Creaking up and down the court

This essay originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune on October 2, 3013

I started playing basketball when I was 11-years-old. That’s more than half a century ago.

I still play, twice a week, but, more and more, there are times, when I stink to high heaven. My hook shot won’t fall. The guy I’m guarding gets around me with ease. I’m unable to dribble without getting the ball stolen out from under me.

George, a friend from high school and a teammate on the basketball team, died in August out in Seattle where he’d long lived. George had had hip problems in recent years, but, from what I knew, his health was fine. Then — bang! — he was felled by a cerebral hemorrhage.

I didn’t learn of George’s death until a month after it happened, and I had a particularly frustrating time on the court that night. I’d hoped that basketball would clear my head. Instead, I ran around the court, clumsily trying to do too much. This made my game even worse than it usually is. Continue reading

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No expert, just a do-gooder

This essay original appeared in the Chicago Tribune on August 25, 2013

Edward Paul Brennan was one of us. A nobody.

Born in 1866, he made deliveries for his father’s grocery store, then worked downtown at the Lyon & Healy Co. music store as a bill collector and later as building superintendent.

Yet, few individuals in Chicago’s history have had as much impact — for the good — on the daily lives of Chicagoans, suburbanites and visitors to the city.

That’s why, on Friday (8/30), a little before noon, a small ceremony will be held to officially unveil the honorary street designation of the corner of State and Madison as Edward Brennan Way. On hand will be Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd), who sponsored the designation ordinance, and Brennan’s daughter, Adelaide, who will turn 99 that day.

No intersection is more central to the identity of Chicago as State and Madison, and it’s an apt location to honor Brennan since he’s the one who gave the corner its prominence.

In the summer of 1901 when he turned 35, Brennan took an armload of maps with him on vacation to Paw Paw, Mich., and came back, like a prophet from the desert, with a detailed plan for helping people find their way in what was then a very chaotic Chicago.

How chaotic? Continue reading

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Hope, baseball and A-Rod

This essay was originally published in the Chicago Tribune on August 7, 2013

I took my first baseman’s mitt to U.S. Cellular Field Monday night for the opening game of a three-game series between the White Sox and the Yankees.

I probably should have been a bit sheepish about doing so, but baseball fans seem to have a great tolerance for a guy in his 60s channeling his inner 10-year-old.

Yet, the more I thought about it, the more I came to realize that bringing my mitt to the game was something other than childish. In some way, it goes to the heart of why anyone is a fan of any sport.

It also goes to the heart of the betrayal of Alex Rodriguez and the steroid era.

It’s about hope.

Pat at Yankee-White Sox game 8.5.13 -- A-Rod return and suspensionThe little girl a few rows ahead of me brought her mitt to the Sox-Yankees game for the same reason I did. We were hoping to catch a ball. We were looking for a relic of the institution that is baseball.

Actually, “institution” isn’t quite right. For a fan, baseball is something a religion. (I’m sure it’s the same for fans of other sports.) Continue reading

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Book review: “Burglars Can’t Be Choosers” by Lawrence Block

block --- burglarsI’m not exactly sure why I liked Lawrence Block’s Bernie Rhodenbarr crime novel Burglars Can’t Be Choosers. Continue reading

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Book review: “Memento Mori” by Muriel Spark

Guy Leet, aged 75, stooped with various ailments, picks up the phone and hears a schoolboy say:

Remember, you must die.

He tells the boy to go to hell.

Some days or weeks later, he is having a bitter literary argument with his irate poet-friend Percy Mannering, aged 74, when the phone rings and the same voice conveys the same message.

“Oh, it’s you…Well, now, sonny, I’m busy at the moment. I have a poet friend here with me and we are just about to have a drink.”

The voice asks if his guest is Mannering. Guy gives the receiver to Percy who hears an identical message. But, for Mannering, the voice isn’t a schoolboy’s.

It sounds like one of the great poets of the 20th century, William Butler Yeats.

spark - memento mori

Muriel Spark’s masterpiece

In Muriel Spark’s 1958 novel Memento Mori, Guy and Percy are among a group of about a dozen elderly mid-century English people who are recipients of this call. Most of them are affluent Londoners and most are related to each other by love, blood, friendship or past romance.

Spark was 40 when she published Memento Mori, her third of what would eventually number 22 novels and her masterpiece. She died nearly half a century later, in 2006, at the age of 88.

How did she come to be thinking so young about death? Continue reading

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Book review: “Bitter River” by Julia Keller

keller --- bitterBell Elkins has just left Joyce’s Diner in the town of Aker’s Gap in Raythune County, West Virginia. She is the prosecuting attorney for the county and has a lot on her mind.

Still, she can’t help but stop and look around, taking in the streets where she grew up and the peaks looming nearby.

She knew the people who struggled to make a go of it here. Knew, too, the mountains piled up in the near distance, the jagged slabs of solid rock that always threatened — or so it had seemed to Bell, when she was a little girl — to gradually close over the top of the town, like a lid on a soup pot…

She’s tried to describe it once to a big-city friend, tried to put into words the singular feeling of living in a place presided over by a watchful mass of black rock, by a permanence you couldn’t push back against. Well, you could try — but it wouldn’t matter.

Bell is the central character in Julia Keller’s second mystery Bitter River as she was in the first one A Killing in the Hills.

I was deeply impressed last year with the high literary quality of A Killing in the Hills, ranking it with the work of James Lee Burke and P. D. James. Like those writers, Keller uses the mystery framework to look at what makes people tick — and at how their lives are shaped by the landscape in which they live.

Bitter River is better. Continue reading

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Book review: “Pudd’nhead Wilson” by Mark Twain

Twain -- detailMark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson is a wonderful mess. Or, maybe better put, a messy wonder.

As Twain explains elsewhere, the 1894 novel started life as a much different story, focused on conjoined twins with different morals. If one twin is bad, can you punish both?

But, as he was writing, he brought in other characters, as novelists are generally required to do:

Among them came a stranger named Pudd’nhead Wilson, and a woman named Roxana; and presently the doings of these two pushed on into prominence a young fellow named Tom Driscoll, whose proper place was away in the obscure background. Before the book was half finished those three were taking things almost entirely into their own hands and working the whole tale as a private venture of their own — a tale which they had nothing at all to do with, by rights.

Literary conjoined twins

He finished the book, and it was bad. The two stories were literary conjoined twins, and very awkward page-fellows. So Twain did the necessary surgery.

The original story didn’t come away from the operation in very good shape. Twain found a way to use it, however, by publishing it as the novella Those Extraordinary Twins with commentary at the beginning and end about how this was something of a failed effort. He was right.

Pudd’nhead Wilson, the novel, was not unscarred by the all the slicing. I suspect that, if Twain had started out with this tale in mind, the result would have been a much smoother and more focused novel.

As it is, the book is herky-jerky at times as it shifts sometimes jarringly from melodrama to character study, from silliness to murder.

The multiplicity of extremely different book covers for "Pudd'nhead Wilson" is indicative of what a messy wonder the novel is.  And also the reluctance, even today, to recognize Roxy as the central character.

The multiplicity of extremely different book covers for “Pudd’nhead Wilson” is indicative of what a messy wonder the novel is. And also the reluctance, even today, to recognize Roxy as the central character.

“Those three”

And then there are those three characters. Continue reading

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Book review: “The Alchemy of Air: A Jewish Genius, a Doomed Tycoon, and the Scientific Discovery That Fed the World but Fueled the Rise of Hitler” by Thomas Hager

hager --- alchemyGrumpy Pat: I just finished Thomas Hager’s The Alchemy of Air: A Jewish Genius, a Doomed Tycoon, and the Scientific Discovery That Fed the World but Fueled the Rise of Hitler, and it was a real waste of time.

Amiable Pat: C’mon, it wasn’t all that bad. I kind of liked some parts of it.

Grumpy Pat: Alright, it wasn’t exactly a waste of time. It was a book that took 281 pages to tell a story that could have easily been communicated in 30. I should have known. It’s always a bad sign when a book has a subtitle as long and weighted as this one. “Genius” and “doomed” are favorite subtitle words. And anytime you can get Hitler in there, it’s golden. At least, as far as sales go.

Amiable Pat: Well, you’re right about subtitles. But Hager’s book does feature some interesting stuff about guano and nitrate and saltpeter, and how they were used for fertilizer and gunpowder — to feed and to kill. That’s kind of ironic, isn’t it?

Grumpy Pat: Yeah, yeah, but Hager spends the first third of the book on these natural sources of nitrogen. It’s over-padded and over-written. It’s not really about the subject of the book — the creation of nitrogen from air. It’s there to give the book more heft since Hager doesn’t have much to say about the discovery itself.

Amiable Pat: Aren’t you being harsh? After all, he needs to set the stage for the discovery.

Grumpy Pat: Sure, but it’s way too much space for setting the stage. And look at how Hager spends nearly the entire second half of the book about what happened after the scientific breakthrough. Out of his 281 pages, he only devotes 84 to the experiments by Fritz Haber (the “Jewish Genius” of the subtitle) and its refinement by Carl Bosch (the “Doomed Tycoon”).

Grumpy Pat and Amiable Pat

Grumpy Pat and Amiable Pat

Amiable Pat: Well, he’s gotta show how that breakthrough was important — how it probably extended World War I and how Haber and Bosch got caught up in the changes Hitler wrought on Germany and the world.

Grumpy Pat: Most of that stuff, though, is peripheral to the discovery. Continue reading

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A meditation on sainthood and Sammy Esposito

Sammy EspositoAs a young boy, I was captivated by baseball stars, and I asked my Dad if a particular player was good. It may have been Sammy Esposito of the White Sox. His response was that, if Sammy was in the major leagues, he had to be good.

Yes, even if Sammy was only batting .167.

My thoughts go to that memory as we approach November 1, the Feast of All Saints. The Catholic Church has its own Hall of Fame of Saints, the official list of those canonized, and it includes such all-time greats as St. Francis of Assisi and St. Gertrude the Great. In addition, there are famous people who, unofficially, are considered saints, including Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King Jr.

people combo -- 44I wrote about that Catholic hall of fame in an op-ed piece last Friday in the Chicago Tribune, and I want to elaborate a bit more here.

At my parish on the Far North Side of Chicago, St. Gertrude, our roll of parishioners doesn’t include any official or unofficial saints. Yet, if you look around at a parish meeting or at church during Mass or on the court of a 7th grade basketball game, we’re surrounded by saints.

You, me, everyone — we’re all members of the Communion of Saints. That’s what it says right there in the Apostles Creed:

…I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.

We are — each of us — called to be saints.

And, if we look at our daily lives, we’ll see that there are moments when we are saintly. It’s important to recognize those moments and build on them. That’s how Francis and Gertrude got to be the All-Star saints they became.

None of us is likely to reach the heights they did. We’re more like Sammy Esposito. Yet, even Sammy got better.

One year, he hit .235.

Patrick T. Reardon

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Book review: “A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters” by Julian Barnes

I thoroughly enjoyed A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters by Julian Barnes for its lively and witty storytelling, its multiplicity of writing styles and its refusal to fit.

It’s a novel. It says so right there on the dust jacket. And, at his website, Barnes calls it a novel.

Yet, it’s unlike just about any novel you’ve ever read.

barnes --- history of world --- detail Continue reading

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Book review: “Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar” by Simon Sebag Montefiore

death toll betterIt might be helpful to think of Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Stalin: the Court of the Red Tsar as akin to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals.

Except that, when Abraham Lincoln wanted to get someone out of his cabinet, he moved the guy somewhere else, like to the U.S. Supreme Court.

When Stalin wanted to remove one of his inner circle of toadying confidantes, he had the guy killed.

Like a Russian novel, Stalin: the Court of the Red Tsar has a seeming cast of thousands. There are really great photo inserts in the book, but I found it even more helpful to prepare my own handy bookmark-size collection of mugshots of 18 of Stalin’s closest aides.

By the end of this long book and Stalin’s long reign as the Red Tsar, nine of the 18 were dead. Only two of those succumbed to natural causes. The rest were killed in some way or forced to commit suicide.

And, of course, that doesn’t include the dozens of other less exalted leaders who were exterminated, often with their families. And the millions of bureaucrats, scientists, military men and people from just about every other walk of life who were purged (i.e., killed). And the tens of millions of everyday citizens who died of starvation and disease because of failed Communist experiments on a nationwide scale.

The two bullets

There is the tale of two bullets that may give an insight into these men and their brilliant and brutal leader. Continue reading

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Book review: “Everest 1953” by Nick Conefrey

conefrey --- everestThe scribbled telegram text, sent by messenger from the top of Mount Everest, was bleak — but also a bit odd.

Snow conditions bad stop advanced base abandoned yesterday stop awaiting improvement All well

News of failure was not unexpected from the expedition on Everest in late May of 1953. After all, for more than 30 years, mountaineers, particularly those from Great Britain, had been attempting to reach the summit of the tallest peak on earth and had routinely come up short, writes Nick Conefrey in Everest 1953.

This note, carried down the slopes to an Indian radio station and ultimately transmitted in a wire to the British Foreign Office, was sent by James Morris (later Jan Morris), the on-site reporter for the London Times. As he expected, it also went through the hands of ferociously competitive journalists who had bribed functionaries at various points in its journey.

That “All well” at the end was curious, but the rest of the message seemed to confirm the latest rumors about the attempt to climb to the top of the world. So those snoopers ignored the message.

And lost the biggest scoop of their lives.


Of course, they didn’t have the key to the simple code that Morris used, but Charles Summerhayes, the British ambassador to Nepal, did. He knew that “Snow conditions bad” meant that the summit had been scaled. (Failure would have been communicated with the words “Wind still troublesome.”) Other phrases in the text indicated that the successful climbers were Edmund Hillary, a New Zealander, and Tenzing Norgay, a Bothia from Tibet who had lived most of his life in Nepal and India. Continue reading

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“Marriage Song” by Patrick T. Reardon

We exult at the joining of young lives.
We dance the dance of joy.

This is a time of merriment.
This is a time of wonder.
Who will argue at a time like this?
Who will find fault?

Fear is exiled. Jealousy is banished.
We are in the land of milk and honey.
We are in a rich and fertile land.

We are anointed in these vows.
In these promises, we are blessed.
This rite is our consecration.
This joining is our union.

This is the time of the Spirit.
This is the time of bright visions.

Let us dance.
Let us sing our songs.
Let us smile and laugh together.

We are in the Promised Land.
We are on our soil.
We are where we belong.

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Book review: “The Long War” by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

When Roberta Golding first shows up in The Long War by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter, she’s described as “a dark, unsmiling girl of about fifteen.”

Nothing too unusual in that, but there’s more.

She is a student at a boarding school in Valhalla where Dan Valiente, the curious and alert eight-year-old son of Joshua and Helen, may soon be enrolled. During a tour, the headmaster asks Dan if he knows how Valhalla — a sort of neo-Chicago — survives as a major transportation link even though it isn’t surrounded and supported by a hinterland of farms.

“Maybe you’re all robbers,” Dan quips.

To which, Roberta says, “Valhalla is a city supported by combers. Hunter-gatherers. The logic is elementary. Intensive farming can support order of magnitude more people per acre than hunting and gathering…” And on she drones for half a page.

“Joshua thought the kid spoke like a textbook,” Pratchett and Baxter write.


For me, Roberta is the most intriguing character in a book fully littered with the odd, the eccentric and the downright alien.

The context

Before I explain, though, I need to provide the context, and there’s a lot. Continue reading

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The Woven Lives of a Parish

As a parallel to the story I wrote for National Catholic Reporter in July about St. Gertrude Church and the death of our longtime religious education director, I did a similar piece that was published this month in Reality, a Catholic magazine in Ireland. Here it is:

reality - woven --- 1

reality - woven --- 2

reality - woven --- 3

reality - woven --- 4

Patrick T. Reardon

If the above copies of the magazine pages are too tough to read, here’s the story in a more readable format: Continue reading

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135 North Leamington Avenue, Chicago — where I grew up

135 N Leamington

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Book review: “Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song” by David Margolick

margolick --- strangefruitIn early 1939, at Café Society, a rare integrated New York City night club, Billie Holiday first sang “Strange Fruit.”

It was, writes David Margolick, a shocking, stunning, visceral song for the singer and her audience — a unique, courageous and bitter song about the lynching of blacks in the American South.

And so it remained, arresting and horrific, for anyone who heard the battered and self-destructive Holiday sing it during the two decades she had left in her life, and for anyone who listens today to an audio or video recording of her singing the song.

It was written by Abel Meeropol, a school teacher and songwriter with strong leftish sympathies. (Indeed, in later life, after Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for spying, he and his wife, who never met the Rosenbergs, adopted their two young sons.)

“Strange Fruit” by Lewis Allan (Abel Meeropol)

 Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
 Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
 Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
 Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees….

Strange Fruit is Margolick’s short book about the song. It began as a Vanity Fair article, and is subtitled The Biography of a Song. In many ways, it’s a kind of oral history since the bulk of his text is taken up with quotes from Holiday and others

At a party in Harlem in late 1938, Holiday asked in the early morning hours if she could sing a new song for those still around. Charles Gilmore, then a young salesman, recalled that it brought the party to a jarring halt:

That was all she sang; nobody asked her to sing anything else. There was a finality about the last note. Even the pianist knew. He just got up and walked away. It was an odd thing. Nobody clapped or anything. Continue reading

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Book review: “Shalako” by Louis L’Amour

Louis L’Amour died in 1988 at the age of 80. In his long life as a writer, he published 105 novels and other books, almost all of them westerns or set in the West.

He has more than 320 million copies of his works in print, and I’ve just read one of them, his 1962 novel Shalako.

My expectations weren’t high, given that L’Amour’s books are genre westerns. Still, many have been turned into movies. In fact, that’s why I was reading Shalako — because, recently, I’d seen the 1968 film with Sean Connery in the title role and Brigitte Bardot as the love interest, a European noblewoman Irina.

Shalako has some of the negatives of genre fiction of all sorts. For instance, none of the characters is very complicated, particularly the baddest of the bad guys, Bosky Fulton.

At one point, the reader is told there is “something unclean about the man.” Later, he is described as an “ill-smelling, hatchet-faced gunman.” And, toward the end, we learn that he has “yellow eyes.”

To top it all off, Bosky strips the valuables from one of his dying friends, the second baddest guy, and leaves him to the Apaches.

l'amour --- shalakoNear the end, though, Bosky gets his comeuppance when a merciless Apache finds him wounded and immobilized among some mountain rocks — and gives him a slow, tortured death.

Okay, so L’Amour lays it on thick about Bosky.

A real page-turner

On the plus side, though, Shalako is a real page-turner. Continue reading

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Book review: “Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling, and a World on the Brink” by David Margolick

Sports books tend to be bland reading. They can’t hold a candle to watching an athlete ply his or her trade.

In Beyond Glory, David Margolick does a good job of describing the key fights of Joe Louis and Max Schmeling, particularly their two against each other. Yet, as evocative as his writing is, it is nothing to a YouTube clip showing a totally befuddled Schmeling stagger across the canvas and along the ropes as Louis beats the crap out of him in their second bout.

Beyond Glory, though, isn’t a sports book. It’s a book about a moment in time when a single sporting event — that second Louis-Schmeling fight — brought front-and-center the sins and aspirations of a world community.

• Adolf Hitler and the Nazis saw Max Schmeling as a means to over-awe the culture of the globe, as Hitler had over-awed the political leaders.

• African-Americans saw Joe Louis as a means to live out their fantasies of winning in a white man’s world — and literally beating a white man into submission.

• American Jews saw Louis as a means of getting a small bit of revenge against Schmeling’s Nazi backers for their treatment of German Jews.

• Racist whites saw Schmeling as a means of keeping African-Americans in their place.

Have two athletes ever borne such a weight of sins and aspirations? Continue reading

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“Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin!”

king 1963It was a moment of high drama. And Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was trying to find his rhythm.

He stood before the Lincoln Memorial to address some quarter of a million black and white participants in the March on Washington as well as untold millions of television viewers watching a live broadcast.

He was giving the speech he’d written for this auspicious day, August, 28, 1963. It was formal, sober, high-minded — and more than a bit clunky.

One early line was: “And so today, let us go back to our communities as members of the international association for the advancement of creative dissatisfaction.”

As King came to his line, he seemed to recognize the awkwardness of such polysyllabic phrasing, historian Taylor Branch writes, and decided to speak instead from the heart.

Looking up from his text, he told his listeners:

Go back to Mississippi; go back to South Carolina; go back to Georgia; go back to Louisiana; go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.

Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.

Those on the platform with him knew he had moved off his prepared remarks, and Mahalia Jackson, the great gospel singer, shouted to him: “Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin!”

No one knows if King heard her, but he abandoned his text and decided to talk about his dream. And thus was born one of the greatest speeches in world history. Continue reading

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Book review: “But Come Ye Back” by Beth Lordan

lordan -- but come ye backI wonder if anyone has written about the waning years of a happy (and, at times, sharp-edged) marriage with as much sensitivity and nuance as Beth Lordan in But Come Ye Back.

Published in 2004, But Come Ye Back is what’s called a novel in stories. There are seven stories, averaging around 25 pages each, and a novella of a little over 100.

It’s a form that serves Lordan’s narrative well since it provides her a wide latitude in terms of tone, pace and point of view. Even so, at the heart of every section, no matter the literary techniques, beats the relationship — the love — of Mary and Lyle.

As the book opens, Lyle has retired from his accountant’s job in Ohio, and the couple is moving to Ireland, Mary’s homeland and the native soil of Lyle’s parents. He is 65. She is 60. She wants to be back with her sister and other relatives. He goes along, only a bit grumpy.

This is a book about stories not told. About how life is lived, experienced, and how memories are kept, savored, almost unknowingly. Even if you wanted to tell a story, how would you put it into words?

Mary, at one point, considers an aspect of this:

She’d said so little, it seemed now — told him so few things, never mentioned how she took pleasure in seeing his head, the shape of it, or how she thought his hands were beautiful, even if he was a man — beautiful hands.

And other things: she’d seen his eyes full of tears when the boys were baptized and never said a thing about it, and she’d seen how he would put the newspaper to the side for a long time after he read something sad, about children or poor people, for all that he went on about the politics. She’d never told him that his smell was a joy, a rich wheaten smell that was almost a taste, and that when he was away, she’d take his pillow for her own just to have that smell of him close… Continue reading

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Book review: “Gates of Dannemora” by John L. Bonn

bonn --- gates of dannemoreI think I was 12 when I read John L. Bonn’s Gates of Dannemora. That’s more than a half century ago. The Second Vatican Council was about to start, and I was in eighth grade, planning to go into a high school seminary.

Since then, every once in a while, I’d think of the novel, but my memory was fuzzy. I could remember that it was about a modern-day prison in New York State and somehow about the “Good Thief” who was one of the two men crucified with Jesus. And that its short title included a long proper name that might have begun with a “D.”

Recently, after it came to mind yet again, I wondered what it was about the book that kept it bouncing around my head.

I went on the internet, employed some of the research skills I’d developed in a long career as a reporter, and, fairly quickly, found the title and ordered a copy of Gates of Dannemora.

The 12-year-old me

I could see immediately some of the elements of the novel that would have attracted the 12-year-old me.

A young priest, Father Ambrose “Steve” Hyland, is the newly assigned Catholic chaplain at the Clinton state prison in the village of Dannemora, N.Y., high up near Canada, so far from anything that it’s known as Siberia. He’s there, it seems, for getting in trouble with church authorities for being a bit too hip and with it. Continue reading

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Book review: “Young Stalin” by Simon Sebag Montefiore

While reading Young Stalin, I was struck by the very human and, at times, very attractive portrait that Simon Sebag Montefiore paints of Joseph Stalin.

Montefiore- stalin

At various points in the narrative, Montefiore describes Stalin as someone who could be (a) gentle with children and (b) the singing-laughing life of a party and (c) irresistible to women and (d) an intrepid hunter in the winter wastes of Siberia and (e) a self-taught philosopher and (f) a vociferous reader and (g) an anthologized poet.

The lavish use of photos in this 2007 book adds to the perception of Stalin as someone who could fit well into a circle of friends — even the mug shots.

stalin on cosmoIndeed, the mug shot used on the book jacket has been circulated around the Internet under the words “Young Stalin was hot,” and sparked one webpage of parody images of the young Communist that included a faux Cosmopolitan cover and an image titled “He’s fabulous…but he’s evil.”

A Facebook image

The most arresting image, for me, is opposite page 302. It shows a 26-year-old Stalin with dancing eyes and a wide smile, standing next to Soren Spandarian, his best friend.

Spandarian is described as “a well-educated Armenian playboy,” but, in this photo, he looks to be a bit of a slob. Or maybe just a tad drunk.

Stalin is probably also somewhat in the bag. Yet, change the clothes on these guys and get rid of the cigarette, and this is one of those party photos that are routinely posted on Facebook.

Stalin and Spandarian --- no caption

So, here’s this attractive, fun guy….who just happens to have been one of history’s monsters. Continue reading

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Freedom “for all God’s children”

Martin-Luther-King-Jr_-delivering-his-I-Have-a-Dream-speech-on-August-28-1963On August 28, 1963, a solemn, deliberate Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. began his address at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial — the climax of the March on Washington — with the words:

I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.

It was the start of what has become known as King’s “I have a dream” speech, one of the most revered and most influential orations in history, a stirring improvised poem of human hope and possibility.

At the time, many Americans thought that King was simply speaking about freedom for blacks, freedom from discriminatory laws and discriminatory attitudes and a discriminatory culture.

Yet, half a century later, it’s clear that, when King said, “I have a dream today,” his vision was much greater.

His dream was twofold.

He sought freedom for all people everywhere — each man, woman and child — from the chains of repression. He dreamt that all people everywhere would someday stand on equal footing, without limitations imposed because of race, ethnicity or some other accident of fate.

And, over the past fifty years, his words have been an inspiration to anyone across the globe seeking to get out from under the boot of an oppressor. And they’ve been a beacon of promise for those who, like King’s fellow blacks, have been seeking equality under the law and in the eyes of society — women, the disabled, lesbians, gay men, the poor, anyone living on the margins.

Yet, King’s dream was even broader than that.

“Free at last!”

He had the deep religious and human insight that the victims of discrimination aren’t just those who are the targets of prejudice. But also those who do the discriminating. Continue reading

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A parish, like a family, is made of woven lives

By Patrick T. Reardon

mobile of woven lives image from NCR

The baby crawled along the carpet in an open area in the back of church. She was dressed in a celebration of white and red horizontal stripes, and she was happy.

She was delighted at her newfound ability to get from here to there. She smiled and giggled.

A few steps away was Ann, who was dying……

My story in the July 5, 2013 edition of National Catholic Reporter.

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Book review: “A Perfect Spy” by John Le Carre

I am surprised that, having finished John Le Carre’s A Perfect Spy a few days ago, the image of Rick Pym that remains in my mind is this one:

…Rick turned away to bestow a resigned smile on his subjects feasting around him. Then with his good hand he lightly pinged the edge of his Drambuie glass to indicate that he required another nice touch. Just as, by unlacing his shoes, he used to let it be known that somebody should fetch his bedroom slippers. Or by rolling on his back, after a lengthy banquet, and spreading his knees, he declared a carnal appetite.

Rick is a con man extraordinaire, and I would have thought that my mind’s eye would see him running a con. There are certainly many, many, many examples of that in this novel.

lecarre - perfect spyBy the way, this is a novel about a spy — Rick’s son Magnus, the “perfect spy” of the title — but it’s not a spy novel. Le Carre, who has always written of espionage with high literary skill, essentially leaves the reservation with this 1986 book.

This is the story of the wracked, warped, false, deep, rending, manipulative, counterfeit lives and relationship of Rick and Magnus. The spy stuff is just the setting. There’s something Faulknerian going on here — and, at the same time, I sincerely believe that any fan of chick lit would resonate with the parent-child horror-show on display.

Deep elemental nature

So why isn’t the image that comes to my mind some interaction of Rick and Magnus? Continue reading

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Who is a saint?

Pope John Paul and President Bill Clinton

Pope John Paul and President Bill Clinton

The recent fast-track beatification of Pope John Paul II has got me thinking about saints.

Throughout its 2,000-year history, the Catholic Church has canonized at least 12 kings and 60 popes. But I’m always a little leery when people who had high positions in life are given high positions in death. It seems too much like a kind of insider trading.

My favorite image of a saint is a photograph of Therese of Lisieux, who later became known as the Little Flower.

It was taken in the 1890s when she was a Carmelite nun, but she’s not in habit. Instead, she’s dressed in an attractively amateurish costume as Joan of Arc for one of the religious plays she wrote for the enjoyment and edification of the sisters in her convent.

T -106With her long hair (a wig) and direct gaze, she looks like any young woman in her early twenties. Like my daughter. Like the women I see on the el on their way to work.

Like Janine Denomme. Continue reading

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Meditation: Independence Day and Freedom

There’s a strong element of loss and disaffectedness in Aimee Mann’s song “4th of July” which begins:

Today’s the fourth of July.
Another June has gone by.
And when they light up our town I just think
What a waste of gunpowder and sky.


Independence Day is a celebration of our nation’s freedom from British rule, and of the freedoms we enjoy as Americans. Yet, as the song suggests, such open-ended liberty can leave you adrift.

If you can do anything you want, what should you do? Continue reading

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Book review: “Meet Me at Pere Lachaise” by Anna Eriksson and Mason Bendewald

This is an unfair review.

I’ve been to Paris twice, and, both times, I’ve made a trip out to the Pere Lachaise cemetery. I’m a fan of cemeteries, and, for someone like me, going to Pere Lachaise is like an art lover going to the Louvre, or a Catholic going to the Vatican.

Meet Me at Pere Lachaise is a guided tour of the cemetery, with text by Anna Eriksson and photos by Mason Bendewald. I ordered the book because it’s been a couple years since my last visit and I’ve been getting nostalgic about strolling along the cemetery’s avenues and stumbling amid its gravestones.

erickson -- meet me.--- 1

Meet Me at Pere Lachaise is fine as a guidebook. But, alas, it isn’t the book for me. Continue reading

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Book review: “Steel Barrio: The Great Mexican Migration to South Chicago, 1915-1940” by Michael Innis-Jimenez

innis-jimenez --- steel barrioOn July 7, 1931, Thomas A. Green, a municipal judge in Chicago, caused an international incident when he tossed the acting Mexican consul into jail for six months.

Adolfo Dominguez went to Green’s courtroom in support of an unemployed Mexican immigrant arrested on vagrancy. But, after hearing Green make insulting comments about Mexican “idlers” who were a “burden” on the city, the consul approached the bench to protest.

Green didn’t want to listen. Dominguez wouldn’t back down. So the judge sent him to Cook County Jail.

“It took a State Department letter to the Illinois governor to force Green to retract his decision regarding Dominguez,” writes Michael Innis-Jimenez in Steel Barrio: The Great Mexican Migration to South Chicago, 1915-1940, just published this month. (Dominguez served only four hours behind bars.)

Decades later, Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in the South Chicago neighborhood were still talking about Green, not only for his jailing of the consul but also for his general mistreatment of their compatriots.

Yet, the anti-Mexican prejudices expressed by Green are only part of the complex account that Innis-Jimenez provides about the early years of the Mexican community in South Chicago.

It is an account of living in two cultures, of negotiating the tricky question of language, of being citizens without citizenship papers and of creating a home away from home.

South Chicago

Although Steel Barrio is steeped in the growing scholarly literature on the Mexican experience in the United States, Innis-Jimenez tells a very specific story about a very specific community in a very specific place. South Chicago is like many other U.S. areas where immigrants from Mexico have settled — and it’s not. Continue reading

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Book review: “A Delicate Truth” by John Le Carre

Spy novels are about adventure, tension and plot. Think Robert Ludlum and the various Bourne books.

Since the 1963 publication of John Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, they’ve also tended to be rather bleak.

lecarre - spy in from coldOver the past half century, the books by Le Carre and his many imitators have featured characters who find themselves knee-deep in moral ambiguity (no white hats, no black hats; a fog of gray) and often end up being ground to bits in the inanimate gears of forces, philosophies and political imperatives beyond their ken. Certainly, beyond their control.

Le Carre remains among the best at unsettling the reader with the discomfiting realities of power and deceit in today’s world — or, maybe simply, in the world as it’s always been.

Modern and universal

le carre -- delicate truth

His latest novel, A Delicate Truth, is about the cover-up of a complex operation that involved mercenaries, off-the-books British soldiers and a Foreign Office veteran who — let’s face it — was something of a likeable doofus. Over-planned, over-technologied, over-muscled, the effort went very wrong. Continue reading

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Book review: “Francis of Assisi: A New Biography” by Augustine Thompson, O.P.

Perhaps the best way to begin a discussion of Francis of Assisi: A New Biography by Augustine Thompson, O.P. — a rich, austere and complex portrait of one of the most famous and admired saints in Catholicism — is to look at the greeting that Francis used:

May the Lord give you peace.

Francis said he learned this greeting from God, and Thompson writes:

This phrase was not a command or a didactic instruction; it was a prayer. Its use placed Francis within a medieval “peace movement” going back to the period of the Gregorian Reforms in the eleventh century, but its use as a greeting was revolutionary in its novelty…

"Although not a portrait in the modern sense, the fresco of 'Brother Francis,' in the Sacro Speco of Subiato Benedictine monastery, painted within two years of Francis's death, if not while he was alive, resembles the earliest descriptions," writes Augustine Thompson

“Although not a portrait in the modern sense, the fresco of ‘Brother Francis,’ in the Sacro Speco of Subiato Benedictine monastery, painted within two years of Francis’s death, if not while he was alive, resembles the earliest descriptions,” writes Augustine Thompson

Francis’s greeting did not use the imperative as a priest’s blessing would have; rather, setting aside any priestly authority, he prayed that God grant the hearer peace. Something about the greeting was so disturbing and novel that when Francis was traveling with one of his early brothers…, people reacted with confusion or anger at it….

One thing that distinguishes Francis from earlier and later medieval peacemakers was his absolute lack of any program of legal or social reforms. He did not diagnose the moral roots of social disease or civil unrest. Rather, he prayed to God to remove them….Combined with Francis’s presence, [the greeting] effected an inner peace in many who heard it. That his words and presence gave a profound internal peace underlies Francis’s magnetism for the men and women of Assisi and communal Italy.

A professional historian

Okay. That’s a long quote, but I’ve used it because it illustrates or touches on a number of important points about this newly published work.

Thompson, a Dominican priest, is a professional historian, and he set out to write a biography of Francis that would find “the man behind the legends.” This means, for example, that he trusts contemporaneous or near-contemporaneous accounts more than those written later. He relies on people who actually knew the holy man rather than simply heard of him. And he is skeptical of stories that were produced to score a point in a philosophical, theological or organizational debate.

As a result, some of the most beloved stories about Francis, such as the taming of a savage wolf at Gubbio, are excluded, and others, such as the Sermon to the Birds, are presented shorn of many layers of explication.

But, most important, with this approach, the real Francis has more of a chance to emerge, as in Thompson’s commentary on the peace greeting. Continue reading

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Book review: “Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis” by Harold M. Mayer and Richard C. Wade

During my long career as a Chicago Tribune reporter, much of my time was spent covering urban affairs, and often, when working on deadline and in need of a quick dose of background information, I’d turn to a book I thought of, simply, as Mayer-Wade.

mayer-wade --- growth of metropolisI wasn’t the only one. Mayer-Wade — officially Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis by Harold M. Mayer and Richard C. Wade — has been a go-to book for Chicago region reporters, planners, professors, historians and activists since it was published in 1969.

The Plan of Chicago? Quick, turn to Mayer-Wade. The history of Evanston? Mayer-Wade. The Illinois & Michigan Canal? How Chicago looked at the time of the Great Fire of 1871? The before and after of urban renewal?

Mayer-Wade was always there with some clear, pithy bit of history and often a photo, drawing, map or other image. Indeed, it was those images that set Mayer-Wade apart.

Harold Mayer was a geographer, and Richard Wade an historian. They joined together to tell the story of Chicago in a uniquely integrated way:

This volume…tries to do more than show physical development — it attempts to suggest how the city expanded and why it looks the way it does. This broad purpose explains the dual authorship, for the task seemed to require the tools of both the historian and the geographer — the former with his emphasis on the texture of life and the latter with his concern for spatial relationships. It is the joining of the land and the people that makes the city, and the partnership of two disciplines appeared to be an appropriate strategy in approaching this process.

The how and why

To this end, the two scholars, with the assistance of Glen E. Holt, wrote about 70,000 words of text (or, roughly, the equivalent of 150-200 pages in a typical history book without illustrations), as well as another 70,000 words of captions to complement a bit more than 900 images.

Among those images are some 800 photos, a variety of drawings and 60 or so maps, most created by Gerald F. Pyle. Continue reading

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