About Victoria

Born in Detroit. Lived in Ohio, Pennsylvania, D.C., and Princeton, New Jersey. Degrees in Journalism (U. of Michigan) and Public Health (U. of Pittsburgh). Alumna of U. of Michigan and U. of Pittsburgh. Favorite authors: Neal Stephenson, Frederick Forsyth, Alan Furst, Charles Dickens--they all know how to tell a good story! Best book read so far in 2012: Hilary Mantel's Bring up the Bodies. Favorite TV: The Wire; Treme.

The Enduring Allure of the City of Light

People around the world were stunned and saddened as photographs of the partial destruction of the cathedral of Notre Dame, that icon of Paris, burned. (See how laser point clouds of gothic cathedrals, which may help in reconstruction, are created.) Paris, its landmarks, its street scenes, and its culture have inspired classic literature from the popular works of Dickens and Victor Hugo (for whom Notre Dame plays a starring role) to the American expats in the 1920s to Anthony Doerr.

Crime writers too have found it a congenial home, not because crime happens there as it does elsewhere, but because to set a crime novel in Paris is to establish a contrast, a friction between the sordidness of deeds and the beauty of the setting, even as it may live only in the reader’s imagination.

The Sûreté was quick to adopt some of the early criminal detection measures developed in France, too: Alphonse Bertillon’s system of identifying criminals through body measurements—a forerunner of today’s biometric identification—and the 1863 discovery by Paul-Jean Coulier of the means to reveal fingerprints on paper, roots from which sprang stories of very French detectives, most  notably Georges Simenon’s Jules Maigret.

The attraction continues. Here are four crime novels from the last year with significant Paris roots.

****The Long Road from Paris by Kirby Williams – In the late 1930s, a New Orleans octoroon jazz prodigy is making a success of his nightclub with the help of his Jewish girlfriend. Then the fascists appear. 

****A Long Night in Paris by Dov Alfon – an Israeli mistakenly murdered at Charles de Gaulle airport triggers a desperate investigation in Paris and Israel to find the real target.

*****Paris in the Present Tense by Mark Helprin – A gentlemanly aging cellist plunges well outside his comfort zone to help the people he loves.

****Number 7, Rue Jacob – by Wendy Hornsby – A Parisian couple is pursued around Europe in a deadly game, as shadowy persons ask cell phone users to “find them,” then “stop them.”

The Mustang * Woman at War * Beirut * Rembrandt

The Mustang (2019)

Mustang, horse

Said Peter Goldberg in Slant Magazine, “Single-minded and direct in its execution, Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s The Mustang is a hard look at the extremes of masculine guilt and healing” (trailer).

The main character, Roman Coleman (Matthias Schoenaerts) smiles only once, I think, in the whole film. For the most part, Coleman doesn’t interact with his fellow prisoners in a Nevada medium security prison. His attempts at a relationship with his daughter stall. We find out only deep in what his crime was, and the weight of it.

There’s a special prison program (in place in Nevada and a number of Western prisons IRL) to train convicts to work with wild mustangs, and tame them to the point they can be auctioned to the border patrol, to ranchers, or for other uses. Putting a man like Coleman in a corral with 1500 pounds of frantic horse seems more than a bit risky and is. If only Coleman can learn relate to this one living thing—and vice-versa—perhaps they both can be saved. As another prisoner/horse trainer says, “If you want to control your horse, first you gotta control yourself.”

The parallels between the confinement and anger of this mustang and this prisoner are obvious. Bruce Dern plays the elderly cowboy in charge of the project, and he and the other prisoners are strong characters. But it is Schoenaerts movie and, although the camera is on him throughout most of it, he grows to fill the screen. Beautiful scenery too. (For one of the most beautiful and moving films ever about men and horses, get ahold of last year’s The Rider.)Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 94%; audiences 74% .

Woman at War (2019)

This movie from Iceland director Benedikt Erlingsson has absurdist elements, real tension, and a lot of heart (trailer). Choral director Halla (played by Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir, who also plays Halla’s twin sister Ása) is outraged at the prospect of booming unenvironmental heavy industry invading Iceland. She sets out to disrupt the development plans by sabotaging the electrical system, a bit at a time.

The authorities consider her protests eco-terrorism, and are determined to find whoever is carrying them out, with some nail-biting pursuits by helicopter and drone. To keep the story from becoming too anxiety-provoking, an absurd trio of musicians—piano, tuba, and drums—appears wherever she is, whether it’s on the heath or in her apartment. It’s the incongruous presence of the tuba that lets you know she’s ok.

She’s single and childless, until a four-year-old adoption request is unexpectedly filled. A child is waiting for her in the Ukraine. From this point, carrying out one last adventure before  flying to retrieve her new daughter, Halla is also accompanied by three Ukrainian women singers in full costume, as well. I laughed out loud at this and some of the other antics. You will too.Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 97%; audiences 90%.

Beirut (2018)

Netflix provided this 2018 movie from director Brad Anderson, written by Tony Gilroy, a controversial political thriller set in Beirut, once the Paris of the Mideast, which has disintegrated into civil war (trailer). In 1972, John Hamm is an American diplomat and expert negotiator stationed in Beirut who, after one tragic night returns to the States. He never wants to go back. About a decade later, he does, when a friend is kidnapped, and he’s asked by some highly untrustworthy U.S. agents to help in the rescue. Only Rosamund Pike seems to have her head on straight.  He finds a city in shambles, divided into fiercely protected zones by competing militias. Finding his friend, much less saving him, seems impossible. A solid B.Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 82%; audiences 55%. 

Rembrandt (in theaters 2019)

This documentary should be appended to last week’s review of recent films on Caravaggio and Van Gogh, a rare alignment of the planets that took me to three art films in a week. This one describes the creation of an exhibition of Rembrandt’s late works, jointly sponsored by Britain’s National Museum and the Rijksmuseum (trailer). Like those other big-screen delights, the chance to look up close and unhurried at these masterworks is the best part. There’s biographical information and commentary from curators and others. The details of how the exhibition was physically put together were fascinating too. One of my favorites among the works featured was “An Old Woman Reading,” from 1655 (pictured). From Exhibition on Screen, you can find a screening near you.Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: not rated yet. 

Painless Public Readings

microphone

If you write, you may receive invitations to read from your work to a book group, at a public reading, or for a bookstore event. It’s a chance to connect with an audience, to find places in your work that still need work, and to build fans. But writing doesn’t prepare you for reading.

Viet Thanh Nguyen, who won a Pulitzer Prize for The Sympathizer, has written a spot-on essay for lithub on “how not to bore your audience at a reading.”

Before I give you Nguyen’s tips, here’s an important one from Walter Moseley. He told an audience at Princeton last year that “the longer I read, the fewer books I sell.” Author venues like Noir at the Bar, Mystery Writers of America, and my own Princeton-based writers group limit authors to 10 to 12 minutes. A taste and a tease. Nguyen’s tips and a couple of my own:

1. A reading is a performance. Writing is storytelling and good storytellers put some pizzazz into their reading. Your audience wants to be moved by your words and how you share them. He recommends listening to skilled readers, like author T.C.Boyle (here reading from his The Harder They Come, starting 7:50 in).

2. Create a script, rather than simply reading from your book. With a script, you can enlarge the type (I use really big type—18 to 20 points), so you don’t have to bury your head in the pages, and you can see the words easily even if the lectern is poorly lit, a lesson learned the hard way. Mark your script with underlinings and squiggly lines where you want to speed up, slow down, get louder, pause. Number the pages. Circle words you trip over in rehearsing. You may trip over them again. Authors with younger eyes tend to read from their tablet or cell phone, but paper never has a low battery.

3. “Practice, practice, practice,” Nguyen says. And time yourself. Cut out a paragraph here or there if, at the twelve-minute mark, you want to reach a particular point. A description that seems slow to you as a reader, probably is.

4. Make eye contact with your audience. Repeatedly. Those rehearsals you did will let you take your eyes off the page for longer too.

5. Be aware of how close to the mike you need to be and cement yourself  there. A little movement  is fine, especially with the arms, but avoid weaving back and forth, shifting your weight from one foot to the other in a seasickness-inducing way. Plant your feet and keep them planted.

6. How you look is important. “Dress up, whatever that means to you,” he says. It shows you are rising to the occasion. If certain colors or outfits perk you up and you feel good wearing them, choose one of those.

7. Bring energy into the room. “Your energy level will be the room’s energy level, which comedians understand,” Nguyen says.Here’s the bottom line: Once you’re on stage, you’re a performer. “You are putting on a show, whether it is for five people or fifty or five hundred. That’s what people have come for. If they just want to read your words, they can do it at home. Respect their time.” Don’t be boring. And if you’re really prepared, you won’t be.

Photo: Pete on Flickr, creative commons license.

****The Horseman’s Song

By Ben Pastor – This book is one of Ben Pastor’s six detective novels featuring German intelligence officer Martin Bora and a prequel to novels covering Bora’s activities during the Second World War.

As the book opens, it’s summer 1937, in the midst of the Spanish Civil War. Two tiny encampments located high in the rocky sierras of Aragon overlook a valley, a cane-lined brook, and the small town of Teruel. Bora heads one of these camps, comprising about seven Nationalists; the other, near enough for occasional sniper-fire, is similarly sized and led by American volunteer Philip Walton. Walton is a World War I veteran, a couple of decades older than Bora, and has joined the Republican side less because of conviction and more because he can’t think of anything better to do.

The men in both camps are a ragtag bunch and more prone to follow their own inclinations than any official orders. Neither unit is interested in attacking the other, preferring to save their energies for a big battle rumored to be coming soon. The proximity of these two encampments is illustrated by the fact that both Bora and Walton both visit the same prostitute high on the mountaintop. For Bora, the encounters with this young woman are life-changing; for Walton, they’re a painful reminder he’s aging. Yet they inspire destructive sexual jealousy.

Bora finds the body of a stranger shot in the head on the road below his encampment and wonders how this stranger ended up there. Walton also knows about the corpse, plus he knows who the man is: his friend Federico García Lorca (pictured), the revered poet and playwright, homosexual, and staunch Republican. Walton and his men bury García Lorca’s partway up the mountain; Bora’s scouts find the grave, remove the body, and bury it elsewhere. The official story—in the novel as well as in real life—is that García Lorca was murdered in 1936 outside Granada. The authorities on both sides would prefer that Bora and Walton let the official story stand unquestioned.

Separately, they conduct a somewhat clandestine investigation of the events of the fatal night and the motives of various people who might have been involved. It’s slow going, because Walton and Bora are mostly otherwise engaged. The times themselves dampen progress further. If Bora wants to send a message to Teruel, someone has to get on a donkey and take it. A response won’t arrive for hours. If Walton wants to investigate an event in the village of Castellar, he must climb the mountain to do so. The overall impression is of a hostile environment that’s dusty and hot, hot, hot. Author Pastor does an admirable job evoking the landscape, the conditions, and the way things got done (or not) eight decades ago.

With their murder investigations limping along, there is ample opportunity for exploring the characters of both Walton and Bora, as well as several of their underlings. Pastor’s writing style is dense and full of psychological insight. Her short scenes feel almost like an hour-by-hour bulletin on camp activities. And, of course, writing about García Lorca gives the opportunity for pithy epigrams from his wonderful poems.

Ben Pastor is the pseudonym for Maria Verbena Volpi. Born in Rome, she holds dual citizenship in Italy and the United States. Though Martin Bora is fictional, he was inspired by Claus von Stauffenberg, best known for his leading role in the July 1944 attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler.

A Trio of Fascinating Reads

*****The Surfacing – literary fiction

Cormac James tells the story of the dangerous 1850 voyage of the Impetus, which sailed north of Greenland to find and rescue men who’d been lost while searching for the Northwest Passage. The story is told from the viewpoint of Impetus’s second in command, Mr. Morgan, and his doubts about the judgment of their captain are growing. Captain Myer has a monomaniacal desire to push on, even though it’s late in the season, and his ship risks being trapped in the ice.

It’s ice and snow and wind and water and more ice everywhere. Such conditions might seem likely to become rather tedious, but James surprises with his inventiveness and acute perception, expressed in beautiful prose.

Despite conditions, there’s good humor among the crew, especially between Morgan and his friend, the ship’s doctor. The woman with whom Morgan had a dalliance in their last port-of-call has been smuggled on board, pregnant, and he must contend not just with an incompetent captain and implacable weather, but with the unexpected pull of fatherhood.

The conditions so far north put everyone to the test. As the darkness of another winter descends, they must each face their fate in their own way. Order from Amazon here.

****No Happy Endings – comic thriller

I won Angel Luis Colón’s novella at an event where he did a reading, and I have mixed feelings about recommending it. Readers may have trouble with a couple of disturbing scenes in a crazy sperm bank. Those aside, protagonist Fantine Park is funny and engaging. She’s a thief, a safecracker, and a good daughter. To protect her father living in a nursing home, she agrees to steal some of the sperm bank’s “product.” So much easier said than done. As Joe Clifford wrote for the book jacket, Colón “takes the time-tested trope of retired robber on a final heist, and delivers one of the most weirdly original, satisfying, and unexpected capers of the year.” Order from Amazon here.

****The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial – non-fiction

Fifty years ago, the murders of seven young women rocked Ann Arbor. Maggie Nelson’s book tells the real-life story of one of those deaths. Her aunt, Jane Mixer, a law student at the University of Michigan, put up a bulletin board request for a ride home. She found one. Though at first believed the third of the “Michigan murders,” her death did not fit the pattern of the others.

In November 2004, 35 years after Jane’s death, Nelson’s mother received a call from a Michigan State Police detective who said, “We have every reason to believe this case is moving swiftly toward a successful conclusion.” DNA evidence had at last identified Jane’s killer. This is the story of the family’s reaction to reopening these old wounds, of attending the trial of a now-62 year old man, of seeing the crime scene photographs, of dealing with the media. It traverses the landscapes of grief, of murder, of justice, and the importance, even after so many years, of bearing witness. Order from Amazon here.

Photo: maxpixel.net, creative commons license.

Artists’ Lives on Film

What with Caravaggio’s frequent legal troubles and rejection of some of his best works and Van Gogh’s failure to sell no more than a few paintings during his lifetime, both artists would undoubtedly be shocked to learn they’re such hot topics for films (film, what’s that?).

Caravaggio: The Soul and the Blood

An Italian art film, in every sense, directed by Jesus Garces Lambert (trailer). Its most impressive aspect is the up-close examination of some 40 of Caravaggio’s works, many of which are huge and hung high in various churches. You’d never get this well-lit and detailed view seeing them, as it were, in the flesh.

Three art historians comment on the significance of Caravaggio’s work and the ground he broke—for example, in showing emotion and using common people, even the poor, as models. At one point early on, Caravaggio’s paintings were criticized for not showing action. He responded with a vengeance through the rest of his career, as with the snakes surrounding the head of Medusa, which practically writhe off the background.

All that was interesting, but the filmmaker layered in a contemporary quasi-narrative involving a tormented actor (playing Caravaggio), three women, and gallons of black paint. Meanwhile, another actor reads from Caravaggio’s journal, presumably, against a discordant musical score.

A time-lapse camera recorded the deterioration of a bowl of fruit, much like one Caravaggio painted, with the creeping mold, the rot, the flies. The filmmaker ran that footage backward so that the fruit plumps and colors. It was a nice effect. After that success, he used the run-the-film-backward device several more times to less benefit.

Still, worth seeing for the art, if you can ignore the frame.

At Eternity’s Gate

Director Julian Schnabel takes a much more conventional approach in depicting the late life of Vincent Van Gogh (trailer). The film stars Willem Dafoe as the artist, Mads Mikkelson as his devoted brother Theo, and Oscar Isaac as his destructive friend, Paul Gauguin. You see Van Gogh settling into a small town, and if you’re familiar with his paintings, you recognize the townspeople’s faces and attire as his future subjects. Seeing them is like greeting old friends.

You could say the same for the stunning scenery, bathed in the golden light Van Gogh perfected. While the end of the story is well known, it isn’t entirely clear. Schnabel joins the speculation about Van Gogh’s mysterious death, throwing in with the idea that local children, in a prank gone wrong, shot him, rather than that he committed suicide, as has been commonly believed.

Chris Hewitt in the Minneapolis Star Tribune says “Dafoe’s elegiac quality hints at why the artist was ahead of his time: because he saw more than anyone else could. It’s a towering performance in a movie that casts a magnetic spell.”

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 80%; audiences 62%.

What Did You Think of My Book?

key, Pezibear from Pixabay

Getting reviewers and readers to talk about your new book provides peer-to-peer validation of your work and is key to promoting sales,. These days, “no one will buy a book with zero social validation,” says Jordan Ring at Archangel Ink, who prepared the online guide, “How to Get Book Reviews: The Ultimate Manifesto.”

Reviews work to your advantage in several additional ways in the Amazon ecosystem. The more consumer reviews you have, the higher your conversion rate from Amazon page visits to sales. Having reviews (especially verified reviews) will boost your book in Amazon’s search algorithms. Yet, Ring says, “most books on Amazon struggle to get even fifty reviews.” Around the time of publication, unverified reviews—those coming from people who’ve obtained your book from somewhere other than Amazon, say, as advance review copies—help jump-start the process.

The Strategies

Although Ring provides a lot of detail on how to implement these strategies, and writes in that breezy and grating you-can-do-it style universal to self-help books, he warns up front that these strategies “aren’t easy and take a lot of work.” It’s up to each author to decide how far to go.

  • Providing a request for reviews in the back of your book is probably the easiest (see “overcoming reviewers’ barriers” below); I see more of these all the time. You’re a writer, you love your book, make that request engaging and clever.
  • Search for reader-reviewers who have commented on similar books and compile a list. There’s even an app that will find them for you. Bear in mind that most people don’t want yet another way to be spammed, and find a balance between warm and too chummy.
  • Contact those reviewers by email. As a reviewer for crimefictionlover.com, I receive review requests occasionally, and the overly personalized versions weirded me out at first, the kind that sound almost stalkery. (“I saw your review of x, and . . .”) But that’s me.
  • Follow up. Ring says most authors may be willing to make an initial query, but won’t follow up, which increases total response rate markedly. He provides lots of details on how to do and track this.
  • Follow up with people who sign up for any bonuses you offer, although the sample text he offers would put me off. (People need to know that, in signing up for bonuses, they will be on an email list for further contact, of course.)
  • Using other reader-centric platforms—such as GoodReads or LibraryThing—repeat your search for reader-reviewers, outreach, and follow-up.
  • Be sure to use any endorsements or back cover blurbs you’ve acquired to fill out the “editorial reviews” section of your book’s Amazon page.
  • And do not try to boost the number of reviews by relying solely on friends and family, review swaps with other authors, or paying for reviews. Amazon sees, Amazon frowns.

Overcoming Reviewers’ Barriers

My friend, book marketing guru Sandra Beckwith, has looked into why people do not review the books they read. What she learned may help you craft your approach in the back-of-book copy or any email messages you send requesting reviews. She says:

  1. Readers are intimidated by the review process. They don’t know how or where to start, or what they should even share in a review.
  2. Haunted by memories of school book reports, readers think reviewing a book will take too much time.

Sandy has developed a reader-tested template—a fill-in-the-blanks PDF file—with writing prompts to help readers prepare a review in just a few minutes. She charges a nominal fee for the form, and authors can make as many copies as they want. She suggests including the template with every review copy, handing them out a book signings, emailing them to readers, and giving them to everyone on your launch team. If they encourage your readers to overcome “reviewer reluctance,” that’s a big plus!

*****Hell Chose Me

By Angel Luis Colón – Just when avid crime fiction readers might be tiring of low-life protagonists, seedy surroundings, and grimy situations larded with expletives, along comes a novel that upends expectations. Angel Luis Colón’s new thriller certainly is filled with reprehensible characters and actions, but he has made it so interesting that it rises far above the type.

Author Dennis Lehane has described noir protagonists perfectly: “In Greek tragedy, they fall from a great height. In noir, they fall from the curb.” Colón’s protagonist, Bryan Walsh, has teetered on the curb for some time. He was raised Irish Catholic in the Bronx, with his grandfather Mairsial, his mother—“an awful, manipulative monster”—and his younger brother Liam. Bryan fled these unpromising surroundings at age 18, going straight into the U.S. Marines. In Iraq, he led a mistimed assault on a house that killed a child, and he can’t shake the memory.

He deserts the Marines, bolting to Ireland, to the only family member who may be able to protect him, his uncle Sean. Sean Shea is the son of one of the original members of the Irish Republican Army, a hard bastard whom Sean seems determined to outdo. Bryan works his way up in Sean’s loose criminal organization, learning to make bombs, killing people Sean has fingered.

When Bryan learns some of Sean’s mates doubt his loyalty—a situation unlikely to promote longevity—again he splits, returning to the U.S. illegally a year before 9/11. Liam has a diabetic stroke that leaves him in permanent intensive care—“all vegetable,” as Bryan’s boss, a gangster middleman named Paulie Gigante, so sensitively puts it. The work Bryan does for Paulie is mostly as a hitman, killing people Bryan considers losers and nobodies.

But Paulie keeps cutting back on Bryan’s take, and Bryan desperately needs money to pay Liam’s interminable hospital bills. He mistakenly kills the son of a big crime boss, who’s determined to get revenge. The hunt for Bryan is on, and blood in great quantities begins being spilled.

Several aspects of this story make it a stand-out. First is Colón’s wonderful use of language. It’s elegant, evocative, and economical. Most distinctive is the indelible way he describes what’s going on in Bryan’s head. The man is haunted by the ghosts of his victims—dissolving, reassembling, their margins fluid—who follow him in a growing and inescapable train. They repeat the words they uttered just before death, a macabre Greek chorus that oddly enriches the novel’s events. Bryan’s living, breathing companions here in the real world doubt his sanity.

While the question of whom the protagonist can trust is a hallmark of thriller fiction, in this novel, the layers of deception and betrayal expand geometrically. Though just under 200 pages, this book packs a wallop and is one you will have a hard time forgetting.

Photo by SuperHerftigGeneral for Pixabay

The Gods of Comedy

Princeton’s McCarter Theatre Center presents the world premiere of Ken Ludwig’s delightful new play, directed by Amanda Dehnert. The Gods of Comedy opened March 16 and runs through March 31.

In a university classics department, a normal day is about to collapse into turmoil, thanks to a madcap mix of switched identities, characters who become invisible, and not-so divine intervention. Daphne Rain (played by Shay Vawn) is a bookish young classics professor entrusted by her colleague and boyfriend Ralph Sargent (Jevon McFerrin) with the priceless manuscript of the lost Euripides play, Andromeda. When the manuscript goes missing, she calls on the ancient Greek gods out of desperation. And who turns up? Dionysus and Thalia, the gods of comedy.

The boisterous Dionysus (Brad Oscar) and flirtatious Thalia (Jessie Cannizzaro) turn Daphne’s life upside down as she tries to hide the manuscript’s disappearance from Ralph and their dean (Keira Naughton). Meanwhile, the dean is determined to showcase the prize that evening at a Greek-themed costume party for the school’s big donors. One of these donors is a glamorous actress named Brooklyn de Wolfe (Steffanie Leigh) who sets her sights on Ralph.

Daphne and the gods have to devise a plan to satisfy the dean and keep Ralph away from Brooklyn. A pretty effective distraction arrives in the divine personage of Ares, god of war (George Psomas). Wearing his helmet and cape and brandishing his sword, he’s mistaken for one of the party-goers, and when he intones so confidently, “I am a god,” Brooklyn naturally responds, “Yeah, that’s what all men think.”

The plot of a farce never benefits from minute dissection, but Oscar, Cannizzaro, and Psomas create such strong and entertaining characters, you willingly suspend disbelief, and the many clever touches pile up one after another, keeping the audience roaring. There are a few lulls in act two, but the pace picks up again when Dionysus and Thalia use their powers of metamorphosis to become other characters—a tangle that is baffling for the other characters and hilarious for the audience.

Vawn is sympathetic as the worried academic, simultaneously grateful for the gods’ help and dismayed at the trouble they’re causing. McFerrin is clueless, especially when under Brooklyn’s spell, and Naughton, once she dons her Artemis costume, reveals a naughty side. Psomas plays two small roles, in addition to Ares, each to perfection. And Jason Sherwood designed beautiful sets, especially for Act 2.

McCarter Theatre is easily reached from New York by car or train (New Jersey Transit to the Princeton Junction station, then the shuttle bus into Princeton. The shuttle ends a short walk from the theater and the university’s new arts district, as well as two innovative new restaurants. For tickets, call the box office at 609-258-2787 or visit the ticket office online.

photo: T. Charles Erickson

In the Sea and Under It

A recent trip to the Windy City (temperature: -1⸰) included a visit to the marvelous, that is, full of marvels, Shedd Aquarium. If you’re ever in Chicago on a business trip, don’t miss it; it’s right downtown.

We were minding the two kids, ages 7 and 9, and we thought by keeping them engaged there, we could spare ourselves the embarrassment of losing chess games to them.

We caught the new special exhibit “Underwater Beauty,” with over a hundred species, only one highlight of which were the charming blue polka-dot jellyfish you see one of here. Of course the reef fish were bright and colorful, and the seahorses adorable, but there also were creatures called “weedy sea dragons” I’d never seen before, pictured below. Rather astonishing.

The Oceanarium show with the beluga whales and dolphins, a sea lion and an owl (?) is always a hit. As is the penguin play area, though they’re outgrowing that. They enjoyed the nearby pet-a-starfish exhibit even more. I could be mesmerized by the lobby’s circular, 90,000-gallon Caribbean Reef tank for hours. In the 1930’s water for the aquarium’s saltwater tanks was brought up from Key West on railroad tank cars.

What did the kids like best? Petting the bony backs of the armored lake sturgeon, where they plunged their arms into the water so deep and so often I ended up buying them new (dry) T-shirts. That -1⸰ thing again. Flooded with atypical modesty, they were reluctant to take their wet shirts off until a nearby mom opened her coat flasher style to give them some privacy.

photos: jellyfish, Vicki Weisfeld; weedy sea dragon, Magda Ehlers for pexels