A perfect Chicago evening

I still find myself constantly surprised by the quality and variety of free activities I find in my home city, but never more so than during the Grant Park Music Festival.

Last Friday, we took the boys to Millennium Park for a night of classical music . We packed a picnic for us, picked up some Freddie’s Pizza for the boys and settled in for a perfect evening. I realized as soon as I sat down, that I had arrived at my “happy place.” The architecture, the environment, the music — all combine for a couple of hours of city bliss.

So thanks to the Festival artists, sponsors, park district and City of Chicago for making it all possible. Enjoy the pictures.

my view facing northeast

beautiful boy

my oldest

happy for the pre-concert pizza

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Three smiling faces.

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No surprise, they even managed to get in on a little baseball game before the concert started.

Paperback Picks: June

So many great choices this month. My top 5 June paperback releases…

Cover image from Goodreads

ONCE UPON A RIVER

by Bonnie Jo Campbell

5 stars

The word “savage” comes to mind in describing this book. Margo’s life on the Stark River is brutal in all ways – physically, emotionally, and psychologically. The graphic depictions of animal skinning alone are enough to keep some readers away; never mind the violence that befalls Margo. But if you can get past the descriptive writing of savagery, you can appreciate the beauty of Campbell’s other writing, especially relating to river life.

She hoped Smoke was wrong about people being unknowable. She hoped that she could crack herself open like a nut and know herself, at least. Then she’d be able to start figuring out everybody else.”

She never strikes a false note during this sad tale which I so appreciate.  Even the supporting characters were three-dimensional and clearly had a place in the book’s plot. I cared about each of them – even those I despised. That’s quite an accomplishment for a writer. And best of all, she writes a perfect, fitting ending. Brutal, savage and dark – but also wonderful.

THE RULES OF CIVILITY

by Amor Towles

5 stars

I cannot possibly write a review that reflects the intelligence and sophistication of this book. Integrating art, photography and literature into his portrait of 1938 New York, Amor Towles also tells a great story about the choices made by one young woman — Kate/Katey/Katherine Kontent, and her friends.
Kate is smart, funny, unpredictable and determined, all qualities that make a fine heroine. But she’s also imperfect, which makes her infinitely more interesting.

The game had changed; or rather, it wasn’t a game at all anymore. It was a matter of making it through the night, which is often harder than it sounds, and always a very individual business.”

Towles kept me on my toes throughout the novel — no easy feat. Best of all, he evoked the time period seamlessly, making me feel I was on this journey along with Kate.

THE CAT’S TABLE

cover image from Goodreads

by Michael Ondaatje

4 stars

When an 11 year-old sets up the story about his 3-week solo trip across the sea, readers may believe Ondaatje is writing a coming of age adventure. But this book is so much more than just that. He also deftly spins intricate character studies of the ship’s passengers from first class to the Cat’s Table (the place in the dining room where life’s “unimportants” are seated.) And, without many fussy complications, he also weaves in a haunting mystery. All of these elements could be awkward or clumsy in a lesser writer’s hands, but Ondaatje is a master.

What is interesting and important happens mostly in secret, in places where there is no power.”

All of the characters have emotional depth and the movement back and forth in time from “Mynas” 11 year-old perspective and his adult ruminations on the same events seemed effortless.

TOLSTOY AND THE PURPLE CHAIR: MY YEAR OF MAGICAL READING

by Nina Sankovitch

3 stars

As someone committed to reading every day and writing about whatever I read (even if just for my own purposes), I get this author. Even though she undertook her book-a-day program as a way to “hold herself still” and get through her grief over her sister’s death, we see many of the same things in books, so I loved much of this memoir on a purely emotional level.

The purpose of great literature is to reveal what  is hidden and to illuminate what is in darkness.

I especially like the chapter on sharing books with others. I had never thought of giving a book as “giving a piece of one’s soul,” but it makes perfect sense to me. When we open ourselves up about our passion for a certain book or writer, we are opening our hearts. And when someone does it for us, it is a gift not to be treated lightly.

It is a gift we humans have, to hold on to beauty felt in a moment for a lifetime.”

THE FLIGHT OF GEMMA HARDY

by Margot Livesey

3 stars

Some books just transport me. No politics. No deep thinking. Just a well-written escape. This novel fits that bill. Based on the classic Jane Eyre, Gemma Hardy tells the tragic, yet inspiring story of a young girl struggling against all odds. Gemma Hardy just will not give up despite her parents’ deaths, her aunt’s hatred, her lover’s lies. She’s a fighter. She inspires sympathy and kindness from a few key characters, but mostly she does it alone. What is remarkable is that I never pitied her, maybe because she didn’t pity herself.

She was afraid of numbers the way some people are of spiders.  The sight of them made her want to hide.  What I loved about them, their clarity, was for her duplicity.  Behind an innocent 2,or 5, or 9, she spied a mass of traps and pitfalls.”

I knew from the start that she wouldn’t let circumstances keep her down. This is not the sort of book that struck me with beautifully written passages or even startling revelations, but it was an extremely enjoyable read.

It’s great to feel appreciated

Thanks to Diane Hiller at Pleasant Valley Sunday for nominating me for the Reader’s Appreciation Award. Diane is a fellow Chicago area mom so I know she understands the challenges and rewards involved in blogging. I am honored to accept the award and pay it forward…Here are my nominations for the Reader Appreciation Award:

1. Butterflies and Mudpies is another Chicago area parent’s blog. Molly writes with such refreshing honesty and conviction, that no matter what topic she battles, I am always impressed by her insights. I love that she writes for “everyone and no one in particular.”

2. Coco J. Ginger Says provides me with an ongoing jolt of beautiful, thought-provoking creative writing. Unlike the diary-style blogs I frequently follow, this writing appeals to my book-loving self.

3. Me Myself and Kids provides me with a wonderful guy’s perspective on life and fatherhood. His posts are well-written and entertaining, spanning a variety of topics.

4. The Thing About Joan delights me every time. Whether Joan is suggesting “Boredom Busters,” providing a delicious recipe, or simply revealing bits of herself, she does it in a lovely approachable style.

5. Just Another Manic Mommy is another diary style blog, but with a beautiful and entertaining mix of pictures and text.

6. Easyondeyes is a blog that loves books as much as I do. They are on a mission to read and review 366 books in 366 days (with a little help from their friends). I love the variety of material and welcoming atmosphere (Full disclosure: I’m honored to have been a guest blogger on their site.)

Now it’s your turn to nominate your favorites! Recipients of this award should nominate six of their favorites, copy the Award logo onto their site and acknowledge the one who nominated you!

There are many more that I love to read. And, since I’ve nominated bloggers for other honors, I tried not to repeat. I really must get that blog roll widget working…

Teaser Tuesday: My Hollywood

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. I actually discovered the idea on one of my favorite blogs, Up All Night Reading.

Anyone can play along! Just do the following:

Grab your current read.
Open to a random page.
Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page.
BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

This week’s teaser is from My Hollywood, by Mona Simpson, which has been sitting on my bookshelf staring at me for some time now. Mixed reviews, but I’m hopeful.

Men had to keep working. But for a woman an unblemished record is best, even if that record is brief.

There were too many virginities.”

And, technically, I cheated. There are 3 sentences. I hope the Teaser Police don’t come after me.

Happy reading.

cover image from Goodreads

Monday Quote: I want to fly

You wanna fly, you got to get rid of the shit that weighs you down.”

Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon

Yes, I want to fly.

Not in an Icarus kind of way, but I do want to soar in this life. I want to succeed in my career. I want to write with passion and wit. I want to raise my sons to be fine men. Mostly, I want to embrace endless possibility and run with it instead of running away.

So, via the brilliant Toni Morrison, I ask myself, “What kind of shit is weighing me down?” I can easily identify the two biggies.

  • Self-doubt. I spend too much time asking myself, “Can I do this?” instead of just going for it. I know I have passed up opportunities to fly because I was afraid. I stage long internal battles with my own doubts and fears, giving myself pep talks and motivational speeches.
  • Worry. Different than self-doubt, worry is my favorite form of procrastination. Step by step I worry over every detail that can go wrong. Intellectually, I understand that worry is a useless emotion because it accomplished nothing, but my vivid imagination can be a curse in this department. I can come up with paralyzing lists of what could go wrong. Those possibilities sit in my head, holding me down.

It is time for me to let these bad habits go. I need to drop them on the ground so that I can rise up.  I will stop doubting that my wings will carry me. I will not worry about the turbulence.

I want to fly.

Palmer House – Old School Elegance with Modern Convenience

perks

I never pass up the chance to visit great hotels. It’s most certainly the best perk I’ve experienced as a writer. My sons have had the opportunity to be pampered at some of Chicago’s best locations. But I have to admit, one of the city’s oldest hotels holds a special spot in my heart.

I originally wrote this story for the June 2012 issue of Chicago Parent. I have added more personal stories and pictures for this post.

Stepping into Chicago’s Palmer House Hilton is like stepping back in time. This hotel’s walls have seen the city’s booms and recessions, its glamour and its vice. Just walking the halls, looking at photos and reading plaques can give visitors a sense of Chicago’s last 100 years. But actually staying as a guest envelops you in another era, a time when Chicago’s Loop was THE spot for dignitaries and Hollywood elite.

Palmer House treated my family to an elegant overnight this spring. While my husband and I are big fans of Potter’s Lounge, neither of us had ever stayed over as guests. While we checked in, our sons marveled at the ornate decor and the hotel’s grand scale. They immediately climbed the stairs to watch us from the balcony-which is how they spotted the lobby’s iPads. This juxtaposition of old and new allowed me to sit back and imagine myself as Jane Russell while they sat back comforted by Internet access.

The same was true once we entered our gorgeous suite. The furnishings have a very Art Deco feel (a chaise lounge in the living room), but all the latest technology. They were docking iPods before I had unzipped the suitcase. The hotel had booked us in a gorgeous suite with an adjoining room for the boys so we all had plenty of space. Palmer House has, in fact, modernized and renovated much of the hotel for guests’ comfort. We truly could have hosted a cocktail party for 40 people in our suite with the enormous table and wet bar. Instead, we spread out and enjoyed the view.

in the executive elevator

We were excited to use our “Executive Privileges” (well worth the additional nightly cost) so we headed toward the special executive elevator. My older sons were over the moon with excitement about the keyed elevator with its etched mirrors and folding bench. Who doesn’t like to feel special? $60 is a small price to pay for the privilege of a private elevator and access to the fully stocked Executive Lounge. On Saturday we arrived in time for the cocktail hour with hot and cold appetizers as well as unlimited sodas & waters. After exploring the Lounge’s nooks & crannies, the boys settled in at the computers while my husband & I settled in with drinks and gorgeous views.

In the Lounge and in the halls, my husband and I kept stopping at the dramatic photos of the superstars who had stayed or entertained at the Palmer House back in the day, from Rat Packers to Benny Goodman and Jack Benny. I had no trouble imagining us back in the day, dressed in our finest attire, out for a swanky evening in the city.

With all the hotel’s amenities (including the intimate pool and state-of-the-art gym/spa), I would have been content to never leave.  After a delicious and satisfying complimentary breakfast buffet in the Executive Lounge, we spent the morning at the pool. The hotel’s late check-out time gave us more time to explore the hotel’s ground floor, its famous peacock doors and the lobby’s ceiling mural.

poolside in January. Palmer House Hilton.

In fact, a month or so after our visit I sent a message to Palmer House that my nine year-old had been asking me to return to the “peacock door hotel.” The management responded with a kind note and a small stuffed peacock. He was, of course, thrilled with the special present. I was thrilled that he remembered such a lovely detail from our visit. Not every mom gets to offer those kinds of memories as a part of her job.

We definitely return to Palmer House for a night in the City.

Disclosure: My family was not charged for our stay at Palmer House and I was paid by Chicago Parent to write the article. I sometimes receive complimentary services and gifts, but I choose to write only about places I believe will be good for my readers. All opinions expressed are 100% my own.

To see the original version of this story plus more of my adventures with my sons, please visit Chicago Parent.

Interior of Palmer House Hilton in Chicago, USA

Interior of Palmer House Hilton in Chicago, USA (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Blue Asylum: New review and GIVEAWAY

I have never read anything by Kathy Hepinstall, but was happy to win a copy of her latest novel, Blue Asylum, from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Set in an insane asylum in the Civil War south, I predicted a perfect summer beach chair read. And I was not wrong, but I was thrilled to discover that Hepinstall added a number of genius layers, elevating Blue Asylum beyond predictable historical fiction.

Iris Dunleavy, a seemingly proper Virginia plantation wife has been committed by a judge for some mysterious wrongdoing against her husband. The author unveils that back story slowly while we come to meet the patients/inmates trapped on the island which houses the asylum.  Because the narrator’s voice alternates between Iris, the asylum’s doctor, his son, and another patient, you view the characters from a variety of viewpoints.

Ambrose killed his first man in filtered sunlight.”

Does this make him crazy? Can Iris save him? Can the doctor? Can he save himself? Hepinstall does not try to answer every question. Instead she follows the natural storyline of alliances and adversaries when all participants are help in captivity. Irish and Doctor have an especially contentious relationship.

They had engaged in what could not be called treatment or even discussion, but open combat, the two of them a microcosm of the great war raging in the far distance: one side that desired autonomy, and the other that took independence as a sign of madness.”

Of course, setting her story during the Civil Way, Hepinstall is telling a bigger story about captivity and the quest for freedom. Sometimes she makes that point in an obvious way, and sometimes she works subtly and brilliantly.

The doctor wished the lamb had never been brought to the island. He hadn’t missed it, not until it came and went. Now every other meat was going to taste like not-lamb before it tasted like chicken or pig or beef or fish.”

Overall, she handles the subject and story beautifully, making Blue Asylum a terrific summer read.

So now for the GIVEAWAY!!!

Since this book was sent to me as a prize, I want to do the same for one lucky reader. Just comment on this post for your chance to win.

Want a second chance? Those of you on Twitter can copy and paste this tweet

Who doesn’t love a freebie? Enter for a chance to win BLUE ASYLUM from @AlenaMurguia http://wp.me/p2g3Iz-dl

— on your feed and I’ll put your name in the hat a second time.

I’ll pick a winner on Friday, June 29, 2012.

Good luck and thanks for participating in my first giveaway. Follow this blog for more giveaways to come.

Just as great the second time: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

cover image from Goodreads

I am an avid, unapologetic, and passionate fan of Aimee Bender. I have read both her novels and short stories and have been entertained and impressed. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is the book that introduced me to Bender and her work. I loved this novel when I first read it in 2010. I promoted it and obsessed over it and encouraged friends to read it. I have had the great joy of arguing its merits and debating the author’s style and choices with fellow book lovers.

When my Book Club chose this title for its June 2012 book, I was thrilled for the excuse to read it again. And, happily, I loved it even more upon rereading.

So, now that I’ve gushed, here’s why I love it.

I was first attracted to the premise that on Rose Edelstein’s ninth birthday she discovers she has a gift. She can taste people’s emotions in food they prepare. That premise alone was enough to capture my attention, but the gorgeous way Bender writes about discovering such a gift, hooked me completely.

But the day was darkening outside, and as I finished that first bite, as the first impression faded, I felt a subtle shift inside, an unexpected reaction…Because the goodness of the ingredients – the fine chocolate, the freshest lemons — seemed like a cover over something larger & darker, and the taste of what was underneath was beginning to push up from the bite. I could absolutely taste the chocolate, but in drifts and traces, in an unfurling, or an opening, it seemed that my mouth was also filling with the taste of smallness, the sensation of shrinking, of upset, tasting a distance I somehow knew was connected to my mother.”

If this had been one of Bender’s short stories, she could have stopped the story on Rose’s first day. Over the course of those few pages, I understood the complexity of a young girl “tasting” her mother’s smallness – the empty hole in her existence. I loved Rose immediately, primarily because of the horror she feels. She didn’t seek, nor does she want this kind of knowledge. “Please take it out,” she begs.

But Bender writes something deeper than a short story based on a clever premise. She is writing about family, its bonds and its breaks. What appears perfectly lovely on the outside (say a lemon cake) contains untold layers of complications, sorrows and missteps.

Right away we know that there is something different about Rose’s brother Joe. Anti-social to the extreme, brilliant but distracted, Joe seems to instantly qualify for the Autism spectrum, although that word is never used. Rose worships him and seeks any bit of his attention she can get. Perhaps it’s because she understands the bond between Joe and her mother.

Mom loved my brother more. Not that she didn’t love me – I felt the wash of her love every day, pouring over me, but it was a different kind, siphoned from a different, and tamer, body of water. I was her darling daughter; Joseph was her it.”

Bender taps in perfectly to a young girl’s feelings of always being second best. Even as she matures, she has to come to grips with those feelings as well as the faults of her parents. Rose’s mother has serious flaws, both parental and moral. Rose sees it all (tastes it all) and has to find a way to live with her mother’s faults and weaknesses.  She finds a way to hold her mother in her heart, to accept her, without judgment.

After all, she had birthed us alone, diapered and fed us, helped us with homework, kissed and hugged us, poured her love into us. That she might not actually know us seemed the humblest thing a mother could admit.”

Rose doesn’t pity herself but she sees, feels (and tastes) the underneath of things. These are real family dynamics at work under the guise of fantasy and magical realism.

SPOILER ALERT:

It’s impossible to talk about this book without talking about what happens with Joe.

My brother had taken to disappearing. Not in the way of a more usual adolescent boy, who is nowhere to be found and then arrives home drunk, with grass stained knees and sweat-pressed hair, at two in the morning. No. It would be the middle of the afternoon, airy and calm, & Joseph would be home, and then not home. I would hear him…and then I’d hear nothing.”

In the character of Joe, Bender makes the book turn from something slightly odd to something truly surreal. Joe can make himself disappear. And, it seems, this is what some of my friends and fellow reader/reviewers find so troubling.  I admit, upon my first read, I wondered if this storyline when a bit too far. It didn’t prevent me from loving the book, but I could relate to some feelings of confusion.

But not this time. On the second reading, I found all the brilliant clues Bender dropped along the way. I felt Joe’s pain and disorientation as much as I felt Rose’s. His need to escape his gift was obviously much more extreme, but realizing this added layer only makes me appreciate Bender’s writing that much more.

Giddyap! Little Boots Rodeo is this weekend!

My city boys are not exactly horse wranglers or bull riders by nature, so, last summer, when I heard about Little Boots Rodeo in Elk Grove Village, I was skeptical. How would my kids compete in barrel racing and cow milking? Well, as it turned out, quite well.

Cow “milking”

This Saturday and Sunday, June 23rd & 24th, little buckaroos age 3-12 can register to “compete” in 12 rodeo-themed events. Participants who complete all events receive an award certificate.

The events are all adapted for kids so the “lasso” is actually a ring toss and the “horse race” takes place on a hobby horse. My older sons were drawn to the mechanical bull “bull riding” and plastic “bow and arrow” competitions. It’s a great mix of activities, appealing to families with kids of different ages. Since this is a feel-good festival, all children walk away winners, no matter what their skill level.

bull riding — two different sized bulls for different ages.

Even if you don’t want to participate in the rodeo events, Little Boots offers a day’s worth of entertainment. Magic shows, costumed characters and professional cowboys all add to the rodeo atmosphere. Kids can take a chance on both duck and pig races, or pet a variety of farm animals in the Petting Zoo.

Many children dressed in full cowboy gear and throughout the day received “Best-Dressed” awards.

“One of the main goals of the festival is for children to experience something that they have never done or seen before,” according to Little Boots’ Director Jack Groat.

Toward that goal, they are adding more events: watch a man being shot from a cannon, take a camel ride, or visit “The Lion King.” Last year we met Svengoolie, who’s scheduled to return again this weekend. We missed the duck races, but I hear Groat and Elk Grove Village’s mayor have a friendly wager going.

With Berwyn’s own, Svengoolie

Admission to Little Boots is free, although Groat asks that everyone bring a nonperishable food pantry donation. Participants pay $10 each to do all 12 rodeo events and some attractions do have minimal charges.

All proceeds from the rodeo benefit local charities. Last year, Little Boots donated $12,000 to charities in the north and northwest Chicago suburbs.

All children who complete the events have their names announced and receive certificates.

This original version of this article appeared in the Summer 2012 edition of Going Places. I have added copy and photos for this blog post.

You can find more of my adventures with my sons at Chicago Parent.

Monday Quote: Fatherhood

I believe that what we become depends on what our fathers teach us at odd moments, when they aren’t trying to teach us. We are formed by little scraps of wisdom.”
Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum

I have never read Umberto Eco, but I love the “scraps of wisdom” image.

My relationship with my father has not been easy. We wasted too many years trying to make the other fit into some idealized image we held of “father” and “daughter.” Since he wasn’t an everyday presence in my childhood, I didn’t know where to fit him in my life. It never occurred to me that he probably didn’t know the best way to fit in either. I believed he should just accept and adore me on my own terms, flaws and all; but I was completely unwilling to return that favor.

Only as an adult have I come to understand that parents don’t have all the answers. We make mistakes all the time and need our children’s forgiveness and compassion as often as we give it. So, my relationship with my dad still has complications, but we meet each other head on, on the terms we make up as we go, with acceptance and compassion for each other.

And I treasure the odd moments and scraps of wisdom.

I have always understood that you just have to get up and go to work every day. My dad worked for the phone company from the time he was young enough to climb poles and repair lines until well after I was married and he was managing & training large groups of employees. The business name changed from Illinois Bell to AT&T to Ameritech, but my father remained consistent. It’s a lesson I took to heart.

I will always know my dad’s pride in me, which is caught with two snapshots in my mind. The first when I was 10 or 11 years old, performing in my first lead role as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. My dad had broken his finger playing softball, but at the end of the show as I looked out at the audience, he was the one person I saw, clapping ecstatically, finger splint and all. The second snapshot is from my wedding day. As I came out of my room ready for church, my dad dropped to his knees and began crying tears of joy. He held my face in his hands and told me I was the most beautiful person he had ever seen.

I have also had the great fortune to belong to a family with intense loyalty. There is nothing my dad wouldn’t do for his brothers and sisters. Our Murguia clan was geographically and emotionally close during my formative years, which gave me a very liberating sense of security. Knowing that someone has your back, always and no matter what, grants you the courage to take risks.

As the mother of sons I am grateful for the little bit I know about fishing. I can bait a hook, thread a bobber and get a fish of a line. Thanks Dad.

These days, my dad is teaching me a lot about grace and faith as he struggles with ALS. I wish that the circumstances could be otherwise, but I admire how has handled this journey from the moment of diagnosis through each step leading up to his decision to turn to hospice care. I know he and his wife have found courage in faith and trust in grace. Those are never easy lessons to learn, and certainly not ones you want to have to teach. But I am grateful all the same.

Happy Father’s Day Dad.