July 22, 2015

Book review: “The Long Utopia” by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

The Long Utopia doesn’t sound much like the late Terry Pratchett, but neither have any of the earlier three novels in the Long Earth series — The Long Earth, The Long War and The Long Mars. I’ve read each because Pratchett’s name was there on the cover as co-author with Stephen Baxter, and, each time, I’ve come away disappointed. Indeed, while reading The Long Utopia, I often find myself asking: “Did Terry Pratchett want to write a dull book?” Well, maybe “dull” isn’t the right word. The Long Utopia, like its predecessors, is cold and hard, exhibiting little emotional depth or psychological sensitivity. In contrast to Pratchett’s delightfully and endlessly interesting Discworld novels, the books in the Long Earth series aren’t really concerned with people. Over the course of more than 1,000 pages so far, its characters remain talking heads and (somewhat) animate plot devices. How very much unlike the people — well, you know what I mean: the werewolves, trolls, dwarfs, humans and other human-ish entities — in the Discworld! One-of-a-kind sort of people such as Granny Weatherwax, Sam Rimes, Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler, Lord Sir Henry King, Sergeant Fred Colon and Corporal Nobby Nobbs, Lord Vetinari, Tiffany Aching, Moist von Lipwig and […]
July 17, 2015

Book review: “BODY,” edited by Anthony Bond

Given our complicated feelings about our bodies, it’s no wonder that most of the art works included in BODY, edited by Anthony Bond, are unsettling. This book — the catalogue of a 1997 exhibition of the same name that was held at The Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia — focuses mainly on nudes of one sort or another, but not just any nudes. The curator of the exhibit and the book’s essayists aren’t very concerned with elbows or toes. Rather, the emphasis is on those parts that pack the most emotional impact for us. Lots of penises, breasts, vaginas and butts. Consider BODY’‘s front cover with its image of Auguste Renoir’s “Young Boy with Cat” (1869) and the back cover with Gustave Courbet’s “The Source.” Even those artworks featuring the clothed human body are often unnerving. Indeed, the most disturbing image for me doesn’t exhibit any erotic areas, but a seeming acre of bare skin that suggests them — George Lambert’s “Chesham Street” (1910). A well-to-do, well-muscled, well-whiskered man is holding up his shirt almost to his neck (where he still has on a tie). His pants are open, well below the navel, and a doctor […]
July 13, 2015

The Burnham Plan as literature

The 1909 Plan of Chicago, written by Daniel Burnham and his co-author Edward Bennett, is a great work of American literature. There, I’ve said it. Now, let’s see if I can make my case. Literature is a pretty spongy term. For some people, it means fiction. So The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain is literature. But Black Boy by Richard Wright isn’t. Well, that’s certainly seems too narrow a definition. The Wright book, of course, is a great work about growing up as an African-American in the early 20th century. Other important non-fiction books include Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography which provides an insight into a key leader of the American Revolution and U.S. Grant’s Memoirs, one of the clearest accounts of the Civil War by any writer. It would be difficult to imagine a library of great American books that wouldn’t include all three.   Is that literature? Is that what literature is, a great book? Well, what about Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address?
July 10, 2015

Book review: “Searching for Robert Johnson” by Peter Guralnick

There is much that is mysterious and evocative and just plain odd about the life of blues legend Robert Johnson who died in 1938 at the age of 27, probably murdered with poison. One of the oddest is the idea of him playing “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” the 1930s country-western song recorded by Gene Autry and later by Bing Crosby and, most memorably, by The Sons of the Pioneers. In Searching for Robert Johnson, published in 1989, music historian Peter Guralnick writes of Johnson’s life as a musician: You had to be prepared to play what your audience wanted you to play, since you were being paid not by salary but by tips. You might be engaged to play all night at a juke joint for a dollar and a half, but you were liable to make your real money by filling a request for Leroy Carr’s latest release or a Duke Ellington number. By Johnny Shines’s account Robert Johnson was as likely to perform “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” or the latest Bing Crosby hit as one of his own compositions. In fact, the bluesman seems to have been a Bing Crosby fan, and, at times, in the 41 recordings that make up all […]
July 7, 2015

Book review: “The Colour of Magic” by Terry Pratchett

Fifteen years ago, I interviewed Terry Pratchett for the Chicago Tribune about his new novel The Fifth Elephant. It was the 24th of his Discworld books, and it had to do with dwarfs, trolls, gnomes, humans, vampires, zombies and werewolves. We met in the lobby of a hotel a few steps from Tribune Tower, and he was, as I wrote, “a short man who, with his bald head and grizzled white beard, looks a bit gnomish himself.” He spoke in a thin, high voice with an engaging lisp. He was 51 at the time. Over a period of a decade or so, I interviewed a lot of writers for the Tribune. It was an exhilarating experience, a sort of super-graduate-level course in the art of writing. I’d read whatever new book the author had produced, and then we’d sit down together and talk. Often, after reading one work, I’d get ahold of one or more of the authors other works. With Pratchett, though, it was different. After reading The Fifth Elephant — the title is the pun on a popular sci-fi movie of the time The Fifth Element — I went back to the beginning of the Discworld series and […]
July 2, 2015

“July 10, 1981” and a dozen other faith poems

July 10, 1981 By Patrick T. Reardon On this porch, on this cool summer day, when the moon is benign in afternoon sky, when birds sing from wire to wire, I have no argument. This may be the milk-and-honey time, the fulcrum, the equator. I may be on my way down or past or into. This will change, and I will change, and the wood of this porch will rot. The birds will die, and I will die, and new leaves will grow under other summer suns. I have no argument.