect transition to the last band of the night, and the original reason Jules and I decided to go last night – Bear Mountain. She had seen them this summer at Lollapalooza and then put them on my annual birthday mix and I fell in love with them (and I’m not usually as into the more electronic stuff she likes – not enough banjos) but these guys are an exception.

And I have a confession, I didn’t get many good pictures of them because 1) by this point we were so close to the stage that they all would have been from a strange angle, but also I was dancing so much that the pictures all came out even more blurry than my normal horrible concert photos, so here’s my one attempt that’s even remotely sharable: