January 22, 2014

Book review: “Tres Riches Heures: Behind the Gothic Masterpiece” by Lillian Schacherl, translated by Fiona Elliott

It would be difficult to think of a collection of artworks that could challenge the Tres Riches Heures in terms of sumptuous color and elegance. And all within a single binding! Tres Riches Heures is a book of hours — a lavishly illustrated prayer book — created for John, the Duke of Berry, by the three Limbourg brothers –Paul, Herman and Jean. It was begun in 1412 but was left uncompleted in 1416, the year when the three brothers and the Duke all died. (This was an era when the plague routinely wiped out families, households and towns in the blink of an eye.) The paintings in Tres Riches, sometimes accompanied by text and sometimes not, are called miniatures. They are small but not tiny. Each of the 206 leaves in the work measures about 8.5 inches by 12 inches — or about the same size as a piece of printer paper. Some additional work was done on the book in the middle of the 15th century, and it was completed by 1489 by the painter Jean Colombe. All of the leaves, no matter which artist did the main work on them, display an extraordinarily high degree of artistry and […]
January 22, 2014

Book Review: ” A Prayer Journal” by Flannery O’Connor

There is something breath-taking in the hopes, dreams and faith of young Flannery O’Connor. What I am asking for is really very ridiculous. Oh, Lord, I am saying, at present I am a cheese, make me a mystic, immediately. But then God can do that — make mystics out of cheese….[My soul] is a moth who would be king, a stupid slothful thing, a foolish thing, who wants God, who made the earth to be its Lover. Immediately.
January 21, 2014

Book review: “Luca and Andrea della Robbia” (Masters in Art)

A century ago, Masters in Art was a series of monthly monographs offered for the annual subscription price of $1.50. Single copies were 15 cents. The Lucca and Andrea della Robbia issue that I have was published in September, 1901. My copy, originally part of the collection at the Cleveland Museum of Art Library, is hardbound. I’m not sure if this was done by the library or if that’s how these monographs were produced and delivered. This issue, which is probably representative of the series, is made up of 10 plates of photographs of the works of Luca della Robbia and his nephew Andrea, followed by 20 pages of text. That text is divided into three sections: biographies of the two men, discussions of their art and detailed commentaries on the works displayed in the 10 plates. All of the text in these sections draws on earlier commentaries. For example, the section on the art of the della Robbias includes excerpts from articles by writers identified as Allan Marquard; Cavalucci and Molinier; the editors of Vasari’s Lives; Mrs. Oliphant; Marcel Reymond; and Walter Pater. These excerpts themselves include quotations from various other experts as well. “Embodied dreams” Luca and Andrea […]
January 19, 2014

Book review: “The Wife of Jesus” by Anthony Le Donne

Was Jesus breast-fed? That’s a question that Anthony Le Donne asks near the end of his reasonable and provocative new book The Wife of Jesus: Ancient Texts and Modern Scandals (Oneworld). And, if it’s the sort of question that unsettles you or angers you, this book isn’t for you. Le Donne, a scholar in the study of the historical Jesus, is attempting to understand the flesh-and-blood human being who walked the roads of Judea and Galilee and the lanes of Jerusalem 2,000 years ago. He’s an historian, not a theologian. That’s why he’s asking the question of whether Jesus was breast-fed. And also whether Jesus had a wife. Le Donne’s conclusion on that latter question — spoiler alert! — is that, no, Jesus probably wasn’t married. But his book is courageous anyway. Simply to ask the question is to make himself a lightning rod for controversy. Ask Reza Aslan, the author of the recently published Zealot, a book that characterizes Jesus as a political revolutionary. And one that became a bestseller after a clumsily antagonistic Fox News interview went viral this summer in which Aslan was bashed as a Muslim who dared to write about founder of Christianity. La Donne […]
January 18, 2014

Saint Lincoln

It’s too bad, really, that Abraham Lincoln has been accorded sainthood. Not that we call him Saint Abe or put a halo around his image, but Americans do just about everything else to turn our 16th President into a plaster statue up on a pedestal rather than a person who lived and breathed and ticked people off. Consider that, in 2011, a national poll found that 91 percent of Americans esteemed Lincoln, one percentage point higher than the 90 percent recorded for Jesus. In our national rhetoric and myth-making, Lincoln has become the sum of all American virtues — kind, self-deprecating, funny, thoughtful, visionary. A martyr. It was the bullet of John Wilkes Booth that turned Lincoln into a saint. Up until that moment — for all his talk about the Union, and, indeed, because of it — he had been one of the most divisive figures in American politics.
January 13, 2014

Book review: “Moon of Three Rings” by Andre Norton

Andre Norton’s Moon of Three Rings is one of her best books. That’s saying something since she wrote more than 200 novels of science fiction and, to a lesser extent, fantasy. Not that it’s perfect. It has the limitations that are woven into Norton’s writing style, story-telling approach and target audience. She wrote for teenage boys and young adult men. That means there’s not much psychological or emotional nuance to her books. For her — and for her readers, including me (who, for better and worse, is no longer a boy or young man) — adventure is the key. Norton’s books are like westerns in space — good guys against bad guys, set in a strange, foreboding landscape where cultures collide (cowboy and Indian, humans and aliens). There are parallels to these stories throughout human history. Some of the best examples include Beowulf, Gilgamesh, the Iliad, the Odyssey, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, Treasure Island and Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea. None of Norton’s books is in that class. Face-to-face with the Other Still, for nearly three-quarters of a century, Norton who lived to the age of 93, produced high quality science fiction of a […]
January 9, 2014

Book review: “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer” by Siddhartha Mukherjee

The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee was a difficult book for me to read, as I suspect it will be for most people. That’s not because it’s a bad book, but because it is such a thorough, courageous look at a disease — well, a family of many diseases — that is bedeviling humanity to an ever greater extent today as we live longer and survive or avoid other causes of death. It is difficult, in part, because cancer is a great fear. Most of us know someone who has or has had cancer, or have or have had it ourselves. Many know people who have died from it. A poignant element for me as I read this book over the last month or so was to learn from the news that Janet Rowley, a University of Chicago researcher mentioned often in Mukherjee’s text, had died on December 17, of complications from ovarian cancer. Scientific searchings It was difficult for me because the final 130 or so pages of The Emperor of All Maladies deals with the exquisitely refined scientific searchings and discoveries of the nature of cancer and of new methods for attacking various versions of the […]
January 7, 2014

Book review: “Chicago: The Second City” by A.J. Liebling

It’s been more than 60 years since A. J. Liebling skewered Chicago in three caustic pieces in the New Yorker, soon after collected into a short book of 30,000 words or so, Chicago: The Second City. Of course, “caustic” was Liebling’s specialty, so his acerbic reading of the city shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone. Yet, ever since, anti-Liebling rhetoric has routinely found its way into print in Chicago. In 1980, for instance, Chicago Tribune columnist Jack Mabley dismissed the book as the work of “a New York writer [who] once came to Chicago for several months…and interviewed people who came into the bar where he hung out. The essays he sent back to Manhattan were filled with startling inaccuracies which comforted New Yorkers in their oneness. No. 1-ness.” Fourteen years later, in a Tribune story about his new publishing venture Academy Chicago, Jordan Miller was quoted as describing Liebling as “that creep.” Eighteen years after that, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg made a significant reference to Chicago: The Second City in his 2012 book about the city. It had to do with something Liebling writes in an introduction to his book — that, after his New Yorker […]
January 3, 2014

Book review: “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” by Maria Semple

The authors of novels about rich Americans face a greater challenge than those who write about the other 90 percent. If your characters are poor, working-class, middle-class and even upper middle-class, they have built-in struggles that help the reader identify with them — the struggle to keep body and soul together or, at least, the struggle to keep up with the Joneses. The struggle, in other words, to make it somehow. The struggle for the rich is not to blow it. They have it made in the shade, and so any problem they face is going to seem like not much of a problem to readers out of their income bracket. Bernadette and her family Take Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette. The central character is Bernadette Fox.