peteg's blog

Paul Beatty: The White Boy Shuffle.

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Kindle. Finished it off at Quán Làng Cát (on the beach at 2/2 Huỳnh Thúc Kháng, Hàm Tiến) on a day when I hoped to be scootering somewhere west of Phan Thiết. The ladies at Diễm Liên would not rent me a motorized vehicle as the cops are apparently blitzing the place in search of some New Year lucre. (Diễm said the situation would remain until after Tết, though I am sure they will be renting scooters out to more insistent foreigners than I before then.) Similarly the ladies at Quán Làng Cát wouldn't sell me a tôm kho tọ (prawn claypot) for lunch as I'd had them too many days in a row already. On the upside they make a decent coffee and their hammock is somewhat comfortable.

This is Beatty's debut novel from 1996: a first-person growing-up-black-in-L.A. story, somewhat like his most recent effort, but with more emphasis on the growing up part. The Trek and the DnD echo Clune's recent Gamelife, though the surfing and conviviality of outdoorsy Santa Monica were beyond Clune's pasty-geek experience. Gunnar, the narrator, is nerdy, a poet, but also a basketball hero and therefore beyond it all. His account of his ancestry is hilarious. I don't know why they all had German names. The teleology of it all would have made Aristotle weep.

[...] I tried to appreciate Spock's draconian logic, Asimov's automaton utopias, and the metaphysical excitement of fighting undead ghouls and hobgoblins in Dungeons and Dragons, but to me Star Trek was little more than the Federalist Papers with warp drives and phasers. "Set Democracy on stun. One alien, one vote." I was cooler than this, I had to be — I just didn’t know how to show my latent hipness to the world.

The change in semesters brought new electives and a chance to make new friends. All the exciting choices, like Print and Electric and Wine-making Shop, were gang member bastions and closed to insouciant seventh-graders such as myself. During spring registration I stood in line behind sloe-eyed bangers and listened to kind liberal guidance counselors derail their dreams. "Buster, I know you want to take Graphic Design, but I’m placing you in Metal Shop. Mr. Buck Smith will know how to handle you, and it’ll be a good prerequisite for license plate pressing. You’ve got to plan for the future, Buster, ol' boy. Can’t be too shortsighted, Mr. Brown. Remember, the longest jail sentence starts with one day."

Clearly Beatty has read the DSM cover to cover, and finds (at least some of) it laughable. His neighbour/gangbanger cares so much about him that his gift on Gunnar's eighteenth birthday is a mail order bride. After milking the delivery of/marriage to Yoshiko itself for laughs, Beatty spins the arrangement out against type: the couple is happy and harmonious, somewhat due to Gunnar therefore escaping rampant objectification by the local ladies. There is more vivid racial commentary, rejection of the wisdom of the tribal elders (87%: "If a man hasn't discovered something he will die for, he isn’t fit to live. Martin Luther King, Jr"), a meditation on suicide and perhaps an incitement to, an easy familiarity with brutality, and much else. He uses words the Kindle dictionary does not ken.

That poets will once again be universally recognised as opinion leaders and placed at the centre of the culture is a trope this book shares with Hal Hartley's contemporaneous masterpiece, Henry Fool.

The Two Faces of January

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Watched in the hope of getting the Oscar Isaac fix I didn't get from Star Wars. This is something of a The Talented Mr Ripley with Kirsten Dunst standing in for Gwyneth Paltrow, and Viggo Mortensen doing his best to anchor things. The film is inexcusably flaccid, doubly so given the strength of the cast, the settings and that writer/director Hossein Amini ably adapted Hardy's Jude the Obscure for the screen.

He Never Died

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A Henry Rollins B-movie. He stakes out the no-man's-land between Eastwood and Arnie. It's nothing we haven't seen before — vampires choosing blood banks over killing, a solo jaded vigilante, a soaked diner waitress, the fast-talking over-familiar first-meeting-with daughter, etc. — amongst the TV revivalists. Violence seems to be meaningless to Rollins, which has its own weird fascination. The bad guys are deemed unworthy of motivation.

Neil Genzlinger at the NY Times.

John Benditt: The Boatmaker

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Kindle. The good weather at Mũi Né got in the way of chewing through the books of the year. An airy review at the New York Times was the draw, I think, which I take as evidence that its publicist is indeed as good as Benditt indicates in his afterword. Roughly put, this is a rifling through the lore of Christian versus Jew: we get a carpenter with grandiose notions, alcoholic and violent, irresistable to women, who refuses to participate in the creation of a new messiah after undertaking a heroic and under-described voyage from Small Island to the Mainland via Big Island in a boat of his own making. (He doesn't call himself the boatmaker for nothing!) The man learns about money, which has value as a matter of belief, and the unthinking predation of the Christians on the Jews. Somehow he comes to know that his purpose is to go back to Small Island and disrupt the monopoly of the boatbuilding tribe using the wealth of his met-her-in-Mainland wife's family. I learnt very little, and am left wondering if the author is trying to muscle in on Paulo Coelho's uplifting-neofable racket. The reviewer is dead right that all the twists seem preordained; it suffers from the common all-the-women-are-beautiful-available-and-willing etc. fracture in the universe, amongst many others.

Legend

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Kray brothers hagiography, but told from the perspective of Reggie's wife Francis. The voiceover turns it into some kind of morality farce. The movie doesn't know what it wants to be and all of Tom Hardy's yakka is for aught. Emily Browning cannot keep her Swinging London accent from sliding down Church Street to Neighbours. Just bad.

The Hateful Eight

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Tarantino's eighth. It ambles along but feels overstuffed with unnecessarily graphic violence and landscapes. The Morricone score was long on promise but short on delivery, and a casual browse of IMDB suggests these tunes are offcuts from earlier works. (He got an Oscar for it nevertheless.) The actors are his usual suspects plus Jennifer Jason Leigh in egoless histrionics. The characters develop surprisingly far, but does he have a point? I got the von Trier vibe at times, but not the chills; this is something schematic, like Dogville, but nowhere as brutal. I think Tarantino could learn something from Moodysson's efforts.

A. O. Scott. Dana Stevens. Anthony Lane.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

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Lotte cinema in Phan Thiết, 60,000 VND. I wanted to buy some train tickets at the station, so it seemed as good a time as any to see Star Wars as rebooted by JJ Abrams. I also got a coffee at the wonderfully kitsch Lâm Kiều and was bailed up by the entire wait staff for English practice... until the boss showed up. The main draw was Oscar Isaac. No-one goes to see Star Wars for the politics; this is all about moral clarity and not shooting first. I ended up feeling a bit emotionally exploited as the plot was mostly a reheat of the first one. Near the start, after the certainly-unintentional comedy of having First Order be the bad guys, there's some possibly-intentional comedy: the stormtroopers arrive and one that takes cover gets killed while another crouching in the open does not. After that I did my best to ignore what was front and centre in the frame — it's almost always what you expect — and look to the edges. Do all the Imperial stooges have English accents? The Republic forces seemed to be very multicultural. Carrie Fisher's scenes were pleasantly poignant; she carries her damage well.

#29 in the IMDB top-250, but for how long? Dana Stevens tells me that Mr Brick (Rian Johnson) is directing the sequel. I can only hope it's as twisty as everything else he's done. Star Wars noir, is it possible? (No, no, not the schwartz.) Anthony Lane sharpens his claws.

Dennis Lehane: World Gone By

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Kindle. Chowed across another two soggy days in Mũi Né. I was surprised to find that this is the first book I've read by Lehane, given how many of his works have been adapted into movies (even good ones). I ended up thinking of this story as an exploration of Robert Duvall's secondary character (Tom Hagen) from The Godfather: a consigliere of the wrong race, who dirties his hands with some of Michael Corleone's street smarts and family issues. Perhaps that was lazy on my part, but I felt it took very little imagination to read; I'm getting the impression that Lehane writes scripts and calls them novels. It is nowhere as funny, and far more patronising, than the book I just finished by Paul Beatty. The prose is flat, the similes and metaphors are tired, the humour is not very funny, and audience is presumed vapid.

To be blunt, everything here is reycled from the glory days of organized American crime and story telling, and often only lightly fictionalized. (Wikipedia has about as much speculation and innuendo as this book does, but no horse in the prurient deviant sexuality stakes.) The World War II backdrop (the Nazis forever the gift that gives to America's creatives); Batista's Cuba; the son Tomas wanting to be a U.S. solider, just like Michael, despite his father's argument that he's part Cuban and his country hasn't done a thing for him; the "you're not killing my child" histrionics, but with an immediate backdown; some get-on-the-plane dialogue, just like Casablanca and not Predator; tedious racism. You get the idea. There is some massively unsound reasoning about the existence of God (that doesn't even make for good rhetoric) and an attempt to co-opt alcohol fetishism ala Fleming's Bond.

Janet Maslin saw something in this that I didn't. Or perhaps it was the other way around.

Paul Beatty: The Sellout.

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Kindle. Mostly read on a soggy day in (a room at Diễm's and Liên's guesthouse in) paradise. Beatty is very funny. His premise is that some people of colour pine for the good old days of slavery and segregation (those with even more repugant markets and regulations?), and what's more, things might turn out better with a return to antebellum conditions: there's no violence on the bus, the students are more successful (according to standardized tests?), the whites start agitating for desegregation and people are going to want their slogans in Latin. I guess it's a quantity theory for the L.A. ghetto, in sitcom-style like the Hitler revival I just completed. There's plenty of racism to go around, though Beatty reserves the most scathing for his own people. His humour makes it possible for him to explore what it means to be of colour in the U.S. in 2015 without disrespect or occlusion. I'm certainly keen to chase up his other stuff.

Dwight Garner didn't sell it to me back in February, but only in his list of the year's best. (I don't know why.) One thing he got slightly wrong is that the narrator does not wilfully reintroduce slavery, but caves into the wishes of his mate, the aged star Hominy, who demands a weekly whipping. The book is rife with these types of smooth feints that would probably feel like trolling in less capable hands. Kevin Young. Seth Colter Walls at the Guardian.

2016-10-26: Beatty wins the Booker Prize for The Sellout.

Timur Vermes: Look Who's Back, translated by Jamie Bulloch.

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Kindle. Read mostly in a hammock in the beautiful garden of Diễm's and Liên's guesthouse in Mũi Né. The premise is simple: an unreformed Hitler wakes up in Berlin in 2011 and is taken to be a method-acting comedian. It is quite funny at times, particularly by showing how the media will do anything for a rating. The occasionally very muddled thinking left me wondering if it was the author being funny or if this was plausibly Hitler's authentic mode of reasoning.

Janet Maslin gave it a year's-end thumbs up. Showing the trans-Atlantic humour gap, Steven Pool at the Guardian. Yes, Downfall.

Nuts in May

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Mike Leigh, part of the Play for Today series. Dare I say that Keith is almost Continental in his rigidity. Quite fun in some parts.

Luke Carman: An Elegant Young Man.

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Kindle. Perhaps it was reading about the 10th anniversary of the Cronulla riots or the dismal performance of the touring West Indies cricket team that sent me in search of new Australian stories. I thought I'd send a message of support to this bloke, writing from east of where I say I'm from, written in money. It took a day to read it, at Công viên Gia Định ("family park"?), the nearby Porevol Coffee, and later on, Cafe Sỏi Đá in Hồ Chí Minh City. I can't say I didn't get what I paid for.

The first piece (Whitman and the Whitlam Centre) annoyed me as it is written in the Tina Fey style: wouldn't it be funny if ... this is just like ... followed by a literal playing out, and, more often than not, a climb down. By pulling punches after throwing them, Carman revels in insincerity. The relentless assertion/correction pairing at the sentential level gets wearing, like all trolling, and I wouldn't call it poetic. Elizabeth Bryer, literatti:

The collection’s novel-of-education intentions soon become clear: the narrator recounts, in quick succession, different sources of wisdom — certain poets, children's authors, musicians and films — alongside the often contradictory pearly words themselves, without ever making clear to which of these, if any, he subscribes. [...] There is a breakneck energy, here, the impatience of youth, the feeling of needing to know now, of pushing boundaries and of a constant, insatiable thirst for knowledge.

I didn't read any more of her review. This "needing to know" is bullshit: it's just the generic youthful lust for experience. Knowledge (and wisdom) requires one to interpret this experience, and as she admits here, that's precisely what Carman avoids doing. So instead we should ask if the raw material he presents here is actually interesting; does he take us to Western Sydney or has he just written Aussie ethnic lit of the kind that Nam Le derides?

His influences are fairly obvious. Pro wrestling here is low-rent tent boxing. (The lack of an audience is quite amusing.) Somersault was about a road trip starring a restless, frisky Sydney girl. Women have been sexually assertive since ... forever now? Violence in homes and on the streets has been omnipresent in the media since I was a child. Looking to Kerouac is pure necrophilia these days, like trawling Sydney for downmarket jazz bars and expecting to smoke everywhere. There's the odd moment of Romper Stomper anthropology, and many nods to Chopper-style self promotion. But these, of course, point south to Melbourne and not west to Mount Pritchard. He evokes the instability of Mark Latham at times. And really — really — don't we all have stories of unhinged behaviour arising from teenage boredom? I admit that mine do not feature guns.

A thread of defeat runs deeply through all these stories: At 39%: "As always, if given sufficient time, I'd make up my mind to do nothing." and 71%: "[...] I could understand how Hugh escaped into books so often that he'd bent into a permanent shrug." I see this as pure Australiana, but having said it, why does Carman want to get into literature?

The argot of Western Sydney presented here demonstrates that the droll Australian mode of expression is dead; it's all totally crass now, and to be frank, Carman's language never excites. He doesn't explore/excoriate the classic coming-of-age Australian stories, or any of the vast material of immigrant experience such as the plays of David Williamson that we got drilled on as kids. Paul Kelly's kitchen-sink songs must be passe. To go to a bowling club, an RSL, and not have an angle on the going down of the sun, on Khe Sanh, reduces those settings to anywhere, any time, without the authentic 1972 prices of Hồ Chí Minh City. Look instead to Don Walker for something that is more than a snapshot of any given day near Liverpool.

Sydney's literatti wet itself when this book was released. I get the impression that most reviewers were women. Certainly those I skimmed showed little comprehension of blokey culture; there's nothing particularly unique about getting a fist in the face in Cronulla (cf the myriad king hits in pre-shut-out Kings Cross, "bring back the biff" in rugby league, the roughness of old mining towns like Newcastle, Wollongong, Cessnock, etc.). They got excited by its adoption/imitation of literary styles more modern than Patrick White's modernism. The street poetry of Sydney for my time there was hip hop, far more radical and inclusive than Kerouac, and there's no sign of those themes here.

Aatish Taseer: The Way Things Were.

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Kindle. Read perhaps a bit faster than warranted. I liked his review of a book about the Partition that convinced me not to read it, and perhaps heard about him as a translator of Saadat Hasan Manto. Surely his fiction might be worth a look-see.

Briefly, this is an extension of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, commencing with the Emergency and proceeding more-or-less to Modi's recent elevation, trying for the quasi synchronous realism but not the magic. He adopts Ishiguro's increasingly-stale two-track temporal structure, but never achieves the graceful slipperiness of the master, and most recently, Murray Bail. It gets away from him badly at times. Similarly he speaks for his generation in explaining its parents to its parents, as Ishiguro has, and the father's ashes are, so clunkily, the remains of the day.

Of course Taseer is in strong company when criticizing his own country. He is never as funny or as vicious as Renton despite having (probably?) more provocation on the English colonialism front. The skewering of philistine businessmen flails about in caricature, and unpacking the Sikh apartness would have been more valuable than the generic rants about deracination. There is no comprehension that, while India's ancient understandings of language may not have been practically useful for much of the twentieth century, modern analyses of computation have revived the genre. Too much arts, not enough science, I fear. Sure, everyday aesthetics has always been a long way down the list. I didn't get a strong feeling for his attitude towards Modi; here he is a Hindu nationalist who doesn't understand history or cultural roots, but in public Taseer has lauded Modi for making noises about sanitation.

Taseer places his erudition and upbringing (in the drawing rooms of Delhi) front and centre; Alfred Hickling unpacks the latter at length. The Sanskrit games are not idle, but some are annoyingly opaque, which makes me think he is talking to his buddies in the diminished cultural elites. His characters are often fragments of himself, and there are too many secondaries that serve little purpose; it could have been fifty pages shorter and a lot deeper. His main character in the present-tense track is occluded; Skanda's inner life is unrealised, and we never get to see his sister as an adult. Why did Uma stop talking to Ishi? The section that resonated most with me was well away from the dead scenes of Delhi society past, when Toby (the father) uses his son (Skanda) to explain his life philosophy:

He had once said – and she clung to it as the intellectual basis for their separation, ‘I don’t know why people feel that if this is the only life, then it follows that one must be hedonistic, or live hard. I should think that if this is the only life, if really and truly there is this and nothing else, then one can relax, squander one’s life with impunity, spend it reading, sitting in a chair, or learning languages. Wait it out, you know. Treat it like a throwaway thing. One-use-only.’

‘Toby, that makes no sense.’

‘Do you remember when we were with the kids once, at that aquarium in Baltimore?’

‘Yes...’

‘And we bought Skandu that little plastic stick, which, if you cracked it, would glow in the dark...’

‘Yes, he loved it.’

‘He did. But do you remember what he asked us?’

‘No.’

‘He asked us how long it would glow for. Whether it would glow ad infinitum, or whether – and this was nice – it could be turned off, to glow again on another day...’

‘Toby, what has this to do with anything?’

‘It has everything to do with everything. Because – do you remember? – once we told him that that was it, that once he’d cracked the thing, it would glow till it ran out, and never glow again, he was instantly contemptuous of it. He threw it aside. We tried to explain to him that he should cherish it in the moment, enjoy the glow while it lasted, but it was no use: he was no longer interested.’

‘Toby, are you saying that that is your attitude to life?’

‘In a sense, yes,’ he said, and grinned.

And another, Toby hooking up with his second wife Sylvia:

He put the light on; it fell aslant over Sylvia’s bare back, where his eye fixed on a mole partially enveloped in skin. Again disappointment returned, deep and unreachable. He decided to finish the chapter he was reading. She stirred a little. He watched her with some mixture of curiosity and dismay. He was at the end of Swann in Love: ‘And with the old, intermittent caddishness which reappeared in him when he was no longer unhappy and his moral standards dropped accordingly, he exclaimed to himself: “To think that I’ve wasted years of my life, that I’ve longed to die, that I’ve experienced my greatest love, for a woman who didn’t appeal to me, who wasn’t even my type!”’

Malathion gas... the serpent's egg has already been hatched! Taseer is not a careful scholar, as witnessed by the corrections to his articles in the New York Times. Detail may be beneath him. His article How English Ruined Indian Literature is larded with manifest conceptual error. And really, is his point that who controls the past controls the future? (cf Asian Dub Foundation in obvious debt to George Orwell.)

Philip K. Dick: The Man in the High Castle.

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Kindle. I tend to read PK Dick's stuff in pairs. This one is fictional history: FDR checks out early so the Nazis and the Japanese win World War II. I probably didn't read it closely enough, but in summary the Nazis remain scum but the Japanese rule the west coast of the U.S. in some quasi-enlightened but non-creative way. Someone extracts something like the notional history of our present timeline from the I Ching and novelises it. Yeah. That stuff put me in mind of Douglas Adams's Dirk Gently holism, but it's a lot more earnest here. Amazon has apparently made this into some kind of video.

Philip K. Dick: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?.

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Kindle. Well, quite by accident I found myself reading more ruminations on empathy. What Ridley Scott turned into mere background psychobabble in Bladerunner is fleshed out here; I prefer his patricide and other narrative strengthenings to Dick's amateur musings. I tried to hold firm to the hypothesis that Deckard was an android (let's posit a Nexus 7) and it mostly hangs together, at least if you allow for implanted memories. (Then again, with those and a sketchy narrator, anything goes.) The key technological development over the Nexus 6 is, of course, empathy, but of an overly general, unfocussed sort; cue the Nexus 8. There's a lot of respect shown to animals here, which implies vegetarianism, but apparently no-one eats so we don't actually know.

I found it strange that androids are held to be certainly lacking in empathy but that they still clump together, as if they have a herd instinct. Are these therefore somehow the same, but operating at different evolutionary/consciousness levels/stages?

Genevieve Lloyd: Enlightenment Shadows.

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Gen was my philosophy prof at UNSW. The best class I took for that degree was hers on 18th Century Philosophy, largely because of Hume (the first philosopher in history to make substantial sense from a twentieth-century empirical/rationalist viewpoint) and her insights into Kant's Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose. The second best was hers on the ancient Greeks. I bought her book at the time it was released, about two years ago, and have been lugging it around with me ever since. I finally committed to finishing it last week after about three starts — on three continents — and the end came at one of the few remaining authentic Trung Nguyên cafés, near Chợ Rẫy hospital, in Hồ Chí Minh City.

The introduction and blurb suggest that this text canvasses similar topics to David Malouf in his recent Quarterly Essay, viz the Enlightenment as the creator of future tense and the intellectual framework/process we currently inhabit. (Charles Yu is therefore observing regressive behaviour with his "present indefinite", though — with my limited understanding — I wonder if it's not the default mode of the Vietnamese language.) The reality is somewhat different however: Gen provides a close reading of several Enlightenment classics and highlights particular common themes, such as empathy and slaughtering sacred cows but not getting lynched for doing so. Therefore, instead of an overview of this tradition (which she is as capable as anyone of providing) we get something somewhat quixotic.

I took a few notes along the way, but nowhere enough to do justice to the whole text. Gen (p4) cites Derrida's Spectres of Marx as an example of the necessity to repeatedly critique what many economists are now calling "zombie ideas". One such is Kant's demand that (p9) "nations will stand to one another in relations similar to those in which individuals stand to one another in civil society." — a concept that Krugman et al reject as naive, as governments have concerns and powers that no individual has. Consider, for instance, a state monopoly on violence, the ability to print money, and a notional stewards-for-coming-generations role. I don't think there's enough slack in "similar" to cover these types of things.

Gen (p120) dug up this great quote from d'Alembert:

The art of reasoning is a gift which Nature bestows of her own accord upon men of intelligence, and it can be said that the books which treat this subject are hardly useful except to those who can get along without them. People reasoned validly long before Logic, reduced to principles, taught how to recognize false reasonings, and sometimes even how to cloak them in a subtle and deceiving form.

Cough, ahem, yes. Another of her common themes is the idea of objectivity arising collectively, but not therefore becoming a species of subjectivity or a view from nowhere. I think we could call it crowdsourcing or the wisdom of crowds, or gesture at the coherence theory of truth if we need a fig leaf. Yeah, then Hegelian thesis/antithesis leads to balls up and so forth.

Gen observes that Kant's Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch is so mired in teleology that it is beyond redemption. Adam Smith's invisible hand plays a similar role, somehow benignly picking out a better destination and not just a more efficient route. Kant's ideas of the relations between nations is woefully naive, being of the Kissinger-like realpolitik ilk (Gen p147):

[...] in relation to international rights Kant observes that, although the preferred route for states or rulers to lasting peace may be world domination, Nature wills it otherwise. Peace between nations is created and guaranteed by "an equilibrium of forces and a most vigorous rivalry."

... which didn't work out so well for colonized countries for quite a while. Interestingly Kant also advocates for limited human rights, a sort-of mutual obligation while-visiting sort of thing.

The introduction and conclusion are very strong, and it is unfortunate that the intervening "close readings" are not as interesting to this non-specialist. Gen also fails to achieve Krugman levels of polemics, which is to say that she's too polite and scrupulous to slaughter her fellow ponderers for minor infractions. That she needs to if she was to gain any traction in the modern debates around refugees, climate, etc. is a shame. As always she speaks authoritatively about Kant's political philosophy, and I would have dearly liked to hear more about that.

Mark Collier. I concur with his conclusion: I had hoped this book would provide an overview of the entire Enlightenment project.

In a timely coincidence, here is Jason Wilson mining a similar vein, and Mehdi Hasan on those who call for an Islamic reformation. (Ayaan Hirsi Ali, cited by Gen, does not cover herself with glory in her interview with Jon Stewart.) Roman Krznaric tries to argue that Peter Singer is ignorant of empathy, but does not himself account for the imagination it requires.

The Day Today

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More Chris Morris tomfoolery, from 1994. A satire of breathless U.S. cable news in a style later emulated by CNNNN. It has its moments, and there is some genuinely funny stuff amongst much unimaginative filler. Steve Coogan made his start with his Alan Partridge character here; as a sports commentator he has nothing on the Twelfth Man.

Jam

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A steer from David S to another Chris Morris work from 2000. A segue from Four Lions. Mostly bleak, sometimes poignant, with the odd bit of pure gold; experimental sketch TV, occasionally comedic, mostly inventive and uncompromised. It completely twunted the first of two evenings I spent on it. The opening droll poetry-over-pessimism meme mashups put me in mind of 1990s Nine Inch Nails videos.

Howards End

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Over two nights. An Emma Thompson segue-of-sorts from The Remains of the Day. I found it to be something of a guilty pleasure; the first half is quite fun, a hybridization of Wuthering Heights, Jude the Obscure and doubtlessly sundry other costume dramas I don't tend to watch. At heart I guess these all mine the same vein.

Anthony Hopkins always strikes me as a piece of wood, apart from his electric turn in The Silence of the Lambs. Vanessa Redgrave is great. Emma Thompson won an Oscar for anchoring the thing, and she's totally fine. Helena Bonham Carter pouts too much, bugs her eyes too much, OK, simply emotes too much, and is therefore the most limited of the actresses. She's still quite agreeable. It's just a shame that the plot plot tanks so badly in the second half.

Leviathan

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On Dmitriy's recommendation. The corruption of local government in a small Siberian town, the intervention of a lawyer from Moscow, an adaptation of the book of Job. Excellent cinematography, fantastic landscapes, solid acting, depressing plot, somewhat pro forma characters. It reminded me most of von Trier's Breaking the Waves, mostly because of the almost relentless downwardness of the spiral, but affected me less. I guess there's also something of Lukas Moodysson here too.

Manohla Dargis.

A Hard Day

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Korean, police corruption, internal affairs, craziness. The violence is somewhat less graphic than usual, with no blood sprays. What's become of the genre? The structure is completely standard, so it comes down to the particularity of the McGuffins; some are pretty funny, others totally stock. I guess this is some proof that convoluted whodunnits can survive in the age of the mobile phone. Cho Jin-woong does well as the bad dude.

Manohla Dargis.

Spectre

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Galaxy Cinema on Nguyễn Du, 2.35pm, 65,000 VND. I bought the ticket early, 12.21pm, and found that the old Cafe New Day had become something else. The fried rice was totally OK though. After that I headed over to the nearby Trung Nguyên café on Lý Tự Trọng.

Well, yeah. A new Bond movie. The plot didn't really hang together for me, and none of the characters seemed to be worth investing in. There's a graphic torture scene, that Daniel Craig seems to suffer no ill effects from, a white cat, many tips of the hat to earlier Bonds. Naomie Harris could do with a lot more screen time. Cristoph Waltz makes as much as he can from a generic deskbound terrorist. I have to say I got flashbacks to the trading floor when he revealed his room full of total information awareness minions. Dave Bautista has a future as the next Arnie, the almost non-speaking muscleman, but needs to work on his one-liners. He was better in Guardians of the Galaxy than here. Looks like he's going to have a go at rebooting Highlander... or maybe not.

Gregory David Roberts: The Mountain Shadow.

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Kindle, pre-ordered. I read most of this while in Goa, awaiting my evacuation by Jet Airways and Thai Air to Hồ Chí Minh City. While perfect for my purposes — empty-headed time burning — this book is irredeemably bad. See Ayesha Manazir Siddiqi and commenters at the Independent for some gory details; I concur that the editor of Shantaram was a magician. Having now visited Mumbai, I'd say that Roberts's accounts ring true, provided one realises that he returns to the same places time and again as those are all there are. In summary, it makes as much sense as an elephant picking it's nose.

Kazuo Ishiguro: The Remains of the Day.

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Kindle. I ploughed through this while bored in Margao, Goa, and read it perhaps too quickly in a day and a bit. It was the day before Diwali, and I got stranded by the closed shops; wifi is not prevalent in India.

I've been saving this one up for a long time, and had previously put it off after seeing the movie. My expectations may have ruined it, and I felt I knew too much about where things were going. As always Ishiguro adopts a structure that is difficult to execute persuasively, viz that the narrator be observant and intelligent enough to record and order his observations but obtuse enough not to draw the conclusions that the reader is intended to. I think he did a better job of this in his later and far more seamless When We Were Orphans, though this story clearly resonated with England at the time of publication. Here it is artificial for Stevens to be writing that other characters observe his crying as his father passes while not saying anything about his own emotion, where at other times he does so at length.

Vu Tran: Dragonfish.

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Kindle. Mostly read in Mumbai, waiting for the train to Goa, and on the train. I finished it soon after realising that there's not much to do in Margao either.

Tran is a prof at University of Chicago and I passed up an opportunity to hear him speak about this book earlier this year. There is a hell of a lot of Bond-style exposition (No, I expect you to die, Mr Bond!) here, and the plot is very twisty and revelatory for threadbare reasons. It's a cinematic and implausible whodunnit, something like Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs: there's not much of a moral centre, and the violence is quite graphic. I didn't grasp the symbology of the fish. I didn't find the second track, where mother talks to daughter, very powerful, apart from the account of the days in the refugee camp, perhaps because most stories focus on the boat part of that journey.

Chris Abani at the New York Times.

Jhumpa Lahiri: Interpreter of Maladies.

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Kindle. Whiling away my time in Mumbai. I read most of this at the Starbucks near Horniman Circle where I never got the promised wifi to go. This is a collection of short stories that Lahiri bashed out in her workman-like way; see, for instance, this more-recent piece in The New Yorker. All are of the uninspired/exploitative ethnic lit oeuvre that Nam Le derides: people from the subcontinent longing for the subcontinent, husbands who've never seen their wives naked, you know how it goes. The same day I saw a sign on an under-construction sari shop that read "where ethnic comes alive". I am stupified.

Salman Rushdie: Fury.

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Kindle. I re-read this one as it was short and I'd forgotten the details from my first read back in 2001. Now it seems like a plaintive bit of self-explanation, a premature piece of autobiography, a little too much veneration for the flaws in the woman who he later slammed for the verysame. His imagination shows its limits often here, especially when he simply renames things from the newspapers, or recycles a bit of classical scifi. As always he is superlative in the small.

[...] For example, the favorite fiction writer of the seventeenth-century heretic Baruch Spinoza turned out to be P. G. Wodehouse, an astonishing coincidence, because of course the favorite philosopher of the immortal shimmying butler Reginald Jeeves was Spinoza. (Spinoza who cut our strings, who allowed God to retire from the post of divine marionettist and believed that revelation was an event not above human history but inside it. Spinoza who never wore unsuitable shirts or ties.) [...]

Alvin Roth: Who Gets What — and Why: The New Economics of Matchmaking and Market Design.

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Kindle. This is Alvin Roth on his life's work, viz matching markets. He begins by carefully distinguishing these from commodity markets, which are constructed by lumping products that are sufficiently similar into buckets that are traded identically. (Apparently this was the central innovation of the Chicago Board of Trade a long time ago.) Specifically these tend to ignore the identities of the producers and consumers, and a key characteristic of matching markets is that this is not a valid move. Roth has many cute summaries:

Matching is economist-speak for how we get the many things we choose in life that also must choose us.

I'm sure he enjoys his wordplay too:

The economic world is just as full of surprising detail as the natural world, and markets also often arise by a kind of evolution, by trial and error, without any intelligent design. But markets can also be designed, sometimes from scratch but often after trial and error leads to a market failure.

Mostly this is the greatest hits of his professional career. He characterizes market failure with lots of examples. They can be:

  • Too thin, with not enough buyers or sellers;
  • Congested, which is to say that deals should be struck once sufficient information exchange has taken place; and
  • Unsafe, where the participants are discouraged from honestly revealing their preferences, and hence engage in oftentimes complex and expensive strategic behaviour.

For the design of matching markets, he pushes the classic deferred acceptance algorithm, which involves a central clearinghouse that essentially resolves the preferences of the two distinct kinds of participants in one go. (All preferences are submitted ahead of time, so it does not involve any price discovery.) In contrast a buyer in a financial market is often simultaneously a seller, and the recent attempts in the U.S. to make these more efficient by introducing competing venues is heading in the opposite direction. Similarly the latter encourage dark pools and other off-market mechanisms that leave the public market as the relatively toxic (unsafe) venue of last resort. The resulting regulatory framework is well-intentioned but not theoretically grounded. Roth's off-the-cuff suggestion here is auctions at one-second frequencies, to curtail the HFT arms race.

There is some discussion of repugnant markets, which is expected as he spent quite a bit of time discussing how kidney transplants could be made more efficient while remaining the gift of donors. Again, more wordplay:

To return to the question of kidney sales, virtually no one objects to kidney donation for transplantation. But many people clearly regard monetary compensation for organ donation as a very bad idea, maybe even the kind of bad idea that only bad people have.

... and Roth makes many references to Iran being the only place on Earth where kidneys can be bought and sold (in 2014). There is also an attempt to rehabilitate Hayek by quoting more of him, as is often done for Adam Smith.

Auctions are held up as having similar properties as the deferred acceptance algorithm. I wanted more formal details. It strikes me that the spectrum auctions are so complex that the bidders have to do serious computation between bids, which makes the timing between rounds critical to the fairness of the result. I hadn't heard of the rural hospitals theorem before, but seeing it makes it clear why those hospitals are unlikely to get as many young doctors as they'd like despite the magic of the centralized clearinghouse. Also I'd like to hear more about Islamic finance; taking an equity stake in a home is quite different from simply loaning the money for the house.

Many of my initial impressions — that even a Nobel prize could not satisfy this ego — were eventually put to rest, especially by the extensive notes that make up the final quarter of the book. Roth writes lucidly and anyone disappointed by the lack of technical depth here should certainly pick up his classic from 1990: Two-Sided Matching: A Study in Game-Theoretic Modeling and Analysis with Marilda Sotomayor, which tells many of the same stories. My original interest was in phrasing deductive liveness arguments, and I had hoped that showing the termination of the deferred acceptance algorithm was curly, but I fear it is not. I was also wondering how it relates to Arrow's Theorem.

Tim Winton: Island Home.

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Kindle. The last thing I read by Winton was his earlier memoir, Land's Edge. This one is a grab bag of short pieces, covering parts of his early life up to now-ish. None of it really stuck with me, as I usually find with his work, but I've been quite distracted by my impending departure from Chicago and again cannot fault him. Winton observes that the Old World is so comprehensively denatured, and the view from there so anthropocentric that it is difficult to square with Australian geography, and often quite hostile to it. He doesn't talk about the New World so much, where the first national park was established; perhaps this space is simply too self-contradictory for his purposes, or never appealed as somewhere to visit or live. The attempted militarization of Australian culture via the Galipoli myth. Patrick White, Voss. He evokes long-gone Australian upbringings, of kids living on the edge of settlement and freely moving between squalor and urban comfort, of the isolation wrought by the motor car. The destruction of the Swan River. Grotty ways of turning whales and seals into money. More hermits. Some engagement with Aboriginal culture. The blue-ringed octopus. The reluctant environmental activist. Lockean property rights. A defence of his use of the demotic. Enough to make me wonder why I'm not going straight home.

The doco that accompanies the book. As always there is extensive coverage in the Australian media, none of it worth pointing at.

Lincoln

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Spielberg, and excellent work from Day Lewis. Far superior to Bridge of Spies, but not in the same league as There Will Be Blood. Sprawling. Huge cast. Much talking.

The Artistic Home: The Time of Your Life by William Saroyan.

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Goldstar ticket: $14.00 + $4.25 service fee = $18.25. Rode the bike up from South Oakley. The forecast was for high teens but it turned into a beautiful Autumn day of light winds and twenty degrees. This was the first venue I went to in Chicago; their production of The Late Henry Moss put me off the rest of the previous season. I guess I was sold on some kind of nostalgia and a solid review by Dan Jakes in the Reader. This session was packed.

Well, I tried to get into it but was defeated by sleepiness. Should have had a caffeinated coffee beforehand. The play takes a similar ensemble form to Balm in Gilead but there is never more than half the cast on stage at once. The set perfectly evokes a dive bar down on the waterfront of San Francisco, 1939 (or so I imagine). The depression and coming war are in the background, and this is all small-scale trials and tribulations of people grafting in the neighbourhood, or getting in the way of that grafting. There's some very funny dialogue in the middle between the philosophizing longshoreman McCarthy and his childhood buddy Krupp, a cop. An anonymously rich man anchors proceedings, which is somewhat flawed as he almost always presents as the puppet master of his offsider.

Jacob Davis.

There Will Be Blood

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I saw this back in 2008 but didn't recall much past the opening scene, where Day Lewis is prospecting with a pick. Excellent, but somehow not totally satisfactory; perhaps the vacuity of get-rich misanthropes is laid on a little too thick. #175 in the IMDB top-250.

Bridge of Spies

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4pm session at the AMC River East 21, $11.29 + $1.35 tax = $12.64. I used the auto box office this time. Packed. This is more greatest-generation auto-boosterism, an Atticus Finch from the cold war, right down to the there's-no-place-like-home, even when home is Kansas. (Perhaps I've previously missed the irony in that.) Spielberg directs, and Tom Hanks plays pure American hokum as only he can. Somewhat surprisingly this is a Coen brothers script. Mark Rylance is solid as the Russkie spy. Sebastian Koch jumps from West German playboy playwright (The Lives of Others) to East German lawyer. Much is made of the asymmetric treatment of prisoners: the US being kindly and hand wringing, while the Germans and Russkies go in for deprivation and implied torture. (It is also observed that wintering in an East Berlin gaol in 1960 was not so much worse than in a West Berlin hovel.) Secretary of State (Dull, Duller) Dulles is mildly rehabilitated. Cheap thrills abound during the interminable talking. All in all, just another milking of the days of moral clarity.

Manohla Dargis suckered me by making it a critic's-pick. I didn't see Lincoln and probably should have in preference to this as Day Lewis is the superior actor. There is far less moral ambiguity on show than she thinks there is. Dana Stevens is happy to apologize for Spielberg's excesses.

This is England '90

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Shane Meadows completes the transformation of his masterful This is England into a middling soap opera. Once again the actors are great, but the characters have lost their edge as children and weddings and old enmities take their inevitable toll on story telling opportunities. Implausibility is one way out, and the one taken. Why wasn't Riz Ahmed in this?

Four Lions

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Riz Ahmed. Brave and sometimes excruciatingly funny, mostly at the level of one liners. Endlessly quotable. David S tells me that the writer/director Chris Morris has done a lot more of this kind of thing.

Kim Stanley Robinson: A Short, Sharp Shock

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Kindle. David S. pointed me to Kim Stanley Robinson. I chose this one purely on length. Drecky. Not much of a premise, and too many words spent on nothing in particular. It's a linear quest, and like a 1990s first-person shooter, who cares as to why. Everyone's got a philosophy, everyone's got a creation myth. All the women are beautiful and willing. Etc. Robinson might be awesome but that is not evident here.

Nightcrawler

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I passed this one up when it was in the cinemas last year, and that proved to be a wise move. Dana Stevens pegged it just right: Jake Gyllenhaal over-does it here as a soulless bottom-feeding entrepreneur from some distant time. Riz Ahmed is solid as his offsider, and was the main draw — which means Four Lions is next on the list. Anthony Lane is more indulgent. A. O. Scott.

Salman Rushdie: East, West

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Kindle. I read this ages ago and only remembered that the porter is a Grand Master. It is mercifully short. Far from his best work.

The Duellists

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Another suggestion from Roman W. Ridley Scott must have seen Barry Lyndon and thought he could do better. Well, it's a lot less banal, and he wisely has Harvey Keitel keep his mouth mostly shut. (Keitel has done some good stuff, but that is set almost entirely in New York.) Keith Carradine is fine in the lead. He looks a bit like Cristopher Lambert, and yeah, Highlander pretty which writes itself from there. They spend a lifetime not finishing each other off in Napolean-era duels. The original complaint is almost risibly minor. I guess I didn't really get the point, which may just mean I don't think too hard about the stuff I'm watching these days.

Gregory David Roberts: Shantaram.

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Binge-read on the Kindle. Yeah. I remember buying the original hardcover in London in 2004, and eventually giving it to Iain. There are loads of critiques out there, though all you need to know is summarised by Tyler Cowen's observation that this "is one of the best bad books I have read." Well, yes, yet another junk memoir, but without much explication of the experience of being on heroin, beyond the banal observation that it eats your life. For Roberts the skag was pure escapism, much like this book was for me. It lacks Clune's ruefulness, that's for sure; I guess that's what happens when you have the guts to go full-criminal. It also owes a huge debt to The Godfather, and perhaps aimed to supplant it as the go-to airport novel.

The whole thing is terribly cinemantic, with many parts reading like instructions to location scouts, grips and best boys, which of course brings into question how much is fact and how much is fiction. The wikipedia page for the book is pretty harsh, but Roberts invites this by wanting it to go both ways, and having (as they say in the U.S.) a healthy ego. This is not good versus evil so much as the author's balls-to-the-wall fantasy self busting heads, at least when he's not being tortured. His philosophy is trite; the drive toward ultimate complexity is just another teleological misadventure and not something that we should necessarily bother with at all. (That we are the universe observing itself is ... well, it's a cliché, right?) His lack of interest in India's defining caste system is damning. It pales in comparison to The Moon of Hoa Binh, which really stretches minds.

Much that's in this book I felt I learnt elsewhere, which may be me selling Roberts short. For instance, I'm sure Salman Rushdie talks about Haji Ali Dargah and larger Bombay at length in Midnight's Children, and I cannot forget how Persians use sugar cubes when drinking tea. Entirely coincidentally, the sequel is out on October 13. I preordered the version overstuffed with self-aggrandizing marginalia that is likely to shit me to tears. The movie is apparently still in the works; Joel Edgerton to star?

The Medusa Touch

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On Roman W's recommendation, over two nights. This is Richard Burton as some kind of god of destruction. Lee Remick's accent is American when she's with Burton, and Australian (?) during her exchanges with supercop Lino Ventura. A plane slams into an office building in the centre of London. This came about six years after The Ruling Class and doesn't bother to motivate its loathing of the English aristocracy; did things move that far that fast? And what has happened since?

Sicario

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3.15pm session at River East 21, $9.79 + $1.17 tax = $10.96. A hazy morning turned into a beaut afternoon, so perhaps not the best way to burn one of summer's dying days. I got sucked in by Del Toro, I think, Josh Brolin (go W!), probably not Emily Blunt. It may have been Dana Stevens who tipped me over the edge with her assessment that Del Toro's performance was ace.

This is about the militarization of the police, in this case the FBI, and the unwitting co-option of U.S. domestic institutions by the CIA. Something we've seen before, like Traffic. There is also an unsubtle dig at having women in these sorts of roles; Blunt proves too weak to help the men tear down the drywall that hides the bodies in the opening straight-out-of-Se7en shocker. Moreover she is always quickly subdued (cowed) when she stands up for herself, and is regularly rescued by a man. So yeah, no country for women? I found her motivation to be so totally uncooked (essentially revenge for the loss of some redshirts) and inner life so absent that, for all the support from the blokes, I just couldn't get into it. Yes, Del Toro is totally fine here, though like Blunt he plays barely more than a cypher.

A. O. Scott is dead right that this is just violence, not a study of violence. That being the case, it may have worked better as a video game.

What We Do in the Shadows

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I missed it in the cinema earlier this year. The Flight of the Conchords boys have their moments, especially Jemaine on virgin blood. I fear Wellington will always be the same.

Tony Earley: Mr Tall

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Kindle once more. It's too damn convenient. Mostly short stories. The second half is a novella. The shorts are all about couples: so-and-so and his wife, somewhere in North Carolina or Tennessee. Yeah, the Appalachians again, but with less Ron Rash cleverness. I picked this up on the strength of Jess Walter's review, which doesn't seem like a recommendation on a re-read.

Black Mass

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4.50pm session at the AMC 600 North Michigan 9, $10.29 + $1.23 tax = $11.52. Rode the bike over from work: perfect weather for doing so, and the traffic wasn't too heavy. Johnny Depp leads, Joel Edgerton does the buddy thing. Benedict Cumberbatch is somewhat squandered as there is no Godfather to his consigliere, though he is as teflon-smooth as Robert Duvall ever was. I sort-of got the appeal of Dakota Johnson here; she's about perfect as Bulger's moll, mother of his son and suitably distraught when things go south. OK, the cast is pretty much excellent. However if the goal was to humanize Bulger, this resolutely old-school movie completely fails. He is banal, and all the granny-helping in the world isn't going to change that. Boston was more interesting in The Town and so forth.

The marriage of criminal and cop was better celebrated by Blue Murder; yeah, that cast was ace too. Between this and Public Enemies, it seems clear that Depp should abandon this genre.

A. O. Scott: "It's possible, though, to think of the shortcomings of Black Mass as fitting comeuppance for Mr. Bulger. He may have thought he was a big deal, but in the end all he merits is a minor gangster movie." Dana Stevens got more into it. Kaleem Aftab (in the Smage but lifted from elsewhere) is skeptical.

Michael W. Clune: Gamelife: A Memoir.

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His second memoir, Gamelife, on computer games as spiritual education...
— Michael W. Clune on his homepage at Case. I guess that makes his first a memoir of how heroin eases recovery from a nihilistic upbringing. Or something.

There was no chance I wasn't going to read this. Amazon makes it trivial to preorder ebooks for the Kindle, so here we are only a few days after release and I've already chowed it. The price was $US11.99. Once again his prose is so seductive that I was well into it before I realised I should be taking notes.

This is less of a spiritual education than an account of how Clune learnt to look at the world. Chicago burbs Evanston and Mettawa feature large here. ("After Mettawa the map's blank." — evokes my childhood too: our house in Orange was on the western edge of the city, and before that we were about as far south as you could go before you needed to catch the out-of-town bus to school. West of where I was born is desert; we were on the wrong side of the tracks in Dubbo, but one could argue there is no right side to that town.) So does Catholic school, and computer games. The games he played were not the abstract ones I remember, but those that liberated the DnD ultra-geek from the need to meet his fellow geeks in meatspace. I never played, not even in Sweden; I tried from time-to-time to get into Rogue-likes such as Ragnarok but they never stuck, being always too capricious or closed. And almost all of them were trivial or very frustrating. Games of the 80s were mostly born too soon; those that worked well were spawned by the heavy iron of university departments, in the same way that UNIX was birthed, or by very creative people in California.

I like to think of C++ as DnD for adults, and what a hacker Clune would have made.

Those games were like books in demanding acts of imagination while technology gestated. Interactive text adventures, decreasingly fake 3D. Clune was never a mathematician so he's not going to pretend to understand fractals. Apparently he avoided programming, so there goes the demo scene and the relative merits of various shading algorithms. (The exotic Phong shading from my youth, a piece of Vietnamese technology I now learn.) His impressions of life in 2D seemed quite alien to me, text being my natural habitat. Maps, yes. That a 2D object on a screen may have an obverse never occurred to me; on the other side of the screen was an electron gun in a vacuum. He similarly demonstrates no awareness of the chiptunes microscene.

Clune observes that, leaving aside FRUSTRATION, those games notionally offered VICTORY and DEFEAT. Their sheer repetitiousness ("Nintendo", in the limit) was an early harbinger of adulthood: at some point we run out of the truly novel and are left only with the choice of what to do again; we level up, we walk the hedonic treadmill, grind for status, score the next hit. Strangely enough I learnt method from another game Clune rubbishes, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?: I enumerated all properties of all cities, criminals, etc. and reduced it to a pure lookup activity. He is right to question the educational value of those "pedagogic" games. Oregon Trail, yeah.

Personality, I mean that's what counts, right? That's what keeps a relationship going through the years. Like heroin, I mean heroin's got a great fucking personality.
— Sickboy in Trainspotting.

Seeing as his video game addiction outlasted his one for heroin, Clune must therefore draw the obvious conclusion that these games have superlative personalities. Unlike his segue from text to DnD to first-person shooters (Nazi hunting comes in for special scrutiny in this book), my experience was more Lolita-like: I was fixated on Lode Runner from circa 1988, an artefact of a Band of Brothers. Being perennially late to the party, I finished it only recently. It felt like VICTORY until I started on Championship Lode Runner, where I learnt that I had learnt nothing.

Leaving aside the games, Clune recounts a few brutal stories: his mum comes across as fearful, neurotic, and superstitious: somehow tarot is OK if it comes from the right direction, but the runes on a game's box are not. His father disappears after the divorce, and is replaced by poverty. A kid gets his uniform completely trashed after gym class. As always he is comic at the sentential level, and like Oscar Wilde, makes me want to respond, to write. That's a huge achievement in itself. Similarly he is crazy-brave, especially when alluding to the heroin that ate his 20s.

Clune's publicity hounds have been highly successful:

  • Gabriel Winslow-Yost at the New York Review of Books. In response to his Section 2, I would just say that Clune remembers the game because he has no choice: these things are etched deeply into our brains. As is observed further down the article. He is dead right about games being curtailed versions of life. I remember the colour of the sky because I got it wrong in art class. I didn't notice that the sky gets lighter towards the horizon. I used warm blue rather than cool. My sky comes out just after the sun properly sets, before the night fully kicks in. My mate Stuart got it right for the rest of the day. Pick the empiricist.
  • Christian Lorentzen doesn't quite seem to get that what's happened since World War II has required the U.S. to engage with shades of grey. Hitler was the last moral certitude on offer. That's Clune's point: ethical ambiguities are not fun.
  • An interview on NPR. On addiction:

    I believe that heroin addiction for me and drug addiction was the absolute opposite of the experience I had when playing games. Addiction removes you from any world. It completely — it isolates you, but ... your isolation has none of the richness of the solitude that I experienced in games.

    With addiction I was continually like a rat in a maze trying to capture the very first time I ever had that first hit. With games, the first time I played them was very difficult and awkward. Only gradually, when I mastered their commands, was I able to inhabit that world.

    And so, if with addiction I was trying to continually recapture a first time I never could, with games I was exploring a world, and exploring myself, in a way that I found meaningful, whereas I felt addiction stripped my life of all meaning.

  • David Auerbach at Slate sinks the boot in. I don't think he's wrong to do so, but he fails to consider that Clune may be merely baiting the hook here. Perhaps that's all he could do if he had it as backward as this review asserts. Games taught us not to give up, just because we're not making progress toward the impossible with manifestly inadequate tools.
  • Bijan Stephen.
  • Ethan Gilsdorf at the New York Times (October 17, late to the party).

I'll stop as the internet is infinite but life is not, and close with a quote that was Andreas Rossberg's signature for an age:

Computer games don't affect kids; I mean if Pac Man affected us as kids, we would all be running around in darkened rooms, munching magic pills, and listening to repetitive electronic music.
— Kristian Wilson, Nintendo Inc.

Clune, of course, would not have given Pac Man the time of day.

Lawrence Wright: The Looming Tower

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Read on the Kindle. I'm getting used to the thing. I found this via a Guardian page that Google likes. Justin Webb's recommendation has it about right, modulo recommending it: this text is heavy on colour and light on insight. It's all Bob Woodward fakebelieve, insider hagiography and boosterism and doubtless score-settling. The Pulitzer must have been all down to having adopted that style. Those working in the bias-confirmation mode circa 2006 surely got their money's worth by dredging it for quotes to support their positions. Or even just getting positions in the first place. I think you'd be better off following your nose from the relevant Wikipedia articles.

A sort-of jag from Mori's far superior memoir. (At least he was there.)

Fareed Ayaz and Abu Muhammad Qawwal & Brothers at Logan Center for the Arts.

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It was a perfect day for cycling, so I figured I'd ride down to University of Chicago along the Lakeshore Trail for this gig. Had lunch at the Chicago Curry House, which was OK for a buffet, a snooze in the park near 39th Street Beach, and a coffee at the Bridgeport Coffeehouse in Hyde Park. There's more to that place than I realised. I got some takeaway dinner at Siam Thai on 55th and hightailed it over to the Logan Center for the Arts. I was a bit surprised that I'm fit enough to do bike rides of this length without too much discomfort. Well, at least when there are no headwinds.

The place (same as for Ishiguro) was packed for the first act: Aziz Sahmaoui & University of Gnawa. The City of Chicago World Music Festival blurb:

Aziz Sahmaoui sets out once more with his magical group, conjuring up sonorous dreams and intoxicating trance states. On this new journey, in which heady refrains are coupled with a divinely undulating groove, the Moroccan poet-singer has achieved a glorious harmony between Maghreb rock, jazz and gnawa music. With the full fire of his spellbinding voice, the cofounder of the Orchestre National de Barbès and former associate of Joe Zawinul, he confirms his reputation as one of the foremost singer-songwriters of contemporary world fusion music, a reputation that reaches across Europe and beyond to the Middle East and the United States. They will be touring the US in Fall 2015 fresh off their latest, critically-acclaimed release, Mazal.

Yeah, north African dance music, high energy and happy stuff. After intermission the Pakistanis set up, with almost no English, and about a third of the crowd departed, as if they hadn't known what they had signed up for, after a couple of songs. I somewhat concur as the first two-thirds was not especially inspired call-and-response. As they loosened up, and responded from some good natured heckling from those in the crowd who spoke Punjabi and so forth, things got more free-form and electric. They closed with Kangna and another piece of a similar style. A bit muted, but still awesome, and let's not bother with a denouement. There's not a lot to look at, though I'm sure there's a fairly rigid hierarchy at work within the ensemble.

The City of Chicago World Music Festival blurb:

Fareed Ayaz, Abu Muhammad Qawwal and Brothers are masters of Qawwali Sufi music as well as classical genres such as tarana, thumri and khayal. They learned the art of Qawwali from their father, the late Ustad Raziuddin Ahmed of the Delhi Gharana, a music school founded in the 14th century that can be traced back over 700 years to its original founders, Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia and Hazrat Amir Khusra. The group sings in multiple languages including Urdu, Punjabi, Sindhi, Hindi, Farsi, Arabic, Bengali, and Purbi. Weaving together devotional and secular traditions, Ayaz and company have been bringing Qawwali music to international audiences for over thirty years.

Country of Origin/Based: Pakistan
Genre: Qawalli

I took the Green line back to Lake-at-Morgan, and cycled home from there. I'm told that things get a little sketchy after dark between Hyde Park and the City, and anyway I was tired.

Theatre Y: An Impressive Presentation of Lovely Evidences: Underneath the Lintel by Glen Berger

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The last Theatre Y show at the Lutheran Church on Francisco Avenue near Logan Square, a preview. No tickets this time, and the customary free beer, before and after; a full house, an appreciative crowd. Where else were you going to be on this Friday night?

This play is about a Dutch librarian who thinks he is Poirot. That this is already a totally preposterous premise for worthwhile theatre should have you planning to be at one of the out-and-about taking-it-to-the-people editions. Darren Hill is the sole performer and perfectly inhabits the character. (The accent and mannerisms so obscure his native self that I wouldn't have guessed he was from Blackpool.) In the talk afterwards the production was unpacked as a collaboration between Darren, who had been fascinated by the play itself for several years, and Melissa, who as director helped him completely realize the Dutchman, in particular by constructing a vocabulary of physical tics that were startingly persuasive. The character's identity is ambiguous. Melissa observed that it was unusual for her to be part of a production that drew laughter from the audience. She said it was unlikely to be reviewed by the mainstream Chicago press as it was not in a traditional format, with a fixed address; I'm wondering how the bar-goers of Chicago are going to take it. Twin boys (age 12) framed it with ukulele-based musical pieces, in bluegrass (?) style.

My only disappointment about this show was in not seeing Melissa perform one last time. I managed to unload The Moon of Hoa Binh on Evan, and was the last to leave. It was raining earlier in the day so I took the bus and Blue line there, but walked home in clear skies.

Update 2015-10-03: Review in the Reader.

Mike Leigh: Meanwhile

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An early (1984) effort featuring Tim Roth and Gary Oldman. Marion Bailey as Barbara is the gudgeon of the thing, and Phil Daniels plays the central character that is something of a prototype for David Thewlis's character in Naked. Mostly set in a council estate where the doors don't even slam, and the windows come away in your hands. Skinhead Oldman in a large bucket, surreally banging away. Tim Roth as cowed rain man. Vintage Leigh.

Renaissance

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On Roman W's recommendation. I got all excited when I read the IBM credit at the start, thinking that Watson had developed the plot, cast itself in the lead and done the animation. And built itself a girl to get from a spare rib. Well, the animation was top-notch, and the aesthetic a few steps along from Sin City and so forth, but the story was slightly abysmal. I wish the geeks with the tech would be less possessive about their projects. Put me in mind of A Scanner Darkly too, but I barely recall that one.

Michael Mori: In the Company of Cowards.

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This book was one of the motivations for buying the Kindle: it hasn't gotten a U.S. release in any form in the year since publication, and getting it shipped from Australia is way too expensive (something like $AU30 postage when I looked). It turns out that it's easy to change stores on Amazon, so I got it from their Australian eBook site for $AU14.99 ($US11.10) on 2015-08-15.

This is more-or-less what you read in the news at the time, with the addition of a brief introductory biography of Mori himself and many tantalizing legal and backroom details. I knew that whatever he wrote wouldn't be totally satisfying as there are many parts of the story that no-one can commit to paper without severe sanction (even now), and I wish he'd had more to say about his life since the case came to a close; it was good to see that the Marines did hold (much) of a grudge, for instance, but how about talking about what he's been doing in Melbourne? I hadn't realized that Joshua Dratel was involved, and was hoping for more colour given his supposedly klutzy handling of the procedural aspects of the Ross Ulbricht Silk Road trial.

Mori is right to paint this as perhaps John Howard's biggest political miscalculation; Mori outfoxed him by refocusing the Australian public's attention away from Hicks to the fairness of the process. The open face, the ready laugh and the sporting metaphors, including an attempt to understand cricket, doubtlessly made the critical difference; an attempt at a similar line of argument about Schapelle Corby's treatment by the Indonesian legal system did not garner her as much sympathy. I guess Mori learnt the lessons of Vietnam (in particular, when the system is that rigged against you, your best bet is to sway the public's opinion of your opponent) better than his superiors did.

Who are the cowards of the title? These slip between the cracks of his narrative as Mori chooses to focus on the brave. It would have helped to have an organizational chart. I also wonder if Hicks ever got his British passport.

I came to this thinking that Mori was a great American who was charged with taking a big bite from a shit sandwich, and left thinking the same. I'm glad he wrote this, and I hope he has the opportunity and energy to continue this kind of lawyering from Melbourne.

A matter-of-fact review by Daniel Flitton at the Smage. David Marr in the Guardian got to speak with him in Melbourne in late 2014. The ABC has many interviews still available, but finding them is another matter. Miriam Cosic summarises the book at length.

Oracle Theatre: This House Believes the American Dream is at the Expense of the American Negro at the Public Access Theatre.

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Free, $20 donation at the end, booked 2015-08-27. Took the red line up as I was feeling lazy, and the weather was supposedly dicey. This was a recreation of a debate in the Cambridge Union in 1965. Apparently the original is online. The opening statements by the two Englishmen were provocative; for the negative, the argument was that the American Dream would be further along if the American Negro had been treated better. (The title elides "has been achieved".) The main part of it was essentially a pair of monologues from James Baldwin and William F. Buckley Jr, and I found neither particularly edifying. Buckley in particular made it clear how much American rhetoric rests on the invocation of tribal shibboleths that are substantially irrelevant to the issue at hand, which is perhaps why it is unconvincing to foreigners. I gave up trying to process his assertions very early on. But where are the contemporary debates held now?

The production is quite OK, and has been staged multiple times. Aimee Levitt at the Reader got right into it.

Jamil Ahmad: The Wandering Falcon

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Another eBook from the Chicago Public Library. According to Wikipedia, Ahmad spent a lifetime in the tribal areas along the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan and he shares some of his experiences and accumulated knowledge here. Unfortunately he started late and this is the entirety of his literary output. In some ways it is like Kipling's Kim, reflecting on colonialism, the reverberations of the Great Game and so forth. His account of the closing of the Af-Pak border to the nomadic peoples is despondent. Score one more to the nation state. There is little of beauty here — more hard-scrabble people eking out hard lives in breathtaking surroundings — and while the women are accounted for, they never amount to personalities or have much volition. There is, of course, generational tribal/family feuding and slave trading, some city life. The overarching conceit is of a violently-orphaned boy who learns to survive, even thrive, by doing as needs must. He appears in all the stories but is almost never at their centre.

Basharat Peer and Kamila Shamsie both reviewed it for the Guardian. (I somewhat disagree with her about the portrayal of women, though I don't fault Ahmad for this given the culturally-enforced separation of gender.)

... and Coke Studio Season 8 has started!

Profiles Theatre: The Jacksonian.

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Goldstar ticket: $10.00 + $6.50 service fee = $16.50, bought 2015-08-06. I met up with mrak and Ang for lunch in Chinatown. We took the water taxi back to Madison, and as I was too lazy to cycle I then took the red line up to Sheridan. Those stations are seriously not accessible; carrying the bike up and down stairs and squeezing through those gates is not fun. My old reliable Asian Mix Cafe was closed, this being the Sunday of the Labor Day long weekend, so I had to make do with a couple of donuts and a 312 beer. I got talking to Vicky, who wrote Late Night Catechism.

So, this is another Southern gothic with a girl running around a hotel room in her undies (at times). There's a demented dentist who loses it as his family life decays. The barkeep is a tad psychotic and the maid on the make. Yeah, it's a solid production of some tired and mediocre material. I saw Juliana Liscio in Take Me Back; here she has a meatier role but is still somewhat squandered.

The cycle home was pleasant, though there seemed to be a mild, steady southerly all day.

Tony Adler. And many others.

U.S. Eagles vs Wallabies, Soldier Field.

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$97.44 ($75 face value), bought 2015-05-30. I bought these as early as I could as I was expecting something like last year, when more than 60,000 people went to see the All Blacks. Well, the second or third string of the momentarily number two team in the world doesn't have that kind of drawing power, with only about 23,000 people turning out. The result was 47 to 10, with the hosts scoring a try (!). Before the game I thought par was a fifty point margin, and afterwards simply much more discipline. (The biffo in the middle of the second half was farcical.) If any of the first-string players get injured at the world cup, the jig is up for Australia.

It was a beautiful day for cycling around, though I didn't do too much of that. Some wag put Springsteen's Born in the USA on as a warm up: not too much killing of the yellow man here today, or even conscripting of the man in yellow to help with that. And yeah, Khe San. The fashion question for the Americans fans was whether to go with the stars or the stripes: revolution or one happy union?

Smith Henderson: Fourth of July Creek

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Second time round on the Kindle. It's addictive, making it easier to pick up a promising book than to make progress on any side project. Oh well. I read most of this on the plane back to Chicago from ICFP in Vancouver, and a little in the evenings before that.

Set in 1979 and a bit later, Montana and thereabouts, Twin Peaks territory but nowhere as kooky. The myth-minting is highly unoriginal here — Reagan is the antichrist as he survived an assassination attempt, for instance — which makes me think that it is not Henderson's point. But then all his characters conform to type: Mary, one of several gone girls, has been through more institutions than she has fingers and toes, was serially abused in the obvious way and is now a paid functionary for this system while moonlighting as a nymphomaniac prostitute. Pete Snow, the central character, is a social worker who is similarly bent. Almost everyone is soaked in alcohol. So that really just leaves the plot, which takes a neat swerve from the "just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you" cliché to the modern indistinguishability of deep spirituality from mental illness. Which may have been his point. That and Christ's inability to save himself.

While I enjoyed it, this left me with a feeling similar as Viet Thanh Nguyen's debut, that I'd read the same websites at approximately the same time and the cutting insight did not really arrive. There is a hell of a lot of gesturing at "fiat currency" here, a big topic within the libertarian community, and some dissonance: apocalyptic Pearl converts his USD to gold and argues that the latter has no inherent value... so if he's only going to use it for trade, why not stick with USD, or go all-in on the instrumental goods? Isn't gold ultimately subject to the same pathologies as fiat currencies, being manipulable by powerful (state) actors? Ultimately can't the state futz with any and every market? Argh, too many rhetorical questions! Or unsurprising answers.

Henderson does some nice writing in the small, but has too many pieces on the board for things to add up satisfactorily. I got this book on the strength of Janet Maslin's review in the New York Times. Her observation: "The daughter's story is a chilling reminder of how much damage parents can unwittingly inflict on their children." links this to Deborah Robertson's book. "It may remind readers of many different writers, even though it's such an original." is a funny way of saying that it's entirely derivative, but she liked the synthesis. Imitation is the sincerest form, and so forth.

D.O.A.

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At the The Cinemateque on a rainy but not too cold Vancouver evening, 8:10pm session. Their noir festival is coming to an end. This single feature set me back $CA11 and $CA3 annual membership which I probably won't get to exercise again; if I'd been keener I could have taken in the double feature for $CA14 + membership. This one gets a bit self-satirizing at times and things become twisty without much support: the main thread is the desperate search by an accountant from a small town in San Francisco and Los Angeles for his own murderer. Fun.

Nadeem Aslam: The Blind Man's Garden

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Having broken my moratorium on new hardware back in July, I figured it was time I tried out some kind of ebook reader. To that end I bought a Kindle Voyager from Amazon a few weeks back, which got delivered on Wednesday past. Again on Pankaj Mishra's recommmendation, I extracted this book from the Chicago Public Library. Their game is to shunt you off to a third-party website and ultimately Amazon. In brief, the device is heavier than I hoped. The backlight is much stronger than I expected, and painfully white. Dries suggested cranking it down to the lowest setting, which helps. I've also found that the glass is annoyingly reflective when using the light in the ceiling. It works fine in sunlight. The interface is clunky but usable. A year since release, it still seems that the Voyage is unrootable.

This novel is brutally unsentimental. It is in some ways a complement to Pynchon's Bleeding Edge, examining the impact of 9/11 on the people living somewhat near Peshawar (specifically Heer), and how they conceive of Westerners (cf Shamsie's A God in Every Stone, set roughly eighty years previous). The conflict is multifaceted and internecine, with ambiguous connections amongst the players; the ISI (let alone the Pakistani military or civilian government) is shown to have only a tenuous grip on many of its (ex-)operatives, and their methods are rapacious and clearly unsound (whatever their desired outcome). Despite the language barrier some kind of mutual understanding arises an American special forces infidel lug and a local street-smart survivor who ends up at the pointy end of the narrative, more often than not. The women here are a long way from free, and romance is mostly of the thwarted, pining kind. Aslam is unflinching in portraying the aspects of Islamic doctrine that conflict with modern Western thought.

Aslam is sometimes very fine in the small, but mostly just lets the events speak in a tight, unyielding, keenly-detailed workman-like style that often approaches but never quite achieves the sustained crystalline clear-sightedness of Atticus Lish's. He ratchets the tension up in way that early-on made me think I'd missed something. Also he provides many motifs with meanings that I probably missed, such as the snow leopard cub: can these be tamed? I'm going to have to track down his earlier work.

I mostly finished this off on the plane taking me from Chicago to Vancouver for ICFP.

Four Corners

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Another freebie at the Chicago Cultural Center. 6.30pm. Cool-ish day that topped out under 20 degrees. This is a solid peace of Capetown gangland pseudo-realism / chess romanticism / growing up ghetto, the sins of the father and so forth. The humour certainly helped. A Southern hemisphere Gomorrah? I don't think there was any Die Antwoord on the thumping soundtrack, despite it being released in 2014.

Mike Leigh: Career Girls

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1997, post-Naked. Excellent cast: Katrin Cartlidge and Lynda Steadman are perfect leads, Andy Serkis is a coked-up futures trader, Mark Benton a young man undergoing mental disintegration. Starts off funny, aims for poignant, misses, and that's OK.

Serena

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Bradley Cooper falls for a mentally-unwell Jennifer Lawrence. Again. This is something of a slasher garbed in period dramatic costume. Quite well shot, and the editing was not as bad I was led to believe. The raw material by Ron Rash is probably the wellspring of the meh.

Manohla Dargis.

Windy City Playhouse: Things You Shouldn't Say Past Midnight by Peter Ackerman.

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Goldstar ticket: $12.50 (house seating) + $4.00 service fee = $16.50, booked 2015-08-11. Beautiful cycling conditions, just a light and slightly cool wind later in the evening. I finished reading Pynchon's Bleeding Edge at Heritage Bicycles, and then hurried dinner at Royal Thai on Montrose, an adequate chicken cashew.

Got upgraded to "sit anywhere", so sat in the front row in a swivel seat. Not optimal, but all the seats had their drawbacks. It was perhaps two-thirds full, and the crowd mostly older than me. This is a clothes-on sex farce, and barely amounts to a piece of fluff. The first half had some spirit, but the second half chose not to cash those chips, perversely settling instead for repetition on the theme of "is he gay or what". I was unsettled as things became quite disconnected at some point, and I think the take-home was that everything is forgivable. The material pulls its punches at the end by not invoking the obvious racial slur, which would have further deflated things I'm sure, but perhaps given those on their date nights something to talk about afterwards.

I beat the Google bicycling hero benchmark for the route home, which probably means it's about time for autumn.

Tony Adler. Jacob Davis.

Thomas Pynchon: Bleeding Edge

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Where to start. Roman W. suggested this one. I extracted it from the Chicago Public Library, where it is filed under popular fiction, mysteries. I don't usually read mysteries, and for that reason I may not have properly engaged with that aspect of it. This is Pynchon's take on 9/11 (starting p316) and the financialization craziness of the years following. And, as Roman reminds me, of the years before, and the bursting of the dotcom bubble. He does a good job of spelunking through the internet of the day and Silicon Alley, with the odd anachronism which may be nods to his younger readers and the time at which he was writing this. His cyberspace somewhat evokes William Gibson and made me wonder if it was going to be Wintermute at the bottom of the deep web; instead it was dead souls. To me that space was mapped out more by the dying protocols (NNTP, IRC, gopher) than HTTP or VRML; now it would be Bitcoin and TOR, and hacking Facebook's APIs. Perhaps it's Minecraft. I don't know, but I'm sure its corporate.

Pynchon jumps around a lot, and doesn't try to justify his heroine's actions too much; on occasion he seems surprised at what he's got her doing. There is a boatload of American sentimentality and myth-minting, and insights into communities that I will never have access to. I wonder what Pynchon expected to happen once there was plenty; surely not anything as unAmerican as an end to unnecessary suffering. Dissing the yuppies while glamorizing the startup parties and strip clubs seems a bit cheap, and we all have our moments when we dream of this complexity evaporating (p465), leaving us in a state of bucolic grace, everything back to normal, but with an internet of unbounded content. Is a Russian mobster with a heart of gold so very different to the prostitute of cliché? Pychon offhandedly paints the social spaces of New York City as so intrinsically valuable that every extant subculture will be studied in the future.

Chicago gets a capsule portrait which doesn't go much further than the Loop. His image of women hailing cabs (p412), arm raised to an empty street, is pure Americana to me, as is the easy familiarity with concealed-carry handguns. There are plenty of geek tropes wonderfully pressed into descriptive service, sometimes so apt that I wonder how non-geeks even experience those things. Take, for instance, his description of an IKEA store:

Like millions of other men around the world, Horst hates the Swedish DIY giant. He and Maxine once blew a weekend looking for the branch in Elizabeth, New Jersey, located next to the airport so the world’s fourth-richest billionaire can save on lading costs while the rest of us spend the day getting lost on the New Jersey Turnpike. Also off it. At last they arrived at a county-size parking lot, and shimmering in the distance a temple to, or museum of, a theory of domesticity too alien for Horst fully to be engaged by. Cargo planes kept landing gently nearby. An entire section of the store was dedicated to replacing wrong or missing parts and fasteners, since with IKEA this is not so exotic an issue. Inside the store proper, you walk forever from one bourgeois context, or “room of the house,” to another, along a fractal path that does its best to fill up the floor space available. Exits are clearly marked but impossible to get to. Horst is bewildered, in a potentially violent sort of way. “Look at this. A barstool, named Sven? Some old Swedish custom, the winter kicks in, weather gets harsh, after a while you find yourself relating to the furniture in ways you didn’t expect?”

The whole thing is a bit overwhelming. Pynchon is a lot of fun, and I'm certainly going to keep ploughing through his other stuff.

Citizens' Relief: Ashes to Ashes by Harold Pinter.

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Goldstar ticket: $10.00 + $3.75 service fee = $13.75, bought 2015-08-09. A beautiful night to ride over to Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art near the corner of Chicago/Milwaukee. (These guys improbably control the domain art.org.) I had a Revolution Brewing WIT (wheat beer? — ale with spices) in a can. This being early in the run, there were only three audience members, which was a shame. Apparently there there 25 on opening night this Thursday past. Citizen's Relief consists of the actors Simone Jubyna and Mike Driscoll who self-direct. Both donned English accents. Simone as Rebecca is suitably arch and somewhat robotic/medicated. Mike as Devlin is creepy in his reassured, unreflectively stolid British self absorption. The material, perfect for a simple set and this pair of actors, is a somewhat unsettling not-quite-dialogue that jars with domestic banality. Vintage Pinter, in other words.

New City Stage. Justin Hayford at the Reader.

Do The Right Thing

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David S suggested this as something by Spike Lee worth seeing. Brooklyn, 1989, a boiling hot summer's day, so what are you going to do but open up a fire hydrant and set fire to the neighbourhood pizzeria? Lee himself puts in an agreeably ambiguous piece of acting, those eyes assessing, judging, playing the angles, presenting both the MLK and the Malcolm X view of things. Danny Aiello gets some help from John Turturro in representing at the Italian outpost, and flirts hamfistedly with the communalistic Joie Lee. She goes MIA when things get scorching. That's Samuel L. Jackson on the radio, making it with his voice only, and not too much MFing swearing. Lee struck some gold with the Korean shopkeepers, especially the wife, who somehow identify as black and are eventually deemed sufficiently black for their store to survive. Mostly this is a portrait of how the races mix, for the climax is a (relatively) uninspired take on the seemingly eternal killing of black men by police. I never realised that Michael Franti sounds so much like Chuck D. Time to add Public Enemy to the never-shortening list of things to check out.

K'na, the Dreamweaver

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A freebie at the Chicago Cultural Center. 6.30pm, packed with oldies and hangers-on from the local Philippines consulate. Part of a series of a series of screenings of international (marginal) movies. Some charming naivety, but mostly just naivety. It was a beautiful night for cycling, even with mild headwinds.

Their blurb:

Dir. Ida Anita Del Mundo, Philippines, 2014, 85 min. On the Mindanao islands, the young T’boli princess K’Na discovers the gods have chosen her to be the village dreamweaver. As such, she has the ability to weave together the local warring tribes, but to do so, she must give up her one true love. Special Jury Prize winner at the Cinemalaya Festival, this mythic tale beautifully intertwines themes of passion with tradition and duty. Filipino, Tagalog with subtitles.

New York Times.

Ron Rash: Nothing Gold Can Stay

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Rash always gets solid write ups in the New York Times. Here is Janet Maslin on this one. Every story parks us in North Carolina, often the Appalachians, the odd nod to Chapel Hill and education. Almost all are, at heart, get-the-eff-outs, and that's not something I need to read more about. On the positive, I was pleasantly surprised by his reference to The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy as some kind of must-read for those coming of age, though it comes in an uninspired tale of youthful intellect squandered by drug addiction. The last — Three A.M. and the Stars Were Out — broke the mold and was therefore the most successful. Elsewhere Rash is unfailing in technique but merely toying with variations on tired themes, and all the drop-you-in-cold introductions and twisty endings can't make up for that. (For instance, Something Rich and Strange struck me as a complement to one of Raymond Chandler's well-mined pieces. But maybe that's all that comes to mind about dead girls in rivers. And Bruce Springsteen canvassed similar escapist, wastrel topics as this collection from his more-northerly vantage.)

I didn't realise that Rash wrote the original material and the screenplay of Serena, which got universally panned.

Thomas Pynchon: The Crying of Lot 49

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A non-scifi suggestion from David S. Roman W. suggested I instead commence my Pynchon campaign with Bleeding Edge. Always late to the party, I hedged my bets by borrowing both from the Chicago Public Library, and went with the shorter. Pynchon is so of his time, and sometimes so obscure, that there's a wiki to help you trainspot his references. (I made no use of it however.) He may leave us hanging, unlike a bloke taking a Brody, but the wiki does not. Is this some kind of meditation on the American founding mythologies, or a precursor to Fear and Loathing in all its world-weary glory? (Like the latter it contains a fragment of the American Dream, before the squashing of the recreational drug culture got serious in the later 1960s.) I think the thing with Pynchon is that you don't have to choose. Just so long as you like shaggy dog stories, in this instance told from the perspective of competing postal services. Which makes me wonder what the Coen brothers would have made of Inherent Vice.

I was all set up to be let down by the ending, and wasn't.

The Big Knife

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As full of zingers as a Howard Hawks, and it seems quite amazing that something so scathing and ultimately nihilistic got made by Hollywood. Rod Steiger is awesome, in the full on mode that Brando and Pacino brought to the Godfathers. It's a shame he has so few scenes. Jack Palance gets loads of great lines. Not so much fun as trainwreck.

Smiley Coy: What's she doing here? [apropos Charlie's sort-of separated wife]
Charlie Castle: Cheap serf labor... I pay her by the lifetime.

The Gift

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$12.64 at the AMC River East 21, 4.45pm session. Written and directed by Joel Edgerton, for otherwise I would not have bothered seeing something starring Rebecca Hall (after her abysmal capitulation to Woody Allen in Vicky Cristina Barcelona). Jason Bateman is fine in the lead, and Edgerton deals himself perhaps the toughest hand in playing the damaged Gordo. Why did he want to tell this story? It has some antecedents in Lantana, of misfaith in marriage and recovery from trauma. It was totally unclear to me why the leads got hitched; is she so unreflective/absorbed in her interior decorating that she doesn't see his bullying until it cannot be ignored? It indeed subverts expectations at every turn, and only really disappoints when it doesn't.

Stephen Holden.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: The Sympathizer

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Extracted from the Chicago Public Library. I feel like we saw the same movies: Apocalypse Now, Once Upon a Time in America, Fight Club, Infernal Affairs, 1984, right up to the last bit of torture porn, which must have been Zero Dark Thirty or some other flag waver that I drew the line at. Yes, the Vietnamese I met in St Louis called Chicago chick a go (p66). Nguyen consciously, with occasional ostentatious bravery, nibbles on the (white man's) hand that feeds: he keenly observes (p180) that Country is white man's music, which sounds like a fine analysis until Google tells you that Country has been called "the white man's blues", and we're back to watching the same movies. The General's army, assembling east of L.A., are rag-tag space monkeys. The mole was not played by Tony Leung, nor the General's apparently luscious daughter by Maggie Cheung. The clash of civilizations (p250) is tired and wants to retire. (Dr Hedd is a pastiche of horrorshow cold warrior intellectual armchair generals.) He struck a chord on the topic of American happiness (p245):

So, [Englishman Hedd] said, are you happy? It was an intimate question, nearly as personal as asking about my salary, acceptable in our homeland but not here. What was worse, however, was that I could not think of a satisfactory answer. If I was unhappy, it would reflect badly on me, for Americans saw happiness as a moral failure and thought crime. But if I was happy, it would be in bad taste to say so, or a sign of hubris, as if I was boasting or gloating.

I agree with Andrew X. Pham that it was a compelling read. I'm less certain that it was audacious. See Nam Le on ethnic lit.

Philip Caputo wrote a lengthy review at the New York Times. I think I enjoyed the overwriting more than the writing.

It later won a Pulitzer for fiction.

The Poor Theatre: Take Me Back at Collaboraction, Flat Iron Arts Building.

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$16.00, bought 2015-07-22. 2pm, which is a little early for a matinee. The closing session. Hasty lunch at the Subway near the corner of Division and Halsted. Quite pleasant cycling weather, especially with pumped-up tyres. I saw The Paranoid Style in American Politics in the same theatre recently. This company put on Edgar and Annabel a while back, with Dillon Kelleher starring in both. Alex Fisher was Matchbox in Desperate Dolls; here she plays a natural/neutral highschool sweetheart. Susan Monts-Bologna (as the mother) and Juliana Liscio (small-time partner in crime) were new to me. It was a good production with good actors with polished but not great raw material (from Emily Schwend); it's far too easy for Southern Gothic to slide into sentimentality, or small-town woe-for-those-who-never-escaped (from Muskogee, Oklahoma in this instance). Far better to take it to the limit.

Justin Hayford at the Reader. Jacob Davis is less gushy. Scott C. Morgan observes the excellent sound design.

Shaun the Sheep Movie

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$12.00 at the Icon Showplace, 4.35pm screening. A new claymation from Aardman? Hold me back! Unfortunately I think we're past the point of diminished returns; this one is sometimes funny but not as clever as Wallace and Gromit. OK, I'm asking too much. I haven't seen the TV series either, and things might work better in smaller concussive doses.

Neil Genzlinger pretty much spells it all out.

The Prophecy

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A suggestion of erstwhile roomie Robert, on the strength of Christopher Walken. Ultimately more cutter than cookie amongst the pre-millenials; easily outshone by even Arnie's effort. It's nice to know that Lucifer (Viggo Mortensen) is on our side. Elias Koteas is not much of a leading man. Stoltz is identikit Pulp Fiction. There are two sequels, probably even less essential than this.

Leonard Cohen: Beautiful Losers

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From the Chicago Public Library. Execrable. I note that it was published before his first album was released. There is the odd decent turn of phrase and insight that he later became known for.

Maps to the Stars

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A recent David Cronenberg, and as you might expect, a bit strange. Mia Wasikowska reprises something of her role in Stoker, and it's a shame there was no room for Matthew Goode here. It got a little too much Boogie Nights and not enough Magnolia on the Julianne Moore front for me. I'd hope Robert Pattinson can find roles with more personality than the boy-toy he plays here. John Cusack effortlessly plays the soulless shrink.

A. O. Scott. Dana Stevens. Anthony Lane points to The Big Knife featuring Rod Steiger as something with more teeth.

Making Rain Productions: Coronado at the Cornservatory, 4210 N Lincoln.

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Goldstar ticket: $10.00 + $3.75 service fee = $13.75, bought 2015-07-14. Lunch was so-so Vietnamese chicken curry noodles at Simply IT, followed by an attempt at snoozing next to the golf course at Belmont Harbor which was stymied by vast numbers of biting insects. Loads of dragonflies also, which don't seem to bother humans. Dinner was Singapore noodles at Asian Mix Cafe, similarly meh. Warm, but not too humid for long bike rides.

This is something like the Dennis Lehane version of Gone Girl. The acting was quite solid but the scene changes were frequent and momentum-destroying; the play is cut up like a modern movie. The use of physically-dissimilar actors playing the same characters in different threads was an effective way of prolonging the mystery. The title had me going because I thought it referred to the actual locality in San Diego, whereas I think Lehane's Coronado is everywhere small-town USA, somewhere affected by hurricanes, with enough unsavvy trailer park residents to sustain a livelihood from insurance scams. The compromised shrink was little more than a cliché. The Gone Girl herself was a bit too controlling, to no particular end; her raw need was enough. The source material garnered a damning review in the New York Times.

The Cornservatory is one of those "shopfront" theatres a long way from the Loop, in this case up Lincoln (and not Broadway), and it typically hosts comedy. I rode home via Lincoln/Damen/Clybourn, trying to avoid the bros of Lakeview, lit by a big full-ish moon.

The Ruling Class

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Another suggestion from David S:

In this movie, Peter O'Toole plays the new Earl of Gurney (the last one died wearing his naval uniform and a tutu in a fit of autoerotic asphyxiation). He also happens to think he is Jesus. His idle rich family try to change his disposition so that he won’t embarrass him when he goes to the House of Lords. Then things get weird. Great send up of the toffs with lovely musical numbers.

More at Wikipedia. I enjoyed it. Clearly of its day: the post-"I'm Jack" sequence nods to A Clockwork Orange's "I was cured alright!" and presages The Shining, and concerns around the AC-DC messiah (electro-convulsive therapy) also aired in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. O'Toole at his fruity best. Mike Leigh's A Sense of History is marginally more respectful.

The 606.

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The 606 trail (aka Bloomingdale Line) opened back in June, but it's taken me this long to find a spare school day to ride the length of it, east-to-west. The bridge on Cortland is being reconstructed, so it was a little tricky to get to the trail head on Ashland (traffic sewer beyond compare). They've done an awesome job, and I expect it'll be even nicer when the plants mature. Rode back to Atomix, where I read up on various tax codes.

A Red Orchid Theatre incubator: Celebration by Harold Pinter infused with the music of Mauricio Kagel.

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$10.00 + $1.00 Convenience Charge = $11.00, bought 2015-07-22. Presented by the incubator, "a caKe experiment with music by beyond this point". Directed by dado, who also played the role of Julie. Two-thirds packed, and where else are you going to be on this Friday night? Ran for about an hour, played for laughs and cut up with miscellaneous po-faced percussion. The raw material is a brutal accounting of the Posh-and-Becks nouveau riche trash culture of the late 1990s. Elliot Baker as Lambert nailed his part of that; Dan Wenzel as Matt was suitably inert. The interjecting waiter spouted a mix of the true, the plausible, and the manifestly fraudulent, all of it tosh, embodying the earlier English tradition of guilt by association; Stephen Walker's fine comedic timing made that all work. Maria Stephens nailed the creepy slutty resistability of Prue, and Carolyn Molloy may have been reading the BBC news while recounting her complete faith in the flaws of her beau Russell, played with perfect insouciance by Michael Doonan. David Weber as Richard the restaurateur was cannon fodder.

Annoyingly the Chicago Reader has decided to severely reduce the number of theatre reviews they publish.

New MacBook Pro.

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It's been about four-and-a-half years since I bought the last one. I'd been hanging on for Apple to release a machine with the latest quad-core Intel processors, but those got released just before these new models, back in June, and so I am stuck with some earlier year's. (I think Apple might have known that the yields were poor.) What forced my hand was that Isabelle started reliably crashing the old machine, perhaps due to the heat, dust and possibly borderline support for the memory I put in it. Or maybe it did have the infamous GPU hardware bug, despite getting a new mainboard in September 2013.

Anyway, what I give up with the new machine is a DVD drive, which I only ever used to reinstall the OS, and an ethernet port, which I will miss if I ever get back to hacking hardware. Also they have gotten rid of the Kensington lock slot. I now have to use Yosemite, which is not hugely different to Mavericks, so shrug. What I gain is USB3, a superfast SSD, a very sharp screen, and less weight to lug around. I doubt the battery life is going to matter, or the extra ThunderBolt port. So faster, yes, but otherwise pretty much a wash. I do like having a machine where the only moving parts are the keys and the fans though.

Buying the thing was an ordeal. It was quite expensive: $2.5k and another $230 in Illinois state sales tax (I mind paying money to the state less than to the Fed), but amortised over four years it's not so bad ($2 a day). I live quite close to the Lincoln Park Apple Store and figured that if I put enough cash on my Visa debit card, things would go OK. But when I got there I figured what the hell, let's try putting some of it on the credit card. This failed, and the card got totally blocked. They like doing that to me — why they can't just reject the transaction and notify me I don't know. I'm never going to rely on it when I'm overseas. Then the debit card got blocked too, as it has a $2k daily limit. The lady at my credit union told me about that, and said I could go pull another $1k in cash from an ATM. Another two calls to them got it unblocked, two trips to the ATM ($600 limit per withdrawal there) got me the difference, and an intervening switch of sales assistant finally allowed me to pay for it. The machine was brought up from the stockroom three times, by the same girl, to my excruciating embarrassment. They insisted I take my 84 cents in change. This is why I shop online.

After that I spent the whole afternoon sitting in the Apple store reinstalling Yosemite (all for a case-sensitive root partition) and Xcode. Everything comes off the internet now, so it's slow. At home the Migration Assistant took five or more hours to scrape my data off the Time Machine backup. After that, reviving the usual arcana (MacPorts, the venerable perl blogging script, some settings) went far more smoothly than previous times.

Update 2015-08-02: The right shift key ceased to pop back up after mild use. A trip to the Genius Bar at Apple Lincoln Park on Monday 2015-08-03 got it replaced, and we'll see if it's fixed.

Sideshow Theatre Company: Stupid Fucking Bird

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Goldstar ticket. $20.00 + $6.00 service fee = $26.00. 3pm. On the suggestion of Adam, the ever present barman at the Chopin Theatre, who is doing this company's books. Had a late lunch at Simply IT Vietnamese, a not-so-tasty ginger chicken claypot. The Taste of Lincoln got between me (at Fullerton) and the Victory Gardens no-longer-Biograph Theater. Apparently based on Chekhov's The Seagull, about which I know nothing but am guessing is the source of his principle about stage props. This has its moments but I felt a similar distance from it as I did from Three Sisters; wallowing in lurv-induced self pity does not make for good drama, and no amount of "new kind of theatre" contrivance is going to change that. The cast did modulate the emotional temperature quite well, but it's oftentimes a long slog between meaty bits. The set and scene transitions are nicely handled, with Katy Carolina Collins belting out some tunes. I didn't recognise Nina O'Keefe from The Other Place. This is a reheat from last year, with the same cast.

Ian Watson: The Embedding

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I asked David S. at work for a suggestion and this came up first. Here's his summary:

A French anarchist studies the complex language of an endangered Amazonian tribe while aliens make a strange deal with the United States government. Short (~200 pp) and very interesting.

The Chicago Public Library's copy is authentically 1973. The title refers to centre embedding, a syntantic/grammatical concept that is explained briefly towards the beginning; it was and remains unclear to me why it would contain the secrets to the universe. I was expecting something more semantic, like homomorphic encryption, or Douglas Adams's idea that understanding life, the universe and everything demanded the construction of the Earth, or Kurt Gödel's cute syntactic tricks. The violent response to the coldly transactional aliens was somewhat predictable given the time it was written. I chugged it over a few days and enjoyed it for what it was. There's the odd gross out (a witch doctor munching on a living child's brains, for instance) and I guess I have never felt comfortable with English notions of mental healthcare since I read Will Self's Quantity Theory of Insanity. The ending fails to evoke the emotional state that the aliens purportedly sustained for 12,000 years.

Anoop Sarkar explains the linguistics some more, and is right to observe that Watson's cynicism is wearing.

David S.'s second suggestion was Gene Wolfe's The Fifth Head of Cerberus, which I also got from the Chicago Public Library but didn't get far into: the prose is a bit impenetrable. That first novella may have been a little heavy on the centre embedding.

Kamila Shamsie: A God in Every Stone

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Pankaj Mishra pointed at another book by Shamsie in his Dear Uncle Sam... essay; this one looked the most promising of those I could find at the Chicago Public Library. Shamsie writes some quite fine sentences and sometimes evokes the Peshawar of her imagination, but is let down in the large by focussing overmuch on the fictional parts of her reconstruction of history, at significant cost to the facts. The Englishwoman-archaeologist is too much of a cliché to anchor anything, and who could be so clueless about the status of minorities in hostile host countries? Helen Dunmore has it right. I found the ending conceit, of showing the same scene from three (four?) different perspectives, failed to ratchet up the tension that was clearly intended. I read it over a few days, and substantially finished it between snoozes in Tom Ping Park on Sunday afternoon.

Ahmed Rashid: Pakistan on the Brink: The future of America, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

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Borrowed from the Chicago Public Library. Rashid is fine in the short form but is quite repetitious and loose in this longer exposition of what ails Pakistan. Also the book has dated quite rapidly; the situation with Iran has evolved significantly, for instance. The opening chapter recounts exactly the tale of bin Laden's demise that Seymour Hersh has recently called into question. I get the impression that there's more value in his earlier books on the rise of the Taliban.

Hal Hartley: The Book of Life

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Wow, it's been an age. Hartley clearly tried to mine the Wong Kar-Wai school of impressionistic cinematography with patchy results. The whole thing is a shambles.

Hal Hartley: Amateur

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I enjoyed it this time around. Perhaps it takes more patience than I've had before. The first half is funny, and the second is a little too heavy in comparison.

Terminator Genisys

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With Christian. 6pm, 3D, River East 21, $16.56 + $9.93 in beer, which I sorely needed. Mostly turkey. At least Arnie can still deliver a one-liner. I had expected endless action scenes and explosions, and left wishing there had been more action scenes and explosions. Jason Clarke should have signed up for the next Star Trek reboot instead. And let's not talk about Emilia Clarke.

Manohla Dargis.

Oracle Theatre: The America Play at the Public Access Theatre.

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It ended up being a beautiful day despite the dire warnings of thunderstorms for the afternoon. I got some lunch at the Simply IT Vietnamese on Lincoln. The curried chicken was quite OK. Afterwards I cycled up to the eastern side of Belmont Harbour, which is as pleasant and secluded as anywhere near the city. Between snoozes I ploughed on with Ahmed Rashid's Pakistan on the Brink, which is sadly dated. The first chapter is precisely the story that Seymour Hersh has called into question. Had an early-ish dinner at Asian Mix Cafe, the same-old chicken laksa, which was its usual tasty self.

The theatre was almost at capacity. The play itself is sometimes difficult to grasp, being somewhat surreal, though the production is top-notch and the humour leavens the opacity. In particular Travis Delgado was great as the "lesser" Lincoln. The grave-digging second half was harder to get into.

Chloe Riley at the reader. Jacob Davis.

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Vale, Omar Sharif.

John Brunner: Total Eclipse.

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Extracted from the Chicago Public Library. Brunner's fat books are great, if not always convergent, but he is deeply suspect in the shorter form. The premise here is mostly 2001-style alien archeology with a dash of Stranger in a Strange Land; not spectacularly original by 1974 but sufficiently intriguing. Nothing however is made of the original telescope conceit, and his gestures at economics lack the conviction he previously brought to ecological issues. The "one of everything" trope makes no sense as they made four large statues, and multiple cities. This is a skeleton that he tired of before putting on the flesh.

Theatre Y: The Beautiful Days of Aranjuez by Peter Handke.

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$20 + $2 booking fee = $22.00, booked 2015-06-04. A beautiful day for cycling around Chicago. Had a so-so lunch at Pei Wei, and got suckered by Parts and Labor, a theme pub on Milwaukee with a veneer less than an inch thick. Coffee? Not really, but please be seated anyway! Grr.

This is a summer dialogue between a man and a woman, more presences than characters, set in a forest or garden. The premise is that there be no action, just talking. The bloke is a botanist (a nod-to-self by Handke), while the woman is emotional. As Melissa said afterwards: the man looks at the world, and the woman at the man.

It was damn hot in the back of the church (hotter than hell, some may say), pretty much packed, and the beer beforehand left me feeling spacey. I enjoyed the interaction of the two actors, the sting of the man's occasionally prurient questions, and the woman's evocation of her past. It went all Hal Hartley at times, with the two talking past each other. (I'm thinking of The Unbelievable Truth, where Adrienne Shelley is not getting a lot of understanding from her highschool sweetheart.) An apple passes between the pair, a clear riff on another kind of subverted creation. I found it meditative and may have to go back to study the filigree.

Afterwards Melissa Lorraine and her co-star Kevin V. Smith held court over more beer outside, in a narrow space running alongside the church, with Kevin's parents and another older couple. I hope this helps them to decompress. I got talking to her husband Evan at some point about philosophy, and later Melissa about the kinds of works she's keen to realise. Pressed on the misogyny of the work (which, in my valueless opinion, was plausibly realistic), she commented that as a woman she would have gone further. I noted afterwards that the playwright copped some stick for his commentary on the Serbian/Croat war in the 1990s; in particular, Rushdie took a spray that I presumably read in the late 1990s in his essay collection Step Across this Line.

Tony Adler got into it. I wish he'd expand on his beef with their production of Happy Days; that was enough to bring me to everything Theatre Y does while I'm here. Jacob Davis.

Hal Hartley: Fay Grim

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An unsuccessful riff on the chickens coming home to roost for the U.S. clandestine operations. There are some funny bits. Apparently the third time around; the second clearly didn't stick.

Công Huỳên Tôn Ñư Nha Trang and William L. Pensinger: The Moon of Hòa Bình.

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I learn so much from these magazines Mr. Dang, and I refuse to discriminate between modes of knowing.
Henry Fool

I ordered a copy of the two volumes directly from Bennett Books on 2015-01-28, $90 + $7 for the USPS, arrived 2015-02-07, wrapped in plastic and with the auxiliary paraphenalia. This was after reading the first 350 pages or so of a copy that Chicago Public Library drug up for me from some other library, and I was planning to leave the remaining (approx) 1350 until my consciousness was in the mood for expansion. It made it increasingly clear that that day would never come, and so I've been chugging it in large slugs for the past 2-3 months. I completed it on the plane back to Chicago from PLDI in Portland, Oregon just now.

There's no beating about the bush: this is an expansive and rambling rant by someone who knows too much. (It is mostly clear that this is Pensinger as those sections are substantially autobiographical.) The charge of quackery floats in the air, especially as most of the work is long on assertion and not fussed about bringing the reader along with it; for instance the last hundred-plus pages of the first volume is notionally a bar scene but only amounts to a repetitious rant about miscellaneous "theoretical" topics (in the critical theory sense) minimally reworked into a mostly one-sided dialogue. Mixing that with quantum mechanics, relativity, meteorology, mathematics and a lexicon larger than any dictionary yields large swathes of dead tree that I skipped. It is so broad and referential that almost everyone will find some of it impenetrable. For all that the bits that do work are too erudite for me to dismiss the whole thing out of hand.

What made the thing essentially worthwhile to me are the accounts of the streets of Saigon circa 1968. In particular they use the old names and locate many now-gone fixtures, such as those of the U.S. military, and observe many things about the traditional lifestyle of the Southern Vietnamese. Pensinger's fascination with the structure of the Southern insurgents is almost infectious, if only he'd aimed for the didactic and not the shameless intellectual exhibitionism that Banerian accuses him of in his review. (World Literature Today, Vol. 70, No. 3, Literatures of Central Asia (Summer, 1996), pp. 765-767.) There is an account of how to interpret Nha Trang's name (arising from her royal ancestry). There are also, of course, many sexy bits. These are lightly garbed in consciousness-sharing ("identity-transparency") lest the reader get the idea that the authors are merely purient. All the women are beautiful, willing and able, and there are no children to crimp anyone's style. The descriptions of Japanese culture, and the participation-mystique of Japanese gardening, left me a bit cold.

Perhaps the central failing of this book is that Pensinger invested more effort into trawling the esoteric Eastern literature than the esoteric logic literature of Australia, and so forth for every other scientific endeavour that he rubbishes. If he had he would have found several of his ideas developed using the very methods that he decries as incapable of doing so, and at approximately the same time as he was writing this book. (I have in mind Priest et al.'s paraconsistency and dialethism, and the related relevant logics, multi-valued and substructural logics, etc. developed by many people at ANU, the University of Melbourne and UNSW and sundry other places when I was a kid.) I am sure he would find still more outré things to bang on about, though it may have quelled his endless carping about the modern scientists' inflexibility of mind.

There is no point in trying to touch on everything in this book, but I did record a few pointers as I went.

Volume I:

  • p302: Drawing on Marxist criticisms, capitalism is likened to cancer (in growing unboundedly) and said to be incompatible with nature.
  • p412: Village life in and near Saigon.
  • p892: Self similarity is a property of fractals and not holograms.
  • p893: Kali Yuga is the name of The Scrapes's best album thus far.
Volume II:
  • p203: The Maxim bar sounds a lot like the Khong Sao Bar, as Kimberly tells it.
  • p469: An excellent account of special forces medic training.
  • p618: "Imagine what an electronically-minded D. Ellsberg could do these days."
  • p668 gets particularly Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
  • p709 (bibliography): Greg Lockhart's study Nation in Arms: The Origins of the People's Army of Vietnam is a respectable-history companion to Pensinger's interest in the organisation of the Southern insurgents.
  • p762 (bibliography): Some arcane comments on Gleick's Chaos.
  • p790 (bibliography): Some comments on von Hayek.

Banerian identifies Liana as "an early sexual image" but to me she was something closer to Diana in Twin Peaks: a passive receiver of revelation. Also there is not much cosmology here, which is somewhat strange as the American fascination with it paralleled their misadventure in Vietnam.

There are scraps of the authors' bios scattered around the internet, for instance on Nha Trang's old Geocities page, the book's own Geocities page and a review at duversity. I believe there is a copy in the ANU's Menzies library.

No Tears for the Dead

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Ben Kenigsberg at the New York Times. There aren't too many ideas on the table, and the blood sprays are pure new wave Korean cinema. Lee Jeong-beom’s shade of red is not as stylish as Park Chan-Wook's, and nothing here is as memorable as Oldboy.

Piven Theatre: Melancholy Play

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Goldstar ticket: $12.50 + $4.00 service fee = $16.50, bought 2015-05-26. Took the Metra to Davis, Evanston, notionally the downtown, thronged with kids studying at Northwestern. The wifi at the Unicorn Cafe is pretty bad, and it got a bit colder than I expected. Dinner at Siam Splendour Evanston, a mostly-decent Bamee something-or-other. I went on the suggestion of Eric at work, who did warn me that it was a piece of fluff (or almond shells). Marissa Oberlander at the Reader says similar things, but I evidently lack the ability to relate like she can. The vacuity sucked the fun out of the fluff, and turned the harsher observations (paraquote: "American men only experience/express happiness and anger") into clangers. The cast was valiant, and the musicians able in support. Some people left at interval, and I was tempted but wedged in by the generally aged crowd. I can't complain too much as it was solidly in the tradition of the American musicals I saw at The Muny several years ago. The space was quite pleasant, and they take their community art development seriously in that part of Evanston.

The Best of Chicago Spoken Word at Uptown Underground.

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$15.00, booked 2015-05-30. Part of the Pivot Arts Festival. I was lazy and took the red line up. Laksa at Asian Mix Cafe, reliable as always, and then a long schlep up Broadway. I was hoping for more from the support acts, many of whom presented their own poems; the greatest hits from the Chicago Slamworks people was most of the show. I think I made the right call to skip their most recent production, about coming-of-age. The audience was thin. The venue is pure retro, right down to the surly bouncer who was too busy updating his Facebook/Tinder/whatever to bounce anyone. I had a Poets stout while waiting for it to start (at 8pm, and not 7.30pm like they promised).

Silent Theatre Company: The Seven Secret Plays of Madam Caprice at the Chopin Theatre.

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Goldstar ticket: $10.00 + $5.25 service fee = $15.25, bought 2015-05-18. Downstairs, 4pm. Adam the ever-present bar dude was tending bar there rather than at the top of the stairs, and wasn't vending decaf, so I got a flavourless ginger ale. I walked over in grey skies: cold, windy, but at least not rainy. Lunch at Pot Pan Thai beforehand: I'm developing a taste for their chicken penang.

Tony Adler hated it, and I was worried that no-one would show. In the end there were about 15 people, which was enough to fill out the front rows. He's dead right that the seating is a long way from optimal; quite often one of the actors stood between me and the action. The Hammer Trinity guys had it figured out: a larger floor space, and more spatially linear action. Marcus Fittanto was great, as was the rest of the cast, and the production was solid, with some excellent lighting. Lauren Fisher evoked Paulette Goddard from Chaplin's days of silence, and Gillian Hastings anchored things with a fabulous voice and indefatigability. Josie Nahas floats around like she's born to it. Still, mental illness is not something to be played lightly, and scruting the plays-within-the-play is beyond me.

Infernal Affairs

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Last saw about four years ago. It's creeping up the IMDB top-250: now #208. Tony Leung is as louche as ever.

The Great Dictator

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The highest-rated Chaplin on IMDB (#56 in the top-250) but quite meh.

Irish Theatre of Chicago: The White Road at the Den Theatre.

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Goldstar ticket: $15.00 + $4.75 service fee = $19.75, bought 2015-05-18. 3pm, with my fellow oldies. A recounting of Shackleton's abortive imperial Antarctic expedition during the Great War. This is a solid production with some good acting, but I can't imagine any Irishman (and I mean any) ever saying "For England!" in a non-ironic way.

Chloe Riley got into it. I went on Grace's recommendation.

Mad Max: Fury Road

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$13.97, Regal Webster 11, 3D, 2:20pm screening. Seat B10 was a bit too close to the screen for the chopped-up action spaghetti scenes to make much sense. I got a coffee at the Starbucks in the Barnes and Noble on the corner; I can't remember the last time I was in a bookshop. The bloke just sloshed some cold milk in an espresso, and the result was one of the best coffees I've had at a Starbucks. Props to him.

This is far more vacuous than I'd been lead to believe by the reviewers. Whatever mythology Miller is trying to mint, it's essentially a bunch of post-Fight Club space monkeys engaging in mid-70s bogan behaviour, a homage to the days of the V8 streetcars tearing up the suburban streets of wherever. Lock up your daughters, and maybe your old men, Summernats without the tattoo tent. Tom Hardy was the draw but here he's back to efficient mumbling mode; I far prefer it when he has lines to deliver (see the last time he drove a vehicle any distance) and not just heads to bust. Angus Sampson channels Kenny as the organic mechanic. Richard Carter, eternal copper, is his usual arch inflexible self-character. At least he gets blown up. John Howard was in there somewhere. iOTA is the metal god. And that, of course, was Megan Gale. I far prefer the one-armed Lena Olin of Romeo is Bleeding to Charlize Theron, if only because she has so much more fun.

I struggle with Dana Stevens review (or leader writer): just because women engage in violence does not mean they are empowered, at least in my mind. ... and ultimately it is Max's plan those gals are executing, so he's not entirely surplus to their requirements. A. O. Scott convinced me to do the 3D thing. Someone has hijacked Anthony Lane's column at the New Yorker.

Hal Hartley: Henry Fool

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Last seen about four-and-a-half years ago. Remains awesome.

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center: The Emerson Quartet.

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Goldstar ticket: $22.50 + $5.50 service fee = $28.00, bought 2015-05-18. As usual with these last-gasp ticket purchases, I should have stayed home. There's no doubt these guys are tight, but the tunes tonight were not to my taste: Liebermann: New Work for String Quartet (CMS Co-Commission, NY premiere), Mozart: Quintet in E-flat major, and Tchaikovsky: Souvenir de Florence. Uncomfortably cold too, at least in just a tshirt. Pizza at Giordarno's with Christian beforehand.

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome

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Lame.

Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior

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All the early-80s tropes: the kid, the dog, the lack of dialogue, the pointlessness of it all. Certainly superior to the original. How many dreams died on that road to Broken Hill? Most of the getups look like they're straight out of Mardi Gras. Again the stunts are awesome, but go by too fast. Arkie Whiteley is in there somewhere.

Mad Max

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The original, from 1979. I've never been very persuaded by Mel Gibson. Here Steve Bisley tries to act him off the screen and ends up getting burned to a cinder. Maybe that was the point of the whole thing. Some of the stunts are pretty cool, but they go by so fast you have to be paying attention. Remaining rapt is not eased by the repetitive and sometimes kooky dialogue. Parts of Victoria have never looked this good, or this empty of weekenders.

First Floor Theatre: The Paranoid Style in American Politics at Collaboraction, Flat Iron Arts Building.

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$20 + $1.69 processing = $21.69, bought 2015-04-24, for closing night. Goldstar had a cheaper base price but the service fee was too high. I headed over around 6.30pm to grab some dinner at Pot Pan Thai (the same-old Banmee Delight) in some heavy fog and light rain, or condensate. Their ticket clearly indicated that we should use the street-level Collaboraction door, but in actuality one needed to proceed up the main stairway of the Flat Iron Arts Building and brave the comic book geeks on the third floor landing. Being closing night, it was packed.

This was an original by Emmett Rensin, inspired by an essay of the same name by Richard J. Hofstadter from 1963/4. The promotional materials of the robust-values candidate feature a mugshot of Mickle Maher, author of Song About Himself. While the dialogue is taut, and the timeline nicely spliced up, the plot is a bit hackneyed; it must be, as I picked the perp somewhere around halfway. I hoped there'd be a twist, with the limp-wristed intern Gary (excellently played to type by Luke Michael Grimes) stepping up and really telling us why he's a Republican.

Andrew Cutler played the Sourthern dirty-tricks maestro Pete Caldwell perfectly. Mitch Salm as east-coast greaser Will Ford had some very funny scenes, especially opposite Eric Gerard, a communications director who fears the black grandmas of the inner-city Chicago churches. These nicely offset the occasional violence, which when it came was plausibly explosive. Amanda Fink as the candidate's daughter and presumable chief-of-staff rushed her lines and pouted a little too much; the pearls don't totally make the blue-blood. Kate Cornelius-Schecter played a right-wing journalist who wanted to more directly participate in the political pantomine. While I enjoyed it, in that car-crash kinda way, its central weakness was that it failed to yield any insight into why anyone with principles could be a Republican.

I went pretty much on the recommendation of Jena Cutie at the Reader. According to Jerald Raymond Pierce, Rensin mined all the cable shows I don't watch. I concur that the scene transitions were first-rate.

The Black Dahlia

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Third time around. Hilary Swank has a blast, and I dearly wish she had more screen time. I like Aaron Eckhart but he's a bit railroaded here. I'm still mystified as to how we're supposed to assemble the whole thing. The cinematography is occasionally excellent, as always with De Palma.

Hal Hartley: Simple Men

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Yeah. Weaker than his first two features, but followed up by his taut and fantastic Surviving Desire, so emphatically just a blip. I like Bill Sage's affected ineffectualness here, and Martin Donovan is always amusing in a Hartley. Karen Sillas is valliant. Damian Young, as the sheriff, is still somewhat compis mentis here.

Space Cowboys

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Eastwood stars and directs in 2000. He and Tommy Lee Jones enjoy their sparring, and Donald Sutherland chases skirt, in what adds up to a less than mediocre piece of grumpy-old-boomer triumphalism. Ironically it's the Russians who have all the space repair tech now...

Waitress

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An Adrienne Shelley segue from the Hal Hartleys, second time around. I enjoyed it, with its nods to Twin Peaks. I realise now that, as a Southern Gothic manufactured by a New Yorker, it is a bit patronising, and as far as a story of self-betterment, well, all you need to do is treat that high-tipping old gent just right...

A Red Orchid Theatre: Red Handed Otter.

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$30.00 + $4.00 (Convenience Charge) = $34.00, bought 2015-04-11. This is the weakest of the four things I've seen there, but it did feature the strongest performance yet by Luce Metrius, who played a general, rounded sort of character for once. He was ably supported by Mierka Girten, she with a freehold on comedic clueful ditz, and Guy van Swearingen as the bloke who lost his cat. I went due to the review by Tony Adler at the Reader; he's right that the whole thing is a bit twee, somewhat fun but certainly not for people who don't have a thing for animals. The set is somewhat ornate and has a few hidden features, but is not used as broadly as e.g. Ecstasy. I sat right in the middle because the guys with the reserved seating were no-shows.

The Scrapes: discography to date at Bandcamp.

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I heard that these guys from Brisbane have a gig at an underground venue in Sydney in May, and as I won't be there the best I could do is buy their entire back catalogue. Their new album has slipped its promised deadline by at least a day. I like their mix of doom-drone, Dirty Three knockoffs and the odd atmospheric original so far. Kali Yuga Sunrise sounds like a mix of the Dirty Three's Indian Love Song with Valgeir Sigurðsson's World Without Ground from Architecture of Loss, and perhaps Lungs, for Merrilee off Ekvílibrium, with a dash of Ben Frost.

Acid Mothers Temple and the Melting Paraiso U.F.O., but not really.

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$12.00 + $3.36 service fee + $2.50 delivery fee = $17.86, bought 2015-01-30. The thing with buying tickets with such lead times is that you never know how things are going to be when the gig rolls around. I was pretty tired, a little sick, and certainly not up for a superlate night listening to loud, repetitive psychedelic rock an hour's walk from home. But what the heck, I went anyway. This was my first time at the Empty Bottle, past the hospital on Division. I'm guessing it was at about a third of capacity. I had a couple of Left Hand Milk Stouts to ease the passing of time: arrived there at 8.45pm, somewhat enjoyed the support (ST 37, I think, from Austin, Texas; one guy had a "free shrugs" t-shirt) from 9.30pm, and tried to get into the Japanese guys around 10.30pm. I bailed at 11pm as the last 70 bus down division had gone and it was a school night.

The Unbelievable Truth

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Still awesome. I think Adrienne Shelley is superior here but overall Trust has the edge, probably due to Martin Donovan and its more abstract concerns.

Definition Theatre: A Doll's House at the Chopin Theatre.

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Goldstar ticket: $12.50 + $4.00 service fee = $16.50, bought 2015-04-18. That's three out of three for the Chopin Theatre. This one played in the fancy downstairs dungeon while The Hammer Trinity continued its run in the main space. The bar dude kindly rifled through his stash of quarters for me — I need just four more states! — after I purchased a coffee.

There being no threat of blood, I parked myself in the front row, and it ended up packed. My seat turned out to be right in front of where the actors sat for extended periods, but fortunately they cycled around the table so I got to study just about everyone's fronts and backs. This is (apparently) a classic play by the Norrman Ibsen which has been streamlined and directed by Michael Halberstam, and played by this diverse and young company of UIUC graduates. Some of the scenes are electric, such as when housewife Nora (a magnetic Miriam Lee) received her ultimatum from the agitated lawyer Krogstad (Christopher Sheard), and the tension-releasing horseplay between Nora and Dr Ranke (Yaw Agyeman). The cast synthesized comedy out of just about everything; Tyrone Phillips (as Torvald) graphically illustrated that embroidering is vastly more decorous than knitting. This did not rob the heavy bits of their gravitas. The material is somewhat dated, but I felt it had more to say than Three Sisters.

Zac Thompson at the Reader, and a longer article on Michael Halberstam's day job with the Writers Theatre by Deanna Isaacs. Also Jacob Davis.

Kimberly Kay Hoang: Dealing in Desire: Asian Ascendancy, Western Decline, and the Hidden Currencies of Global Sex Work.

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I heard about this book via the VSG mailing list, and of course remain curious about the underbelly of Saigon in the twenty-first century and people's experiences of it. In other words, adopting the same sociology-as-long-form-journalism perspective that I took to Mathews's Ghetto at the Center of the World: Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong, and to Vũ Trọng Phụng's Lục Xì and The Industry of Marrying Europeans, I wanted to know about the economic prospects of the people in the South, and in particular from the Delta, and get some idea of the conditions and remuneration for working in vice relative to "honest" (non-stigmatized) labour (factories, housework, getting educated, etc.). It struck me that sex work for women from the Delta may be like finance for computer scientists: at this point in history you’d be a fool not to be in it, though the cost to the person and to karma is high; and can the money be washed clean? In any case there is a paucity of accounts of indigenous vice in Saigon, as Kimberly implicitly observes in her introduction [*].

Perhaps the first question that springs to mind is how Kimberly gained access to the four bars she studied: three had street addresses, two of which target Western men and the other Viet Kieus, while the anonymous Khong Sao Bar served the local elites. The link is the alcohol distributors, and the powerful men she befriends along the way, who see useful status in bringing her to business meetings due to her bilinguality and prestigious Western education. She discovered a culture of consent, and an absence of people trafficking, and specialized and savvy marketing to men of quite distinct backgrounds. Almost uniformly the work is considered socially beneficial as it enables a higher standard of living for more people than the alternatives (factory and domestic work are typical precursors). Unsurprisingly there is a selection bias at work (p114, p124) as it is probably difficult to interview people who desired but did not gain such employment, aged out of the scene, flouted protocols, and so forth. The work itself is uniformly hetero-normative: men buying women's consent for off-premises assignations. Interestingly the madams (mommies) mostly do not take a direct cut.

I struggle somewhat with the notion that Western men are contesting much of anything in Asia (e.g. p70), given that China already holds massive quantities of U.S. treasury bonds, and the mobility on offer (p75) is pretty much taken for granted in the West already; contrast it with the possibility of working wherever and whenever one wants, or even just residing in whatever (part of the) country you wish to. One technicality people from outside the city face is gaining a residency permit, or avoiding situations where one is required (p108). I had to wonder if the Johnny Walker Blue Label is authentic, and whether public shaming really does have the desired effect. Kimberly ably recounts much of the minutiae of drinking rituals and the somewhat subtle status indicators (p71): handshakes can be quite complex all by themselves.

For all that I couldn't imagine myself at any of these bars, which Kimberly tacitly acknowledges (p192) when she observes that many expats prefer talking to her as she can hold a far more interesting conversation than the bargirls. Perhaps that points to a gap in Saigon's bar scene. The flashiness of the cashed-up women returning to their villages (p166), laundering their wad, is a bit cringeworthy. But they've earnt it, I guess.

Things change rapidly in the developing world: since she concluded her fieldwork (~2006 to ~2010) the global economy has cratered and taken out the less resilient. China has slowed and Vietnam has gone through many corruption scandals, my favourites of which are the never-ending Securency scandal, entangling my favourite Australian powerbrokers, and the bankruptcy of Vinashin. Vietnam is far less tigerish now, as Kimberly observes in her Appendix. The high-end Khong Sao Bar is no more. Hopefully those ladies saved their cash and created something of durable value with it. The building on the far left of the cover is a bank that was under construction when I was last there in 2010.

I met Kimberly and her sociologist husband Robert briefly at the Association for Asian Studies conference in Chicago at 4pm on the Saturday March 28, 2015. I hoped to make it to her panel on the topic of her book but the AAS refused to allow non-registered people to attend, which seems crazy to me.

I close by observing that the Vietnamese mafia is almost certainly impenetrable by foreigners, so it seems improbable that anyone would achieve the blokey guerilla equivalent to Kimberly's work. Then again, the man from Freakonomics did cross perhaps comparable barriers of race and class.

[*] CHTN Nha Trang and W. L. Pensinger, The Moon of Hoa Binh (p461) suggest that Nguyễn Thị Thuỵ Vũ wrote a couple of books: Lao vào lửa (Embrace the fire?) and Mèo Đêm (Night cat) in the 1960s.

Ex Machina

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$9.50, 4.55pm, Landmark at 2828 Clark, newly refurbished. For Oscar Isaac, who was missing the cat so much that he retreated to a Garden of Eden, grew a mullah beard and created a woman. Or several women. As you do when you're the head of Google. Or a thinly veiled Google. Domhnall Gleeson here is similar to what he was in Frank: the uncool, uninteresting interloper around whom the story nevertheless revolves while more charismatic actors/characters wait on the sidelines. The movie proposes something of an extended Turing test, which is superficially shiny but really just shows the writers aren't as familiar with the idea of closure as Turing was. While I have absolutely nothing against the idea of Swede Alicia Vikander playing the robotic ingenue Ava, cold as an ex-girlfriend, I always thought GOFAI (now "strong" AI) would produce a disembodied mind that would build a body for itself, employing our primitive industrial robots to do so: closer to the Wintermute or Skynet model. I guess the imagined endgame is not so different; see also Bladerunner. Surely there's a thesis to be written comparing the robot rearing techniques of plutocrats and South Africans.

Tali for dinner after, at Taj Mahal on Halsted. Middling.

Manohla Dargis was entranced. Anthony Lane observes the positronic precursor to Isaac's gel.

The Hypocrites: Three Sisters at the Den Theatre.

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Goldstar ticket: $14.00 + $4.25 service fee = $18.25. Spring has disappeared for the now; I left my jacket at home, taking the Weather Underground at its word that the day would be temperate. So I went home to get it first, and took the 70 down Division. Dinner at Pot Pan Thai, the same-old Banmee Delight, and sat in the Den reading the closing parts of Kimberly's Dealing in Desire, about which, more soon. I think it was opening night, as half the chairs were reserved for the press and Jeff Committee.

I can't recall seeing a Checkhov play before. I've probably seen the odd movie based on his work, but the only thing that sticks in my memory is his principle about stage props. The Hypocrites turn this one into a sitcom, where the three sisters embody some social milieu out of time. It's been an age since I watched such things, so the anachronistic whatevers mostly came off as the actresses stepping out of character to me. The odd bit of histrionics didn't help either. Moscow is, of course, Godot, and this somewhat dovetails with their immediately-previous staging of Endgame in that the sisters don't seem to have gotten their timing right. (From the earlier Beckett: "Do you believe in the life to come?" "Mine was always that.") My seat was mostly OK, but the actors spent a little too long with their backs to our side of the room. (Best seats are probably alongside the cafe, on the right as you go in.)

Why this play, why now? — the eternal theatrical question. Kevin Green attempts some kind of answer. Tony Adler at the Reader.

Hal Hartley: Trust

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As fabulous as ever.

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

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It's been an age since I last saw this.

Oracle Theatre: Upton Sinclair's The Jungle at the Public Access Theatre.

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Notionally free, booked 2015-03-29, $20 donation after the show. I felt pretty crap after a week on the turps but didn't factor that into my plan to walk up to the theatre in cool to cold weather. The chicken cashew at Asian Mix Cafe is OK but not awesome. I got there quite early and so scored the only chair in the foyer, but was one of the last timely people to go in. I sat next to the bloke who had the worst seat in the house, and by the time things got under way it was beyond packed. This is the story of how migrants to Chicago fared at the tail end of the 19th century, when capitalism was marginally less bridled. A bit too much happened on the killing floor, given the seating layout. The cast is quite able, and there were plenty of cute theatrical devices, but the material was tired: the working stiff as an unimaginative, credulous and continually exploited non-speaker of English. Pretty much what Justin Hayford said at the Reader about its initial run.

Theater Oobleck: Song About Himself by Mickle Maher.

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Perhaps because it has some buy-in from the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE), the pricing for this show was nicely tiered: $15 suggested, $20 if you felt like it, or free if you're broke. I paid $20.00 + $3.50 service fee = $23.50 online, 2015-04-03. Justin Hayford's long review at the Reader sold it to me. I was a bit too out of it — it's been a long couple of weeks — to really get into this kind of absurdist abstractionalism. The facial descriptions were pretty funny, evoking Frank. It took me a while to recognise Guy Massey from Smokefall, partly because I made the mistake of sitting in the front row, next to one of the access points to the floor, with poor sightlines. His voice is quite distinctive. Colm O’Reilly is a bit Thomas Jay Ryan but more kempt, and Diana Slickman is a bit of a desperate Irish everywoman.

The Long Goodbye

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Very enjoyable on a second go round, four years later.

Griffin Theatre: Balm in Gilead.

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Goldstar: $17.50 + $5.00 = $22.50, 2015-04-06. This is the second show put on in Season on the Line. I walked up to Pot Pan Thai for dinner, and cranked some more PLDI-paper stuff at the Den Theatre cafe beforehand. I was a bit surprised that it was packed on a Monday night, with a week to run. Perhaps because of this, or just because, they started about fifteen minutes late, which was hardly an ordeal as the play lends itself to random horseplay amongst the large cast when nothing in particular is happening. Initially the thing is totally overwhelming, with no centre to the action, and the ambient noise confusing the overlapping dialogue. While the leads where very good (especially the luminous ingenue Ashleigh Lathrop), and the production quite sound, it was difficult for me to really get into this despite deeply enjoying the milieu; the seedy side of NYC was strip mined between 1964 and the 1970s by people like Lou Reed, and sundry junkie flicks, which robs this of any possibility of being transgressive in 2015. It also loses a lot of momentum in the monologue straight after interval. We filed out under the timeless Nina Simone standard Sinnerman.

Upon reflection I was perhaps not so much disappointed with the play as with Chicago: I have yet to find a diner that anchors so diverse a crowd.

Zac Thompson probably saw the definitive version of it in 1980.

The Plagiarists: these saints will burn at the Den Theatre.

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Goldstar ticket: $10.00 + $3.75 service fee = $13.75, 2015-04-08. I had to go to Filter Café as the Den Theatre's cafe was closed, presumably so they could work on the main stage. This was my first time in the Den's theatre 2A, which is relatively small by their standards. The draw was that Layne Manzer is a co-founder, now ex-member. Hmm. Well, this one wasn't for me. Too many references to God (in that constant refrain way), and the blended French only helped me zone out. I didn't know more about Joan of Arc than Leonard Cohen taught me, and this didn't help. The initial scenes promise some humour but by the time we get to the pointy end things are plodding along. The puppet crow (Tony Kaehny) was well done, the large ones standing in for the made-King and judge and whoever less so. Hugh Iglarsh surveys the wreckage.

I had dinner at Olive (a chain Mediterranean fast food place) on North afterwards as my usual kebab joint on the corner near the Den was packed with surly patrons.

Piccolo Theatre: The Venetian Twins

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Goldstar: $13.50 + $4.25 service fee = $17.75, 2015-03-24. Took the Metra up, as always, and had a hot chocolate at Brothers K, as usual, and once again braved the terrible service at the Thai across the road. Their chicken cashnew nut is actually decent, if you can order one. This piece is apparently in a style called "commedia dell'arte", with the cast surplus to any given scene sitting on the edges, producing some music and sound effects. The set had a few cute bits, like the smooth deescalation of Rosaura (Claire Hart) in a fit of pique, nose in the air. Her mercurial, savvy character suited the play perfectly, but the cast is large and IMHO too much time is given over to more tedious (but well acted) characters like Brighella (David WM Kelch, as good here as in Smash) and the moronic twin (Kurt Proepper, who has excellent comedic timing throughout and anchors the humour). Nicole Keating has her flounce down pat (as the stock Colombina), and Caitlin Aase is made for anything with a touch of woe or goth. Max Hinds was only recognisable to me with his mask on. It's long but mostly fun. Given that I had to take the Purple/Red line back, so a late night.

Albert Williams at the Reader.

Theatre Y: Penelope O Penelope

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$22.00, bought 2015-03-29. The all-day rain and thunder put me off riding my bike, so I took the Blue line from State/Lake to Logan Square, and ignoring local-from-work Mark C.'s suggestions, had a hot chocolate at New Wave Coffee and a serviceable dinner at Trike. On the way in a bloke took a look at my tshirt and said "Dirty Three, eh? Jim White." — but wasn't interested in further discussion. I guess he may have caught the drummer of indie choice on a recent tour, which I just found out about, sniff.

Opening night, which of course I was going to be at after their fabulous Happy Days. This long piece is split into two acts and overstuffed with references to similarly trainspot. I can only imagine how flowery it is in the the original French. It opens promisingly with Melissa Lorraine splayed over a sewing table as Dinah, lamenting the absence of her husband Elias (Rich Holton) for two decades, Nabakov style: fire of my loins, etc., and wondering how long she can hold out against her son-of-incestuous-union landlord Ante (Kevin V. Smith). Confusingly Ante has a beef with her bloke because Elias killed Ante's father. I think. Her son Theos (Holton again) returns to much elation. Daiva Bhandari plays Nuritsa, Elias's mother in spirit form, who instead of bringing calm and an aversion to violence, encourages him to stick his sword in Ante. Catalina Vasile appears in video footage as Odsessa, a goddess of something-or-other. Lorraine has another turn as Sofia, a piece of fluff that gives Ante something to play with while he taunts Elias for being poor. It's the Odyssey shuffled into modern times.

The play closed with some evocative, interpretive tango, afterwhich beer (Heineken light, gack) and the customary chatter ensued. I walked home abuzz, wondering what the work will become as the run unwinds. There is, perhaps, too much raw material here. Hope lies with the excellent cast.

Justin Hayford at the Reader. A less generous one from Alan Bresloff, who presumably didn't stick around for the after-show beer and chat. Alex Huntsberger.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

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Still funny, third time around.

The Young Lions

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Meh, apart from Brando, and the occasional spark thrown by Barbara Rush and Dean Martin. Modulo the anti-semitism aimed at Montgomery Clift by his fellow American soldiers, the Nazis do all the heavy lifting; perhaps the Japanese were too hard to humanize in 1958. The young Lee Van Cleef looks weird; perhaps he's too fidgety.

A Touch of Sin

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By Jia Zhangke. I have no idea where I dug this up from. A touch of the ultraviolent, and some loose threads amongst these four almost-entirely freestanding tales. He's clearly been paying attention to Park Chan-Wook and the other Koreans, though his blood sprays and revenge arcs remain works-in-progress. The cinematography is very good; he makes a lot out of the air pollution of China.

Ned Rifle

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The first feature-length Hal Hartley in how long? $12 = $10 + $2 in fees at Facets Cinemateque, the somewhat-close indie arthouse that I only just discovered, with six others at 7pm. He got the band back together (Bill Sage, Martin Donovan, Karen Sillas, Parker Posey, James Urbaniak, Robert John Burke, and not the least, Thomas Jay Ryan), and placed Gen Y in the lead: Liam Aiken full-grown as Ned, and Aubrey Plaza, who I didn't know from Eve. Vintage Hartley this sometimes is, though it also nods at Lolita with a self nudie and some seriously age-inappropriate sex that should perhaps have been comedic or revelatory. (Marla's timeless line from Fight Club springs to mind.) I missed the pivotal deli from Henry Fool, anchored in silence by Hartley's wife. I regret missing out on the kickstarter. I wonder if he'll play that trick again.

Ben Sachs at the Reader spends most of his time reflecting on Hartley himself, though his leader-writer can't get his eyes off Plaza. I can't put her and Adrienne Shelley in the same frame. His review has the salients. Ben Kenigsberg concurs that the writing was on the wall but is now too faded to read.

Angel Island Theatre: Our Bad Magnet

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Goldstar ticket: $12.50 + $4.00 service fee = $16.50. I was last at the Mary Arrchie for Hellish Half Life. The cold caught me out a bit on the walk up from Clybourn/Division; my old woollen jacket was just a tad too light. Lunch at Diwali, afternoon at the Lincoln Park branch of the Chicago Public Library, customary dinner at the Asian Mix Cafe. Some light rain too.

Well, that's three out of three for Layne Manzer. I enjoyed this once-upon-a-time-in-Girvan, Scotland lark, which is rife with cultural references that date each scene to the microsecond. The four blokes are gifted and mostly kept their accents on, slipping only when things got heated. Somewhat confusingly, this is a reheat of a 2008 production by more-or-less the same people: Lane Flores takes on the role of Giggles, while Dan Behrendt (Fraser), Layne Manzer (Paul) and John Wilson (Alan) reprise, and Carlo Lorenzo Garcia directed both.

Tony Adler's review at the Reader confused me; he makes it sound awesome but somehow does not recommend it. Tom Williams.

Kazuo Ishiguro: The Buried Giant.

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I read this in four long sittings. It's as addictive as ever despite never seeming likely to rise to his earlier peaks. Michiko Kakutani has it about right.

Lantana

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Some misplaced nostalgia. The dialogue is occasionally risible and wears its message far too lightly. Surely smoking in bars was banned by 2001... Good to see Leah Purcell in action (embodying the best fit between character and actor). LaPaglia was pretty solid too. I liked Colosimo though he isn't asked to do much. Geoffrey Rush is a bit too arch. I tried to trainspot the locations but failed; I don't recall a restaurant anywhere close to upstairs, opposite Ariel's on Oxford; just maybe there was before the Verona got rennovated.

Kazuo Ishiguro at the Logan Center for the Arts.

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$30 ($10 + $20 for The Buried Giant, the first of his books that I've bought), paid on 2015-02-28, supposedly (unsurprisingly) sold out, definitely packed. Presented as "in conversation with Aleksandar Hemon" but really Ishiguro interviewed himself; he benefits from his fame by getting the run that politicians get criticised for. I picked up my copy before the gig but didn't hang around to get it signed. There was some discussion about when in life masterpieces are produced, process and all that stuff that the U. Chicago younguns out on their date night needed to hear. From his reading of the first three pages and summary of the themes, it may be that his latest is too abstract to make his point, or that his point is so generalized and universal that it can be at most a meditation. Perhaps it will be a slow burner; the vibe I get from the reviews I'm pointedly not yet reading was not resoundingly awesome.

I got there and back on the Green line, which got a little shady at times. I had dinner at Daley's Diner on 63rd, a time machine stuck in the days of Daley Senior and the long promise of better days for the south of the city. The service was perhaps the best I've had in an American-style restaurant, discreet, informal and courteous, though the roast beef was not great, and the vegetables absent. It was a little cold but almost comfortable in a singlet and tshirt; the Spring has been wildly unstable thus far.

Vladislav Zhukov: The Kim Vân Kiều of Nguyen Du (1765-1820)

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Apparently I bought this for £12.94 around 2010-07-18 from the Book Depository. I don't know what I was thinking; the last poetry I read was imposed while I was captive in high school. But I recall now that while this poem is widely feted, I could not find much of an exposition of characters or plot anywhere. Having now read it, I'm pretty sure I'm not the person to attempt to do so. I think I picked this particular translation for the obvious reasons: Zhukov is clearly a quixotic type. A review in the Journal of Vietnamese Studies observes, contrary to other translations extent as of 2008: "Incredibly and uniquely, Zhukov reproduces the intricate rhyme scheme of the original throughout his translation [...]." Unfortunately, as Eric Henry goes on to observe, the syntactic and grammatical burden placed on the reader is high, which limits the amount that can be absorbed by a brain yearning for sleep. Throughout Zhukov's passion burns bright while the man remains elusive.

The wikipedia page seems decent now. Here's an excerpt from a book of translations I dug up a while back. Small details as I understand them, all dubious: Kiều loses her maidenhead to her first husband, whose lust earns the chagrin of his business partner, the madam Tu. Kim and Kiều do get married at the end and shack up, but only for one night, after which they revert to a Rousseauian state of nature (chaste youthful infatuation). Kim already had children with Vân (Kiều's sister), allowing Kiều to claim that the necessary had been taken care of. It seems to me that Kiều fell in love with at least two men other than Kim in their fifteen years apart, most spectacularly with a warlord. She meets both men in brothels, which somehow does not reflect poorly on them in her eyes.

The House Theatre: The Hammer Trinity at the Chopin Theatre.

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Goldstar ticket: $32.50 + $7.00 = $39.50. I walked over in the early-Spring cold, wind, and snow, figuring it was only going to get worse. Had lunch at Pot Pan Thai, fuelling up for nine hours of dragons and swords and all the stuff that real people stay home to watch on cable on days like this. It was a lot shorter on nudity than those, however. Zac Thompson swung it with his lengthy review at the Reader, and my fond memory of Season on the Line, from the same company at the same venue a few months back. I regret not attending the other things in their current season.

What can I say. The puppetry is uniformly excellent. The two dragons are awe inspiring, and I spent too much time looking at the foxes that accompanied Kay Kron (last seen in Hot Georgia Sunday at the Den Theatre), who had to thread a very fine narrative needle. John Henry Roberts (writer of The Sweeter Option) had a very funny scene involving a submarine, though my favourite was perhaps between (who I thought were) the strongest actors (Ben Hertel and Christopher Walsh), about imaginary property. Joey Steakley played a foppish statesman quite well, evoking Gary Oldman's aspect and winsome desperation at times. I'm not totally sure I can get on board with the faith placed in chess grandmasters despite Kara Davidson's valliant efforts. Miniature models, excellent anchoring by William Dick for the first two-thirds, ... — what's not to like?

I had two coffees ($1.50 each) and a Żywiec ($4) as the thing unfolded, and a chicken kebab from the Mediterranean on Milwaukee at the one hour dinner break. The breaks were a little too frequent and a little too long, but I guess it did give the cast time to recuperate. I was a little disappointed that this session was only perhaps a third full, and moreover most people seemed connected to the cast, which does not bode well for future sessions. I later read that Lee Kuan Yew carked it, which caused me to reflect on his "white trash of Asia" prediction for Australia, and his alternative to the politics of this piece. "The story will save him whether he wants it to or not."

Escobar: Paradise Lost

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I missed this one at the Music Box Theatre last year. Good thing I did too, as it is quite drecky. Del Toro is as solid as ever but is not in the frame long enough to make the critical difference.

Romeo Is Bleeding

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n-th time around, for large-ish n. Pretty good for a while and then it all falls apart. Oldman at his finest? Lena Olin is pretty decent though totally implausible.

Watchmen

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Third time around.

Point Blank

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For Lee Marvin, but not for me.

Chappie

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$10.40 at the AMC River East 21, 3.15pm session on a beautiful Spring afternoon. I spent a bit of time reading Zhukov's Kim Vân Kiều down by the lake, of which, more later. Despite the poor reviews, I went to prove that I will watch Sharlto Copley do just about anything, even green-screen. Jackman's early scene in the bathroom is a pure recycling of his acting in Erskineville Kings, and if you listen carefully you can hear him yell "Run Forrest!" at Copley. The gold-plated AK47 was a kack, just for a second. I like Blomkamp's earlier stuff but this was perhaps too much of the same, and stuffing it with stars is not the way forward for him — he'd be better off doing a Kubrick or Coen brothers and working with more unknowns. Dave is telling me I need to come to terms with Die Antwoord. Anyway, it's easy to sink the boot into this one, and I did enjoy some of it immensely, so I'll stop here.

Manohla Dargis. I concur that it's time for Blomkamp to move beyond gesturing at things and really have a go. Gary Marcus at the New Yorker.

Babes with Blades: Titus Andronicus at City Lit Theatre.

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$22.00 + $1.76 in something-or-other = $23.76, bought 2015-02-06. I had lunch at Dawali Mediterranean Kitchen, and sent Dave Lish's Preparation for the Next Life at the worst USPS ever, near De Paul. (I heart the USPS, but trust me, avoid this office.) After that a coffee at Osmium, and fixed some of Dad's IT problems while standing and shivering near the lake; the day was warm but cooled off rapidly. Had dinner at The Little India, just like last time I went to City Lit Theatre. The bicycle needs a tune-up. St Patrick's Day festivities made the riding somewhat painful due to drunk and entitled pedestrians.

I have some vague memories of seeing Titus Andronicus at NUTS a long time ago. It's spectacular but a long way from plausible. The all-women cast valliantly tried to make it into more than it is. Despite the warnings that the first two rows were free-blood-splattering zones, I still coped a bit sitting in the third. That the Babes with Blades essentially celebrate violence (see their mission statement) makes me wonder about supporting them.

Dan Jakes at the Reader.

Chicago Slam Works: Redlined at Stage 773.

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$20.00 + $3.50 (Online Processing Fee) = $23.50 on 2015-03-01. Closing night. This was a lot closer to what I was looking for in Chicago theatre: performance poetry with a local focus. Rahm copped it in the neck, but he is a soft target. I'm pretty sure the race politics were straight up black and white, and not so much Asian or Latino; we'll see what these guys do if Chuy gets up. Not all was hit, but the misses were still mostly good. The girl behind me got into the cat-calling but not the you-go-girls. Perhaps this is what you do at Second City (comedy club). The white boy in love with hip-hop put me in mind of Morganics. I had some direct pro-forma experience of the Lakeview bros on the ride up: a bloke in his big black Ford SUV pulled out in front of me on Lincoln; I swore loudly in pseudo-shock. He stopped a bit further up the road, where the traffic got thick, and told me he that it was my fault for not having a headlight. I told him he still needed to check, he said F-U and roared off. Given how I ride, the shock came in it being the first such incident in this city.

Jena Cutie at the Reader probably swung it. I wasn't feeling particularly attacked as I'm not a tourist and not really a resident (etc).

Profiles Theatre: The Other Place.

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Goldstar ticket: $12.00 + $6.25 = $18.25, bought 2015-02-19. Slightly caught out by the beginning of daylight saving. Walked up in some mild but not quite warm weather, dodging puddles once more. Stopped off at the Bowtruss on Broadway for a so-so hot chocolate. Red line back. It may be time to get the bike out. Tony Adler at the Reader tells you everything you need to know.

Inside Man

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Great cast. Spike Lee used this thriller to sell a mid-2000s NYC social commentary to a mainstream audience. Good for him. I really enjoy his hypotheticals, like the one in the middle of this and at the end of 25th Hour: he just may flick the switch to actual, for all you know at the time. Denzel Washington's one-liner disses are the funniest, and he anchors the show with a louche appeal that somehow (now) evokes Obama. Must be in that loose gangly stride. Jodie Foster is a natural sharky hustler. Clive Owen is robotic; they could have cast Nick Cage. Christopher Plummer is as excellent as always. And so on. Can't believe I hadn't seen it before now.

The Poor Theatre: Edgar & Annabel at The Side Project.

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$16.00, bought on 2015-03-01. I took the red line up with the expectation of getting out at Argyle and having a phở. Instead it dumped me at Sheridan with a much longer schlepp than I had intended. (The driver was pretty funny: after announcing that he wasn't going to stop until Howard, he got rather insistent that everyone pile back on, ride to Howard, and take the all-stops south-bound from there.) Le's was its usual uninspired but reliable self. After that I walked up to the Edgewater Chicago Public Library, which is a fantastic new facility, and then to the Elipsis Coffeehouse near Loyola. Dinner at the nearby Five Guys; pretty much as advertised, if only I'd known what to order. And still more schlepping up to The Side Project on Jarvis. As it hit 10C sometime during the day, one needs either galoshes or giant strides to make it through the puddles. I mostly stuck to the roads.

The theatre is near the Jarvis red line stop, somewhat opposite a sign that says "Thoreau's Corner". Nice spot. I was there early but by the time they got under way it was packed with young people who seemed to be attached to the cast somehow. The best part was an inspired combination of karaoke and bomb making, which somewhat unfortunately went on for a little too long. Otherwise it evoked a NUTS production: skillful kids doing something with a cute premise that cannot make the distance. There was only one way for this one to go, and sure enough, there it went; Orwell reduced to a single note.

I think Zac Thompson's review at the Reader tipped it, but it got generally positive reviews everywhere. More details from Kerstin Broockmann.

The Church at Double Door.

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$30.00 + Ticket Fee $6.50 = $36.50. Bought January 30. Apparently sold out. Still crook, coughing and spluttering, getting messy; would've preferred not to go, but maybe the last chance to see these dinosaur psychedelic pop rockers, for me at least. Caught the 70 bus down Division, walked up Milwaukee to North in the last of the sub-zero weather for the right now. First time at Double Door. It's direct opposite the Damen blue-line station, and is something like a mildly scaled-up Hopetoun Hotel: on the affirmative, 550 capacity, bar running down the side, standing-room only, small stage, painted black. And for the negative, it's ugly with a poor beer menu. I got there around 8.20pm. There was a small queue at the door.

While waiting around I got talking to a bloke who'd flown up from Kansas City, with a far better idea of what to expect than I had. The warm up band played a short set: The Sharp Things from NYC, who couldn't help themselves but poke fun at the amiable mid-west crowd. Small break, and without too much fanfare, The Church. Kilbey played it somewhat mystical, wearing a third-eye t-shirt, gathering himself before particular songs, like they meant a lot to him, getting quite twitchy at times; he looked like a rock god etched from heroin. The acoustics were so-so, but he did sound English and from the wiki I see I'm not wrong. Ian Haug looked like the music wasn't taxing him. As always I got lost in the bass, and a lack of familiarity with their material made it difficult for me to get into it.

The Hypocrites: Endgame by Samuel Beckett, at the Den Theatre.

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Goldstar: $14.00 + $4.25 (service) = $18.25, bought January 27. I can't say no to a show by The Hypocrites, well, not unless it's Gilbert and Sullivan. Given the snow but not super-cold ambient conditions, I walked over from Clybourn/Divison, and had some lunch at Pot Pan Thai; their Ba Mee noodles are just what I'm looking for, most days. Still recovering from the time in West Lafayette, and coming down with some throat/nose thing, I wasn't as totally compis mentis as you need to be to get into a Beckett. The acting was uniformly excellent and the set was quite good, but didn't quite block out the things happening off-stage, like late-comers dropping their programs. The play itself is stuffed with the familiar end-of-personal-days preoccupations familiar to me from Happy Days, right down to Donna McGough's wedding veil. I should have recognised Sean Sinitski from Season on the Line.

Chris Jones at the Tribune. Alex Huntsberger. Zac Thompson at the Chicago Reader.

LAMPO: Jennifer Walshe and Tony Conrad as Ma La Pert

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A Liz Fraser-alike b-boxing, or scatting ala Megan from The Herd? The place was packed, possibly due to a glowing preview in the Chicago Reader. To me it sounded like mild audience abuse with an Irish lilt, a cello, and a violin plugged into some analog electronics; chopping this stuff up doesn't make it more inventive. The walk over was in sleet. I was sleepy all day after taking the train back from West Lafayette.

Jennifer Walshe and Tony Conrad will perform together as Ma La Pert, an improvisational collaboration that blends a variety of traditional and non-traditional instruments such as violins, autoharps, drums, vocalizations, found objects, and costumes to generate unique sounds during their live performances.

Jennifer Walshe is a London-based vocalist, composer, and conceptual artist who often works under various identities individually as Grupat, and also with different collaborators across Europe and the US, including Ma La Pert with Tony Conrad and with Tomomi Adachi on the People’s United Telepathic Improvisational Front. Walshe’s work has been exhibited in New York, Dublin, London, and Toronto.

Tony Conrad is an experimental filmmaker, artist, composer and musician based between Brooklyn and Buffalo, NY. He is known for his early pioneering drone-based minimalist music, as well as his involvement in the Theatre of Eternal Music (The Dream Syndicate) and collaborations with numerous filmmakers, artists, and musicians such as John Cale, La Monte Young, Mike Kelley, Marian Zazeela, Jim O’Rourke, Lou Reed, and Walter De Maria. In addition to experimental filmmaking, Conrad has composed numerous audio works for amplified strings, and has more recently focused on examining traditions in Western music and geometry from Pythogoras to the present.

The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water

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$9.25. 8.50pm session at the Wabash Landing 9 cinema in West Lafayette. I was the only one there, and indeed, why would you have a 9pm screening of a kids movie? Like the last one this was pretty funny in the small, seemingly very age-inappropriate, and super-derivative. Like the last movie I saw here, we got the everythings-awesome-when-you're-part-of-a-team schpiel. Americas' stocks on teamwork must be running out. Buy teamwork! Banderas is quite amusing too.

New York Times review.

Strawdog Theatre Company: The Sweeter Option

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$28.00 + convenience charge of $3.00 = $31.00. Opening night, and with it, an open bar. I had the best beer on offer: a Revolution Eugene Porter, in a can. I hoofed it up to the Strawdog via City Grounds in the cold (-10C) but windless evening, so somewhat bearable. This was after hacking the PLDI paper all afternoon. I grabbed a quick dinner at the Asian Mix Cafe nearby, same as last time. Whatever the reviews say, their yellow curry noodle laksa thing is the bomb.

This was my first time behind Strawdog's red door, which is apparently their main space with superior seating. It was almost completely packed. From my seat at the front left, adjacent to where the actors flounced in and out, I spent a lot of time looking at the sides of actor's faces and the backs of their heads. After a while I realised that pretty much everyone sitting near and behind me must have as well.

This is another noir, putting me in mind of my last trip here (to see Desperate Dolls). The draw was Michaela Petro, last seen laughing like a drain in Ecstasy at A Red Orchid Theatre. A bonus was Emily Tate from Dead Accounts. The lead bloke (Sam Guinan-Nyhart) was pretty solid given the generally bewildering activity around him, especially when they changed sets: he wandered around looking dazed and confused as his world changed, and the ladies (of course) gave him those knowing looks.

I really wanted to enjoy this but ended up struggling to scratch the surface. Jackie Davies observes the out-of-order scenes: oh yeah, I got that, after a while. Justin Hayford at the Chicago Reader. Aaron Hunt notes the weak ending.

Mean Streets

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Yeah. It's a bit weird seeing de Niro eclipse Keitel, almost in real time. I'd bracket it with The Friends of Eddie Coyle.

Atticus Lish: Preparation for the Next Life.

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I discovered Red Plenty via a glowing review by Dwight Garner, and his review in the New York Times last November led me to this. Having read it I agree with what he said and have little to add. Powerful stuff indeed. Somewhat perplexingly it is an economical, dense, urgent and necessary type of thing that is rarely beautiful; in fact when my heart was up around my ears it was getting viscerally ugly. But never cheap, condescending or exploitative, and always clear-eyed. I guess the word for this stuff is art. I hope he keeps at it.

Chungking Express

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Last seen about four years ago. There remains a lot to like about Wong Kar-Wai's work. Over several nights.

Mohsin Hamid: Discontent and its Civilizations: Dispatches from Lahore, New York and London.

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$18.31 from the Book Depository. I got about 350 pages into the Chicago Public Library's inter-library-loaned copy of The Moon of Hoa Binh before my copy from Bennett Books arrived, with some drama as the address omitted my apartment number. I thought I'd chew through this before breaking the plastic wrap on those.

I enjoyed Mohsin Hamid's immediately-previous two novels, but he is a lot weaker in short-short form. This collection of essays is not a patch on Salman Rushdie's Step Across This Line from 2002 (as far as I remember it; see, for instance, his take on 9/11). Coarsely put, Hamid is a good writer but not a deep thinker. Here we get a lot of iteration without too much deepening, which can be somewhat blamed on his aspiration to present the material as closely as possible to its original form. It reeks of laziness a little too often.

I liked his take on Pakistan's Coke Studio (p116), which is perhaps the best thing that company has done for the planet; and of course the people who made the movie of his The Reluctant Fundamentalist had their opening scene ready-made in the form of Kangna by Fareed Ayaz and Abu Muhammad from season four. His more serious efforts to canvas the issues of present-day Pakistan flounder as he does little more than paraquote more serious research. In Why they get Pakistan wrong, he observes that the society has low inequality despite loads of corruption; this is commonly attributed to clannish behaviour. In-country charitable donations run at 5% of GDP; this is perhaps in line with zakat, one of the pillars of Islam, which he neglects to explain. (A wealth tax is surely beyond the imaginings of Westerners! What a blown opportunity.) How about a contrast with Turkey, now undergoing a similar Islamization that was hitherto kept in check by the countries's founders? Also (p138) he bemoans how little of the money earmarked by USAID for Pakistan is disbursed. This is unsurprising given how much arse-covering these guys need to do these days — can't fund the wrong madrassas! — and Hamid somehow failed to mention the chilling effect of the US Government's jihad against zakat from American-based Muslims.

At some point he mentions an ugly scene in Riyadh. Is he a hajji? You won't find out here. Often he channels Amartya Sen et al.'s multi-faceted notions of identity without citation. This points to the central problem with this book: it doesn't even try to explain Islam. Moreover his notion of Asia doesn't appear to stretch to the largest Muslim country (Indonesia) which somewhat tarnishes his universalism. He is on surer ground with personal anecdotes about the usual universals, but meh, I can get those anywhere.

Sukhdev Sandhu at the Guardian. The US is also clearly a patchwork country, as is Europe; the pluralistic experiment has been tried in many places at many times, and so once again I would hope for some historical perspective from the author. Duncan White at the Telegraph similarly quotes at length and observes the lack of depth. Michiko Kakutani similarly at the New York Times.

The Missing Picture

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A foreign-language Oscar nominee for 2014. Over several nights. A personal take on the Khmer Rouge years in Cambodia, in clay but not claymation.

A Red Orchid Theatre: Accidentally, Like a Martyr.

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$30 + $4 in convenience = $34. That's three out of three for A Red Orchid Theatre, and two out of two for director Shade Murray. The hour-and-twenty flew past. The entirety of the cast was uniformly excellent. Layne Manzer demonstrated his range by being as coked up here as he was timid in Ecstasy. I recognised Luce Metrius from All Our Tragic. I warmed up to Steve Haggard as he worked his way through the barflies. David Cerda is solid as the older playboy. Doug Vickers and Troy West are completely plausible as cantankerous, duelling furniture in the bar run by Dominique Worsley. Before going I had my doubts about the gay bar setting, but it turned out to be rich in power dynamics, and something of a confessional; the little blood that's spilt is entirely earnt, and the issues universal and eternal. John Holt's bar was perfectly authentic and well-used, just like last time; here we get a bartender's (manager's?) view of the patrons.

Zac Thompson at the Reader. Damn cold out (-9 maximums, ridiculous wind chills). Yellow curry with noodles for dinner at the pokey little pan-Asian Original Thai Tsang Chicago. So-so. While waiting I had a very bland Imperial Stout from the Pour House further south on Wells. It's not a place to just hang out with a book.

Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago: Richard Hunt.

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I returned to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago after an early dinner with Christian-from-work. Lou Malnati's is inferior to Giordano's, just for the record. The exhibition had some nice works but was disappointing in having so few of them.

Jupiter Ascending

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Regal Webster Place 11, 4.30pm, $15.50, 3D. From the initial cringe worthy conflation of astronomy and astrology to the concluding scene of Fenchurch and Arthur going flying for their first date, people like me are relearning that the Wachowskis really only had one movie in them. Bae Doo-na is criminally underused here; I can't even remember who she was working for. The thread of plot originating from Tuppence Middleton still dangles; what was her game? I guess several millenia watching cable leads to this kind of dross. I spent most of the Chicago fight scene trainspotting; the closest I got was a shot of the Merchandise Mart towards the end of it, and I think the skating-rink part was on Lake. So kind of them to put the city back together in time for the next Transformers installment! And the memory-erasure device sure helped me make sense of these past ten months. Just to ruin the repetition: people are soylent, and there's only one man who can save the princess, though he's programmed to rip her throat out in that Twilight kinda way. As in not really. The Wachowskis have this essentialist hangup ("the one", it's not what you do but who you are, or here, whose genes you've got) which is beyond tiresome given Lana's change of gender. Is she now more essentially herself than she was before? If so, let's have a little less fatalistic determinism thanks. Sean Bean looked like a muscled-up Richard Roxburgh. For all that I got what I expected, and at length.

Manohla Dargis is more patient with it. The bureaucratic bit should've gone full-Gilliam.

LAMPO: Arnold Dreyblatt.

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The first piece was a piano-stringed bass fitted with some electronics. He played it by banging it with a bow, which yielded some kind of dance music that evoked the opening of Félix Lajkó's Remény. It had its moments; the preview on iTunes is far more vanilla. The second was all laptop and often verged on audience abuse, and took the artist a few solid belts of vodka (I think) to get through. The bloke on my left was Facebooking the whole time, and the bloke on my right was swigging sake (I think). Both far older than I.

Their blurb:

The Graham Foundation and Lampo are pleased to welcome American media artist and composer Arnold Dreyblatt who will perform two works: Turntable History / Spin Ensemble (2011), a multi-channel sound composition derived from Dreyblatt's own recordings of a Magnetic Resonance Imaging Scanner, and Nodal Excitation, a 1979 work for amplified "excited strings" bass, strung with piano wire. Arnold Dreyblatt is a composer, performer, and visual artist. He studied music with Pauline Oliveros, La Monte Young, and Alvin Lucier, and has been based in Berlin, Germany since 1984. Among the second generation of New York minimal composers, Dreyblatt developed a unique approach to composition and music performance. As he began his music career in the late 1970s in New York, he invented a set of new and original instruments and performance techniques, as well as a just intonation tuning system. He has formed and led numerous ensembles, working under the name "The Orchestra of Excited Strings." In 2007, he was elected to the German Academy of Art (Akademie der Künste, Berlin).

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center: Drumming at Harris Theater.

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Goldstar ticket: $20.00 + $5.25 service fee = $25.25 on 2015-01-23. I figured I'd pay a bit more and see if the seating improved. I was a fair way back but had a great view, which is something when the drummers are this skillful. Before the gig I had a Chicago-style lasagna-pizza at Giordano's near the Harris Theater.

They started with three surrounding a kettle drum with some auxiliary percussion in between for Nebojsa Jovan Živković's Meccanico from Trio per uno for Percussion Trio, Op. 27 (1995, 1999), which, being exhilarating, set a high bar the later pieces struggled to meet. Conlon Nancarrow's Piece for Tape arranged for Percussion (arranged by Dominic Murcott) (1950s) was unmemorable. Thierry de Mey's Musique de tables for Percussion Trio (1987) was some kooky wax-on wax-off stuff that evoked my last trip to Campbelltown. I don't clearly remember John Cage's In a Landscape for Marimba (transcribed by Ian David Rosenbaum) (1948), nor Toru Takemitsu's Rain Tree for Percussion Trio (1981), both of which drew me to this concert in the first place. Grr. Steve Reich's Drumming: Part 1 for Percussion Quartet (1970-71) exhibited the skill of all four drummers. Bartók's Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion (1937) was difficult to stomach.

I took the Red Line home due to it being damn cold, a little windy, and my being toasted.

Richard Hunt at the Chicago Cultural Center.

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As forecast, it is snowing like crazy today. I decided to test how bad it was with a 40+ minute schlep down to the Intelligentsia on Randolph, across the river, next to the Chicago Cultural Center. It was not cold but the salt-induced water pooled in the gutters, under the snow, at the road crossings got pretty annoying. I ended up with wet socks. The snow blasting into my face every so often was pretty slushy. At some points the crunchy snow was 20+ cm deep.

I'm not totally sure why there are so many exhibitions of Richard Hunt's work on right now; they claim he's been at it for 60 years and perhaps that's enough. I half-expected to find half an engine block mixed in with the fenders and exhaust pipes; the times definitely suited him. Is scrap rarer now? He is a master with the gas axe. I enjoyed the studies for some of his public art as they demonstrate ideation and evolution; for instance the MLK-commemorating I Have Been to the Mountain (1977, in Memphis) loses a paddle-steamer wheel and gains steps that lead to a slide. The major part seems in need of an audience, so a minor part takes shape. I'm keen to see the finished product now. Uplift is a major theme in his work.

There were two videos, one featuring Studs Terkel, but I wasn't going to sit around for 90 minutes to see them. I do need to chase that guy up though. Hunt takes all the theory people wave in his face with the good grace of someone who figured out what he wanted to do at an early age, and got really good at it.

The culture center itself has a pleasant hang-out space on the ground floor. I'd been there before in 2012 and not since I moved here. Electricity seems in short supply, but I think they do wifi. I took the Red Line subway back up to Division/Clark and watched a car spin out in front of a fire truck at Clybourn/Division. Too much haste, insufficient care.

The Man With The Golden Arm

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Otto Preminger adapts Nelson Algren's famous Chicago novel, which I never got around to reading. In black-and-white. Sinatra plays the lead and got a theme song and Oscar nomination. Barry Adamson later futzed with the former. Kim Novak is the bargirl with a heart of gold / irrepressible crush on Frank, and Eleanor Parker the I'll-never-capture-better desperado who he is responsible for. Darren McGavin is perfect as the drug pusher and general streetwise hustler. The sets are a bit crap, which is a shame as it would've been awesome to see the Chicago of the day. I think the stretch of Clark St they infest is close to where I live, i.e. in River North. The scene where Frank relinquishes junk is a pro forma for Trainspotting: one final fix, etc. but no bucket or tins of soup. He is less adept at trashing rooms than you'd expect. The conclusion is a cheap resolution of many contrivances: Novak's arched eyebrow heading out-of-frame, hand on choose-life Sinatra's arm, as the body of her rival is whisked away in an ambulance.

Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago: Conversation with Richard Hunt.

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$10 bought on 2014-12-20. This was an hour-long chat between Richard Hunt and two hosts: Naomi Beckwith and Daniel Schulman. They showed a video and string of photos of his works and workspace. I'll go back some other day to see the exhibition.

Born to Win

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I have no idea where I drug this one up from. George Segal, junkie. He has a nice and pretty funny scene with Karen Black early on, where she springs him trying to boost her car; a blip on an otherwise terminal trajectory. De Niro has a minor role as a cop.

Nasty, Brutish & Short: Drunken Half-Angel at Links Hall, Constellation.

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$12 + $2.42 service fee = $14.42, booked 2015-01-09. Part of the Chicago International Puppet Festival. The other thing Tony Adler of the Chicago Reader gestured at. I caught the Brown Line up to Belmont, same as for Ben Frost on Halloween, and walked down Belmont looking for food. I ended up getting a serviceable burger on a side street, past where the upscale antique shops give way to latino suburbia. At the Constellation I had a Yin and Yang Black and Tan from Evil Twin Brewing. Scandis who can brew? The world is not as I remember it. Tasty, but I'm not that big on Black IPAs. Their Imperial Stout is likely to be superior.

This was a cabaret by Michael Montenegro, with a band. It sold out, so they added a 10pm show which also immediately sold out. I initially sat in the centre front row, best seat in the house, until an older bloke sat on the living-room furniture just in front of me. I told him he was blocking my view so he sat on the floor, but quickly availed himself of my offer to swap given how uncomfortable it was. Well, that was the best seat in the house, as much happened at floor height.

The best of Montenegro's skits was Calvin, a very sophisticated puppet that reminded me most of Dr Strangelove, or a cat I used to know who showed his affection by ripping into you. The puppet more-or-less kills the puppeteer at some point. Somewhere in there the guitarist pulled out a saw and a violin bow, which I hadn't heard in many years; the poor-man's theremin. The closing piece had him very skillfully manipulating a mouth puppet. Other bits were more obscure. I'd say he could use some help with the dialogue, but has the rest down pat.

Afterwards I schlepped all the way down Clybourn in very mild winter weather.

Memento

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My favourite by Nolan. One of Guy Pearce's finer outings. Great to hear David Bowie closing it out with Something in the Air.

Sounds of the South Loop: Metropolis Quartet.

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Goldstar ticket: $7.50 + $3.00 service fee = $10.50. The 6pm start was a bit awkward. I took a bus down State and grabbed a very quick and quite servicable pad thai at Opart Thai. 2nd Presbyterian Church is quite elegant with great acoustics. I was the youngest in the crowd by at least a decade. The instruments were an oboe, a cello, a viola and a violin, and were all well-played. There was no program so I have no record of the pieces; one was a composition by the Sounds of the South Loop artistic director Kim Diehnelt (I think). I enjoyed the lot.

Realising I had just enough time, I forsake an evening in Chinatown and instead took the Red Line back to Division so I could extract The Moon of Hoa Binh from the Near North branch of the Chicago Public Library. It's on a three-week interlibrary loan. 1700 pages. More on that later.

Blind Summit's The Table.

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$35.00, bought 2015-01-09, with no booking fee or disaggregated tax. Part of the Chicago International Puppet Festival. I schlepped home from work, had dinner, and then over to Chicago Shakespeare Theater via the lake shore in some sub-zero heavy fog / light rain, and back again afterwards for a total of something like 15km for the day. The theatre itself is at the top of six floors at Navy Pier. There was a small bar on that floor (I had a Blue Moon) and sat on the floor due to the lack of seating. Seat C-1 sounded potentially awesome but was in fact wedged on the far left on the main floor.

The gig was three people (Mark Down on head, right arm voice; Sean Garratt on left arm and bum; Laura Caldow on feet) and one puppet, Moses, and they had all been to Chicago before. Apparently created for a 1984 production, he ended up starring in The Other Seder, which was commissioned by the Jewish Community Centre in London. They took some (but not many) cheap shots at the Americans, and most of the generally cheap innuendo could have been omitted to everyone's benefit. I think it was mostly improv, anchored by some scenes from biblical-Moses's life and puppetry didactics. At times it almost got ecumenical, pointing out that Moses features in the Torah, the Bible and the Koran, and for the atheists, that he nonsensically wrote the canonical account of his own death at the hands of a God who brooked no competitors. Large chunks were funny, though there was a point where they totally lost momentum, and a few too many uninspired overly-repetitious bits. The puppeteers clearly enjoyed themselves.

I got the original pointer to this and Friday's Drunken Half-Angel from Tony Adler in the Reader; here he is from 2013.

William Gibson: Distrust That Particular Flavor

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This is a mostly-drecky collection of offcuts. The author himself more-or-less admits this in the afterwords that follow each piece. Somewhere in the middle is a pleasant but abridged history of Japan and its entanglement with the U.S.A., which may have been the cause of the suggestion from somewhere that this book was not quite so drecky as it is.

Blackhat

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4.20pm, $10.29 + $1.23 (inflated freedom) tax = $11.52, at the AMC Loews 600. three rows from the front (and still a little too close). I really liked Michael Mann's Thief, and I vaguely recall Heat being some chop. Well, this movie was unsound.

The opening is pure Fight Club, subbing silicon for biology, and before too long we get beefcake with a side of beef Hemsworth/Thor as a not credible arch computer geek. He has no quirk. He is not weird. He is no geek. It is like Rooney Mara never happened. He is unmentionable next to Mann's previous leading men (de Niro, Pacino, James Caan). His facility with violence comes from where exactly? I know violent geeks but they are not beefcakes. True to form he does wield a hammer/axe at the Chinese reactor. Let's not stop to think what the radiation does to that delicate, semi-unique brain of his. The truly funny scene in The Matrix where to-be alpha guy Neo chokes in the face of imminent arrest by the agents is totally, absolutely, resolutely, irrevocably beyond the scope of Thor. Thor pumps iron, not irony. Fire the casting agent.

Mann really blows it in Asia, passing up the opportunity to make Hong Kong, Macau or Indonesia look as awesome as Wong Kar-Wai does. Why go there if you're not even going to try? There is some nice camerawork evoking Heat back home in America, and also a retread of the climactic container scene. The vibe seems to be that we can fix this new cybercrime/war with old school violence, presumably in the maximalist tradition. The politics could have been more interesting than the hacking, or at least something could have been decent. I was glad to see John Ortiz's pained dial in some scenes (literally phoning it in). Wei Tang struggles a bit in English, or with beefcake. Last time I saw her she was getting it on with Tony Leung, so I can understand her diffidence.

This may well be one of the last computer-centric movies made by someone who clearly does not understand them, or how Gen Y understands them.

Manohla Dargis may have talked me into it. I wish I'd seen what she saw.

A Most Violent Year

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$12, 4.40pm, Landmark at 2828 Clark. I went on the spur of the moment; I walked halfway-there to go to a cafe and figured I'd just keep going. Oscar Isaac is solid even without a cat to act opposite, and it gets harder to understand Anthony Lane's beef about him. I would have liked to see more of Jessica Chastain's character; they strike sparks off each other in every scene they share. The remainder almost seem like a waste in comparison, excepting Isaac's speech to his fellow oilmen, his dealings with the orthodox Jews, his encouragement of his employees... OK, perhaps it simply overflows with riches. The intrusion of the state via D.A. David Oyelowo is too slight in comparison. Alessandro Nivola is in full-on Ozymandias mode. I kept thinking that Mean Streets must be something like this, if only I could remember it.

I had dinner at the Taj Mahal on Halsted afterwards, a thali of too much. Tasty, and I'll probably go back.

Dana Stevens is a bit more scathing than I felt this deserved. She's right that the problems are structural. A. O. Scott got right into it. Not at all sure where David Denby got the Colombia thing from.

Casino

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Solid, and I did watch it all in one sitting, but somehow not as good the second time around. Continuing the De Niro / James Woods lovefest.

American Sniper

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With Christian-from-work, the post bonus blues, or sepias in this case. We tried to get into the 4.15pm at the AMC Loews 600, which was packed, so we schlepped over to AMC River East 21 for the 4.40pm. Had dinner at the Japanese fusion place next door afterwards, and several beers at Harry Caray.

I think Generation Kill is superior as it has more characters and some humour, though both have perfect cinematography. More Scandis may have helped too. Here Eastwood homes in on the sniper himself and appears to have lost most of the subtlety he developed for Gran Torino, and the sardonic winking that went with it; this one is dead serious, and sometimes painfully earnest, all the way along. The story itself is quite sad. The good/evil dichotomy held up throughout the war sections falls apart by the end when we learn the sniper got murdered by a fellow veteran in Texas after his discharge from the Seals, if it hadn't already disintegrated in the scenes with his family. How does mental illness and PTSD inform that dichotomy? I imagine Eastwood having a revised ending already prepared, for when the legal stuff is done, something that evokes his earlier, more complex, moral landscapes. Bradley Cooper is entirely believable.

A. O. Scott has more to say. David Denby too. J. R. Jones at the Chicago Reader. Dana Stevens was late to the party.

Cookie Play at Trapdoor Theatre.

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Goldstar ticket bought on 2014-12-16, $10.00 + $3.75 booking fee = $13.75. Post-work time burning at Filter Café and dinner at Pot Pan Thai beforehand. This was my second time at the Trapdoor, and I went on the premise of giving them another go. Seditious cookies? What could be more American than that? I got a seat near the middle in the front row, which was a little too close, though the second row is similarly a little too close. Somehow the ticket came with a glass of grog, either an American mainstream beer or an Australian Yellow Tail. I got the red, which made the shenanigans pass a little more agreeably.

The play did not go over well with the local reactionaries. The Reader has an extended piece on it, which strangely omits mention of the non-sequitur dancing sequences, familiar from last year's Mike Leigh outing. Time Out. Theatre By Numbers. More details from Jacob Davis at Chicago Critic. The obvious referent is Kafka, for which the playwright apparently has antecdents, but that passed all the reviewers by.

Raymond Carver: What We Talk About When We Talk About Love and Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?

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The first was inevitable after Birdman. The second was sitting nearby in the Chicago Public Library. Both Vintage Contemporaries.

The first one went fast, the second slow.

The first full of familiar titles; the short story they got Jindabyne out of, Paul Kelly's So Much Water So Close to Home, Transat's Popular Mechanics, Nick Cave clearly picked up on Tell The Women We're Going. And so forth.

He got better with age. The first was honed in ways the second was not.

Lots of smoking. Endless smoking. In both. Some drinking.

The first is for Tess. The second for Maryann.

From the wiki, the first was bowdlerized. I get the impression that Beginners contains what Carver really talked about when he talked about love.

New stuff from Félix Lajkó.

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It's been a while since I've looked this guy up. He's revamped his website, had a shave and got a haircut, but fortunately not a real job. He's distributing his new stuff via iTunes, which makes it twice as expensive as before. My $US28 got me:

  • Mező / Field, zither and cello. Some awesome stuff.
  • Jelszó, violin, piano and more.
  • Végtelen, with orchestra, but not in the Metallica way. Some familiar tunes from years ago, some with very American-cartoon-music twists. Amusingly the band plays his music even while he doesn't.

Inherent Vice

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$12, 4pm, Landmark at 2828 Clark. Got the bus up from Division due to some dodgy time management; it was warm enough, and still enough, to schlepp. The cinema was packed as it only opened yesterday. I sat three rows from the front in the friend-of-a-wheelchair-user row.

Another Paul Thomas Anderson, seemingly rushing up in the wake of The Master, though I now see that two years have passed inbetween. This is an adaptation of Thomas Pynchon's recent (2009?) book. I haven't read the book or anything else by him. I initially hoped I could follow some of the story, or at least figure out what the characters were for, but once Joaquin Phoenix slid into full-on mumbling mode I gave up and tried to enjoy the ride. Most of the humour is observational (cf Phoenix's mumbling). I found Josh Brolin a bit meh, perhaps because he came as a form-fit caricature; those who enjoyed his performance may have latched onto it as one of the few anchors on offer. I also didn't get into the Owen Wilson thing at all. Benicio del Toro phoned it in; what happened to the deft attorney skills he showed in Fear and Loathing? Martin Donovan sure got old; then again, his Hal Hartley days are getting on to twenty years in the previous. Reese Witherspoon is typecast-prissy. The cast is unbounded.

I walked home down Halsted, stopping at Noodles in the Pot for a dinner of basil chicken. Not so great; I conclude that the locals, who rate it 4.4/5 on Google, do not know what good Thai tastes like.

Dana Stevens observes the antecedents: The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye. Shaggy it is and no cat in sight. It had it's Chinatown moments too. Manohla Dargis: to me, narrator Joanna Newsom as Sortilège evoked the Stranger in The Big Lebowski; of course Phoenix is playing a similar game to the Dude, though he has no Maude in need of impregnation, nor a persian rug. She's right to quote Donovan's character: "People like you lose all claim to respect the first time they pay anybody rent." She makes it sound like one long homage. Geoffrey O’Brien also cites Donovan's line. The photo has Owen Wilson in it but the text does not. Strange. Ben Sachs at the Reader. Anna Shechtman at the L.A. Review of Books. Perhaps the meat was in the Owen Wilson bits. Michael Wood. Evan Kindley is late to the party.

Once Upon A Time In America

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As good as ever. Still parked at #75 in the IMDB top-250. I wonder when the definitive super-long version will be released.

Vi är bäst! (We Are the Best!)

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It's been a while since I've seen a new Lukas Moodysson. This is one of his lighter outings, closer to Tillsammans than Lilja 4 Eva, and proves that Swedish girl-punks can outdo any vampire. The script is based on a autobiographical graphic novel by his wife. I don't know where he finds his actors. It's laugh-out-loud funny at times (abort all parents!), and sweet. Their performance in Västerås is priceless.

Much background detail at the NYTimes by Marc Spitz. A. O. Scott somehow has the idea that Moodysson is subtle. Dana Stevens got right into it.

Mystic River

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Continuing on the Tim Robbins thing. (I don't like Tim Robbins.) Both he and Sean Penn got Oscars for this, which somewhat surprises me as they crazily over emote. The female characters are uniformly horrible, with Laura Linney's Annabeth clearly (crassly) intended to evoke Lady Macbeth. Dennis Lehane has been quite fortunate with the directors who pick up his work (here Eastwood, later Ben Affleck, Scorcese and in the near future Affleck once more with Live by Night).

The Shawshank Redemption

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Re-viewing this reinforced my opinion that it is an overrated piece of hokum. Somehow it provokes enough passion in enough people to be resolutely parked at #1 on the IMDB top-250, year after year. I guess I'd be interested in knowing why.