Frontline posts a 3-minute explainer of NFL payouts for CTE

The reporting in this video isn’t aggressive:  Jason Breslow lets the fans speak for themselves.

I just finished reading Steve Almond’s Against Football, which has only solidified how I feel about the NFL and the NCAA’s attitudes towards player safety (their lack of feeling, that is). Hopefully Frontline continues their reportage in this way–clear and direct. Even without appeals to pathos, the information is pretty damning.

In Search of Soft

These videos of the different ways in which yarn is made are mesmerizing. I’d love to see how some of the contemporary luxe yarn barnds of the US (or elsewhere) make their yarn.

 

How it’s Made – Cotton Yarn

How it’s Made – Wool

Rayon is a particularly comfortable fabric that unfortunately wrinkles very very easily and can also stretch out easily, so it’s not always the best fiber for all kinds of fabric. Occasionally, I’ve seen rayon knits, and some of these have a little bit more durability. I’m currently knitting a shrug made out of 60% cotton/40% rayon yarn that seems to have the best of both worlds–durability and softness–although cotton is also not the stretchiest fabric. The video below is pretty amazing; I had no idea the process was so complex.There’s also a short history of rayon here, although it doesn’t include nearly as much information about how it was discovered than I’d be interested in seeing.

How Rayon is Made (sound is not as good)

 

I might have to take a day off from work and watch a bunch of these videos.

What’s your favorite How it’s Made Video?

The Week in Books

I’ve never been much for short story anthologies, but this past month has proved an exception, mostly because I borrowed a ton of books from my friend Ben.

I finished Vampires in the Lemon Grove, an anthology of short stories by Swamplandia! author Karen Russell. I wasn’t that impressed by Swamplandia!, so it was very rewarding to read Karen Russell’s short stories. Always imaginative, the stories in Vampires range from the haunting, to the insightful, to the soulful, to the downright disturbing. Some of the stories definitely left me cold, like a story about the Frontier which is implied is populated by ghosts. Too much suspense, not enough pay-off.

I’m also reading The Islanders by Christopher Priest, a “travel gazetteer” that aims to catalog the many islands in the Dream Archipelago, a continent of islands that even the book seems to pose is magical. There’s a short “chapter” describing each island, but although many of them include features of the geography and culture of the islands, many are also first-person narratives. Eventually (I’m up to page 140), the stories begin to interconnect, and stories that were told before are expanded and seen in a different light with more context (that seems almost like a mixed metaphor). But even the stories that don’t necessarily interconnect are at times interesting, moving, or hilarious–I especially liked an early description of a beautiful island filled with poisonous bugs: the industries that operate there say that the bugs are now gone, but you’ve still got to have incredibly good insurance if you want to work there.

Ben also lent me At the Mouth of the River of Bees by Kij Johnson. One story in, it seems very similar to Vampires: blending a little bit of magical realism with poignant human stories.

There’s a reason why I’m cycling through all of these at the same time. Short stories, especially these, tend to be a lot more intense than others, and I not only need, but want a little bit of time to digest the stories. That’s not true of all short story collections–with Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth, for example (one of my favorite books, period), I immediately wanted to read more and more and more of her prose. Another example is Lucky Girls by Nell Freudenberger, where I am so luke-warm on the stories that I want to take a pause just because the story itself was underwhelming. (I just remembered that I’m also about halfway through that book).

Also, I’ll eventually return to The Savage Detectivesby Roberto Bolaño, but it’s just as meandering as 2666 without, in my opinion, characters or themes that are as interesting. I’m just not that interested in self-important poets. I also hope to finish Shadow Country at some point in my life, although it’s just as epically long as 2666.

Hopefully, I’ll get through all of the books I’ve borrowed from Ben  before I’m tempted to buy books at the airport.

On the Needles for Fall 2014

knitting plans

 

These are the knitting projects I’m hoping to finish up within the next couple of months. Clockwise from the top:

1. Learn to Knit Hat & Hand Warmers by Purl Bee, with Knit Picks Wool of the Andes in Thirst Heather.

2. The Boyfriend Hat by Purl Bee, one for Matt with Knit Picks City Tweed DK in Desert Sage, and another for myself with the yarn held double (as the project calls for)–with Knit Picks Comfy Fingering in Ivory & Sea Foam.

3. Honey Shrug by Quince & Co, with Knit Picks Shine (LOVE this yarn) in French Blue.

I only just realized typing this up that I’m only using Knit Picks yarn for all of these patterns. I bought the Shine just to test it out, and happened to have it with me when I visited El Paso during vacation–it’s amazing. It’s got excellent drape, and is soft without being too fluffy. The yarn does have a tendency to split just a tiny bit, but that’s in part because my needles are a bit sharp.

I’m also hoping to knit some hand-warmers for a friend if I’ve got any leftover of the Thirst, but I doubt that I will. (In which case–I’ll jut buy more yarn!) Additionally, I’m keeping an eye out for a nice cashmere to knit a shawl for Matt’s mom–hopefully I’ll be able to finish that before I visit for Thanksgiving.

 

The July Reading List

Rasing Expectations (and Raising Hell): My Decade Fighting for the Labor Movement, Jane McAlevey
I listened to an interview with Jane McAlevey on WNYC and was stirred to read her book. Although I feel like I support unions in theory, I know next to nothing abou them in practice. So far, I’m about halfway through this book and have learned so much–not just about how unions are treated under the law, but also how they can operate internally, how they can be structured, and how they can be used in a real way to influence politics.

Shadow Country, Peter Matthiessen
As I’ve remarked in far too many social situations lately, I bought this book because I picked it up from a friend’s shelf and fell in love with the typesetting and paper-feel.

Post-Office Girl, Stefan Zweig
I’ve got a real weakness for the NYRB’s classics collection–they’re always so beautifully bound & designed. But, more than that, I’m astounded at their breadth–I consider myself to be really well-read, but I haven’t heard of more than half on the authors whose books are printed as part of the NYRB Classics line. The Post-Office Girl is one of those books. I first saw it when one of my goodreads friends read it and rated it five stars, and then was basically salivating for it when I saw that Grand Budapest Hotel is based on the works of Zweig.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, David Mitchell
At a housewarming party I went to recently, the hosts devised a cute way to get people involved & get rid of some of their old stuff: they handed out tickets for jokes or other amusing behavior, and those tickets could be redeemed for goods such as: an old game of Life (5 tickets), a semi-functional GameCube controller (10 tickets), and a book recommendation & loan (20 tickets). So that’s how I got me a David Mitchell book. Hopefully I’ll read these and more during the month! And hopefully I’ll also get my act together to review them.

 

Broad Comedy

Originally posted on chicagotheatre.com, where you can find my other reviews.

It’s lucky that the titular characters of 5 Lesbians Eating Quiche aren’t just in the closet when someone drops an atom-bomb on them: they’re also in a makeshift fallout shelter.

The bombastic, exuberant, over-the-top play invites us (literally—audience members are handed name tags upon entering the theatre) to the annual brunch of the Susan B. Anthony Society for the Friends of Gertrude Stein, a society whose motto is “No men, no meat, no manners,” whose members are wholly composed of their city’s closeted lesbians, and whose only desire seems to be to judge among the members’ many quiches in order to choose the best.

Before the quiche is judged and the bomb dropped, we’re introduced not only to the play’s protagonists, the five society officers who lead the brunch, but also to some of their conflicts, tensions, and desires: mostly through jokes, delivered with impeccable comedic timing by the cast.

Vern (played by Thea Luxe as a subtly recognizably butch, even with her seersucker skirt on), is miffed with the awkward, shy Ginny (Caitlin Chukta) for not walking with her to the meeting. The loud, blonde Wren (Megan Johns), whose theatric cheerfulness seems to stem entirely from quiche-happiness, seems equally besotted with the camera-toting Dale (Kate Carson Groner), who is in turn really, really happy when she finds a photo of the society’s founder chopping down a log. Their head officer and mother-hen is Lulie, played convincingly by Rachel Farmer as if the role called for a gruff army general, even while in creamy-peach heels. One thing is definitely clear by the play’s midpoint: these women really, really love to eat quiche, and they’re not always talking about a buttery egg dish.

The play is carried along briskly by its rat-a-tat comedic pacing, but its attempts at heart fall a bit flat. I would care a lot more about the women, or their relationships, or even their quiche, if we knew anything about what they had to endure by hiding their sexuality. “I’m not a widow,” proclaims Vern at one point, “I’ve never even been married.” If they’ve never been married, have they always known about their sexuality? Have they ever acted on it? Some confessions at the end of the play hint at tension, but go no further. Although the play, set in the 1950s, has an air of exuberant liberation, it isn’t interested in illustrating the repression and shame that closeted lesbians must have felt at the time, or the ways that they might have acted on their feelings.

On some level,  stories on stage are supposed to be cathartic: the characters on stage are just far enough away for their troubles cannot conquer us, and just close enough that their triumphs can be ours. But although the egg-centric utopia that 5 Lesbians posits looks like a great getaway, the play never lets us see enough of the repression or stigma the women might have faced for us to really feel what the five women might have been escaping from.

5 Lesbians Eating Quiche wants to have its quiche and eat it, too: it wants to have one foot firmly in the present, which is at least more lesbian-friendly than the past, and one foot treading cautiously into the past, wearing a high heel and trying to stay away from men.

With a very brisk runtime of 60 minutes 5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche is a really good time—there’s running jokes, mild audience participation, and a gut-busting confession by one of the ladies in the second half that boasts several different voices. It is a funny, often hilarious celebration of women that doesn’t want to delve too deeply into the past (or present) repression of women or lesbians. It mostly just wants to make a lot of euphemistic jokes about eating quiche.

Favorite Books of 2013

Four months into 2014, I want to write about my favorite books of last year. Some of these books are the latest from some of my favorite authors, like Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowlands, and Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84. Others are books about which there was enough hype that I had to figure out what the fuss was about, like Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad.

Some books were accidental revelations–I read Bolaño’s 2666 in part because it was notoriously difficult, but got swallowed up by its prose and ambitious storytelling. Skippy Dies was endorsed at the end of a Culture Gabfest podcast, but unlike many of the books endorsed, I went further than just writing it down in an exponentially growing want-to-read list, and actually bought it and read it. Freedom and The Luminaries were among the best-reviewed of the year, and I gave in to reading each of them in part because of that.

The Luminaries was the 2013 winner of the Man Booker prize, but I think it got an extra boost in publicity because the gender, age, and nationality of Eleanor Catton, a young New Zealand author, were somehow a surprise. And yet, I think my list shows that, for me at least, the muses of good literature do not discriminate–my list has authors young and old, men and women, American, Scottish, Japanese, Chilean.

The only non-fiction book in the top five is Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, which I read as part of a non-fiction memoir writing class late last year. This isn’t because I don’t like nonfiction–in fact, it’s become one of my favorite genres–it’s just that it’s that much more difficult to find good non-fiction books. You’ve got to like the subject matter, the writing style, the pacing, and you’ve also got to like and believe in the author; their efforts can’t be transparent. I hope to find more non-fiction books like that in 2014.

THE TOP FIVE 

2666Roberto Bolaño

2666  features, at least in part, a group of  four literary critics, with cosmopolitanly diverse European nationalities–French, Spanish, Italian, and a lone English female, are obsessed with German writer Benno von Archimboldi. Except, is he really German? Some critics muse that “Archimboldi” sounds almost Italian. Other mysteries about the author eventually convince the critics (in the original Spanish-language version, that’s how Bolaño refers to them: “los criticos”) to go on a search for the mysterious author. With and without them, the rest of the narrative takes us to Mexico, where the critics believe von Archimboldi might have gone.

The third section of the lengthy novel takes place in the fictional Santa Teresa, a place that maps closely to the existing city of Juarez. A beautiful, sophisticated, diverse city, Santa Teresa has lately been plagued by the murders of many women. The novel is concerned with the murders, it catalogues and describes the bodies, the state in which they are found, and how they were dressed. It’s repetitive, gory, heartbreaking, and strangely lulling. The way that the discoveries are portrayed–each one is one of many, yet each one has particular details, feels very human. Sometimes, the narrative is diverted enough to give us some biographical details about the dead, where they were going when they were captured, and their family.

2666 is messy but tight, it’s sprawling but self-contained. This book will haunt your dreams. It’ll chase you down and eat you up. It’ll kick you apart, kick you apart. 2666 takes place everywhere and no-where, always and never. The primary themes of the novel are violence and chance, mystery and coincidence. Although the thoughtless, senseless destruction of people in much of the book sends a chill down my spine in the way that it rings true, the book also convinces you about the global nature of humanity, and life: we’re all in this together, and we’re more connected than we think we are, and maybe more connected than we think we are.

What it Reminds Me Of: Infinite JestWhite Noise

The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton

The Luminaries is set in a prospector’s town in New Zealand, a town so new that the landscape still seems to be mostly mud, ramshackle wooden houses, and opium-supplying pharmacists.

With one of the novel’s protagonists, the hapless, pointless, and slightly clueless Walter Moody, we stumble into a meeting of 12 men determined to get to the bottom of a series of mysteries. At that point, the men launch  into stories that are connected to each other, and although the mystery isn’t solved when they’re all done, they come to the consensus that everything that’s happened to them is related. The first few chapters of the novel are so involved, with so many intersecting storylines, that I drew up a diagram to see if I could keep all of their connections straight.

Eventually, though, each of the characters involved in the mystery becomes so human that the story isn’t that difficult to keep in your head. Once the stories of each of the 12 men in the room are told, the men band together to solve that which is still mysterious: where did the bullet go, who killed a whore’s baby, and who is conspiring with whom.

The world that Catton creates is bold and post-modern in a way that’s different from Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, or Delillo. It is aggressively witty and yet unapologetically unironic. It’s about love and coincidence, revenge and vendettas; and what the stars can tell you about the people under them. The only cynicism in it is the cynicism of some of its characters. The Luminaries invites you to believe in fortune-telling, magic, and good people who do bad things when they’re misinformed.

An unexpected winner of 2013’s Man Booker prize (because she’s female, I guess? ugh, the world sometimes), The Luminaries shows that literature can still have surprises in tone–there’s something in between campy and genuine about Catton’s storytelling here, and the ‘twist’ at the end is surprising in its simplicity.

What it Reminds Me Of: 100 Years of Solitude, anything by Jorge Luis Borges

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt

Much like The Secret History, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch [believes] strongly that ancient magic and art can exert real power, uplifting or destructive, over the lives of its devoted disciples. In this case, the novel’s protagonist is hopeless in the thrall of a three-hundred-year old painting that, once he takes it after a terrorist attack that kills his mother, shapes the course of the rest of his life. It’s not just the theft of the painting that affects Theodore–it’s the way in which it represents, for him, the possibility of meaning and beauty in a world that often seems like mostly shit and disappointment.

The world of The Goldfinch often seems to have an excess of rarified air–I’m not sure I know many thieves of centuries-old art or antiques dealers–but it’s air that still gets mixed up with the smog of busses, broken vehicles, and the warm heat of Las Vegas. Tartt mixes the sublime with the mundane in a way that makes you believe, really and truly, with an ache in your heart, that there are beautiful, ancient things that matter,  that are worth preserving, that are life itself. And yet, as grandiose as Theodore Decker’s life gets after he steals The Goldfinch, there’s enough raw humanity in the novel that there isn’t a page in which you don’t yearn, helplessly, that his mother had never died at all.

What it Reminds Me Of: Getting Kicked in the Stomach by a Van Gogh, repeatedly

Skippy Dies, Paul Murray

The boys’ boarding school at the center of Skippy Dies earned the novel the nickname of a “Scottish Harry Potter,” but Skippy and his friends seem more like the freshman dweebs in Freaks & Geeks. They’re dweeby, runty, nerds–and they’re not even that good at school (except for Rupert, their overweight friend. So, basically, they’re real boys, budding adolescents; all Skippy wants is for the bigger kids to stop picking on him, for his parents to give him a call every once in awhile, and to maybe get a pretty girl to dance with him. Their observations and naivete are at once hilarious and heartbreaking as presented by the narrator’s insightful and often biting wit.

What it Reminds Me Of: London Fields (although I never finished it), Looking for Alaska

WildCheryl Strayed

When Vicky and I read this for our Memoir Writing class, we love it so much that it inspired us to go hiking “as soon as the weather got better.” What’s followed is the longest winter Chicago or the world has ever seen. (That’s the way it feels, at least.)

Although the memoir is ostensibly about Cheryl Strayed’s month-long hiking trip along the Sierra Crest Trail, it’s also about grief, addiction, family, love, and coming to terms with who you are. With so much time alone and in the wilderness, Cheryl is forced to reflect on her choices and to accept responsibility for some–though not all–of the bad things that have happened to her.

Wild is enough to kindle anyone’s wanderlust, but there’s a lot more to Cheryl’s, awakening than nature. She awakens to herself – she accepts the parts of herself that she can’t change, and determines to abandon the more destructive forces in herself–or at least, to harness those powers for mostly-good.

What makes my skin tingle about the novel is not just that Cheryl is open to traveling, alone, stinky, in difficult nature, but that she’s also very open–to the people she meets, to almost every experience that opens up to her. Sometimes, this isn’t great–she sleeps with men a little too easily and sometimes regrets it, she falls off the wagon and back into her heroin addiction along the road. I wish that I could be so open, even though it’s dangerous. That’s exactly the terrain that Wild is a guide to–when being open can be dangerous, and when it can be great.

What it Reminds Me Of: Nothing, actually. Maybe a more humble, guile-less Joan Didion. 

 

Favorite Movies, Part I

I like to think that my taste in movies is really good, but the truth is that my favorite movies span all genres, all brows (from high to low), all languages. Below is a list of movies that aren’t just among my favorites, but that I consider to be somehow essential; they have contributed to my sense of self and how I view the world at large. (Mild spoilers.)

Talk to Her
Directed by Almodovar in 2002, this movie differs a bit in tone from his previous works. Talk to Her, like his other movies, is still a celebration of women–but the contemplative, ponderous pace is a bit less diverted by slapstick and sex. Whereas most of Almodovar’s other films are led, and largely populated, by women, Talk to Her follows the strong, sad-eyed Marco, a journalist who starts dating a bull fighter, Lydia. When an encounter with a bull lands Lydia in a coma, Marco befriends Benigno, a nurse at the hospital where Lydia goes to stay long-term.

Benigno, like Marco, is a long-term caregiver for another woman in a coma, Alicia. The title of the movie comes from Benigno’s encouragement to Marco, talk to her. The plot grows a bit more complex from that point, but not by much. The film is a lot more concerned with meditations about life, womanhood, love, and reality, but it touches all of these with a deft, even light, hand.

One of my favorite scenes (aside from the mesmerizing open–an excerpt of Pina Bausch’s Cafe Mueller) is one in which Alicia’s former ballet teacher describes for Marco and Benigno a new ballet she’s thought of, Trenches. In halting, American English-accented-spanish, she talks about ballerinas, clad in gossamer-thin dresses, rising from the bodies of the fallen soldiers of World War II. What was solid becomes smoke, what was darkness, light.

The film is warm, thoughtful, and beautiful–but not quite as dry as I’m afraid I’ve made it seem. The ballet teacher herself is a bit of a picaresque creature. The cinematography, editing, and score are also mezmerizing–another favorite scene is the one in which we see Lydia, the matador, getting dressed before the bullfight.

With Talk to Her, Almodóvar seems to begin playing with genre a bit more. Whereas his earlier films are very much focused on performance, strong women dealing with weak, abusive, or oblivious men, his films after Talk to Her are expanded abit into other genres–the semi-autobiographical Bad Education, the body-horror thriller The Skin I Live In, The Ghost Story Volver, and the recent Airplane-inspired I’m So Excited.

2046
2046 is one of my favorite movies because it makes me hurt so good. Part of this is because Tony Leung and Zhang-Shiyi perfectly inhabit their characters, but it is also because Wong Kar-wai really takes his time with each moment and with every single feeling these characters have and try to hide from whan another. All of the characters feel fresh, and, although the movie is much less about plot than it is about feeling, each character’s motivations are clear and believable. Like Talk to Her, the movie is beautifully shot and scored, although it has a much looser relationship with the constraints of time and space.

Exit through the Gift Shop
I’ve seen a few people ask whether the movie was “A Hoax,” but that’s an obtuse question. It assumes that there was really only one level on which the movie was operating, telling you all about Thierry and what a wacky guy he was. Well, not only do I think Thierry is a real person (although, IMO, not a ‘real’ ‘artist’), but I think that the question is largely beside the point. Without having to say anything explicitly about the aims of art in general or grafitti in particular, Banksy shows us that his work, with real texture, real questions, and real challenges to society, has more substance, punch, and taste than anything created by “Mr. Brainwash.”

The Maltese Falcon
As much as I love Cumberbatch et al, I’m not sure if our generation yet given us a Humphrey Bogart. He’s the only reason why I would watch Casablanca more than once. The plot of the film itself is captivating–I can never just watch one scene, I’m always hooked to the end. One of the winning strengths of The Maltese Falcon is that you’re always sort of guessing about Sam Spade’s motives–is he a good guy? Bad guy? Does he want to get to the end of things, or does he want to profit?

The March Reading List

After a long post-Christmas reading lull, I’m back on the horse and back to reading more books. This year, I’ve signed up for the 50 books challenge again, although last year I was about five books short (not counting audiobooks).

Recently Purchased Books

Wool, Hugh Howey 

So far, I’m fairly disappointed by this self-published dystopian novel. I love the world, I love the characters, but the pacing is a bit off. Things happen fairly slowly, and I think it’s a bit under-populated. I paid full price for it a B&N, though, so I’m going to effin’ finish it.

The New Kings of Non-Fiction, various authors (edited by Ira Glass)
I’m almost done with this! It’s been amazing! I’ve learned so much, and thought so much, and been charmed so much by so many of the stories. Not only are these great narratives, but they’re also top examples of smart, incisive, insightful journalism. I might write another post about my favorite pieces.

Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, Tim Weiner
A big fat book on the CIA, mostly a take-down, which promises that it’s based entirely on primary sources and on-record interviews.

The Pale King, David Foster Wallace
:’( I’ve resisted picking up this book because it won’t be finished. But DFW is DFW. He’s even got an amazing story in the anthology above.

The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach
Basically, I’m interested because it was on a lot of top lists last year, and because the back flap calls it both “affecting” and “captivating.” I had to ask Matt what a shortstop was, but other than that, I’m game.

Shadow Country, Peter Matthiessen
I bought this book after picking it up at Vlada’s place—Ben is apparently a voracious reader who shares my taste—on his bookshelf, I saw David Foster Wallace, David Mitchell, Haruki Murakami, and Umberto Eco. Here’s hoping he’ll get a Goodreads account so that I can continue to pick his brain.

Borrowed, Recently Abandoned

&otherwise on the short list

Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Beautiful Ruins, Jess Walter (grabbed this from the staff lounge)
Dear Life, Alice Munro (ditto)
Telegraph Avenue, Michael Chabon
I bought this book over Christmas break and haven’t read it mostly because it had a nasty encounter with my water bottle. I still might read you, book. Pretty sad considering I mostly bought it in print because I thought the typography was pretty.

Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood
I think this is one of the best-reviewed of Atwood’s books on Goodreads, so I have hopes it’ll be entertaining. I really like Margaret Atwood, but this book seems very different than some of her other books (mostly dystopian novels, Handmade’s TaleOryx & Crake). I can’t wait to read MaddAddam, though. And also this was free via Vicky.

The Metaphysical Touch, Sylvia Brownigg
“This is a perfect Vicky book because it’s all about love on the internet and stuff,” said Vicky. Fair enough. And thanks for the free books, Vicky.