Em and Stu do America Part 1: Chicago

Spoiler alert: we did nothing literary, unless it counts that we visited two libraries in a frantic search for wifi. It was enough for our first leg to come to terms with raging jet lag, culture shock and inevitable but still alarming logistical problems.

Free wifi with a side serve of book-related inspiration at Chicago Public Library.

Free wifi with a side serve of book-related inspiration at Chicago Public Library.

We arrived at 8pm at our AirBnB wondering why the hell the sun was still brightly shining outside. We crept confusedly into the small supermarket opposite our AirBnB. We had just spent 18+ hours on planes and it felt as though the floor was rocking as we walked. We gazed around in terrified wonder, bought a roast chicken with cash, devoured half of it from the plastic tub back in the room, then slept like the dead for 13 hours straight.

The three-day visit was intended to contain things like architectural river cruises and well planned DIY walking tours as well as, obviously, deep dish pizza and hot dogs. Actually, who am I kidding? The priority was the food. And that’s lucky, because while we did locate fantastic food thanks to meticulous pre-planning, we spent the hours intended for tourism locked in libraries frantically phoning banks that mysteriously stopped our debit cards despite us having completed all the necessary steps pre-departure. They reinstated them several days later, after StuMo emailed them in ALL CAPS.

We had neglected another necessary step, though; forgot to give the USA mobile number to our banks before leaving, and being unable to call them and unable to receive that miracle of modern technology, SMS confirmation codes, left us in a panicky pickle.

Free wifi with a side serve of public art at Chicago's West End Public Library.

Free wifi with a side serve of public art at Chicago’s West End Public Library.

Thus, attempting to book what turned out to be outrageously complex public transport options to reach our next destination turned out to be a four-hour nightmare spent in Chicago’s West End public library. Eventually we gave up trying to buy online and I spent 40 minutes on the phone to Amtrak cowering in the library vestibule, wincing at the street sounds and trying not to shout confidential credit card numbers into the phone too loudly. As it was, the automated voice recognition software enthusiastically picked up the sound of all the much louder Americans also on their phones in the same five-foot-square space. If you’re wondering why we didn’t get an AirBnB with wifi, we had – it just turned out to be not-as-advertised.

We headed downtown for deep dish pizza in a state of nervous collapse but the deep dish fixed everything, though the shock of the burgeoning realisation that we are privileged young adults with no conception of what it is like to have to do anything without the help of delicious free flowing Data Coverage remains and will take some time to adjust to.

IT'S OK, WE HAVE PIZZA. The deep dish marvel at Gino's on La Salle.

IT’S OK, WE HAVE PIZZA. Deep dish heaven at Gino’s on La Salle.

While problems such as these reduced our time in Chicago and we didn’t manage any river cruises or get to properly plan our DIY walking tours, we still managed to get around, doing hours of walking around the city and river both to save cash and take in the sights as best we could while rationing our Google Maps and general staring at phones.

We were staggered by the scale and grandeur of the buildings in this city, the largest either of us has ever seen, and it was StuMo’s job to keep an eye on my dangling handbag and keep me crossing streets at the appropriate time as I goggled amazedly upwards, freely pointing at and photographing everything, blithely uncaring of the tourist spectacle I was making of myself.

Beside gazing at Chicago’s stunning architecture we obviously visited the magic Bean, sorry, the Cloud Gate public art piece that draws crowds every day, and explored the Millennium Park that surrounds it, down to the beautiful shoreline of Lake Michigan.

Cloud Gate at Millennium Park

Cloud Gate at Millennium Park

We were taken aback by First Contact with the aliens themselves, by which I mean the American people, who are not only “just like on TV”, as we whispered to each other, but somehow bigger and louder and madder and more colourful versions of the stereotypes we had assumed until now were only stereotypes. And not only that but kind, friendly and cheerful in a way I was completely unprepared for, despite having been warned. I don’t mean this to suggest that I had thought Americans would be unfriendly – I had just always thought of Australians as friendly when now, by comparison, they seem incredibly quiet, laid-back and self-conscious. In a line, at the gym, out walking, on the bus, on an elevator – anywhere you can think of that an Australian would keep their eyes on the floor and attempt to pretend they are actually alone in that space, an American will already be smiling and greeting you, if not actually having a conversation with you and trying either to find out your life history or tell you their own.

At Lou Malnati’s Italian restaurant in downtown Chicago, ‘Mike’ heard our Australian accents at the bar as we bought drinks while waiting for a table. He struck up a conversation while he waited for his ‘buddy’ to go and see a band, offered us his spare two tickets for said band, helped us work out the accepted way of tipping the bartender, warned us to order our deep dish while we were waiting and then told us which one to order. When we went to our table and his buddy arrived, he bought us drinks and sent them over.

Merchandise Mart, one of the largest buildings in the world.

Merchandise Mart, one of the largest buildings in the world.

As an Australian, behaviour such as this makes you only suspicious that you have been marooned with a Crazy Person and you frantically plot your escape. But the behaviour of everyone else we had already encountered had prepared us to believe that Mike was actually just a Really Nice Guy like absolutely everyone else. A quick ‘sorry’ to someone you bump in a crowd meets an ‘oh no, you are totally OK!’ Everyone you meet tells you to ‘have a great day’. Waitstaff you are scamming free sachets of mayonnaise off because you are a povo traveller say “oh no, I got ya.”

The highlight of our visit was undoubtedly returning to Millennium Park on Friday night, our last night, for the first headliner of the three-day Chicago Blues Fest, a free three-day concert that draws big names every year.

Nightfall at Millennium Park's main stage.

Nightfall at Millennium Park’s main stage.

We saw the sun go down over the park’s massive amphitheatre and city skyline to the sounds of Billy Branch & the Son of Blues with guests Lurrie Bell, Freddie Dixon, J.W. Williams, Carlos Johnson, Carl Weathersby, Bill McFarland and Chicago Fire Horns and Mae Koen & The Lights. Locals, meanwhile, treated us to impromptu dance performances that ranged from charming to breathtaking. If you have a spare four minutes check out the video at the end – it’s worth it.

Mum, plastic cups of Chardonnay come with lids on. Genius!

The final day we spent much of trying to locate currency exchanges as a safeguard against our stopped cards, ducking into the relative quiet of airconditioned supermarket aisles to escape the sheer cacophony of the streets outside as we spent more time wrangling with banks on the phone.

The blues fest continued to rage inside Millennium Park, audible across the city, competing with countless deafening conversations of passersby and the sounds of young shirtless men stretching the music festival into every street corner, banging out drum solos on upturned buckets with the kind of talent and showmanship you should really pay to see.

A must-do destination, gleaned from Gabriel Iglesias' stand-up, was Portillos' Cake Shake - yep, whole pieces of cake smashed into drink form. I can't believe I ate-drank the whole thing. Totally worth it.

A must-do destination, gleaned from Gabriel Iglesias’ stand-up, was Portillos’ Cake Shake – yep, whole pieces of cake smashed into drink form. I can’t believe I ate-drank the whole thing. Totally worth it.

Later we braved the most insane food-hall scene we have ever seen in the maelstrom of Portillo’s hot dog emporium – an utterly bewildering experience, but the best way ever to close off the night before heading to Union Station to catch the overnight Lake Shore Amtrak east.

As magnificent as the river and architecture were, it was the blues fest and these chance encounters more than anything else that made us feel like we at least managed to glimpse the soul of Chicago.

Postscript: Stu did want to draw more attention to the entertainment reference in this post title by calling it “Emvis and Buttstu do America” but I said no.

What we’re reading
Em: Walden, Henry David Thoreau (seemed appropriate); Closed Casket, the second of the new Hercule Poirot mysteries by Sophie Hannah; Radical Acceptance, Tara Brach.   
Stu: the first draft of Em’s novel (gah!) and The Red Queen, Isobelle Carmody.

What we’re listening to
Audiobook: The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith (aka JK Rowling)
Music: songs from the 1969 Woodstock Festival, because we’re soon to visit the site!

What we’re watching
Reruns of The Simpsons and Community, smuggled aboard by Stu.

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Amnesia: the ‘new’ Peter Carey book

Peter Carey’s easily one of my top five authors and on my fantasy dinner party list, so of course I leapt straight on to his new book. Well, I meant to.

Now that I’ve finally got round to it I realise that Amnesia was published in 2012, so shame on me. But it’s certainly not lost any of its potency during its patient wait for me on the shelves of the recently opened City of Perth Library (beautiful and well worth a visit).

Peter Carey's Amnesia

Disgraced political journalist Felix Moore, unemployed after a highly public defamation conviction, is commissioned by a shady but powerful ally to write a biography of – and thereby potentially gain public sympathy for – young Australian hacker Gaby Bailleux, whose parents he knew in their younger days.

She faces extradition to America for infiltrating prison systems there and at home and Moore is promised access to her in her hideout – but the access never eventuates. Moore, held by shadowy figures of the resistance movement in remote locations for his own ‘protection’, is forced into a dreamlike attempt to grasp his elusive subject, and pin her inner life to paper, through the infuriatingly scant and subjective secondary materials she sees fit to provide.

He writes her life story, each page whisked away for an editing process completely beyond his control. He is unable to separate her from the backdrop of the society into which she was born – one whose politics is forever troubled by its murky relationship with America, from Vietnam War-era machinations between the CIA and Australian government until the present.

It sounds complex, and it is. This plot is not for the faint-hearted, and I confess to a rather foggy understanding at times. It requires a focus beyond the level neede for your average page-turner or blog post; perhaps that’s why it’s taken me four years to read it.

But that’s not to say it’s boring. Its ambitious plot reflects a leap for Carey into a heady new direction for his style, in which he crafts a modern thriller that still bears the Carey hallmarks. His dialogue is immediate and unhampered by quotation marks, a feature of much of his writing, which adds to the sense of surreal displacement experienced by his narrator. It’s a part of his style that has been described as fabulism, in which a sense of the fantastic is blended with a realistically reported narrative. In fact, the whole book embodies this concept, in a sense – the story of the objective political reporter who suddenly finds himself flung down the rabbit hole.

Above all, the novel retains the sublime power of description I love Carey for, a power so great it really goes beyond description, in which words do not seem to go through your brain for translation into pictures and feelings, but instead seem to cut straight into your soul.

Amnesia, to be truthful, did not grab me by the heart and the imagination in quite the same unforgettable way his Oscar and Lucinda, or The True History of the Kelly Gang, did.

But it did reaffirm my belief that Carey is one of the world’s greatest living novelists. In it I could see the expertise that has built over the decades and appears to still be growing. A privilege to read.

 

The Curing of a Bibliomaniac Part 25: The Warriors (Sol Yurick, 1965)

Books left: 1. Weeks left: 3. (Hurrah! Only a little delirious.)

‘Well, now we move on like a war party, even though we wanted peace. Anyone could tell you we wanted peace. Well, now it’s too late for that.’ 

the warriorsThe bottle was finished. Bimbo flung it into the air toward where the trailer and the bitch skulked. It arched and shone high, but splintered short of the mark; the bitch and the Blazer bounced high over the fragments slivering along the sidewalk.
Now they moved out, swiftly, leader and brothers, all knowing exactly what to do, bonded into One. Muscle tightened, compressing body a little so that biceps bunched, and triceps tensed, fists balled, shoulder hunched, legs flexed, trunk tilting, every part taut to sense. 

It’s hot and the firecrackers are starting. It’s the Fourth of July and the gangs of New York are meeting for a convention led by Ismael, the city’s best-known gang leader.

A unprecedented truce has been called, so that all of the city’s hundreds of gangs can cross enemy turf. But when things go wrong, the Family – the Coney Island Dominators – are far from home and behind enemy lines.

The Warriors covers each hour of the whole, dangerous night it takes them to get back home.

The tension begins with the opening line and builds as the Family’s warriors complete the first leg of a long train journey, then having no choice but to put their faith in Ismael’s boys to lead them deep into unknown territory. There is a flash, a single moment, of hope for them and all the thousands of gang members assembled, a glimpse of a future of power and of unity – though it is but a glimpse, and devolves with lightning speed into chaos after a sickening moment of violence, an early climax that unlike other climaxes offers no subsequent relief, but more suspense as the warriors realise how far they are from safety.

The subject invites comparisons with other gang stories – the character-driven but hopeless charm of West Side Story; S. E. Hinton’s tragic but redemptive The Outsiders and Rumble Fish; Warren Miller’s 1959 gang novel The Cool World (again, yes, the one the movie was based on). Miller himself compares The Warriors to Lord of the Flies – in fact he says it is better.

Finally, of course, I was from the get-go comparing the book to its famous 1979 movie adaptation also titled The Warriors, though to be honest despite the movie’s cult reputation it never evoked any huge response from me – I barely remember it.

One thing I don’t remember was it being about evil. But this was evil. More evil than The Outsiders, whose soft hearts under their toughness make you love them. By the middle of this book the utter cold, shocking nastiness of the events unfolding was clenching my stomach. I began to see why Miller compared it to Lord of the Flies.

I read a lot of violent books, and I watch a lot of violent movies and TV shows, and I must say I do enjoy a good bloodletting. It’s usually tied to a genre, and follows a pattern. You know why it’s happening and usually it’s between a bad person and a good person. Eventually, usually, the goody wins.

This is different. It sure ain’t good clean fun like Jack Reacher or John McClane beating up a baddy. It’s not genre fiction. It gets under the skin of things and what’s under the skin is senseless, or at least, the sense it makes is unpalatable, depressing to contemplate. There is no nice clean line between good and evil. Yurik forces you into this uncomfortable, but inescapable space, so you find yourself disgusted at the warriors and at yourself for caring about them, but you can’t help it, because you have seen their minds and discovered that they are people.

Yurick uses the third-person omniscient to this effect, allowing you to know each boy he battles the hostilities of the night and also his other Family members. You see their interminable, wearying power struggles but also the comfort they find in being One, instead of no one. There is a pride in the Family they cannot otherwise access.

Those pins, they were the Family sign and they stood or fell with their signs, and it was the mark that a man belonged – they were one. To take them off was to be like any heartless slob coolie who wouldn’t take chances; without important affiliations. And so they must go along with the whole bit. It made them men.

Some of the boys remain impenetrable, but you see two particularly: Hector, who assumes the fatherhood of the gang when they are separated from Papa Arnold, and Hinton, the newest member, who stands always a little apart. It is his lonely, anguished soliloquy, stripped of masculinity, we eavesdrop on when he is separated from the others and forced to walk into the seemingly endless blackness of a railway tunnel, a memorable piece of writing.

Quick point of interest for fans: the story is inspired by the Greek classic work Anabasis, by Xenophon. Interestingly, Yurick says frankly in his introduction to this edition that The Warriors is not his best book. I get that. It was a fine book and well worth the reading, but I won’t keep it. It was certainly a better book than it was a movie, although doubtless the movie is more enjoyable. The movie is extremely watered-down in terms of violence – which is essentially what the whole book was about – and backs away from several other of the book’s central tenets, including turning an all-black gang into an improbably racially mixed one. Yurick, who after years of thought, experience and planning finally spat out this novel in an “intense” three-week writing binge that surely accounts for the headlong suspense of the reading experience, calls the movie “trashy, though beautifully filmed” and the dialogue painful and inauthentic, and said it deeply disappointed him.

After reading his book, I can see why. And yet, you cannot deny (and neither does he) The Warriors movie has endured in a way the simply has not. People want beauty. Perhaps they want a white gang leader. They don’t want horror and rape and violence. They want something a little nicer. Hell, while I was reading it, I wanted something a little nicer. You can’t blame people for that. But if you’re a fan of the film, do yourself a favour and check out the rawness, the reality of the original.

Keep or kill? I’ll pass this on for some Warriors film fan to come across in the op shop and get all excited, same way I did when I bought this. Feeling evilly smug at the shock they are going to get.

More on The Curing of a Bibliomaniac project here.

The Curing of a Bibliomaniac Part 19: On Beauty (Zadie Smith, 2005); a.k.a Books on a Plane.

Books left: 7. Weeks left: 11 (every little thing is gonna be all right). 

The greatest lie ever told about love is that it sets you free.

Airport fiction at its finest.

Airport fiction at its finest.

This book and I spent eight hours stuck at Sydney airport together and we’re still friends.

With the innocence of fools and babies, the Ministry and I got on a plane bound home to Perth at the end of a nice weekend away, with no aim more ambitious than watching a better movie than Annabelle, which we had watched on the outbound flight. But the plane needed refuelling, then it needed its tyre changed or something, then the computer that looks at the tyres blew up or something, so after an hour of sitting on the plane the staff apologetically chucked us all off again and told us to await more information. For the next eight hours.

So, we went and spent $70 on lunch, because by then I was a slavering, enraged beast, and quite a bit more money on espresso martinis and beer (respectively) and then they told us we could have a $16 voucher each to spend on food, but we had to wait in line for an hour for that, and by the time we got them we were full of food and vodka and beer, and not hungry any more, but by then I was damn well going to spend every cent of those vouchers, and went to a cafe where I bought $32 worth of hedgehog slices, flavoured bagels and bottled water, which I jealously squirreled into my hand luggage.

By the time the replacement flight finally left we were bleary and greasy and our fellow passengers, who had been shouting angrily and shaking their fists at airport staff two hours before, chattered animatedly as we waited for takeoff.

A cheer actually went up when the plane finally left the ground (and again when it was announced we’d get free booze to take the edge off our suffering. Perhaps judiciously, they were very slow about delivering the free booze, with the result that the Ministry and I spent about 12-13 hours hovering on the edge of drunkenness but never quite got there).

It was out first experience of the camaraderie of the shipwrecked traveller and through our exhaustion we rather enjoyed it.

032

Oh yes, the book.

Essentially I left our holiday destination, Mullumbimby, having just begun it, read it at Gold Coast airport, then throughout the flight to Sydney, then the stopover in Sydney, then the unanticipated stopover in Sydney.

When we finally got on our replacement plane it was entirely devoid of screens, so I kept reading until the bitter end. All in all I read this novel virtually uninterrupted for about 13 hours. I finished the epic binge-read three hours into the flight to Perth at about 11pm, with bleeding eyeballs, and I didn’t regret a thing.

Most particularly I was thankful for my eleventh-hour pre-holiday decision to bring this book and not Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Something tells me that the Salinger, despite being one-sixth of the size, would have lasted the whole 13 hours regardless and made me want to jump out of the plane.

I had this in my collection having once read Smith’s earlier novel White Teeth. Though I couldn’t for the life of me now tell you what White Teeth was even about I do recall it being very good, hence carrying this around for what was likely a decade.

On Beauty is a story about family, marriage and the betrayal of the bonds associated with both. Set amid the perversity and irritations of university communities, it is a fitting follow to The Wife Drought in its interrogation of what people sacrifice for the sake of their unions, and for their children, and of the horror that comes with awakening to the fact that perhaps no love is unique.

All I know is that loving you is what I did with my life. And I’m terrified by what’s happened to us. This wasn’t meant to happen to us. We’re not like other people.

The book is wise but it is also funny. Smith tells stories of people and their relationships but her sentences also stand alone, delightful in themselves. Some tasters for you:

Each couple is its own vaudeville act.


He leaned forward with the clumsy loom of the natural pet-hater and child-fearer, all the time clearly hoping for an intervention before he reached the dog.


Kiki laughed her lovely big laugh in the small store. People looked up from their specialty goods and smiled abstractedly, supporting the idea of pleasure even if they weren’t certain of the cause.


These people spend so much time demanding the status of adulthood from you – even when it isn’t in your power to bestow it – and then when the real shit hits the fan, when you need them to be adults, suddenly they’re children again.


She was a woman still controlled by the traumas of her girlhood. It made more sense to put her three-year-old self in the dock. As Dr Byford explained, she was really the victim of a vicious, peculiarly female psychological disorder: she felt one thing and did another. She was a stranger to herself.


“Anybody for a lift into town?” asked Howard.                                                                    “I’m happy to drop everybody where they need to go.”                                                    Two minutes later Howard rolled down the passenger window and beeped his horn at his three half-naked children walking down the hill.  All of them gave him the finger.


Honestly, this is just fantastic. Perfect for your mum’s book club. Perfect for yours. Do it. Hell, do it in a day. It’s possible. Just load up on martinis.

Note: the Minstry and I, having arrived home at midnight rather than at 4pm as planned, were too traumatized and jetlagged the next day to leave the house, so it’s lucky we had $32 worth of hedgehog slice, bagels and Cool Ridge.

Keep or kill? Kill, with goodwill. Another of those that you pass on because you know it’ll brighten someone else’s life. 

More on The Curing of a Bibliomaniac project here.