March 29, 2016

Book review: “A Distant Heartbeat: A War, a Disappearance, and a Family’s Secrets” by Eunice Lipton

In the jagged, inscrutable ways of families, Eunice Lipton’s A Distant Heartbeat is a love story. It is a love story that encompasses affection, loss, flight, innocence, competition, anger, sex, idealism, arrogance, fear, courage, longing, martyrdom and betrayal. It centers on Lipton’s uncle Dave who, in 1938, at the age of 22, snuck away from his Jewish family’s New York City life to volunteer to serve with other American Communists in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War. Three months after arriving to fight for the Republic against the fascist forces of General Francisco Franco, he was dead. One of Dave’s friends later told Lipton: I was checking our position at the front  when Dave walked over toward me asking if he could return to his regular squad. Just as I yelled to him to get down, he was struck by a sniper’s bullet sinking slowly to the ground in front of me.   “Like a religious act” This was before Lipton, who is a friend of mine, was born. Yet, even as a child, she quickly found that Dave’s death — his absence — was a mysterious presence at the psychic center of her family of first […]
March 21, 2016

Meditation: Jesus as a celebrity?

Back when I was a Chicago Tribune reporter, I had a five-minute telephone interview with Donald Trump about his new Chicago hotel, and he made a point to mention twice that he was “the biggest celebrity in the world.” After reading the Palm Sunday gospel, I’m wondering if Jesus would have thought of himself as a celebrity. Look at the argument the apostles have at the Last Supper over which of them is the greatest. Like a frustrated parent, Jesus tells them they’re barking up the wrong tree: “Let the greatest among you be as the youngest, and the leader as the servant.” It’s at the Last Supper, of course, where Jesus gets down on his knees to wash the feet of those vainglorious apostles. In Luke’s Gospel, he says, “I am among you as one who serves.” As human beings we’re often running after empty ambitions, and, like Peter, we are frail in our resolve to do the right thing. Peter boasts: “Lord, I am prepared to go to prison and to die with you.” But Jesus tells him that, over the course of the next few hours, he will say three times that he doesn’t even know his […]
March 16, 2016

Book review: “The Familiar Epistles of Coll. Henry Martin, Found in His Misses Cabinet”

She wasn’t his wife, but Henry Marten loved Mary Ward, the mother of their three young daughters whom he called endearingly his “pretty brats,” his “biddies” and, after a bout of illness, his “pocky rogues.” Ward, as he told her over and over again in dozens of letters, was “my own sweet Love and Heart, and Dear and Soul.”   Theirs was a love story that took place more than three and a half centuries ago, and, like most love stories in human history, it would have been lost forever following their deaths — but for two quirks, one historical and one technological.   Familiar LETTERS In the mid-17th century, during the English Civil Wars, Marten, whose name was also spelled Martin, was a Member of Parliament who sided with the Roundheads against King Charles I and his Cavaliers, raising a regiment of soldiers and earning the title of Colonel. Along with Oliver Cromwell and about 80 other leading Parliamentarians, he took part in the conviction and execution of the King in 1649. The tables of political power in the nation turned, however, and, just a decade later, when the king’s son Charles II was restored to power, Marten found himself […]
March 8, 2016

Book review: “Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin” by Timothy Snyder

Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin is a monumental, heavily detailed, ground-breaking and deeply humane look at the political murder of 14 million people by the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany from 1932 through 1945. Published in 2010, it is a bludgeon of a book, brutally direct and honest and unflinching. It is also a keening elegy for the dead whose tragedy it was to find themselves inside a portion of Europe that was occupied by invaders from the Soviet Union or Germany or, worse case, both. It is an elegy for the millions of men, women and children who were starved to death so food could be exported to boost the Soviet balance of trade or to feed German soldiers, and shot to death as they stood at the edge of body-filled pits, and gassed to death in one of the five death factories, or killed in a multitude of other ways for a multitude of policy reasons. Killed for the sin of being where they were. and being Jewish or Polish or Ukrainian or a prisoner of war or a farmer or just handy to serve as a target for a reprisal for a resistance attack. […]
March 2, 2016

Three times a great read — an appreciation of “Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis” by Harold M. Mayer and Richard C. Wade

Back in the mid-1970s, when I was a newly minted reporter, I covered Chicago’s City Hall for a while. I remember that, at news conferences, Mayor Richard J. Daley, the first of the Mayor Daleys, would talk about the suburbs as “country towns,” as if they were these quaint, almost fanciful places. This, at a time when the suburban population was nearly equal to that of the city. Today, there are twice as many suburbanites as Chicagoans. It was around the same time that I started using as a key reference work the 1969 book Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis by geographer Harold M. Mayer and historian Richard C. Wade. If I needed to know about the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, I’d look in Mayer-Wade. The reversal of the flow of the Chicago River? Mayer-Wade. The 1909 Plan of Chicago? Mayer-Wade. The book, filled with more than 900 photographs and dozens of maps, has a text that is direct and to the point. And, unlike that first Mayor Daley, the authors weren’t Chicago-centric. They viewed the city in the context of its region — the rest of Cook County and the five collar counties: DuPage, Kane, Lake and McHenry. […]