June 27, 2016

Essay: Hope and joy in this age of Trump

In this age of Trump, I find that, more and more, I’m thinking of my friends Neil, Ben and Jean. In this time of hate and fear-mongering, I want to tap into their hope and faith and joy for living. I’ve played basketball with Neil at the school gym at St. Gertrude parish on the Far North Side most Sundays for the last ten years, and, every once in a while, I feel the need to ask him his age. “Seventy-seven and a half.” That’s how he answered me recently after a couple hours on the court. We call our weekly Sunday afternoon pickup games “Geri-ball,” as in geriatrics. It’s for guys 35 and older although a number of fathers bring their teenage sons (and daughters) as well. (They’re great for handling fast breaks.) Many of us now are in our 50s or 60s, and we all want to be Neil when we grow up. Neil, who runs a lot of 5K races, is the oldest among us. He’s up and down the court with the rest of us and has a wicked outside shot. Sure, he’s slowed down a bit over the years. All of us have. But, when […]
June 23, 2016

Book review: “Practical Demonkeeping” by Christopher Moore

Okay. Christopher Moore is funny. Silly. Delightfully loopy. Practical Demonkeeping is the story of a man- and woman-eating demon named Catch who descends on the town of Pine Cove with his human master-slave Travis, a former seminarian who…, well, it’s complicated. The story also features Gian Hen Gian, the king of the genies, and enough wacky and goofy characters to fill an entire network schedule of weekly comedies. But these people deserve more than to be homogenized on TV. They deserve Moore, and he does his best by them. Yes, the plot of this comic novel is convoluted, to say the least. To make it into a movie, you’d have to cut out maybe two-thirds of it, and your problem would be to figure out which one-third you wanted to keep. It’s all pretty daffy.   Wonderfully odd But it wouldn’t work. Christopher Moore’s comedy is similar to that of Terry Pratchett — which isn’t to say they’re a lot alike. They are alike in the way their books hinge on their voices, their oddly wonderful and wonderfully odd way of looking at life. Several attempts have been made to convert Pratchett novels into movies, and all of them have […]
June 20, 2016

Book review: “Everything Explained That Is Explainable: On the Creation of the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s Celebrated Eleventh Edition, 1910-1911” by Denis Boyles

Pity the poor publisher. Knopf had a great manuscript on its hands from Denis Boyles, but how to market it? The solution was a book cover and title that were tantalizing in their seeming quaintness. The jacket is a sober red with images at the left side and right corners to give the appearance of the physical front of an old book. The text fonts are sober, but not too sober, as befit a title that hints at something not quite evident: Everything Explained That Is Explainable: On the Creation of the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s Celebrated Eleventh Edition, 1910-1911. The combination of the title and cover skate right to the edge of implying a book that would be terribly boring, but those words Everything Explained push the possible book-buyer in the other direction. We live in an age when attempts are made all the time to try to explain everything, but they never succeed. In our era, everything is in flux, and our understanding of everything is tentative. Is it good to be skinny or bad? How does the economy work? Whence Donald Trump? Whither democracy? The Boyles book is packaged in the hope that it will intrigue a potential reader […]
June 16, 2016

Book review: “Chicago: The Second City” by A.J. Liebling

A.J. Liebling, that caustic, sarcastic, witty New Yorker magazine writer, was no fan of Chicago as he made clear in his 1952 book Chicago: The Second City. Consider his sardonic description of the cityscape: Seen from the taxi, on the long ride in from the airport, the place looked slower, shabbier, and, in defiance of all chronology, older than New York. There was an outer-London dinginess to the streets; the low buildings, the industrial plants, and the railroad crossings at grade produced less the feeling of being in a great city than of riding through an endless succession of factory-town main streets. The transition to the Loop and its tall buildings was abrupt, like entering a walled city. I found it beguilingly medieval. Not that he was much taken with the Loop which, as a downtown, was too small and too congested for his taste: the heart of the city, as small in proportion of [the city’s] gross body as a circus fat lady’s. He much preferred New York and London with their theaters, stores, banks and office buildings “strung out” over an area a good five miles in length.   A good reporter Even so, Liebling was a very […]
June 9, 2016

Book review: “The Book of ‘Job’: A Biography” by Mark Larrimore

Job is one of the oddest books in the Bible — odd in a scary way, in an unsettling way, in a faith-shaking way. Job is a rich man who is a devout believer in God. But, up in heaven, one of the multitudes in attendance to the Most High — a being called a “satan” (an adversary, a kind of prosecuting attorney) who, in many interpretations, is identified as the Satan — tells the Lord that Job is only devout because he’s received so many blessings. This satan argues that Job will curse the Lord if he loses his blessings, so, as a test, God gives the satan permission to afflict the faithful follower in any way, except taking his life. So, the satan kills all of Job’s children and wipes away his wealth. Job responds: “The Lord has given, and the Lord takes away.” Then, the satan inflicts a terrible disease upon Job. But still the man remains steadfast in his faith in God. Then, a new worse affliction arrives — three friends who, in their turn, tell Job that he must be a great sinner to have suffered so much at God’s hand. Job, knowing his innocence, […]
June 8, 2016

Book review: “Your Friend Forever, A. Lincoln: The Enduring Friendship of Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed” by Charles B. Strozier with Wayne Soini

As 1840 drew to a close and during the first month of 1841, Abraham Lincoln was “crazy as a loon,” according to his law partner and biographer William Herndon. For the second time in Lincoln’s life, his friends feared that he would commit suicide. They “had to remove razors from his room — take away all Knives and other such dangerous things,” recalled his friend Joshua Speed. Twenty years later, in the White House, Lincoln himself referred to that time while discussing with Speed his pride at writing the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves in Confederate-held territory: At the time of his deep depression he said to me that he had ‘done nothing to make any human being remember that he had lived,’ and that to connect his name with the events transpiring in his day and generation, and so impress himself upon them as to link his name with something that would redound to the interest of his fellow man, was what he desired to live for. He…said with earnest emphasis, “I believe that in this measure …my fondest hopes will be realized.”   His most important friendship No figure from U.S. history has been studied and analyzed and scrutinized […]
June 6, 2016

Book review: “The Serpent of Venice” by Christopher Moore

The diminutive and aptly named Pocket — court jester of the late lamented (and demented) King Lear of Britain and then consort to the (alas) also late Cordelia, Queen of France, England, Spain, etc., and her envoy to 13th-century Venice to block an effort to launch a Crusade to recapture Jerusalem and rain profits galore on greedy Venetian entrepreneurs — is having a bad day. A really bad day. After has spent weeks of trying to kill himself, a cabal of three said entrepreneurs is trying to do that for him. Not only that, but, first, they feel compelled to tell him that, no, his lovely and beloved Cordelia didn’t die of a fever — they poisoned her. And, now, having doped him with a spiked bottle of wine, they have strung him up by chains in a particularly awkward position on a wall over an open sewer in a deep subbasement of the home of one of the businessmen. Not only that, but, as he’s watched, one of them has taken the time to build a solid brick wall to enclose him in hidden space where he hangs in the soggy dark (the water level rises and falls with the […]
June 1, 2016

Book review: “How to Read the Bible” by Harvey Cox

In How to Read the Bible, influential Protestant theologian Harvey Cox tells about a Biblical scholar who was teaching a course in the books of Exodus and Joshua. The stories of the Israelites rising up out of slavery in Egypt and finding themselves a home in the Promised Land, she told the class, are celebrations of freedom and liberation. “Yes,” said one of her students, “but what about the Canaanites?” Ah, yes, those pesky Canaanites, the people who had been living on the land before the Israelites showed up and took it. And killed them. They were the Bible’s version of Native Americans.   “Gott mit uns” This is an example of the complexity of the Bible, a theme that the Harvard-based Cox emphasizes on virtually every page of his 2015 book. The book of Genesis, for instance, is very different from, say, the Psalms or the Acts of the Apostles. Some books, such as the Song of Songs, are poetry. Others, such as St. Paul’s Epistles, instruct the reader in how to live a good life. That’s not at all the point of the Book of Joshua which is an attempt by the Jewish people to understand their special […]