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Chicago

Greetings from my stay-in-place perch. I’ve always worked from a home office, so that part of lockdown hasn’t been a change. I dress in the morning, eat breakfast, read the newspapers, walk, practice piano and French, and get to my desk by nine. I write until noon, have lunch, run errands — well, no more errands, because stores are closed. I go to the grocery store for dinner supplies. With a new puppy I’m enjoying long walks in my beautiful neighborhood. I used to enjoy long walks on the lakefront path, but it’s closed. I admit to a deep funk the day the city’s parks and walking trails were closed. That said, I admire our political leaders for the steps they’ve taken to mitigate transmission. 

I haven’t been reading as much — distracted by the virus? (Check out my new reading spot by the windows in my kitchen.) That said, I recommend Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, by Patrick Radden Keefe. As a granddaughter of Irish Republicans, I thought I’d read everything about the paramilitary IRA and its terror campaign to rid the island of British occupation. Turns out I hadn’t. Keefe is nimble in his telling of a generation of warriors who terrorized the British, “disappeared” its own, starved themselves. A sobering, thrilling read. 

I also enjoyed My Dark Vanessa, by Kate Elizabeth Russell. The story is told by Vanessa as a fifteen-year-old “willing” victim of a teacher’s advances, and by Vanessa as an adult struggling to make sense of that relationship, especially as it continues. When we first meet Vanessa, her former teacher has been accused of “sexual grooming” by several students; it’s all over the news, and reporters are reaching out for Vanessa’s story. But theirs was a different relationship, Vanessa believes. Theirs was love. At times, this reader wanted to shake Vanessa: wake up! But her story is believable and compelling. Will Vanessa understand what he did to her? Even if you get frustrated with this character — and you will — read to the end. It’s satisfying. 

I’ve begun Lily King’s Writers & Lovers. I’m hooked, though it’s unnecessarily confusing in the beginning. I loved her Euphoria, a love triangle set in the 1930’s among anthropologists. Teed up: Temporary, by Hilary Leichter, Circe, by Madeline Miller, Golden Gates: Fighting for Housing in America, by Conor Dougherty. 

If you’d like to help independent booksellers closed because of the virus, order from bookshop.org. Stores receive 30 percent of each sale. 

To fill an empty hour of each weekday (not having lunch with friends, or a manicure, or or or) I draw and do watercolors. I’m focusing on “doors of Chicago.” I’m learning what’s visually important and how to employ color. 

Stay home, be well, pray the end of lockdown is near. 

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I curate the literature listings in Crain’s Chicago Business quarterly Guide to Culture. I feature visits by blockbuster authors, the U.S. poet laureate, scientists, historians. For this list I am always on the lookout for Chicago-based authors.

This season I am newly and happily acquainted with three local writers.

voiceover_artist_cover_alban_fischerI read Dave Reidy’s The Voice Over Artist, a first novel set mostly in Chicago, about two brothers, the mother they lose, the father they abide, their professions (one is an improvisor, the other a voice over artist) and, most convincingly, the women in their lives.

One of the brothers, who stutters, made himself mute as a child and much of this story is Simon’s struggle to speak confidently and, eventually, professionally. The improv sections read true — Reidy credits the stage work of my friend David Pasquesi and T.J. Jagodowski — as do the tangled affairs of secondary characters.

To be published in November, it’s an impressive debut.

imagesNext I read two works by Joe Meno. Office Girl is a bittersweet tale of Chicago hipsters. Odile makes age-appropriate poor decisions (an affair with a married man, hand jobs in the office broom closet) while Jack, whose wife has left him, records sounds. “The sound of her empty gray pillow…the sound of Monday, February 2…the sound of the traffic light making its alterations overhead…” Precious? Yes, but Jack and Odile are smart and delightful as they fall in and out of love. These are fully drawn characters making their way to who they’ll become.

images-1Meno’s Marvel and A Wonder, newly published, is more my kind of read. It’s long, engaging and beautifully written, like Faulkner but also its own thing. (That is, I didn’t set it down to read Faulkner, as I do when I (try to) read Cormac McCarthy.) Meno’s story is set in Indiana, on a failing chicken farm. There, its aging owner lives with, and tries to understand, his mixed-race teenage grandson, who has been left behind by his drug-addict mother. When a white race horse comes into their possession, the story takes off, violently.

Meno told me he wrote the book as an homage to his father in law and men of that generation, men who could make and fix things with their hands. It’s a wholly satisfying read, one that will go on my Literature of the Midwest shelf, beside John Williams’ Stoner, Dan Chaon’s Await Your Reply, Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding.

images-2Finally, I read Vu Tran’s Dragonfish. (Tran teaches writing at The University of Chicago.) This is being hawked as crime fiction — and there is plenty of violence — but it reads more like a journey of discovery by a white cop unraveling the mystery of his former wife Suzy, a Vietnamese immigrant. It’s a well plotted, enchanting read — though I’m still not sure what she was running from, or to. Loved the duffel full of cash as endnote.

 

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Living in a city beside an inland sea, my morning walk sometimes yields trash, or an odd hello: a washed up, desiccated raccoon, its teeth bared. Dried vomit. Charging geese. Our harmless resident crazy, who mistakes me for Hillary Clinton, and asks after Bill.

Why keep walking?

Because there’s treasure to be found: a mother mallard with her ducklings squiggling behind her, sunlight sparkling off the lake’s cresting blue or green water, the city’s skyline spread like a giant cardboard cutout before me.

And the other day: a fenced off Lincoln Park allée, with nesting herons overhead. Endangered black crowned night herons (they feed when it’s dark) are protected by the state and federal government. My friend Deborah and I stopped and watched some of them — there’s 400! — build their nests.   www.lpzoo.org/blog/…/black-crowned-night-herons-arrive-early?..

Also in town, my gifted photographer friend Lydia Panas is one of four artists in a group show at Schneider Gallery, 230 W. Superior St. /schneidergallerychicago.com/ “After Classical Portraiture,” through July 7, gives us a look at photographers whose contemporary portraits evoke Flemish Masters of the 17th century. Worth seeing. Lydia’s portraits are hauntingly beautiful. /www.lydiapanas.com/book.html

Finally, a call out for two fine-dining restaurants in my neighborhood.

Rustic House, 1967 N. Halsted St., is a treat: loud, lively, warmly lit and furnished. Impeccable service, prompt seating. Roast prime rib was a hit with the guys. Other tasty fare: pan-roasted cod over spring vegetables. Also, sides of brussel sprouts (I know, but trust me, theirs are crisp and smoky) and a three-cheese gratin. The bar looked like a good place for two to share a meal. The back room, warmed by a fireplace, seemed more quiet, but friends tell me it gets just as loud as the front room. Still, the noise doesn’t overwhelm: we four had no trouble conversing. /rustichousechicago.com/

Six of us shared a fabulous farm-to-table meal last Saturday night at Perennial Virant, 1800 N. Lincoln Ave. I loved our cozy banquette table — for six! — that allowed all of us to talk easily. My husband thought the menu light on meat offerings, but otherwise, no complaints. From fried cheese curds to pan-roasted rainbow trout, for me, nothing on this menu disappoints. And the service rocks. /perennialchicago.com/

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Good friends made it easy to show off Chicago’s rich offerings of art, architecture, parks, museums and food this weekend. Affable and curious, they had ideas of what they wanted to see and experience while in town, but didn’t overdo it. With just a few hours left on Sunday, could they get to Ernest Hemingway’s childhood home in Oak Park? www.ehfop.org  Not quickly.

I tagged along to enjoy the architecture and gallery show at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington St. Once the city’s main public library, the block long structure holds, among other wonders, the world’s largest Tiffany dome. Mosaics of Favrile glass, mother of pearl and colored stone cover interior walls and arches. The room glows.

Another treat: formerly the library’s main reading room, the Sidney R. Yates Gallery is a red-walled salon with huge windows framed by carved silver-leaf surrounds. There through July 8, “Morbid Curiosity,” the collection of Richard Harris, is a display of art that depicts death, from Goya’s “the Disasters of War” to ceramic “Dance of Death” playing pieces, to a Dutch still life with a skull. My favorites: Victorian family portraits superimposed with skulls. Also a shiny red Venus, her veiled face revealing a skull. www.chicagoculturalcenter.org

For lunch, we headed to a new spot across the street. Toni Patisserie, 65 E. Washington St., feels like a piece of Paris broke loose and landed in the Loop. Tarts, cakes, sandwiches, tartines, salad, quiche are displayed in glass cases. Small marble tables make for an intimate meal. We had the day’s soup, tomato, and split a prosciutto and chevre tartine. www.tonipatisserie.com We’ll be back.

A walk through Millennium Park still surprises. Then again, maybe I haven’t been paying attention. When I looked into “The Bean’s” underbelly I felt pulled into a giant vortex.

True, it’s winter, so the park’s gardens are brown, the symphony isn’t practicing, the Crown Fountain’s “gargoyles” don’t spurt water.

On to the Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan Ave. How fun is it to show off the museum’s vast collection? Very. It’s like walking through Janson’s “History of Art.” Too, my friend wanted to see the Thorne Miniature Rooms. There’s 68, each of them a time capsule of design and furnishings. I hadn’t visited in years. This time I stopped to learn about the craftsmen who created these marvelous rooms. www.artinstitutechicago.org.

The next morning we strolled over to Lincoln Park Zoo’s Nature Boardwalk, a half mile walk that loops a recently refurbished pond and its marshy prairie.  www.lpzoo.org/nature-boardwalk

Leaving the park we noticed Hotel Lincoln on the verge of opening, 1816 N. Clark Street. Shuttered for several years, its rebirth is cause for neighborhood joy. www.jdvhotels.com.

Good guests leave great gifts: red and blue shot glasses and a tray from the 1967 Expo in Montreal. (Yes, Georgia: for Pythonga!) Also Lawrence Desautel’s new book of poetry, “Dancing with that Woman at Whiskey Woes,” which I’m savoring. (Beautiful cover, Ryan Arthurs.) Here’s a sample from it: thepotomacjournal.com/issue9/lawrence_desautels.htm.

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With the year coming to a close it’s a good time to reflect on the offerings that enriched my days and nights.

I read newspapers, magazines, works of nonfiction, but my true love is fiction. In these three novels, the characters and situations were so alive to me I didn’t want their stories to end: Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom,” Chad Harbaugh’s “The Art of Fielding,” and Jeffrey Eugenides’ “The Marriage Plot.”

Paul Auster’s “Sunset Park” was another favorite. Enchanted, I am reading slowly Michael Ondaatje’s “The Cat’s Table.”

A play, a retrospective and a biography brought me the lives of three artists and their creative process. Each left me astonished. There was Mark Rothko in John Logan’s “Red” at the Goodman Theatre, the Willem de Kooning retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (through January 9), Patricia Alber’s biography “Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter.”

Art and books combine in the work of two friends, both photographers.

Haunting me are the lush, eery photographs of American children, teens, couples and families in Lydia Panas’ first monograph, “The Mark of Abel.” www.lydiapanas.com/book. Chester Alamo’s “The Globe” captures the beauty, color and passion of fans at a Chicago bar that offers live telecasts of European soccer. www.amazon.com/Globe-Chester-Alamo-Costello/dp/0615339417/ref=cm_cr_pr_pb_t

I continue to be awed by my sons’ achievements in photography http://www.masondent.com/ and sports journalism http://supercursed.blogspot.com/, by my niece’s comic art and humor. http://comics.lucyknisley.com/2011/10/scaredcited-page-2/

Memorable movies this year include the smart, sexy remake of “Jane Eyre,” the plotless but mesmerizing “Tree of Life,” the hilariously foul “Bridesmaids. The one film I many never get out of my head: Pedro Almodovar’s “The Skin I Live In.” Beautiful, bizarre, shocking.

One stage play held me in its grip: “The God of Carnage,” 70 minutes of ensemble acting at its best, at the Goodman Theatre. I admired “An Iliad” at Court Theatre (through December 14) even though we had terrible seats.

I am always thinking about my next meal, so it’s worth remembering some of the places that nourished me.

In Montreal (L’Entrecote St. Jean) and New York (Le Relais de Venise) I savored prix-fixe steak-only dinners that transported me to Paris.

In Chicago this year I’ve been dazzled by the farm-to-table offerings at Nightwood, Perennial Virant, and Blackbird. The fish tacos at GT Fish & Oyster. Anything at The Purple Pig. The limited but daring menu at Morso; also, its fabulous Wolfsbane cocktail. The seasonal tartines at Floriole, the frisee salad at Gemini Bistro, the exquisite service at Pelago. The ultra-thin pizza at Three Aces and a cocktail so beautiful I had to photograph it.

Finally, a welcome addition to my Lincoln Park neighborhood: City Grounds coffee bar, a clean well lighted place.

Thanks for reading. Best wishes for the New Year.

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In the months after summer’s heat, Chicago’s crisp sunny days pull me, and my dog, to the beach. There’s no one there!

My North Avenue beach is banked by man-made dunes. Get yourself beyond those and the beach offers a wide swath of sand pebbled with crushed shells. Also washed-up wood slabs from wave-smashed piers, a dead fish or two, emptied booze bottles.

Our boat-shaped bathhouse is closed. Nets strung for beach volleyball leagues have been taken down, rentable beach chairs and umbrellas packed away.

What a place to walk! Before me is the city’s cutout skyline, fronted by the seemingly infinite lake. There’s so few people on the paths and the beach on a weekday morning it feels eerily post-apocalyptic. There is the city; where are its people?

The lakefront’s beautiful desolation this morning reminded me of a section of Faulkner’s “The Wild Palms: If I Forget Thee Jerusalem.” Faulkner describes the Midwest’s off-season gift of warmth as “the long sigh toward autumn and the cold.” His doomed lovers overstay the season in their Lake Michigan beachfront shack, and nearly freeze, almost starve.

Dan Chaon’s masterful “Await Your Reply,” gives us a Northwestern University college student presumed dead in Lake Michigan’s frigid waters. We stand over his shoulder as he reads the news story of his probable suicide. Gulp.

In Frederick Exley’s “A Fan’s Notes,” the eponymous narrator spends his Chicago off-hours drinking excessively, bedding beautiful young women whose names he checks scraps of paper to remember. “In the first flush of the morning sun, the city lay spread out to my left, more like a dream than I had ever imagined it….the city gave everything…and I bawled like a goddam madman to be so lucky…”

In the enchanting “The Art of Fielding,” Chad Harbach compares a scholar’s love for literature with Lake Michigan. “Walking along its shore called forth some of the same deep feelings that his reading of Melville did, and that reading explained and deepened his love of the water, which deepened his love of the books.” Unexpectedly, and memorably, the lake becomes this man’s final resting place.

In Patricia Albers’ rich portrait of the abstract expressionist Joan Mitchell, the biographer says Mitchell painted the lake her whole career. “She watched rain clobber the lake, ice lock it up, thunderheads billow above…it shimmered, turquoise and sapphire like a tropical lagoon, or pulsed with dark ochre along its edges…”

“‘The Lake is with me today,’” Joan would say, years after leaving Chicago. “‘The memory of a feeling. And when I feel that thing, I want to paint it.’”

For more Chicago in literature: http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/448.html

 

 

 

 

 

 

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After a particularly brutal winter and a long, cold spring we here in Chicago are desperate for sun and warmth. People stand at street corners or outside office buildings, faces lifted to the sun. Not waiting for the Rapture. Or sneaking a smoke. They’re jones-ing for a hit of sunshine.

So it’s understandable that we who work at desks seek out lunch spots in the sun.

A lunch meeting in the Loop the other day had me frantically searching for a tasty meal outdoors. I found one for us, beside the Chicago River. Newly opened this spring, Bridge House Tavern (321 N. Clark St.) offers a long, attractively furnished patio open to the sky. Tour boats pass, tourists wave, the river glows (from the sun!)

Salads, shared plates, entrees: theirs is a broad, enticing menu. We ordered sandwiches ($10 – $14) that were tasty and inventive (bacon milkshake anyone?) sided with thin-cut fries. Service was attentive. We’ll be back.

I brought my New York foodie friends for lunch in the sun at Floriole, a bakery and cafe at 1220 W. Webster St. Frittatas, tartines, pizzettes, salads, baguettes spread with butter and mustard, layered with ham and cheese. Fresh, organic, seasonal, locally sourced, prepared on site: pure and delicious. The cafe opens completely to the street, so even inside you’re outside. Too, their sidewalk tables offer a place in the sun.

More midday sun spots: Coco Pazzo Cafe (636 N. St. Clair St.) for sophisticated pastas, roast vegetables, salads. Also kissed by the sun, Trattoria Roma (1535 N. Wells St.) serves thin-crust pizza, crisp calamari, my favorite fennel salad, and big bowls of pasta.

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I confess: I loved Borders. I spent many hours and countless dollars there.

Not the store on North Avenue so much, but the one on Michigan Avenue. HIgh ceilings, four full floors of pricey real estate, a cafe with a spectacular view of the avenue, deep collections of poetry, travel, photography and fiction (who cares about the rest, really?)

True, the checkout area was littered with tarot cards and packaged candy and beaded book thongs. And the checkout experience was on par with airline security screening.

Even so, Borders on Michigan Avenue was my nerd heaven: a huge bookstore on the same stretch as Neiman Marcus, Tiffany’s, Ralph Lauren, Dior, Chanel.

And now it’s gone.

What’s a book junkie to do?

Barnes & Noble on Clybourn? Ugh. Save for the original Barnes & Noble in New York, I can’t stand B &N. They’re all the same: beige, and poorly stocked. (For me. See above.) Except for a collector set of J.D. Salinger for my son’s 18th birthday, B&N never surprises me and typically disappoints. I can’t find the book; I can’t even find the section the book would be in.

Setting off for a week in the sun, I needed a few new books. So did my tween daughter. It was too late to order from Amazon, so we went to another North Side neighborhood to a store that’s been selling books since 1980. Unabridged Bookstore, 3251 N. Broadway, Chicago is three adjoined storefronts. Gay and lesbian titles is a focus. One room is devoted to children’s books and young adult books; their offerings are wide and deep.

My daughter found more books than she’d set out for. “Two walls of young adult books!” Shelved within those was Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre.” I hadn’t thought of it as a young read, but we scanned the first few pages and found it just right for her.

Fiction! I found books newly in paperback, including Ian McEwan’s “Solar” (sounds wicked) and Julie Orringer’s “The Invisible Bridge,” a new favorite among my best reader friends. On display, I picked up Darrin Strauss’s memoir, “Half a Life.” I loved the first page; I had to have it. Also “New York Stories,” an Everyman Pocket Library I’d never seen before.

Unabridged clerks are knowledgeable, helpful, approachable. Checking out felt special, even cozy; we were the only ones at the register!

Alex and I left with a heavy bag. We’ll be back.

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I’m posting this out of frustration with the bland, dated advice in yesterday’s New York Times Travel section. A couple celebrating their 25th anniversary plans to spend a few days in Chicago in early December. What to do, where to go?

Agreed. It will be cold.

Let’s review the reasons to visit Chicago any time of year: food, art and architecture, shopping, theater and improv and blues, Lake Michigan and its beachfront paths, neighborhoods, sports. Chicago is a world-class city, a splendid place to spend a few days. Without kids, even better.

Stay at a hotel on or near Michigan Avenue. Don’t rent a car. You’ll be able to walk, cab, bus or take the “el” easily, day or night.

Arriving late? Many restaurants serve until 2 a.m. Cozy up at the The Purple Pig (500 N. Michigan Ave.) for small-plate Mediterranean fare. Slurp oysters at Shaw’s Crab House (21 E. Hubbard St.)

In the morning, stroll through Millennium Park (Randolph St. at Michigan Ave.) Its wonders are obvious. Walk its southern bridge to enter the new Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago (111 S. Michigan Ave.) Duck into the Cultural Center to marvel at the world’s largest Tiffany dome (78 E. Washington St.)

For lunch: Park Grill, Henri, and The Gage are excellent choices nearby. For quick and casual, natives flock to Potbelly Sandwich Shops. If you must sample deep-dish pizza, Uno’s is authentic, and always crowded (29 E. Ohio St.) Rosebud serves Italian food and my favorite hamburger.

The world comes to Michigan Avenue to shop and you should, too. From H&M to Perla, this street has the Champs Elysees’ energy, with better stores. Side streets offer boutique shopping.

Massage? Urban Oasis (12 W. Maple St.)

Dinner! Chicago is a mecca. Topolobampo, Blackbird, Mexique, Naha, MK, Keefer’s, Piccolo Sogno, Takashi, Spiaggia: all great choices for a special meal. Nightcap — for the stupendous view — at the Signature Lounge, 96th floor of the John Hancock Center.

Take breakfast or lunch in a Chicago neighborhood. In Lincoln Park, try Toast, Floriole, Perennial, Twisted Sister. In Wicker Park, head to Hot Chocolate or Big Star. Logan Square, savor Lula’s Cafe or Longman & Eagle. Foodies will head to Hot Doug’s for duck-fat fries and foie gras dogs.

Wander residential streets or ride the “el” — you don’t need a tour guide to experience Chicago’s glorious architecture. If the weather is agreeable, walk the lakefront path south towards Oak Street. Endless lake, the beach in winter, Chicago’s skyline. There’s nothing like it.

Readers: where would you send a couple visiting Chicago?

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From all the press I’d read, I felt certain I was going to walk into a market of French foods. Instead, this market is global, with 30 local vendors putting out native produce, Vietnamese sandwiches, Mexican fare, Polish sausage, Italian coffee, exotic pastas, fish and meat, French pastries, artisan soaps, cut flowers, crepes — and more. There’s tables inside for diners who want to grab a quick lunch, and outside, tables blessed with sun.

I was looking for dinner ingredients after a pleasing business lunch at Prairie Fire (215 N. Clinton St.) brought me to the West Loop.

After touring the whole market — brightly lit, with wide aisles — I zeroed in on the fresh offerings at Produce Express, where I nabbed pints of local blueberries and blackberries ($4 each) and a bag of mixed greens ($2). If I were a commuter, I’d be stopping here daily; prices were reasonable and there was a wide assortment, all of it locally grown at this time of year. Their vegetables looked exquisite, and, I have to admit that I liked being inside — not fighting dogs and baby strollers and the heat — buying local, quality produce.

From there I headed to Pastoral Artisan Cheese Bread & Wine, an outpost of the popular Lakeview establishment (2945 N. Broadway). I picked up a puffy boule ($3.42), creamy hand-dipped ricotta ($6.99 per pound) marinated sun-dried tomatoes ($14.99 per pound) and Italian prosciutto ($24.99 per pound). The servers were knowledge, helpful and generous with tastes.

On my way out, I picked up oversized cookies ($2 each) from Sweet Miss Giving’s, a bakery and jobs training program that donates half its profits to Chicago House. Good deeds produce great cookies: my chocolate chip cookie eaters raved about the dark chocolate chunks and golden, fluffy dough.

The market (131 N. Clinton St.) is accessible from Clinton Street or the Ogilvie Transportation Center (504 W. Madison St.) It’s a treasure for commuters, West Loop workers and residents, and home cooks like me who’ve wandered off their beaten path.

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