April 23, 2014

My lay-off and the golden age of journalism

Five years ago today, I was laid off by the Chicago Tribune. I had company. More than 50 other editorial employees were let go the same week I was shown the door. And another 70 or so had been sent packing during the previous nine months. For me, the lay-off didn’t come as a shock. Earlier in the week, I’d had lunch with a colleague who’d asked me if I was worried about the announcement about staff cuts that we knew was imminent. “Anyone who doesn’t realize that he’s walking around with a big target on his back isn’t paying attention,” I said. The next day — my day off — I was proved right. As if shattered by a laser beam I spent the rest of that day and most of the next in the office, packing up my files and books and tying up loose ends. And it was then that I realized one jarring result of the cutback — a kind of atomization of those of us involved. The day before, we had been part of the body of the Tribune. Now, though, it was as if each one of us had been shattered by laser beam […]
April 14, 2014

Book review: “Raising Steam” by Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett’s 40th Discworld novel Raising Steam, a wonderfully witty and thoughtful book, seems to have been a very personal novel for him to write. For one thing, Pratchett seems to be in love with locomotives and railroading, the latest new technology to come along and wreak vast changes, good and bad, on the nature of everyday life in Ankh-Morpork (the New York City of this particular alternate reality) and a large area of the Disc. In 1979, a German publisher issued The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the 19th Century, a wildly interesting look at the impact of the new technology of railroading on everyday life in our particular reality. Seven years later, it appeared in English. Its author was a German-born resident of New York City — Wolfgang Schivelbusch.(1) I’m betting Pratchett read Schivelbusch’s delightfully eye-opening book about how the railroad suddenly changed the way people thought of distances and speed and landscapes and each other. (2) (3)
April 10, 2014

Book review: “On Ugliness” by Umberto Eco

No question, the guy on the cover of Umberto Eco’s 2007 book On Ugliness is truly ugly. And, in this sixteenth-century painting by Quentin Matsys, Ill-Matched Lovers, his ugliness is heightened by his pretty wife or girlfriend. She looks lovingly at him through lidded eyes and caresses his stubbled chin. He fondles her right breast under her bodice and gazes at her with what might be called a leer. Yet, I think the temptation to call it a leer is due to his ugliness. His look, his smile, could just as well be read as deep affection and delight. We would read it that way if he were a studly courtier, wouldn’t we? And here’s the thing: Ill-Matched Lovers is a much more interesting painting, more striking, more arresting, because of his ugliness. Even if repulsed by the guy’s ugliness, the viewer is still drawn irresistibly into the picture. You can’t not find it interesting.
April 9, 2014

book Review: “Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire — A Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival” by Peter Stark

This review initially appeared in the Printers Row section of the Chicago Tribune. on March 8, 2014. Storms at sea play a key role in the tale of John Jacob Astor’s attempt to establish a pivotal trading center on the unsettled, little-known northern Pacific Coast in the early 19th century. Yet, few modern readers have ever been in a fragile wooden sailing ship during a storm on the ocean, especially with its sails unfurled. So, in Astoria, Peter Stark describes the experience: A particularly powerful gust typically appears like a dark shape ruffling across the sea’s surface. When it slams into a square-rigger, the whole ship stains, the deck tilting as she heels over, the hull surging forward through the swells, the rigging running taut like the strings of a giant musical instrument, the scream of wind through the lines suddenly jumping to a shriek. If a ship has too much sail, with a sudden BOOM the sails will start to “blow out,” the fabric splitting apart under the enormous pressure of the gust like an over-filled balloon… Passages like that are what make Stark’s fine book truly distinctive. They raise Astoria above the level of a well-done historical adventure […]
April 3, 2014

Book review: “Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury

Until now, I had never read Ray Bradbury’s 1953 science-fiction novel Fahrenheit 451. But, of course, I had read dozens of other books and seen scores of movies that were the book’s offspring. To name just one, 2010’s The Book of Eli, starring Denzel Washington. So it’s an odd experience to get to know Guy Montag and his world — a world I’ve never visited before but have gotten to know very well in, as it were, alternative universes. It’s also odd because, in many ways, I’m living in the world Bradbury envisioned. I get my cash from a robot teller. I rarely see anyone, especially anyone under the age of 30, reading a newspaper. The entertainment industry is selling consumers pre-packaged friends and family. Friends I suspect it’s not a coincidence that one of the seminal shows of this entertainment style was called Friends. And one of its stars, Jennifer Aniston, is a staple of what’s being peddled in magazines, tabloids and television gossip shows, years after Friends finished its run. (To be sure, it’s re-run seemingly nonstop on cable television.)