Tuesday, October 04, 2005


The Tuesday Top Five, Volume 2

So I figure that I might as well keep going with the Tuesday Top 5. It might be a little predictable, but I might as well embrace the "hobgoblin of little minds" and be consistent. So here goes.

You might notice that today's Top 5 is more than a trifle book-heavy. I do apologize. It's been one of those strange weeks. I haven't gotten out to much in the way of new restaurants, and Steph and I didn't make it to the movies over the weekend. I realize that I'd like to say more about music in a Top 5 like this, but since I tend to buy about one CD per year, I don't know what I'd say.

So this is the book-heavy Top 5. Take it for what it is:

5) The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. One of the best books I've read in a long time, and a terrific view into a culture that I know very little about. If you don't know this one, get to know it quick. In its first part, it follows the story of two boys growing up in Kabul in the days before the war with the Soviets, the rebellion of the Taliban, and its modern status as war-torn rebuilding nation. In the second part, it follows one of the boys growing up in America, coming of age, and returning to Afghanistan to face some of the most truly frightening personal demons that I've ever seen. Kite Runner is Hosseini's first novel, and the man is a master. It delivers gut punch after gut punch. He sets you up and then forces you through the torment of characters who grapple with worlds that they didn't make but shaped them nonetheless. Few books have shaken me like this one.

4) My Name is Earl and The Office. From the sublime to the ridiculous. Forget about Must See Thursday, NBC. Will and Grace might still provide a chuckle here and there (between gratuitous guest spots), but Tuesday now takes its rightful place as the center of the peacock network's comedy. Earl is nothing short of a blast - a single camera comedy populated by hilarious figures undertaking ridiculous problems. And The Office is - well, it fits perfectly in that new genre of "so true that it's really uncomfortable" comedy, along with two of my other fave sitcoms - Curb Your Enthusiasm and Arrested Development. People are talking about the death of the sitcom, but of the shows I watch on TV right now, five are funnies (Curb, Arrested Development, Earl, The Office, and Everybody Hates Chris). One is a drama (Lost), and I'm looking to unload it but quick.

3) Chicago Noir, edited by Neal Pollack, and specifically the story "The Oldest Rivalry" by Jim Arndorfer. I first met Jim Arndorfer as an 18-year-old freshman, at a Daily Northwestern party at a Mexican restaurant. Everyone else was drinking margaritas and beer. He stood there in a long coat and drank Canadian Club from a bottle. I asked him how it was. He growled, "I'm not drinking it for the taste!" And so began a friendship.

Over the years, I've marveled at Jim's writing skill, and shared his twin obsessions with football and the hard-boiled school of American detective fiction. He introduced me to James Ellroy and Andrew Vachss. I could never convince him to check out Robert Parker, but I found more success with Michael Z. Lewin (still one of the funniest of all American detective writers). On Sundays, I could always expect to find him glued to the Packer game, rooting against the hated Chicago Bears.

It also bears mentioning that I almost burned down his house on his wedding day, but that's a story for another time.

In "The Oldest Rivalry", Jim tells the story of a Packer fan driven to the murder of a Bears fan at the Lake Forest Oasis on I-94, just north of the Big Windy. That, coupled with the loneliness and occasional self-loathing of the protagonist, would be enough for a solid modern noir tale. But Jim takes another step that gives the story an additional layer of texture. His characters muse on the nature of rich and poor in Chicago, Wilmette suburbanites against working class "Grabowskis". As in many a classic crime story, he uses crime and suburban largesse to shine a bright light on one of the Windy City's biggest conundrums: namely how a city so obsessed with its working class image and rough and tumble heritage can still be ruled by a wealthy group so far removed from that reality.

I also want to take a chance to mention the book's introduction by Pollack, who also attended Northwestern during my tenure there (though I only knew him a very little). Pollack talks about the change in Chicago during the Daley years from noir metropolis to picture postcard of the Lakefront. He discusses the ways that the city's dark shadows and rough edges have disappeared, only to be replaced by identical faux red brick condo buildings and Trader Joe's outlets.

For two years, I lived in the city's Uptown neighborhood - a place that proves Pollack's theorem about the city. When I started dating my wife, I wouldn't let her walk down the streets by herself there. Prostitutes and crackheads still populated the side streets near Broadway between Wilson and Lawrence. Uptown owned the street with the per capita highest murder rate in the city (which is saying something, since Chicago became the murder capital of the country during those years).

But today? Uptown has a Borders and a bevy of Starbuck's outlets. Chain restaurants. And I can't afford to buy a place there, even if I wanted to. Is it good for the city? I'll argue that another time. Whatever. Still, Chicago shouldn't be without a little bit of its own brand of noir. I'm glad that Arndorfer and Pollack are there to provide it.

2) Cloud Cuckoo Land, a play by Scott Davis Jones. I'll probably get flagged by both of my regular readers for putting this very fun show, playing for two more weeks at Hollywood's McCadden Place Theatre, on the list. See, it seems that Our Woman in LA is assistant director on the project, so this looks like nepotism.

Well, whatever. I really like the play. And if you're in LA over the next two weeks, you should check it out.

Cloud Cuckoo Land is a modern re-interpretation of Aristophenes comedy, The Birds, re-mastered and re-imagined as a satire of modern politics and lifestyle. It features a number of great performances, witty dialogue, great costumes, and swell production values. I've seen it four times now, and I still laugh out loud.

1) A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson. I don't know if this should count for me as a book or as audio, since I listened to the unabridged version in my car going to and from work over the last couple of weeks. It doesn't matter, really. For the record, it was read by Ron McLarty, who played Sgt. Frank Belson on Spenser: For Hire, and who reads pretty well.

I initially picked this up because I've read that Paul Newman and Robert Redford are considering adapting it to a film. If made, it would be their third on-screen team-up, and likely, it would be Newman's "retirement" film.

If you don't know the story, here it is. A few years back, Bill Bryson, an American journalist who had been living in England, returned to the US and wanted to "re-discover" the country. So, teaming up with his high school buddy Steven Katz (a small time criminal, alcoholic, and occasional neer do well), he decided to walk the entire Appalachian Trail, which stretches 2200 miles from Georgia to Maine. There, he would witness America's natural beauty, not to mention its people, and have time to commune with his old buddy.

Now, I'll admit readily that I would pay $10 a ticket to see Newman and Redford walk through the woods and snipe at one another. But I got an added bonus from this very cool book. You see, I'm not a camper or a wilderness guy. Never have been, never will be. My wife and I think camping means a night in a Holiday Inn.

But this book made me aware once again that America, in addition to being a very large place, is a beautiful one, amazing in the varied nature of its terrain. There's still a lot for me - and I imagine a lot of folks - to see in this land. Bryson writes a valentine to the country in this book. I was glad to read it.

But it's not all serious, either. I've never laughed out loud at a book on CD before. But I did here. Here's hoping that it does end up on the screen with Butch and Sundance trudging through the wild. What a great ride to take a second time.

So there you have it. That's this week's list. Enjoy.

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