November 29, 2011

God’s voice in a scratching sound? an itch?

Published November 25, 2011 in the National Catholic Reporter Friends of mine get angry with the Catholic Church hierarchy, and, Lord knows, there’s enough reason for that. To err is human, as the poet says. And, as the clergy pedophile scandal and cover-up have shown, the Princes of the Church are deeply human. Nonetheless, they wear those fancy clothes, and they issue edicts as if they were the voice of God. I think that’s how they feel. What’s the point of a religious hierarchy, after all, if the people at the top can’t claim to be a pipeline from the Deity. And, of course, the Pope and the cardinals and the bishops can — and, sometimes, do — provide moral leadership in the world. But it seems to me that our faith isn’t built on pomp and circumstance, or on edicts from the throne. Ours is a humble faith. Really. “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Jesus asked. And he called a little kid over and said to his followers, “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Remember “One of Us,” the song Joan Osborne sang a few […]
November 29, 2011

Book Review: “Killing Lincoln” by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard

You’d never know from reading “Killing Lincoln” that Bill O’Reilly is a conservative political commentator. O’Reilly, the host of The O’Reilly Factor on the Fox News Channel, doesn’t use this story of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865, to push any particular political agenda. The account that he and his co-author, Martin Dugard, have written doesn’t draw any parallels to modern-day America. Instead, their aim is to make “Killing Lincoln” a thriller, as O’Reilly says in a Note to Readers at the beginning of the book, and also “a no spin American story.” As I’ve said, there is no political spin to the book. But there is a story-telling spin. Like a series of writers over the past century, O’Reilly and Dugard have opted to make “Killing Lincoln” as sensational a story as possible — as opposed to trying to make it as accurate as possible. Historians who are striving for accuracy weigh multiple sources. They try, to the best of their ability, to determine which statements and accounts are likely to be truthful and which aren’t. For instance, eyewitness reports, by their nature, tend to be muddled to begin with. But those […]
November 19, 2011

Book review: “No Night Without Stars” by Andre Norton

Andre Norton’s “No Night Without Stars” landed in bookstores in 1975. That was 23 years after her book “Star Man’s Son,” better known as “Daybreak — 2250 A.D.,” appeared in print. In 2003, Baen Books put the two short novels together into an omnibus titled “Darkness and Dawn.” I give this bit of publishing history because I read “No Night Without Stars” from that omnibus and because “Daybreak — 2250 A.D.” was a seminal book in my reading life. Both novels deal with a ravaged American landscape hundreds of years after an atomic war. Indeed, “Daybreak,” published just seven years after Hiroshima, may have been the first science-fiction novel to mine this concept. (Many other writers have since taken up the subject in books and movies, such as “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy and the Mad Max films.) In “Daybreak,” Fors is a mutant who, because of his silver hair and better eyesight, is viewed with fear by his clansmen. Overlooked yet again for full membership in his tribe, he flees his home village to search with his feline companion Lura for the lost city his father had been trying to find when he was slain in battle. I initially […]
November 16, 2011

Book review: “Tinkers” by Paul Harding

As “Tinkers” opens, George is dying. Paul Harding makes this clear with his first sentence: “George Washington Crosby began to hallucinate eight days before he died.” By the end of this short, intense, sharply observed novel, Harding’s vision is more evident. As Harding sees life, the characters in every novel are dying from the opening sentence. Ahab is dying. Sister Carrie. Madame Bovary. David Copperfield. Lolita. Olive Kitteridge. Rabbit. Augie March. And so, too, in every biography and memoir, every history. Lincoln, Bill Clinton, Cleopatra, Jane Addams, Elizabeth II, Victor Hugo, Shakespeare, Madonna, Goethe, Florence Nightingale — all of them, even as they live, are dying. Even as they lived. “Tinkers,” which won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, is a novel about the intertwining of life and death. About the journey of life toward death. About their inseparability. Midway through the book, a young George is crouching in a storage shed while his father looks on, thinking: So there is my son, already fading. The thought frightened him. The thought frightened because as soon as it came to him, he knew that it was true. He understood suddenly that even though his son knelt in front of him, familiar, […]
November 11, 2011

Honoring veterans — of all sorts

Striding purposely around a bend of a park path recently in Washington, D.C., Jim Chianakas suddenly saw before him the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. “There it is,” he said. “Wow!” Beside Chianakas, 85, of Princeville, Ill., was his brother George, 86, of Crystal Lake. The Chianakas brothers were among a group of 100 World War II veterans who had been flown to the nation’s capital that morning for an all-expenses-paid tour. Arranged and conducted by an organization called Honor Flight Chicago, the tour included the new National World War II Memorial as well as the other major Washington monuments…. See the rest of my op-ed piece in the 11.11.11 Chicago Tribune at this address: http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2011-11-10/news/ct-perspec-1111-honor-20111110_1_honor-veterans-honor-flights-honor-mothers
November 10, 2011

Book review: “Clarence Darrow: Atttorney for the Damned” by John A. Farrell

Finishing “Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned” by John A. Farrell, I was surprised to find myself underwhelmed by the book. No question, it’s a good solid effort. Farrell has done a yeoman’s job of tracking down, reading and incorporating the far-flung records of Darrow’s key trials, as well as much else in his life. (If you read the endnotes, you realize how sloppy other writers have been, including Darrow himself and Irving Stone, author of the 1941 “Clarence Darrow for the Defense.”) Perhaps Farrell’s book suffers a tad from all that research. On many occasions throughout the book, I had the wish that he had quoted less from Darrow’s courtroom speeches and his essays and his books. Darrow was nothing except his words and ideas, of course. Well, not nothing. There was his physical presence and his mannerisms, his body language, at which he was as adept as a great actor. Even more, there was his sly, cunning feel for human nature, his ability to read juries and play them like a musical instrument. The mannerisms, though, were there to frame his words, and his words were how he put to use that cunning feel for human nature. So, […]
November 9, 2011

Fully American: The election of JFK and the place of Catholics in the U.S.

When President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, I thought he would be canonized. St. JFK? It seems silly now. Now that all the stories of Kennedy’s womanizing have become public knowledge. Now that the glow of his presidency has faded and the memory of his glamour has soured. I was just a kid, a freshman in a high school seminary. I’d turned 14 on the day he was killed. But I wasn’t alone. There was much talk among Catholics and other Americans about “our martyred president.” In the hours immediately following the shooting, Federal Judge James B. Parsons, chairman of the Chicago Conference on Race and Religion, indicated his belief that Kennedy’s murder was the result of his Catholicism and his support of civil rights for U.S. blacks. “Like Christ, the President has died for the sin of racial and religious bigotry among us,” Parsons said. Fully American When Kennedy was elected to the White House on Nov. 8, 1960, he was a breath of fresh air. After decades of elderly and even infirm presidents, Americans were captivated by his easy charm, his beautiful wife, his youthfulness and young family, his sparkling smile. He was a superstar before […]