September 29, 2016

Book review: “Della Robbia: Sculpting with Color in Renaissance Florence” by Marietta Cambareri

Six hundred years ago in Italy, Luca Della Robbia created an artistic technique that permitted him to fashion what might be called three-dimensional paintings or brightly colored sculpture. It was a technique that resulted in glazed terracotta works that today remain as vibrant as when they were first fired. He and his nephew Andrea and Andrea’s five sons formed a workshop that, over the course of more than a century, produced hundreds of small and large glazed terracotta sculptures. They had a handful of competitors, some of whom apparently learned the secret of the Della Robbia glazing method while working for the family. The early works, particularly those of Luca, often featured figures in white against a rich, blue background. Later ones from the workshop worked in a broader range of colors. However, by the middle of the 16th century, the Della Robbias were gone and their competitors as well, and no other artists arose to follow in their footsteps. None, it would seem, had learned the secret formula. The art of the Della Robbias, in this way, is locked into a certain era of the past (from about 1440 through 1560), reflective of the tastes and concerns of that […]
September 27, 2016

Book review: “Rodin” by Raphael Masson and Veronique Mattiussi

I have a key question about Rodin by Raphael Masson and Veronique Mattiussi, but, first, I need to commend the Musee Rodin and the publisher Flammarion for selecting the relatively obscure marble sculpture Danaid for the cover of the book. Rodin is one of the artist-victims of modern pop culture — Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci are among the others — who have produced a piece of work that has embedded itself into the broad culture and the public mind that it becomes unseeable as  art. Leonardo’s Mona Lisa is an example, and Michelangelo’s David. Rodin is twice victimized with The Thinker and The Kiss. For millions of people who know nothing of art, such works have come to represent “ART” and are accorded a certain reverence that makes it nearly impossible to approach them with a fresh and open mind. In addition, the images of these works have been appropriated for billboards and t-shirts and key-rings and parodies and myriad other purposes. They are no longer themselves. They are an accumulation of millions of messages that they have been employed to convey. Anyone attempting to see them as a work of art must fight off a bombardment of preconceptions and […]
September 22, 2016

Book Review: “Ulysses S. Grant: Memoirs and Selected Letters.” edited by Mary McFeely and William S. McFeely

There is a famous photograph of Ulysses S. Grant, sitting on the porch of his home in upstate New York on an obviously very cold day in 1885, writing his memoirs. He appears a forlorn figure. He is in a rush, cranking out as many as 50 pages a day, even as he is suffering greatly from the throat cancer that eventually spreads to the rest of his body. He is in a hurry because con-artists have taken him for his life savings, and the only way to ensure his family’s future is to complete this manuscript so that his friend Mark Twain can publish it. He finishes on July 18, and, five days later, he dies. His Memoirs — which focus heavily on his experience in the Civil War and not at all on his presidency — are a best seller, netting his wife Julia more than $420,000, or about $10 million in today’s dollars.   “I am a verb” Out of copyright today, the book, reprinted by many publishers, still sells. I am partial to the carefully prepared and artfully presented 1990 Library of America edition, edited by Mary and William McFeely. In addition to the memoirs themselves, […]
September 16, 2016

Book review: “Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939” by Adam Hochschild

In the book world, there is developing a subgenre of history-writing that takes an event or a place in world history and examines it from the perspectives and perceptions of the Americans who were present. An example from 2010 is Citizens of London: The Americans Who Stood with Britain in Its Darkest, Finest Hour by Lynne Olson.  A year later came The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris by David McCullough. Now, here’s Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939 by Adam Hochschild. It seems to me that there are positives and negatives to this approach. On the plus side, the presence of Americans in the text makes it easier for American readers to relate to the topic.  It’s as if these fellow citizens are stand-ins for us.  They are coming from a world we are familiar with and finding themselves in a different place.  Their reactions are, in some way, our reactions.  Or, to use a piece of jargon, we at least know where they’re coming from. This permits us as readers to take in the history more easily, as if we were experiencing it.   A story-telling tension There is a tendency, anyway, in modern […]
September 15, 2016

Essay: Chicago’s hangmen reformers

Donald Trump’s loose talk in early August about the Second Amendment got  a lot of people worrying that he was not so subtly calling for armed violence,or even assassination. More than a century ago, Chicago reformers weren’t so delicate. In what might be called “good government terrorism,” they actively talked about a mob stringing up a businessman widely hated for his power and corruption — the streetcar-elevated line magnate Charles Tyson Yerkes. As the nineteenth century neared its end, Yerkes was attempting to vastly improve the value of his streetcar lines by obtaining franchise agreements extending for 50 or, even better, 99 years. However, while he’d been able to win most such battles in the past, he found himself this time up against an increasingly organized coalition of reformers who, to their own surprise, were working hand-in-glove with some of the same corrupt politicians formerly in the financier’s pocket. Indeed, in 1897-98, Yerkes was the target of an unprecedented campaign in which he was routinely and publicly threatened with violence. “Decorating a lamp post” Consider these statements: • Ald. John Harlan, a reformer, speaking before a crowd of 3,500, issued a warning to “that proud and haughty bandit, that great highwayman…arrogant […]
September 14, 2016

Book review: “Sensing Chicago: Noisemakers, Strikebreakers, and Muckrakers” by Adam Mack

Historians have always focused on the facts of the past — What happened? They have also studied the reasons behind those facts — Why did it happen? Above all, they have sought to figure out how the past has shaped the present — What did it mean? Today, there’s a new genre of history-writing that asks a question that has long been over-looked or little reported — How did it feel? This is called sensory history, and it examines how things smelled and sounded and felt for someone who lived in a certain place at a certain time in the past, as well as the causes of those smells, sounds and physical feelings; the meanings that people of the time attached to those sensory perceptions; and the impacts that the senses had on the decisions that people made, individually and as groups. In other words, it’s doing all the same things that historians have been doing when examining, say, the life of Abraham Lincoln or the fall of the Roman Empire, but, in this case, focusing on sensory experiences. The question of how things looked has long been woven into the usual approach of historians.  The physical sense of taste […]
September 8, 2016

Book review: “Dialogues with Silence: Prayers and Drawings” by Thomas Merton, edited by Jonathan Montaldo

  Lessons from Thomas Merton in the pages of the 2001 collection of his writings, Dialogues with Silence: Prayers and Drawings, edited by Jonathan Montaldo: Merton experiences prayer as something not isolated in a place or into words. Instead, he writes: My God, I pray to You by breathing. He recognizes that reaching out to God requires something beyond — above? deeper than? — human limitations: I will travel to You, Lord, through a thousand blind alleys. You want to bring me to You through stone walls. Love is an act of will, or at least vulnerability. But it is also — maybe in its essence — being. The trees indeed love You without knowing You. Without being aware of Your presence, the tiger lilies and cornflowers proclaim that they love You. The beautiful dark clouds ride slowly across the sky musing on You like children who do not know what they are dreaming of as they play. God is Being, too, as Merton notes that as the clock ticks and the thermostat stops humming, “God is in this room. He is in my heart.” And Merton tries to open himself to God if he can first overcome “my sin […]
September 6, 2016

Book review: “Pennant Race” by Jim Brosnan

It’s midway through the 1961 major league baseball season, and Jim Brosnan, a right-handed relief pitcher of the Cincinnati Reds, is talking with Joey Jay, the staff ace, about when the challenge hitter with pitches. Brosnan relates the short conversation in his second baseball book Pennant Race and then steps back and tells the reader: Of course, when I don’t think I have good stuff — and there are such days — I don’t see how I can get anybody out. Usually I don’t. Brosnan, who was a pretty good pitcher during his nine years in the big leagues, is nothing if not rawly honest and drily witty in Pennant Race (published in 1962) as well as in his earlier baseball book The Long Season (1960). Both explain what it is like for a professional baseball player to go through a season of gamesplaying. And more than that — what it’s like for any high-performing athlete to try to harness the mystery of his or her skill within the context of the business, competition and fishbowl of major sports.   An elegiac quality There is, in fact, an elegiac quality to Brosnan’s writing, an underlying melody of loss. Just behind […]