October 27, 2013

Book review: “The Alchemy of Air: A Jewish Genius, a Doomed Tycoon, and the Scientific Discovery That Fed the World but Fueled the Rise of Hitler” by Thomas Hager

Grumpy Pat: I just finished Thomas Hager’s The Alchemy of Air: A Jewish Genius, a Doomed Tycoon, and the Scientific Discovery That Fed the World but Fueled the Rise of Hitler, and it was a real waste of time. Amiable Pat: C’mon, it wasn’t all that bad. I kind of liked some parts of it. Grumpy Pat: Alright, it wasn’t exactly a waste of time. It was a book that took 281 pages to tell a story that could have easily been communicated in 30. I should have known. It’s always a bad sign when a book has a subtitle as long and weighted as this one. “Genius” and “doomed” are favorite subtitle words. And anytime you can get Hitler in there, it’s golden. At least, as far as sales go. Amiable Pat: Well, you’re right about subtitles. But Hager’s book does feature some interesting stuff about guano and nitrate and saltpeter, and how they were used for fertilizer and gunpowder — to feed and to kill. That’s kind of ironic, isn’t it? Grumpy Pat: Yeah, yeah, but Hager spends the first third of the book on these natural sources of nitrogen. It’s over-padded and over-written. It’s not really about […]
October 27, 2013

A meditation on sainthood and Sammy Esposito

As a young boy, I was captivated by baseball stars, and I asked my Dad if a particular player was good. It may have been Sammy Esposito of the White Sox. His response was that, if Sammy was in the major leagues, he had to be good. Yes, even if Sammy was only batting .167. My thoughts go to that memory as we approach November 1, the Feast of All Saints. The Catholic Church has its own Hall of Fame of Saints, the official list of those canonized, and it includes such all-time greats as St. Francis of Assisi and St. Gertrude the Great. In addition, there are famous people who, unofficially, are considered saints, including Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King Jr. I wrote about that Catholic hall of fame in an op-ed piece last Friday in the Chicago Tribune, and I want to elaborate a bit more here. At my parish on the Far North Side of Chicago, St. Gertrude, our roll of parishioners doesn’t include any official or unofficial saints. Yet, if you look around at a parish meeting or at church during Mass or on the court of a 7th grade basketball game, we’re surrounded by […]
October 23, 2013

Book review: “A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters” by Julian Barnes

I thoroughly enjoyed A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters by Julian Barnes for its lively and witty storytelling, its multiplicity of writing styles and its refusal to fit. It’s a novel. It says so right there on the dust jacket. And, at his website, Barnes calls it a novel. Yet, it’s unlike just about any novel you’ve ever read.
October 8, 2013

Book review: “Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar” by Simon Sebag Montefiore

It might be helpful to think of Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Stalin: the Court of the Red Tsar as akin to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals. Except that, when Abraham Lincoln wanted to get someone out of his cabinet, he moved the guy somewhere else, like to the U.S. Supreme Court. When Stalin wanted to remove one of his inner circle of toadying confidantes, he had the guy killed. Like a Russian novel, Stalin: the Court of the Red Tsar has a seeming cast of thousands. There are really great photo inserts in the book, but I found it even more helpful to prepare my own handy bookmark-size collection of mugshots of 18 of Stalin’s closest aides. By the end of this long book and Stalin’s long reign as the Red Tsar, nine of the 18 were dead. Only two of those succumbed to natural causes. The rest were killed in some way or forced to commit suicide. And, of course, that doesn’t include the dozens of other less exalted leaders who were exterminated, often with their families. And the millions of bureaucrats, scientists, military men and people from just about every other walk of life who were purged (i.e., […]
October 8, 2013

Book review: “Everest 1953” by Nick Conefrey

The scribbled telegram text, sent by messenger from the top of Mount Everest, was bleak — but also a bit odd. Snow conditions bad stop advanced base abandoned yesterday stop awaiting improvement All well News of failure was not unexpected from the expedition on Everest in late May of 1953. After all, for more than 30 years, mountaineers, particularly those from Great Britain, had been attempting to reach the summit of the tallest peak on earth and had routinely come up short, writes Nick Conefrey in Everest 1953. This note, carried down the slopes to an Indian radio station and ultimately transmitted in a wire to the British Foreign Office, was sent by James Morris (later Jan Morris), the on-site reporter for the London Times. As he expected, it also went through the hands of ferociously competitive journalists who had bribed functionaries at various points in its journey. That “All well” at the end was curious, but the rest of the message seemed to confirm the latest rumors about the attempt to climb to the top of the world. So those snoopers ignored the message. And lost the biggest scoop of their lives. ALL THIS — AND EVEREST TOO Of […]
October 4, 2013

“Marriage Song” by Patrick T. Reardon

We exult at the joining of young lives. We dance the dance of joy. This is a time of merriment. This is a time of wonder. Who will argue at a time like this? Who will find fault? Fear is exiled. Jealousy is banished. We are in the land of milk and honey. We are in a rich and fertile land. We are anointed in these vows. In these promises, we are blessed. This rite is our consecration. This joining is our union. This is the time of the Spirit. This is the time of bright visions. Let us dance. Let us sing our songs. Let us smile and laugh together. We are in the Promised Land. We are on our soil. We are where we belong.
October 1, 2013

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

When Roberta Golding first shows up in The Long War by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter, she’s described as “a dark, unsmiling girl of about fifteen.” Nothing too unusual in that, but there’s more. She is a student at a boarding school in Valhalla where Dan Valiente, the curious and alert eight-year-old son of Joshua and Helen, may soon be enrolled. During a tour, the headmaster asks Dan if he knows how Valhalla — a sort of neo-Chicago — survives as a major transportation link even though it isn’t surrounded and supported by a hinterland of farms. “Maybe you’re all robbers,” Dan quips. To which, Roberta says, “Valhalla is a city supported by combers. Hunter-gatherers. The logic is elementary. Intensive farming can support order of magnitude more people per acre than hunting and gathering…” And on she drones for half a page. “Joshua thought the kid spoke like a textbook,” Pratchett and Baxter write. For me, Roberta is the most intriguing character in a book fully littered with the odd, the eccentric and the downright alien. The context Before I explain, though, I need to provide the context, and there’s a lot.