Review: Soul and the City: Art, Literature, and Urban Living, by Arnold Weinstein

2287758[1]I’m a city girl.  I love Chicago and have lived here all my life.  I can barely imagine living anywhere else, though Copenhagen is a close second.  I found this survey of how art describes the city to be fascinating, even though it’s mainly focused on European cities, and then on the city in previous centuries.

It’s a dark course, at least in part because the city is a dark concept in many ways.  Urban crime, urban grime, the manner in which isolation increases in a city environment (I don’t find that true, but then I’m an introvert for whom the city provides just enough contact with others.)  Art describes this as surely as it does the vibrancy of the city, and the way the arts flourish within it.

Professor Weinstein is an excellent guide, citing not only literature, but fine arts, film, and every other art form  that has been used to express what the city is.  This is one of the shorter Great Courses I’ve listened to, but there is so much material here, that the sources would make for months of reading and viewing if you found yourself wanting to explore the subject more deeply and broadly.

As with most of the Great Courses, I recommend this one unreservedly.


Review: The Day I Became an Autodidact, by Kendall Hailey

698417[1]This was a reread of a book I read when it was first published.  Hailey was in her early 20s, I was in my late 30s, but it spoke to me because I feel like an autodidact in spite of having spent years in school.  For me, school was a long series of nice suggestions on what I wanted to explore next. Making good grades wasn’t generally a problem for me unless I was bored stupid, which happened maybe three times in my grade and high school years.  I’d go off and do my thing, and stop paying any attention to my schoolwork, fail a bunch of stuff, get a stern talking-to and go back to making at least a minimal effort.  Most of my friends fit into this category to some degree or other.  Some did well in school and enjoyed it, some tolerated it, but all of us seem to learn best on our own.

Hailey’s decision to leave school early was made with the support of her parents, a novelist mother and a playwright father.  It certainly wasn’t my situation, and when I first read the book, I envied her that.  I followed her attempts to educate herself with glee, enjoyed her insights, and made notes about books I really really should be reading as well. (Hailey did some heavy classical lit reading.)

This time around, I saw her from a greater distance, separated by 30 years from my younger self, I found I was impatient with her judgements, the way she flitted from one career dream to the next, and the thread of her unrequited love for a family friend.  I kept having to say, “Tracy, she’s a kid, lighten up!” That rational voice was quite correct.  She was a kid, a smart, sassy one, who was so passionate about the world that she wanted to experience it via every art she could think of.  She was a kid so much of the time she was certain she knew how things had to work.  She was a kid, so of course she was in love.

I don’t know what I was expecting.

But when I did lighten up, I found the same delight in her progress that I had nearly 30 years earlier.  I enjoyed her thoughts and observations on what she was reading, her efforts to write novels and plays, become an actress and photographer, and to get Matthew to declare his love for her.  She counts their kisses!  Yes, she has it bad, and occasionally she’ll step back and think, “What am I doing?”  But her resolutions don’t last.

Hailey writes so winningly, not only about her self-education, but of her family, that I felt I’d come to know them all.  Father Oliver’s struggle with Parkinson’s, uncle Tom’s eccentricities, mother Elizabeth’s process as a novelist, and Nanny’s and sister Brooke’s hilarious weirdness.  They’re the heart of Hailey’s book, even more than the path she’s choosing to walk.  This time around I feared for her because, having lost people I adored, I knew how hurt she was going to be when the same happened to her.

I’m glad I chose to revisit this book though I doubt I will again, unless I live another 30 years, and consider it an anniversary of sorts.  Revisiting books you loved when you were younger can be dodgy.  This one held up, thank goodness.  If you love the idea of self-directed education, if you like smart young women with a bit of sass on them, this book may well appeal to you.

Review: Paddle Your Own Canoe, by Nick Offerman

18071025[1]My first thoughts as I began reading Nick’s book  (I call him Nick.  He’s my TV boyfriend, deal.) was SOULMATE!!!!  I mean, here’s a man who both is and is not Ron freakin’ Swanson, making him the best of both worlds, in my opinion.  And he has manly facial hair which… okay, I don’t really like moustaches, but it is manly.  Also, he’s originally from Chicago.  Yes he is, he’s from Minooka IL, which as you should know is Chicago by default because it’s north of Kankakee.  Technically Chicago is bounded by Kankakee in the south, Lake Geneva in the north, and the Mississippi in the west.  And there’s a bigass lake to the east which is ours too.  This is not my fault, I didn’t make the rules.

Then I calmed down and admitted that Nick might not be my soulmate because he seems to have found one in Megan Mullally, a perfectly hilarious woman to whom I willingly relinquish any soulmate claims on Nick.  Instead, I believe him to be a kindred spirit.  He’s smart, he’s funny, and he doesn’t give a damn what people think of him.  I like his politics, I like his attitudes, and I like his style.  If that’s not a kindred spirit, I don’t know what is.

I’ve seen reviewers complain that this book is anti-religion, and I’m here to tell you it’s not, not at all.  Offerman (I just put my reviewer cap on over my fangirl cap, so now I’m being all review-y.) says upfront that religion is a good thing when you keep it in your church, your family, your heart.  When you try to put it into your government, when you try to use it to define your society, that’s his line in the sand. (Mine too.)  That doesn’t make him anti-religion, that makes him anti-authoritarian and anti-jerk, which in my book is a good thing.

I’ve seen reviewers complain that this book is profane.  I resist the word in this context because of its Puritan-level prissiness.  Offerman’s language is bawdy in the best sense of the word; a big, Falstaffian lot of cussin’ and good, honest sexual innuendo, neither of which will kill, maim, or otherwise do jack to another human being.  Or to put it into perspective, he’s not shooting people, is he?  So calm the hell down.

What he is doing in this wonderful, hilarious book, is telling the story of his life, crediting his family, particularly his parents, his friends, and his wife with making him as good a man as he is able to be, which seems pretty darn good to me.  From his origins in Minooka, to his college years in Champaign-Urbana, to theater in Chicago, and then to film and television in Los Angeles, Offerman gives us not only his own story, but an insight into how a working actor becomes a working actor.  In his case it involves high production values, and a good bit of weed.

One of my favorite stories is how he developed a running joke about proposing to Mullally, first by accident, then as a series of practical jokes, and finally for real.  Their romance warmed the heart of an old cynic like myself, and made me laugh.

I don’t really know if you’ll love this book the way I do. I hope so.  I hope you will love it and leave a message saying, “We must be kindred spirits.”  Because there’s nothing better in the world.

Bugs are tricksy beasts

So last night I picked up the towel in the bathroom and there was a bug on it. It was just a boxy little beetle, one of those dull charcoal grey ones that you see a lot in the garden, and sometimes in the house. So I said to him “you need to get off my towel” and I flicked him with my finger but he wouldn’t let go

So then I tried to nudge him off, and finally I sort of half nudged half picked him up and moved him to the windowsill where he fell onto his back. And then he didn’t move. So I said “bug are you okay?”


Me: bug, are you dead?


I blew on him a couple of times and he tumbled around, and I thought during one of the tumbles I saw a leg move, but it could have been my breath, or could have been anything.

I thought “the bug is dead. Poor bug.” but he landed the right way, so I just left him alone figuring if he’s dead well I’ll get rid of him later.

I kept checking on him while I worked around the bathroom.

Me: Bug, are you dead?


And so on.

Walked out of the bathroom, did something in the kitchen, and when I came back he was gone.

Me: I knew it, you little liar, I knew you weren’t dead! Bastard.

The moral of this story is that bugs are sly and tricksy, and will lie to you even when you address them courteously. Little bastards.

Review: The Dire King, by William Ritter

34276268[1].jpgI’d been wondering for a while now about why The Dire King was called the final novel in the Jackaby series, and now I think I know.  Hope I know, I should say, because it’s really just a guess.  I think it’s intended to be the end of a story arc.

Well okay, it’s absolutely the end of this story arc which takes place over four books and nearly a year in time.  There’s no question that this arc is finished, though the why of that I’m not going to reveal because it’s a huge spoiler, one that had me gasping in shock.  Oh yeah, it was that unexpected.

Briefly, the story picks up immediately after the end of Ghostly Echoes, and follows the characters through to the end of their mission to save the world from the Dire King and his plan to wrench open the veil between this world and the world of magic, allowing all manner of magical creatures, benign and otherwise, to flood the human world, presumably with some, ah, dire consequences.

While the identity of the Dire King is unknown, it did become increasingly simple to make an educated guess as to who he really was, making this not so much a mystery as an adventure story, and a darn good one as well. There’s some great action sequences, and the usual dry humor that underlies all the Jackaby books no matter how dark the events become.  As I’ve said before, Ritter walks a fine line, and does it well.

I wasn’t certain, when I reached the end of the book, if the end of the arc meant the end of these stories of New Fiddleham and the bizarre and supernatural events that occur within and around it.  (Shades of Sunnydale!)  But the more I consider those last chapters, the more sure I am that Ritter has a lot more story to tell.  Maybe he doesn’t know it yet, but it’s all there waiting for him, and so will I be.

I want more.

Gentlemen, a word?

unwanted+advances[1].pngI spend a lot of time on social media.  My friends are all on Facebook, I enjoy Instagram, more as a consumer than a producer, but I share my photos from time to time.  I enjoy the hell out of Litsy.

One thing I really hate is that there are a lot of guys who seem to think that all social media is just a bunch of free dating apps.  I get them all the time on Facebook, and while I know a number of them are scam artists I can see how many of them collect women friends there.  Yes, I look at your profile guys.  Why wouldn’t I?  I’m not desperate for male attention, so I do take a bit of time to figure out what I’m dealing with.

But there are guys who are not scammers who seem to think that private messaging a woman is a good opener.  It’s not, not for this woman, and certainly not for any of my friends (that I know of anyway.)  What’s wrong with it?  Wow, where to start?

Okay, first, don’t think that a private message like, “Hi, how you doing today?  Where do you live?  How’s the weather? Let’s be friends.” will cut it because 1) It’s private.  Yeah I’ve been around long enough to know what that’s about.  Forget it, that bridge is closed. 2) Could it be more generic?  (answer: No.)  3)  I might be polite enough to answer your message initially, but what’s my impetus for responding to any of those questions?  You’re a stranger, you don’t care what the weather is like where I live, or how I feel.  And you sure don’t need to know anything personal about me.  Why the hell would I tell you any of those things, and why the hell do you think that’s intriguing enough to keep me chatting?

A private message that starts out by telling me how pretty I am?  Dude, don’t even because I’ll block your ass.  I’m sorry if you think that’s what all women like because all that’s going to get you is some vapid female who thinks the way she looks defines her.  If that’s what you like, great, but know your audience, okay?  Even when I was relatively pretty, I never traded on my looks.  I don’t trust people who start out their very first conversation with me by talking about how I look, because shallow much?  I’d rather you just sent a blunt, “You up for getting together for some fun?” to which I’d say “No, fuck off,” and we could both get on with our lives.  But if you think flattery works with me, you haven’t paid a goddamn bit of attention to anything on my account, which to me means you’re either a scammer or some desperate guy who is looking for a woman who isn’t much work.

Trust me, gentlemen, I am a whole lot of work.

So just as a courtesy let me tell you the following things about me so you won’t waste your time:

  1. I won’t believe you when you tell me I’m attractive.  Just flat out won’t so don’t bother.
  2. I don’t make friends with total strangers who haven’t bothered to engage my interest by discussing things I care about with me. I have a lot of male friends.  We talk. They’re smart, funny, and when they act like doofuses, I’m cool with it because I know who they are.
  3. I’m asexual.  Not looking for a relationship with anyone.  Ever.  No, I don’t need one good fuck to change my mind, okay?  Don’t insult me.
  4. Don’t try to scam me, I know a bunch of Nigerian princes.
  5. Understand that if I say, “Sorry, no.” I mean it.  Don’t hammer away at me, insult me, or whine.  None of that shit is likely to make me think, “Oh well maybe I was wrong and he’s worth my time.”
  6. Yes, this is all about guys, deal with it.  I’ve never once in all my 65 years had a woman treat me that way.

I’m sorry if this comes across as mean, I’m just tired of the time it takes to deal with the BS, okay?  Also, I have a bad nature.  So really, I’m not at all sorry, but I am polite enough to say it. Once.



Review: The Symphony, by Professor Robert Greenberg (Great Courses)

41O85wcy67L._SL300_[1]I’m a big fan of Robert Greenberg’s lectures on music.  Glinda and I are watching How to Listen to and Understand Great Music, and I’ve finished his series on J. S. Bach, and — my personal favorite — Music as a Mirror of History.  As with the latter, this course on symphonies shows us that Professor Greenberg is not just astonishingly well-versed in music, but that he has a remarkable ability to contextualize that music, allowing the listener to understand the influences that helped to create, in this case, individual pieces of work, but in the case of the more general surveys, the entire oeuvre of the composers he covers.  A good example, for me anyway, is how Shostakovich, who has never been a big favorite of mine, is put into the context of the composer’s life in Soviet Russia, under Stalin (an unenviable position for any artist) and has now become both accessible to me, and someone I actively want to listen to.

I never listen to a Greenberg course without finding that there is some composer or piece of music that now speaks to me where before he/it felt like so much noise.  In this survey I came to a greater understanding of Bruckner, a composer I’d sorta enjoyed, but never cared enough to explore more deeply, and discovered that I actually like the music of Charles Ives, Roy Harris, and Samuel Barber.  Sadly, even Robert Greenberg hasn’t been able to make Hector Berlioz remotely interesting to me. *yawn*

If there is a weakness it grows out of the limitations of the course.  There are simply too many symphonies and too many symphonic composers to cover in-depth in any such course.  So much has to be edited out, or reduced to a mere mention that it’s frustrating to think about how much more we could be learning if there was simply more time.  If I could offer a suggestion to the good professor, I would say, please give us a lecture series on more contemporary composers.  I want to learn about (just off the top of my head) Henry Cowell, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Joseph Becker, and David Diamond, as well as William Grant Still, and yes, more Shostakovich please!  More insight into their work and influences would be appreciated.

If you love classical music, but feel you want to understand more about it, and come to a deeper appreciation of the forces which shape it, you can’t do much better than listen to Professor Greenberg.

Review: Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge, by Paul Krueger

30215441[1]So, I saw this in one of my sale listings.  Monster fighting Chicago bartenders?  Sold, sez I.  Had to be good, right?


What you’ve got here, at least in my opinion, is an idea that could have been so much fun that you’d want to go racing out to a local lounge, for a cocktail and a bit of monster-fighting.  And yet, it isn’t.  Right off the bat, I thought, “My god, these people are dull.” Bailey is an utter non-entity who is supposed to be this badass monster fighter but who spends most of her time moping over Zane who, to be fair, is as dull as she is so they’d be a great couple, really, if Zane wasn’t currently involved with Mona, a strong, silent black woman.  Cliche much?  And speaking of cliches, the antagonist in this comes up just short of rubbing his hands together and twirling his moustache like Snidely Whiplash.  And in fact, that’s exactly who I was thinking of when I read about this person.  There are only two fairly interesting characters in the mix, Bucket, a transgender man, and Vincent, a blind, gay bar owner.

Even the damn monsters aren’t all that interesting.  They’re called “Tremens” which yeah, it’s funny, and a group of them is a “Delirium,” which suddenly puts it over the top and into high school humor territory.  If that’s what passes as edgy humor, we are in sad shape in this country.

You never get much of a sense of the Tremens being more than a plot device, though.  They’re all alike, all mindless monsters.  When one is sighted, the nearest bartender mixes up some kind of magical cocktail, downs it and goes out to kill the Tremens, comes back, and returns to tending bar.

The story is so utterly unengaging that I confess I skimmed the last quarter of it, including the big battle.  I think there was a big battle.  Honestly, by the time I reached that point, I didn’t much care if everyone died or not. Krueger even managed to make Chicago feel dull to me, which is no small feat because I’ve lived in that city my whole life, and I adore it.

The best part are the excerpts from “The Devil’s Water” which are fun descriptions of the magical cocktails and their ingredients.  That’s quite clever.  I could wish the book had lived up to those sections.

So normally I’d have awarded one star, but I still think the idea has merit and there were some good things to be found within the pages, so kudos for a great idea, but wow, dude, you need to work on your follow-through.

Review: The Horrid Glory of Its Wings, by Elizabeth Bear

11490765[1]Imagine if you will, the inherent difficulty of being an orphaned teenage girl in foster care.  Imagine going your whole life wearing clothes from charity bins. Imagine being an orphaned teenage girl of color, marred by disfiguring syndromes that are effects of having been born HIV+, of being reliant on hideously expensive drugs that you know you probably won’t be able to afford in a few months when you turn eighteen, lose your coverage, and have to rely on dead-end, minimum wage jobs just to survive.  Imagine feeling so ugly and wrong that you feel in your bones that you will ever know love much less marry and have a family.

If you can imagine that, you can imagine Desiree’s life, you can imagine the hopelessness that has become so pervasive that it feels normal.  And then try to imagine that girl, whose life would probably have been better if she’d died young the way everyone expected her to, meeting a harpy in the alley.  Imagine her watching this mythical bird who survives on people’s garbage, turning dead rats and maggoty meat into gleaming bronze feathers.  Imagine her seeing an image of her own pain and ugliness in something so powerful and transcendent.

Imagine you’re that girl. What would you do?

Review: Ghostly Echoes (Jackaby #3), by William Ritter


I believe I mentioned in a review of one of the previous Jackaby books that I’d heard a rumor that #4, The Dire King was the last in the series.  However as I finished Ghostly Echoes, I began to think that it was possible that what was meant was that #4 would finish this big story arc that we’ve been following from book #1.  I hope that’s the case anyway, because I find this universe such fun and so engaging that I would hate to have it just simply stop after four books.  There is so much more to explore, in my opinion.  There’s Jackaby’s life story, which, in Ghostly Echoes is hinted at, and Abigail’s which we’ve seen only via her explanation for why she fled it.

Then there’s Jenny’s story, which is what GE deals with.  Who murdered Jenny, and why?  Was her fiance involved, or was he unwittingly responsible for her death?  That all of the answers to these questions tie into the threads of the story we’ve been following from Jackaby through Beastly Bones makes Jenny’s death a much bigger issue, global if you will.

While these books are quite funny, they’re also becoming progressively darker.  Ritter walks a fine line and he does it well.  He ups the ante while keeping the tone light.  And he gives us the usual cast of characters: Jackaby, Abigail, Jenny, Douglas, Charlie, Ogden the frog who must not be stared at, and so on, but introduces some major players who will doubtless be critical in the fourth book.  There are revelations, complications, weirdness, hilarity, and some genuinely dark moments that gave me pause.  It’s all these things that keep me coming back, breathlessly pursuing the storyline and yet not wanting to finish, not just yet.

For me, that’s the mark of a job well done.