August 31, 2014

Meditation: The job of living

The prophet Jeremiah got exasperated with God: “You duped me, O Lord, and I let myself be duped; you were too strong for me, and you triumphed. All the day I am an object of laughter; everyone mocks me.” On this Labor Day weekend, it’s important to remember that work isn’t simply what we do for money. It’s also the task of living our lives in a right and just manner, in a way that is good for all people. It’s risky, of course, to live an ethical life rather than doing what’s convenient or comfortable or profitable. In doing so, you often bump heads with people who have other priorities — your business partner who wants to make an extra buck by cutting corners, your friends who think you’re ridiculous for being willing to pay higher taxes to provide assistance to the needy, your co-worker who tells racist jokes. If I am in one of those situations, I have to either cave in to peer pressure, or stand on my own two feet — and take a chance on becoming “an object of laughter.” If I have ethics and have beliefs that shape the way I live my life, […]
August 27, 2014

Book clubs aren’t about books. They’re about life.

This essay initially appeared in the Chicago Tribune on 7.27.14. When I was a young man, I reveled in my physical strength and intellectual acuity. Today, I’m very aware of my fragility. When I was younger, I was hungry for new mountains to climb, new monsters to slay, and I was certain I could achieve any goal. Today, at the age of 64, I’m very aware that I may not accomplish what I have set out to do, either because I just don’t have the talents or commitment or energy — or because I run out of time. And I’ve come to the realization that, fragile and inadequate as I am, I can better face my remaining years as part of a group — as part of many groups, actually. I’m sure this is a big reason why I’ve gotten even closer to my 13 siblings. And why I play basketball every Sunday and Monday with different groups of guys. And why I’m in two all-male faith-sharing groups. And why I’m in a writers group. And why I’m in two book clubs. The truth about book clubs My experience in both groups — and an observation often made by other […]
August 26, 2014

Book review: “Summer of the Dead” by Julia Keller

Near the very end of Julia Keller’s new mystery Summer of the Dead (Minotaur, $25.99), I turned the page and shouted, “Holy shit!” Out of the blue, suddenly, stunningly, a nurse brought word that a character — one whom I had come to admire and identify with — was dead. I had to re-read the short paragraph two, three, maybe four times, looking for a loophole. Couldn’t find one. It was the second sharp double-take I’d experienced within the space of ten pages because of a jarringly unforeseen twist in Keller’s story. And there were more to come. Indeed, if there’s such a thing a reader’s whiplash, I have it. In other words, Summer of the Dead — like the two previous installments in Keller’s wonderfully written series of mysteries centered on Bell Elkins, the District Attorney of Raythune County, West Virginia — is filled with suspense and shock and awe. For those who love crime novels, it’s a great read. The jaggedness of life But, for this review, I don’t want to focus on Keller’s skills as a mystery writer. I want to look at her bona fides as writer, pure and simple. As a creator of literature. As […]
August 20, 2014

Book Review: “Fierce Patriot” by Robert L. O’Connell

This review initially appeared in the Chicago Tribune on July 20, 2014. The American nation would be much different if Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman had never lived. Sherman was one of the four men (the others being Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant) who determined the outcome of the Civil War. His scorched-earth March to the Sea and its extended destruction up through the Carolinas broke the South psychologically and was a vital factor in bringing the conflict to a clean and final end in April 1865. Like those other three and, indeed, like any major historical figure, the red-haired, temperamental Sherman was a complex personality. And, in telling his story in Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman, Robert L. O’Connell employs a highly complicated structure, literally offering three biographies, one following the other. “I became convinced,” O’Connell writes, “that any attempt to confine Sherman to a single chronological track was bound to create confusion. Instead, it seemed to me that three separate story lines, each deserving independent development, emerged out of the man’s life.” It’s an exciting idea, a sort of nonfiction version of three interrelated novellas looking at a character from […]
August 18, 2014

Book review: “Martin Luther” by Martin Marty

There are times, often, in his 2004 biography Martin Luther when Martin Marty seems more than a bit exasperated with his subject. Luther, he writes, was a man of paradoxes, a man of ambiguities. And, over and over, Marty apologies — or, maybe, it’s that he grumbles — that he is constantly writing “at the same time.” For instance, Luther, the former monk, did more than anyone to break the stranglehold of a single religious system (the Catholic Church) and make it possible for people to think in terms of making their own spiritual choices based on their own consciences. And, yet, at the same time, he so hated chaos that he stressed obedience to authority and urged princes to crack down on the Peasants Revolt. He contended that all of the followers of Jesus should be members of “one, holy, Christian, and apostolic church” as a single flock. And, yet, at the same time, he was the catalyst for the Big Bang of religion in the Christian West, the fragmentation of the flocks into myriad sects, denominations, cults, confessions, churches and factions.
August 8, 2014

How smart is Derek Jeter? He can do the math.

The world of Major League Baseball was taken aback in February when New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter announced that he would retire at the end of this season. Part of the shock was that he chose to tell the world his news via his Facebook page. (Yet, when you think about it, what a great method for bypassing the media hysteria that would have resulted at the scheduling of a news conference.) Even more, though, the surprise was rooted in Jeter’s competitiveness. He was coming back after more than a year of frustrating rehabilitation from the broken ankle he suffered in the 2012 American League Championship Series. No one knew if Jeter still had it in him to be successful on the diamond, but what if he could still play at a high level? How could he walk away from the game? After all, at the age of 38, he had hit .316 in the 2102 season and led the league in runs scored. But walk away is what Jeter said back in February that he would do. And, although other players in recent years, such as Ryne Sandberg and Jeter’s longtime teammate Andy Pettitte, have retired only to […]
August 6, 2014

Book review: “Pete Rose: An American Dilemma” by Kostya Kennedy

Kostya Kennedy paints a compelling portrait of one of baseball’s greatest — and most scandal-laden — players in Pete Rose: An American Dilemma. The “dilemma” part, though, is more problematic. As it is with many baseball fans, I know Pete Rose from watching him play, and later from watching him being banned from baseball, from watching him deny and then, finally, admit that he bet on baseball games, including those of the Cincinnati Reds when he was the team’s manager. Here in Chicago, we loved to hate him. I suspect that’s how it was for all other fans, except those rooting for Rose’s team. His hustle of running to first base on a walk was, as Kennedy notes, “a piece of showmanship, a splash of needless panache.” We saw it as a piece of hot-dogging. But his hustle in fielding and in running the bases, his hustle in out-thinking his opponents as a hitter and as a manager, his hustle in supporting, promoting, mentoring and cheerleading his teammates — those were game-changers. And we hated him even more for that. Even as we respected him and his accomplishments which, ultimately, included reaching and passing Ty Cobb to become the all-time […]