March 22, 2017

Book review: “Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal” by Christopher Moore

As Biff notes at the beginning of Christopher Moore’s comic 2002 novel Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, his friend’s name was Joshua. Jesus, he explains, is a Greek translation of the Hebrew name Yeshua. Also, Christ isn’t his last name. It’s Greek for the Hebrew word messiah, meaning anointed. Biff goes on: I have no idea what the “H” in Jesus H. Christ stood for. It’s one of the things I should have asked him. That gives you an idea of the general tone of Lamb and of Levi who is called Biff, one in a long line of Christopher Moore characters who are ribald, raunchy, cheeky, confused, intrepid, vibrant and — did I mention? — randy smart alecks with a heart of gold. Here, for instance, is how Biff summarizes the gist of virtually every sermon he ever heard Joshua give: “You should be nice to people, even creeps.” Generations of Christian theologians would probably nit-pick that teaching to death, and, yet, really, isn’t that the heart of Christianity?   “Lush blossoms” Here’s the thing about Lamb: It’s very funny and outrageous and in the worst possible taste, as in this scene: The new guy…noticed […]
March 13, 2017

Book review: “Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door” by Barbara Mahany

There are many paragraphs in Barbara Mahany’s Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door, that could be scanned as poetry, such as this one: Blessed be the golden days and star-stitched nights of autumn.   Blessed be triumphant blast of light, and jewel-toned tapestry, as the Northern Hemisphere lets out its final hallelujah before deepening, drawing in.   And bless those among us who are wide-eyed in wonderment.   Barbara Mahany has been a friend of mine for more than 30 years, and, for many of those years, we were colleagues at the Chicago Tribune. In the excerpt above, there are echoes of Gerard Manly Hopkins and St. Francis of Assisi, but it’s pure Barbara. She has always been one who is “wide-eyed in wonderment” before the beauty, mystery and complexity of creation, as this 2014 book shows.   “Everyone you meet” Slowing Time is meditative, descriptive, prayerful — and completely out of step with much of what American mainstream society concerns itself. That’s a good thing. It’s countercultural in the gentlest and steeliest of ways. Barbara is a believer during an era when belief is either ignored as superstitious claptrap or blamed for violence and unrest in […]
March 10, 2017

Six Poverty Books

In the past couple weeks, I’ve posted reviews of six books about people living in poverty, published between 1890 and 1986 — nearly a century’s worth. Below are the books with links to the reviews. But, first, a few observations from my reading of the books: Poor people are people. They have full lives with the full range of human emotions.       They are not a breed apart.       They are us. Poverty is no fun. It’s a complicated, stress-filled existence. Personal choices have an important impact on an individual life and can be a factor in that person living in poverty. Yet, even more important is the machinery of society and the economy which builds in a greater or lesser amount of unemployment and provides greater or lesser access to opportunities through education and housing. Here are the books with an excerpt:   1890 — How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis: “How the Other Half Lives was a major milestone in journalism, in photojournalism and in social reform. Riis’s text, often overlooked, is hard-edged and filled with a barely restrained anger. His photos show every crooked board, every crack in the plaster, every […]
March 9, 2017

Book review: Poverty books — 1985 — “The American Millstone: An examination of the nation’s permanent underclass” by the staff of the Chicago Tribune

In the late summer of 1985, Jim Gallagher, one of my editors at the Chicago Tribune, came to my desk and told me to put everything on hold. Instead of my normal duties as a general assignment reporter, I was assigned to write several stories as part of an in-depth investigation into the existence and implications of what was then being called the black underclass. The series was to be titled The American Millstone: An Examination of the nation’s permanent underclass. Comprising the underclass were African-American people living in deep poverty with little or no expectation of escape. As blacks, they were limited by racism. As poor people, they were limited by a reduced access to good education and decent-paying jobs — they lacked the networks that those elsewhere in society used to learn about and take advantage of opportunities. Yet, not everyone who was black and poor was in the underclass.   Distinctive about this group What was distinctive about this group was that they lived in a subculture in which crime was a threat and, for some, an occupation. It was a subculture in which many sought escape through drugs and many made money selling drugs. Indeed, many […]
March 9, 2017

Book review: Poverty books — 1936 — “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” by James Agee with photos by Walker Evans

There are many ways to approach Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the majestic, mystical and often maddening book that James Agee and Walker Evans published in 1941. I’m going to look at it here through the lens of journalism — how it subverts and critiques journalism as practiced in the United States. It is a book that subverts journalism, even as it reaches — strains achingly — to create a new journalism. It’s journalism as art. But not the sort of art that Agee is at pains to criticize through his book. The art that he is striving to create. But here, I’m afraid, I’m starting to sound like Agee. Let me try to be as clear as I can. I will write here mainly about Agee. The Evans photos are, like his text, majestic, mystical and at times maddening, but that’s another discussion. So too is the interplay between Agee’s words and the images by Evans. Neither exists without the other. Yet, here, I will write mainly about Agee. In the summer of 1936, Agee and Evans spent eight weeks traveling around the South, working on an assignment from Fortune magazine for a story about sharecroppers and tenant […]
March 8, 2017

Book review: Poverty books — 1929-1930 — “Down and Out in Paris and London” by George Orwell

Midway through Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell is making a point: The mass of the rich and the poor are differentiated by their incomes and nothing else, and the average millionaire is only the average dishwasher dressed in a new suit. Change places, and handy dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief? Everyone who has mixed on equal terms with the poor knows this quite well. Orwell is reacting to the general feeling among the non-poor of England of his time — and it’s true today in the United States — that people who live in poverty are somehow less than full people. That they’re of a different breed, a lesser breed. Yet, in this book about his own experience living in extreme poverty over the course of more than three months in late 1929 and early 1930, Orwell makes again and again the strikingly obvious point: that the poor are human beings, just like the rest of us.   “Ordinary human beings” For instance, writing about his time among tramps and beggars in London and its environs, Orwell notes: It is worth saying something about the social position of beggars, for when one […]
March 7, 2017

Book Review: Poverty books — 1890 — “How the Other Half Lives” by Jacob Riis

…. There is much to say about Jacob Riis’s 1890 masterpiece How the Other Half Lives, but, first, let’s look at the faces in his book. In our selfie-social media age, a collection like this — a collection of the faces of individuals — is nothing unusual. Yet, 125 years ago, these images were revolutionary. If you were rich, you could have your portrait painted. If you were middle-class, you could pay for a photographic likeness. You might even buy your own Kodak box camera, introduced in 1888, and take up the expensive hobby of photography, making photos of family members and friends. The poor couldn’t avail themselves of these options. But Jacob Riis, newspaper reporter and reformer in New York, could and did. And, in lectures, articles and a series of books, starting with How the Other Half Lives, he bridged the economic, cultural and class gap to link those with solid, comfortable lives to their brothers and sisters trying to eke out a living in poverty.   Common humanity How the Other Half Lives was a major milestone in journalism, in photojournalism and in social reform. Riis’s text, often overlooked, is hard-edged and filled with a barely restrained […]
March 2, 2017

Book review: Poverty Books –– 1936 — “The Road to Wigan Pier” by George Orwell

There are two halves to George Orwell’s investigative report on the working class of the industrial centers of Yorkshire and Lancashire in England, published in 1937, The Road to Wigan Pier. The second is a pointed, opinionated, witty and, at times, technical discussion of the failures of the British social-political system to provide decent opportunities for the working class and others at the bottom of the economic heap, and of what was needed to eliminate these failings. His answer was socialism, but not as British socialists were practicing the political creed. A more humane, less class-conscious socialism is what Orwell had in mind. This 100-page section is filled with telling observations about the class system in Britain, with many slaps at the middle class, particularly socialists of that class unable and unwilling to see working class people as equals. With many writers, this would be heavy going, but Orwell is never boring, even when he’s being pedantic and biased and more than a bit of a know-it-all. In much of what he writes, though, he makes eminent sense.   “Black thumb-print” But I don’t want to deal here with this second half of the book. Instead, I want to look closely […]