May 30, 2015

Fiction: “The Summer of ‘64”

“Summer vacation, 1964, the summer after my freshman year in high school, was the beginning of my dark night of the soul.” What the hell? What was Louis Sojo talking about? “It was,” he said, “the start of almost twenty years of wandering in a jagged wasteland, searching for something — I didn’t know what. Confused, uneasy, lost, I would get glimpses now and then of a direction to take, a turn to make. Was this the right way to go? I didn’t know. I just knew I had to be moving. I had to continue searching.” I just nodded. What else could I do? We were sitting in a booth at McDonald’s. Louis had a cup of coffee in front of him. I had pretty much finished my Diet Coke. His publisher — he’s a textbook writer — had sent him out to sit in on some classrooms where one of the company’s books, The Spirit of the Nation, was being used. At the John Coughlin Academy of Excellence and Justice, I turned a corner and suddenly I heard, “Chippy!” And there was Louis. Internally I cringed at that nickname. I hadn’t been called “Chippy” since my early 30s […]
May 29, 2015

Book review: “Vivian Maier: Street Photographer,” edited by John Maloof

Look. This graceful woman in a stylish black dress is walking across a city street. Her foot is about to step on a trolley rail. She is looking slightly to her left. Or maybe not. She is far away. The image of her is blurred. There is so much of her that is not known, so much hard to read. Yet, I find her compelling. I’m not sure why. This image is blurred because it is part of the background of a photo of a window-washer that is included in the 2011 book Vivian Maier: Street Photographer. For the moment, Maier’s story has overwhelmed an evaluation of her art. During the course of a half a century, she took 100,000 photographic negatives, mostly on city streets, but did virtually nothing to find an audience for them. She died. John Maloof, a Chicago writer researching a neighborhood history, discovered one box of her negatives and then more, printed some and then many, and then Vivian Maier, who had lived her life in obscurity, was the talk of the art world.   Disturbing I find her photos disturbing enough to think there’s something there. And maybe that’s why I was drawn to […]
May 27, 2015

Book review: “Quarantine” by Jim Crace

Five people trudged individually yet in an erratic line into the wilderness to spend forty days in quarantine in their individual caves, praying and meditating for their individual reasons. One was a rather fragile, timid young man from Galilee called Jesus, nicknamed Gally for his accent. He was idealistic and somewhat dopey. Parched and footsore — he’d left his sandals with a shepherd — this Jesus came upon a tent where he might get food and drink before beginning his month and a half of fasting. But no one responded to his call. Looking inside the tent, he found water and bread and dates and a dying man — Musa, wheezing his final breaths from the ravages of a fever. “Do not deny me water, cousin,” he said. “Let me take a mouth of it, and you’ll then have forty days of peace from me. I promise it. The merest drop.” He put his fingertips on Musa’s forehead. He stroked his eyelids with his thumb. “Are you unwell? I am not well myself.” As I said, a little dopey. A carpenter’s son who liked praying better than sleep, this Jesus talked himself into drinking some of the water and eating […]
May 19, 2015

Essay: Lincoln’s violent death and his legacy

A century and a half ago, Abraham Lincoln was laughing at the punchline at a stage play when he was shot once in the back of the head. He never regained consciousness and died nine hours later.   Tuesday, April 14, was the 150th anniversary of day that John Wilkes Booth snuck into the Presidential Box at Ford’s Theatre during a performance of the farcical comedy “Our American Cousin.” Actor Harry Hawk, alone on stage, gave what Booth knew was one of the funniest lines in the play: “Don’t know the manners of good society, eh? Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal; you sockdologizing old man-trap!” As always, uproarious laughter followed, and that was when the assassin — an actor himself and a rebel sympathizer — pulled the trigger. At 7:22 a.m. the next day, in a cramped bed in a boarding house across from the theater, Lincoln died. April 15, 2015, was the 150th anniversary of his death.   “Laughing all day” For a century and a half, Lincoln has been seen as a national martyr, as the final casualty of the Civil War. And that’s how he was viewed in the […]
May 18, 2015

Book review: “Strong Boy: The Life and Time of John L. Sullivan, America’s First Sports Hero” by Christopher Klein

Over the past 22 years, our History Book Club has read more than 130 books, and three of them have been about boxing and heavyweight champions of the world: • King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero by David Remnick — a wonderfully thoughtful biography of Ali that sets his story in the context of the two fighters who came before (Floyd Patterson and Sonny Liston) and of the revolutionary times in which he fought. • Beyond Glory: Joe Louis Vs. Max Schmeling, and a World at the Brink by David Margolick — a meaty book that examined the careers of Louis and Schmeling and their titanic fight in 1938 in the context of a key moment in world history. • Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson by Geoffrey C. Ward — a well-researched biography of a larger-than-life figure whose career was hampered but not crippled by American racism. None of us is a boxer, as far as I know. We’ve read these books because of what they had to say about race relations over the past century. Sports is a useful lens for such an endeavor. We all knew, to […]
May 15, 2015

Book review: “The Gates of Paradise: Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Renaissance Masterpiece,” edited by Gary M. Radke

Let’s talk about wonderment. About astonishment, awe. About ecstasy. But, first, let’s talk about feet. Specifically, the feet of Jacob as he approaches blind Isaac for the birthright blessing that rightly should go to his older twin Esau. This scene forms the left side of the Jacob and Esau panel in the east doors of Baptistery of Saint John in Florence. The right side is taken up with Isaac bestowing the blessing. There are ten gilded bronze panels by Lorenzo Ghiberti on these Baptistery doors, five on the right and five on the left, each based on Old Testament narratives. They are known by the name Michelangelo gave them, The Gates of Paradise, and they “rank among the greatest creations of Renaissance art,” according to Andrew Butterfield, a leading scholar of Italian Renaissance sculpture. Butterfield is one of a host of scholars who provided nine essays for The Gates of Paradise: Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Renaissance Masterpiece, edited by Gary M. Radke. The book was published in 2007 in connection with an exhibition of three of newly restored Ghiberti panels, held successively at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in […]
May 12, 2015

Book review: “The Photographer and the President: Abraham Lincoln, Alexander Gardner & the Images That Made a Presidency” by Richard S. Lowry

Near the end of his prose and poetry collection Memoranda During the War, Walt Whitman contemplated the scope of carnage across the national landscape — “the dead, the dead, the dead — our dead.” Those words, notes Richard S. Lowry, echo the battlefield photos that Whitman’s friend Alexander Gardner and his assistants made in the aftermath of such monumental Civil War clashes as Antietam and Gettysburg. Photography in mid-19th century was still a new technology, too bulky and slow to record actual firefights. Consequently, the Gardner photos were of unburied bodies littering fields and crumpled amid trees and rocks. As static as they appear to modern eyes, these images, displayed in Matthew Brady’s New York studio and later in Gardner’s own gallery, brought the war home to Americans in a new and visceral way. Gardner’s photographs, writes Lowry, “spoke less about flanking maneuvers and attacks and campaigns and the fate of the Union than about death — not a ‘good death,’ redeemed by noble causes and last words to the family by a sudden, anonymous, and profoundly violent end of life.” (46) In these black and white “views,” as they were called, it was difficult, if not impossible to determine […]
May 7, 2015

Book review: “Elvis Presley” by Bobbie Ann Mason

I missed the dawn of Elvis. I was just a bit too young, only four years old in July, 1954, when the King recorded “That’s All Right (Mama)” for Sun Records and, as Bobbie Ann Mason writes, “it was as if the nebulous, unformed kid was a genie let loose from a Coke bottle.” By the time I became aware of the world outside our family home in Chicago, Elvis was a major fixture in the American culture. Rock ‘n’ roll was already established. I heard stories of how shocking Presley had been, arriving on the scene, but that was old news. He was a name, like Ike and like Mickey Mantle, that everyone knew. He was — in that alchemy of celebrity — part of my life and the lives of everyone else. Mason’s short biography Elvis Presley, part of the Penguin Lives series, was sort of remedial reading for me. Mason, a Southerner, is a novelist and short story writer, and she spends her book looking at how it felt like Elvis, how he arose out of the fabric of the South, how his personality was formed by poverty and crushed by the expectations his talent and success […]
May 6, 2015

Book review: “The Hot Kid” by Elmore Leonard

There is, in a meandering way, a story here. But Elmore Leonard’s The Hot Kid isn’t really about story. Like all his other stuff, it’s about people. In this case, it’s people revolving around the youthful U.S. Marshall Carlos (Carl) Webster, the “hot kid” of the title, who has gained renown by tracking down violent miscreants and taking them in — or, more usually, taking them down, outdrawing them. Here are some descriptions of characters, and one place, and one politician, from the book. If you find them interesting, then you’ll like this book. If not, you might want to pick up a sense of humor somewhere.   Virgil and Narcissa Virgil Webster was forty-seven years old, a widower since Garciaplena died in ought-six giving him Carlos and requiring Virgil to look for a woman to nurse the child. He found Narcissa Raincrow, sixteen, a pretty little Creek girl related to Johnson Raincrow, deceased, an outlaw so threatening that peace officers shot him while he was sleeping. Narcissa had lost her own child giving birth, wasn’t married, and Virgil hired her on as a wet nurse. By the time little Carlos had lost interest in her breasts. Virgil had acquired […]
May 5, 2015

Book review: “Americans” by the National Portrait Gallery, with a forward by John Updike

Look at these three portraits:  Look at the eyes of Georgia O’Keefe in Paul Strand’s photograph. Leave aside the fact that she was a great 20th century artist. Leave aside the composition of the picture. Can you avoid looking at her eyes? They jar. They unsettle. The Robert Frank photograph of John F. Kennedy, taken in 1956 after JFK’s losing effort to win the Democratic nomination for Vice President, literally turns the idea of portraiture on its head. The image of Kennedy’s face is deeply woven into the American and world consciousness. Yet, with this picture, Frank makes us see the assassinated president anew. (It also hints at tantalizing “what ifs” of history.) Then there is a goofy-looking, goofy-posing George Armstrong Custer in this ambrotype taken during his years at the West Point Military Academy, probably in 1859. You’d never know it was Custer since he doesn’t have his thick, shaggy moustache nor his long flowing blond hair. But, in this image, doesn’t Custer give a sense of the man who would become the fame-monger who would die, through his own stupidity, at the Battle of Little Big Horn?   An American face? These three images are from Americans, a […]
May 4, 2015

Vance Bourjaily is back “in print”

It was almost 40 years ago. I was in my mid-20s, prowling around the cramped and labyrinthine aisles of a bookstore on Clark Street in Chicago, a couple blocks south of Diversey Boulevard. And, there on one of the rows of paperback fiction, I saw a title that caught my eye, Now Playing at Canterbury. It was by Vance Bourjaily, a major American writer whose star, by this time, was starting to set as literary fashions moved along to the Great Next. Now Playing at Canterbury was his wildly inventive modern version of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. I loved it. Then, I came across The Violated, his 1958 book about four friends whose lives are twisted and snarled in the aftermath of World War II. It knocked me off my feet. Over the years, I read everything I could of his. He was, and remains, my favorite author. I even had the chance to review his last published novel, Old Soldier, for the Chicago Tribune.   In print That was a quarter of a century ago, and, in the meantime, all of his books went out of print. Until now. Finally, nearly five years after his death at the age of […]