Books: Reading bestsellers

by anneMoore on September 24, 2014

Walking the dog the other night I ran into a neighbor who shares my taste in books: we both like big long deep smart reads. She mentioned that she was hanging on every word in Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken audio version, had I read it and if I hadn’t she had the hard cover to lend. I grabbed it, started the next day, and didn’t stop reading until I reached its wholly satisfying ending. I even read the author’s notes.

shoppingWhen I mentioned my admiration for Unbroken, more than one friend said, “That’s not your kind of read.”


Well, okay, the last best seller I loved was Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds, which was published when I was a teenager. And I may be the only reader on earth who had to take a shower after reading Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. Blek! I threw Robert James Waller’s The Bridges of Madison County across the room (Jane Smiley’s 1,000 Acres, too) and have been known to hurriedly drive lent books back to their owners, or to the library, or to the used-book drop off. They’re so not for me I have to be rid of them.

My book throwing tantrums — so satisfying — have been copied by certain teens frustrated by school-assigned reads.

Back to Unbroken: A World War 11 Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption, which is an astonishing read, published in 2010. We are expertly pulled into the life of Louis Zamperini, who is a troublemaker, Olympic runner, beloved son and brother, Army flier. He survives a plane crash and weeks adrift on a raft in the Pacific, only to end up in a series of (beyond brutal) Japanese Prisoner of War camps. Survival, indeed. I’ll leave it to you, dear reader, to experience his rage and redemption back home, in L.A., in the 1950s. What a life.

Bravo, Laura Hillenband. A masterpiece. Angelina Jolie directs the film, opening this Christmas. I look forward to it.

imagesAnother big long read I liked a lot is Matthew Thomas’s We are Not Ourselves, newly published, an epic of every day life. That sounds like an oxymoron, but that’s what this book is: the life of Eileen Leary, from childhood to late adulthood in New York City’s boroughs and suburbs, from 1941 to 2011.

Life happens: a mother’s alcoholism, a husband’s early Alzheimer’s, a son’s misadventures away from all that. I wondered why I kept reading: it was all so ordinary. Eileen is a striver. She wants more for her family, and gets it: a house in Bronxville, a boy at the prestigious Regis High School. The love for her failing husband, I suppose, is what endeared her to me.

This is a vast but quiet read, an American life laid bare. It’s not antic like a Jonathan Franzen novel, or achingly lyrical like Chad Harbaugh’s The Art of Fielding. It’s its own thing, finely wrought.


Books: Reading Pytonga, Part 2

by anneMoore on August 21, 2014

I’m always reading but I read most in or near a cabin in the woods, in Quebec, Canada, beside Lac Pytonga. Days are long and lazy there (well, I did take some IMG_2818epic runs) and nights are free of the usual distractions, since there’s no t.v. and no Internet and no cell service and someone other than me and mine has made, served and cleaned up dinner. Sure, we play Scrabble and hearts and this year unearthed Time, a trivia game that spans the Twenties to the Eighties.

During the day I swim and run and hike and kayak and pick wild raspberries and blackberries, the dogs along with me for the walk. At night, we have a popcorn tasting “war” with neighbors.

Mostly I read. I read on the boat, while others fish. I read on the beach, while kids gunnel-bob or paddleboard or jump from docks. I read when the weather turns cold and rainy and sends us indoors, beside a fire.

This year I read four big books, all of which I can recommend.

IMG_2850First was Colum McCann’s TransAtlantic, a multigenerational Irish and American saga. Easily he weaves seven interlocked stories, beginning with the hoopla of the first trans-Atlantic flight in 1919 and ending in 2011, with a mother grieving her then-19 year old son, slain by Irish terrorists. Poverty, immigration, daring, untimely death, race, peace negotiations and an un-opened letter. A slow, good read.

Next I read Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family, nonfiction published in 2003. (Thank you, Cherie.) Poverty in the Bronx is a seemingly endless cycle of teen pregnancy, absent or incarcerated fathers, drug dealing, children raising children. It’s not just men who disappear. A main character, the beautiful Jessica, spends years in Federal Prison for her role in a heroin drug ring. This is a long, brutal, magnificent story, which ends on a hopeful note. Of all these summer reads, this was the one that gave me book grief.

IMG_2835A friend in camp was hooked by Bret Anthony Johnston’s Remember Me Like This and lent it to me once he’d finished. It’s a compelling read, beautifully written, about a family whose missing son returns home after four years, now age 16. The boy’s captor is freed on bail. It’s hot and humid in Corpus Christi: add child abduction and rape for a potboiler. An engaging, thoughtful read. (Thank you, Larry.)

Finally, I curled up for days with Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, a beguiling tale set before and during World War Two, as residents flee Paris and later, with the German occupation and siege of St. Malo, a walled city in Breton. In alternating chapters we meet a blind girl in France who becomes a resistor and a German orphan adept at radio construction and use. How these two come together, in St. Malo, is the story of the book. I was completely taken in by this tale, even though it began to smell like a Disney movie. Skip the present-day ending; it’s treacly, and unnecessary.

That’s it for summer reading. On to fall.

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Books: Summer Reads, part 2

by anneMoore on August 1, 2014

photoAfter a grumpy slog through an overly long immigrant saga, I wanted a fun, smart full-bodied read. I picked up Sadie Jones Fallout from my stacks, for its cheerful colors and in-love couple on the cover. I was not disappointed.

This is a layered love story, completely engaging, of young adults making their way in early 1970’s London theater.

Jones’ characters are likable from the start. We meet Luke as a boy, breaking his mother free from the insane asylum where she lives. They go for a day trip to London, to the National Gallery. It doesn’t go well, of course, but the sentiment — the planning and execution, by a boy — is sweet and memorable.

UnknownAlso at the museum is Nina, touring the galleries with her self-absorbed mother. When Nina is fobbed off on her aunt, a sensible caretaker, we understand her shriek: no child wants to parted from their mother, even one who’s monstrous.

How Luke and Nina come together as adults is complicated and intriguing. Luke is a promising playwright, Nina is bright young actress — but she’s married to Tony Moore, a prominent theater producer. Luke’s colleagues and roommates, Paul and Leigh, also figure in the story.

Cruelty, betrayal, disappointment: it’s a rollicking, sexy read — until its end, which seemed not believable and forced. I liked Fallout so much I ordered some of Jones’ earlier novels. I’ll let you know.

Another good read: Georges Simenon’s The Strangers in the House (Inconnus dans la Maison) from 1940, re-released by New York Review of Books Classics.

Unknown-2Simenon is best known for the Maigret detective novels. This is different, a psychological novel, a romans durs.

Set in Moulins, an ancient city in central France, Simenon gives us reclusive attorney Hector Loursat, who removed himself from society when his wife abandoned him and their small daughter Nicole. Loursat drinks and eats to excess and though he dines with the now adult Nicole, they don’t converse, they have no relationship.

One night, Loursat hears a commotion in a wing of his vast home. There he finds a man in bed, shot, newly dead. Also a young man fleeing, and his deshabille daughter.

Who is the dead man, and why is his daughter unperturbed?

Necessarily involved in the case, Loursat comes back to life: he dresses well and drinks less. He walks the streets, he visits bars and restaurants, he creates a kind of relationship with Nicole, who gathers evidence for the trial.

Simenon’s great talent is to bring a reader into a room, onto a street, into the courthouse. You are there. Simenon wrote 200 novels and in this we see a master at work: beautiful prose, compelling plot, an unexpectedly happy ending.

Make no mistake: Loursat has changed, but he’s still an odd duck living a peculiar life.

A satisfying read.

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Books: Summer Reads

by anneMoore on July 17, 2014

What’s a summer read? Turns out it’s — a book. Screened gadgets give off an impossible glare and the ones that don’t can fall in water or get buried in sand. They’re just not made for the beach, the pool, the deck of a boat.

IMG_2730Books are.

Using a buoy for a cushion I read Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians, an enjoyable tour of Singapore’s ultra-wealthy set. Yes, they are a frivolous bunch, and the story is forgettable, but I learned some things about that city’s rich history and matriarchal culture. A breezy read for foodies and fashionistas. (Thank you, Jennifer.)

Earlier, on dry land, I read Jonathan Miles’ Want Not. I admit to putting it down after the first (repellant) chapter, about New York City squatters who subsist on garbage. I’d loved Miles’ first book, Dear American Airlines — it seemed impossible he could write a bad book. So, I gave Want Not another try, and I’m glad I did. The story opens out to include a lonely linguistics professor and his dying father; also a wealthy debt collector and the suburban family he stitched together after 9/11.

wantnotI fell in love with every one of these characters, even the freegans. Yes, the book is overly long, but I didn’t mind — the three stories come together in surprising ways. Best of all, the ending is memorable, and deeply satisfying.

I am always hopeful. Stacey D’Erasmo’s Wonderland hooked me — about an aging rocker returned to the road — but petered out. Or as this reviewer put it, “fails to climax.”

Several friends recommended Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, telling me that I would understand race in a new and different way. Maybe. This is an episodic read, often a rant, lacking in plot, 588 pages long. There are some

americanahmoving scenes, particularly when main character Ifemelu is first in the United States, a desperately poor college student. But over the course of the book Ifemelu is tiresome and full of herself; the young man she leaves behind in Nigeria is more sympathetic, and has a more interesting life arc.

Why read Americanah? Well, everyone else is…and the magnificent Lupita Nyong’o is a producer and star of the film.

Ah, summer. More to come.

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Books: New and old reads

by anneMoore on June 5, 2014

A long holiday weekend gave me time to lounge outside in the sun — take that eternal winter! — with Edward St. Aubyn’s latest, Lost for Words.

summerskylineIt’s delicious: a satire of a famous book contest. Witty, withering, sexy. Yes, he gives us too many characters, none of whom we get to know deeply. Still, a fun read.

I’m starting this post with St. Aubyn because I read his Patrick Melrose novels over spring break in Florida and have had trouble finding a way to write about that all-consuming experience. (Thank you, Georgia Dent, for leading me to them.) Each is a great read, and I highly recommend, even though their subjects include humiliation, child rape, extreme drug and alcohol use, marital abandonment, infidelity, disinheritance, and the slow awful decline of a stroke-impaired parent.

Five linked novellas follow Patrick patrickmelroseand the adults in his life, from his childhood to fatherhood within the upper-est crust of English society. (Princess Margaret figures in one, memorably.) Like Evelyn Waugh, St. Aubyn’s work is expertly constructed, deeply moving and very very funny. First published in 1992, the fifth “At Last,” came out in 2012. Find more about St. Aubyn in Ian Parker’s excellent New Yorker profile.

Other reads I’ve liked lately include Hilary Mantel’s An Experiment in Love, published in 2007.

It follows provincial girls from childhood to a London college for women. It’s set in the 1960’s, a time when women of all ages were trying out their independence. mantelOne girl is studying to be a doctor, another becomes pregnant to see if she can get pregnant, another becomes anorexic after her parents cut her off, emotionally and financially, for spending the holidays (read: sex) with her boyfriend’s family.

Set this one on the Mean Girl shelf. How mean? This ends with a locked door and a fiery death.

Finally, a shout out to Melville House Publishing, for resurrecting Irmgard Keun’s Gilgi (1931), which was so popular and shocking for its time the Gestapo blocked the author’s royalties. Melville’s Neversink Library “champions books from around the world that have been overlooked, underappreciated, looked askance at, or foolishly ignored.”

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Food: Early eats in Lincoln Park and Old Town

by anneMoore on May 27, 2014

My artist-writer-foodie niece Lucy is back living in Chicago (hooray!) and understandably made it to one of the first of the year open-air days at Green City Market in Lincoln Park. Ramps anyone?

Her sole complaint: where to eat afterwards. There’s crepes, smoothies and other fare at the market. She wanted a meal.

So, here goes: breakfast and lunch dining choices in Old Town and Lincoln Park, within a 15 minute walk from the market.

2014-03-22Just across from the park, there’s Perennial Virant, a farm-to-table restaurant open until 11 a.m. daily for breakfast and 2 p.m. for weekend brunch, 1800 N. Lincoln Ave. In the same building, find Elaine’s Coffee Call for perfect lattes, pleasing teas and house-made pastries, 1816 N. Clark St.

If it’s an egg and all sorts of other things breakfast you’re needing, head to the original Nookies, 1746 N. Wells St. or Kanela Breakfast Club, 1552 N. Wells St.

Nearby, La Fournette bakery and cafe at 1547 N. Wells St. makes the city’s best baguettes and almond croissants. Also sandwiches, salads, soups.

For a meal at a neighborhood bar, The Sedgwick Stop at 1612 N. Sedgwick has an agreeably short breakfast menu: eggs every which way, biscuits, bagels, pork belly. Open daily at 10 a.m.

On weekends only Stanley’s Kitchen and Tap opens at 10 a.m. and serves kick-ass Southern food. 1970 N. Lincoln Ave.

The Dog Joint opens at 11 a.m. daily. Sure, you can order a salad but why would you? Burgers, dogs, sausage. 350 W. Armitage Ave.

Just up Lincoln Avenue you’ll dine outdoors at one of the city’s most pleasantly shaded street corners: Four Farthings Tavern & Grill, 2060 N. Cleveland Ave., open daily at 11:30 a.m., Sunday 10 am. (Indoors is pretty darn charming, too.) Next door is City Grounds, for excellent coffee and pastries inside its sunny two-story space or its street-side terrace. 507 W. Dickens St.

Continue up Lincoln Avenue to Edzo’s Burger Shop, open 10:30 am except Monday, for a fine-dining chef’s classic take on fast food, 2218 N. Lincoln Ave.  Also on this block, the original Potbelly Sandwich Shop, at 2264 N. Lincoln Ave., which opens at 11 a.m.

Farther west but easily walkable from the market is Toast, a hip and tasty breakfast and lunch spot, open at 8 a.m. daily, 746 W. Webster Ave. For a Greek diner fix, The Athenian Room opens at 11 a.m. daily, 807 W. Webster Ave.

Closer to Armitage Ave. duck into the darkly comforting Taco Joint, open 11:30 am Wednesday through Sunday, 1969 N. Halsted St. Nearby but a world away, Summer House serves weekend brunch beginning at 8 a.m., 1954 N. Halsted St. Blue Door Farm Stand opens daily at 7 a.m. and serves good and good-for-you food in an airy space, at 843 W. Armitage Ave.

Finally, meat-eaters will be happy to find themselves at Butcher & The Burger, 1021 W. Armitage Ave., open daily at 11 a.m., on weekends at 10 a.m. It’s smoky, it’s crowded, it’s delicious.

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Inventive retellings of ancient tales can be a joy to experience: the old is made new in crazy, sexy, wondrous ways.

Kneehigh’s Tristan & Yseult is such a show; its U.S. tour ended recently with a two-week run at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, where I saw it. I’m glad I did, in part because I’d forgotten the details of this doomed lovers’ story, which dates to the 12th century and informs both the Arthurian Lancelot and Guinevere and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

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The story of Tristan and Yseult goes like this: an Irish king invades Cornwall (the craggy arm of land that juts westward from the base of England) and is slaughtered. For the spoils, the Cornwall king asks his nephew Tristan to travel to Ireland and return with the dead king’s sister. She will be the Cornwall king’s bride.

Tristan is injured on his journey and nursed to health by Yseult, the king’s sister. Before they set sail to Cornwall, Yseult asks for a love potion, as she fears she will be unable to love the King. There’s a mix up, and both Tristan and Yseult drink the potion. Theirs is a heated romance.

Still, Yseult is promised and delivered to the King, who falls deeply in love with her. Tristan and Yseult continue their affair; they can’t help themselves. (Is it true love? Is it the potion?) When the lovers are discovered, the King spares their lives. Finally, though, the King banishes Tristan and keeps Yseult. The lovers vow to be reunited, but that comes too late.

This story lives on, currently Off Broadway, in Richard Maxwell’s contemporary play Isolde Too, it was a 2006 movie starring James Franco. Calling it a tale of “the bliss and wretchedness of love,” the German composer premiered his Tristan und Isolde in 1865. It’s been on a world tour ever since.

But back to our show: Kneehigh is a Cornwall-based experimental theater group, since 1980.  Their Tristan & Yseult is head-spinning: it’s loud, colorful, musical, and intensely physical. For a story seeped in sadness, their reworking of the story is madcap, even silly.

The actors rarely stop moving, and turn seamlessly from royalty to “the unloved” others on stage. Yseult’s maid Brangian is played by the barrel chested actor Craig Johnson; his/her “morning after” speech is a very quiet moment in this raucous work, and holds the audience in its grip. Stuart Goodman’s King Mark is similarly captivating; his bearing and grace and ability to forgive when betrayed are well-played moments.

I have some gripes about the Kneehigh production. Tristan (the character, not the actor) is a simpering fool. Never mind love: I couldn’t even summon a “like.” And Yseult (the actress, not the character) is miscast: I hate to be an age-ist and a fat-ist but a younger, slimmer actress should have played the Irish princess. Tristan was fresh-faced, fit and sexy; the King was magnificently handsome…so, why a hefty, middle-aged Yseult?

That said, a dazzling night of theater. Bravo, Kneehigh! Thank you, Chicago Shakespeare Theater.‎

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The fight for Algerian independence from France began in November 1954. That brutal guerilla war would continue until 1961, when French president Charles de Gaulle gave up Algeria, an African colony France had ruled since 1830.

Among the French, the war was unpopular and misunderstood. Still, they had as many as 450,000 soldiers in Algeria. There is an unforgettable film about that time, “The Battle of Angiers” (1966) but little or no literature, which some blame on a collective wish to forget. Le Permission, a novel by French journalist Daniel Anselme was published in 1957, but found no audience and fell out of print.

Little wonder: this is a beautifully told but uncomfortable read about three soldiers in Paris, home from the front for the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. I read the recent English translation, by David Bellos, titled On Leave. (In his introduction, Bellos provides a rich history of the events that led up to the war, and the complications that ensued once the French departed.)

In the literature of war — the “shelf” — this novel takes a place.

Forever changed by the war, the three soldiers find a Paris disinterested in their plight: their friends and family wish the war to be over, of course, but do nothing to rally support for its end.

Most of the story concerns Lachaume, the eldest of the three and a former English professor. He comes home to the apartment he’d shared with his wife, who has left him. (He has been away nearly two years.) He spends a day and a night waiting there, reliving their sunny life, preparing a favorite lunch, remembering her beautiful thighs. Late the second night he ends his delusion and leaves, checking into a hotel.

“‘Let’s suppose she’d agreed to wait for me until the end (but when wlll the end come?…) Suppose she was brave enough…foolish enough, it would still have been a deception, because the boy she loved…is dead, well and truly dead. It might have been different if we’d changed together. But how could I ever have got her to understand what has happened over there…’”

Lachaume spends the week awkwardly meeting old friends and former students. (Also his mother, in one of the trippiest sections of the book.) He won’t pretend to be anything other than he is: a foot soldier with a failed marriage. He is angry, bitter — and very funny.

The three soldiers seamlessly reunite: they are most comfortable with each other. They set off on a drunken odyssey through an unfeeling Paris that leaves them, at last, on a train returning to the front.

There they join other protesting soldiers, hanging from windows, banging the sides of the carriages as trains pull out of the station: “Send us home! Sends us home! Send us home!”


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Life: Winter Meals from a Dutch Oven

by anneMoore on March 16, 2014

I know: cooking? I never write about that. But I haven’t had a good read since Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and I don’t like writing “bad” reviews. I will say I was underwhelmed by Edna O’Brien’s memoir Country Girl, which lacked a unifying thread. I learned too little about her writing life and too much about casual flings with unnamed movie stars.

I’ve picked up and put down Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, Edwidge Danticat’s Claire of the Sea Light and Susan Straight’s Between Heaven and Here. There’s nothing wrong with these reads; they’re all beautifully written. None held my interest.

And so, to the kitchen.

This winter I’ve been making warming soups, stews and pastas in one awesome pot, the Le Creuset Dutch Oven.—braisers/oval-french-ovens/5-qt-oval-french-oven. It is never stored; it lives on our cooktop. For me, its value exceeds its obvious function: I don’t like washing pots and pans, and with a Dutch Oven, there’s only one vessel to clean after a meal.

The Le Creuset Dutch Oven is enameled cast iron. And while it seems expensive, at $200 or more, it is our most used kitchen item outside of a coffee maker.

For years I’ve used it to prepare my son’s favorite “spaghetti sauce,” a quick ragu from Patricia Wells’ Trattoria, and another son’s favorite pasta, fusilli with sausage, fennel and red wine, from her At Home in Provence. It is employed for a Sunday dinner favorite, pork cooked in milk, from Marcella Hazan’s The Classic Italian Cookbook. I use it to make a lemon egg-drop chicken soup — my own creation — for anyone who’s ailing. Too, it’s the pot that holds the quickest meal — 15 minutes — I can get from the pantry to the table, a pancetta pasta. Also gumbos, and Ina Garten’s any-time-of-year saffron vegetable soup.

But as this winter has gone on and on, I’ve had to expand my repertoire of one-pot weeknight meals.

We’ve been savoring a butternut squash and arborio rice stew from Cucina Rustica, by Viana La Place and Evan Kleiman. I cook often from the Soupbox Cookbook, by Jamie Taerbaum and Dru Melton, who run Soupbox restaurants in Chicago: chicken with wild rice stew, Italian vegetable soup. This winter I tried their lemony green lentil soup, halibut chowder, “big occasion” bouillabaisse. Mmmm….

Who knew I would come around to brown lentils? (My siblings and I hated lentil soup so much as kids we called it “mental soup.”) So, thank you Lidia Bastianich for this one : It is the most pleasing pasta with lentils (really, it’s lentils with pasta) dish I’ve ever had. I make half and still have leftovers for weekday lunch.

And finally, because I had run out of ideas, I found this arroz con pollo recipe the other day, perfect for a one-pot meal. With a dash of cayenne or other heat, it’s a keeper.

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Books and Life: Reading in Ottawa

by anneMoore on January 23, 2014

“I use Grammarly’s plagiarism detector because no one likes a capy cot!

I don’t especially like reading on a Kindle — click…click…click — but I’d pressed the Amazon wireless “buy” for Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings: A Novel so that’s how I read it. Click…click…click…all weekend, flying to and from Ottawa, Canada, where I was visiting summer friends and family. (A shout out to that great capital city follows.)

I am new to Wolitzer, though she’s written a half-dozen novels. Published in 2013, this one was getting good reviews, so I took a chance. I’m glad I did.

The Interestings is a long read full of — yup! — interesting people. It concerns a group of New York teenagers who meet at summer camp, and follows them for the next 35 years. They lead rich lives: one is an animator whose creation becomes a hit television series. The girl he marries is a theater director. Their gay friend Jonah, the son of a famous folk singer, is an engineer. Another flees the country, accused of date rape. The main character, Jules, struggles in Manhattan, embittered by her friends’ extreme wealth. A talk therapist, she becomes her family’s sole provider when her husband is crippled by depression.

Did I love this read? No, but I can recommend it. Wolitzer writes nicely; I was never bored. These are smart, decent people who — though they could — do not hurt or betray each other.

My sole complaint: it could have been more interesting. Wolitzer creates provocative characters whose relationships create a tangled web. Instead of keeping them in close quarters, she dispatches them to other parts of the city, country, world. They’re not in each other’s hair, let alone the same zip code.

From books to cities: let us now sing praise for Ottawa, a place where people embrace winter. Blanketed in white, under grey skies, it is home to the Rideau Canal, the world’s longest skating promenade. The canal’s location is central to the city; it is common to see people on downtown streets, walking to and from, ice skates slung over their shoulders.

Other highlights: the National Gallery of Canada, with its Louise Bourgeois giant spider “Maman” haunting its entrance. Also its collection of Canadian art and Janet Cardiff’s Forty-Part Motet, an installation within the museum’s Rideau Chapel. Not to be missed.

Dining and shopping: For a club meeting dinner for 60 or so, friends chose the historic Courtyard Restaurant in Ottawa’s ByWard Market district. Perfect! Tasty farm to table food; excellent service. For lunch the next day we headed to the same area, to The Black Tomato, for creamy red pepper soup and smoked salmon on baguettes. Skip lunch at the Chateau Laurier; the service is maddeningly slow, the menu fussy. Grab a drink at the bar instead; no trip to Ottawa is complete without a leisurely stop in this celebrated hotel.

Finally, we found chic boutique shopping in the walkable ByWard Market.  A perfect weekend.

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