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New York

It’s worth repeating: I love to read, and write, a life.

A memoir of the Paris/New York life of Richard Seaver, an American publisher, is hard to give up. What a man, what a life.

Seaver (1926 – 2009) was teaching math and coaching wrestlers at the Pomfret School in Connecticut (a funny, charming chapter) when a wish comes true: the American Field Service Foundation awards him one of its two fellowships, to study for a year in France. It was 1950.

There he lives in a series of Paris garrets, bicycling to his work teaching English to French stewardesses. Though he struggles for money, Paris is where Seaver finds his life’s work: bringing French authors and playwrights to English readers. Later, with Barney Rosset, they bring censored work to American readers (D. H. Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterly’s Lover,” William Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch.”) Translator, editor, publisher, Seaver co-founded Grove Press, a company always on the brink of going broke from the legal fees they paid for bringing censored work to market.

The hard work of translating — Becket, Genet, Duras — is in these pages. The drug and money troubles of certain authors. His sweet romance of the French girl who would become his wife. The no-nonsense obligation to repay the U.S. for his education, serving two years during the Korean War. Settling with his head-turning wife and their small children in an illegal loft in Lower Manhattan. Waking up in Majorca to choose a literary prize winner. Grabbing the rights to Malcolm X’s biography in the days after his assassination.

A full life, a big read. I didn’t want it to end.

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Wow. How many doorstoppers in a row?

First, Peter Orner’s “Love and Shame and Love.” A great title! His story is multigenerational but so choppily told I lost interest in every character.

Next, Anna Solomon’s “The Little Bride.” Another great title, well reviewed. I put it down two-thirds of the way through. If you put a young mail-order bride in a home with an old husband and young adults sons, something — O’Neill anyone? — should happen.

I couldn’t get through even the first (confusing) chapter of Lauren Grodstein’s “A Friend of the Family.”

I thought I was much farther into Edie Meidav’s “Lola, California: A Novel” before I quit. Again, a wonderful premise that stalls: a charismatic father on Death Row, dying from cancer. Nearby, at a nudist retreat, his estranged daughter, one of his followers and her best friend from high school. This set up goes on and on and on.

One book I liked a lot: Philip Larkin’s “Jill.” Set during World War II, a working-class scholar rooms with an aristocratic hellion at Oxford University. To make his roomate jealous, the scholar imagines a girl named Jill. Then Jill appears! It’s an odd story, a delicious read.

I did all this stop and start reading during recent travels to Philadelphia, New York and Washington, D.C.

At the Philadelphia Museum of Art, “Van Gogh Close Up” runs through May 6. See it. Some of these works are in the U.S. for the first time. Also in Philadelphia, Parc Restaurant & Bistro is as good as any in Paris and opens out to beautiful Rittenhouse Square.

Because I grew up on Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals, I’m a tough critic. What a delight, then, to be completely charmed by the Broadway musical “Once.”  An at-the-bar dinner followed, at Bond 45, an Italian steakhouse in Times Square. Another New York highlight: an evening stroll on the High Line and a bistro meal at Pastis, on Ninth Avenue.

In Washington we lucked into a guided tour of the U.S. Capitol, thanks to Senator Dick Durbin. The American plants and flowers woven into the interior architecture, and its dome — George Washington lounging with thirteen maidens — were highlights for me. Also Doug Aitken’s SONG 1, cinema and music that envelopes the Hirshhorn Museum, from sunset to midnight, through May 16.

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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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Should you trust the narrator? Depends on the book.

Two I read this summer set me up to believe that its main character, and narrator, was seeking to repair a significant love (a wife, a daughter). Each starts with a similar premise — I need to get her back — then widens in the telling, providing a much different, and far richer story than its initial pages suggest.

imagedb3In Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, narrator Hans is a Dutch energy analyst living in post 9-11 New York. His wife leaves him, taking their young son to her native England. Though he (implausibly) wins his family back in the end, they’re not his true love. Cricket, and the immigrant who brings Hans back to the game, are his chief interest.

Without the game’s green fields and international players, Hans is the walking dead. Indeed, when a woman picks him up at an art gallery, she expects to be whipped by his belt. He obliges.

Cricket is Hans’ lifeblood. With Chuck Ramkissoon, a Trinidadian immigrant, Hans seeks out places to build a cricket stadium in New York. When Hans finally bats in a winning style, the one he cares for most is witness: “Chuck had seen it happen…had prompted it.”

The writing is lush, but the story — about alienation — is cold.

25429432-1In Dear American Airlines, Jonathan Miles gives us Bennie Ford, the narrator understandably upset by captivity at O’Hare Airport, where his N.Y. to L.A. flight is grounded. Bennie is trying to get to his daughter’s wedding; he last saw her as an infant.

The letter is the book: Bennie’s howling screed to the airline contains the story of his sorry-ass alcohol-soaked life. He fails everyone except — his mother! The book’s sweetest passages give us their story.

Bennie is the only child of a Polish immigrant and a Southern schizophrenic in New Orleans. More than once his mother takes off with him, driving for days until the car breaks down; father drives out to fetch them.

Their relationship continues into his adult life; his mother, speechless from a stroke, lives with Bennie in New York’s Greenwich Village. She’s spoon fed, and communicates — furiously, hilariously — via post it notes.

The title is slight; this story has heft.

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I had three days in New York and did what I always do in a great world city: eat well and see art.

First stop: John’s Pizzeria (278 Bleeker St.) Baked in a coal-fired brick oven, it really is the world’s best thin crust. John’s is two small rooms; a line trails down Bleeker Street most evenings. Go for lunch.

Next: The Morgan Library & Museum (225 Madison Ave.) for “Pages of Gold,” art cut from medieval msm619v_21manuscripts (through Sept. 13). Exquisitely illustrated scenes from the lives of the saints, often in gold. Many look like intricately woven tapestries. Also at the Morgan: “Acquisitions Since 2004,” a thrilling hodgepodge of letters, manuscripts, drawings, watercolors (through Oct. 18). Among the treasures: a handwritten manuscript of Oscar Wilde’s “The Selfish Giant,” a Beethoven score (messy!), an Arthur Getz inked-up notebook opened to ideas for Fourth of July cover art.

During a short film about the Morgan’s history, this question was raised: Why collect, preserve, display original works on paper? Because they’ve been touched by the artist’s hand. (www.themorgan.org)

The next day we dined on croissants from City Bakery, (3 West 18th St.) Who says New Yorkers are rude? The clerk made sure our croissants were hot from the oven, instead of the ones already cooled.

vu_srgm2_crop_205More art, though not what I’d planned. I wanted my 10-year-old daughter to experience the Guggenheim Museum (1071 Fifth Ave.) inside and out. (www.guggenheim.org)

She did, sort of: a show devoted to Frank Lloyd Wright’s work — mostly architectural renderings, on paper — hogged the curlicue hallway and many adjoining galleries (through Aug. 23). As Alex said later in the day: “It’s better to go see the Robie House, or one of his other buildings, because then you’re in it and you understand why he built it that way.”

Day three (prosciutto and fresh mozzarella panini, ingredients from Zabar’s, 2245 Broadway) trumped all others: my sister insisted we go to the Neue Galerie (1048 Fifth Ave.) to see its collection of German and Austrian art and crafts, and its prized possession: Gustav Klimt’s “Adele Bloch-Bauer 1” (1907).

imagesRegardless of the work’s rich backstory, standing in front of this portrait gave me the chills. A daring composition, I was awed by its scale, kaleidoscopic imagery, and beauty. It’s the Mona Lisa of its time. See it. (www.neuegalerie.com)

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The New York Times ran a breezy piece recently about summer reads aimed at women. I turned to it excitedly: I’m a girl, I love to read. Surely there’d be something on the list for me. Nope.

What to read during the summer? Do we really seek out “lighter” reads in the warmer months? I don’t.

512j2j57yjl2Here’s a list of books I love that are by, for or about women.

  • The Makioka Sisters, by Junichiro Tanizaki, translated from the Japanese by Edward G. Seidensticker, (Vintage, $15.95). Nothing and everything happens in this big read set in Osaka after World War Two. Clinging to ancient ways, two sisters try to place Yukiko in a proper, aristocratic marriage — increasingly difficult as she ages. Another sister brazenly takes on lovers. Lovely descriptions of various regions, and ways of life, in postwar Japan.
  • Anne Sexton: A Biography, by Diane Wood Middlebrook, (Vintage, $17.95). The poet Anne Sexton (1928-1974) was celebrated in her time for her confessional poetry. Middlebrook knows poetry and poets; her “reading” of Sexton’s poems is smart and digestible. This is a deeply affecting life story that reads more like a novel than the scholarly work that it is. (Recommended by my friend Jennifer.)
  • Vita: The Life of V. Sackville-West, by Victoria Glendinning, (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, buy used). Vita’s gardens, homes, marriage, lovers, and writings made her a legend in her own time (1892-1962). Virginia Wolff was among her lovers, and Vita’s Sissinghurst Castle is said to be the most visited garden in all of England. I didn’t want this book to end: what a life! (Pressed on me by my friend Suzanne, lent in a plastic bag, bound by a rubber band.)
  • The New Yorkers, by Cathleen Shine, (Picador, $14). An ensemble piece set on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. People, and dogs, get together, fall in love, and fall apart. A rich read, with a surprisingly sweet, and fitting, end.
  • The Great Man, by Kate Christensen, (Anchor, $14.95). A textured story of the women left behind after a famous artist’s death: his widow and their autistic son, his mistress and their twin daughters, and his sister, who’s also a painter. A window into the New York art world, and a rare depiction of older women. (Thanks, Jennifer, for recommending.)

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