Essay: Lincoln’s violent death and his legacy

A century and a half ago, Abraham Lincoln was laughing at the punchline at a stage play when he was shot once in the back of the head. He never regained consciousness and died nine hours later.



Tuesday, April 14, was the 150th anniversary of day that John Wilkes Booth snuck into the Presidential Box at Ford’s Theatre during a performance of the farcical comedy “Our American Cousin.” Actor Harry Hawk, alone on stage, gave what Booth knew was one of the funniest lines in the play:

“Don’t know the manners of good society, eh? Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal; you sockdologizing old man-trap!”

John_Wilkes_Booth_wanted_posterAs always, uproarious laughter followed, and that was when the assassin — an actor himself and a rebel sympathizer — pulled the trigger. At 7:22 a.m. the next day, in a cramped bed in a boarding house across from the theater, Lincoln died. April 15, 2015, was the 150th anniversary of his death.


“Laughing all day”

For a century and a half, Lincoln has been seen as a national martyr, as the final casualty of the Civil War. And that’s how he was viewed in the hours and days following his killing — but not by everyone.

As historian Martha Hodes notes in her new book Mourning Lincoln, there was a significant portion of the American populace, even in the North, happy the President had met his death:

“In Boston, an Irish cook made her politics known in front of her employers by ‘laughing all day’ when the news arrived.”

Even some fire-breathing, antislavery members of Lincoln’s own Republican Party, afraid of the President’s conciliatory tone toward the former Confederate states, were glad rather than sad over his assassination. One disgusted Congressman wrote in his diary: “Universal feeling among radical men here is that his death is a godsend.” Continue reading

Book review: “Strong Boy: The Life and Time of John L. Sullivan, America’s First Sports Hero” by Christopher Klein

Over the past 22 years, our History Book Club has read more than 130 books, and three of them have been about boxing and heavyweight champions of the world:

King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero by David Remnick — a wonderfully thoughtful biography of Ali that sets his story in the context of the two fighters who came before (Floyd Patterson and Sonny Liston) and of the revolutionary times in which he fought.
Beyond Glory: Joe Louis Vs. Max Schmeling, and a World at the Brink by David Margolick — a meaty book that examined the careers of Louis and Schmeling and their titanic fight in 1938 in the context of a key moment in world history.
Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson by Geoffrey C. Ward — a well-researched biography of a larger-than-life figure whose career was hampered but not crippled by American racism.

None of us is a boxer, as far as I know. We’ve read these books because of what they had to say about race relations over the past century. Sports is a useful lens for such an endeavor.

We all knew, to some extent, Johnson, Louis, Paterson, Liston and Ali, and we’d all seen their televised fights or could view them on YouTube. They were star athletes, competing on a field of battle where, corruption aside, the best man won. Yet, they lived in a culture that didn’t provide equal opportunity to African-Americans.

Through their sport, they could rise above those cultural limitations, those discriminations, in ways that others of their race couldn’t. Even so, they operated in a white-dominated world — which explains, for instance, Patterson’s mildness and the great controversies over the outspoken Johnson and Ali.

By looking at their stories in these three books, we got glimpses into the black experience in America.


Too many fights

I read Christopher Klein’s Strong Boy: The Life and Times of John L. Sullivan — America’s First Sports Hero with the hope that it would be a worthy addition to our book club’s boxing list. Sullivan, after all, was first generation Irish in the late 19th century when the Irish were at the bottom rungs of U.S. society and faced discrimination that was akin to, if not equal to, that faced by African-Americans.

Klein --- strong boy

Alas, it doesn’t measure up. Continue reading

Book review: “The Gates of Paradise: Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Renaissance Masterpiece,” edited by Gary M. Radke

Let’s talk about wonderment. About astonishment, awe. About ecstasy.

But, first, let’s talk about feet.

Specifically, the feet of Jacob as he approaches blind Isaac for the birthright blessing that rightly should go to his older twin Esau.

This scene forms the left side of the Jacob and Esau panel in the east doors of Baptistery of Saint John in Florence. The right side is taken up with Isaac bestowing the blessing.

There are ten gilded bronze panels by Lorenzo Ghiberti on these Baptistery doors, five on the right and five on the left, each based on Old Testament narratives. They are known by the name Michelangelo gave them, The Gates of Paradise, and they “rank among the greatest creations of Renaissance art,” according to Andrew Butterfield, a leading scholar of Italian Renaissance sculpture.

Butterfield is one of a host of scholars who provided nine essays for The Gates of Paradise: Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Renaissance Masterpiece, edited by Gary M. Radke. The book was published in 2007 in connection with an exhibition of three of newly restored Ghiberti panels, held successively at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

radke --- gates.......


“Unlike anything ever seen”

Most of these essays tend to be fairly technical, dealing with the process of creating the panels, the art of chasing (i.e., the hammering, carving, detailing and polishing of cast bronze) and the process of casting the bronze, as well as the role of collaboration in their creation.

Butterfield’s, though, is more of a celebration of Ghiberti’s art. Indeed, it’s titled “Art and Innovation in Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise.” These panels, created over a 27-year period in the early 15th century, he writes,

are one of the defining achievements of the period. In their combination of expressive power, convincing perspective, and sublime gracefulness, they were unlike anything ever seen before. They set a new ideal of artistic accomplishment, one that was to influence every painter and sculptor in Italy for generations to come.

However, because of a thick curst of grime caused by six centuries of weather and pollution as well as damage from a 1966 flood, art experts were long hamstrung in their attempts to analyze and evaluate the door panels. A needed restoration was nearing completion in 2007 when the three panels were put on display in the American museums — one about Adam and Eve, another about David and the one about Jacob and Esau.

Continue reading

Book review: “The Photographer and the President: Abraham Lincoln, Alexander Gardner & the Images That Made a Presidency” by Richard S. Lowry

Near the end of his prose and poetry collection Memoranda During the War, Walt Whitman contemplated the scope of carnage across the national landscape — “the dead, the dead, the dead — our dead.”

Those words, notes Richard S. Lowry, echo the battlefield photos that Whitman’s friend Alexander Gardner and his assistants made in the aftermath of such monumental Civil War clashes as Antietam and Gettysburg.

Photography in mid-19th century was still a new technology, too bulky and slow to record actual firefights. Consequently, the Gardner photos were of unburied bodies littering fields and crumpled amid trees and rocks.


As static as they appear to modern eyes, these images, displayed in Matthew Brady’s New York studio and later in Gardner’s own gallery, brought the war home to Americans in a new and visceral way. Gardner’s photographs, writes Lowry, “spoke less about flanking maneuvers and attacks and campaigns and the fate of the Union than about death — not a ‘good death,’ redeemed by noble causes and last words to the family by a sudden, anonymous, and profoundly violent end of life.” (46)

In these black and white “views,” as they were called, it was difficult, if not impossible to determine if a body was that of a Northern or Southern soldier. They were simply Americans. “Our dead,” as Whitman wrote.

Lowry’s captivating new book, The Photographer and the President: Abraham Lincoln, Alexander Gardner & the Images That Made a Presidency, is about “our dead,” as Gardner pictured them and as Lincoln memorialized them. And one victim in particular — Lincoln himself. Continue reading

Book review: “Elvis Presley” by Bobbie Ann Mason

I missed the dawn of Elvis. I was just a bit too young, only four years old in July, 1954, when the King recorded “That’s All Right (Mama)” for Sun Records and, as Bobbie Ann Mason writes, “it was as if the nebulous, unformed kid was a genie let loose from a Coke bottle.”

By the time I became aware of the world outside our family home in Chicago, Elvis was a major fixture in the American culture. Rock ‘n’ roll was already established.

I heard stories of how shocking Presley had been, arriving on the scene, but that was old news. He was a name, like Ike and like Mickey Mantle, that everyone knew. He was — in that alchemy of celebrity — part of my life and the lives of everyone else.

Mason’s short biography Elvis Presley, part of the Penguin Lives series, was sort of remedial reading for me.


Mason, a Southerner, is a novelist and short story writer, and she spends her book looking at how it felt like Elvis, how he arose out of the fabric of the South, how his personality was formed by poverty and crushed by the expectations his talent and success unleashed. Like genies out of a Coke bottle.


“Risk and trembling”

For me, growing up, Elvis was simply Elvis. Mason explains what it meant for those who experienced him as a new phenomenon:

Elvis swept up marginal groups of people with a promise of freedom, release, redemption; he embodied a yin and yang of yearnings; he took people close to the edge and brought them back again; with his stupendous singing talent, he blended all the strains of popular American music into one rebellious voice; like Walt Whitman, he was large — he contained multitudes; he created a style of being that was so distinctive it could be made into an icon; he violated taboos against personal expression and physicality; he opened the airwaves to risk and trembling.

Elvis exploded the past, broke down walls. He was the epitome of the rebel. But Mason notes that he wasn’t radical in the way most of his listeners were. Continue reading

Book review: “The Hot Kid” by Elmore Leonard kidThere is, in a meandering way, a story here. But Elmore Leonard’s The Hot Kid isn’t really about story. Like all his other stuff, it’s about people.

In this case, it’s people revolving around the youthful U.S. Marshall Carlos (Carl) Webster, the “hot kid” of the title, who has gained renown by tracking down violent miscreants and taking them in — or, more usually, taking them down, outdrawing them.

Here are some descriptions of characters, and one place, and one politician, from the book. If you find them interesting, then you’ll like this book. If not, you might want to pick up a sense of humor somewhere.


Virgil and Narcissa

Virgil Webster was forty-seven years old, a widower since Garciaplena died in ought-six giving him Carlos and requiring Virgil to look for a woman to nurse the child. He found Narcissa Raincrow, sixteen, a pretty little Creek girl related to Johnson Raincrow, deceased, an outlaw so threatening that peace officers shot him while he was sleeping. Narcissa had lost her own child giving birth, wasn’t married, and Virgil hired her on as a wet nurse. By the time little Carlos had lost interest in her breasts. Virgil had acquired an appreciation.


Continue reading

Book review: “Americans” by the National Portrait Gallery, with a forward by John Updike

Look at these three portraits:

Combo .... 1 Look at the eyes of Georgia O’Keefe in Paul Strand’s photograph. Leave aside the fact that she was a great 20th century artist. Leave aside the composition of the picture. Can you avoid looking at her eyes? They jar. They unsettle.

The Robert Frank photograph of John F. Kennedy, taken in 1956 after JFK’s losing effort to win the Democratic nomination for Vice President, literally turns the idea of portraiture on its head. The image of Kennedy’s face is deeply woven into the American and world consciousness. Yet, with this picture, Frank makes us see the assassinated president anew. (It also hints at tantalizing “what ifs” of history.)

Then there is a goofy-looking, goofy-posing George Armstrong Custer in this ambrotype taken during his years at the West Point Military Academy, probably in 1859. You’d never know it was Custer since he doesn’t have his thick, shaggy moustache nor his long flowing blond hair. But, in this image, doesn’t Custer give a sense of the man who would become the fame-monger who would die, through his own stupidity, at the Battle of Little Big Horn?


An American face?

These three images are from Americans, a sturdy, well-designed paperback of nearly NPG ... american150 images from the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. These were on exhibit at the end of 2002 and the start of 2003 at the British equivalent of the gallery — the National Portrait Gallery in London.

In his short forward to the book, John Updike begins: “Is there an American face?”

He can get away with asking it because he’s John Updike, but it’s a silly question. Within a family, there is often a common “face.” Think of the Kennedys.

Stillt, once you get beyond shared genes, it’s hard to argue that any group of people have a common look, and, if you pursue that line of thinking, you quickly end up talking in stereotypes — the physiognomy of Irish immigrants to the U.S. being compared to that of dogs, the anti-Semitic descriptions of Jews with hook noses.

Do the faces of O’Keefe, Kennedy and Custer have much in common? Continue reading

Vance Bourjaily is back “in print”

It was almost 40 years ago. I was in my mid-20s, prowling around the cramped and labyrinthine aisles of a bookstore on Clark Street in Chicago, a couple blocks south of Diversey Boulevard. And, there on one of the rows of paperback fiction, I saw a title that caught my eye, Now Playing at Canterbury.

Vance Bourjaily in the mid-1960s

Vance Bourjaily in the mid-1960s

It was by Vance Bourjaily, a major American writer whose star, by this time, was starting to set as literary fashions moved along to the Great Next. Now Playing at Canterbury was his wildly inventive modern version of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. I loved it.

Then, I came across The Violated, his 1958 book about four friends whose lives are twisted and snarled in the aftermath of World War II. It knocked me off my feet.

Over the years, I read everything I could of his. He was, and remains, my favorite author. I even had the chance to review his last published novel, Old Soldier, for the Chicago Tribune.


In print

That was a quarter of a century ago, and, in the meantime, all of his books went out of print.

Until now.

Finally, nearly five years after his death at the age of 87, four of his novels are again available to a new generation of readers.

They’re “in print,” and they’re not in print. Which is to say they are available as ebooks only, no printed versions. But I’m not complaining.


As much as I love my hardcover and paperback copies of his books, I know that ebooks have a growing audience, and I’m sure that any ebook reader today who loves good — even great — fiction will find reading Bourjaily a rich experience. Continue reading

Book review: “Believer: My Forty Years in Politics” by David Axelrod

I’ve known David Axelrod for more than 30 years. We were colleagues as reporters at the Chicago Tribune. Then, after he moved across the street to become a political operative instead of a political reporter, I would bump into him now and again as I covered various stories.

Then, in 2008, he was the chief strategist for Barack Obama’s first presidential run, and I was assigned to do a profile of him. My 4,600-word article in the Chicago Tribune Magazine was titled “The Agony and the Agony,” an allusion to Axelrod’s constant fear of failure, even in the midst of great triumph, the inner engine that drove his frenetic pace…and pacing.

Now, here’s his book Believer: My Forty Years in Politics.




As a reporter, I hated to interview Axelrod because of his ability as a spin doctor. So I found it interesting that, in Believer, he mentions the word “spin” only six times. Continue reading

Book review: “Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East” by Scott Anderson

anderson...lawrenceThere is much to admire in Scott Anderson’s Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East (2013), but I had my problems with it.

What I especially liked about the book was how, at various points in the narrative, Anderson would step back and explain or put into perspective something that other authors tended to just take as a given. Or were too lazy to look into

A good example is his description of how it feels to ride a camel. I’m not sure how many books about World War I hero Thomas Edward Lawrence or about the Middle East in general ever get around to doing this, but I’d bet it’s few, if any.

In the midst of recounting Lawrence’s return to the Arabian desert and to camel-riding after two years behind a desk, Anderson mentions “the grinding physical discomfort” that the British officer had to endure. And then he elaborates:

Since its pronounced and narrow spine lies just below the skin, riding a camel is a wholly different experience from riding a horse, more akin to sitting atop a swaying metal rod. Even the best Bedouin saddle – little more than a wood-and-leather frame covered in blankets — can only slightly dull the pain for the green rider. Most such riders can rarely withstand the suffering for more than two or three hours without a break, but Lawrence was to have no such luxury on this journey; instead, what lay before him was an ordeal of some thirty hours in the saddle broken by only two short breaks.

Anderson provides this sort of wonderfully helpful insight for readers often in his 505 pages of text, and I’ll give some other examples later in this review. But they aren’t enough to overcome a structural problem that I think is at the heart of the book.


A fresh way to tell Lawrence’s story?

Someone somewhere, I’m sure, has developed a list of all the books that have been written about T. E. Lawrence and his role in the Arab Revolt during World War I and his (witting and unwitting) influence on the deadly, tension-filled Middle East we know today. It’s got to be in the hundreds. And, then, of course, there was David Lean’s 1962 movie Lawrence of Arabia, winner of seven Academy Awards including Best Picture.

Lawrence’s story is well-known. So a major obstacle that Anderson faced was how to find a fresh way to tell a story that has been told so many times already. In other words, why another book about Lawrence? Continue reading

Book review: “The Portrait Now” by Robin Gibson

gibson...portraitRobin Gibson’s book The Portrait Now was published in connection with an exhibition of the same name, organized by Gibson, on display at the National Portrait Gallery in London from November 19, 1993 to February, 6, 1994.

It’s an elegantly produced, compact book that is itself a beautiful object, featuring images of 64 paintings, sculptures and other works with a modicum on useful, helpful commentary.

Most of the artists are British, as are most of the subjects. That may be part of the reason many of the pieces here didn’t resonate with me. I didn’t know the backstory. Still, the impact of art shouldn’t depend on what a viewer “knows” about the subject and/or the artist.

Another problem for me was the small, flat format which made the works all about the same size, far from how they would be experienced in a gallery — and made it especially hard to take in sculptures. Still, Gibson and the National Portrait Gallery went to great pains to present three-dimensional pieces well-lighted and –framed and all the art in rich, accurate color.

No, my difficulties were more rooted in my inability or maybe laziness to decipher the messages or statements the artists were making in their works. This, I think, is why I tend to favor representational art; whether in a landscape or a scene or a portrait, I find myself in a conversation with the artist and the subject.

So I found much of The Portrait Now beautiful to look at but unintelligible, as if written in another language.


The take-no-prisoners reality of life

Nonetheless, there were several works that caught my eye, such as Gaia and Dali (1982/3) by Sighard Gille.

gala-und-dali by sighard gille

Elements of this portrait of artist Salvador Dali and his wife in old age — Gaia died during its creation — might be dismissed as caricature. Yet, Gaia’s dark-browed, dark-eyed stolidity and her jutting resolute chin as well as the knobs and wrinkles of her huge hands seem to understand and face fully the take-no-prisoners reality of life.

A short commentary notes, “The portrait is a devastating study of the tenacity of old age, the almost animal-like grip on life tempered by the somber colours of the couple’s fantastic clothes.” Continue reading

Poem: “The bullet enters Lincoln’s skull”

lincolnlastphoto...detail...detailHe dreamed
and saw her under the tree
in the pink dress her mother hated.

He felt a small hand in his
in the darkness
and wanted to escort the boy.

He saw the sun of that afternoon on the circuit
when the horse was lame
and he had a headache.

He heard the voices of the hecklers
for the first time clearly.

He saw the burned city
and the white city
and the prairie town Capitol.

He smelled the market stores
along the river
and the fish there
for purchase.

He saw his father by the woodblock
with an axe in his hands
and the body of an animal at his feet.

He tasted blood.

Patrick T. Reardon

Originally published in the magazine Telephone Book, number 18, in 1983.

Book review: “Turner” by Peter Ackroyd

"Rockets and Blue Lights (Close At Hand)  to Warn Steam Boats of Shoal Water"r

“Rockets and Blue Lights (Close At Hand) to Warn Steam Boats of Shoal Water”r

In Turner, his short biography of Joseph Mallard William Turner, Peter Ackroyd tells of a visit the 19th century British painter made to the estate of his patron and friend Walter Fawkes.

Fawkes later recalled that he asked Turner to draw a man-of-war and

he began by pouring wet paint till [the paper] was saturated, he tore, he scratched, he scrubbed at it in a kind of frenzy and the whole thing was chaos — but gradually and as if by magic the lovely ship with all its exquisite minutiae, came into being and by luncheon time the drawing was taken down in triumph.

That, Ackroyd writes, was a fitting description of Turner’s method and talent:

The emergence of form out of chaos, the man-of-war emerging mysteriously from a mist of color…He created a dynamic and fluid space in which to work, quite unlike the more rigidly defined ground of previous artists. His tactile sense of creating shape and form — scratching and scrubbing as if he were dealing with some recalcitrant material — gives his work a texture of inspired improvisation and magical creation.


Continue reading

Book Review: “Creatures of a Day and Other Tales of Psychotherapy” by Irvin D. Yalom

Psychiatrist Irv Yalom is 83.

I call him Irv because that’s what he asks his psychiatric patients to call him. I picture him as a sprightly firecracker of a guy, tooling around San Francisco on his bicycle, stopping into the City Lights bookstore near his office and trading deep and witty thoughts with 95-year-old poet-painter-activist Lawrence Ferlighetti.

I also have the fantasy that, at some time, somewhere, Yalom ran into and became friendly with Sherwin B. Nuland before Nuland’s death last March at the age of 83. It’s a fanciful thought. These two great souls lived across the country from each other. Yet, they seem to have shared common interests.

Nuland is best known for his 1993 book How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter. It’s a transcendently life-affirming work that looks at the mechanics of the human body and the ways the body — our body — breaks down. Its message: Life has an end so live it to the full.

yalom --- creatures

Yalom’s new book Creatures of a Day and Other Tales of Psychotherapy sends the same message but from a different perspective. Whereas Nuland looked at physical things (blood, muscles, cancer, the heart and so on), Yalom deals with the emotions, fears and terrors that human beings — his clients and himself — bring to the subject of death. Continue reading

Book review: “The Language of Clothes” by Alison Lurie

Sometimes, a piece of clothing or an aspect of fashion has a very specific meaning.

In her 1981 book The Language of Clothes, Alison Lurie notes that British officials, following the Irish Rebellion of 1798, regarded green clothing as “a serious, even fatal, political act.” In fact, a popular song of the time mourned that they were “hanging men and women for the wearing of the green.”

In Scotland, earlier in the 18th century, to don a clan tartan was to make a similar political statement, and the practice was banned by an Act of the British Parliament.

Around the same time, a beauty patch was a clear signal of the party allegiance of an English lady (and her husband or father). If she were a Whig, she wore it on her right cheek. A Tory, on the left.

A century earlier, the hair length of men had been the measure. Royalists wore their hair long, as in Catholic France. Puritans, by contrast, were closely cropped and were called Roundheads. Similarly, in 1960s America, the anti-Establishment young men let their hair grow and were called longhairs. Those backing the powers-that-be had crew cuts.

Most often, though, the language of clothing and fashion isn’t as definite. Indeed, after reading Lurie’s book, I’m thinking that its title more properly should have been The Poetry of Clothes.

lurie.language of clothes


“Like an ordinary man”

I’ve long been fascinated by the meaning of clothing and fashion — what they say about human nature. Continue reading

Book review: “Lincoln and the Power of the Press: the War for Public Opinion”

For the North, the goal of the Civil War was to reunite the nation. That’s how Abraham Lincoln defined it and why the northern states rallied behind the effort.

Yet, the question of abolishing slavery was always somewhere in the discussion. Many northerners saw it as another, even more important goal of the conflict. Others, though, because of racism or fear of labor competition from free blacks, wanted nothing to do with abolition.

Although personally long opposed to slavery, Lincoln knew as a politician that he could not impose his beliefs on his constituents. Eventually, he was able to sell abolition to the North as a weapon to cripple the war-making ability of the Confederacy. The result was the Emancipation Proclamation.

To get to this point, though, Lincoln had to do what American leaders have always had to do, i.e., shape and shift public opinion step by subtle step. A key moment in that sales job came in August, 1862, when, in a letter to New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley, the President wrote:

“If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”

In Lincoln and the Power of the Press, Harold Holzer describes this letter as “a master stroke” and an example of Lincoln’s “genius for synchronized press manipulation.” Yet, he argues, historians have failed to see the letter for the brilliant political act it was.


holzer -- lincoln and press


Combination waltz and bar fight

It wasn’t simply a letter. It was a public letter — an element of public opinion strategy that Lincoln had developed to cope with newspapers and their editors. At times throughout his political career, Lincoln waltzed with the newsgatherers. At others, it was a bar fight, and these public letters were the equivalent to an elbow to the face.

The great value of Holzer’s meaty book is that it puts Lincoln’s era and career in the context of that combination waltz and bar fight. The ferocious political and personal battles between the press magnates will come as a revelation to most Civil War students, and so will Lincoln’s often (but not always) inspired handling of reporters and their editors.

Continue reading

Book review: “The Canticles: A Faithful and Inclusive Rendering from the Hebrew and the Greek into Contemporary English Poetry, Intended Primarily for Communal Song and Recitation,” edited by Gabe Huck, illustrated by Linda Ekstrom

Huck --- The CanticlesMany of the books of the Bible are like Hollywood musicals.

In Fiddler on the Roof, for instance, the narrative unfolds as characters interact, and, every once in a while, someone breaks into song, such as Tevye with “If I Were a Rich Man.”

The same sort of thing happens in the Bible.

The author of, say, Judith or Daniel or the Book of Revelations uses prose to tell stories or transmit teachings. But, at various points, the exposition is interrupted as one character or a bunch of people launch forth in a poetic prayer, called a canticle.

Many of canticles were originally hymns. On the page in the Bible, they became poems. And, frequently, these poems have been turned back into hymns for use in religious services.

That’s one of the purposes of this translation of 55 of the Bible’s many canticles, published in 1996 by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy, as well as a similar edition of the Psalms, issued in 1995.

The translators wanted to find words and phrases that accurately reflected the original text and were easy to sing. They also wanted to make the language as inclusive as possible. For instance, they used a variety of strategies to avoid employing the male pronoun for God.

Another important goal was to render the canticles poetically in present-day colloquial English, avoiding words and sentence structures that may have been in use in Biblical times but not today.


Beautiful and, for some, jarring

The resulting canticles are fluid, accessible, deeply felt and, often, strikingly beautiful.

Even so, they will jar some ears, as they did mine. Continue reading

Book review: “The Gay Place” by Billy Lee Brammer

On the cover of the University of Texas Press edition of Billy Lee Brammer’s 1961 novel The Gay Place is a blurb by David Halberstam:

There are two classic American political novels. One is All the King’s Men…..the other is The Gay Place, a stunning, original, intensely human novel inspired by Lyndon Johnson. place


That’s high praise, especially coming from the author of The Best and the Brightest and nearly two dozen other widely respected books.

I can’t agree. Continue reading

Book review: “ ‘The World of Poo’ by Felicity Beedle’ ” by Terry Pratchett with Bernard and Isobel Pearson

In Terry Pratchett’s 2011 Discworld novel Snuff, Young Sam Vimes has become very interested in poo.

Mainly, this is because Young Sam is six.

It’s also because the only son of Sam Vimes, the commander of the City Watch in Ankh-Morpork, is on a visit to his parents’ country home where, throughout the grounds and nearby fields, interesting varieties of excrement abound.

And because, each night, his father (grudgingly) reads to him from a book by Young Sam’s favorite writer, Miss Felicity Beedle, called The World of Poo. (Vimes doesn’t find all the verbal mucking about very enjoyable, but parenthood requires some sacrifices.)


Young Sam and his family live on the Discworld, the subject of 40 novels by Pratchett as well as ancillary works produced with the help of collaborators

The Discworld, where technology has reached the equivalent of Victorian times on Earth, isn’t a ball, like Earth. But a flat disc — like a huge DVD — covered with mountains, rivers, plains, oceans, six-year-olds and poo, among other items, resting atop the backs of four elephants, themselves standing on the back of Great A’Tuin, a giant turtle,…and flying through space.

Pratchett has used Discworld as a vehicle to wittily comment on human nature and society (even if many of the characters aren’t technically human, including vampires, dwarfs, golems and such). Even more, he’s employed it for sheer, utter and bald-faced silliness.

Exhibit #1: The World of Poo. Continue reading

Book review: “Primitive Rebels: Studies in Archaic Forms of Social Movement in the 19th and 20th Centuries” by E. J. Hobsbawm

In Sicily in the late 19th century, the Socialists who went out into the rural areas to organize the peasants were hard-headed men. Their aims were economic, and their demands were very specific.

Not so for the peasants.

In rebelling against the oppression of landowners and the government, they were millennial in approach. Their hope was for a just and perfect world, a sort of heaven on earth. Their aims, as summarized by Marxist historian E. J. Hobsbawm in his 1959 book Primitive Rebels, were simple:

All should work. There should be neither rich nor poor. All should be equal. There should be no need to divide estates and houses. All should be put in common and the income should be justly distributed. This would not give rise to quarrels or selfishness because there would be brotherhood…and those who broke brotherhood would be punished.

hobsbawm.primitive rebels

These peasants, like most of the “primitive rebels” in Hobsbawm’s book, were pre-political. Their world was changing and had changed, but they didn’t have the intellectual framework with which to understand that change and respond to it.

They had been living an essentially medieval life, centered on their village, with rights, responsibilities and power dynamics that went back centuries. They were miserable but knew of no way to deal with their misery except with spasmodic rebellions that occurred at regular intervals.


“A true Socialist”

In the century’s final decade, though, Socialist organizers appeared and gave focus to that unrest. The peasants went along with them, but within the context of their medieval mindset.

These organizers were seen, Hobsbawm writes, as a sort of divine revelation — “good noble men, whom one peasant in Canicatti described as ‘angels come down from Paradise. We were in the dark and they have brought us light.’ ”

The peasants treated visiting Socialist leaders “as though they were bishops — men and women throwing themselves on the ground and strewing flowers in their path.”

It was, commentators frequently noted, “a new religion” — yet one that didn’t replace Christianity. For the peasants, it stood to reason that Socialists couldn’t be in conflict with the true faith of Jesus. They were a new expression of that faith.

They saw St. Francis of Assisi as “one of the first and greatest of Socialists, who had, among other things, abolished money.” After all, as one peasant woman told an interviewer, “Jesus was a true Socialist.”


“To hammer the lords”

Primitive Rebels is a short book — 174 pages of text with 19 pages of appendices — but a demanding read. Hobsbawm expects his reader to have a great knowledge of European labor and political history and a strong familiarity with Socialist, particularly Marxist, ideology. Continue reading

Book review: “Creatures of a Day and Other Tales of Psychotherapy” by Irvin D. Yalom

yalom --- creaturesAs I wrote in Sunday’s Printers Row section of the Chicago Tribune, psychiatrist Irvin D. Yalom’s new book Creatures of a Day and Other Tales of Psychotherapy deals with the emotions, fears and terrors that human beings — his clients and himself — bring to the subject of death.

In ten short chapters, each of which, for the most part, deals with a single client, the fear of the end of life is often hidden in seemingly unrelated behaviors and thoughts.

It’s Yalom’s skill as a therapist as well as the hard work and vulnerability of his patients that gets beyond those initial symptoms to the deeper causes of personal unrest and unhappiness.

In Creatures of a Day, Irvin D. Yalom is up-front about many of his techniques as a psychotherapist. This is likely to be of great help to other therapists, particularly those new to the field.

Even more, these methods can be used by people in therapy and those who are simply trying to examine and improve their lives. They’re various strategies for going deeper and facing essential truths and challenges.

Here are some:
Being there: “The most valuable thing I have to offer is my sheer presence.”
Employing an “old reliable” strategy: “I believe it would help our work today if you’d take me through, in detail, a typical twenty-four-hour day in your life. Pick a day earlier this week, and let’s start with your waking in the morning.”
Being open to learning: “Oh what a pleasure it was to be with Andrew! As he taught himself, he taught me too.”
Using first names: “How would you feel if we went by first names?”
Suggesting free association: “Just free-associate…, by which I mean: you try to let your mind run free and just observe it as though from a distance…almost as though you were watching a screen.”
Being open to the client: “Any questions you have for me?”
Using hunches as a gentle way of putting ideas into the give-and-take: “I have a hunch…”
Being “loose” about the therapist’s own experience: “I knew I was being a bit loose, but that often paid off — patients generally appreciate my sharing something of myself, and it usually works to accelerate more sharing.”
Asking about dreams: “Sometimes thoughts enter the mind involuntarily in daydreams, for example, or night dreams.”
Exploring the therapeutic relationship: “I always teach my students that, when you’re in trouble in a session, you can always bail yourself out by calling on your ever-reliable tool, the ‘process check’ — you halt the action and explore the relationship between you and the patient.”
Seeing therapy as a relationship: “The compelling two-person drama I had engaged in.”

Patrick T. Reardon

Book review: “Time for the Stars” by Robert A. Heinlein

heinlein -- time for the starsBack in 1905, Albert Einstein promulgated his relativity theory. One wrinkle had to do with how time would be experienced by someone on Earth as compared with someone else traveling in a rocket ship at near the speed of light. Twins, say.

I can’t claim to understand the mathematics or physics, but the idea is that time would be slowed down for the one in a rocket ship — to the extent that, on his return to Earth, he would find his twin much, much older than himself.

In his 1956 book Time for the Stars, Robert A. Heinlein took that theory and ran with it.

And ran with a lot of other stuff as well, including telepathy, the search for Earth-like planets, the strategies of family dynamics, psychosomatic injuries, the psychology of siblings, the nature of life on other worlds and the meaning of “alien.”

“How does it feel to be a little green man in a flying saucer,” says one character as a ship from Earth prepares to land on a newfound world.


“An oofoe. We’re an oofoe, do you realize that?”

“I suppose we are a U.F.O, sort of.”

No “sort of” about it. Heinlein understood that, just as Earthlings get scared at the idea of an “unidentified flying object” being a ship from space, so would any intelligent life forms on a planet visited by an Earth rocket. Continue reading

Book review: “Notes from a Small Island” by Bill Bryson

There are travel books, and then there are travel books.

One sort, such as Fodor’s, is jammed with facts about hotels, trains, battlefields, subways, mileage, restaurants, museums, exchange rates, airports, safety tips, trails, cathedrals, stadiums, cruises, tours, shopping…. You use this sort when you are going to a place as a tourist, and it functions as a handy, cleverly packaged, compact database to help you maneuver around.

The other type of travel book — such as Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island — isn’t about taking a journey yourself. It’s about going along for the ride without ever leaving home.

And what’s really curious is that it really isn’t so much about the place that’s being visited. It’s about hanging out with someone who is interesting, thoughtful, funny and alert.

That’s Bryson.

bryson --- small island


Cringe-producing moments

Certainly, no travel companion is perfect, and Bryson is smart enough as a writer to include a few cringe-producing moments like those that happen on any trip.

In Edinburgh, for instance, a “spotty young man” behind the counter at McDonald’s takes his order and then asks, “Do you want an apple turnover with that?” Bryson, who describes himself at this point as “fractious and impatient,” proceeds to browbeat the poor acne-plagued kid for nearly a full page — and then has the gall to complain that the kid isn’t filling his order fast enough.

Such moments, though, are few and far between. True, Bryson does go on a rant every once in a while — what good travel companion doesn’t have strong ideas and opinions? — but usually he’s just ranting to the reader rather than at someone.

And, even when he does rant, there’s always more than a touch of humor involved, such as when he thunders out his loathing of parking garages where, he notes, “everything about the [parking] process is intentionally — mark this, intentionally — designed to flood your life with unhappiness.”

You can’t help but laugh as Bryson lists all the many unhappy aspects of parking garages — especially when he concludes with this observation:

Did you know — this is a little-known fact but absolute truth — that when they dedicate a new multi-storey car park the Lord Mayor and his wife have a ceremonial pee in the stairwell? It’s true.

Continue reading

Book review: “Harvest” by Jim Crace

Jim Crace has said that his 2013 book Harvest will be his last novel. It’s not that he’s going to stop writing. He promises more books of other sorts but not another novel. We’ll see.

It would be a loss for readers. No novelist creates a world with quite the same intensity and tangibility as Crace does. The forces of Nature and their impact on human beings are always at the heart of his fiction. And so it is with Harvest.

crace --- harvest

It is set in an obscure corner of England in the 17th century — on the Jordan Estate, also called the Property of Edmund Jordan, a manor house, a barn, a dovecote and a cluster of cottages amid farm fields, hills and a forest. The place has no name as Walter Thirsk tells a visitor: “It’s just The Village. And it’s surrounded by The Land.”

Walt, the narrator of this tale, is a middle man, as even his name suggests. (One loutish character giggles with great glee when he realizes that Walt’s name sounds like “Water” and “Thirst.” Ha, ha.)

Walt was born in a town and grew up with Master Charles Kent as his boyhood playmate. Indeed, they both nursed at the breasts of Walter’s mother. As an adult, he worked as Master Kent’s manservant and came along when that gentleman’s wife inherited this property.

During the next dozen years, Walt fell in love with a village woman, Cecily, and left the manor house to live with her and join with the 50 or so other residents to farm the fields in the circuit of seasons as ancestors had done time out of mind.

He has become one of the villagers although he still does special jobs for Master Kent. Both men are now widowers.


“A commonwealth of habit”

Harvest tells about a week in the life of the Village when everything the villagers have known is turned on its head, in large part because of the appearance of Master Kent’s cousin Edmund. Continue reading

St. Scrooge

If I call you a “scrooge,” that’s not a good thing. We all know that a scrooge is a miser, a misanthrope, a bitter wasted soul. “Bah, humbug!”

It’s a word that goes back to Ebenezer Scrooge, the central character of A Christmas Carol, published by Charles Dickens in 1843.

Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge!” Dickens writes, “A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.


When asked to contribute to a holiday collection for the needy, Scrooge says such people should go to the workhouse or to prison. In response, he is told, “Many can’t go there, and many would rather die.”

To which Scrooge asserts:

“If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

Not a nice guy. And no wonder that his name has become synonymous with a particular kind of mean and prickly greed.

But wait. We do Scrooge a disservice. Think about it. What’s the heart of his story? Continue reading

Book review (1994): “How the Other Half Lives” by Jacob Riis

The five blind men and women lived in the attic room in a rundown tenement in New York City in the late 1800s, and Jacob A. Riis was there to take their photograph.

But Riis was clumsy, and the technique of flash-lit photography was new and still imperfect. And he ended up setting the paper and rags hanging on one wall ablaze.

It was a tragedy in the making. Not only were the other five people in the room blind, but so was nearly everyone else living in the building.

“The thought: How were they ever to be got out? made my blood run cold as I saw the flames creeping up the wall,” Riis later wrote, “and my first impulse was to bolt for the street and shout for help.”

Instead, with great effort, he was able to smother the fire himself.

Afterward, when I came down to the street, I told a policeman of my trouble. For some reason he thought it rather a good joke and laughed immoderately at my concern lest even then sparks should be burrowing in the rotten wall that might yet break out in flame and destroy the house with all that were in it.

He told me why, when he found time to draw breath. “Why, don’t you know,” he said, “that house is the Dirty Spoon? It caught fire six times last winter, but it wouldn’t burn. The dirt was so thick on the walls, it smothered the fire!”

What an irony. Here was one instance when poverty actually saved the lives of the poor. More often — much more often — poverty stunted lives, darkened lives, poisoned lives. It crowded the poor, squeezed, exploited, abused, abandoned and killed them.

This was the urban poverty, in all its oppressing, chaotic and disheartening aspect, that Jacob Riis addressed in his landmark book of social reform, a book of clear-eyed text and starkly moving photographs, How the Other Half Lives, published in 1890.

riis --- How-the-Other-Half-Lives

Continue reading

Book review (2015): “How the Other Half Lives” by Jacob Riis

There is much to say about Jacob Riis’s 1890 masterpiece How the Other Half Lives, but, first, let’s look at the faces in his book.


In our selfie-social media age, a collection like this — a collection of the faces of individuals — is nothing unusual. Yet, 125 years ago, these images were revolutionary.

If you were rich, you could have your portrait painted. If you were middle-class, you could pay for a photographic likeness. You might even buy your own Kodak box camera, introduced in 1888, and take up the expensive hobby of photography, making photos of family members and friends.

The poor couldn’t avail themselves of these options.

But Jacob Riis, newspaper reporter and reformer in New York, could and did. And, in lectures, articles and a series of books, starting with How the Other Half Lives, he bridged the economic, cultural and class gap to link those with solid, comfortable lives to their brothers and sisters trying to eke out a living in poverty.


Common humanity

riis --- How-the-Other-Half-LivesHow the Other Half Lives was a major milestone in journalism, in photojournalism and in social reform.

Riis’s text, often overlooked, is hard-edged and filled with a barely restrained anger.

His photos show every crooked board, every crack in the plaster, every smudge and detail of the rooms where poor families and individuals lived and often worked and of the buildings and neighborhoods in which they spent their days.


These images were startling and unsettling. And what was most startling and unsettling about them were the highly distinctive faces —- the individual faces — of this Italian and that tough, of this Jewish child and that Street Arab, of this sleeping laborer and that drunken woman.


Those with solid, comfortable lives generally didn’t look at the poor, and, when they thought of the poor, they pictured the mass of poor people rather than individuals.

The photos by Riis showed the particular room in which this family lived or the particular basement in which this man lived, sleeping atop a barrel — images that gave viewers new insights into the experience of being poor.

And they showed this family and that man — and the common humanity that each of these individuals shared with each of the viewers.

This above all else — showing the faces of fellow human beings with undeniable clarity and directness — was the triumph of Riis in How the Other Half Lives. Continue reading

Book review: “Valdez Is Coming” by Elmore Leonard

Westerns move toward the mythic, but they end up simply formulaic unless they’re peopled by living, breathing characters.

Initially, the mythic underpinning of western films and books was good guys versus bad guys — white hats versus black hats, Us versus Them, Good versus Evil.

Then, starting in the 1950s and accelerating in the 1960s, the trend was toward a muddier moral landscape.  We’re as bad as them.  The good guys were as bad as the bad guys — or, as in the Wild Bunch, they were the bad guys, just bad guys who weren’t as bad as the really bad guys.

Related to this shift was another trend.  It arose during the Civil Rights Movement, especially in the 1960s, when men and women on the margins — African-Americans, Hispanics, prostitutes, for instance — took center stage.  These movies bet that mainstream audiences, overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly middle class, could identify with such heroes, and, generally, they did.  (After all, Native American boys had long identified with the cowboys in movie westerns.)

The story of Valdez in movie and book brought these trends together, and populated the mythic structure with real people. Continue reading

Book review: “Up in Honey’s Room” by Elmore Leonard

leonard --- honeyA character in Elmore Leonard’s 2007 novel Up in Honey’s Room is wondering when he should draw a handgun, hidden in the cushions of a sofa, and shoot it out with this guy pointing a burp gun at him. His inner dialogue goes this way:

All right, when?

When you’re positive he’s gonna shoot.

You’re serious? This guy put on his best dress and makeup and brings along a machine gun and you aren’t sure he wants to kill you?

This scene comes very late in the novel, and the reader, by then, knows why the guy holding the burp gun is in a dress and why he’s pointing it at two men and a woman (the titular Honey) sitting cheek to jowl, so to speak, on a coach in her fourth-floor apartment (the titular room). And why those three are nude. And who that other woman is, the one standing off to the side with a Luger in her hand.

Leonard, who died in 2013 at the age of 87, produced 48 novels in his long career, many of them great. Up in Honey’s Room, his 45th, isn’t great. Leonard was in his early 80s when he wrote it, so maybe he was just tired.

Still, even so-so Leonard can be a lot of fun — for the reader and apparently for the author as well. Continue reading

Book review: “The Arms of Krupp” by William Manchester

manchester --- krupp


Nearly half a century ago, The Arms of Krupp by William Manchester was published to several decidedly negative reviews.

The reviewer for Kirkus Reviews wasn’t sure, after going through the book’s 833 pages of text, whether Manchester saw the Krupp family as fierce patriots or whores in their service to the Fatherland over two centuries of armament development and sales. The writing, according to the review, was, at times, leaden and, at other times, afflicted with pedantry.

Historian Alistair Horne complained in the New York Times that the book had many inaccuracies and was tainted by Manchester’s “visceral, anti-Germanism” as well as his “passion and prejudice.” Horne was unclear if the author believed that the final “sole proprietor” of the Krupp firm, Alfried Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach, was really guilty of war crimes.

Was Alfried responsible for the Krupp firm’s brutal use of 100,000 slave laborers from the conquered eastern nations and from the Third Reich’s concentration camps for Jews? Was he guilty of the deaths of tens of thousands of those people and even their babies? Horne wasn’t sure where Manchester stood.

In another New York Times review, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt asserted:

There are three basic kinds of history, and the historian takes his choice. He can dig up the record and lay it out for others to use — do basic research, in other words. Or he can filter the record through his imagination and write entertainment — popular history. Or he can shape the facts into an argument, prove something — write a thesis. The trouble with The Arms of Krupp is that Mr. Manchester has tried to do simply everything.

This paragraph, it seems to me, explains much, not just about Lehmann-Haupt’s antipathy for the book, but also the antagonism of other reviewers.


“No slain, no crime, no war”

But, first, let’s make something clear.

This entire book is an indictment of the Krupp family and the German people — and especially of Alfried.

It is an indictment of Alfried’s establishment of a factory adjacent to the Auschwitz concentration camp and his use of camp prisoners as slave laborers. It’s an indictment of the brutality inflicted upon tens of thousands of imprisoned Jews and other involuntary workers, including beatings and a torture cage in the basement of Alfried’s company headquarters, within earshot of his office. It’s an indictment of the company’s concentration camp for babies born to the slave laborers, babies who died for lack of food and proper treatment or, later, simply disappeared. Continue reading

Book review: “The Green Hills of Earth” by Robert A. Heinlein

heinlein -- green hills of earthSometimes, when he was younger, Robert A. Heinlein would speculate in his stories and novels about the science of space travel, and that could get a bit wonky. Sometimes, when he was older and had had wide success, he would fill his fiction with bombast about how humans should live, and that could get tedious.

In The Green Hills of Earth, Heinlein does what he does best — writes about that endlessly mysterious and endlessly curious thing called human nature.

The Green Hills of Earth is a 1951 collection of nine short stories and a novella, originally published during the previous decade. Here, there’s not much discussion of space hardware or theoretical physics. People are people, albeit in alien settings or in exotic circumstances.


“Nothing new”

The novella “The Logic of Empire” is set mainly on the harsh landscape of Venus (which seems very much like equatorial Earth, except hotter and muggier), but the subject is one that has been an aspect of human society from the beginning — slavery.

Through a series of unexpected events, lawyer Humphrey Wingate finds himself as a labor client on the second planet from the sun, which is to say that, since there is no way to buy his way out of his contract and obtain a flight back to Earth, he is a slave. Continue reading

Book review: “American Queen: The Rise and Fall of Kate Chase Sprague, Civil War ‘Belle of the North’ and Gilded Age Woman of Scandal” by John Oller

oller --- american queenMary Todd Lincoln was in her glory.

It was March 28, 1861, and she had hosted her first state dinner at the White House as the nation’s First Lady. She was saying good-bye to her guests, including Kate Chase, the daughter of her husband’s Treasury Secretary, Salmon P. Chase. “I shall be glad to see you any time, Miss Chase,” she said to the tall, elegant 20-year-old woman.

“Mrs. Lincoln,” said Chase, “I shall be glad to have you call on me at any time.”

What effrontery! Yet, two weeks before the start of the Civil War, the battle for dominance of Washington, D.C., society was already well underway between the diminutive, Kentucky-born Mary Lincoln and the queenly Kate Chase. And Chase was winning. Continue reading

Five mythic poems

Rodin photo for 5 mythic poems





Up Lake Shore Drive, I ride on my charger, black as a deep cave.
You don’t see me, commuter, too dull with science.

Onto Hollywood Avenue, then Ridge Avenue, then onto Clark Street.

Children see me. Ignore me. They know.

If you are a dancer, a painter, a singer,
don’t look my way. You have eyes,
but I will lash them with my whip of human spine.

Onto Granville, then to Paulina.
Up the street.

I arrive. You die.

Note: The Dullahan is a sort of Irish version of the Headless Horseman. I wondered how he’d do in present-day Chicago. Quite well, I discovered.

Continue reading