Thursday, August 29, 2013

Pithy Philosophies #9

I haven't been pithily philosophizing a whole lot lately, but thought I'd post a longtime favorite quote from the master of such kernals of wisdom, Mark Twain:

“Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions.

Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.”

Monday, August 26, 2013

Reach Out, Touch Faith: Depeche Mode Still Rocks in High Style -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Depeche Mode
w/ Bat for Lashes
First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre
Tinley Park, IL
August 24, 2013

Back in 1986-87, when friends in my freshman dorm were listening to Depeche Mode, I didn't like them much.

Oh, I enjoyed their song, "Blasphemous Rumors," but still in my Scorpions/Ratt/Dokken phase--though also already into Springsteen/U2/R.E.M.--I pooh-poohed the notion of a band that used synthesizers to such a large extent, often in lieu of guitars. Due to what seemed like a preponderance of gothy dirges, I think I even referred to them as Depressed Moan.

In 1990, shortly after I moved to LA, Depeche made news when an autograph session at Tower Records went awry, as the massive crowd wound up breaking windows.

Though the album that remains their biggest and perhaps best--Violator--had just been released, I still didn't know what all the fuss was about.

But as songs such as "Policy of Truth," "Enjoy the Silence" and "Personal Jesus" became hard to avoid and not to like, I eventually warmed up to Depeche Mode and was quite impressed when I first saw them live in 1998 on a greatest hits tour (supporting their The Singles: 1986-1998 album, which is pretty terrific from beginning to end). 

As I discovered then, and again on Saturday night at the First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre--I also saw them in 2005--despite being quickly categorized as an "electronic music band" (Wikipedia), Depeche Mode is a terrific live act and simply a great rock 'n roll band, albeit one with a distinctive, genre-defining sound.

Singer Dave Gahan, a great frontman who is seemingly now well-beyond his heroin-addictive backstory, at times seems to be channeling Freddie Mercury onstage, while chief songwriter Martin Gore now spends most of his time playing guitar, with only occasional keyboard and (separately) lead vocal stints.

Though keyboardist Andy Fletcher rounds out the remaining core members, the band employs a live drummer--Christian Eigner--who was demonstrably superb on Saturday in doing yeoman's work.

A fifth touring member, Peter Gordeno, rotated between keyboards/piano and guitar/bass, and his fine piano-playing supplemented Gore's lovely, plaintive takes on "Shake the Disease" and "Home."

Between the instrumentation and Gahan's vocals, Depeche Mode sounded as good as ever--or perhaps even better--on Saturday night and their performance was well-accompanied by impressive video and lighting displays.

I would say that they are still a band at the height of their powers, except that their recorded material from the 21st century--including their latest album, Delta Machine--largely falls short of their earlier work (at least in terms of catchy singles). 

Though it was proper for them to showcase five of their new songs, at this point to my ears only "Soothe My Soul" really stood boldly among the band's many past glories.

Two new songs, "Welcome to My World" and "Angel" opened the show, and while they kept the large, adoring crowd on their feet, it wasn't until 1993's terrific "Walking in My Shoes" in the third slot that things really kicked into high gear.

"Precious," which remains the band's best song of this millennium, followed, with a pair of classics, "Black Celebration" and "Policy of Truth" keeping things rolling.

It would be going too far to say that a couple more new songs, "Should Be Higher" and "Heaven" were set-deadening duds--and like with Depeche Mode itself, my appreciation could come in time--but the mid-show highlight was clearly Gore's acoustic take on the early "Shake the Disease." 

As the penultimate song in the main set, "Enjoy the Silence" was great, and with an extended intro, "Personal Jesus" was even better.

Gore and Gordano opened the 5-song encore with "Home," followed by the full band coming onstage for "Halo," a song from Violator I didn't much recall. 

"Just Can't Get Enough," the band's first hit, was a joy for a crowd--the pavilion and lawn looked packed,
albeit without many obvious "new fans"--that obviously couldn't, and after "I Feel You," "Never Let Me Down" was a phenomenal closer.

The house lights stayed down--and heavy applause stayed up--long enough to imbue the thought that the band might  return for one more classic ("Blasphemous Rumors," "It's No Good," "In Your Room," "Strangelove," perhaps), but precedent on this tour proved to keep as the lights came up. (With all the video cues and synthesizers, I imagine it might be hard for the band to ad-lib.)

All told, Depeche Mode played for over 2 hours, following a set by Bat For Lashes that sounded nice, though likely much better appreciated in a small club than the sterile open-air environment of the First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre. (My last experience on the lawn here was so acoustically-atrocious that I'll only go if I can get pavilion seats.)

Given that Depeche Mode is a groundbreaking band that has remained active and successful after more than 33 years--only U2 and The Cure come to mind as extant contemporaries--I fail to understand why they've never even been nominated for the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame, let alone inducted.

Not that their electronic and dance stylings should exclude them, but anyone who presumes their being "alternative"--when the word actually meant something--implies anything other than a first-rate rock band with a distinctive sound and a superb live show that has been honed over the long haul hasn't paid sufficient attention. 

In other words, Depeche Mode is one of those increasingly rare, legendary acts that would blow most artists half their age off any stage.

Though I caught on a bit late, I'm glad they're still around, and still in top form (at least live). 

And while I have already seen many stellar concerts in 2013--12 that I've rated @@@@1/2 or @@@@@--even if I have to make my year-end Best Of list a little longer, this show should certainly be on it.

(See Depeche Mode's setlist for 8/24/13 on

Here are a few clips I found on YouTube, of "Walking in My Shoes," "Shake the Disease," "Personal Jesus" and "Never Let Me Down Again":

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Chicago Dining World Tour: A Newfound Place 'Tava' Fresh Taste of India

7172 Dempster, Morton Grove

It's certainly possible that I tasted, and enjoyed, Indian food before moving to Los Angeles in early 1990.

But even if so, I still trace my affinity for East Indian cuisine to a friendship I made soon after arriving in Encino, in the San Fernando Valley.

Although a cousin initially helped me get my bearings, I moved to LA on my own at age 21 without any friends, other family or acute job prospects.

Due to having worked as a bank teller in Evanston--my first job out of college despite having graduated magna cum laude in three years--I was able to land a similar gig at Union Bank of Encino within a week of arriving in California.

The best friend I made at the bank was an older, married Indian woman named Yashu. 

She didn't have a car so I would sometimes give her a ride home, upon which she would invariably invite me to have homemade supper with her and her husband, Harish.

Other than Naan and Roti--Indian breads--I cannot recall the names of foods that Yashu made me, which were all vegetarian since she was. But I always liked everything and still on many levels relish this wonderful indoctrination to a highly savory cuisine. (Indian food can be rather spicy, a bit beyond my comfort level, but I love it nonetheless.)

So since moving back to the Chicago area in 1993, I've eaten Indian food at least a few times each year, at a variety of places. When I lived in the western suburbs, I frequented Viceroy of India in Lombard, and now most often go to Himalayan in Niles for their lunch buffet. I don't often get to Little India along Devon Avenue in Chicago, but once when Yashu came to visit we went to a really good place there called Tiffin.

The Indian restaurant I chose to be part of my Chicago Dining World Tour--Tava, in a strip mall at the NE corner of Dempster and Harlem in Morton Grove--was largely prompted by stellar reviews on Yelp.

Before I get into what I ate, let me share that buffets are usually a much more economical way to enjoy Indian food--unless Yashu makes it for you--rather than ordering off the menu. Most Indian restaurants have lunch buffets for around $10, and though dinner buffets are rarer, Cuisine of India in Mt. Prospect has a good one.

But as I don't eat chicken due to allergy, and much prefer a lamb curry--such as Bhuna Gosht or Rogan Josh--to the goat meat often included on the Himalayan buffet, aside from the money aspect I prefer non-buffet Indian meals.

Still it's hard to justify paying three times as much to get what I really want--as I did at Tava, where prices were in line with what I've found elsewhere--rather than to partake of buffets given the value provided. Especially as, except for the entree, what I ordered and typically do (or similar items) can often be found on buffets.

So this type of Indian dining has become a relative rarity for me, but not only did I really enjoy it, I took home enough for a hearty second meal.

As usual--and everything except the entree is a pretty standard selection for me--I started with an order of Vegetable Samosas as an appetizer. These are, per the Tava menu: two generous, flaky, golden pastries stuffed with potatoes, green peas and mild herbs and spices.

Samosas are quite good nearly everywhere I've had them--though a good bit smaller when included on buffets--and the ones at Tava were terrific.

I like dipping my samosa into the sweet, purplish chutney, but a lightly spicy, green chutney is also provided.

Among other pleasures, Indian restaurants have largely been responsible for turning me onto mango flavoring, and so I ordered and savored a Mango Lassi (churned yogurt with mango, served chilled) as my beverage--along with a whole lot of water when my tongue started burning.

As mentioned above, my entree of choice is often a lamb curry. On Tava's menu, it is labeled simply as "Lamb Curry," but many places have both Rogan Josh and Bhuna Gosht. I can't tell you the difference or which I've enjoyed more; both basically mean "lamb curry" to me. (You can see how they're explained on the Viceroy of India menu.)

But rather than merrily having a little lamb, I ordered Kadai Paneer = Homemade paneer cheese, bell peppers, onions, tomato, ginger and garlic sauteed in olive oil with our chef's special blend of Indian spices.

Many Indian restaurants seem to have Mutter Paneer, which is cheese cubes with a bunch of peas, and Saag Paneer, which is largely spinach with some cheese cubes. I prefer the cheese cubes without the greenery, so Kadai Paneer was a treat not everywhere found (although Tava also has the others).

I don't know that Kadai Paneer is officially a curry, but its thick zesty sauce, cheese and vegetables are best enjoyed over Basmati rice, which without a buffet is an added cost.

As is the Naan (lightly leavened soft bread baked in a tandoor). I like--and ordered--Garlic Naan, which like all else I had at Tava, was really good. (According to the Tava menu, Roti, which Yashu often made, is unleavened whole wheat bread.)

Even with about half of the Kadai Paneer to take home, I wound up quite full, so I was not even tempted to order dessert. But on most buffets, I enjoy Gulub Jamun = golden-fried dough balls, soaked in sweet saffrom syrup, served hot and/or Desi Kheer = fragrant rice pudding with raisins and almonds.

I'm honestly not quite sure if Yashu and Harish are still living in California or have returned to India, as was their intent upon retirement.

But if she sees this, hopefully she'll be happy that I still love Indian food, and know that I'm happy that it's still largely because of her kindness and influence.

Heck, my latest Indian feast was even vegetarian in its entirety.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Come Hear the Music Play: Light Opera Works Gives 'Cabaret' a Satisying, If Not Quite Sizzling, Showcase -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Light Opera Works
Cahn Auditorium, Evanston
Thru August 25

Beyond being one of the best Broadway musicals ever created--although it seems that my affinity may more acutely lie with the 1998 revival version--Cabaret holds a special place in my theater-loving heart.

For I consider it--or more specifically a touring edition of the '98 revival that played Chicago in the summer of 1999 with Teri Hatcher as Sally Bowles--to be my "Sandy Koufax moment."

I don't even know what his "moment" was, but although he had enough talent at an early age to make the major leagues at age 19, in his first 6 seasons with the Brooklyn/LA Dodgers, Koufax won 36 games and lost 40.

Over the next 6 seasons--which ended with his premature retirement at the peak of his career due to arthritis in his left elbow--he went 129-47 and won 3 unanimous Cy Young awards.

I'm not suggesting this is perfectly parallel, but although I was raised in a household where Broadway musical recordings were ubiquitous, was taken to A Chorus Line and other shows while still in grade school and gained enough appreciation to see a few shows in London, New York and at small local theaters, up until June 15, 1999--when Hatcher (then between Lois & Clark and Desperate Housewives stardom) inspired me to check out Cabaret--between the ages of 16-30 I had seen just 8 theatrical productions of my own volition.

After seeing Cabaret, which I loved enough to see a second time a month later, I have caught over 650 theatrical productions during the past 14 years.

Again, the analogy is far from precise, but though there were some deep-seated antecedents, I trace my almost-obsessive love of theater, and particularly musical theater--at least in terms of becoming a vociferous attendee ever since-- to seeing Cabaret 14 years ago. 

So though I had seen a decent version done at Drury Lane Oakbrook in 2009, I took note of its staging by the Light Opera Works--where I've seen several stellar productions--and particularly upon seeing a rave review by the Tribune's Chris Jones and availability of discounted seats on HotTix, I was excited to revisit Cabaret this past Sunday.

I'm glad I did, even if I was not quite as dazzled as I was hoping.

LOW's artistic director Rudy Hogenmiller, who has an impressive list of acting credits but hadn't appeared onstage for quite some time, stars as the Emcee (of Berlin's Kit Kat Klub circa 1929-31).

Despite being quite a bit older than others I've seen in the role, Hogenmiller delivers a fine performance, starting by "Wilkommen" the audience--which, as usual at LOW productions, made me feel rather young and a good bit concerned about who else will be attending such shows in 10 years.

As Sally Bowles, an expatriate Brit who performs at the Kit Kat Klub, Jenny Lamb likewise gave likable renditions of Kander & Ebb gems such as "Don't Tell Mama" and the title song.

Light Opera Works is noted for employing a larger orchestra than most comparable theaters--albeit for considerably shorter runs--and it was a pleasure to hear the score given such a robust airing.

I was also quite impressed with the work by supporting performers, David Schlumph (as Cliff Bradshaw, an American writer who becomes Sally's lover), Barbara Clear (Fraulein Schneider, Cliff's landlord) and particularly Jim Heatherly who as Herr Schultz, an older Jew who cannot fathom what will soon unfold, gives a stellar performance of "Meeskite."

Even though it is not quite as emphatic as other reviews I've noted, my @@@@ (out of 5) rating definitely serves as a recommendation, particularly for those who have not encountered this terrific material elsewhere.

That said, as noted above, it didn't quite blow me away as much I would've wished, in part because director & choreographer Stacey Flaster's production didn't employ some of the aspects I recalled fondly from the '98 revival/'99 tour, directed by Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall.

That version included three additional terrific songs by composer John Kander and lyricist John Ebb: "Mein Herr," "Maybe This Time" and "Money" (Makes the World Go 'Round), two of which were in the 1972 Cabaret movie.

The LOW staging also didn't seem nearly as sexy as it should have, nor as acutely sinister in the face of the impending rise of the Third Reich. 

This is hard to define, but I just didn't feel much palpable tension--even between Sally & Cliff, who seemed to lack much chemistry here. 

As usual, it could well be that I don't know what I'm talking about, given the effusive praise this staging has garnered. Or maybe the 1999 version of Cabaret I saw represents such a personal watershed moment that any deviations feel inferior. 

So I certainly don't dissuade anyone inclined to see an excellent rendition of an outstanding musical from getting to one of the three remaining performances of Cabaret at Evanston's Cahn Auditorium.

But while this production is definitely worthwhile, particularly in comparison to my first discovery of Cabaret on-stage I don't think I can quite call it life-changing.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Chicago Dining World Tour: Japanese Cuisine Offers Specific Overtures, Beyond Sushi

3956 W. Touhy, Linconwood

If you include sushi, or more specifically maki, I've eaten Japanese food dozens of times in the 21st century, at several different places.

But while other Japanese staples like tempura and steak teriyaki feel rather familiar, I don't think I've expended my pacific overtures beyond seaweed, rice and spicy tuna, etc., since eating at Benihana and Ron of Japan, perhaps once each, back in the '90s 

So in choosing a Japanese restaurant for my Chicago Dining World Tour, I wanted to pick somewhere that wasn't a tried-and-true sushi bar, nor even a group-dining type of Japanese steakhouse.

Hence, on a recent Friday night, my mother--the correct Japanese word seems to be neither mama-san nor okaa-san, but "haha"--and I went to Renga-Tei in Lincolnwood. Though the restaurant has been at the corner of Crawford (Pulaski) and Touhy since 1991, I've never been there and my mom perhaps only distantly.

I had noted some praise on Yelp for the steak teriyaki and sushi at Renga-Tei. So while it wasn't particularly exploratory, or revelatory, my mom and I shared an order of California rolls and a Combination meal with beef & salmon teriyaki, shrimp/vegetable tempura, rice, salad--with a nice citrus vinegrette dressing--and miso soup.

Truth be told, we could likely have gotten the same things at any "sushi joint," while--like seemingly most Japanese restaurants of any sort--Renga-Tei has a sushi bar.

But not only did we get what we wanted--and enjoyed it all--I really wouldn't have known what else to order.

The rice was terrifically fresh, both on its own and on the maki, the teriyaki sauce quite good--as was the steak and salmon it was on--and the tempura a pleasure I was happy to revisit.

So although this wasn't the most eye-opening nor palatte-widening of my gastro-ethnic expeditions, the good food, pleasant service and attractive decor made Renga-Tei a fine choice for rediscovering a bit more of Japan and its cuisine.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Flashdance, the Musical...What a Tepid Feeling -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Flashdance: the Musical
New music by Robbie Roth
lyrics by Robbie Roth & Robert Cary
directed & choreographed by Sergio Trujillo
Cadillac Palace Theatre, Chicago
Thru August 18

If you asked me to name my favorite movies of the 1980s, I could likely get to a couple hundred before thinking of Flashdance. I've only seen it once or twice, long ago, and while I have no great disdain, in the category of '80s dance-themed pop music movies with two-syllable F titles, I prefer Footloose.

If you asked me to name my favorite songs of the '80s, I could give an even longer list without including "Flashdance...What a Feeling," "Maniac" or "Gloria," all featured on the 1983 film's soundtrack.

But after having seen the supposedly headed-to-Broadway stage musical of Flashdance, on a national tour stop in Chicago, I assure you I would rather watch the movie--several more times--than sit through that drek again.

And I would rather just listen to the aforementioned songs--also featured on stage, along with "I Love Rock & Roll" and "Manhunt," albeit without equaling the originals--than hear any of the 16 largely forgettable songs newly written for the stage show.

While I almost always appreciate the effort to write a new score than rely solely on jukebox hits, when the fresh tunes make me wish to hear "Maniac" more often, it's probably time for the producers to begin ringing up Lionel Richie, Bananarama and Hall & Oates for rights clearances (for other '80s hits, even if not in the film).

Though my recollection of the movie isn't one of a work of high drama, it's not impossible to imagine a stage rendition achieving kitschy, nostalgic fun for those of us of a certain age. But with the music & lyrics by Robbie Roth and Robert Cary being functional at best--their attempt to stylistically ape '80s sounds doesn't come close to achieving what the composers of Hairspray pulled off with their '60s melange--the plotline feels particularly slight, trite, stale and cheesy.

Director and choreographer Sergio Trujillo, whose credits include the terrific Jersey Boys and Next to Normal, puts together a few nice dance routines--including some break dancing per the time period--and Jillian Mueller does a decent job of emulating Jennifer Beals (and her dance double).

But there is no apparent chemistry between Mueller as Alex, a Pittsburgh steel welder, and male lead Matthew Hydzik, who seems rather bland as her boss/boyfriend Nick in the Michael Nouri role.

While the songs taken from the movie melodically outshine those that sound like pale imitations of Billy Joel, Hall & Oates and "Almost Paradise" from Footloose, among other sonic allusions, a few of the "good ones" feel dramatically suspect and shoehorned in as they are sung by minor characters (other performers in the club where Alex flashdances).

Though the scenery is sufficient, somehow the narrative here lacks whatever cohesion the movie provided, thus main plot points such as Alex auditioning for a ballet school, and even more minor ones like the nefarious intent of a competing club owner and Alex's friendship with a wealthy old ex-dancer, push the bounds of credibility, even within the context of pop culture pablum.

And even the story of economic travails among the blue collar sector feels rather hackneyed in light of similar themes that have pervaded much meatier, and better, musicals like Billy Elliot and Kinky Boots.

While in the show's second and final week in Chicago it was nice to see the balcony mostly filled--which will undoubtedly further expand the proliferation of brand-name movies being turned into mediocre stage musicals; e.g. Ghost, Dirty Dancing, 9 to 5, etc., etc.--the crowd on Tuesday night offered polite applause rather than a raucous or standing ovation.

This isn't to say that the efforts of those on-stage and in the orchestra pit didn't merit appreciative applause. Even in a lousy musical, performers who "take their passion and make it happen" deserve strong kudos, with Kelly Felthous being quite worthy of note for a fine turn as Alex's pal Gloria, despite a saccharine storyline.

But if you're sentimental for Flashdance, simply seeing the movie again should provide a much more satisfying flashback than spending time and money on a show that is unlikely to likewise be remembered fondly by many 30 years hence. Or perhaps even two.

Like other recent screen-to-stage Broadway flops--Leap of Faith, Cry-Baby, Bring It On, Catch Me If You Can, High Fidelity, The Wedding Singer and the dreadful aforementioned Ghost--I suspect this one will sell some tickets based on its title but soon prove to be a "flash" in the pan.

Monday, August 12, 2013

"You Really Ought to Give Iowa a Try" -- Travel Recap

What the heck did I do in Iowa for 4 days?

Especially given my excursions to some of the world's great sightseeing cities--London, Paris, New York, Venice, Vienna, etc.--the Hawkeye State might not seem all that exciting a destination.

But considering several of my primary interests--art, architecture, rock 'n roll, musical theater, baseball, movies and more--it shouldn't be too surprising how much I enjoyed much of what I did and saw in between the miles of cornfields (especially for those who saw my frequent on-the-go Facebook posts).

And I even ate better than I typically do in Europe.

This wasn't my first trip to Iowa--on a few occasions each, I've been to Dubuque, the nearby Field of Dreams in Dyersville and Davenport, the latter most recently last year--but this was the first time I got more than 25 miles into the state, having declined to partake in a 1980's family vacation to Des Moines.

While I am not one to traipse in overt patriotism, without direct intent it became clear that legendary Americans were a unifying element in my stops in 10 different Iowan cities. And that's without visiting the towns that gave rise to Donna Reed (Denison), Johnny Carson (Corning), Jean Seberg (Marshalltown), Glenn Miller (Clarinda) or Grant Wood (Anamosa & Cedar Rapids); though I also did not get to Eldon to photograph the American Gothic house, I did see another of Wood's paintings and place it depicts. 

So roughly in order encountered, and meant more as a recap than a travel guide, here's what I saw and did in Iowa between August 1-August 4; I was too early for the Iowa State Fair, somewhat intentionally. (Note: Some photos are mixed in, but most follow at bottom, under a page break.)

Des Moines

- Des Moines Art Center - Across three buildings, designed by esteemed architects Eliel Saarinen, I.M. Pei and Richard Meier, the DMAC has an impressive collection for a city of just over 200,000. Artists represented include Wood, Matisse, Dubuffet, Rothko and Hopper, whose Automat is likely the highlight.

- Salisbury House - An English manor-type mansion built in the 1920s. I only saw the exterior.

- Pappajohn Sculpture Park - An impressive collection near downtown

- Iowa State Capitol - One of the most beautiful I've seen, with informative free tours.

- Principal Park - Home of the Iowa Cubs, who were not in town when I was. My timing was also not right to see minor league games in Clinton, Cedar Rapids, Burlington or Davenport, though I did go to a Quad Cities River Bandits game at the latter last year. 

- Prairie Meadows - In the Des Moines suburb of Altoona, this is a horse racing track with a full-fledged casino. I bet a race and played some blackjack.

- Flying Mango (restaurant) - Highly recommended on TripAdvisor, it provided rather a delicious combo of Cajun catfish and loin back ribs, along with a watermelon margarita and chocolate cake. 

- La Mie (bakery) - Also a TripAdvisor top pick, this was easily one of the best bakeries I've ever sampled.

Clear Lake

- Buddy Holly Crash Site - Rather remote and even harder to find than usual due to some road closings (and unpaved roads), I nonetheless encountered at least 20 other people who had made the pilgrimage during a brief visit. 

- Surf Ballroom - This was where Holly, Richie Valens and J.P. Richardson (The Big Bopper) last performed before their deadly plane crash on February 3, 1959. It remains a performance venue virtually unchanged since that fateful night, and after watching a Classic Car Cruise pass by, I caught a cover band called Denny & the DC Drifters. Richie Valens' sister Connie, who now lives in Iowa, was at the show, posed for a photo with me and even sang a few of his songs. 

Mason City

- Historic Park Inn - The only hotel designed by Frank Lloyd Wright that remains in existence. Along with adjacent City National Bank building, also by FLW, the Park Inn went through an extensive renovation, restoring the exterior to its original state while creating a first-class modern hotel. I stayed here for one night and also took a tour. It is absolutely beautiful.

- Stockman House, Architectural Interpretation Center and Rock Glen - The Stockman House is a home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright that has been beautiful refurbished (and even moved from its original Mason City site). Tours are offered by the Architectural Interpretation Center next door, and several Prairie Homes designed by Wright contemporaries like Walter Burley Griffin are nearby.

- Meredith Willson Boyhood Home / Music Man Square - The Music Man has long been one of my favorite musicals, both on stage and screen. It was written by Meredith Willson, who based "River City" on his hometown of Mason City. Music Man Square is an indoor re-creation of several of the facades depicted in the movie, and includes a museum dedicated to Willson. Next door is his boyhood home, with tours available as part of the Square's $6.00 admission fee.

Downtown Mason City - Not extensive, but enjoyable to stroll with a couple impressive high-rise buildings, including a bank robbed by Dillinger.

- Meredith Willson Footbridge - It doesn't look like the footbridge that figured into the climax of The Music Man, but is named in honor of Willson and offers an impressive panorama.

- Charles H. MacNider Art Museum - This small collection of American Art is enjoyable if without superstar names. But I really enjoyed this photo of Hedy Lamarr by George Hurrell, and an exhibit on puppeteer (heretofore unknown to me) and Mason City native Bil Baird. If you've seen The Sound of Music movie, "The Lonely Goatherd" marionette number was created by him.  
- East Park / 457 Locomotive / Maze - An impressive locomotive known as the Cannonball 457, a large shrubbery maze and a kids playlot featuring Prairie-style structures make East Park a rather enjoyable place to visit Mason City.

- 1910 Grill - Located in the Park Inn and named for the year the building was designed. I enjoyed the Arrabiatta pasta and some terrific Creme Brulee.

- The Quarry (restaurant) - This was also right next to the Park Inn. The Strawberry & Goat Cheese salad and a wonderful Lobster Roll couldn't have been any better.

Winterset / Madison County  

 - Covered Bridges - It's been a long time since I read The Bridges of Madison County and I don't think I've ever seen the movie. But it was fun to see and photograph 4 of the 6 beautiful wooden bridges that remain. I got to Hogback, Cedar, Holliwell and Cutler-Donahoe.

John Wayne Birthplace / Statue - The Duke left Winterset with his family at the age of 4, but though photography isn't allowed, touring the small home now filled with memorabilia was nonetheless pleasurable. And funds are being raised for a much more extensive museum.

- Downtown Winterset - A quaint square built around an impressive courthouse. Supposedly seen in the Bridges movie, including the Northside Cafe, dating back to 1876. I had a good cheeseburger there.

City Park - This large park includes a covered bridge (Cutler-Donahoe) that was moved there, a stone bridge featured in the Bridges movie and the Clark Tower, an impressive stone tower built in 1926 and offering stunning views.

Van Meter

- The Bob Feller Museum - Even if I didn't once meet Feller, signing baseballs at the Field of Dreams store in Woodfield Mall, his story would be pretty impressive. An Iowa farmboy with a 100-mph fastball, signed by the Cleveland Indians before graduating high school, started his first major league game at age 17, won 107 games by the time he was 22, then signing up to join the Navy on Dec. 9, 1941 and serving throughout World War II. He came back to have several more stellar seasons, winning a total of 266 games, but theoretically could have won nearly 100 more if not for the war years. The museum's most prized possession is a bat Feller lent Babe Ruth to lean on during his last visit to Yankee Stadium, shortly before the Babe's death in 1948 (as seen in this photo).

Quick Stops along I-80 Eastbound

- Grinnell - Sullivan Jewel Box Bank - Late in his career, the great Chicago architect Louis Sullivan designed several small bank buildings, including three in Iowa. I didn't get there in time for an inside look, but Merchants' National Bank in Grinnell is rather stately.

- Iowa City - University of Iowa / Old Capitol -  Other than Michigan State--and latter entries Penn State and Nebraska--Iowa is the only Big 10 campus I hadn't seen, so I had to quickly drive through Iowa City. I saw Nile Kinnick Stadium, named for the Heisman Trophy winner who died during WWII. (He also had played amateur baseball with Feller.) I didn't spend much time on campus--on a midsummer Sunday night--but saw the Old Capitol, the 1840 structure from when Iowa City was the capital of the Iowa Territory and the first building deeded to the University.

- West Branch - Herbert Hoover birthplace - Despite the homage from Archie & Edith, I don't believe history holds Hoover up as one the greatest presidents, with the Great Depression being a pretty major hiccup under his watch. But he is the only U.S. President from Iowa and the first born west of the Mississippi. To be honest, I was prompted to stop for a photo in the gloaming, only 15 miles east on I-80 from Iowa City, because of having seen this Grant Wood painting in Des Moines, painted while Hoover was president. (Not all of the buildings in the paintings still exist, but the birthplace cottage does.) 

- Davenport - Bix Lives - Having just visited Davenport (and the Quad Cities) in July 2012, I primarily used it as a stopping point on my way home, with a Motel 6 near the Interstate. But I got to town in time to catch the last 20 minutes of the last performance of The 42nd Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival, a.k.a. Bix Lives, honoring an early jazz cornetist who hailed from Davenport and died in 1931 at just 28 years old.

And then I crossed back across the Mississippi River and I was back in Illinois, with a full day to get home but not much to compel me to get off I-88 (until I got to Elburn and found a "small sports pub" called Eddie Gaedel's--no, the little guy wasn't from there. A bit ironically, one of the few photos in the bar was the one of Babe Ruth leaning on Bob Feller's bat, which I had seen just the day before).

Based on all that I saw and did, and learned, I am glad to have--per "Iowa Stubborn" from The Music Man--given Iowa a try. 

--> Please click below to see many more photos of my trip to Iowa
(unless you can see them without clicking)

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Shrewd Observations, Sly Thrills Make for an Appealing Trip to 'Joyland' -- Book Review

Book Review

a novel by Stephen King
new but available in paperback

I don't write this review as an expert on Stephen King.

I've actually read only one other of his books--2011's masterful 11/22/63 (my review)--and haven't even seen that many of the movies based on them, at least not recently.

So though I know he is a terrific writer whose oeuvre extends well-beyond the horror genre, I can't comment on how Joyland--part supernatural suspense novel, part coming-of-age story--compares to works such as Carrie, The Shining, It, Misery and Dolores Claiborne.

At just 288 pages, Joyland is an enjoyable read--well-worth $7.32 for the paperback (published by Hard Case Crime) on Amazon, though mine was borrowed from a friend--and though seemingly quite different from the 880-page 11/22/63 (and conceivably some of King's aforementioned classics), in one key sense it was rather similar:

It takes a good while to get where it's going, but the journey winds up being just as--if not more--fulfilling than the destination.

Per its title, 11/22/63 revolves around the John F. Kennedy assassination, but in being a tale of a man who finds a way to go back in time--and does so with hopes of changing history--the first 500 or so pages are largely about a 21st century adult acclimating to life in the late-50s, early-60s, with King providing many enlightening insights about how times have changed, and how they haven't. Only in the latter part of the book do events in Dallas acutely come into play.

This isn't all that different from Joyland, which is narrated as a present-day recollection about events occurring in 1973. With my sense of it being a thriller exacerbated by the Hard Case Crime imprint, it is ostensibly a fictional murder mystery regarding a death that had previously taken place in a North Carolina amusement park called Joyland. But the bulk of the book is devoted to detailing the experiences and emotions of its protagonist, a 21-year-old college student from New Hampshire named Devin Jones, who spends the summer of '73 working at Joyland.

King deftly puts the reader in the head of Jones as he experiences love, loss, friendship, "carny" life, valiant moments, wearing a key Joyland costume and, ultimately, engaging in a bit of crime-solving.

Thus, Joyland was not the rapid-fire page turner I was expecting--and in depth, not the equal of 11/22/63--but nonetheless rather satisfying as both a socio-cultural time capsule and, albeit a bit more subtly, as a suspense thriller. (Though as a reader review on Amazon points out, there is a flaw in the writing as things begin to unravel; ask me after you read the book.)

But whether or not you're well-versed in Stephen King, Joyland should provide plenty of pleasure as a end-of-summer paperback, one that notably--and aptly, given its regaling of an earlier time--isn't available electronically.