Published! Chicago Girl: Essays on the Arts, Politics and Life

Chicago Girl is the title of my new book and indeed I am a Chicago girl. I’ve lived here most of my life, with occasional and sometimes lengthy forays to Missouri, Colorado, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ohio and Kentucky. But I’ve been back to my home base for 35 years and I’m not going anywhere.

My new book of essays is part memoir but mostly a series of reviews and observations on theater, music,film, books, writing, politics, technology and a bunch of other subjects that I obsess about.

The cover is a view that may be familiar to you if you’re a Chicagoan. I took it from the Chess Pavilion at North Avenue Beach, looking south toward Navy Pier.

Many of the essays are adapted from reviews and articles I’ve written over the last eight years. But there are anomalies, like a timeline of my life in technology, starting with my acquisition of a certain special fountain pen at the age of 12. And there’s a long poem titled “City Lady Blues” about why I never wanted to move to the suburbs, despite the temptations offered by a certain gentleman. “Can’t you see I’m a city lady? Don’t wanna be a country girl.” I performed that poem one evening with my son Steve playing background blues on his tenor sax. And the oldest essay in the book is “The Story of Max: The World’s Greatest Cat,” written in 1987.

The ironic aspect of my book’s publication now is that the pandemic enabled me to finish it. In normal times, I would be seeing and reviewing three or four plays a week, but that activity was shut down along with most of the rest of our lives. So I decided to focus on finally finishing the book of essays I had fiddled with for a few years. I wrote about that in “Poem for a Pandemic: A Nightmare and a Blessing” in April..

If you’re interested in learning more about my book, both the personal stories and the arts commentary, check it out here and on the publisher’s website. Right now, you’ll find the  print version but the e-book will be available soon.


No News: Watching Old Movies for the Sake of My Sanity

The news is driving me nuts. I’ve tried to avoid watching it the last few days. I’m at heart a news junkie but the obsessive attention to this presidential race is making me crazy. And still is, the morning after. I usually have the TV on while I’m working or doing stuff around home. But this week I’ve been listening to music (especially the new Bruce Springsteen album, Letter to You) or one of my playlists on Spotify or Pandora or even music on the radio!

Maria Dizzia in the Chicago staging of What the Constitution Means to Me

In the evening, I’ve been reading books (I’m in the middle of Ayad Akhtar’s Homeland Elegies: A Novel and just started Augustus by John Williams). And watching movies or a few great examples of virtual theater (Irish Repertory’s The Touch of a Poet was superb and I loved seeing What the Constitution Means to Me again).

Most rewarding has been seeing old movies, some for the first time. For years while I was a Netflix DVD subscriber, I had The Garden of the Finzi-Continis in my saved queue forever. Apparently it wasn’t on DVD until recently. I read about it being part of the UK Jewish Film Festival. I was going to sign up for that (just to see that film) when I discovered it was streaming on YouTube with very legible English subtitles. 

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is set in Ferrara in northern Italy in the late 1930s. The Finzi-Continis are wealthy, sophisticated Italian Jews. Wealthy enough to have a huge walled estate with miles of garden (or forest) and tennis courts in addition to their palatial mansion. Middle-class Jews in Ferrara think the Finzi-Continis are not real Jews, or that they don’t think they are Jews. But in the end, of course, they are all Jews.

The film is directed by Vittorio de Sica (Bicycle Thief and Shoeshine) and it’s truly beautifully filmed with gorgeous settings and glamorous people. It’s a non-love story about Micol (tall, blonde daughter of the F-Cs) and Giorgio, a handsome scholarly Jewish man who has been in love with Micol since their school days. He pines for her but she considers him a dear friend and nothing more. There’s much more to the story than that, and it’s played out against the background of Mussolini’s dominance in Italy and increasing restrictions against Jews in Ferrara.

Another old film I watched while avoiding the news is the 1987 docudrama, Conspiracy: The Trial of the Chicago 8, available on Amazon Prime Video. It features actors playing the roles of the leading figures in the trial with film clips inserted from interviews with the actual people. So we have Robert Loggia playing William Kunstler and Kunstler himself opining on the trial occasionally. The film was made for cable TV and it’s based on trial transcripts so there is a lot of real-life dialog and events (such as the horrific gagging and chaining of Bobby Seale). 

It’s basically a 33-year-old version of the new Aaron Sorkin film, The Trial of the Chicago 7, which I also strongly recommend. The Sorkin film has snappier dialogue but the outrageous and outraged characters (Hoffman, Rubin, Davis, Dellinger) are just as wildly manic and adorable in the older version. The 1987 film is set entirely in the courtroom while the new film is also set in other locations and makes use of news footage from 1968. The Sorkin film is available on Netflix and currently screening live in some cinemas (Landmark Century Centre in Chicago). 

While scrolling through my list on Amazon Prime Video, I discovered What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael. This is a great documentary about the brilliant movie critic. It made me appreciate her as much more than an insightful critic and writer. She fought fiercely for years to be recognized as a female critic and get a paying job in what was traditionally a white man’s world. Same old, same old, right? But she persisted–and so we know her today as the plainspoken, spiky, often iconoclastic film critic for the New Yorker. The 2018 film runs about 100 minutes.  

Another old film I watched recently is The Pianist, a WWII-era film (made in 2002) about the pianist and composer Władysław Szpilman, a Holocaust survivor, who lived through the war years hiding out in various places in the Warsaw ghetto.  It’s a great film with a fine performance by Adrian Brody and direction by Roman Polanski. (it was on Netflix until recently but you can rent it for $3.99 now on YouTube). The film was adapted from Szpilman’s book titled The Pianist: The Extraordinary Story of One Man’s Survival in Warsaw, 1939-45, which he wrote soon after his survival. The book was published in Poland in 1946 and then suppressed. German and English translations were finally published in 1998 and 1999. Both the film and the book are worth your time for the author’s first-person accounts of seeing his family members being loaded on trains and sent off to Treblinka and his own survival, helped by friends and strangers and finally by a sympathetic and music-loving German officer.


Racial Injustice Themes in Pop Culture: It’s a Horror Show

James Baldwin from I Am Not Your Negro.

My latest article for Third Coast Review is an essay about racial injustice and our racist history themes appearing in compelling ways in pop culture. I recommend some TV drama series, films and books for your consideration. And I take time to  focus on one book—Eddie S. Glaude Jr.’s Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own. In addition to describing how Baldwin’s writing and political attitudes changed through his experiences in the civil rights and Black Power eras, Glaude defines The Lie that encompasses our racist attitudes. So read on and I hope you’ll find something that sounds intriguing as well as some you’ve already loved or hated.

We’re living in a strange period of horror shows in politics, health and racial injustice. You never know what type of abomination you’ll find when you turn on your phone, computer or tv set or open a newspaper. Another black man killed by white cops? Another protester attacked or a Black Lives Matter protest broken up by white nationalists? Another 1000 souls dead from Covid-19? Another clueless tweet from the White House?

Historians a century from now may decide that this part of the 21st century was a political horror show. So it only makes sense that the real world of racial injustice and our racist history is bleeding over into pop culture. We can now partake of film, video, books and music where these historical themes are blended with horror and heroic stories.

We applaud the attention finally being paid to Black artists and authors, given the decades where their work and talent was ignored. For instance, of the 1,034 films currently in the Criterion Collection, only nine titles are directed by Black filmmakers. A reader who comments on my 3CR essay points out that there are more films in that collection that feature Black writers, performers and themes.

This essay explores works that can educate and entertain us about the Black experience in racist America and how white people can become allies and change agents. Yes, Nikki Haley, we are a racist country.

Have we missed any of your favorites in these genres? Let us know in the comments.

Photo from Lovecraft Country, courtesy of HBO.

Television and Films

“Lovecraft Country,” TV drama series and book. Currently running on HBO is the 10-part series adapted from the 2016 novel by Matt Ruff, developed from the book by Misha Green. The story follows Atticus Freeman, a young military veteran, in 1950s Jim Crow America. Atticus, his friend Letitia, and his Uncle George make a road trip to find Atticus’ missing father  and track down a family secret. (The trip also enables George to do research for the next issue of his Safe Negro Travel Guide.) The trio encounters racial terrorism in so-called sundown counties as well as monsters lifted from the pages of a Lovecraft story. Much of the series and novel take place in Chicago—no less racist than the northeast or Jim Crow South, but we love seeing films that portray Chicago.

Jonathan Majors (The Last Black Man in San Francisco) and Jurnee Smollett (Birds of Prey) are terrific as Atticus and Letitia and Michael K. Williams (“The Wire” and “Boardwalk Empire”) is a pleasant surprise as Atticus’ stubborn dad, Montrose.

There are lots of history, literary and horror references in Lovecraft Country, named for the noted horror fiction author H.P.. Lovecraft (known for his racist and homophobic attitudes as well as the creator of the Cthulhu Mythos.) Atticus and George are great readers and Uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) is an expert on the horror genre. The 1921 Tulsa massacre plays a part in a later chapter of Ruff’s novel, so we assume it will appear in the film series. Episode 4 of “Lovecraft Country” runs Sunday, September 6, on HBO and you can find earlier eps on demand.

 

Watchmen,” a superhero HBO series that ran in late 2019, is available from some on-demand and streaming services. “Watchmen” was adapted by Damon Lindelof as a sort of sequel to the 1986 Watchmen DC comic book series created by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. (A 2009 film was adapted from the same comic book series.)

The series focuses on contemporary racist violence in Tulsa and the first episode begins with the 1921 massacre of the “Black Wall Street” district on Greenwood Avenue in Tulsa. In 2016, a white supremacist group, the Seventh Kavalry, wages a violent war against the police and minorities. Because of the murder of 40 police officer in their homes in 2016, the police force now hide their identities, including wearing face coverings or yellow balaclavas.

The cast includes Regina King as a police detective known as Sister Night, Don Johnson as police chief Judd Crawford (a man whose closet hides secrets), plus Jean Smart, Tim Blake Nelson, and Louis Gossett Jr.

There’s also a Watchmen Role-Playing Game.

 

The Black Lives Matter Collection on Netflix has compiled an array of anti-racist and Black artists and topics. The collection of narrative films, documentaries and TV series includes many important films about Black lives. These are some of my favorites in this category.

I Am Not Your Negro, a stunning work of documentary storytelling by Raoul Peck, based on texts by James Baldwin and documentary footage of his life.

Just Mercy, the biodrama about Bryan Stevenson (played by Michael B. Jordan), an idealistic young Harvard Law graduate who goes to Alabama to fight for poor people.

Director Ava DuVernay’s 13th, another powerful documentary, explores the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, adopted in 1865, which abolished slavery and ended involuntary servitude. DuVernay demonstrates how slavery has been continued despite the 13th through lynchings, Jim Crow laws and practices, disenfranchisement, police brutality and mass incarceration.

And Spike Lee’s 2020 film Da 5 Bloods about four aging Vietnam vets who return to Vietnam to find the remains of their fallen leader (Chadwick Boseman) as well as a treasure they buried there. The cast features Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors as his son, Clarke Peters and Norm Lewis. As our review says, Marvin Gaye’s music is the primary emotional thread of the film’s soundtrack, primarily songs from his landmark 1971 album What’s Going On.

Books

Books on anti-racism and white privilege have been topping best-seller lists—especially titles that might help white people understand racism and the meaning of white privilege. Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist says you either are racist or antiracist and thus trying to dismantle our racist history—there’s nothing in between, he says. His book has been on the New York Times combined print and e-book best-seller list for 15 weeks; it’s currently #5 in non-fiction there and #7 on Amazon.com.

Other books that top those lists are Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. Number 2 on that NYT list is Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste about the social stratification based on inclusion and exclusion in our society. I’m eager to read Caste; Wilkerson’s 2010 book, The Warmth of Other Suns, is a masterpiece history of the Great Migration of Blacks from the South’s Jim Crow society to the North, where they found other forms of discrimination.

Eddie S. Glaude Jr.’s 2020 book, Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own, is another important book on racial attitudes. He studies Baldwin’s writings, speeches and interviews from the early part of his career where he was a strong supporter of the 1960s civil rights movement until his attitudes changed. Baldwin was devastated and disillusioned about peaceful protest after the murders of his friends Martin, Medgar and Malcolm (Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers and Malcolm X) and the rise of the Black Power movement, which he supported. Baldwin spent much of his writing career living in Paris and Istanbul but apparently felt at home nowhere—certainly not in his native racist United States.

The thread throughout Glaude’s book is The Lie (my caps) on which all of American society is based. The Lie has three parts:

  1. The debasement of black people: They are characterized as inferior, less human than white people, stereotyped as lazy, dishonest, sexually promiscuous, and always seeking government handouts.
  2. Lies about American history: America is fundamentally good and innocent. Its bad deeds (slavery, genocide, internment camps, lynching, redlining, etc., etc.) were mistakes and have been corrected. (Add to that list food insecurity and our current “discovery” that Black and brown communities suffer and die more from COVID-19.)
  3. Changing events to fit the story whenever America’s innocence is threatened: America is a divinely sanctioned nation, a beacon of light and moral force in the world. Just one example is “the lost cause” story of the post-Confederacy.

The Lie is the mechanism that allows us to avoid facing the truth about unjust treatment of Black people. Baldwin said it started with the founders refusing to recognize a slave as a man. You can find many examples of The Lie in political speeches and writings today, especially from the right but also from the left.

There are many excellent novels in the enlighten-me-about-Black-life category. We have to include the source book for Lovecraft Country here and one additional novel.

Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country is a dark fantasy novel told episodically. As you read one exciting chapter after another, you realize that you are reading the raw material of a drama series. Each chapter focuses on one adventure or one character, even though they are intertwined. (There’s the chapter about Letitia’s new house in a neighborhood where she’s not welcome and another chapter where her sister Ruby turns into a woman named Hillary. At the end…but never mind. Read the book yourself.) This is Ruff’s sixth novel. The Readers Guide on Ruff’s website has background on some of the topics addressed in the book and drama series.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, a 2016 book about Cora, a slave in Georgia who determines to leave the plantation and travels via the underground railroad (an actual railroad with stations underground) to various states and situations, each one more awful than the last. Her story is central to the book but is embellished by the stories of other slaves and some magical realism. The book won the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction and the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Amazon Studios is adapting the book into a limited edition series directed by Barry Jenkin

 

Going Back in History

Richard Wright’s 1940 novel, Native Son, about Bigger Thomas, a young Black man who lives with his family in a tiny apartment in Chicago’s Black Belt. He’s hired to work for a rich white family and accidentally commits a terrible crime. His story is legendary and the book broke through into pop culture as a Book of the Month Club selection in 1940. It was later a film and recently adapted as a brilliantly conceived play by Nambi E. Kelley, which premiered at Court Theatre in 2014.

Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel, Invisible Man, is a tragic and poetic book that’s hard to characterize; it’s almost Kafka-like in its opacity. The narrator, never named, moves to Harlem from the South but the story is about Black identity, Black nationalism, Marxism and the racial ideas of Booker T. Washington. Invisible Man won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1953. In 2012, Court Theatre also staged its world premiere adaptation by Oren Jacoby and Christopher McElroen.

And finally, listen to “Strange Fruit” (a disturbingly graphic protest song by Abel Meeropol) performed memorably by Nina Simone and in this video, by Billie Holiday.


Robots, Robots, Robots: They Rule in Industry, Technology and Culture

Since there’s very little theater to review these days–occasionally a virtual reading or video replay–so I’ve been doing some book reviews. This book, a history of robots and automation, was particularly interesting as the author blends in aspects of how robots have appeared in popular culture over the centuries–dancing or playing chess and as characters in books, film and theater. The book traces how automatons led to automation, cybernetics and artificial intelligence in industry and weaves in examples of robots in culture.

Here’s my review of The American Robot: A Cultural History from University of Chicago Press. The author, Dustin A. Abnet, teaches American studies at Cal State Fullerton.

The book’s cover image shows a boy demonstrating Ideal Toy Company’s Robert the Robot, a popular remote-controlled toy in 1959.


Poem for a Pandemic: A Nightmare and a Blessing

Antique Typewriter

I confess I’m afraid.

Afraid of the dreaded zombie virus

That stalks our streets and spaces.

I’m fighting it, staying home, washing hands,

Sanitizing everything.

Missing the theater,

Dinners with friends,

Long coffee dates.

Instead, long days at home,

Phone calls to keep up with friends,

Long Zoom meetings for business and pleasure.

Nighttimes of anxiety insomnia.

 

And no excuses for not working on The Project.

 

A poet friend said it’s like having

A long-term residency.

And every day, as I survey

The long hours ahead,

I know that some of them

Can be devoted to writing

As well as simply reading for pleasure.

Novels, history, poetry.

 

Grateful for my books.

Some day, maybe soon, I’ll finish this beast

I’ve worked on off and on for years.

I’ve made progress in just a month.

Fine-tuned the contents.

Written new essays.

Gathered up my work

Published in other places

Around the cavernous internet. .

Together: Will they create

A coherent, meaningful package

That might inspire another writer,

Or interest another reader?

 

What’s the life of a writer, anyway?

It demands moments, no, hours, of solitude.

It’s not writing in restaurants or noisy cafes.

It’s just words, words, words, as If in a dream.

This time of enforced solitude is a writer’s dream

Within a nightmare.

 


What to Read Now: Three Books About the Plague

Half of my bookshelves. More shelves or fewer books? What a dilemma.

This essay was previously published at Third Coast Review

It’s the year of the big virus. We’ve had two weeks of #StayTheFHome or sheltering in place, depending on where you live. And in some states, you’re not doing that. You’re going about your regular daily business, going to parties, bars and beaches and getting infected or infecting others.

But enough with the happy talk. Let’s talk about death—or at least, about plagues. Three books about plagues are on my mind now. I just finished Rebecca Makkai’s novel The Great Believers, an intense story about the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Chicago in the 1980s, blended with some of the same characters’ lives 30 years later. Right now, I’m in the middle of a 17th century plague story, Daniel DeFoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, about one man’s experiences during the bubonic plague in London in 1665. And coincidentally (as if preparing for this) I recently reread Albert Camus’ The Plague, about a plague in 1940s Algeria. Little did I know how relevant that plague would be, both in disease form and as a political allegory.

The Great Believers is a totally engrossing novel with beautifully drawn characters—like Yale Tishman, a fundraiser for an art museum, and Fiona Marcus, sister of Yale’s best friend, Nico, the first in their circle to die from HIV/AIDS. Yale is a vividly drawn character and we follow his life as he breaks up with his partner Charlie, who was unfaithful and contracted HIV/AIDS. Yale is tested and finds out he’s ok, so he continues his work, which focuses on acquiring the art collection of an elderly woman (Fiona’s Aunt Nora) who was a model and muse in 1920s Paris. He also carefully continues his social life in the lively 1980s gay community in Chicago. So his career flourishes as the carnage of AIDS grows around him. Ultimately, he’s not careful enough.

The chapters about Yale in 1980s Chicago alternate with chapters focusing on Fiona in 2015. She’s in Paris, trying to reconnect with her daughter, who left home for a cult and then moved to Paris with her boyfriend. We first met Fiona as the teenager who tried to take care of “her boys”—Nico, Yale and their friends. She’s now a middle-aged woman. Her friend in Paris is Richard Campo, a photographer who recorded Chicago gay life in the 1980s whose work is now being celebrated with an exhibit at the Pompidou.

In one of my favorite passages, Fiona arrives in Paris, which reminds her not only of Aunt Nora but also of Yale. “Fiona builds that tie when she thinks in the present: ‘that a French café would have Wi-Fi seemed wrong. In her mind, Paris was always 1920. It was always Aunt Nora’s Paris, all tragic love and tubercular artists.’ She also thinks about Nico who died in the 1980s: ‘The other fantasy was the one where Nico walked beside her everywhere, wondering what the hell things were. He was Rip Van Winkle, and it was her job to explain the modern world, explaining things like ‘a firewall for your cloud,’ while she imagined him saying to her, ‘You’re living in the future.’”

The Great Believers will keep you involved in the lives of its characters—and if you’re a Chicagoan, you’ll love the references to people and places from three decades ago. It’s the sort of book that you will be sorry to finish, ev en if the ending is bitter sweet.

If I was writing a full review, I’d give it four stars. The book won many awards and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2019. Rebecca Makkai lives in Chicago and Vermont. Her other works are the novels The Hundred-Year House and The Borrower, and the short story collection Music for Wartime.

The Great Believers is available from your favorite bookseller.

 

Daniel DeFoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, written by a citizen who continued all the while in London, has always been referred to as a novel, but it reads as a documentary-style recounting of events around the bubonic plague in 1665 London. DeFoe, who was five years old at the time of the Great Plague, published the book in 1722. The style is not journalistic, as the author writes as an observer and sometimes as a participant, but he writes what purports to be an eyewitness account. The book most likely was based on the journals of his uncle, who lived in London at the time.

The plague arrived in England from Holland between September and November 1664. The anonymous writer is an upper class person, with a wife, children and servants. His brother tries to persuade him to go to the country to escape the plague, as many wealthy people did. But he determined to stay in London.

The disease began in a distant neighborhood and as cases began to increase, it moved throughout London. It was incredibly contagious and many houses were filled with sick families, with crosses on the door to warn of illness. People died, screaming, in the streets. As the deaths mounted in 1665, the city, unable to deal with all the corpses, dug a great pit to burn or bury the bodies.

Throughout the book, the author comments on the behavior of his fellow citizens, their uses of fortune-tellers and astrologers to know their fate, their visits to all sorts of doctors and healers who assured protections from or cures for the plague. Once the fever reached a peak, he reports many crimes and thefts from homes of sick people by looters and by nurses and other caretakers. They would enter the home of the dying and dead, strip the bodies of clothes and steal household goods and valuables.

The observer points out that the infection generally comes in to the houses of citizens through their servants, who they send up and down the street to obtain food and other household needs. He says that at one point he began trying to list the deaths of all officials (but not “the inferiors”) in September but found it impossible for “a private man to come at a certainty in the particulars.” But “when the violent rage of the distemper of September came upon us, it drove us out of all measures.” By the end of the plague, 100,000 souls were swept away, the author says, “yet I alive!”

A Journal of the Plague Year has no compelling characters or contemporary drama; in fact, it’s somewhat dry. But it is interesting to read for the observer/author’s views on the behavior of citizens, both healthy and infirm, and the development and progress of the plague.

Daniel DeFoe wrote novels including Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders and several hundred other works. The book is available as a free e-book from various booksellers and on public domain sites like Project Gutenberg.

 

My taped-together copy of Camus’ The Plague.

The drama in Albert Camus’ 1947 novel, The Plague, starts with the rats. First a dead rat on the staircase at Dr. Rieux’s office, then a second one that evening outside his apartment. The rat “moved uncertainly … then moved forward again toward the doctor, halted, then spun round with a little squeal and fell on its side. Its mouth was slightly open and blood was spurting from it.” Then there were a few dead rats, then a dozen, then a column down the street, then a pile of dead bleeding rodents. For some reason, most people in the town thought little of this.

As people begin getting sick, Dr. Rieux treats the first victims, soothes their fevers and lances the pus from their “buboes” or abscesses. (The source for the term bubonic plague.) He works long days, making house calls on his patients. Dr. Rieux’s wife, who has been sick for a year, has gone to a sanitorium. The doctor is at first reluctant to call the fever a plague, but eventually decides that it is.

A meeting is called at the Prefect’s office, with a few doctors and bureaucrats attending. They discuss the situation and what to call it, Dr. Rieux points out that he has had a laboratory analyze the pus of the “buboes” in his patients and found it to be a slightly modified version of the plague bacillus. Most of those present want to avoid use of the word plague; the doctor says he doesn’t care what it’s called, as long as something is done to prevent its spread. They decide they must close the gates of the town and impose quarantine.

And thus exile begins for those within. Exile from loved ones who are away and can‘t come home. Exile from loved ones who die. Exile for travelers who are stuck in the town and can’t get home to their loved ones and familiar haunts.

Despite the quarantine, some citizens dress up to go to elegant restaurants to dine and drink the night away—being ready to flee when another diner shows signs of sickness. (That might remind you of our fellow citizens, who wouldn’t stay away from bars until they were closed, and then flocked to lakefront trails and parks, until they too were officially closed.)

The plague arrived in Oran abruptly in April of 194X, came to a peak quickly (at its height, 500 people a week died), then slowly dragged on for months until finally ending the following February, “slinking back to the obscure lair from which it had stealthily emerged.” Then “at last, at daybreak on a fine February morning, the ceremonial opening of the gates took place.”

Like the DeFoe book, Camus’ Plague is told by a “narrator,” who occasionally identifies himself as such. However, there are many sympathetically drawn characters with whom Dr. Rieux interacts as he goes about his days. Dr. Castel, who works to make a serum to cure the plague; Grand, a clerk for the city government; Cottard, who tries to commit suicide; Jean Tarrou, a newcomer to Oran; and Dr. Rieux’s mother, who comes to stay with him after his wife leaves for the sanitorium.

Given his political activism and the time in which Camus wrote The Plague, one can be sure that the contagion he wrote about has philosophical or ideological implications. The fictional plague arrived in the town of Oran, Algeria, in early spring and finally departed less than a year later. Of course, it took much longer for the 1940s breed of fascism to spread across Europe, from Germany to Spain and Italy, and finally to slink away. And it always lurks on the outskirts of societies, threatening to rise again.

Camus, a French Algerian, was a member of the French Resistance. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957 and died three years later in a car accident.

The Plague is available from many booksellers as a print or ebook.

Three novels about plagues. Clearly, Rebecca Makkai’s book is the most engrossing and readable. It’s a great piece of storytelling and character development. Albert Camus writes a more somber novel but it is compelling as he draws us along through the course of the plague. I recommend DeFoe’s book as well, for its 17th century view of the crisis we live with today. Also it’s short (my Kindle version is 183 pages) but has no chapter or section breaks, which I find annoying.

Not enough books about plagues? See this New York Times article, “Your Quarantine Reader.”


Verboten: How Some Evanston Tween Punks Played at the Cubby Bear in 1983

Verboten: Krystal Ortiz and Kieran McCabe at the Cubby Bear. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Verböten: Krystal Ortiz and Kieran McCabe at the Cubby Bear. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

The House Theatre of Chicago just opened a new play that I have to recommend to my music-loving friends. It’s Verböten, the story of a kid punk band from Evanston, and how they managed to play a gig at the Cubby Bear in Wrigleyville in 1983. They all had family problems of one kind or another and found another family with their bandmates. Jason Narducy started the band at the age of 11. He and his friends rehearsed in the basement of a friend’s house. A year later, they played at the Cubby Bear–and there’s a grainy old video to prove it.

Narducy wrote music and lyrics for the play with the book by Brett Neveu, a well-known Chicago playwright. Narducy has been a musician ever since, playing with Liz Phair and Telekinesis. Today he plays bass with the Bob Mould Band and SuperChunk and fronts Split Single, a b and that has made two albums with a rotating cast of musicians.

You can see Verböten by House Theatre at Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division St., through March 8. Tickets are $30-$50 for performances Thursday-Sunday. Student and industry same-day discounted tickets are $20, for all dates, based on availability.

Here’s my full review of the play at Third Cōoast Review.


Springsteen at 70: A Playlist

Springsteen at a 2016 concert. Photo by Brian Rasic/WireImage, courtesy Billboard.

This week was Bruce Springsteen’s 70th birthday and fans all over the world observed it in various creative ways. At Third Coast Review, the place where most of my writing is posted, we curated a special playlist on Spotify. I had help from two friends–June Skinner Sawyers and Brad Paulsen. We chose a long list of tracks that we like. Not necessarily his best or even our favorites. It’s a list of lesser-known songs that we love to hear and thought that casual fans might not be familiar with.

Here’s what I wrote on Third Coast Review.

Bruce Springsteen’s legions of fans worldwide don’t need a reason to play his music. We listen to it every day. At home, while walking, driving, biking or breathing.  But his 70th birthday on September 23 is a reason (or an excuse) to introduce non-fans or casual fans to some Springsteen tracks that you probably haven’t heard.  We’ve created this mixtape from deep within Springsteen’s oeuvre of 327 songs. You won’t find “Born to Run” or “Dancing in the Dark” on this mixtape.  But you will find “Prove It All Night,” “Brilliant Disguise” and “Wreck on the Highway.” If you listen to these lyrics, you’ll perhaps appreciate the man from New Jersey as a storyteller. There’s the man walking thru the factory gates in the rain, the highway patrolman and his outlaw brother, who traded dances with Maria, and even the woman bagging groceries in the supermarket. (Most fans, by the way, hate the latter song, “Queen of the Supermarket.” But I like it, so it’s on this playlist. If you want to check all the lyrics, you can find them here.)

The tracks are in chronological order, starting with two songs from his first album, Greetings from Asbury Park, recorded in 1972. Three of the tracks are covers of songs by other artists: “Jersey Girl,” written by Tom Waits, “Chimes of Freedom” by Bob Dylan, and “Because the Night,” which Springsteen wrote with Patti Smith.

After you listen to our Spotify playlist, you can wander over to YouTube to see a video of Springsteen performing an acoustic version of his 1984 hit, “Born in the USA.” It’s his most misunderstood song, best known as an arena anthem, but the acoustic version is a better way to tell the story of a disillusioned Vietnam veteran.

Curating this playlist with me are two local Springsteen fans: June Skinner Sawyers, author of several books on Springsteen and other musicians and co-editor of  a new Springsteen book; and Brad Paulsen, an architect and Springsteen fan since his teenage years, who gets credit for introducing me, an audio-only Springsteen fan, to live Springsteen concerts 20 years ago. And that’s how I went from being a casual fan to what Springsteen refers to as one of his “obsessives.” And thanks to Julian Ramirez, our music editor, for his contributions to our playlist.

Another commemoration of Springsteen’s birthday is a new book of essays published by Rutgers University Press, to be released on September 23.   Jonathan Cohen and June Sawyers are co-editors  of Long Walk Home: Reflections on Bruce Springsteen. Third Coast Review will post a review of the book later this month.

New York Dispatch: Theater Reviews, Part 2, and the Warhol Exhibit

My New York month is coming to an end—just one more week and I’ll be heading home. Mixed feelings, because I always love going home. And there is certainly lots of arts and culture to consume and review in Chicago. But there’s a certain something about New York. No other city can match it. So I hope to do this again in a year or two. Here’s what I’ve been doing since I last posted here.

Among the plays I’ve seen recently are three that I’ve reviewed for Third Coast Review.

Ethan Hawke and Paul Dano in True West. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Theater Highlights, Part 2

Sam Shepard’s True West, starring Ethan Hawke and Paul Dano as the battling brothers, was a pleasure to see again with another set of players. I’ve seen this play many times–first in 1982, when Steppenwolf staged it with John Malkovich and Gary Sinise playing the lead roles. This New York production at the American Airlines Theatre was excellent—and I took a different theme from it this time. The American dream, perhaps exemplified by one brother’s hard work at developing and writing a screenplay, is turned on its head. His drifter brother manages to bullshit his way into a film contract by making up a story as he talks with a film producer. And, of course, it all ends in a battle of…toasters and toast.

Juno and the Paycock at Irish Repertory Theatre is the second in its Sean O’Casey season. This is the best known of the three plays and Irish Rep stages a terrific production, led by the theater’s co-founder, Ciarán O’Reilly, as the ne’er do well Captain Jack Boyle. The play is beautifully cast, mostly with Irish Rep regulars, and succeeds in threading the tragedy of the Irish Civil War beneath the humor and occasional sadness of a Dublin family.

King Lear (Cort Theatre on Broadway) starring Glenda Jackson as Lear was a highlight of my New York month. I saw the play in preview, since it won’t open until April 4. Therefore I can’t review it now, but will write a review later. I can say now that it is a four-star production; not only is Jackson a solid and satisfying Lear, but the cast is diverse and the staging and direction (by Sam Gold) are brilliant.

Stacey Sargeant and John Larroquette in Nantucket Sleigh Ride. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

Nantucket Sleigh Ride, John Guare’s newest play, is a world premiere being staged by Lincoln Center Theaters in the Mitzi Newhouse Theater. My review was just posted today. The play is a farce, with lots of laugh lines, but it is a strange mix of reality and surrealism, laced with more pop culture references than I could keep track of. It’s an updated version of an earlier play, as I mention in my review, but I think it’s still not ready for prime time.

A unique theater resource in New York is the Theatre on Film and Tape archive (TOFT) at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts (adjacent to the Lincoln Center theater building). TOFT records many of the plays and musicals produced on Broadway and off-Broadway. The archive is available to theater professionals, students or researchers with work- or study-related projects. You request viewing of a play by locating it on the TOFT website and calling to sign up for a viewing appointment. When you arrive, the films are cued up on a computer in the archive’s screening room. I’ve watched several plays there on two different occasions, including the 1988 and 2009 productions of Waiting for Godot. I’m hoping to get there once more this week.

Warhol exhibit installation view, looking toward Mao portrait. Photo by Nancy Bishop.

Art at the Whitney and the Museum of Arts and Design

One of the important art exhibits on view in New York right now is Andy Warhol–from A to B and Back Again at the Whitney Museum of American Art. I saw a preview of the exhibit last fall, just before it opened, and I was happy to be here in time to see the exhibit before it closes March 31. It’s a huge exhibit, a retrospective of Warhol’s life in art, film and pop culture generally, beginning with his childhood in Pittsburgh. The exhibit will transfer to the Art Institute of Chicago this fall, with an October opening planned. Here’s my review of the Whitney exhibit.

The Museum of Arts and Design is a small museum located at 2 Columbus Circle, near 58th and Broadway. I particularly liked the exhibit titled The Future of Craft, Part One, on the third floor. The exhibit features many beautiful works in fabric art, both decorative and (sort of) wearable. On the second floor, there’s an exhibit of contemporary jewelry, titled Non-Stick Nostalgia. It’s all exquisitely displayed in unusual cases.

A special feature of the museum is the restaurant Robert on the ninth (and top) floor of the building. The restaurant has great views looking north toward Central Park and the upper west side. The food and service are excellent. We had a delightful brunch there on a Sunday.


New York Dispatch: Live From New York City, My First Reviews

This is coming to you live from New York, where I’m hanging out for the month of March. I decided I wanted to live like a New Yorker and take in as much arts and culture as I could in a relaxed way. I’m staying in a tiny but comfy apartment in midtown, near the theater district. It’s a neighborhood I know and public transportation is really convenient here. I’ll report on some of my arts adventures rom time to time.

Meg Hennessy as Minnie Powell and James Russell as Donal Davoren in The Shadow of a Gunman. Photo © Carol Rosegg.

The Shadow of a Gunman at Irish Rep

My first theater review was posted today on Third Coast Review, where I regularly write about theater and art. At Irish Repertory Theatre, a theater company I have admired over the years, I reviewed the first in their O’Casey Cycle, celebrating the work of Sean O’Casey. He was a nationalist and a socialist and an Irish freedom fighter–and one of Ireland’s finest playwrights. My first review is of The Shadow of a Gunman, set in 1920 Dublin, where the war for independence rages outside a tenement building. There’s a bit of comedy throughout, but as the play proceeds, reality sets in. And the opposing forces, the vicious Black and Tans, invade the neighborhood–and then the house. A valise left in the room in act one becomes a Chekhovian gun in act two. The acting and direction are excellent, as is always the case with Irish Rep.

I’ll be seeing the second O’Casey play, the more familiar Juno and the Paycock, next week. Watch for my review.

I have plays scheduled throughout the month but I have plenty of room for other activities. When nothing else demands my attention, I’ll go to the Film Society of Lincoln Center, which offers a regular schedule of new films, both international and American, retrospectives, filmmaker talks and discussions. There are two FSLC buildings on opposite sides of 65th Street near Columbus Avenue. Their screening model is similar to that of the Gene Siskel Film Center, but on a larger scale.

Cold War, a love story over the decades

The first film I saw at the Film Society was Cold War, which screened recently in Chicago. It’s the latest film from Polish filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski, whose film Ida won the 2015 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Cold War is a love story told across two decades in post-WW2 Poland and in several European cities. The film is told mostly from the viewpoint of Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), an instructor and band leader, whose lover is Zula (Joanna Kulig), an engaging and ambitious singer and performer. (I felt the film overplayed Wiktor’s viewpoint and underplayed Zula’s.)  They are both members of a national musical touring company that presents Polish peasant-style works. While the company is in East Berlin for a concert, the two lovers plot to leave for the west. But only Wiktor actually escapes and thus the journey of longing begins. The film is notable for its gorgeous cinematography, shot in high contrast black and white with some glorious imagery, lighting and scenes. The story is elliptical, as Pawlikowski skims over the 20-year period in 88 minutes. Steve Prokopy reviewed Cold War recently.

In an interview screened before the film, Pawlikowski said, “The definition of art is what you leave out.” And he left out a lot, but nothing was missing. The ending is particularly beautiful—finished off with an interlude from Bach’s Goldberg Variations, “Aria.”

The Band’s Visit

I also saw this lovely play with music this week on Broadway. It’s been reviewed everywhere, so I won’t review it here. It’s called a musical but it doesn’t have egregious singing and dancing–that is, the dialogue is spoken, not sung, and dancing is done when it fits the plot. The music is performed by the musicians from the Egyptian band that visits the Israeli village and by a small pit orchestra. The play is directed by David Cromer, a Chicago theater luminary who has been highly successful in New York, both as director and actor. The Band’s Visit goes on tour this year and will be in Chicago at the Cadillac Palace in September. If you’d like to know more about the story, get a DVD of the excellent 2007 Israeli film of the same name.

And more ….

Today I’m seeing the Andy Warhol exhibit at the Whitney (Andy Warhol—From A to B and Back Again). My next article will cover that comprehensive exhibit. “Mr. Paradox, who never left, is back,” as Holland Cotter said in his New York Times review.