On the nightstand

The Heir Apparent (David Ives; 2011. Drama.)
Although I enjoyed The School for Lies, Ives’ adaptation of Molière’s The Misanthrope, his take on Jean-François Regnard’s Le Légataire universel left me cold. The Heir Apparent, part of the 2015-16 season at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, is, as Chris Jones reminds readers, a farce. That it’s a farce that should end in half as much time, however, and with far less potty humor was painfully evident in text; it was particularly harrowing in person (as I mentioned here). I actually considered leaving at intermission, in fact. Only the cast’s brilliance prevented me from doing so.

Neighbors (Jan T. Gross; 2001. Non-fiction.)
Our Class (Tadeusz Słobodzianek (adaptation by Ryan Craig); 2009. Drama.)
Earlier this month, I visited the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center. I pulled Neighbors from my shelves that evening, and Gross’ exploration of the senseless horror that occurred in the Polish village of Jedwabne on July 10, 1941, prompted me to read the play inspired by the National Book Award Finalist. Where Neighbors is brisk, relentless, insightful, and disturbing, however, Our Class, which is enslaved by its framing device, fails the material. In fact, had I not read Neighbors, I would have had no real context for events in the play, which culminate in the murder of 1,600 Jews by their friends, schoolmates, and neighbors.

Scored (Lauren McLaughlin; 2011. Fiction.)
A friend mentioned Sesame Credit in our correspondence earlier this month, asking if it didn’t remind me of a YA novel. At the time, I could not locate a conventional news source’s report on China’s “social credit” program, although numerous alarmist links were readily available. I have since read the CNN op-ed “The risks — and benefits — of letting algorithms judge us,” however, and I think she may have been thinking of David Eggers’ The Circle, which is not YA. That said, my search for a related YA title eventually led to Scored, a book that, while competent in its way, yielded few surprises. I did like this, though:

Imani knew that her parents would not have understood. Their grasp of the world was based on an obsolete value system that was probably the root of Imani’s problems. Who else had gifted her with the dusty antique of loyalty, that “disempowering bond”?

Ready Player One (Ernest Kline; 2011. Fiction.)
In which eighties references and geekery abound!

Arcadia (Tom Stoppard; 1993. Drama.)
In an odd scheduling juxtaposition, I saw Marjorie Prime at the Writers Theatre about an hour after leaving the Illinois Holocaust Museum; hence, emotionally speaking, I received a gut-punch followed by a blow to the jaw. Kate Fry and Mary Ann Thebus, who will almost certainly be nominated Jeff Awards, reduced me to tears with their performances in this thought-provoking and timely play, which runs through March 13. Marjorie Prime may well be the last Writers Theatre production in its Books on Vernon location: The new theater space opens in March with Stoppard’s Arcadia. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is one of my favorite works of literature, but I have read no other Stoppard. How delighted I am to have “found” Arcadia. Brilliant. Just brilliant.

By the way, articles in the playbill for Marjorie Prime are responsible for Brian Christian’s The Most Human Human and Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence moving from my shelves to my nightstand. Other notable titles in my TBR stack include Bertolt Brecht’s The Life of Galileo, the Remy Bumppo production of which will also open in March; Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air; and the third volumes of two graphic series, The Bunker and Letter 44.

Back to the Art Institute

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■ Todros Geller’s “Strange World” (1928)
■ Entertainer (Tomb Figure), Northern dynasties (6th century)
Two Images Salado branch of the Mogollon; Southeastern Arizona, United States: Ritual Cache (1300/1400)
Two Images Chupícuaro, Guanajuato or Michoacán, Mexico: Female Figurines (200/100 B.C.)

The year of the ….

I first read about “Bird of the Year” a dozen years ago, in Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s paean to birding, Rare Encounters with Ordinary Birds. She writes:

There is a game birders play on New Year’s Day called “Bird of the Year.” The very first bird you see on the first day of the new year is your theme bird for the next 365 days. It might seem a curious custom, but people who watch birds regularly are always contriving ways to keep themselves interested. This is one of those ways. You are given the possibility of creating something extraordinary — a Year of the Osprey, Year of the Pileated Woodpecker, Year of the Trumpeter Swan. This game is an inspiration to place yourself in natural circumstances that will yield a heavenly bird, blessing your year, your perspective, your imagination, your spirit. New year, new bird.

After her breathless anticipation, Haupt is confronted with… an Eastern Starling, or “sky-rat.”

The Year of the Eastern Starling. Inauspicious, yes, but not without its charms, according to Haupt.

Before heading to bed on New Year’s Eve, I ensured that all of the feeders were topped off and that corn and nuts were scattered for the squirrels. (As any seasoned backyard birder knows, there are no squirrel-proof feeders. Cheap feed scattered away from the feeders will (mostly) keep those furry nuisances away from the birds and the more expensive seed, though.) Last year, the Year of the American Goldfinch, I hung a Post-It on the big window to remind everyone to note his or her first bird. This year, I forgot the note, but it didn’t matter. The weather has been so warm that the window in my bedroom — and thus, the pleated blind — is often open a bit each night. I saw the first bird of the year before I had even left my bed: a house sparrow hopping and chatting with his friends in the yew hedge.

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I took the above photo in Spring 2007.

The New Contemporary

The Art Institute exhibition “The New Contemporary” (re)opened in mid-December. Once we had made our way through, I was glad to climb the stairs to the modern galleries — some Picasso, Ernst, Dali, Beckman, et al. to clear my head. Oh, there were some high points in “The New Contemporary“: The Hockney that looks like an Updike novel to me (“American Collectors“) has a wonderful space, for example. But Pollock’s “The Key” is off-exhibit, and its replacements don’t interest me as much. The underlying narrative of many of the featured works in the contemporary galleries isn’t as clear or, when it is clear, as compelling to me, as, say, the modern galleries.

To me. Those two words explain, of course, why it is impossible to define art. “To me” varies so widely. One man’s sculpture, book, movie, play (see below), etc. is another’s bit of rubbish, and all that. There are some who say that primitive pieces, like the Venus of Willendorf, aren’t art, for example, or the Chauvet Cave paintings. I’d heartily disagree, but then who am I? I had trouble seeing the art in “The New Contemporary” but have absolutely no trouble seeing how typeface could be described as art. Shrug and chuckle. There is so much to see. No need to get hung up on what doesn’t speak to me. I just climbed some stairs and (re)discovered something that does.

I keep meaning to return to Cynthia Freeland’s short treatise But Is It Art, but then I remember that it sort of annoyed me when I first began it, and I’m really more of a Sister Wendy or Simon Schama sort of gal. So it mocks me from the art bookcase.

Speaking of rubbish, one man’s and not another’s, I disliked The Heir Apparent. David Ives drew from Moliere’s The Misanthrope for The School for Lies, both of which delighted me two seasons ago. He drew from a contemporary of Moliere for Heir, but the results were just not my cuppa. Too much potty humor and too thin a plot, which was actually a damned shame because the cast they assembled was superb — comedic timing and delightful verbal gymnastics galore. And the set was stunning. Oh, well. Not every play can be four stars.

The following images include detail from works seen during my most recent visit to the Art Institute of Chicago.

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■ Jackson Pollock’s “Number 17A” (1948)
■ Jackson Pollock’s “Greyed Rainbow” (1953)
■ David Hockney’s “American Collectors” (1968)
■ Jasper Johns’ “Alphabet” (1959)
■ Jean Dubuffet’s “Head of a Man” (1945)
■ Alberto Giacometti’s “Couple” (1926)
■ Fernand Léger’s “Reclining Woman” (1922)

Field trip

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For twenty years, I have mostly avoided visiting the museum campus during spring and winter breaks and summer camp days, but scheduling constraints dictated that the winter holiday was the most convenient time for an all-day visit. Oh, the noise, noise, NOISE! Still, the Field Museum is such an amazing place that I nearly put the pressing crowds out of mind, particularly when wandering exhibits like the Gidwitz Hall of Birds and the Cyrus Tang Hall of China. The following images were captured in “The Greeks: Agamemnon to Alexander the Great” and the Cyrus Tang Hall of China.