Book review: “The Long Utopia” by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

The Long Utopia doesn’t sound much like the late Terry Pratchett, but neither have any of the earlier three novels in the Long Earth series — The Long Earth, The Long War and The Long Mars.


I’ve read each because Pratchett’s name was there on the cover as co-author with Stephen Baxter, and, each time, I’ve come away disappointed. Indeed, while reading The Long Utopia, I often find myself asking: “Did Terry Pratchett want to write a dull book?”

Well, maybe “dull” isn’t the right word. The Long Utopia, like its predecessors, is cold and hard, exhibiting little emotional depth or psychological sensitivity. In contrast to Pratchett’s delightfully and endlessly interesting Discworld novels, the books in the Long Earth series aren’t really concerned with people. Over the course of more than 1,000 pages so far, its characters remain talking heads and (somewhat) animate plot devices.

How very much unlike the people — well, you know what I mean: the werewolves, trolls, dwarfs, humans and other human-ish entities — in the Discworld! One-of-a-kind sort of people such as Granny Weatherwax, Sam Rimes, Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler, Lord Sir Henry King, Sergeant Fred Colon and Corporal Nobby Nobbs, Lord Vetinari, Tiffany Aching, Moist von Lipwig and Death. Who doesn’t like Death? Well, at least, Pratchett’s character Death.

By contrast, the Long Earth books are interested in scientific, anthropological and philosophical speculation, pretty dry stuff, especially when expounded in long strings of over-inflated dialogue.

They are based on a grand speculation: What if our Earth were one of untold millions of Earths, all existing at the same time in parallel realities, and what if we could “step” (or “waltz” or “move”) from one to another? Everything in the series flows from this idea, first suggested by Pratchett in his 1986 short story “The High Meggas.” (It’s included in his collection A Blink of the Screen, published in 2012).


A story-telling tin ear

Yet, in all the books that Pratchett wrote on his own, did he ever exhibit the story-telling tin ear that’s on display in the klutzy Long Earth series? Continue reading

Book review: “BODY,” edited by Anthony Bond

Given our complicated feelings about our bodies, it’s no wonder that most of the art works included in BODY, edited by Anthony Bond, are unsettling.

This book — the catalogue of a 1997 exhibition of the same name that was held at The Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia — focuses mainly on nudes of one sort or another, but not just any nudes.

The curator of the exhibit and the book’s essayists aren’t very concerned with elbows or toes. Rather, the emphasis is on those parts that pack the most emotional impact for us. Lots of penises, breasts, vaginas and butts. Consider BODY’‘s front cover with its image of Auguste Renoir’s “Young Boy with Cat” (1869) and the back cover with Gustave Courbet’s “The Source.”


Even those artworks featuring the clothed human body are often unnerving. Indeed, the most disturbing image for me doesn’t exhibit any erotic areas, but a seeming acre of bare skin that suggests them — George Lambert’s “Chesham Street” (1910).

lambert.chesham street

A well-to-do, well-muscled, well-whiskered man is holding up his shirt almost to his neck (where he still has on a tie). His pants are open, well below the navel, and a doctor sits before him, apparently examining him. In his essay on the exhibit, Bond describes this as “an incongruous exposure.” And he’s right inasmuch as this isn’t the usual way a semi-nude person (usually a woman) was portrayed in art of a century ago.

Nonetheless, it’s far from incongruous in the life of anyone who gets regular medical treatment, even as simple as an annual physical. This patient, usually so self-contained in his clothing, finds himself exposed and vulnerable. And alone in a particularly bewildering way.  This image is likely to stir up uncomfortable feelings in many viewers.

Continue reading

The Burnham Plan as literature

lit.stripThe 1909 Plan of Chicago, written by Daniel Burnham and his co-author Edward Bennett, is a great work of American literature.

There, I’ve said it. Now, let’s see if I can make my case.

Literature is a pretty spongy term. For some people, it means fiction. So The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain is literature. But Black Boy by Richard Wright isn’t.

Well, that’s certainly seems too narrow a definition.

The Wright book, of course, is a great work about growing up as an African-American in the early 20th century. Other important non-fiction books include Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography which provides an insight into a key leader of the American Revolution and U.S. Grant’s Memoirs, one of the clearest accounts of the Civil War by any writer.
It would be difficult to imagine a library of great American books that wouldn’t include all three.


Is that literature?

Is that what literature is, a great book?

Well, what about Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address? Continue reading

Book review: “Searching for Robert Johnson” by Peter Guralnick

There is much that is mysterious and evocative and just plain odd about the life of blues legend Robert Johnson who died in 1938 at the age of 27, probably murdered with poison.


One of the oddest is the idea of him playing “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” the 1930s country-western song recorded by Gene Autry and later by Bing Crosby and, most memorably, by The Sons of the Pioneers.

In Searching for Robert Johnson, published in 1989, music historian Peter Guralnick writes of Johnson’s life as a musician:

You had to be prepared to play what your audience wanted you to play, since you were being paid not by salary but by tips. You might be engaged to play all night at a juke joint for a dollar and a half, but you were liable to make your real money by filling a request for Leroy Carr’s latest release or a Duke Ellington number. By Johnny Shines’s account Robert Johnson was as likely to perform “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” or the latest Bing Crosby hit as one of his own compositions.


In fact, the bluesman seems to have been a Bing Crosby fan, and, at times, in the 41 recordings that make up all that remain of his work, he exhibits a broad range of musical interpretation, borrowing from many sources, including that mainstream crooner.

Continue reading

Book review: “The Colour of Magic” by Terry Pratchett

Fifteen years ago, I interviewed Terry Pratchett for the Chicago Tribune about his new novel The Fifth Elephant. It was the 24th of his Discworld books, and it had to do with dwarfs, trolls, gnomes, humans, vampires, zombies and werewolves.

Terry Pratchett in 2007 (Robin Zebrowski)

Terry Pratchett in 2007 (Robin Zebrowski)

We met in the lobby of a hotel a few steps from Tribune Tower, and he was, as I wrote, “a short man who, with his bald head and grizzled white beard, looks a bit gnomish himself.” He spoke in a thin, high voice with an engaging lisp. He was 51 at the time.

Fifth ElephantOver a period of a decade or so, I interviewed a lot of writers for the Tribune. It was an exhilarating experience, a sort of super-graduate-level course in the art of writing. I’d read whatever new book the author had produced, and then we’d sit down together and talk. Often, after reading one work, I’d get ahold of one or more of the authors other works.

With Pratchett, though, it was different. After reading The Fifth Elephant — the title is the pun on a popular sci-fi movie of the time The Fifth Element — I went back to the beginning of the Discworld series and read all of the earlier 23. Then, I waited, like all of his hundreds of thousands of fans worldwide, for the next book and the next and the next.

The final Discworld novel --- "the Shepherd's Crown"

The final Discworld novel — “the Shepherd’s Crown”

Pratchett died on March 12. His final Discworld novel The Shepherd’s Crown is being published on September 1. I have my order in already.

In my Tribune profile, I wrote:

As a writer, Pratchett is a smart aleck who loves puns and silliness and verbal surprises. (Think of Monty Python and Benny Hill.)

But, in an understated way, he also has used his novels as means to think about and write about religious faith.

Actually, as I read the other Discworld books, I saw that Pratchett used his giddy foolishness to look at a lot of important social issues. Religion, though — the idea of belief and what belief brings about — was always there somewhere in his writing. “The nature of religion and belief runs through all of the Discworld series, either explicitly or implicitly,” he told me.


“The Time of Mating”

And so it is in the first Discworld novel The Colour of Magic.


But, first, let’s deal with a little silliness. Continue reading

“July 10, 1981″ and a dozen other faith poems

july 1981.....July 10, 1981

By Patrick T. Reardon

On this porch, on this cool summer day,
when the moon is benign in afternoon sky,
when birds sing from wire to wire,
I have no argument. This may be
the milk-and-honey time, the fulcrum,
the equator. I may be on my way
down or past or into. This will change,
and I will change, and the wood of this porch
will rot. The birds will die,
and I will die, and new leaves will grow
under other summer suns. I have no argument.

Continue reading

Fiction: A Church Refreshed: A dispatch from an American Catholic future — Dateline: Chicago, March 13, 2063

Song leader Sophia Santiago stood to the right of the altar of St. Gertrude Church in Chicago and invited those in the crowded pews and in folding chairs to greet their neighbors. “All are welcome,” she proclaimed.

To the simple notes of a single piano, the parish choir and the congregation sang a sweet, lilting version of “Come to the Water” as liturgical dancers, altar servers, ministers of the word, parish chancellor Emma Okere and pastor Rev. Antonio Fitzgerald processed up the center aisle.

The song filled the soaring interior of the 131-year-old structure. On a banner high behind the altar, in large, easily readable lettering, was a quotation from Pope Francis: “Who am I to judge?”


This was one of thousands of celebrations across the globe marking 50 years of rejuvenation and renewal dating from the election of Pope Francis in 2013, popularly called “refreshment of the faith.”


“Prisoners of our past”

Consider St. Gertrude and the rest of the Archdiocese of Chicago.

In 2013, St. Gertrude had been one of 356 parishes in the archdiocese, each with a church and one or more ancillary buildings, such as a rectory, a school and a former convent.

Today, though, it is one of only 42 full parishes. Over the past five decades, successive Chicago Cardinals, working closely with lay Catholics and using a model developed in Europe, closed nearly 90 percent of the traditional parishes in Cook and Lake Counties, Illinois.

Continue reading

Marina Abramovic’s page at

Wall --- 4 -- by Paco DelgadoI’m a fan of Marina Abramovic’s performance art.

I wrote about it three years ago in a review of “The Lovers” which was the catalogue for the work that she and her partner at the time Ulay carried out in 1988  a walk toward each other on the Great Wall of China.

abramovic-ulay....the lovers

There’s also a wonderful video of her work The Artist is Present, put on in 2010 at MOMA.  A nice clip from it is available on YouTube.

marina...artist is present

Now, has put together a nifty and comprehensive webpage about her career, featuring images from scores of her works.  It appears to be a great resource.

Patrick T. Reardon



Book review: “Storm” by George R. Stewart

Early in George R. Stewart’s Storm (1941), the new Junior Meteorologist in the San Francisco office of the U.S. Weather Bureau is putting the finishing touches on a map that spans a good portion of the Earth, from the eastern edge of Asia, across the Pacific, across North America, to the western edge of the Atlantic.

In these early pre-dawn hours, he has been recording temperatures, wind velocities and barometric pressures on the large piece of paper so that the Chief Meteorologist will be able to use the map to make his forecast for the day.

Then, Stewart writes:

He laid aside his eraser and colored pencils, and sat back to look at the work. Involuntarily, he breathed a little more deeply. To him, as to some archangel hovering in the ninth heaven, the weather lay revealed.

In many ways, this scene captures the whole of Storm. The map that covers such a large swath of the planet is an indication of the great sweep of Stewart’s story of a single January storm that hits San Francisco and its region.

storm---- stewart 2

Like the weather, Storm is a sprawling saga, ranging across the oceans and land masses of the Junior Meteorologist’s map and beyond. The stories of individual people and places are intertwined — and, through the weather, interconnected.

Continue reading

Book review: “Staring at the Sun — Overcoming the Terror of Death” by Irvin D. Yalom

Here’s an experiment:

You wake up in the middle of the night, and standing next to your bed is an angel or a devil or a genii or some spirit of some kind.

This being tells you that you are going to have to live your life again — exactly as you have already lived it. You will make the same choices, suffer the same pains, say the same words. Everything will be identical.

This will not only happen once, but again and again and again on into eternity.

What’s your reaction?

Do you wail and gnash your teeth? Or do you think that would be just fine?


Shock therapy

Friedrich Nietzsche laid out this “mightiest thought” in his late 19th-century book Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Psychiatrist Irvin D. Yalom includes it in his 2008 book Staring at the Sun — Overcoming the Terror of Death. And he adds:

The idea of living your identical life again and again for all eternity can be jarring, a sort of petite existential shock therapy. It often serves as a sobering thought experiment, leading you to consider seriously how you are really living.



This scenario is like shock therapy, he writes, because it makes a person look at what his or her life is like at the moment. Is it relatively happy? Relatively fulfilling? Or dry and frustrating?

scooge...detailAlong these lines, Yalom also recalls the story of Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. After leading a long life as an emotionally gnarled skinflint, Scrooge endures three dreams during the night of Christmas Eve, and wakes up vowing to turn over a new leaf.

Those dreams were, Yalom writes,

a form of existential shock therapy or, as I shall refer to it in this book, an awakening experience. The Ghost of the Future (The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come) visits Scrooge and delivers a powerful dose of shock therapy by offering him a preview of the future. Scrooge observes his neglected corpse, sees strangers pawning his belongings (even his bed sheets and nightdress), and overhears members of his community discuss his death and dismiss it lightly.

Waking up, Scrooge realizes that the future he’s seen is not set. He can change it — and, Dickens writes, he does.

He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world….And it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.

Continue reading

Book Review: “The Millionaire and the Bard: Henry Folger’s Obsessive Hunt for Shakespeare’s First Folio” by Andrea E. Mays

There is an image at the end of the glossy photo section in The Millionaire and the Bard by Andrea E. Mays. It shows 82 copies of the First Folio — the first full collection of Shakespeare’s plays, printed in 1623 — resting horizontally on thirteen shelves at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.

folger folios

This group, worth perhaps $100 million, represents more than a third of all the surviving First Folios known to exist, and each was purchased by Henry Folger during his intense four-decade-long career as a collector of all things Shakespeare.

But Folger never saw his collection of First Folios together in this way — or together in any way.


“Never enjoyed”

From 1889 until his death in 1930, Folger and Emily, his wife and collecting partner, never had their treasures on display. Their rented home in Brooklyn was filled with “books, books, books,” but not for show. The massive number of Shakespeare documents and other relics, purchased through lavish though prudent spending, ended up in crates in warehouses where no one — including the Folgers — ever saw them.

Thus, Henry Folger had never enjoyed the collector’s privilege of seeing all his books shelved together in one place [writes Mays]. His eyes had never danced from spine to spine, shelf to shelf, and case to case, beholding in one sweeping, exquisite moment the sum of what he had achieved.

Continue reading

Book review: “Poetry in the Bible” by Garry Wills

Garry Wills was just 25 years old in 1960 when he completed Poetry in the Bible, a 63-page booklet that was part of the Catholic Know-You-Bible Program. He was at the start of a long career as a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, historian and journalist.

Poetry in the Bible is rarely mentioned. Few people know that Wills wrote it.

Yet, as one would expect, it’s an interesting little book, filled with insights about biblical verse, most from the Old Testament, and with Wills’ palpable joy in poetry and his religious faith.

wills.poetry in bible

This book was written more than half a century ago, a few years before the start of the Second Vatican Council. Since then, there is much that has changed in the Catholic Church, and also a great deal of biblical research that has been conducted. So, there are some aspects to Wills’ text that he might write differently today.

But the core of his book is still vibrant.


“A strange song”

The book’s audience was apparently adults and older children new to thinking about the Bible and its meanings. As a result, Wills writes in a simple style, taking his readers by the hand in a careful, instructive way. Continue reading

Book review: “The Hollywood Catechism” by Paul Fericano

fericano...hollywoodIf someone comes across a copy of Paul Fericano’s book of poems The Hollywood Catechism (Silver Birch Press, $16, 110 pages) a hundred years from now, I’m not sure what they’ll make of it.

I’m not sure what someone today under the age of 40 would made of it.

This is a book that seems to be firmly rooted in the American culture and mythology of the 1950s. Consider “Poem for Ralph Edwards” which is a single line: “This is your poem.”

That’s hilarious — but only if you know that, during the 1950s, Ralph Edwards was the host of a sappy pseudo-reality show providing well-scrubbed video biographies of celebrities, called “This Is Your Life.” (By the way, in the Notes section of the book, there’s one for this poem that reads in toto, “This is your note.”)

Sure, a reader can check the internet for background information about Edwards, but that makes for a clunky reading experience. So Fericano is running the risk of unintelligibility to many potential readers. My guess is that he doesn’t give a damn.

After all, here is a guy who, for the central section of his book, has an 11-page poem called “The Howl of Lon Chaney, Jr.” which is nothing less than an effort to borrow the scheme, cadences, language and incantatory outrage of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and employ them in a slashing jeremiad against Hollywood in the voice of Lon Chaney Jr. who, in a variety of mid-20th century films, starred as the Wolf Man, the Mummy and Frankenstein’s monster.


“Baying the dirge of death”

It’s ridiculous chutzpah. Yet, Fericano pulls it off. Continue reading

Book review: MOON SINGER SERIES: “Moon of Three Rings,” “Exiles of the Stars,” “Flight in Yiktor” and Dare to Go a-Hunting” by Andre Norton

A year and a half ago, I read Andre Norton’s Moon of Three Rings (1966) and described it in a review as one of her best novels.

I liked it so much that I got copies of its three sequels — Exiles of the Stars (1971), Flight in Yiktor (1986) and Dare to Go a-Hunting (1990) — which I read recently.


For a long time, I have tried to figure out why I enjoy reading Norton’s novels. She’s not as good a writer as Robert Heinlein or Edgar Pangborn. Indeed, her characters tend to talk in a stilted, almost fairy-tale like way. “There will be many coming and going — and we shall make us a path through such a gathering to the Faxc entrance — from there it is but a step to the Street of Traders,” says one character in Flight in Yiktor.

Neither is she very inventive in the way of science fiction writers. Her books don’t ponder theoretical speculations or try to figure out the physics of space travel. Almost always in her sci-fi books, her characters are landing on planets where the air is breathable and the gravity just fine.


“Hair to clothe her”

There is no sex in Norton’s books although publishers often slap lurid covers on them, usually having little or nothing to do with the text. (By contrast, Heinlein’s characters were often a randy bunch.)


In the three examples above, the left cover for Exiles of the Stars does have a bit of a connection to the story. However, instead of the slinky, go-go dancer-ish woman that the artist has conceived, Norton describes an ancient alien, held for eons in stasis, this way:

But the fourth was a woman! None of those behind the walls were clothed except for their crowns. And their bodies were flawless, skin to the ideal of beauty held by my species. The woman was such perfection as I had never dreamed could exist in the flesh.

The speaker is Krip Vorlund, a main character of all four Moon Singer books, but it’s not clear how he knows this woman is so perfect since he adds:

From beneath her diadem flowed hair to clothe her almost to her knees.


“My comrade in adventure”

Romance is missing as well. Continue reading

Book review: “Images of the American City” by Anselm L. Strauss

Near the end of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, five-term Mayor Carter Harrison Sr. gave a speech in the Music Hall to a crowd of visiting mayors and other officials.

Detail of Newberry Library photo ---"Photo of Harrison's Last Address," Carter H. Harrison IV Papers, 1673-1953, box 17, folder 824.  , from Faith in the City: Chicago's Religious Diversity in the Era of the World's Fair, accessed ,

Detail of Newberry Library photo —“Photo of Harrison’s Last Address,” Carter H. Harrison IV Papers, 1673-1953, box 17, folder 824.
, from Faith in the City: Chicago’s Religious Diversity in the Era of the World’s Fair, accessed ,

His subject: the “beautiful White City” that had been built in Jackson Park to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the voyage of Christopher Columbus to the Americas but, even more, to trumpet the greatness of Chicago.

When [the Great Chicago Fire of 1871] swept over our city and laid it in ashes in twenty-four hours, then the world said, “Chicago and its boasting is now gone forever.” But Chicago said, “We will rebuild the city better than ever,” and Chicago has done that.


The White City is a mighty object lesson, but, my friends, come out of this White City, come out of those walls into our black city….The second city in America!

Harrison’s use of the term “black city” was to contrast the busy, crowded, ever-growing, money-making metropolis with the pristine beauty of the temporary fairgrounds where uniformly gleaming white buildings had attracted more than 27 million visitors over a six-month period.

For him and for other Chicago boosters, it was the “black city” — which undeniably was covered by a pall of smoke and filled with smoke-begrimed structures — that was the true wonder.

A century earlier, there had been no Chicago, no settlement even, just a single trader and his family. Three-quarters of a century earlier, fewer than 40 people had lived on the site. Nearly a quarter of a century earlier, the city had been devastated by the Great Fire. Yet, on the day Harrison spoke, Chicago was second only to New York — but, he was sure, not for long.

Soon would come the day, Harrison predicted, when “Chicago will be the biggest city in America.”



Sociologist Anselm L. Strauss doesn’t mention Harrison in his 1961 book Images of the American City, but the mayor’s speech fits well into the context of many of his observations. His book is an examination of the way people think of cities — residents, outsiders, tourists, boosters, critics, and Chicago is a frequent subject for his analysis. For instance, Strauss notes

the schizoid spirit of the Columbian Exposition itself: partly an aspiration after a greater cosmopolitanism…and partly pride in the enterprise of a city which could so vigorously and admirably present the fair to an awestruck world.

Strauss --- images of the american city

Many Fair visitors, he points out, “were keenly aware of the difference between the imposing Exposition (the ‘white city’) and the actualities of Chicago (the ‘black city’).”

Harrison may have characterized the “black city” as an awe-inspiring dynamo of commerce, success and progress, but it was easy enough for visitors to see the ground-down lives of many Chicagoans and the filth of the city’s streets and the violence and corruption just below the surface.

Indeed, Strauss, who spent most of the 1950s as a professor at the University of Chicago, writes that newspapermen Lloyd Lewis and Henry Justin Smith, in their 1920 book Chicago: The History of Its Reputation “saw their city as oscillating between two poles: gigantic enterprise and tremendous violence.” Continue reading

Fiction: “The Summer of ‘64”

“Summer vacation, 1964, the summer after my freshman year in high school, was the beginning of my dark night of the soul.”

What the hell? What was Louis Sojo talking about?

“It was,” he said, “the start of almost twenty years of wandering in a jagged wasteland, searching for something — I didn’t know what. Confused, uneasy, lost, I would get glimpses now and then of a direction to take, a turn to make. Was this the right way to go? I didn’t know. I just knew I had to be moving. I had to continue searching.”

I just nodded. What else could I do?

We were sitting in a booth at McDonald’s. Louis had a cup of coffee in front of him. I had pretty much finished my Diet Coke.

His publisher — he’s a textbook writer — had sent him out to sit in on some classrooms where one of the company’s books, The Spirit of the Nation, was being used. At the John Coughlin Academy of Excellence and Justice, I turned a corner and suddenly I heard, “Chippy!” And there was Louis.

Internally I cringed at that nickname. I hadn’t been called “Chippy” since my early 30s when I’d play basketball every Saturday morning at a church gym on the North Side. Louis was part of those games — a short, plumb guy who was a lot more agile than he appeared. He had a horrible-looking shot that almost always went in. A good teammate, a quiet presence on the court and off. A good guy.

But it’s not like we were close. I was happy to see him again and glad to catch up. I never expected to hear him unload his life story — or, at least, his story about the summer of 1964. We’d been talking about baseball and the players we remembered from the 1950s and 1960s, and, then, for whatever reason, Louis began to ramble.

“In 1963,” he said, Continue reading

Book review: “Vivian Maier: Street Photographer,” edited by John Maloof

Look. This graceful woman in a stylish black dress is walking across a city street. Her foot is about to step on a trolley rail. She is looking slightly to her left. Or maybe not.

Undated, New York, NY

She is far away. The image of her is blurred. There is so much of her that is not known, so much hard to read. Yet, I find her compelling. I’m not sure why.

This image is blurred because it is part of the background of a photo of a window-washer that is included in the 2011 book Vivian Maier: Street Photographer.

For the moment, Maier’s story has overwhelmed an evaluation of her art.
During the course of a half a century, she took 100,000 photographic negatives, mostly on city streets, but did virtually nothing to find an audience for them. She died. John Maloof, a Chicago writer researching a neighborhood history, discovered one box of her negatives and then more, printed some and then many, and then Vivian Maier, who had lived her life in obscurity, was the talk of the art world.



sVM...10...I find her photos disturbing enough to think there’s something there. And maybe that’s why I was drawn to the woman crossing the street.

Turning the pages of Vivian Maier: Street Photographer, I felt myself pushing away from the ostensible subject, such as the window-washer. Not exactly repelled (at least, in most cases). Instead, there was a sense of unknowableness to the faces. A sense that, no matter how clear Maier’s focus was, there was no way to get beneath the skin to the person there.

But maybe what was happening was that her biography was getting in the way. She was, it appears, such a mystery herself.

In any case, I ended up looking to the edges — looking at what else was in the frame and being fascinated by what I found.

My photographer friends will probably scold me for this, but I began to see these pieces of Maier’s images as separate images with a life of their own. Like the woman crossing the street or this image (right) of a woman coming up basement stairs that was the right hand edge of one of Maier’s self-portraits, the one taken in a mirror held up by a guy loading a truck. Continue reading

Book review: “Quarantine” by Jim Crace

Five people trudged individually yet in an erratic line into the wilderness to spend forty days in quarantine in their individual caves, praying and meditating for their individual reasons.

One was a rather fragile, timid young man from Galilee called Jesus, nicknamed Gally for his accent. He was idealistic and somewhat dopey. Parched and footsore — he’d left his sandals with a shepherd — this Jesus came upon a tent where he might get food and drink before beginning his month and a half of fasting. But no one responded to his call.

Looking inside the tent, he found water and bread and dates and a dying man — Musa, wheezing his final breaths from the ravages of a fever.

“Do not deny me water, cousin,” he said. “Let me take a mouth of it, and you’ll then have forty days of peace from me. I promise it. The merest drop.”

He put his fingertips on Musa’s forehead. He stroked his eyelids with his thumb. “Are you unwell? I am not well myself.”

As I said, a little dopey.

A carpenter’s son who liked praying better than sleep, this Jesus talked himself into drinking some of the water and eating some of the bread and dates that he turned up inside the tent of the dying Musa. He even used some of the water to wash his hands, wet his hair and massage his scalp.

Then — an afterthought — he tipped a little water on Musa’s cheeks and lips. He felt inspirited, newly released from pain, and powerful. He wet the cloth and put it back in place on Musa’s mouth. He shook the water from his hands over Musa’s face, a blessing. “So, here, be well again,” he said, a common greeting for the sick.

Then he left.


A healer?

From this scene evolves the whole of the story that Jim Crace tells in his 1997 novel Quarantine. As in his other fiction, the action of this novel, page after page, angles and arcs in unexpected ways.


Consider the other four who settle into caves apart from and yet near each other — Aphas who is dying of cancer; Shim, the arrogant Greek; the woman Marta, childless after a decade of marriage; and the “badu” or Bedouin whose name is never revealed.

They have come into this wilderness to spend their time alone — to quarantine themselves away from the human world — yet they spend much of it together. And not just with each other, but also with Miri, the bruised and pregnant wife of Musa, and with Musa, resurrected from his death mat. Continue reading

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