Guest blogging: INSPIRED BY A PROSTITUTE

Today I’m guest blogging over at the Alliterative Allomorph, run by author Jessica Bell.

In a converted railway station, crowded with visitors, I first saw Edouard Manet’s ‘Olympia’ in the flesh. So to speak.

It blew my mind.

A quick bit of backstory: I took a Fine Arts degree at university, so to see the ‘Olympia’ (and other works at the Musée d’Orsay) in person…it was a bit like a Christian pilgrim catching their first glimpse of the Sancta Camisa at the cathedral in Chartres.

Read more…

The Three Rs. (Reading, ‘Riting, and Researching)

The editor in me cringes at that title, but I’m amused enough at the riff on ‘reading, writing, and arithmetic’ to let it stay. And it’s what I’ve been up to lately, if you’re wondering where I’ve been.

Reading:

  • Lots of beta reading for friends (including Scarlett Parrish’s upcoming book ‘Bring Me to Life’, which is excellent!)
  • Scarlett Parrish’s ‘Burn’
  • Tiffany Reisz’s ‘The Angel’
  • Heidi Cullinan & Marie Sexton’s ‘Second Hand’
  • The Paris Lawyer, by Sylvie Granotier
  • Collected Poems, by Edna St. Vincent Millay
  • Simone de Beauvoir: A Biography, by Deirdre Bair

Writing:

  • Finishing a novella (‘The Artist’s Muse’)
  • Finishing the first draft of ‘The Orpheus’
  • Starting a new novella

Researching:

  • Lots of articles on Paris during the Nazi occupation in WWII.
  • Suite Francaise, by Irene Nemirovsky
  • And the Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris, by Alan Riding

So that’s what I’ve been up to, mostly. It’s been a productive few weeks, though I feel a bit like a magpie as I flit between books, reading a chapter here in one, a chapter there in another… trying to balance out research reading with fun reading. With a few exceptions, I’ve stuck to novellas for my fun reading, if only because I can finish those in one or two sittings, and they don’t linger on for days as I try to fit them in between everything else. I think that’s partly why I love ereaders and ebooks so much: those shorter works of fiction wouldn’t ever have been published before, or only within a collection of stories. I love short fiction as much as nice big novels, and ebooks let me indulge.

Upcoming: more on Scarlett Parrish’s release; a review of ‘The Angel'; and little snippets from my work-in-progress.

Chicago’s Eats – My favourite meals in the Windy City

I can’t say enough about the delectable food I sampled while I was in Chicago. I don’t think I ever had a poor meal, and some of the meals were incredibly memorable.

A small cafe a few streets from the hotel yielded a huge spinach salad for my first day, enough to keep my energy up for over five hours at the Newberry Library. That night, my parents and I went with my aunt and uncle to Topo Gigio, an Italian restaurant in the Old Town. I had the fish special, and it was tender and delicious. We also visited a nearby spice merchant, and spotted the Bistrot Margot (more on this later).

Our hotel was right next to Ditka’s, and I ate there once, having their New Zealand lamb chops appetizer. I also learned first hand that when you ask for a Jack Daniels on the rocks, it’s not like a Canadian bar where they give you 1 oz. I almost didn’t make it down the stairs from the lounge after two drinks!

After dinner at Gibson’s… it was a little chilly in the restaurant, hence my pashmina and cup of tea.

After our trip on the tall ship Windy, we went to Gibson’s steakhouse for dinner. If there were celebrities in attendance, I didn’t see any, but I was probably too busy looking at the gorgeous old 1920s decor… when I wasn’t trying to decide what to eat. Eventually I settled on some oysters to start, and the smallest steak they had on their menu. That’s one thing I can say about American restaurants — you get a lot of food for your money. And at Gibson’s, that means a lot of steak.

Now, one of my favourite meals in Chicago was one of the most unexpected. That is, it was a completely chance occurrence, as we’d gone to visit the Art Institute (and stand in awe in front of Georges Seurat’s painting ‘Un dimanche après-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte’ — well, that part was perhaps just me) and after several hours of looking at art (more on that in another post, as I could go on about art for ages… you know me!), we were starving.

The best tea cup I’ve ever seen.

Right across the street from the Art Institute was a crowded and large pub. We didn’t go there. Instead, we went to the Russian Tea Time. It took a bit of convincing mom that there was something on the menu she could eat, but once we were there and eating, she was quite happy. Dad had a flight of the house vodka – 3 flavours (coriander, black currant tea and lime), 3 oz – and a beer. I opted for tea, and they kept filling my glass. It was really lovely strong dark tea, and I drank quite a bit of it before the end of the meal. I had potato latkes (with sour cream and apple sauce) for the first time, and they were excellent. Of course, I was so hungry from having eaten very little before we went to the Art Institute that probably almost anything would have tasted good. ;) The service was good; our server was very definitely Russian. I think he was a bit nonplussed when we laughed after he asked my father if he wanted more vodka. You see, 3 oz of vodka, plus a large beer, was more than enough alcohol for an afternoon… but I guess we ought not to have laughed. (and my dad says it was excellent vodka.)

And finally, one of the most delicious meals I’ve ever had was at the Bistrot Margot on our last evening in Chicago. I wish I’d thought to take photos of the meal, but I was too busy eating… that’s my excuse. I had a vegetable risotto to start, and it came with a soft-shell crab. For my main meal I had a smoked duck breast with green lentils. And dessert was a delightfully delicious crème brûlée. I have a fondness for French food (as you might have guessed), and I was even happier at the Bistrot Margot when I saw that the menu had its dishes labeled if they were gluten-free. It made it a lot easier and I didn’t have to guess. Also, as it was our last evening, I decided to celebrate with a glass of champagne.

Now I’m starting to feel a bit homesick for Chicago… I know I’ll go back, and I’ll be well fed when I do!

 

“I need people of strength, and gumption!”

So shouted the docent aboard the tall ship Windy as we departed Chicago’s Navy Pier. He needed volunteers to raise the sails of the tall ship, and thus, with gumption (but no strength), I volunteered. For the record, though he said otherwise, strength is needed in order to raise a sail. Fortunately I had my father to assist me, or it would have been the slowest sail raising ever.

Obligatory family photo.

I hadn’t done any sort of sailing since ninth grade, and I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed it: the wind in my hair, the rock of the ship, and looking out over the water. Of course, being on Lake Michigan, the view of Chicago’s skyline was rather spectacular.

‘Ready the cannon!’

After the sails were raised, the program began on the main deck, and we learned about the life of a tall ship sailor. Unlike seafaring vessels, tall ships (and others) sailing the Great Lakes didn’t have to worry about food or water– the water of the lakes is fresh, and food was to be had from many ports. This closeness was good, but also difficult if you were a sailor not keen to follow orders. Like a small town, word would get around, and a truculent sailor could find themselves without work.

We learned a great deal more, but of course if I gave it all away, that wouldn’t be fair. ;) And as a special bonus, the docent, Orion, and his friend Patrick, gave us a musical treat. (see video at the bottom of this post.)

Jessie tells of the woman immured in the lighthouse.

As I like stories, and my family was attending the baseball game (yawn), I came back to the Windy for another excursion the next evening in order to hear some ghost stories. The docents (Zack & Jessie) were fantastic storytellers, with blood-chilling tales of a ghostly ship, a woman immured in a lighthouse, and several more. I’m not sure if it was just the tales that were blood-chilling, or if it was the weather–windy and overcast.

I loved both trips, and I think that one of my favourite parts of the cruises was watching the docents interact with the kids on board. During the first cruise, a young boy was keen on listening, but was shy, and slowly began to move closer in to hear the tales. The docent noticed this and made a point of including him when he addressed passengers. And in the evening’s cruise, rather than give the usual warnings for kids to behave themselves, the docent shouted, “Children! Look after your parents! Make sure they don’t get into any trouble!” Also on that cruise, a boy and girl were very keen to hear ‘R-rated stories’ (or, as one crew member put it, ‘Arrrgh-rated?’), and they were able to pick from the chest of stories. Delightedly, the boy picked the scariest one.

And fortunately, being aboard the ship as the sun was setting made for some gorgeous shots of the Chicago skyline.

Chicago, Gangster style.

The hosts of the Untouchable Tour: Johnny Rocco, and South Side.

Since I’m writing a 1920s Chicago gangster novel, naturally I would be all about finding out the gangster history of the city. Part of this was done via the Newberry library, and part of it was done via a tour with Untouchable Tours. For me, being in a city where I don’t drive and I’m not familiar with the area, a bus tour worked perfectly.

The tour started at quite possibly the largest McDonald’s restaurant I’ve ever seen in my life. (600 N. Clark St.) Two floors, an escalator, and a food service counter on each floor. A black-painted school bus drew up to the curb, and we piled on.

First stop was the Holy Name Cathedral, opposite which was the flower shop where Dion O’Banion (leader of the North Side gang) was murdered. Alas, the flower shop is now a handicapped parking lot, but that’s progress. The cathedral is still there, with pits in the stone from where the bullets killed Hymie Weiss, O’Banion’s successor. Then, to more stops, including the former location of Colosimo’s Cafe (now a 1920s themed dinner theatre), an old brewery, the former location of the Lexington Hotel where Al Capone used to stay (shame that was gone), and a short tour of the South Side, and Little Sicily (now near to the university campus).

Perhaps my favourite part of the tour was seeing the Biograph theatre, where Johnny Dillinger was killed by G-men. Likely that’s because I’d only recently watched the film ‘Public Enemies’ (Johnny Depp, Marion Cotillard), and thus the scene was fresh in my mind. The theatre (and I wish we could have stopped) looked like it could have come straight out of the 1930s. When I next go to Chicago, I’d like to find out what plays there, and go so I can see the interior.

The final stop on the tour was the location of the St. Valentine’s Day massacre in 1929, where Bugs Moran was nearly killed, and seven of his associates were gunned down in cold blood. As the guide pointed out, the event brought Chicago and its gangsters into the national and international news. According to him (and I’ll take his word for it), a Chicagoan traveling cannot escape the relation to this event that occurred over eighty years ago. Capone and his men went down in history.

In all, nearly two hours of gangster tales and history, and a very charming delivery by the two tour guides. Next up… the Tall Ship Windy.

Traveling is fun! Day 1 in Chicago.

I love traveling. At the moment I’m in Chicago, and it’s been delightful. Taking it easy tonight, but I’ve been here two days and it’s felt a bit non-stop. Today I went on a gangster tour, sailed the Tall Ship Windy, and then went to Gibson’s for dinner.

The front of the Newberry Library.

But, today’s post isn’t about those places. Today’s post is about the awesomeness of the research library, Newberry Library. (at 60 W. Walton Street, across from the Washington Square Park.) I spent five hours in their reading rooms. Truly, I could have spent a lot more time, but I just didn’t have that much time. My main research goals were to look at several maps, the Illinois Crime Survey (a massive tome), and part of the Bessie Barnes papers.

Ms. Barnes was a producer of nightclub entertainment in Chicago and Milwaukee, and she worked during the 1920s and 1930s, with celebrities like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. The library has all her papers and production notes, and I went through a box that included theatrical photographs of some of the performers, some letters, a stack of receipts and bills for shows, and some postcards. Stuff like that is what can help bring a story alive, all those little details that can make things that much more vivid in the reader’s imagination. (It also gives me a good idea of the cost of things, what people were eating– there were several menus too –and what some of the costumes were like.)

One of my favourite items to look at was a map of gangsters’ saloons and clubs, marked on a map of Chicago that was created in 1927. All the red dots give an idea as to which neighbourhoods were the most criminally populated, and there were also notes about which ethnicities lived in which areas of the city. Perfectly handy for me to use to create my fictional spots in the Roaring Twenties Chicago landscape.

And then, going on the gangster tour, I got to see some of the places up close… but that’s another post!

Movie: In a Lonely Place

I’m a writer, and noir is my chosen genre. Hence, most of my favourite films have some relation to the genre, and In a Lonely Place, starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame, is one that left a mark.

I hadn’t read the book before I saw the film, which is perhaps a good thing, as the book differs in some essential ways (of which I won’t get into here, as to not ruin it for the reader).

Bogart is Dixon Steele (and what a name it is), a screenwriter who is cynical and abrupt. He hasn’t had much success since the war, and his latest project is to adapt a book for the screen. Gloria Grahame is his neighbour, Laurel Grey, a sometime actress who takes an interest in Dix. When Dix takes a coat check girl home with him, as she’s read the book he’s to adapt and he doesn’t want to read it himself, Laurel notices him. After he sends the girl home, she is murdered, and Dix is a suspect. Laurel is brought into the police station and confirms that the girl left Dix’s place alone, and thus begins a rather intense yet dark relationship between the two.

One of my favourite quotes comes from this film, said by Dix to Laurel:

‘I was born when she kissed me, I died when she left me, I lived a few weeks while she loved me.’

The line so aptly mirrors the tempestuous relationship between Dix and Laurel, and the tone with which Bogart says the line enhances the bleakness of the film.

Dix is a strong, complex character, and the realism of Dixon Steele is one of the main reasons why I love the film so much. He’s not a typical alpha hero, as the main characters in so many films are. He’s a quick-tempered man, prone to violence, and to drink, but he’s loyal to his friends, even defending a washed-out actor from harassment.

As the murder investigation progresses, Laurel’s belief in his innocence is challenged, and his actions (side-swiping a car that cuts them off, beating up the driver) add to her worries, until she can’t continue their relationship. Her fear of Dix overwhelms her affection for him. It’s the gradual collapse of the relationship that is the strongest thread of the story in the film, in my opinion. At first, murder investigation aside, they are doing so well, but as events and doubts add up, it’s a slow-motion car crash.

Noir never ends with a happily ever after (nor usually with any sort of ‘happily for now’ ending), and In a Lonely Place is no exception. It isn’t the most pleasant and uplifting of films, but it’s incredibly compelling, and one I have re-watched multiple times in fascination. It’s one of Bogart’s best works.

History in my Backyard: The Town of Bankhead

Well, not quite my backyard, exactly, but very close.

The Lamp House, where the miners picked up their lamps every day. A missing lamp at the end of the day meant a missing miner, and a search party would be sent out.

In Banff National Park, right near Lake Minnewanka, the ruins of an old coal-mining town are now a picturesque and short hiking trail.

The town of Bankhead existed for a mere 17 years, closing in 1922 when the CPR shut down their coal mine. (The price of coal had dropped, the miners were on strike, and the federal government had begun to consider a more conservation-based ideal in the national parks, as well as dealing with the reduction in royalties… the writing was on the wall.) At its peak in 1911, the mining operation processed 500K tons of coal. When the town closed, the mine entrances were sealed by blasting.

The parts of the town that could be moved were – houses went to Banff or Canmore, the church went to Calgary, and all useful parts of the mining operation taken away. The remaining concrete foundations are now overgrown with vegetation. The area itself is under monitoring due to environmental degradation from the coal. After all, in the early 1900s, no one had any concern (or much idea) of the ruin such operations would bring to the local environment.

A hardy rhubarb plant grows in the slag heap.

Plant life has survived and even flourished, but there are numerous signs warning visitors not to eat anything. The signs are necessary: rhubarb plants grow in many places, huge and flowering. If not for the signs, I would have been tempted to take a cutting; I love rhubarb. Planted by Chinese immigrant mining families that lived in shanties behind the operation, they are some of the hardiest plants around. The meadows are full of wildflowers and grasses; the forest has begun to overtake other buildings.

The Briquette building, where coal briquettes were made for use in home heating and locomotive engines.

The path is dotted with plaques and information, detailing the origins and functions of the various buildings. The transformer building includes photographs of some of the town residents and of their daily lives. The managers of the mine were British mostly and the workers were mainly immigrants (Polish, Irish, Italian, Chinese, etc.) They had a soccer team, kids played hockey, much like many towns today. They also had electricity, a modern sewage system. Their drinking water was supplied by a reservoir filled from the Cascade River. The town’s population was as high as 900 residents, so that’s quite a bit of water and sewage to deal with. The town was incredibly modern, even though it didn’t exist for very long.

And why did I come here?

My current novella features a town very much like Bankhead, and I wanted to get a feel for the area and its history before I started writing my second draft. There are bits of information that will make my story that much richer.

I’ll post some more photos of the hike this week; there were just so many to choose from.