Review: Go West

I’ve been making the rounds of all the Buster Keaton films on Netflix. This week it was Go West (1925) which is basically Buster Keaton goes west. It was different from his other films I’ve seen. Usually, the end is  an impressive sequence of Keaton doing incredible feats of physical comedy. In this movie, it was spread out the film and others partook of the physical comedy, such as a man in a store on roller skates or a barber riding a bull.  It was enjoyable just a bit different.

In this film, Buster Keaton plays “Friendless” who is down and out. He has no friends nor job and ends up accidentally on a range as a cowboy. He befriends a cow named “Brown Eyes” who follows him around. There is a hint of romance with the owner’s daughter. The cow Brown Eyes was impressive. It must have been quite a feat to train her to follow him around as if she were like a dog. They actually make a fine pair.

There is the usual train sequence in the film which I’ve come to realize is a Keaton regular. He must have been fascinated by trains since they appear so many times in his movies. It can’t be an accident back in a time when special effects were really effects and done live.

Anyway, the scene that really does it for me is a scene where the cows end up in the streets of LA. It’s brilliant to see early 20th century LA where people are going about their business. And then the havoc when cows (mostly bulls) are wandering around. There is the required scene of a bull in a china shop which just makes me happy. The cows end up in department stores, barbershops and more. It’s early commentary  about how far city life has come from the rural roots where living with animals is a regular feature of life.

It’s a fun film. I’ll admit that it’s not my favorite Buster Keaton film but they are all worth watching so far.

Lincoln Park Zoolights and Hot Chocolate

On Sunday, we went to the Lincoln Park Zoolights, another favorite Chicago Christmas tradition. The zoo gets decked out with holiday lights so it feels a little like Vegas. The trees are covered in colorful lights or those falling icicle lights. There are these light up animated signs, usually of animals. My favorites are the gibbon swinging and the chameleon/lizard that catches a fly with its tongue. There is even a Loch Ness Monster sitting next to the lagoon. There are areas lights timed to music and giant snow globes. There are few things in this world that I believe you can’t have too much of. Christmas lights are one of those few. Also, there are ice sculptures including one that was a carved heart with a proposal in it.

As a wonderful bonus, some of the animal houses are open after hours. We wandered into the gorilla house to see chimpanzees stretched out, sleeping in front of the viewing glass. They were so peaceful. And you got a good look at their feet which really look like hands. We also wandered into the monkey house where the monkeys were more active. There was a tiny monkey that clearly wanted to play; he grabbed an adult’s tail and was hoisting himself up it like it was a rope. He tried to play what looked like tag with another. Sadly, the adults were not having any of it. But it was so cute. There are also lemurs now. Yes, lemurs.

Also, the hot chocolate was up to muster. There are little kiosks that sell it around the zoo. I’m not sure what brand or store they are from; it may be Hershey’s which is surprising since the hot chocolate was so good. You could get regular or flavored with Reeses Peanut Butter Pieces, Peppermint Patty, Caramel Turtle, and Triple Chocolate. I had the Reeses Peanut Butter one since hot chocolate and peanut butter are a bit rare considering the prevalence of chocolate and peanut butter in other products. It was good. It’s not as thick as others previously mentioned but it didn’t taste watery or powdery. It was perfect for a cold December night wandering around the zoo. And the Reeses Pieces were a nice addition. So yeah, it is worth it.

Sadly, there seemed to be something amiss this time we went. A good portion of the lights were out so there were stretches of darkness in the zoo. There were sections that were clearly decked out in lights but weren’t on. We heard people speculating that maybe it was one bulb that did it. Who knows?

But it was still enjoyable and something I like to do every year. I think it is open until the 4th or 5th of January so you still have time.


Pedway Stained Glass

While I finishing up Christmas shopping on Friday, I had a chance encounter with a lovely collection of Stained Glass windows in the Macy’s Pedway. First and foremost, if you are unaware of the pedway or haven’t used it, you are in for a treat. It’s a lovely system of underground and occasionally above ground routes that connect many buildings in the loop. It’s perfect for avoiding the cold and inclement weather. It was first built in 1951 to connect the red and blue lines at Washington. Here is a map from the city. There are even tours of the pedway which I haven’t done yet but really should. There are even businesses down there.

Anyway, there is a portion of the pedway that connects Macys to the Daley Center (along with several nearby building). Recently, twenty-two American Victorian windows were installed in a portion of it next to Wrigleyville Sports or the Starbucks in the basement floor of Macy’s. The project was done in conjunction with Macy’s , the Chicago Cultural Mile Association and Navy Pier’s Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows.

The windows are brilliant with colors and textures. They are all made between 1880 and 1910 by people in the US. It’s all non-religious so it’s a lot of natural scenes and Greek/Roman Mythology. There are a couple more abstract constructions, a nod to Moorish design, which are really before their time.   There is even a window from Louis Comfort Tiffany himself (or his studio).  It’s an amazing celebration of nature and colors. Some pieces have glass shaped like jewels, which is really different from the other stained glass I’m used to seeing.

 Most of the stained glass I’ve seen is in a religious context like a church or synagogue. The stained glass is either set in the Bible or Lives of the Saints or is very abstract. I lean towards the Bible scenes since they are more compelling for me. I like to see how the scenes are depicted. Also there is something wonderful about the typical blue and red robes worn by Bible figures. And animals. Gotta have more animals in stained glass. The abstract ones, typically found in synagogues, are not really to my taste.

But these American Victorian stained glass are a revelation to me. The color is more vibrant (probably due to more advanced glass coloring techniques and materials) and for lack of a better word, flatter. Religious stained glass shows several scenes with lots of minute details in small pieces of glass. In these Victorian windows, the entire glass is typically one scene so it’s seems bigger and therefore flatter. (This may also impact the perception that these windows seem brighter- larger pieces of glass would probably do that).

 Also there are some games that are played with representations. The inscriptions discuss that Victorian windows  tended to have frames within the composition. It reinforced the notion that you were looking at the natural scene from a frame within a frame. It’s a couple steps to Magritte’s “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” but we are getting there in art.

The variety of window uses is striking. There are some that have curved tops that may have been in public spaces while one window is actually three stacked for a staircase. The rectangular ones were probably used in people’s private homes. Far cry from the days when taxes were levied on windows!

The plaques that accompany it were really striking. One thing that was very American about these stained glasses was the use of beveling for some of the glass. Apparently, Bohemian immigrants had learned the art of beveling and applied it to stained glass in America. It’s not something you’ll find in Europe.

And according to DNAinfo, the stained glass industry was remarkable for the advancement of women. According to Corning Museum of Glass, it goes back to the 18th century in Europe where women ere permitted to undertake some tasks with glass making, including glass cutting and bead stringers. Some women were able to be designers. I was extremely overjoyed to hear that Rene Lalique’s daughter, Suzanne Lalique Haviland, even made some designs for glassware and perfume bottles.

Corning Museum of Glass reports an interesting notation in the 1902 Annual Report of the United States Commison of Labor, “Some manufacturers do not want female designers…Once employed, they are preferred, because they are naturally of a more artistic temperament. They display more taste, are always reliable, and can do fully as good work as men. lt is the opinion that the competition and employment of women in the field of design…has tended to improve the work of men.”

Tiffany hired women in his studios, inclding Agnes Northrup, Mary McDowell, and Elizabeth Comyns. He even opened the Women’s Glass Cutting Department in1892. Clara Bud, an artist, worked for Tiffany but had her own studio. Clara Driscoll had her own staff at Tiffany. Reports discussed how glass was more suited for women due to their attention to detail.

What lovely little known history!

As commentators have noted about the recently installed Victorian windows in the pedway, these windows complement the giant Tiffany ceiling within Macy’s itself. But it really awakens the pedway. It’s just so unexpected to see these brilliant constructions in the otherwise nondescript basement. I have always loved the contrast between the mundane and the sublime to be very appealing.

What a lovely addition to the city. Go check it out sometime you are downtown. It’s worth the stop.

Top Books for 2013

So it’s that time of year when everyone is doing lists of best books, movies, etc. So I’m jumping on the bandwagon with respect to the best books of the year. This list is a mix of fiction, nonfiction, graphic novels, recently published, and not so recently published. Many of the books hit me at the right time of life. But I think that is true with the best books in our lives. In order counting down to number 1.

10.       Mr. Penumbras’ 24 Hour Bookstore, Robin Sloan

This book is about a young man who takes a night job in a strange bookstore. Patrons come to the bookstore at strange hours and take special books from its shelves. He endeavors to unravel the mystery of the bookstore. Data visualization and data analysis is a huge delightful component of the book.

9.        Ulysses, James Joyce

Yes, I had to put this on here. I pledged that I would finish this book after putting it down in college FOR NO GOOD REASON. I will admit that it’s not an easy read but it’s worth it if you like experimental language. Each chapter is written differently whether it is a chapter of questions and answers or a play. It follows Homer’s Odyssey in a way. It follows the day in the life of Leopold Bloom in Dublin and charts his progress through the city. At times, my heart stopped for the sheer brilliance of the work.

8.      Saga, Brian K. Vaughan

This is another comic book series that takes place in a Star Wars-like universe. Two lovers come from opposing species who are at war. They bring a daughter in the world and try to find a place where they can live. However, they are beset by bounty hunters and governments that cannot abide by their forbidden love. You also get the perspectives of the bounty hunters and officials set to find them. The art is crisp, clean, and pitch perfect.

7.      Unwritten, Mike Carey

This is a comic book series that is still being written. I say this because I didn’t know and it’s driving me mad that I have to wait for the next issue. It’s about the son of an author who has gone missing who ends up fighting a war in literature against a mysterious ancient society. It’s got magic, fabulous animals, and the greats of literature.

6.       Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi

This autobiographical graphic novel is about the life of the young girl living Iran in the years leading up to the Revolution and beyond. It goes over her trials living in the oppressive regime in Iran and her plights as an exile in Europe. The art is breath-taking and the story is riveting.

5.        Daytripper, Gabriel Ba, Fabio Moon

It follows the life of a Brazilian man throughout his life. Each chapter is a pivotal point in his life and ends with his unexpected death. It asks the question: when does life really begin? A first kiss, first love, first child?  It’s beautiful, heartbreaking and really was the most prefect thing to read at a monumental birthday in my life.

4.        The Children of Days, Eduardo Galeano

This is the new book by famous Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano who has written a little story or snippet for every single day of the year. Some are historical, many are biographies of women lost to history; other stories are satire (the saddest day of all: McDonalds closed in Bolivia).

3.         Relish, Lucy Knisley

This graphic novel is a series of nonfiction short stories about a woman, food and her memories. It hits the proverbial nail on the head about the relationship between food and memory like the chapter about the most perfect croissants in Venice. Some of the book deals with Chicago.Each chapter also ends with a little recipe too.

2.        Wild Ones, Jon Mooallem

The only nonfiction book on the list, Wild Ones is a look at conservation in the US and how Americans have thought about animals. Recommended by 99% Invisible, it’s funny, sad, and full of amazing stories in our past. The author focuses on three animals: polar bears, a moth in California, and the whooping crane.


1.       Where’d You Go Bernadette? Marla Stemple

This humorous book is about a young girl piecing together what happened to her missing mother. It involves Antarctica, architecture and uses shopping lists, emails, hospital bills and so much more to tell the story of this precocious tween and her mother.

Bonus:   Blackout/All Clear, Connie Willis

So these are two extra additions to the list. They are basically one book, split in half. It’s about a future where time travel has been perfected so that historians can travel back in time to actually study the events that we historians now can only piece together from documents, buildings, and artwork. In these books, historians travel back to the London Blitz and find themselves stuck there. It’s a wonderful look at civilian life during the Blitz. And if you like it, there are two more books with this framework (though you don’t need to have read them to get this) called To Say Nothing of the Dog and the Doomsday Book.

Review: The Dead Prince

Last night, we went to see Strange Tree’s The Dead Prince at the DCASE Theatre (the one affiliated with the Cultural Center). It was delightful, imaginative, and worth seeing. Sadly, it ends on Sunday.

Strange Tree is this Chicago based theatre troupe that puts on really interesting performances. I’ve seen three of their shows all written by award-winning Emily Schwartz and she’s really a fantastic playwright. My favorite of their plays (Strange Tree and Ms. Schwartz) is the Jeff award-winning Three Faces of Dr. Crippen about a man in the Victorian era who kills his wives. The main character, Dr. Crippen, is played by three actors…sometimes at the same time.  You actually come to sympathize with him which is really a feat for me. There is much mischief in this play.

The troupe and Schwartz also did A Spirit Play which also takes place in the Victorian era. It’s about a fake medium and her brother who insert themselves into a believing family…with unintended effects. It’s delightfully thrilling at times and touching at others.

Emily Schwartz also wrote one of the plays in the recent Unwilling and Hostile Instruments which was about seven women in Chicago’s history. She wrote my favorite of the seven plays about Cora Strayer, an exuberant female detective in the early 1900s. It’s full of bombast and drama as one would expect from the life of Cora Strayer.

The Dead Prince is a worthy addition to their respective repertoire. It’s a fairy tale musical about a princess who has a curse upon her: her true love has passed away before they’ve even met. So with the aid of an evil magic mirror, she goes on a quest to seek her beloved from the dead. It’s really my cup of tea. Did I mention there was an evil magic mirror? He sings  about how great it is to have an evil friend. There are puppets galore; there is even a song about bats.  There’s a fair amount of slapstick and even dismembered limbs. It’s a wonderful play about fate and choices.

If you can, go and see it before it ends. On the bright side, it appears they are bringing back The Three Faces of Dr. Crippen in 2014. So if you can’t make it by Sunday, you’ll have a chance to see the other play next year.

Symphony of Chicago

In an earlier post, I mentioned that I recently discovered the delights of Roman Mars’ radio program 99% Invisible. For those who haven’t had a chance to check it out, it’s a program about design, architecture; basically, it’s about the small or large details that people thought about putting together that one normally misses. For instance, Ladislav Sutnar is the man who put parentheses in telephone area codes when they were introduced.

Anyway, as I make my way through the podcasts, there was one that struck my fancy. It’s about  Arseny Avraamov, a Soviet composer who believed that the city was a symphony. In 1923, he conducted from a Moscow roof with flags. There were factory sirens, cannons, and marches; the noises he knew from the city. He called the piece “Symphony of the Sirens.” However, there was a military parade so most people didn’t even know it was going on. He considered it the music of the future. This 30 minute clip claims to be a version of the work. It is just sounds of the city. I think it is beautiful and inspiring. I love cities and I especially love Chicago.

What got me thinking was that he believed that every city had its own symphony. Which made me wonder, what would the symphony of Chicago sound like?

Well, first and foremost, there would the sounds of the L: the recorded voice of the L train announcing the stops and the rumble of the El tracks over ground. There’d be the sound of construction and ambulance sirens. There’d be the sounds of protests and ethnic parades like the Pakistani and Irish parades. The chatter and slap of feet in Michigan Avenue and State Street would have to be included. Then I’d include the sounds of many religious services in different languages from Ukrainian Village, Pilsen and more. There’d be the tolling of bells in the churches in Ukrainian Village and the sound of bagpipes. There would be the noise of airplanes landing and taking off and maybe the announcements from Metra trains. The cheers and booes of both stadiums would be natural. And some organ music and strains of the blues.

On a somber note, there would have to be gun fire since that is a part of the experience of many Chicagoans.  On a happier note, there’d be the calls of the tamale man, the twinkle of those paleta carts and the Ice Cream Truck jingles. There would be voices of local anchor-people talking about the latest scandals. And there would definitely be people cursing out: Ventra, the parking meters, and the cold. The sound of an open fire hydrant and of course, the howling of the wind in the winter. I’d include the fireworks at Navy Pier and the far away strains of the symphony over the hot summer wind.

And there would have to be someone who pronounces the s in Illinois.

What sounds am I missing from this grand city of ours?

Hot Chocolate Mixes at Home

I’ve made hot chocolate at home for many years now. To be frank, I’m a fan of the simplicity of Swiss Miss with the caveat that it must be made with warm milk. Water just don’t cut it. Sure it’s mostly sugar but it works in a pinch and is available everywhere. Also, it’s not too rich for me and sometimes you aren’t in the mood for thick thick chocolate. I also love Abuelita, a Mexican hot chocolate (basically with cinnamon), which is now owned by Nestle. The original stuff came in thick circular concentrate that you melted on a stove. (Now, you can buy it as powder, which works). I used to eat the solid circles of it whole. So good and totally decadent. Land O’ Lakes  also has these chocolate packets with the right amount of milk concentrate that does the trick if I’m at work or another environment lacking in milk.

But when I’ve tried to move beyond these lower end of the market, I’ve been disappointed. I’ve tried some fancy French chocolate mix from places that I’ve never heard of but are famous in France. I’ve tried Godiva too but to no avail.

Until I had LA Burdick’s Milk Chocolate. You may remember LA Burdick from a few weeks ago when I was in New York. I gave it good marks but it couldn’t top my other two favorite places in New York for hot chocolate. Well, the home mix takes the cake for best at home hot chocolate. It’s easy to make (no melting chocolate) and it’s the right thickness and sweetness. It’s chocolate shavings rather than powder or solid form which make the difference. Warm glass of milk, 8 spoonfuls of the powder and you’ve got a fine cup of hot chocolate.

But I’ll go back and forth between it and Swiss Miss. It is very rich so it’s a once in a while thing.