Chicago: A Novel, a Book That Made Me Cry

NSBJ-Chicago-cover-artThe first time I heard of Brian Doyle or his book, Chicago: A Novel, was when I read a review on my own website, Third Coast Review. I have read a lot of Chicago history and lore, and my first thought was, how did I not know about this book? I bought a copy right away.

I fell in love with the book from the first page.

“On the last day of summer, in the year I graduated from college, I moved to Chicago, that middle knuckle in our national fist, and rented a small apartment on the north side of the city, on the lake. I wanted to be as near the lake as possible, because Lake Michigan is no lake at all, but a tremendous inland sea, and something about its vast blue sheen, and tumultuous weathers … appealed to me greatly.”

wasI’ve been reading the book in small sips, before I go to sleep at night. The reason is, it’s only 300 pages and I don’t want it to be over. When I started writing this essay, I had only 20 pages left to read and I was sad.

Chicago: A Novel is really more the memoir of an unnamed protagonist’s year-plus spent living and working in Chicago in about 1979-80. (It’s Doyle’s history and his story.) For the most part it’s a realistic story of the characters (especially the residents in his apartment building and the dudes from the Latin Kings and the Latin Eagles he plays basketball with on a nearby school playground) and places, such as Comiskey Park (he and his neighbors were Sox fans despite living a few blocks from Wrigley), blues and jazz clubs and places to buy empanadas and gyros. Near the end, there’s the story of John the Mailman, a student of dragonflies.

It’s the story of a guy just out of college with his first real job, working for a Catholic magazine at a Loop office. We travel with him on his bus rides to work on the Sound Asleep Bus and on his long walks exploring the city or dribbling his shiny old basketball along the lakefront. What keeps it from being a real memoir and makes it novelistic is the addition of bits of magical realism. The most important is Edward, an amazing dog of an indeterminate breed, who collects stamps and speeches by Abraham Lincoln. Then there’s the detective who—when the opening day trip to Comiskey has to be canceled because of an illness—tells the entire game, play by play, picking up the action from some radio waves in the air unheard by anyone else.

Doyle’s book is well written and full of Chicagoness. He places major and minor places in their exact places on the city map like the way “Broadway bends between Roscoe and Aldine streets” and a wonderful gyro shop over on Washtenaw. It’s hard to believe it was written by a guy who lived here less than two years.

nsbj-briandoyle-headshot (1)When I was about midway through the book, I learned that Doyle, who now lives in Portland and is editor of Portland magazine at the University of Portland and a widely published author, is now suffering from brain cancer. He had surgery for what he called “a big. honkin’ brain tumor” last November and also has been undergoing chemotherapy and radiation. There’s a Doyle family GoFundMe page to help with his expenses.

Chicago: A Novel is a love letter to the city I love. I marked so many quotable passages in the book. Here’s one of my favorites.

“Sometimes, even now, years later and far away, on steel-gray days when the wind whips and I am near large waters, I feel a bolt of what I can only call Chicagoness, and I remember, I remember … what? A certain Chicago of the mind, I suppose. And sometimes then I sit by a fire, and I remember aloud…. about the way buildings crowded the streets and the sidewalks were narrow and buckled in the oldest parts of the city, and how stores and shops leaned in eagerly toward the street…. And the swirl of snow along the lake, eddying and whirling and composing drifts deep enough to hide a horse. … And the bone-chilling cold, and shuffle of boots leery and weary of ice…. And the smell of sausages and kielbasa and onions and beer at games and carnivals and festivals and street fairs…. Perhaps this is true of every city, but it was certainly true of mine then, that what the world saw … was not at all the real city, and was only the gloss and sheen of a rough grace that was the actual bone and music of the place.”

Susannah Pratt, who wrote the review I mentioned, observes, “Doyle’s book is a balm. While not shying away from Chicago’s ruthless side, the book is also a reminder of the real people and food and stories and music and resilience that continue to exist here. Those of us living here know these things; what a relief to read it coming from somewhere outside.”

I finished the book last night. I didn’t want to finish it because I knew the ending—when the protagonist drove south along the lake, “past the ragged glories of the South Side … over the Calumet River and onto the interstate highway and over the Illinois border into Indiana”—would make me cry. And it did.

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A Few Things About 2016 That Didn’t Suck

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Waveland Avenue wall at Wrigley Field, November 7, 2016. Photo by Nancy Bishop.

w/ HT to @anamariecox on 11/18/16

It’s been six weeks since I’ve written a post for Nancy Bishop’s Journal. 2016 has been the year that sucked in so many ways. I probably would not consider it this dismal were it not for the coup d’état we called an election. We now have the prospect of a leader for four years who is a racist, misogynist, uncurious and uninformed buffoon or “an unformed pliable piece of clay,” as Frank Bruni called him in the New York Times. I am firmly in the “Not My President” camp.

This dreadful year started with the death of David Bowie and brought the loss of so many talented artists and musicians. The death of Leonard Cohen last month was one more cruel blow.

But at least there are these few good things about this rotten year.

The Cubs. I’ve been a Cubs fan since my father taught me how to keep a scorecard when I was 12. He and my late sister were dedicated Cubs fans. I wish they could have been here to enjoy 2016 with us.

Third Coast Review. I’m grateful for all the great contributions from so many writers and editors for our new arts and culture website, launched January 8. Our previous website, Gapers Block, went on hiatus as of January 1. We scrambled to get a new website started so we could continue to write about Chicago arts and culture and now we’re almost at our one-year anniversary. So my thanks to Emma, Kim, Sarah, Miriam and Jeanne for helping us get started and to Zach, Julian, Steve, Marielle, Justin, Stephanie, Colin, Brent, Andrea, Elif, Chris, Louis, James, Karin, and all the other writers who helped us plug the hole left by GB.

Bruce Springsteen’s memoir, Born to Run. A readable, memorable story of his life and music, told in his own voice and not papering over the dark places. Seeing him in concert three times this year—twice in Chicago and once in Louisville—made the year come alive.

Leonard Cohen’s new album, You Want It Darker. Speaking of dark places, this last album by the great poet and songwriter is very dark and moody and a marvelous set of farewell tracks. Similar to the way David Bowie said farewell in his final work, Blackstar, and especially in the song, “Lazarus.”

Two Jim Jarmusch films, Paterson and Gimme Danger. Many great films this year, but these two Jarmusch films are unique. Paterson (release date 12/28) is a small film about a bus driver and poet named Paterson. Not much happens but poetry and love. The city of Paterson, New Jersey, is a character in the film too, as Paterson drives his bus route around the old industrial city. Gimme Danger is Jarmusch’s documentary on Iggy Pop and the Stooges, with Iggy starring as an articulate, reflective older version of himself. While it’s not one of the best films of the year, it’s an interesting doc and shows Jarmusch’s talent and versatility.

My two favorite books of the year were Colson Whitehead’s novel, The Underground Railroad, which really is about a railroad, and Ian McEwan’s novella, Nutshell, told in the voice of a fetus that may turn out to be Hamlet. Through Whitehead’s book, you’ll get a visceral feeling for what slavery was like as well as some elements of history and magical realism. Nutshell is deliciously gossipy, charming and Shakespearean.

Kill Your Darlings, the live lit and improv series, cosponsored by Third Coast Review, was seven weeks of hard work and great fun. I wrote my own story for each of the seven nights of readings, based on the seven cultural categories on Third Coast Review.

The most memorable evening was when I read a poem titled “City Lady Blues,” accompanied by my son Steve on tenor sax. You can listen to the podcast. But I also loved telling my story about the Spanish Civil War in my dreams.

So much art, so little time. Some of my favorite exhibits of the year were at the Art Institute. The current exhibit of work by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy is fabulous in curation and organization and in the way it displays the curiosity and versatility of Moholy. The exhibit of Aaron Siskind’s Abstractions at the Art Institute was also memorable. Van Gogh’s Bedrooms was on the surface a modest exhibit but a brilliant way to illustrate the mind that created the bedroom paintings.

Other fine exhibits were the Strandbeests: The Dream Machines of Theo Jansen at the Chicago Cultural Center and the exhibit of illustrations from Puck, the 19th century magazine of politics and humor at the Driehaus Museum.

Finally, I spent a memorable hour or two at the Art Institute following poet Stuart Dybek around the Modern Wing as he talked about art and poetry and read poems by various poets, including himself, dedicated to some of his favorite paintings.

Nights of great theater. I see 150-200 plays a year, as a reviewer and some as plain audience member. These were some of my favorites from this year, not listed in rank order. I’m going to reprise this list with commentary in a “best of 2016” post at thirdcoastreview.com. (And I did. See our Best of 2016: On Stage in Chicago.)

Direct from Death Row: The Scottsboro Boys at Raven Theatre

Haymarket: The Anarchists’ Songbook at Underscore Theater Company

Life Sucks at Lookingglass Theatre

Man in the Ring at Court Theatre

The Weir, Spinning and In a Little World of Our Own at Irish Theatre of Chicago

2666 at Goodman Theatre

The Flick at Steppenwolf Theatre

American Buffalo at Mary-Arrchie Theatre

The Hairy Ape at Oracle Productions


Bingeing on Hamilton: Words and music

nsbj-hamiltonbookHuge sigh of relief. I finally finished the 800+ page biography of Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow. It’s the book that Lin-Manuel Miranda took on a beach vacation to Mexico. It inspired him, first of all, to write a song about our first Treasury secretary and perform it at the White House, and second, to create the Broadway extravaganza known as Hamilton: An American Musical.

In my original review of Hamilton, I predicted that Miranda would be named a MacArthur Fellow (better known as the MacArthur Genius Grant) and he was. Predicting that Hamilton will sweep the Tonys in June isn’t a very big bet.

I saw Hamilton when it opened on Broadway last September and fell madly in love with the show, with Miranda and with our ten-dollar Founding Father. Evidence of my madness?

  • I’ve been listening to the cast album almost daily since it was released. I’m waiting impatiently for the script to be released.
  • I’m looking forward to seeing Hamilton again, surely more than once, when it opens here in September. (At the dreadful Shubert/LaSalleBank/BankofAmerica/Private Bank Theatre.)
  • I find myself hoarding $10 bills.
  • I don’t want to hear about replacing A. Hamilton on the tenner. Replace that unsavory president Jackson on the $20 with a deserving female figure.
  • His birthday and death date are six months apart on the 11th of January and July. They’re both in my calendar.

I have a pretty good background in American history and political science, but when I saw and thought more about Hamilton, I realized that I had been living with the Jeffersonian concept of American government. Journalism students (Mizzou J-School grad here) are educated to admire Jefferson in particular because of his views of the importance of press freedom and freedom of expression, and his role in drafting the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. I knew he owned slaves and I knew about the Sally Hemings thing, etc., but never mind. Reading the Hamilton/Federalist Party side of the story, you learn that Jefferson was a vicious opponent of Hamilton’s goals and fought for the agrarian way of life he preferred rather than the urban/mercantilist/manifacturing society that Hamilton fought for. (As an aside, Daveed Diggs is terrific as Jefferson in the Broadway cast.)

Reading Alexander Hamilton gave me a different perspective on American history and the founding decades of our country. Ron Chernow’s book, by the way, is highly readable and fascinating. If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t have read every last word and even devoured the 100 pages of notes. And Miranda’s hiphop operetta does not skimp on the details of Hamilton’s life, his brilliance and his foibles, and the controversies surrounding him. It is a full and complete lesson in American history, delivered with charm and infectious rhythm. The thing about hiphop that makes it work, Miranda says, is that it’s very dense, has more words per measure than most other forms of music. (Sort of Dylan and early Springsteen.)

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Here are a few reasons why I’m a fangirl of A-dot-Hamilton.

  1. Hamilton is the avatar of the cliché known as the American dream; he rose from poverty and orphanhood to become an accomplished and powerful leader. Unlike most of the other Founding Fathers, he did not come from the moneyed, landed class.

He was born on a small island in the Caribbean, of unmarried parents, an absent father and a mother of questionable virtue. He came to the US as a teenager and made his way through college (Kings College, now Columbia University), to George Washington’s staff, to leadership on the battlefield in the Revolutionary War, and to Washington’s cabinet.

2. He produced all kinds of firsts in the early era of this country (despite opposition at every step of the way).

He was the first Secretary of the Treasury, stabilized the economy, designed our financial system, including the National Bank, the gold-based dollar, and the Mint; he established the principle that Congress had the constitutional powers to issue currency, regulate interstate commerce, tax luxury goods such as whiskey, and enact any other laws needed to support the provisions of the Constitution.

Basically, he fought for the concept and principles of the federal government. He created the Coast Guard, the Federalist Party and its newspaper, the New York Post. He used his incredible energy and persuasive abilities to work for the passage of the US Constitution, ensuring our country became a federal government, instead of a bunch of independent states. He was firm in his abolitionist views while his southern colleagues all owned slaves.

3. He was a brilliant thinker, speaker, opinionated and prolific writer, who turned out hundreds of letters, opinion pieces and essays and wrote 51 of the 85 articles in the Federalist Papers. And he was writing by hand with a quill pen and a bottle of ink, my friends. In case you think tapping a few tweets on your smartphone is work.

He often wrote political essays under pen names such as Cato, Publius and Phocion. He was probably the first blogger. (His handle today? @publiusny.)

He founded the New York Post, a Federalist newspaper, in the days when political parties specialized in publishing diatribes against the opposition in their own newspapers.

  1. Jefferson and Madison and their Republican party fought Hamilton and the Federalists at every step and President Adams banished him from the White House because he suspected him of conspiring with some of Adams’ cabinet officers. (He probably was.)

Chernow’s description of the bitterly fought election of 1800, by the way, is insightful to read and compare with the 2016 campaign. And they didn’t even have Twitter.

By the time Hamilton reached his late 40s, he was no longer a public persona (and he missed the limelight) but was a successful and sought-after lawyer in New York.

He had always had a tenuous relationship with Aaron Burr (who advised him, according to Miranda, to “speak less and smile more”), even though they occasionally appeared to be on friendly terms. Hamilton said negative things about Burr in private on a few occasions and these eventually brought Burr to challenge him to a duel. (An affair of honor, it was called. “Demanding satisfaction” was another way to put it.)

Hamilton, at age 49, was killed by Burr in the duel on July 11, 1804, in the dueling grounds at Weehawken, New Jersey. (The same place where Hamilton’s son Philip was killed in a duel three years earlier, upholding his father’s honor.) Burr shot directly at Hamilton and Hamilton either shot in the air or his gun went off by accident when Burr’s bullet hit Hamilton in the hip, destroying his internal organs.

“I’m not throwing away my shot,” Hamilton sings early in Act 1. “But yo, I’m just like my country / I’m young, scrappy and hungry / and I’m not throwing away my shot.” At the end, he did.

I’m not the only one who is bingeing on Hamilton. There’s new interest in historical sites such as the Grange, the Hamilton home north of Manhattan, and in the Hamilton burial site at Trinity Church in lower Manhattan.

Charlie Rose has featured members of the Hamilton crew several times, including this recent full-hour interview with Lin-Manuel Miranda filmed at his childhood home.

Finally, since March is Women’s History Month, I’ll close by noting that Hamilton’s exemplary wife, Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, who stuck with him through all his battles and infidelities, lived 50 years after her husband’s death and died at age 97 in 1854. She worked for causes such as the establishment of orphanages and helped her friend Dolley Madison raise funds to construct the Washington Monument. She visited the White House and never gave up trying to salvage her husband’s reputation, which was attacked by his enemies after his death. Chernow devotes the first and last chapters of his book to Eliza Hamilton.

In 2009, Miranda performed the lead song about Hamilton at the White House. He said at the time he was working on a Hamilton “concept album.”


Fall farrago: Cultural treats for you via stage, screen and museum

This will be a quick post before I leave for nine days of travel. When I return, I’ll have plenty of notes for my next essay. For now, here are a few things you won’t want to miss.

George Orwell’s 1984 at Steppenw0lf Theatre

This is a production of Steppenwolf for Young Adults, which basically means high-school-age youngsters. This is a heady play, very thought-provoking and extremely well done. As my review headline says, Steppenwolf recreates the dystopian past and strongly suggests dystopia still threatens us. My grandson James and I reviewed it and we both loved it. He has read the book and so was eager to see how it played out on stage. Here’s our review. The play is targeted at school groups so the weekend performance schedule is brief. I strongly encourage you to see it before it closes November 20.

Wim Wenders retrospective at the Gene Siskel Film Center

You can see some of the great films by this German master at the Siskel Film Center. The retrospective opened earlier this month but there are still some great films in store in the next few weeks, such as Wings of Desire (one of my favorite films of all time), Paris, Texas, and Until the End of the World. Here’s my preview of the retrospective.

The Siskel gallery is also showing a nice exhibit of film posters titled Wenders and the New German Cinema.

Stagestruck City exhibit at the Newberry Library

The Newberry has created a marvelous exhibit from its plentiful archives of Chicago theater history. The exhibit tells the story of Chicago theater from before the 1871 fire and brings it to the opening of the Goodman Theatre in the 1920s. I described the exhibit here. Fascinating and scholarly, not flashy and animated, the exhibit runs through December 31. Don’t miss the Newberry bookstore while you’re there; it’s one of our better bookstores, and deserves our appreciation in this era of the demise of real bookstores.


Technology disruption: The revolution happened while we weren’t looking

Did you ever stop to think how the internet and the world-wide web changed our lives without our noticing it? If you’re a Millennial, you didn’t notice it because it was always there. Smartphones, texts, snapchat, all that. For older generations, an earthquake of technology happened in the late 1990s and 2000s. We love it and most of us wouldn’t give it up for anything. And that’s because as consumers, we love everything new and shiny.

But for businesses—of all kinds—the internet/web revolution came as some kind of surprise and upset many business models. Look at what happened to newspapers, book publishing, telecommunications, music, movies, television, retailing, real estate and other industries that weren’t paying attention until their business models imploded.

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Sunday detritus.

Newspapers still haven’t recovered from the revolution in their business model. Most of them ignored the web for the first few years, hoping it would be a novelty and go away. It’s really only in this decade that newspapers have figured out that they have to change the way they do business. Some newspapers and magazines are relatively successful, using a pay wall and retaining digital subscribers. Many are floundering, laying off staff, cutting back publishing frequency. Only the older generations read newspapers at all, so newspapers will die eventually.

The news revolution has affected TV and radio too, although not so drastically yet.

News outlets now are being advised on how to make money in other ways, through memberships, events and beating ad blockers.

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Soon to be considered “vintage.”

Book publishing also is still floundering, figuring out how to manage and make money from e-books. Amazon, the giant that started this revolution, eventually will get so big that it will fail too and be replaced by something that a 10-year-old kid in Schenectady is dreaming up now. (I think I owe an HT to someone for that kid-in-Schenectady idea, but I don’t remember who.)

The music industry (and TV and films to a lesser extent) also are suffering from the internet notion that all content should be free and available on our terms. CDs aren’t selling much, even though vinyl is making a retro comeback. We want to listen to music on something we carry around, even if the sound quality is poor. And we want to watch TV and movies on our terms, not when the network or theater happens to schedule them.

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Some of my retro music.

Artists, writers and photographers are impacted by this content-should-be-free phenomenon. If no one wants to pay for content, then the publishers of content don’t want to pay for content creation. So, goodbye freelance businesses.

This internet/web revolution didn’t just happen overnight. Decades of technological development went into this phenomenon, but businesses were caught off guard. Even though most of them had some kind of computer or IT departments, the message of the coming revolution wasn’t acknowledged, or passed on. (Another factor in the revolution was the microchip, which enabled the miniaturization of our devices. It was introduced in 1959 but no one was paying attention to that either.)

The revolution happened while everyone was looking the other way.

  • The modem was invented in 1958 at Bell Labs and the router (an Interface Message Processor) in 1967.
  • In 1972, a guy named Ray Tomlinson invented email—a way to send messages across a network. It was his idea to use the “@” sign as the email standard address: user@host.
  • In 1974, Elizabeth “Jake” Feinler led the team at SRI International’s Network Information Center. Among other things, they created the Host Naming Registry and the primary domain names we use today: .com, .gov, .edu, .org, .net, .mil.
  • In 1974, Vint Cerf and Robert Kahn coined the term “internet.”
  • Most importantly, In 1977, Lawrence Landweber created the Computer Science Network, a network for US university and industrial computer research groups. By 1984, more than 180 university, industry and government computer science departments were participating in CSNET.

In the middle 1980s, I was working on my first Mac at home but it wasn’t connected to anything. At work, no computer because the Wang word-processing machines were only for secretaries. My son was a graduate student finishing his PhD in economics and talked about getting “email” from his advisers. “Email,” I said. “What’s that?”

Then in 1989, when AOL started its first online service, I got email too. It was that pitifully slow telephone dialup access, but it was still a thrill to hear “You’ve got mail!”

  • Finally (and skipping over many key technological advances), in 1989, Tim Berners-Lee created the World Wide Web and Robert Cailliau developed the first web browser for the Macintosh operating system. This is when business should have started paying attention and figuring out how their companies could take advantage of this new web thing.
  • And all this happened years after the US Defense Department invented ARPA in 1958 and ASCii in 1963 so that machines from different makers could talk to each other. ARPAnet, the actual network, was initiated in 1966.

I owe my superficial surf of technology history to the Internet Hall of Fame’s internet timeline. Check it out here. http://www.internethalloffame.org/internet-history/timeline There’s also this http://www.pewinternet.org/2014/03/11/world-wide-web-timeline/ and this http://www.livescience.com/20727-internet-history.html

I decided to write this essay because I felt like venting. How could all these revolutions have happened to industries so important to me (newspapers, books, music, movies) without the industries being aware and preparing for the revolution? Big companies all have prestigious “strategy” officers and departments. What were they thinking about in the 1980s and 1990s? Not much, apparently. Or they were listening to big-name management consultants who probably were talking gobbledygook about customer intelligence, global advantage and supply chain management. I know whereof I speak on that one, because I used to work with those guys.

The theater review I’m working on now is about a fascinating play titled The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence. It’s a time-tripping play full of ideas and technology. At one point, a character says, “we’re at this critical moment in our society when technology is developing more rapidly than our social and political infrastructures can keep up with.”

That is one of the problems.

All the photos above taken by Nancy Bishop in her own home, site of prerevolutionary media and all the other kind too. 


Visions of music: Steve Schapiro and Richard Powers

Music is a subject I love to burrow into, visually as well as aurally. Two recent cultural experiences enhanced my appreciation for the medium and its messages.

Steve Schapiro: Warhol, Reed and Bowie

Andy Warhol, the Velvet Underground and Nico. Photo by Steve Schapiro.

Andy Warhol, the Velvet Underground and Nico. Photo by Steve Schapiro.

Steve Schapiro is a photographer whose masterful work over almost five decades has spanned punk rock and movie masterpieces. His exhibit of photos of Andy Warhol, Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, and David Bowie closed last weekend at the Ed Paschke Art Center. The exhibit featured a couple of dozen iconic black and white photos of these music legends.

The art center also showed a 30-minute video about Schapiro with many examples of his earlier work, shooting movie set photos during films such as Midnight Cowboy, The Godfather, Taxi Driver and Chinatown. There also are scenes from a recent conversation between Schapiro and Dustin Hoffman as the actor reminisced about photos Schapiro took during those movie set years.

Schapiro, now 80, lives and works in Chicago. He began taking photos when he was 9 and discovered the magic of the darkroom at summer camp. He’s currently shooting photos for several books and other projects, which you can read about in this interview.

Richard Powers: Orfeo, and a dog named Fidelio

I’ve written about Richard Powers before, most notably in my review of the 2013 Spike Jonze film, Her, which I compared to Powers’ 1995 novel, Galatea 2.2. (It drew about 200 readers to my blog last year, more than any other post; it still continues to draw).

Powers can be an acquired taste.  I’ve read all his work and I acknowledge this fondness is something like my affinity for the late Portuguese writer, Jose Saramago. Powers is cerebral, mixes science and technology subjects with the arts, and his characters do not always come across as living, breathing humans.

orfeo-coverOrfeo is his latest novel and I think his best. You grow to care about his leading character and his quests in music and science. Powers displays breathtaking knowledge of ancient music, experimental music and composition. One long section of the book is about the composition of Quartet for the End of Time, composed in 1941 in a German prison camp by French composer Olivier Messiaen.

Yesterday I had the luxury of a really immersive reading experience. About four hours of sitting around the Greensboro airport and the plane ride home. I realized that too often my reading is episodic—an hour in the afternoon when I finish work or a short session of reading in bed. I don’t know if it was the immersive reading or the nature of Powers’ book, but I found myself really caring about the people in Orfeo.

Peter Els, the leading character, is a 70-year-old retired professor, whose passions are avant-garde music and home genetic experiments. The novel opens with the death of his dog Fidelio, a 14-year-old golden retriever who loved music. “Music launched her into ecstasies. She loved long, held intervals, preferably seconds, major or minor. When any human sustained a pitch for more than a heartbeat, she couldn’t help joining in.”

The novel is about Els’ long history as an avant-garde composer and the lovers and friends he connects with in that passion. In retirement, he offers classes in music at a retirement center and is working with a bacterial human pathogen in his tricked-out home laboratory, where he’s trying to record his own compositions in bacterial DNA.

This unfortunately attracts the attention of the Department of Homeland Security and people in hazmat suits arrive. Els flees and the story threads back and forth through his musical and romantic life to his current period of flight.

A good portion of Orfeo is set in Champaign/Urbana, where Powers was an undergraduate and now is professor of English. (Powers went to DeKalb High School and one of his early books is set in DeKalb.)

Els is inspired by John Cage and participates in “Musicircus,” an exuberant 1968 extravaganza in Champaign, where Cage was in residence from 1967 to 1969.

Powers’ Wikipedia page lists and describes his novels. I recommend dipping a toe into the Powers oeuvre. You might start with The Time of Our Singing (2003), which combines music and physics. And then move on to Orfeo and its musical magic.

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2014: My pop culture memories

It’s the beginning of a new year and time to reflect on the pop culture year just ended. Critics did their top 10 lists of everything, but I’m going to do my list of 2014 favorites. Some of these are clearly eccentric choices–not necessarily “the best.”  I’ve written about most of them during the year – either here or at Gapers Block or Culture Vulture.

Professionally….

Critics at work in the Sunken Garden

Critics at work in the Sunken Garden

My favorite professional experience – my two weeks at the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. It was a fabulous and enriching two weeks, complete with inspiration from colleagues and visiting experts, lots of plays to review, and sleep deprivation.

The institute strengthened my ability to write theater criticism and I did a lot of it this year. I wrote about 60 reviews—mostly theater but also reviews of art exhibits—for gapersblock.com and about 20 for culturevulture.net, a national arts website.

For Nancy Bishop’s Journal, I wrote 46 essays, which drew 4500 visitors from 86 countries—mostly the US, UK and Brazil. The two essays that drew the most visitors were:

GalateaPowers— My review of Spike Jonze’s film Her, which I compared to Richard Powers’ novel Galatea 2.2.

— An article demanding freedom for Oscar Lopez Rivera, a political prisoner in the US for 33 years.

Theater

My favorite experiences as a theater critic and theatergoer aren’t necessarily the plays on other top 10 lists, but they are shows that I found thrilling.

The Hypocrites’ All Our Tragic. This play was a masterful combination of all 32 extant Greek plays by Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles, written by Sean Graney. The 12 hours flew by, with plenty of breaks for food and conversation.

Oracle’s The jungle was a searing theater experience; a big story in the smallest space imaginable. My review commented, “Your Chicago ancestors may have greeted the Pilgrims, arrived on the Mayflower or a slave ship, or come in through Ellis Island. Whatever their origin, they’re part of our history. You can relive it in this stirring drama.”

A fabulous visiting production of Arguendo, a dramatization of a Supreme Court First Amendment case, directly from the transcript, by the Elevator Repair Service, the inventive New York theater company. Scroll down in this long post to see my review of Arguendo. The choreography of the justices on office chairs was priceless. Here’s the trailer:

Elevator Repair Service presented Gatz, a word-for-word reading of The Great Gatsby, at the MCA theater in 2006. Here’s a video sample of Gatz.

Also among my 2014 favorites: Seven Homeless Mammoths Wander New England at Theater Wit; a fine production of Martin McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore at Aston Rep; and Chicago Shakes’ King Lear highlighted by Larry Yando’s moving performance in the title role. My reviews of The Lieutenant and Lear.

Films

Picking my favorite films of 2014 was really difficult, but here’s my try:

NSB-Birdman_posterBirdman, because it’s wildly inventive, sadly realistic, and beautiful to behold—especially if you love the backstage areas of old New York theaters. I’ve seen it twice and loved it both times.

Boyhood, because Richard Linklater, who is obviously fascinated with the concept of time (re his “Before” film trilogy), took the time to see a boy and his family grow and change over 12 years.

The Imitation Game. I could nitpick at plot points but the story is fascinating and Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance is award-worthy.

The Grand Budapest Hotel. Yes, I know this is kind of sweet and quirky or “twee” as Greg Mitchell tweeted. I just saw it for the second time and still enjoyed Wes Anderson’s visual fun and games.

Favorite movie viewing experience: The Cabinet of Dr Caligari with a live organ performance at the Symphony Center on Halloween night.

Plus two exceptional art documentaries:

National Gallery, a Frederick Wiseman documentary profile of London’s National Gallery, done in his fly-on-the-wall style with no narration or background music.

The Hairy Who and the Chicago Imagists, about which I wrote two different pieces—first when it was shown here briefly in June and then when the Gene Siskel Film Center showed it in the fall.

Television

truedetective— True Detective, the weird, creepy, gothic HBO series starring Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConnaughey. True Detective will come again this year with a different cast and story line, but I doubt it will compare to year 1.

— The 2013 MusiCares Tribute to Bruce Springsteen, which was finally televised by PBS this fall. Many great performers cover his songs, finding new ways to interpret them, while Springsteen sat in the audience and watched. But he finally got to the stage to give his acceptance speech and play a few of his own songs.

Sonic Highways, Dave Grohl’s tribute to American music, illustrated with the music and musicians of eight cities on HBO. The Chicago segment was episode 1. You can still view it on demand, if you subscribe to HBO.

Music

At Bridgestone Arena, waiting for The Boss. Photo by Brad Paulsen.

Bridgestone Arena, waiting for The Boss. Brad Paulsen photo.

— Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band in Nashville. No, he didn’t come to Chicago, so we took a road trip.

— The Bruce Springsteen 65th birthday bash at Fitzgerald’s in Berwyn, organized by my friend, June Sawyers. In addition to the music, June and I read literary and not-so-literary commentary on Mr Springsteen.

Biggest musical disappointment: The October concert at the Symphony Center by Chris Thile and Edgar Meyer. The music and the performances were quiet, indistinguishable and without passion. I knew they weren’t going to rock out, but I did expect some enthusiasm.

Favorite album release: Leonard Cohen’s Popular Problems. The opening track, “Almost Like the Blues,” is especially fine. As the Pitchfork reviewer said, his music “sounds slick, but slightly off-kilter.” Springsteen’s High Hopes was also released in 2014, and of course I’ve listened to it many times.

Visual art

My favorite art and museum exhibits:

MCA-DavidBowiesignage— David Bowie Is, which closes this weekend at the MCA. It’s an excellent exhibit and illuminates the genius of a musician who is ever conscious of his identity. My review.

Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938, at the Art Institute. My comments.

— The new Ed Paschke Art Center in Jefferson Park opened this summer and I was there.

Mecca Flat Blues, an amazing exhibit of one of the many places where Chicago’s architecture and civic life collide, at the Chicago Cultural Center. This was my personal favorite article of the year. Chicago Magazine named it one of the must-reads of the week in April. I reprised it on my blog with added memories of Mies.

Books and authors

— Hilary Mantel’s short stories, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher. I had only read Mantel’s first book about Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall, which won the Man Booker Award. Her short stories are wildly different.

Tennessee Mech F2-23 May 14.indd— John Lahr’s biography, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, is one of the best biographies I’ve ever read. I reviewed it and his appearance onstage at Steppenwolf.

Stoner, the 1965 novel by John Edward Williams that was recently rediscovered. Julian Barnes declared it the must-read novel of 2013. Stoner was a farm boy who went to college to study agriculture and discovered the world of literature. One reason I loved its quiet prose about a life of disappointments is that it’s mostly set on the campus of the University of Missouri; it was lovely to read Williams’ descriptions of the place where I spent two years.