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

American Writers Museum: Chicago

book coversOn the lookout for something new and interesting to do in Chicago? Try the American Writers Museum, the first U.S. museum devoted to authors. If you are a writer, you may find it’s a tangible uplift. It both celebrates American writers and shows their pervasive influence on “our history, our identity, and our daily lives.”

The museum is huge in heart, if not in size, and, unless you’re one of those people who must read every word of every exhibit (in which case you’d better set aside a day or two), you can probably explore it in under two hours. Although it doesn’t claim to be exhaustive, the museum nevertheless includes authors and works from throughout the nation’s literary history—poetry, song lyrics, speeches, drama, fiction, nonfiction, journalism,and more. The displays are well designed and captivating.

So many iconic American writers are associated with Chicago—from Studs Terkel to Nelson Algren to Gwendolyn Brooks, from Carl Sandburg to Sandra Cisneros—it’s fitting that there’s currently a special exhibition on the talent nurtured there, complemented by an exhibit of photographs by Art Shay of writers at work (and play).

When I visited, a school group was there, and it was amusing to hear the teacher explain the operation of a typewriter. “There’s this ribbon thing, see, and there’s ink on it . . . And then when that bell rings, you move the carriage back.” Numerous hands-on exhibits let museum-goers experiment and play with words. Poetry construction. Where words come from. Where writers come from.

You can vote for your favorite novel. To Kill a Mockingbird leads the list, followed by The Great Gatsby and The Grapes of Wrath. My guess is the “voters” feel less confident about 21st century books and fall back on what they studied in school. That process needs an infusion of more recent stellar work. I’d like to see Jennifer Egan’s Black Box there. Kids could relate to a novel in tweets.

The museum isn’t just about the already-written, though. It also has an extensive educational program, including the Write In Youth Education program for students in middle and high school. And series of panels gave good advice about craft and process for writers of any age.

The AWM, which opened only nine months ago, has been chosen in a USA Today Reader’s Choice poll as “Best Illinois Attraction” and by Fodor’s Travel as one of “the World’s 10 Best New Museums.” Find it at 180 N. Michigan Avenue, Second Floor, Chicago, IL 60601.

****The Nix


photo: Pedro Lozano, creative commons license

By Nathan Hill, narrated by Ari Fliakos – A lot happens in the early pages of this multilayered novel set in the American Midwest: a woman throws a few bits of gravel at a right-wing presidential candidate; adepts play a round of the immersive multi-role-player game World of Elfscape; and untenured college professor Samuel Andreson Anderson debates how to handle plagiarizing student Laura Pottsdam.

Then the pieces start to fit. The professor is one of the gamers, indulging in his e-addiction when he should be doing something productive, like working on the book he’s contracted to write, and for which he received a healthy advance. Another piece clicks into place when Samuel meets with his impatient publisher, who reveals the gravel-thrower was his mother Faye, who abandoned her son when he was 11. If he will only write Faye’s biography—how she came to be such a dangerous radical terrorist—all will be forgiven, and he won’t have to return the advance, long-since spent.

The problem is, he knows nothing about his mother. Once he starts asking questions, though, he realizes how badly he wants some answers. At first the clues are scant. The novel spends time on Samuel’s childhood and the Norwegian legends his immigrant grandfather and mother passed on to him. The one that gave the book its title is the household spirit—the Nix—whose mission is to foil a person’s plans. The lesson of the Nix is: “Don’t trust things that are too good to be true.” Once a Nix latches onto you, it never leaves. “A person can be a Nix to another person,” his mother explains, and pretty much everyone in this book has Nixes to contend with. That includes Samuel’s best childhood friends, Bishop and his twin sister, the violin prodigy Bethany.

Samuel learns that his mother was briefly a student in Chicago in 1968, as the radicals and the Establishment prepared for the Democratic convention. For a while, his mother’s story takes over the narrative, and though her students days were short, they were filled with incident and the outsize personalities of the counterculture and its foes. Faye had a Nix too.

Jason Sheehan for NPR said the lives of both Samuel and Faye were filled with “the small mistakes that become a life’s great tragedies,” or you could just say their Nixes keep getting in the way.

With its sly and at time hilarious commentary on American culture of the Sixties and today, The Nix was chosen by numerous publications as a Notable Book of 2016. Though the book is hard to describe without becoming entangled in its richly conceived plot, it’s author Hill’s writing—“looping, run-on, wildly digressive pages,” Sheehan says—and the on-point humor that pull you in. An early scene in which the plagiarist student Laura explains why she shouldn’t be penalized for her poor performance is a LOL model of self-absorption and self-justification.

Narrator Ari Fliakos does a fine job inhabiting the characters—not just the principals, but also the entitled Laura, the self-satisfied Chicago protestors, the insufferable publisher, and the World of Elfscape-obsessed Pwnage (pronounced Pone-aj). At almost 22 hours, it is rather a long book for listening, yet I enjoyed it a lot.

The Big Sick

The Big Sick, Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan  The Big Sick is loosely based on the real-life romance between comedian Kumail Nanjiani and his wife, Emily V. Gordon, who together wrote the script. Directed by Princeton native Michael Showalter (trailer), it puts fresh juice into the romcom genre.

Kumail’s family moved from Pakistan to the Chicago area when he was a child, in part to give him a better life. What they gave him was an American life. While his parents (played by Zenobia Shroff and Anupam Kher) expect religious devotion,  marriage to a Pakistani girl, and a professional career, he’s become perhaps too assimilated—secular, uninterested in an arranged marriage with any of the beautiful but traditional young women his mother parades before him, and a part-time Uber driver focused on developing his skills as a stand-up comic. At the downscale comedy club where he works he meets graduate student Emily (Zoe Kazan), and the two of them hit it off. Really well.

Ultimately, though, if he marries a woman who’s not Pakistani, he knows his family will disown him. When Emily at length senses the problem, she asks, “Can you envision a future where the two of us are together?” He can’t say it, but he shakes his head, and she breaks off the relationship.

Kumail finds out Emily has developed a mysterious illness and is hospitalized with cascading medical complications. He goes to visit her and ends up signing papers allowing the doctors to put her in a medically induced coma. Now he’s responsible, and he cannot leave her bedside. Her frantic parents (played to perfection by Ray Romano and Holly Hunter) arrive from North Carolina. Aware of the unhappy break-up, they are not very friendly, and now Kumail must deal with them too. And his wobbly career.

Nanjiani does a terrific job as himself (much harder than it might seem). He occasionally reminds me of Bill Murray, in the way he has of being acutely observant and still, as if thinking, “Ok, I’m smiling, but would somebody please tell me what the hell’s going on here?!!?”

The acting all around is warm-hearted and true. Particularly enjoyable are the other comics (Bo Burnham, Aidy Bryant, and Kurt Braunohler) jabbing each other mercilessly. They’re all experienced, well-regarded comedians IRL, and kudos to Braunohler for taking the role of a somewhat dim guy who the others decide is really not that funny.

It’s sweet, you’ll laugh, and it has a rewarding core of truth.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 97%; Audiences: 92%.

***Jump Cut

boy, desert

(photo: Claus Rebler, creative commons license)

By Libby Fischer Hellmann – In Jump Cut, Chicago-based thriller author Hellmann brings her outspoken heroine Ellie Foreman back for another exciting adventure after a 10-year hiatus. In the new book, video producer Foreman and her team have been hired to produce a series of puff pieces about ginormous Delcroft Aviation.

Her project is going well until a client meeting to review a rough cut, when a Delcroft executive unexpectedly tears into the video, the project, and Ellie herself. Given the vehemence of this reaction, the suits around the table have no choice but to postpone further work, and in short order they cancel Ellie’s contract altogether.

Ellie struggles to figure out what caused her to lose her client and fixes on a stranger who appears in the background of the video. She’d conversed with him, finding him oddly curious about her project, and they’d exchanged business cards. In the hope he can help her understand what went wrong, he agrees to meet her, but just before their rendezvous, he is killed. Suicide, the authorities say. Ellie suspects otherwise, especially when she realizes she possesses a flash drive containing significant clues. But various people want it back and aren’t picky about how they get it.

With its up-to-the-minute subject matter involving sophisticated surveillance, secret drone projects, quasi-political assassination, and international intrigue, Jump Cut is a timely, fast-paced read. The plot relies on a couple of shaky coincidences, especially finding the flash drive in the first place. And it includes the typical device of not spilling to the authorities when every bone of the reader’s body is screaming “Tell them! Now!”

Ellie’s close and believable relationships with boyfriend Luke, daughter Rachel, and dad Jake provide a warm counterpoint to the terrifying situation in which she finds herself. Hellmann writes in a breezy, easy-to-read style, but ultimately, the writing style is a jarring contrast to the book’s bleak take on the modern zeitgeist, in which the killing of innocent people is seen “as not just an acceptable but an inevitable part of war. Collateral damage.” That point is underscored a bit heavily by a prologue that recounts the death of a nine-year-old boy in a dusty desert on the far side of the world. We don’t hear another word about him until the epilogue, as a mother laments the loss of her children. Not until then do we know who he and his sister were and what their deaths have been: collateral damage.

A longer version of this review appeared on

Chicago Theater Treat

Sherlock Holmes

Michael Aaron Lindner (as Arthur Conan Doyle) and Nick Sandys (as Sherlock Holmes) contemplating “A Three-Pipe Problem”

Hey there, Chicago-land readers and visitors: For a fun time, see The Man Who Murdered Sherlock Holmes, a lively musical on stage at the Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport Avenue, through March 20. The book is by popular Chicago theater stalwart John Reeger, with music and lyrics by Michael Mahler and the late Julie Shannon. Plot, acting, musical numbers, and singing voices—all super!

The story has two main strands (sorry, Sherlockians!). The first deals with the outraged aftermath when Arthur Conan Doyle published “The Final Problem,” a short story in which Sherlock Holmes and his nemesis Professor James Moriarty are said to die in a plunge over Switzerland’s Reichenbach Falls. Doyle was sick of Holmes and wanted to write something else, but The Great Detective’s fans were furious.

The second thread, also drawn from real life, covers Doyle’s own efforts at crime-solving in the case of solicitor George Edalji. Edalji was the son of an Indian vicar and Scottish mother, none of whom were well accepted in their small Staffordshire village of Great Wyrley. George was falsely accused of harming a number of horses and served three years’ hard labor before Doyle’s and others’ campaign led to his pardon.

If Edalji’s story sounds familiar, it was explored in the 2005 novel, Arthur and George by British author Julian Barnes (shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize), and a UK television series last year. The Mercury theater production differs from the television version in that it brings in Sherlock Holmes himself, channeled by Doyle, and proposes a different solution.

The entire 13-member cast was strong, especially singling out Nick Sandys (Sherlock Holmes), Michael Aaron Lindner (Doyle), McKinley Carter (Louise Doyle), and Christina Hall (Molly Jamison). Sandys and Lindner even physically resemble the characters they play! Having a live five-piece orchestra added immensely to the enjoyment. Energetic and well staged by director Warner Crocker.

Glass, Steel, Concrete . . . Just add Water!

Chicago Skyline

Chicago Skyline (photo: Vicki Weisfeld)

From the water is a great way to view a city skyline, and a recent trip included stunning water vistas of both Chicago and Pittsburgh. Chicago, especially, is known for its architectural gems, and a well regarded architectural tour of them, cruising along the Chicago River, conducted by the Chicago Architecture Foundation. The tours start at the First Lady dock, on the southeast corner of the Michigan Avenue Bridge at Wacker Drive (112 E. Wacker Drive).

More touristy speedboat tours leaving Navy Pier also profess to cover the architecture along the river and from Lake Michigan. The photo above was taken on a cloudy summer evening from a private boat out of the Chicago Yacht Club. Even several miles out, the buildings displayed their individual character along the lakefront.

Pittsburgh bridges

Pittsburgh parade of bridges (photo: Vicki Weisfeld)

In 1958 a prescient businessman started a tour boat business in Pittsburgh, well before the city’s remarkable clean-up. A less likely tourist attraction would be hard to imagine. But the lure of seeing the city by water was an immediate success, and today the Gateway Clipper operation operates numerous boats and themed tours (many for kids) from its dock on the Monongahela River.

The basic tour takes passengers past Point State Park, where the Mon joins with the Allegheny River to form the Ohio River. From here you can travel down the Ohio to the Mississippi, all the way to New Orleans, the Gulf of Mexico, and the world. On the Allegheny, the tour passes under many historic bridges and past Heinz Field and PNC Park, where the Steelers and Pirates play, respectively. Pittsburgh’s legacy as home to many of America’s largest corporations is amply evident in its impressive and diverse architecture.

Pittsburgh, Three Rivers, skyline

Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers, (photo: wikipedia)