Saturday, August 31, 2013

August Cultural Roundup

Woman at her Toilette, Berthe Morisot, 1880
Before Midnight (U.S., 2013) 
Kick Ass 2 (U.S., 2013)

Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman (please see review here)

"Impressionism, Fashion & Modernity" at Art Institute Chicago 
Bata Shoe Museum

Sunday, August 25, 2013


Astray by Emma Donoghue (HarperColllins Ltd., 2012) 275 pages

This is an intriguing fictional cocktail ... a series of very short stories based on real life news and historical accounts of various men and women living in times as early as the early 17th c. and as recent as the late 1960s. Emma Donoghue couples the stories with a one or two page historical explanations of what inspired the stories. The book is divided into three sections “Departures”, “In Transit” and “Arrivals and Aftermaths".

In Donoghue's afterword she suggests that many of these stories are inspired by one's separation from one's roots whether that be a homeland or of a loved one. These people are often "astray', somewhat alienated from the people or places they love.

These are tales of woe and separation, deceit, betrayal, thwarted lust and misplaced trust ... Donoghue, author of the sensational, award winning Room and many other fine books such as Slammerkin, captures their voices so well, so effortlessly. She writes evocatively and passionately in my favourite stories - whether it is the slave who runs away with his white mistress after poisoning his master ("Last Supper at Brown's"); the Irish immigrant dying of cholera in Canada and sending his last few letters to his wife back in Ireland ("Counting the Days"); the first person narrative of Matthew Scott, the caretaker of Jumbo, an elephant purchased by P.T. Barnum in the 1860s (the charmingly told "Man and Boy"); a tale of a mother's loss and the orphan trains of the early 20th c. America ("The Gift"); the planned entrapment and rape of a teenage girl by British forces during the American Revolution (the disturbing tale "The Hunt"); or, the destitute mother turned prostitute whose brother turns to the novelist Charles Dickens (yes, that Dickens) for financial aid in sending his sister abroad to a new life ("Onward").

Where she sometimes falters (or perhaps it is I who faltered in my appreciation) is in imitating the cowboy diction of the mid to late 19th c. of America such as in the dialogue of the would-be smugglers of Lincoln's corpse in "The Body Swap"; the cowgirl in "The Long Way Home" who drags an errant husband back to his family against his will; or, the Yukon prospectors in "Snowblind". The dialogue has a forced quality, a stagey quality.

She ends the collection with a heavy-handed piece on two Canadian sculptors Frances Loring and Florence Wyle - in a piece entitled “What Remains"- who
Emma Donoghue
partnered to create many enormous monuments in mid century Canada, many of them created to memorialize the dead (a particularly fruitful period for sculptors post-WWII). The story of their life together is a beautiful one but the exposition is heavy handed in attempting to convey the enormous accomplishments of the women such as the creation of the “Loring Lion,” an art deco sculpture now exhibited in Sir Casimir Gzowski Park.

Donoghue is brilliantly inventive, working in a variety of genres (I have yet another Donoghue book on my bookshelf to read); however, I felt this collection felt a bit cobbled together with some superior offerings and some weak ones (almost all had been published in literary journals prior to this). Perhaps it was offered by Donoghue to her publisher in the overwhelming wake of the phenomenal Room to appease readers who wanted another Donoghue fix quickly. 

Monday, August 19, 2013

Days 3 & 4: Mining the Magnificent Mile

Last view of the Chicago River
I have that thing ... what is it called ... you visit a place and then you want to live there? There should be a name for it. Something German no less. I have that feeling about Chicago. I could live here I think. Parts of it has the energy and excitement of New York but the cleanliness of Toronto - a very appealing combination.

It's the last day with our friends as the boys have to work on Monday. We are a bit melancholy that they are leaving but we have a bang up meal at Meli Cafe & Juice Bar, 303 South Halsted Street. American portions (large) - all forms of  eggs, omelets, waffles, pancakes, crepes, breakfast sandwiches, scrambles, frittatas, french toast. The cafe was packed to the gills. Justifiably so ... excellent food and friendly service too.

What to do in the two hours before they leave? Down to the Magnificent Mile on N. Michigan for a last view of the river (seen above). This was taken across from the Wrigley Building (also shown below), the house that gum built.

Wrigley Building...
the house that gum built
Perhaps we are exhausted by our previous excursions because when our friends leave for the airport we crash for a few hours in the hotel room and try and sort out what to do for dinner and in the evening. 

We decide to go back to the LM Bistro for an excellent meal ... and then where? Shall we be low key and see a film? Yes, we settle on a film at the Loews AMC Theatre on N. Michigan.

The last day we find a new breakfast place within walking distance of the hotel - Yolk747 N Wells (here the husband's taste excels). Inexpensive, low key, very "unfancy", family-oriented. Again, large proportions which appears to be a very American thing. 

On the last day in Chicago we are determined to go to the John G. Shedd Aquarium, 1200 S. Lake Shore Drive, on the waterfront but, alas, when we arrive by cab, we are told that that there is a wait for at least one hour, exposed to the elements.  It's a hot and steamy day and we can't face it. The kid's dream of seeing the stingrays is foiled.

Across from the Wrigley Building
What about the Daniel Clowes exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art? Foiled again, as it is a Monday and the museum is closed. We poke around in the beautiful MCA store next to the museum.

We are compelled to shop again on the Magnificent Mile that is a short distance away from the MCA. R picks up a beautiful leather wallet at All Saints. J buys a great jacket at the Top Shop.

We have not forgotten the very famous popcorn from Garrett Popcorn Shops, 625 North Michigan Avenue, for two bags of their cheese/caramel mix that we are now addicted to. We were first introduced to it by R's cousin years ago.

Time to go home ... we are packed up and ready to leave for the airport at 2. Our cabby is a most unusual man - Estaifan Shilaita, a former Iraqi boxing champion who gave us an extensive lesson on the history of Iraq and his own personal history. Intriguing ... check out Mr. Shilaita's story here

A trouble free flight. Home by 7.30p Toronto time ... it's always great to return no matter how nice the trip.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Day 2: I should stop listening to NPR ...

Riverwalk along the Chicago River

Breakfast at LM French Gastro Bistro,  a French style bistro, which is adjacent to the hotel ... wonderful meal and great service. We will need all the nourishment we can get as it will be a long hot day with a great deal of sightseeing. We walk along West Huron to the Magnificent Mile ... Am I surprised that it is grander than Fifth Ave. and much cleaner than Toronto? Yes I am ... it goes from the high end (Neiman Marcus, Cartier) to the hipster (All Saints) to the relatively low end (Banana Republic) but is beautifully maintained with gorgeous flower beds on every block across from the retail outlets.  

Tribune Tower
 We make our way to the Riverwalk, a path along the Chicago River lined with restaurants, boat launches and small, chic shops, and we are overwhelmed by the beautiful architecture of the last century - Wrigley Building, the Civic Opera Building, Tribune Tower (above), etc ... - but also the assortment of the new buildings like Marina City (which resembles a giant corn cob), Lake Point Tower (a giant flask of whiskey), Swissotel, Aon Center. It may seem an odd mishmash of the old and the new but it works, incredibly well.

Portrait of the Marquis & Marchioness of 
Miramon and their children (1865) James Tissot
We make our way to the Art Institute Chicago through Millennium Park ($23 admission). I am most anxious  to see the "Impressionism, Fashion & Modernity" exhibit with its original Manets, Renoirs, Degases, Monets, Tissots. Accompanying the paintings are dresses and shoes from this period - mid to late 19th c. - these tiny, exquisite slippers and dresses with bustles, gorgeous flowered hats, opera gloves, bags. The husband departs ... there are only so many exquisite slippers and frou frou hats he can admire. He wants to see the modern art and photography. So be it.

Quickly, quickly we must leave to make the 3 o'clock Architectural & Historical Boat Cruise along the Chicago River through the Chicago Line Cruises Ltd. where we can view the architectural highlights of the city. We do, arriving by cab at 465 N. McClurg. It's not cheap ... $40 for 90 minutes but I think well worth it. Our guide, a crusty septuagenarian named Ed is knowledgeable and articulate. The ride is pleasant, the day sunny and hot. A series of photos I took follow below ...

Civic Opera Building, 1927-29 completed 
a few nights before the 1929 crash
Marina City, 1959-1964

After the cruise, we walk along the Navy Pier which has a CNE feel (but cleaner, much cleaner). The kids want to ride the giant Ferris Wheel and I agree to accompany them and the other adults even though the height terrifies me. For half of the ride (going up) I close my eyes, the other half is more manageable for me and I permit myself a peek. It's ten minutes long and $6.00 worth of me gripping the sides of the small red car we sit in covering my eyes and saying, "Don't tell me when we reach the top!"

The kids are anxious to escape us ... can they wander freely for a little bit away from the parents? Armed with a few dollars for cab fare we let them loose in the city which does not mean that A (the other mom) and myself are not biting our nails for a good part of this. Before the kids depart, a lovely young man who is giving out free ice cream hands us three small tubs of delicious ice cream. Score!

To allay our anxiety as parents we stop at Emilio's Tapas,
215 East Ohio St., for rejuvenating alcohol and tidbits. The offspring have strict instructions to return by 7.30 at the hotel. They do. They are good kids, actually beating us back to the hotel to arrive on time.

I should stop listening to NPR, specifically This American Life, a wonderful radio show based in Chicago, which tends to showcase the problems of big city life in Chicago particularly the South Side. Hence, I have had a very skewed impression of life (and crime) in the city. I was nervous before we left. Will we be safe? Should the kids wander on their own? Is there a great deal of racial strife? Thus far, I have seen nothing untoward or experienced any anxiety whatsoever here. I know it's there but in my little tourist bubble in a well-appointed neighbourhood we are sheltered from the real problems of the city.  
Dinner under the stars ... as well as under the EL
For dinner, we wander a bit trying to find a family friendly restaurant. It's a challenge as many of them seem to be filled with cruising young adults in various states of undress (the women that is). We finally settle on the Kinzie Chophouse, 400 North Wells St. We eat outside, under trees with tiny lights that look like stars - this romantic setting is offset by the roar of the nearby El that is literally like sitting beside a freight train. The food however is fresh even though my Cobb salad is not a real Cobb salad. The wait staff was great! The company wonderful ... another great day in Chicago!

Boat Cruising

Friday, August 16, 2013

Day 1: Two or three things I didn't know about you Chicago

I have never been to Chicago and I realize that there are a number of things I didn't know about this city. That ... a river runs through it. How beautiful much of it is in the downtown core. How friendly Chicagoans are. What the Magnificent Mile really means (a row of retailers, not Gilded Age mansions as I mistakenly thought).

We fly out to Chicago with another family - long time friends who have two teenagers. We fly Porter, the only way to go when you fly domestically or to the U.S. R found a great deal on Expedia- basically $500 per person for our flight and three nights at the Hotel Felix,
111 W Huron St. in the northern part of city. The Felix is clean, modern but the suites we have paid for are quite small, if tasteful and 
R on N. Clark St.

We arrive, unpack, and hurry to the nearest family friendly restaurant which happens to be the Stout Barrel House and Gallery, 642 N. Clark St. - a sort of sports bar. Quick, plentiful, friendly.

We walk down N. Clark St. to the El (not the tube, not the metro, not the subway, we are told at one point by a native Chicagoan) and take the El to a neighbourhood called Wicker Park or Bucktown that I guess would be similar to our Queen Street West here in Toronto. We cross many of the 38 bridges that pass over the Chicago River (pictured above).

Wicker Park seems to be in the midst of gentrification. Some very small quirky independent businesses - record stores, shoe stores - a bit small townish in feel, and some big chains like Urban Outfitters and American Apparel. J picks up some back to school Ts. A fruitful shopping spree for the youngsters. Not so much for me as group shopping does not appeal to me. 

First glimpse of the Chicago River
Back to the hotel for a brief respite. We decide to have dinner at an Italian restaurant called Quartrino Pizzeria Winebar, 626 N. State St., at a walkable distance from the hotel. It is enormous, and crowded (it has a bit of a saloon feel to it) and my heart sinks a bit at the crowds but the food is delicious and plentiful at reasonable prices (I recommend the cavatelli and the rapini - tastes just like homemade). It has enormous variety - pizza, pasta, appetizers, etc ...

Across the street is pinkberry, which I have only ever seen in Curb Your Enthusiasm episodes (the yogurt drives its star Larry David to make some very foolish choices much to his detriment). It really is the best frozen yogurt around ... despite an indifferent staff and not so great smelling retail outlet. 

A long day and a pleasant night ... back to our tiny perfect hotel room. 
At Quartrino

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Orange is the New Black

Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison (Spiegel & Grau, 2011) by Piper Kerman, 327 pages

Orange is the New Black (13 episode series available only on Netflix)

I eagerly snapped up this book as I was absolutely gob-smacked by the series that premiered in July. There's a lot of hype surrounding this book and the new Netflix series, much of it well deserved. The author spent thirteen months in a minimum security prison for a ten year old drug offense for money laundering and drug trafficking.

She was fresh out of college and engaged in a relationship with "Nora" a woman who was involved in an international drug cartel conscripting mules to move drug money across borders. When Nora got snared years later, Piper was as well. Kerman spent six years in limbo while the courts tried to nab the African kingpin who was the head of the cartel and various others ... when the legal indictments finally trickled down to Kerman she received a fifteen month sentence at the FCI Danbury, CT prison for women. Who could resist exploring this premise?

Kerman is an accomplished, if novice, writer. What her descriptions lack in beauty of construction it makes up for with her evocative, pointed observations on the sometimes terrifying, sometimes mundane aspects of life in prison.

Much of the humour, and the pathos, comes from the "white girl in a strange world" vibe that Kerman tries to capture - an upper middle class boho New Yorker and Smith College graduate in a strange and alienating environment. Yes, she is naive, frightened, inept at adapting sometimes, horrified by some of what she sees but also compassionate, forgiving of the ugliness she was exposed to. It is not beautiful prose but it is compelling reading. How can it not be when she has this amazing cast of characters* who surround her?

The pacifist nun. Yoga Janet. Pop the Russian emigre/head cook in prison with a mean streak and a soft spot for Piper. Vanessa, the lovely transgender MtF who runs the beauty salon. Pornstache, the malicious prison guard. Rosemarie, forever planning her wedding for when she is released. Pennsatucky, the holyrolling, crack smoking Christian. Big Boo, a very likable bull dyke despite her forbidding appearance. The tart-tongued Delicious who admires Piper's perky breasts when she first enters prison. Mrs. Jones, an elderly prisoner who proudly wears the moniker OG (Old Gangster).

There are the situations that you would expect in this book: prisoners dividing into racial and class lines (the prison is composed of 50% Latinas, 25% white, 25% black with a tiny smattering of "other"); many of the women engaged in lesbian activity are "gay for the stay"; some of the guards are unbelievably cruel and vulgar (prison guard DeSimon I'm looking at you).
Piper Kerman
Kerman's self-described "All-American-Girl force field of stoicism" in the book sometimes irks. Perhaps Mom told her it's impolite to whine or complain? In the book, those who surround her are impossibly forgiving of her situation - her fiancee Larry, her parents, her brother, her future in-laws, all of her friends .... was there truly no one in her life that said, "How could you?"  She seems at times very forgiving of the most egregious transgressions in prison ... this is a gracious response but is it an honest one? Most of the time she seems just mildly annoyed, rarely enraged - perhaps I find this difficult to understand as one sips a cupful of righteous anger like coffee in the morning.  

Until ... the final pages of the memoir when Kerman is transferred to a Chicago prison before testifying at a trial involving one of the men involved in the cartel just before her release. The conditions are so dire, the women in prison so damaged or mentally ill, the situation so pitiful, that we begin to see the rage and despair that one would expect in these circumstances.

Taylor Schilling's performance as Piper Chapman (Kerman's doppelganger on the series), is appreciably more skittish throughout as is Jason Biggs' performance as her fiance Larry. He is, by turns, anxious, angry, frustrated, loving, supportive, jealous of the "Nora" character, renamed Alex (Laura Prepon) in the series who ends up in the same prison. It's a comic and affecting performance (and more realistic).

The comedy is understandably heightened in the series: Mom is a bit of a prissy blonde ice queen; the Jewish in-laws conform to type; the brother is a goofy slacker who lives in a trailer. The guards fall into predictable categories too - the sexually exploitative Mendez with the pornstache; the hunky but honorable Bennett who impregnates one of the young Hispanic girls; the career climbing senior warden official; the older counselor who is secretly in love with Piper and turns against her when his affection is unrequited.

In comparing the two media - book versus series - I have to opt for the series. The writers of the show have cleverly manipulated real events in Piper's life in prison into affecting, dramatic moments. When Piper (Taylor Schilling) accidentally insults the head cook of the prison, she is literally denied food for days by the kitchen staff. When a screwdriver goes missing (obviously a major issue in prison) because Piper has mistakenly forgotten it somewhere the ensuing drama is effectively heightened and the screwdriver utilized in a most surprising manner. Piper's admirer, who wishes her to be her prison "wife", a slightly demented prisoner nicknamed Crazy Eyes, is treated with generosity and humour in the series despite her sometimes troubling actions (peeing in Piper's cell when she is angry with her).

The incident that would garner the most interest is whether the "Nora" character in the book truly does show up in the memoir. She does but it's nowhere as intense nor as problematic as her appearance on the series.

In one specific aspect the series is superior. The series devotes a great deal of time to how the women ended up in prison - the stories are varied, sometimes dispiriting and highly emotional.

Kerman tries to address issues that affect the women, not  just focusing on her own personal dilemmas - the lack of a workable GED program in prison; the abysmally low wages ($0.14 /hour at the bottom of the wage scale); the women paying for almost all amenities, even the most basic; the preponderance of poor and disadvantaged women imprisoned for relatively minor drug offenses; the very real presence of psychologically disturbed guards or COs who have complete control over the women's lives. 
Prison is quite literally a ghetto... a place where the U.S. government now puts not only the dangerous but also the inconvenient - people who are mentally ill, people who are addicts, people who are poor and uneducated and unskilled. Meanwhile the ghetto in the outside world is a prison as well, and a much more difficult one to escape from than this correctional compound. In fact, there is basically a revolving door between our urban and rural ghettos and the formal ghetto of our prison system.
It's unjust. It's unsustainable. The prison system holds more than two million prisoners - more than in China, more than in Russia. And the American public is paying for it. Through the nose.

*In the review, I use the names of the characters referred to in the book. It gets bit complicated talking about both vehicles in that there are possible names for many characters - the true identity of the prisoners (only a few are named as such in the book with the permission of the women). There are the book's characters who have fictional names to protect their true identities and there are the characters created for the TV series who sometimes have the same names from the book. 

Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) makes a new friend

Friday, August 9, 2013

Everyone wants to be the mother

The Mothers by Jennifer Gilmore (Scribner, 2013) 277 pages
 The NYT review of The Mothers proffered that this was a story about obsession. That has the ring of truth to it. I think there is nothing that obsesses many women more than our children and/or our desire for children. I once said to a young woman who was considering having children and asked me how I felt about it: "Think of your most intense feeling for someone you love ... multiply it by 100 and you might get a sense of how a woman feels about her child." I still remember how her face registered that pronouncement with surprise ...

I broached this book with trepidation as it tackles the thorny and emotional issues of infertility and adoption in a fictional context - both areas that I have some unhappy experience with. The narrator's pain is so palpable to me that it almost dissuaded me from proceeding with this sensitive and intelligent examination of one couple's path to adopting a child.

When the novel begins, Jess and Ramon are on their way to North Carolina to attend a seminar on domestic adoption. They have already been ruled out for international adoption at a session they have recently attended. Jess has had cancer and even though she has successfully conquered it she is disqualified from applying to most countries as are gay couples and single women. They leave the international adoption meeting that Jess and Ramon attended for potential adoptive parents and Jess bursts into tears (as the reader nearly does as well). The feeling of hopelessness is so overwhelming.

So ... on to the possibility of a domestic adoption. Handsome, somewhat reticent Ramon who is half Spanish, half Italian (and whom Jess met in Italy during one of her sojourns there) is more reluctant to proceed with the adoption it appears. The possibilities in North Carolina sometimes appear no better ... one couple advises them that gay male couples are often considered more desirable by birth mothers as they pose no threat to the birth mother's role as "everyone wants to be the mother".

When the couple returns home, Jess is so dispirited that she responds with anger and hostility to her parents' innocent queries for information. There are so many variables ... will they adopt a child who is not white? From a mother with substance abuse issues? Who has serious health issues? Characteristically, I think, the adoptive father says no, the adoptive mother says maybe.

Jess is sometimes impossible - full of rage, hyper-sensitive, anxious, bullying with Ramon, insensitive.

Jess's rage about her situation is a toxic, messy rage  that spills over into her relationship with Ramon, her parents, her friends who are also mothers ... rage against the adoption system which is a complex labyrinth, rage against one's friends who are already mothers, rage against one's husband who does not seem to be as passionate about the adoption as she is, her parents who appear insensitive at times ... 
Jennifer Gilmore
Sometimes the narrative smacks of self-revelation rather than literature. My speculation was confirmed when I read the NYT article above written by Molly Ringwald which asserts: "The last section of the book, arguably its strongest, resurrects the question of fiction versus memoir, as two of the most stirring sections are lifted, almost verbatim, from articles Gilmore published as nonfiction."

I understand it - the level of frustration, the sense of hopelessness, the anger, and the ugliest feeling of all: that you have failed as a woman because you cannot conceive. No rational explanation will assuage this feeling.

The title is apt ... it is not just about Jess' quest to be a mother, nor the birth mothers of the adopted children but many mothers - her friends who have become mothers, her own sometimes distant mother, her obstreperous Italian mother-in-law, Jess' pregnant sister Lucy, her substitute mother Claudine who cared for Jess and her sister Lucy as children, the prospective birth mothers, the phony birth mothers who cruelly deceive the desperate couple with false biographies and hope ...

Yes, there are many mothers and many ways to mother - a path that Jess soon learns she may follow.