February 27, 2013

Book Review: “City Spaces: Photographs of Chicago Alleys” by Bob Thall

There are many photo books, such as Bob Thall’s City Spaces: Photographs of Chicago Alleys, that are akin to collections of found poems. A poet creates a found poem using a text written by someone else. That text is reshaped or recombined into poetic lines and given a title. The result, when done well, is something that reaches beyond the initial writer’s intent. For instance, Vanessa Mancini mined the testimony of cult leader Charles Manson at his murder trial, and came up with 15 three-line verses. Here’s one: Judgment of the Dead I will not judge you; Have no malice against you, no ribbons for you. Mancini saw something in Manson’s words that was deeper, richer and darker than he meant or than his hearers in court heard. A kind of music The same is true for photographers such as Thall. They look at something, created for one purpose, and see it with different eyes.
February 27, 2013

Book review: “Never Let Me Go” by Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel Never Let Me Go can be read on three levels. It can be approached as a cautionary tale about the unintended consequences of science. It can be seen as a metaphorical examination of slavery and exploitation. To my mind, though, it is best viewed as a meditation on the human condition. Which is odd — but, first, let me warn you that I’m going to be talking about some aspects of the novel that are unveiled slowly in its pages. There are strong hints early, and the outlines of the world in which the characters live are there from the beginning. Nonetheless, if you want to be able to approach Never Let Me Go with completely fresh eyes, you should avoid going any further into this review. The novel is well worth reading and pondering. That way As I was about to say above, it is perhaps a bit odd for me to think of Never Let Me Go as a meditation on the human condition since its three main characters — Kathy H., Tommy D. and Ruth — aren’t human at all. Or, at least, they aren’t seen that way, or think of themselves that […]
February 23, 2013

“Lincoln” and me

The movie Lincoln is a strong contender for the Oscar for Best Picture Sunday night, and Daniel Day-Lewis has to be considered the front-runner for Best Actor after portraying the 16th U.S. President as a flesh-and-blood person instead of the usual cinematic saint. The critics rave. Audiences are awed. Just about everyone loves it. Why not me? Without question, Day-Lewis turns in a great performance, but I found the movie bombastic and preachy, a history lesson masquerading as drama. Consider me a minority of one. Too persnickety? It’s possible that, having read a lot about Lincoln throughout my life, I’m too persnickety.
February 22, 2013

Book review: “Illinois: Mapping the Prairie State Through History” by Vincent Virga and Scotti McAuliff Cohn

I’m a sucker for map books. Words are a miraculous means developed by humans to communicate what’s inside our heads. Maps are a similarly wonder-full invention. They take landscapes and translate them into images. Most are images of the physical world in which we live, but not all. You can have a map of the brain, for instance, or one of a corporation (usually called an organizational chart), or a map of a process (like the ones that Rube Goldberg cartoons take to humorous extremes). We’re used to looking at maps to figure out how to get from here to there. But these images provide us much more, such as what the map-maker considered important. You can see that in the 53 maps in Illinois: Mapping the Prairie State Through History by Vincent Virga and Scotti McAuliff Cohn. Published in 2010, this is one of nine titles from Globe Pequot Press that focus on a single state and provide historic maps from the Library of Congress. A tiny geographical feature In the scope of things, the Chicago River is a tiny geographical feature. Yet, in map after map at the beginning of this book, it’s shown, greatly out of scale. […]
February 19, 2013

The new Pope: Hoping for another “holy old boy”

With the announcement of Pope Benedict XVI’s plan to resign, the Roman Catholic Church stands at an important crossroad. There are many Catholics and non-Catholics alike who have bristled at the increasingly hyper-orthodox hard line that the Vatican and many bishops have taken in recent years. From the U.S. to Ireland to Sri Lanka to Brazil, the hierarchy has cracked down on those who have sought an open discussion of such issues as abortion, gay marriage, women priests and papal infallibility. It’s been an our-way-or-the-highway message, starting under Pope John Paul II and growing more strident under his successor Benedict. Nonetheless, anyone tempted to celebrate the departure of Benedict on Feb. 28 needs to think twice. More of the same The new pope will be elected by a conclave of cardinals dominated by those who were given their red hats by John Paul and Benedict. For the most part, these prelates rose through the ranks because they toed the Vatican’s conservative line and didn’t rock the boat. Don’t expect them to want to do any boat-rocking now. In all likelihood, these cardinals will settle on someone who, they believe, fits the John Paul-Benedict mold, someone who wants to battle against […]
February 17, 2013

Book review: “Bring Up the Bodies” by Hilary Mantel

The title for Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies comes from a phrase used very late in the novel. Four courtiers to Henry VIII and his consort Anne Boleyn are being held in the Tower of London, awaiting trial for treason for having sex with the Queen and wishing the King dead. (The Queen herself as well as her brother George will also stand trial on the same charges.) The order goes to the Tower, “Bring up the bodies.” Deliver, that is, the accused men, by name Weston, Brereton, Smeaton and Norris, to Westminster Hall for trial. This calls to mind the term formerly used in American prisons, “Dead man walking,” which was shouted to alert guards and inmates that a condemned man was being taken down a hallway. Of course, technically, none of these six accused is condemned. But the trials are only formalities. The King, wishing to marry his third wife Jane Seymour, wanted Anne removed. She wouldn’t go quietly, and these trials are the result. Death is the only outcome. Henry’s right-hand man The one who brought this about is Henry’s right-hand man, Master Secretary Thomas Cromwell. And he is the central character of what Mantel has […]
February 16, 2013

Yankee hat

February 14, 2013

Book review: “Industrial Archeology: A New Look at the American Heritage” by Theodore Anton Sande

The star of Theodore Anton Sande’s 1976 book Industrial Archeology: A New Look at the American Heritage is Chicago’s elevated Loop, originally called the Union Loop. It’s given pride of place as the final example of 32 structures — mills, mines, dams, factories and other industrial sites — that Sande highlights in this heavily illustrated look at the roots of U.S. industry. And it’s given eight pages out of the 115 in the main text, more than any other structure. Indeed, Sande, who helped found the study of industrial archeology, writes about the Loop with deep affection and admiration: The Union Loop, a massive web of riveted steel girders and shining tracks, arches over busy city streets, passing close by the windows of tall buildings on either side, and insistently threads its way through downtown Chicago…. For the industrial archeologist, the Chicago Loop provides an ideal case study of an entire transit system of reasonably manageable size that still serves its original purpose. Demolish the Loop? What Sande wrote then is still true today, of course. Except for renovation or replacement of the Loop stations, the elevated structure itself — that “massive web of riveted steel girders and shining tracks” […]
February 13, 2013

History Book Club — 20-year book list — 119 books, one of which read twice

Month Book Author March, 1993 Nature’s Metropolis William Cronon May, 1993 Capt. Sir Richard Francis Burton Edward Rice July, 1993 Memoirs U.S. Grant September, 1993 A World Lit Only By Fire William Manchester November, 1993 The Oregon Trail Franics Parkman January, 1994 Homestead William Serrin March, 1994 The Price of Admiralty John Keegan May, 1994 The Great Bridge David McCullough July, 1994 1066 David Howarth September, 1994 Truman David McCullough November, 1994 Out of the Storm Noah Andre Trudeau January, 1995 Plagues and Peoples William H. McNeill
February 6, 2013

Book review: “White Robe, Black Robe” by Charles L. Mee Jr.

A decade of protests, riots and civil disobedience across the world had just ended when, in 1972, Charles L. Mee Jr. published White Robe, Black Robe, his dual biography of Pope Leo X and Martin Luther. So, it’s no wonder that Mee saw the struggle between the two men as a battle between the establishment and an outside agitator. Indeed, in closing the book, he points to the radical movements in Europe and the United States in the 1960s as an example of “the old controversy of the individual asserting his rights of sovereignty against authority…” Then he writes: None of these movements has yet found its Luther, and perhaps none will. But the establishment unhappily, maintains the breeding ground for him, nourishing the forces of its own ruin, clinging desperately and indiscriminately to its virtues and its corruptions, its liberties and its tyrannies, its ideals and its injustices — secure, like Leo X, in the knowledge that the powerful will prevail. Now we find ourselves at another moment in time when the powerless are challenging the powerful. We see it in Libya, Syria and Egypt. And we see it in the attacks by Islamic terrorists against the U.S. The […]
February 3, 2013

A chapter from a small book I’m writing: Catholic and Starting Out: 5 Challenges and 5 Opportunities — First Opportunity: The Exciting World

Free at last! You’ve moved beyond childhood, beyond adolescence. And now you’re an adult. It may not feel that way. After all, you’ve spent your life viewing adults as other people — your parents, your teachers, store owners, bus drivers, carpenters, coaches, cops, TV personalities, firefighters, doctors, politicians and all the rest of the “big people” around you. You’ve lived in their world. Well, now it’s your world. You’re one of them. Simply by virtue of your age, you have a place as an adult. Your job, from here forward, will be to determine what that place is. That’s the exciting part. Your life is in your hands. You will choose which roads you will take. Which friends you will make. What work you will do. True, this is something you have to do. No one else is going to take responsibility for you. Even more, though, it’s something you get to do. You will shape yourself — your self. Rich in options Your bank account may be empty. But you are rich in options.
February 1, 2013

Book review: “Noah” and “Moses, Moses,” pictures by Ken Munowitz, text by Charles L. Mee Jr.

As a reader, I get hooked on a particular writer for any number of reasons. I suspect it’s the same for you. For instance, Patrick O’Brian’s series of 20 novels of the British Navy in the early 19th century, featuring Capt. Jack Aubrey and his particular friend, surgeon Stephen Maturin, captivate me. Writing with great style and verve, O’Brian interweaves the closely observed interactions of people in groups, usually ship crews, with rollicking adventure scenes. Then there’s Terry Pratchett who has taken a jaundiced but affectionate look at the foibles of today’s world through 40 or so books of humorous fantasy, most set on the flat and wacky planet of Discworld. I’m drawn as well to more serious novelists — such as Vance Bourjaily, Anthony Trollope, Muriel Spark, Saul Bellow, Charles Dickens, Marilynne Robinson, Frederick Busch, John Barth, Jim Crace, John Williams and W. M. Spackman ¬— for their voice, language, originality and insight into the human condition. And to historians who are able to study, understand and communicate big stories with a personal flair and panache, particularly David McCullough, Antonia Fraser, John Keegan, Barbara Tuchman, Robert Massie, Simon Schama, Bernard DeVoto and, best of all, Robert Caro. Paean I […]