December 19, 2013

Book review: “Old Man’s War” by John Scalzi

I’m going to give a copy of John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War to my 30-year-old nephew Kelly for Christmas. (Shhh! Don’t tell him.) But I don’t think he’s going to respond to the book in the way I did. A couple Christmases ago, Kelly gave me Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. That’s a science fiction book about children trained from an early age (before they are hindered by bad habits) in hyper-complicated, physically and mentally challenging war games. The idea is that they’ll transfer the skills they develop to the task of leading armies against aliens. (There was a pretty decent feature film based on the novel in theaters this year.) An underlying theme of the book is that the pace of life and technology is moving so fast that only the young are able to really get it under control and use it. Every generation has books like this. I remember reading and enjoying these sorts of books when I was in my teens and twenties. Kelly was in that age group when he first read Ender’s Game, and I’m sure that, as someone just coming on the scene, he could relate very closely to Andrew “Ender” Wiggin, […]
December 17, 2013

Book review: “The Gospel in Brief” by Leo Tolstoy

Reading Leo Tolstoy’s The Gospel in Brief was a truly disconcerting experience. Other writers have sought to re-tell the four gospels in a single narrative — Norman Mailer, for instance, with The Gospel According to the Son (1997), Charles Dickens with The Life of Our Lord (1849), and Nikos Kazantzakis with The Last Temptation of Christ (1955). Depending on their approach, they have stayed close to or strayed far from the details of the accounts in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, but they’ve written in their own words. Ostensibly, Tolstoy takes a different tack in The Gospel in Brief. He has, he writes, “effected the fusion of the four Gospels into one, according to the real sense of the teachings.” What he’s done, on the face of it, is to take all the verses in all four gospels and arrange them as he wishes in order tell the story of Jesus in the manner he wishes. So some verses from Luke will be followed by several from Mark and then several from Matthew. Except what you think you see isn’t really what you get. “Presented in full” Tolstoy writes in an introduction that, in his account, “the Gospel according to […]
December 11, 2013

Book review: “The Man Who Sold the Moon” by Robert Heinlein

I am pretty much an illiterate about the science of space travel. When talk turns to apogees and pounds-per-second and all that stuff, a fog descends on my brain. Still, from my low (and foggy) rung on the ladder of understanding, I am able to recommend Robert Heinlein’s 1950 short story collection The Man Who Sold the Moon to anyone who does have a glimmer of how the human race has been able to send people into space and land men on the moon. The interest, for such readers, will be in how well Heinlein was able to imagine space travel decades before it became a reality. And not just space travel, but other technological breakthroughs as well. Five of the book’s six stories were originally published in 1939 and 1940, and revised a bit for this collection to account for new scientific insights as of the mid-century mark. The title story, an 89-page novella, first saw the light of day in this book. As little as I know, I’m able to recognize that Heinlein got a lot wrong. We don’t, for instance, wear finger watches as he envisioned, and there are no huge regional networks of moving conveyor-belt-like roads […]
December 3, 2013

My ministry is…..basketball?

The other day, I got an email from my parish which began: “Dear Ministry Leaders…” I laughed. In the past, I’d chaired the adult education committee and the parish council. But, in recent years, the only thing I’ve been in charge of has been men’s basketball on Sunday afternoons and Monday nights. Actually, there are two of us, Dave and I, both in our mid-60s, both slower than slow and not exactly in the fittest of shape. But we like basketball so, each week, we’re there to open the gym, sweep the floor, oversee the games and lock up. That’s why I laughed when I got the email. We have some really great ministries in our parish, St. Gertrude on Chicago’s Far North Side — a long-running, highly successful support program for the elderly of our neighborhood, a troupe of liturgical dancers, a teen faith-sharing group and a gay and lesbian outreach effort, to name a few. But basketball? The Pope discussing hoops? It was funny to imagine some Congregation at the Vatican, or even the Pope, discussing hoops as a Catholic way of providing pastoral care, like running a hospital or teaching catechism. Still, Marge, the parish business manager, […]
December 2, 2013

Book review: “Titian: Nymph and Shepherd” by John Berger and Katya Berger Andreadakis

In 1990, renowned English art critic and novelist John Berger began an exchange of letters and cards with his daughter Katya Berger Andreadakis, a film critic. At the time, the father was in his mid-60s and his daughter in her late 20s. Their subject was their common delight in and reverence for the paintings of the 16th century Italian master Titian. In their back and forth way, they were trying to tease out the essence of Titian’s art — and of art in general. For instance, their ruminations lead Katya to focus on what makes art art, and she writes: Pictures by Rothko and Titian, but also by Courbet, possess this quality. They are completely themselves that they contain all the vertical depth of their being. They exclude any reference to rule or obedience. Snapping their fingers at others, they simply exist with us or without us. In another letter, she writes: The truth is that Titian’s art is itself untouchable, inviolable. It calls out and then it forbids. We remain open-mouthed. In 1996, their exchange was published in Titian: Nymph and Shepherd, one of nearly 50 titles in the Pegasus Series of sumptuously illustrated volumes issued between 1994 and […]
December 1, 2013

Book review: “Happy Together: New York and the Other World” by Jan Christiaan Braun

We tend to think of burial art as something solid, heavy, sedate and — as a contrast to what it commemorates — long-lived. We think of the pyramids in Egypt. We think of mausoleums in our own cemeteries. We think of gravestones. That’s not the funerary art that Jan Christiaan Braun has recorded in Happy Together: New York and the Other World, published in 2007 by Stichting Over Holland. This is an ephemeral art of bright colors — balloons, stuffed animals, plastic windmills, American flags, inflatable cartoon characters, t-shirts, and other mass-produced items, most of which could just as well fit into a front lawn holiday display. Except for the messages. You wouldn’t have “MOM” in white plastic flowers in a frame of red plastic flowers to decorate the outside of your home. Yet, it fits in a cemetery. Although not created to withstand much weather, it is a version of the “MOM” on a traditional marble grave marker. Same with “WIFE” and “DAD” and so on. Braun spend a year visiting cemeteries in the five boroughs of New York City, documenting “the passage of a calendar year in the more recent and so more ‘lively’ sections.” The result is […]