January 30, 2017

Book review: “Mary: Images of the Mother of Jesus in Jewish and Christian Perspective” by Jaroslav Pelikan, David Flusser and Justin Lang, OFM

Many modern Catholics aren’t sure what to make of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Some of us remember when, prior to the Second Vatican Council, she was very much near the center of our faith. Indeed, Protestants, in general, thought the Catholic church gave way too much attention to Mary, even, some said, to the point of idolatry. Then, in the 1960s, among Catholics, there was a swing of the pendulum that moved Mary more to the margins of belief. There were still a lot of believers who kept up their prayers and devotions to Mary, but, for the most part, Catholic writers and preachers didn’t have a lot to say about her, arguing, directly or implicitly, that they needed to turn their focus much more narrowly on Jesus.   Mary, in other words, was seen as something of a distraction.   “Joyfulness of narration” That’s the context in which my own faith was formed, and it’s only been recently that I’ve felt myself looking at Mary and trying to understand her better and to figure out her place in my own brand of Catholicism. Mary: Images of the Mother of Jesus in Jewish and Christian Perspective is a delightful jewel […]
January 25, 2017

Book review: “Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured” by Kathryn Harrison

It was early March of 1429 when Joan, a 17-year-old girl from rural Domremy, arrived in the city of Chinon to tell the Dauphin — Charles VII, the uncrowned king of France — that she had been sent from God to lead his soldiers. If Joan was daunted by her arrival in a world so unlike her own, where wealth had the power to banish the squalor of peasant life [writes Kathryn Harrison], she betrayed no discomfort. If she felt any awe in entering the castle of a king, she showed none to her companions… Joan’s attention was elsewhere, already beyond the chateau, galloping ahead of her. Long before she arrived at court, Joan had embarked on a prolonged visionary experience that would end only at her death…. The story of Joan has been told many times over the past six centuries, and it will continue to be told for many centuries more. It’s a story of fierce faith, dirty politics, venal churchmen, trust betrayed, patriotism abused and, most especially, a girl who called herself Joan the Virgin and was called by her enemies Joan the Whore and Joan the Witch and who, for the past hundred years, has been […]
January 23, 2017

Book review: “So Long, See You Tomorrow” by William Maxwell

William Maxwell’s 1980 semi-autobiographical novel So Long, See You Tomorrow, originally published in The New Yorker in two installments, was a runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize and won a National Book Award. In 2016, it was included in a list the 75 best books of the previous 75 years. Maxwell was The New Yorker’s fiction editor for forty years, working with and gaining the respect of such writers as Vladimir Nabokov, John Updike, J.D. Salinger, John Cheever, John O’Hara, Eudora Welty, Shirley Hazzard, and Isaac Bashevis Singer. So, the high praise for his novel, published when Maxwell was in his early 70s, is not surprising. The novel is an exquisitely rendered, jewel-like story that’s told in just 135 pages in its original hardcover edition. It is notable for its extreme emotional reserve and ever-so-delicate craftsmanship. For me, it was bloodless.   A decidedly bleak view I’m sure there are many of Maxwell’s fans who will tell me I’m deaf to Maxwell’s artistry. And, truth be told, So Long, See You Tomorrow does have the feel of an intense and elegant poem. It is made up of two stories. One is about a murder in 1920s Lincoln, Illinois, that results from […]
January 20, 2017

REQUIEM FOR DAVID — Poems — Patrick T. Reardon

“Requiem for David is the heart’s howl, a passage through mourning, a lesson ultimately in learning how to walk alongside pain with grace.” — Sandra Cisneros, author of The House on Mango Street. … “Detail by razor-sharp detail, perception by vivid perception, recollection by haunting recollection, Patrick T. Reardon’s Requiem for David gathers into the force of a cri de coeur.” — Stuart Dybek, author of The Coast of Chicago. … “Reardon’s poetry reminds me of the great poet and Catholic priest, Daniel Berrigan. I highly recommend this volume to all who seek uncommon answers to difficult questions.” — Haki R. Madhubuti, Ph.D., author of Liberation Narratives: New and Collected Poems 1966-2009 and YellowBlack: The First Twenty-One Years of a Poet’s Life, A Memoir. …   “Your death/tore me/open like/the baby/was coming/out.” In his eighth book, Patrick T. Reardon wrestles with the suicide of his brother David and the pain they shared as the children. Requiem for David also explores the tight bond of affection that the brothers shared with each other and with their other 12 brothers and sisters. “They face life with/raw nerves. But they lean toward each other.”   Patrick T. Reardon’s books include Faith Stripped to […]
January 18, 2017

Chicago History: The Chicago judge who caused an international incident

On July 7, 1931, in a courtroom in the South Chicago neighborhood, a 38-year-old municipal court judge sparked an international incident when he peremptorily ordered the acting Mexican consul to spend six months in jail for talking back to him. “I don’t see why people bow and scrape to these consuls and ambassadors,” Judge Thomas A. Green said to a Tribune reporter. “They’ve got to be put in their place.” “Get him to shut up” According to Green, the incident began when the consul, Adolfo Dominguez, in the courtroom on another matter, listened to the judge describe Mexican vagrants before him as “idlers” and sentence them to a year in jail. In response, Dominguez approached the bench. “He objected to this sentence, and I told him to run along and mind his own business,” Green later explained. “I couldn’t get him to shut up so I threatened to send him to jail. He said I couldn’t do that because he was a representative of the Mexican government and then he dared me to jail him. So, I did.”       “Throw you in the can!” Attorney T. Russell Baker who had come to the courtroom with Dominguez gave a […]
January 16, 2017

Book review: “Cities in Flight” by James Blish

Cities in Flight is an omnibus, first published in 1970, that collects together four novels by James Blish. Those novels themselves were collections of stories that Blish had published between 1950 and 1962. I initially read Cities in Flight in paperback sometime during the 1970s when I was in my 20s. Now, some four decades later, I’ve re-read a hardcover version of the book, published in 2000. Of the two books as objects, I much prefer the cover art of the paperback in which each letter of the two main words of the title is a kind of city in flight. The dustjacket of the hardcover suggests an eerie strangeness. That’s mainly because what intrigued me then about the novel and still intrigues me is the idea of whole cities lifting off from Earth and wandering space like migrant workers or, as they call themselves, Okies. As a newspaper reporter in the 1970s, I was covering a bunch of Chicago suburbs, each of which had a mayor and some sort of city manager, and, in the final three of the novel’s four sections, the central characters are the mayor and the city manager of the space-travelling New York City. I’m […]
January 11, 2017

Book review: “The Sympathizer” by Viet Thanh Nguyen

At the end of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s 2015 novel The Sympathizer, the unnamed narrator and central character asks a series of questions: What do those who struggle against power do when they seize power? What does the revolutionary do when the revolution triumphs? Why do those who call for independence and freedom take away the independence and freedom of others? And is it sane or insane to believe, as so many around up apparently do, in nothing? These are the metaphysical issues at the heart of The Sympathizer, the winner of the 2106 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, but that’s not clear until the very end of the novel. Instead, the novel seems to about living in two worlds as the narrator suggests with these words that open the book: I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds…I am simply able to see any issue from both sides. Sometimes I flatter myself that this is a talent, and although it is admittedly one of a minor nature, it is perhaps also the sole talent I possess.   “The dust of life” Born in the northern […]
January 10, 2017

Book review: “The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc” by Charles Peguy, adapted by Jean-Paul Lucet, translated by Jeffrey Wainwright

In Charles Peguy’s play The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc, there are three characters: Joan, her friend Hauviette and a nun called Madam Gervaise. The year is 1425, and Joan is a seemingly simple teenaged peasant girl, trying to figure out what faith means and what faith requires. She is on stage the entire time. She is joined for the first part by Hauviette and for the second by Madam Gervaise. Their conversations are theological investigations. Hauviette seems to represent a sort of common sense approach to questions about God and belief. Madam Gervaise appears to represent official Catholic teaching. The key line in the play, to my mind, is uttered when the nun asks Joan: Why do you want, sister, to save the dead who are damned to eternal Hell? Why do you want to be a better savior than the Savior?   Three questions Peguy (1873-1914), born of French peasant stock, was a poet, editor and political activist who espoused an idiosyncratic version of Catholicism. In 1897, he wrote a very long drama Joan of Arc. Thirteen years later, he returned to the subject of the soldier-saint Maid of Orleans when he composed The Mystery […]
January 5, 2017

Book review: “Death Comes for the Archbishop” by Willa Cather

It’s been 90 years since Willa Cather published Death Comes for the Archbishop, and what’s particularly striking about the novel is how it seems to exist outside the fashions and prejudices of a particular era and, yet, tells a universal story about human beings and the earth on which they live. At the center of the novel are two French Jesuits — Bishop Jean Marie Latour and his friend Father Joseph Vaillant — two celibate men who, in the mid-19th century, devote their lives to bring religious faith and comfort to Mexican-Americans in the newly acquired U.S. territory of New Mexico. Missionaries are generally depicted in books and movies today as aggressive, vindictive, dictatorial and stone-hearted. I’m sure there have been such priests in the history of the mission fields, but I’m also certain that a lot more of those who went out to share their faith with people who knew little or nothing of Jesus were like Latour and Vaillant. Cather presents them as strong, committed men, willing to put up with great hardships in doing what they saw as God’s work. Flawed, like all of us are, but good at heart. We can still believe today in the […]
January 3, 2017

My Top Fourteen Books of 2016

Last year, it was my top eleven. This year, it’s the top fourteen. Why? I could tell you that I’d already left a lot of good books off this list. And I could tell you that I would cheerfully, joyfully, delightedly recommend any of these books to any reader. Really, though, it’s because these fourteen. among all those I read in 2016, touched deepest me in some way. Some, such as The House on Mango Street and The Long Season, are books that I’ve read before. A good number are ostensibly books on religious topics, but I’d argue that their subject matter was the human condition. They’re ranked first to fourteenth, but, really, on another day, the list would probably be shuffled a bit, or a lot. So, here they are along with a portion of my review and a link to that review: “A Canticle for Leibowitz” by Walter M. Miller Jr. In his novel, Miller has created a captivating story in which the future world echoes what happened in the past. Just as Western civilization took hundreds of years to rebuild itself after the fall of Rome, Miller’s post-apocalyptic Earth goes through a Dark Ages (the first section), […]
January 2, 2017

Meditation: Snow in Jerusalem

It snows in Jerusalem. Somebody told me that, so I looked it up. In 1950, there were storms that dumped a couple feet of snow on the city and even more elsewhere in Israel. So Jesus wasn’t unfamiliar with snow. As a boy, maybe he had to shovel it. Or maybe his parents told him just to wait for it to melt. It’s warmer in Nazareth than here in Chicago. Maybe, as a boy, Jesus was like my son David who, on more than a few winter mornings, awoke, looked out the window and ran through the house, shouting, “Hooray! It snowed!” I’ve always found it fascinating to see how completely the world is changed by an overnight snowfall. You wake up, and all of the dead leaves and trash along the curb and mud and yellow grass, all of the streets and alleys, all of the cars and houses and garages are covered in beauty. I think Jesus was alive to beauty. He was alive to life in such a vivid way. He looked at life with open eyes and saw — really saw — the world, especially the people in the world. The woman who washed his feet […]