Book review: “Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War” by Mark Harris

harris -- five came backA book about five Hollywood directors in World War II?

Well, OK.

It was a book selected by one of my book clubs so I got a copy of Five Came Back by Mark Harris, but I didn’t expect much.

After all, there have been thousands of books written about the Second World War. Books about D-Day, books about Hitler and the Nazis, books about Pearl Harbor and the Battle of Britain and the Battle of the Bulge and George Patton and Winston Churchill and the Russian front and U-boats and the occupation of Paris. And books about the Final Solution.

What could a book about five well-to-do, American movie-makers add? Actually, a lot. Continue reading

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Book review: “Chimera” by John Barth

I suspect that anyone writing a review of a John Barth book is tempted to Barth Barth.

Which is to say, to try to be as inventive and witty and playful and erudite and literary and subtle as Barth is.

Which is to say, is tempted to certain failure.

From his third novel The Sot-Weed Factor (1960) to his 17th book-length work of fiction Every Third Thought (2011), Barth has caroused in the funhouse of metafiction.

Few have delighted so much in playing the game or sparked so much delight in those who have taken part. And probably no one has done it so well.

The term “metafiction”

barth --- chimeraI’ve never liked the term “metafiction.” I know, “meta” is from Greek, meaning “above” and “beyond,” and it indicates a type of fiction that looks at itself from the outside.

Sort of.

(After all, writing from an outside perspective about the act of creating fiction as part of a piece of fiction turns the “outside” into the “inside.” There’s no full objectivity. In addition, the autobiographical and writing-as-mechanics details that an author, such as Barth, weaves into this kind of fiction isn’t done for how-to reasons. Rather than clarifying things, this complicates the story in the pages which, in fact, more closely mirrors the complications of life.)

A better term, to my mind, would be “inside-out fiction.” Not only does it avoid the arcane and academic pretension of a Greek prefix slapped onto a good solid English word, but it has a nice Anglo-Saxon ring to it — and it calls to mind an image of what it describes.

(It’s not bigger-than or beyond [i.e., meta] fiction. It’s just fiction from a different point of view.) Continue reading

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The Last Four Miles: Completing Chicago’s Lakefront Parks

Virtually my first freelance job after being laid off by the Chicago Tribune in April, 2009, was to edit (and write portions of) a report for the Friends of the Parks titled “The Last Four Miles: Completing Chicago’s Lakefront Parks.” The aim was the fulfill the dream of Daniel H. Burnham and generations of Chicagoans by creating a lakefront park spanning the city’s entire thirty-mile-long shoreline. The report was a call to action.

When “The Last Four Miles” was published on June 9, 2009, I wrote about its vision and implications in the Burnham Blog for the Burnham Plan Centennial. (Five years later, much remains to be done.)

Here, in slightly edited form, is the opening challenge from the Friends of the Parks plan:

report cover

“The Lake front by right belongs to the people.”
Daniel Burnham, Plan of Chicago, 1909

The time is now.

A century after Daniel Burnham boldly proposed parkland for Chicago’s entire lakefront — essentially a single linear park for everyone’s use — the moment has come to commit ourselves as a city, as a region and as a generation to finish his work. Continue reading

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The departure of a feisty think tank

comboAs of Saturday, May 31, Metropolis Strategies, formerly Metropolis 2020, closes its doors.

I’m sorry to see the feisty think tank depart although, when it was founded in 1999 by the Commercial Club of Chicago, it was supposed to operate for ten years only. Its life was extended an extra five years because of its leadership of the Burnham Plan Centennial and its involvement in many pressing issues facing Chicago, its region, the state of Illinois and the Midwest, such as transportation and prison reform, to name just two.

I feel a particular pang because, after I was laid off by the Chicago Tribune in April, 2009, Metropolis 2020 became my home for nine months. I will always be grateful to George A. Ranney, Frank Beal, Emily Harris, Paul O’Connor and many, many others for giving me the great opportunity to write about the Burnham Plan and present-day planning efforts three days a week in the Burnham Blog, a labor of love. Continue reading

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The prayer of writing

This essay originally appeared in the May issue of Reality, a Catholic magazine in Ireland.

This essay originally appeared in the May issue of Reality, a Catholic magazine in Ireland.

Norman Mailer called writing “the spooky art.” And anyone who’s been a writer, amateur or professional, knows what Mailer means.

There’s a mysterious alchemy that takes place when the writer begins putting words together into sentences. There was nothing; now, there is something. The chaos of existence — that swirling, kaleidoscopic, overwhelming, storm of stimuli — is funneled down to the narrowest of straight lines. Tiny symbols, as regular in size as bricks or building stones but ever so small, are mortared across the page or screen or paper.

Sculpture mimics the body. Painting plays the same tricks on the eyes that the physical world does. Music tickles the mathematics of our ears. Writing, though, speaks directly to the brain.

The writing goes from one mind to another, from the writer to the reader. It doesn’t exist without a writer and a reader.

It is a kind of a prayer, an effort to find and transmit truth, to reach across the chasm that separates people and enable them to see, hear and experience each other. It is God’s work.

Something new

I am always the first reader of what I write. And I’m always surprised in some way at how the words have fit together.

The handwriting of Charles Dickens as he created a page from "A Christmas Carol"

The handwriting of Charles Dickens as he created a page from “A Christmas Carol”

Even if I’m working from a detailed outline, something I rarely do, there are twists in the argument or account that I didn’t anticipate, unexpected phrases and descriptions that, seeming to come out of nowhere, have the tang of aptness to them. I think, at the beginning of a paragraph, that I will say one thing, but, by the end, I’ve written something a bit different. Or quite different.

The thing written is something new. It’s been created. This essay is coming into being as I write it.

As I put them down, the words — my words — lead me in this or that direction. I’m interested in how the words are combining and, even more, in the ideas those words are communicating. I’m curious to find out what happens next.

I have, to a greater or lesser extent, some general idea of what I want to write whenever I begin writing. But the images and thoughts I expect to address are floating fairly free-form in my brain.

In snatching them out of that ether and giving them substance in grammatically correct sentences that relate to one another with a logic and move with rhythm and pace, I’m transforming them, just as a seamstress takes various segments of fabric and fashions a dress. Continue reading

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Advice for new graduates: Believe. Jump. Leap. Trust.

If you’re one of the millions of young people who are graduating from high school or college this season, I have one word of advice for you:


Believe in God. Believe in other people. Believe in yourself.

Margaret Scott --- National Catholic Reporter

Margaret Scott — National Catholic Reporter

I’m not sure how much your education and upbringing has prepared you for the question of faith. By its nature, faith is a squirrelly sort of concept. It doesn’t lend itself to test scores.

A fact doesn’t require belief. Abraham Lincoln was the 16th president of the United States — that’s a fact. Anything that can be proved doesn’t require belief. If you put a cup of water in the freezer and wait a couple hours, you’ll find the cup is full of ice. You can see it with your own eyes.

By contrast, faith isn’t something that’s forced on you by the facts. You have a choice. You can choose to believe or not to believe. You can make the leap of faith. Or stay put with your feet firmly planted in the rational world.

Here’s my advice: Jump! Continue reading

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Book review: The Foundation Trilogy: “Foundation,” “Foundation and Empire,” and “Second Foundation” by Isaac Asimov

Sleibowitz and daybreakome of the enthusiasms of youth travel well. Others don’t.

When it comes to books, I can point to some I read in my teens and early twenties that still resonate with me today.

For example, in science fiction, there are Walter M. Miller Jr.’s elliptical, transcendent A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960) and Andre Norton’s coming-into-manhood adventure Daybreak: 2250 A.D. (1952), originally titled Star Man’s Son. Both describe a post-apocalyptic world a relative short time after the bombs dropped.

Isaac Asmiov’s Foundation Trilogy is something else again.

The story told in three books — Foundation (1951), Foundation and Empire (1952) and Second Foundation (1953) — first saw the light of day in a string of short stories and novelettes published between 1942 and 1951.


30,000 years of chaos?

As the first book opens, Continue reading

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My lay-off and the golden age of journalism

Five years ago today, I was laid off by the Chicago Tribune. I had company.

More than 50 other editorial employees were let go the same week I was shown the door. And another 70 or so had been sent packing during the previous nine months.

For me, the lay-off didn’t come as a shock. Earlier in the week, I’d had lunch with a colleague who’d asked me if I was worried about the announcement about staff cuts that we knew was imminent.

“Anyone who doesn’t realize that he’s walking around with a big target on his back isn’t paying attention,” I said.

The next day — my day off — I was proved right.

As if shattered by a laser beam

I spent the rest of that day and most of the next in the office, packing up my files and books and tying up loose ends. And it was then that I realized one jarring result of the cutback — a kind of atomization of those of us involved.

The day before, we had been part of the body of the Tribune. Now, though, it was as if each one of us had been shattered by laser beam — separated from that body and knocked to little pieces. As if each of us was a cancerous tumor.

We were isolated and alone, no longer a part of the community of workers that we had shared for years and decades.

As a group — well, those of us who were losing our jobs weren’t really a group. We all felt the deep loss, but there wasn’t a feeling of a shared loss. We were isolated from each other, each trying to figure out what was going to happen next, and knowing that, whatever did happen, it wasn’t going to involve any of the people we’d worked beside for so long.

If I had been…

In the weeks and months to come, I’d say to people that, if I had been Tribune management, I would have laid me off. I was older (59 at the time). I took my four weeks of vacation and was putting my medical benefits to greater and greater use. And, because I’d had a long and successful career at the paper, I was making good money.

That's me standing on the top of the Sears Tower (now the Willis Tower) for a story in 2004

That’s me standing on the top of the Sears Tower (now the Willis Tower) for a story in 2004

Also, my bosses at the paper were less and less interested in my greatest areas of expertise.

I’d spent much of my career at the paper doing analytical reporting and months-long examinations of broad social issues, most of them having to do with urban affairs. But the Tribune, in bankruptcy court and facing the free-fall drop in its ad revenues, couldn’t afford very much of that sort of coverage any more. Continue reading

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Book review: “Raising Steam” by Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett’s 40th Discworld novel Raising Steam, a wonderfully witty and thoughtful book, seems to have been a very personal novel for him to write.

pratchett --- Raising Steam

For one thing, Pratchett seems to be in love with locomotives and railroading, the latest new technology to come along and wreak vast changes, good and bad, on the nature of everyday life in Ankh-Morpork (the New York City of this particular alternate reality) and a large area of the Disc.

In 1979, a German publisher issued The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the 19th Century, a wildly interesting look at the impact of the new technology of railroading on everyday life in our particular reality. Seven years later, it appeared in English.

Its author was a German-born resident of New York City — Wolfgang Schivelbusch.(1)

I’m betting Pratchett read Schivelbusch’s delightfully eye-opening book about how the railroad suddenly changed the way people thought of distances and speed and landscapes and each other. (2) (3) Continue reading

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Book review: “On Ugliness” by Umberto Eco

No question, the guy on the cover of Umberto Eco’s 2007 book On Ugliness is truly ugly.

And, in this sixteenth-century painting by Quentin Matsys, Ill-Matched Lovers, his ugliness is heightened by his pretty wife or girlfriend. She looks lovingly at him through lidded eyes and caresses his stubbled chin. He fondles her right breast under her bodice and gazes at her with what might be called a leer.

eco --- ugliness

Yet, I think the temptation to call it a leer is due to his ugliness. His look, his smile, could just as well be read as deep affection and delight. We would read it that way if he were a studly courtier, wouldn’t we?

And here’s the thing: Ill-Matched Lovers is a much more interesting painting, more striking, more arresting, because of his ugliness. Even if repulsed by the guy’s ugliness, the viewer is still drawn irresistibly into the picture. You can’t not find it interesting. Continue reading

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book Review: “Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire — A Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival” by Peter Stark

This review initially appeared in the Printers Row section of the Chicago Tribune. on March 8, 2014.

stark -- astoriaStorms at sea play a key role in the tale of John Jacob Astor’s attempt to establish a pivotal trading center on the unsettled, little-known northern Pacific Coast in the early 19th century.

Yet, few modern readers have ever been in a fragile wooden sailing ship during a storm on the ocean, especially with its sails unfurled. So, in Astoria, Peter Stark describes the experience:

A particularly powerful gust typically appears like a dark shape ruffling across the sea’s surface. When it slams into a square-rigger, the whole ship stains, the deck tilting as she heels over, the hull surging forward through the swells, the rigging running taut like the strings of a giant musical instrument, the scream of wind through the lines suddenly jumping to a shriek. If a ship has too much sail, with a sudden BOOM the sails will start to “blow out,” the fabric splitting apart under the enormous pressure of the gust like an over-filled balloon…

Passages like that are what make Stark’s fine book truly distinctive. They raise Astoria above the level of a well-done historical adventure and help the reader get into a scene or understand the context or see relationships between participants and between then and now.

Fascinating….and odd

As it is, the Astoria tale is a fascinating, if odd, adventure. It’s odd, in part, because its central character, Astor, never leaves New York. It’s his employees and partners, his surrogates, who make the effort at great personal price to bring his vision of a global trading system into being. He’s the one with the money and the plan.

Another oddity of the story is that it’s really two stories. Astor’s plan in 1810, as Stark explains in Astoria, was to send two parties of voyageurs, traders and clerks to the mouth of the Columbia River at the border of the present-day states of Oregon and Washington. Continue reading

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Book review: “Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury

Until now, I had never read Ray Bradbury’s 1953 science-fiction novel Fahrenheit 451.

But, of course, I had read dozens of other books and seen scores of movies that were the book’s offspring. To name just one, 2010’s The Book of Eli, starring Denzel Washington.

So it’s an odd experience to get to know Guy Montag and his world — a world I’ve never visited before but have gotten to know very well in, as it were, alternative universes.

It’s also odd because, in many ways, I’m living in the world Bradbury envisioned. I get my cash from a robot teller. I rarely see anyone, especially anyone under the age of 30, reading a newspaper. The entertainment industry is selling consumers pre-packaged friends and family.

bradbury --- Fahrenheit-451-40th-anniversary-editionFriends

I suspect it’s not a coincidence that one of the seminal shows of this entertainment style was called Friends. And one of its stars, Jennifer Aniston, is a staple of what’s being peddled in magazines, tabloids and television gossip shows, years after Friends finished its run. (To be sure, it’s re-run seemingly nonstop on cable television.) Continue reading

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Book review: “Still Dreaming: My Journey from the Barrio to Capitol Hill” by Luis Gutierrez with Doug Scofield

gutierrez -- dreamingOn March 20 — just as I was finishing Still Dreaming, the surprisingly readable memoir that U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez wrote with the help of Doug Scofield — the Chicago Tribune reported that the two men were under investigation by the House Ethics Committee.

The story said that, over a ten-year period, Gutierrez paid more than $500,000 to The Scofield Company for staff training and publicity. The contract had been approved each year by the Ethics Committee until Gutierrez canceled it last year.

Doug Scofield was a senior partner of that firm. In 1992, he ran Gutierrez’s first campaign for Congress and then served as the Congressman’s chief of staff for a decade. In Still Dreaming, published last year, Gutierrez describes Scofield as his partner in authorship.

In his other work, the Tribune reported, Scofield was a campaign aide to Rod Blagojevich’s two successful runs for Illinois Governor, and worked for a time as deputy governor. The disgraced Blagojevich is now serving a prison term for corruption.

Kinda murky

It all seems kinda murky, even though — or maybe because — the Ethics Committee has promised to tell more by May 5. Continue reading

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Living in the moment

This essay initially appeared in the March, 2014 edition of Reality magazine in Ireland.

One of the great boons of our era is the ongoing effort at creating better, clearer and more accurate translations of the Bible. But, sometimes, you just can’t top the King James version.

Consider the 23rd Psalm.

In the New International Version, the fourth verse is translated this way: “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”

That’s almost — but not quite — identical to the King James translation: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”

To my mind, “darkest valley” is pretty bland. Especially when compared to “the valley of the shadow of death.”

I’m no Bible expert, so maybe “darkest valley” is closer to the phrasing in the earliest versions we have of the Psalms. Still, “the valley of the shadow of death” is a much more poetic way of saying it — more poignant. That’s because it goes to the heart of what it means to be alive.

All walking through the valley

After all, we are all walking through the valley of the shadow of death. Life is a journey to death. We may distract ourselves, we may avert our eyes, but, always, at every moment, looming over us is the reality of our coming death.

Recently, I re-read Muriel Spark’s 1958 masterpiece Memento Mori. It’s a novel about a bunch of elderly English people, mostly upper-class Londoners, who begin receiving identical telephone calls.

When they answer, the caller says, “Remember, you must die.” Continue reading

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Book review: “Empire of the Bay: the Company of Adventurers That Seized a Continent” by Peter C. Newman

The map of North America today — with much of the United States-Canadian border lying along the 49th parallel — might easily have been very different.

American “manifest destiny” didn’t have to stop where it did but could have turned northward in the mid-19th century with a couple likely results:
• That the entire Pacific Coast from southern California to the far tip of Alaska would now be U.S. territory.
• That at least four western Canadian provinces — Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia — would instead be American states today. (Indeed, in 1868, the U.S. Senate went so far as to pass a resolution to pay $6 million for the area they now occupy.)

There was a simple reason why none of this happened.

The Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC).

possible US --- 2...detail

“The Canadian subcontinent”

For just under two hundred years, the Company had a monopoly on fur trade in and rule over an area of North American that eventually grew to be ten larger times the size of the Holy Roman Empire and covered one-twelfth of the Earth’s surface. And, in doing this, held the line against American incursions.

Not out of patriotism to Great Britain or to the still-nascent nation of Canada, not out of altruism, but simply for profit. As, of course, befits a business entity.

newman --- empireAs Peter C. Newman details in his compulsively readable Empire of the Bay, the Company, in gathering its tens of thousands of furs year in and year out, essentially held in trust all of what is now northern and western Canada, a huge region of “the Canadian subcontinent.”

While jealously guarding its fur monopoly and, most years, issuing high dividends to shareholders, HBC kept its region free of settlers from 1670 when its charter began until 1812, and did all it could throughout much of the rest of the nineteenth century to block colonization efforts.

And that meant that American pioneers never got a toe-hold. Continue reading

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Chicago’s “summer winter”

A shorter version of this essay appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times on March 6, 2014

Snow has no respect for the calendar, so the snowfall season for the National Weather Service starts on July 1 and ends on June 30.

So far this season, Chicagoans and suburbanites have already had to dig themselves out of more than 70 inches of snow, and the total keeps rising toward the record of 89.7 inches, set in 1978-1979.

What’s made this season seem particularly ferocious is that we’ve had really mild winters in most years over the past decade and a half — averaging 31.9 inches between 1999 and 2007, and recording just 19.8 inches in 2011-2012.

winter --- comboBut those years look like blizzard conditions compared with the 1920-1921 winter when just 9.8 inches of snow settled on the city and its region.

It was, wrote one reporter, the “summer winter.”

Consider this: On January 1, 1921, the city was hit by two thunderstorms, the first ever on New Year’s Day in Chicago. That didn’t keep a couple of North Side men, A. E. Neuffer and John Reid, from taking a dip in the lake off of Winona Street in Uptown — not exactly a polar plunge since temperatures were in the upper 40s. And, nearby, at Nick the Greek’s newsstand outside the Argyle “L” station, Patrolman Paddy Nolan saw a butterfly.

All of that, and much more, was reported by Chicago newspapers during a winter when the word “balmy” was used with some frequency.

“Spooning couples”

Over the next month and a half, Lincoln Square resident Henry E. Cordell had netted his own butterfly, and three schoolmates at the Kinzie Elementary School at Ohio and LaSalle Street — Clara Cain, Jeanette Bafeth and Nara Anfossi — skipped rope during recess while young boys played marbles nearby. Continue reading

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Book review: “The Age of Innocence” by Edith Wharton

wharton - innocenceWhy does Newland Archer leave?

Why, on the final page of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, does Archer walk away from a chance to visit Ellen Olenska, the love of his life, for the first time in 25 years?

She’s just up a few flights of stairs in her Paris apartment. His son has gone up, but Archer doesn’t follow him.

He sits for a long time on a bench gazing at her fifth floor balcony. He says to himself, “It’s more real to me here than if I went up.” Then, as dusk falls, he rises and walks away.

“Our kind”

A friend of mine rejected the idea of reading The Age of Innocence because “it’s just chick-lit, and I have nothing in common with those New York high-society people.”

I think he figured that it’s a love story, written by a woman, so it must be chick-lit. But The Age of Innocence has as much in common with that popular Oprah-ish romance-rooted literary fashion as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet does.

Like Shakespeare’s play, Wharton’s 1923 novel is about two lovers, but that’s only on the surface. Both works are focused on something broader, something social rather than personal. Continue reading

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Book review: “The Mother’s Recompense” by Edith Wharton

wharton --- recompenseThere is a moment, fairly early in Edith Wharton’s 1923 novel The Mother’s Recompense, when the central character Kate Clephane exclaims to herself, “I am rewarded!”

I cringed when I read that — because of the peculiar nature of the word “reward” and “recompense” and because I had come to like Kate although her life view and life decisions were very different from mine.

Let me explain. When I say that I had come to like Kate, a product of New York society, it wasn’t that I felt we would ever be friends in any sort of existence in which we would cross paths.

As the novel opens just after the end of World War I, she is a woman in her mid-40s who is wandering around Europe, skimping by on a small allowance. It’s an aimless, meaningless life of leisure, spent with other aimless, purposeless souls awaiting…well, not really anything. This is a kind of anteroom to hell, and Kate and her circle of acquaintances are biding their time, biding their lives away.

Her allowance comes from the family in New York that she abandoned nearly twenty years earlier to go off with Hylton Davies, a man with a yacht whom she didn’t love and didn’t stay with. It wasn’t so much that she wanted to be with him, but to get away from the household of her husband John Clephane and his mother.

A hard man to stay home with

John Clephane would have been a hard man to stay home with. Continue reading

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The joy of snow-shoveling

This essay originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune on January 3, 2014.

snow shoveling.detailI sing the joy of snow-shoveling. I rejoice in the movement of arms and back, legs and shoulders.

I exult in the wonder of the cold white beauty.

Okay, okay, I know there’s another way to look at snow-shoveling. And it’s not with delight.

I know that, for many people, shoveling snow is simply a chore. No, that’s too mild. For many people, shoveling snow is a big fat pain-in-the-neck.

You have to put on your boots. You have to swaddle yourself with your scarf and your hat and your gloves, and you have to zip up your jacket to the neck. You have to go out into the cold, and you’re not just going through the frigid air to some other warm place. You’re staying out in the freezing wind for a good long while, and you’re working.

You’re doing heavy manual labor (especially when it’s a wet snow that’s just fallen) out in the cold. And you could give yourself a heart attack. What’s to like?

All of that’s true, of course. But consider this: People pay thousands of dollars and travel hundreds of miles to encounter the artistry of nature. To go to the Grand Canyon or a beach on a Pacific island. To stand close to the awesome power of Niagara Falls or stare up at the Alps or walk through a redwood forest.

Yet, on many a winter day or evening, we get a huge load of natural beauty dumped on our stairs, porches, driveways and sidewalks — for free! Continue reading

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When the world starts afresh

This essay originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune on December 30, 2013. coming of the new year brings lots of parties. And it’s a time when many people sit down and resolve to turn over a new leaf — be kinder, drink less, stop smoking, find a new job, lose weight, volunteer more.

The parties come and go, and, often, so do the resolutions.

Yet, at the heart of both is this realization: Flipping the calendar is an exciting time. And a scary time. And a mysterious time. Continue reading

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Poem: “….ad altare Dei”

I offer the purple sash
and the white surplice.

I offer the cold mornings
when snow crunched
and the church was dark
and silent
and an old man
came down the aisle.

I offer the cruets,
and the words at the foot of the altar,
and the priest, heavy with vestments

Introibo ad altare Dei.

I offer the bells and the cross,
and incense sprinkled on coals.

I offer
the long white tapers
and the flames.

Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam.

Patrick T. Reardon

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Book review: “Michelangelo” by Stefanie Penck, translated by David Aston

There are hundreds of books about Michelangelo, many running to several hundred pages. I own several of them.

Stefanie Penck’s Michelangelo, published in 2005 by Prestel, has only 95 pages of text and images, yet it’s a rich addition to the literature.

penck- michelangelo

The book is chuck full of sumptuous reproductions of the great artist’s paintings and images of his sculptures and architecture.

Consider this photo of Mary’s hand holding the dead Christ’s shoulder from the Pieta. It’s a wonderful picture that captures the rich, supple, tender feel that the sculptor gave to the flesh of Jesus in the straining arms of his mother.

m --- pieta

This can’t be marble. Continue reading

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Book review: “Tres Riches Heures: Behind the Gothic Masterpiece” by Lillian Schacherl, translated by Fiona Elliott

schacherl --- tres richesIt would be difficult to think of a collection of artworks that could challenge the Tres Riches Heures in terms of sumptuous color and elegance. And all within a single binding!

Tres Riches Heures is a book of hours — a lavishly illustrated prayer book — created for John, the Duke of Berry, by the three Limbourg brothers –Paul, Herman and Jean. It was begun in 1412 but was left uncompleted in 1416, the year when the three brothers and the Duke all died. (This was an era when the plague routinely wiped out families, households and towns in the blink of an eye.)

The paintings in Tres Riches, sometimes accompanied by text and sometimes not, are called miniatures. They are small but not tiny. Each of the 206 leaves in the work measures about 8.5 inches by 12 inches — or about the same size as a piece of printer paper.

Some additional work was done on the book in the middle of the 15th century, and it was completed by 1489 by the painter Jean Colombe.

All of the leaves, no matter which artist did the main work on them, display an extraordinarily high degree of artistry and beauty — and to have them all together in a single volume is astonishing. Continue reading

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Book Review: ” A Prayer Journal” by Flannery O’Connor

o'connor at iowaThere is something breath-taking in the hopes, dreams and faith of young Flannery O’Connor.

What I am asking for is really very ridiculous. Oh, Lord, I am saying, at present I am a cheese, make me a mystic, immediately. But then God can do that — make mystics out of cheese….[My soul] is a moth who would be king, a stupid slothful thing, a foolish thing, who wants God, who made the earth to be its Lover. Immediately. Continue reading

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Book review: “Luca and Andrea della Robbia” (Masters in Art)

A century ago, Masters in Art was a series of monthly monographs offered for the annual subscription price of $1.50. Single copies were 15 cents.

The Lucca and Andrea della Robbia issue that I have was published in September, 1901. My copy, originally part of the collection at the Cleveland Museum of Art Library, is hardbound. I’m not sure if this was done by the library or if that’s how these monographs were produced and delivered.

Della Robbia---combo

This issue, which is probably representative of the series, is made up of 10 plates of photographs of the works of Luca della Robbia and his nephew Andrea, followed by 20 pages of text. That text is divided into three sections: biographies of the two men, discussions of their art and detailed commentaries on the works displayed in the 10 plates.

All of the text in these sections draws on earlier commentaries. For example, the section on the art of the della Robbias includes excerpts from articles by writers identified as Allan Marquard; Cavalucci and Molinier; the editors of Vasari’s Lives; Mrs. Oliphant; Marcel Reymond; and Walter Pater. These excerpts themselves include quotations from various other experts as well.

“Embodied dreams”

Luca and Andrea della Robbia and their workshops are known for a particularly beautiful and delicate type of glazed terra cotta. These works form a middle ground between painting and sculpture. They are usually distinguished by vibrant whites contrasting with a few strong colors, mainly blue and yellow. The glaze permits them to be displayed outside, such as over entranceways. Continue reading

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Book review: “The Wife of Jesus” by Anthony Le Donne

Was Jesus breast-fed?

That’s a question that Anthony Le Donne asks near the end of his reasonable and provocative new book The Wife of Jesus: Ancient Texts and Modern Scandals (Oneworld). And, if it’s the sort of question that unsettles you or angers you, this book isn’t for you.

Le Donne, a scholar in the study of the historical Jesus, is attempting to understand the flesh-and-blood human being who walked the roads of Judea and Galilee and the lanes of Jerusalem 2,000 years ago. He’s an historian, not a theologian.

That’s why he’s asking the question of whether Jesus was breast-fed.

And also whether Jesus had a wife.

Le Donne’s conclusion on that latter question — spoiler alert! — is that, no, Jesus probably wasn’t married. But his book is courageous anyway. Simply to ask the question is to make himself a lightning rod for controversy.

le donne - wifeAsk Reza Aslan, the author of the recently published Zealot, a book that characterizes Jesus as a political revolutionary. And one that became a bestseller after a clumsily antagonistic Fox News interview went viral this summer in which Aslan was bashed as a Muslim who dared to write about founder of Christianity.

La Donne and Aslan

La Donne covers some of the same ground as Aslan, but their authorial voices are vastly different. Continue reading

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Saint Lincoln

It’s too bad, really, that Abraham Lincoln has been accorded sainthood.

Not that we call him Saint Abe or put a halo around his image, but Americans do just about everything else to turn our 16th President into a plaster statue up on a pedestal rather than a person who lived and breathed and ticked people off.

Consider that, in 2011, a national poll found that 91 percent of Americans esteemed Lincoln, one percentage point higher than the 90 percent recorded for Jesus.

In our national rhetoric and myth-making, Lincoln has become the sum of all American virtues — kind, self-deprecating, funny, thoughtful, visionary. A martyr.

Saint Lincoln?

Saint Lincoln?

It was the bullet of John Wilkes Booth that turned Lincoln into a saint. Up until that moment — for all his talk about the Union, and, indeed, because of it — he had been one of the most divisive figures in American politics. Continue reading

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Book review: “Moon of Three Rings” by Andre Norton

Andre Norton’s Moon of Three Rings is one of her best books. That’s saying something since she wrote more than 200 novels of science fiction and, to a lesser extent, fantasy.

Not that it’s perfect. It has the limitations that are woven into Norton’s writing style, story-telling approach and target audience.

She wrote for teenage boys and young adult men. That means there’s not much psychological or emotional nuance to her books. For her — and for her readers, including me (who, for better and worse, is no longer a boy or young man) — adventure is the key.

norton--- moon of three rings

Norton’s books are like westerns in space — good guys against bad guys, set in a strange, foreboding landscape where cultures collide (cowboy and Indian, humans and aliens).

There are parallels to these stories throughout human history. Some of the best examples include Beowulf, Gilgamesh, the Iliad, the Odyssey, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, Treasure Island and Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea. None of Norton’s books is in that class.

Face-to-face with the Other

Still, for nearly three-quarters of a century, Norton who lived to the age of 93, produced high quality science fiction of a certain sort. It is a sort that eschews hardware and technology questions (such as how a hyper-drive might work) as well as generally ignoring speculations centering on higher mathematics and philosophical wool-gathering (such as Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity and debates about multiple dimensions and “wrinkles in the fabric of time”).

Again, it’s adventure that Norton’s sort of science fiction is concerned with. Not simply adventure, however, in the sense of a physical testing against a harsh environment. That’s in her stories, journeys through threatening environments, hunting and being hunted.

Much more, though, Norton’s adventures deal with coming face-to-face with the Other. (Indeed, the title of one of her books is Ordeal in Otherwhere.) Continue reading

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Book review: “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer” by Siddhartha Mukherjee

The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee was a difficult book for me to read, as I suspect it will be for most people.

That’s not because it’s a bad book, but because it is such a thorough, courageous look at a disease — well, a family of many diseases — that is bedeviling humanity to an ever greater extent today as we live longer and survive or avoid other causes of death.

It is difficult, in part, because cancer is a great fear. Most of us know someone who has or has had cancer, or have or have had it ourselves. Many know people who have died from it.

A poignant element for me as I read this book over the last month or so was to learn from the news that Janet Rowley, a University of Chicago researcher mentioned often in Mukherjee’s text, had died on December 17, of complications from ovarian cancer.

Scientific searchings

It was difficult for me because the final 130 or so pages of The Emperor of All Maladies deals with the exquisitely refined scientific searchings and discoveries of the nature of cancer and of new methods for attacking various versions of the disease.

mukherjee --- emperor

Mukherjee is a fine writer, very clear, very direct with a sharp eye for emotional and physical detail. As his reader, though, I was a failure in this last section. My brain doesn’t handle scientific information well. I don’t have the context for it. I don’t understand much of it. And I didn’t understand many of the details of the final section although I did grasp some key points.

Such as: Continue reading

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

It’s been more than 60 years since A. J. Liebling skewered Chicago in three caustic pieces in the New Yorker, soon after collected into a short book of 30,000 words or so, Chicago: The Second City.

Of course, “caustic” was Liebling’s specialty, so his acerbic reading of the city shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone. Yet, ever since, anti-Liebling rhetoric has routinely found its way into print in Chicago.

In 1980, for instance, Chicago Tribune columnist Jack Mabley dismissed the book as the work of “a New York writer [who] once came to Chicago for several months…and interviewed people who came into the bar where he hung out. The essays he sent back to Manhattan were filled with startling inaccuracies which comforted New Yorkers in their oneness. No. 1-ness.”

liebling - second cityFourteen years later, in a Tribune story about his new publishing venture Academy Chicago, Jordan Miller was quoted as describing Liebling as “that creep.” Eighteen years after that, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg made a significant reference to Chicago: The Second City in his 2012 book about the city.

It had to do with something Liebling writes in an introduction to his book — that, after his New Yorker essays began appearing, he received a postcard from a woman reader which said simply, “You were never in Chicago.” It’s that phrase that Steinberg chose for the title of his own book.

Liebling’s literary gifts

Liebling was no hack, and that, in part, is why his ghost has hung so long over the city’s psyche. And why he’s well worth reading today. His writing is lively, fresh and clear-eyed. And very entertaining, as long as it’s not your ox that he’s eviscerating. Continue reading

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Book review: “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” by Maria Semple

The authors of novels about rich Americans face a greater challenge than those who write about the other 90 percent.

If your characters are poor, working-class, middle-class and even upper middle-class, they have built-in struggles that help the reader identify with them — the struggle to keep body and soul together or, at least, the struggle to keep up with the Joneses. The struggle, in other words, to make it somehow.

The struggle for the rich is not to blow it. They have it made in the shade, and so any problem they face is going to seem like not much of a problem to readers out of their income bracket.

Bernadette and her family

semple -- whereTake Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette.

The central character is Bernadette Fox. Continue reading

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Book review: “Old Man’s War” by John Scalzi

scalzi --- warI’m going to give a copy of John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War to my 30-year-old nephew Kelly for Christmas. (Shhh! Don’t tell him.) But I don’t think he’s going to respond to the book in the way I did.

A couple Christmases ago, Kelly gave me Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. That’s a science fiction book about children trained from an early age (before they are hindered by bad habits) in hyper-complicated, physically and mentally challenging war games. The idea is that they’ll transfer the skills they develop to the task of leading armies against aliens. (There was a pretty decent feature film based on the novel in theaters this year.)

An underlying theme of the book is that the pace of life and technology is moving so fast that only the young are able to really get it under control and use it.

Every generation has books like this. I remember reading and enjoying these sorts of books when I was in my teens and twenties.

Kelly was in that age group when he first read Ender’s Game, and I’m sure that, as someone just coming on the scene, he could relate very closely to Andrew “Ender” Wiggin, the novel’s central character, and the other children in the program.

card --- enders-gameI enjoyed the book a lot, but I realized that, as someone in my 60s, I had a harder time putting myself inside Ender’s skin than Kelly had. For me, the idea of children recruited to save mankind was intellectually interesting, but not viscerally so.

“More to life”

With Old Man’s War, the reverse is true. Continue reading

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Book review: “The Gospel in Brief” by Leo Tolstoy

tolstoy -- gospelReading Leo Tolstoy’s The Gospel in Brief was a truly disconcerting experience.

Other writers have sought to re-tell the four gospels in a single narrative — Norman Mailer, for instance, with The Gospel According to the Son (1997), Charles Dickens with The Life of Our Lord (1849), and Nikos Kazantzakis with The Last Temptation of Christ (1955).

Depending on their approach, they have stayed close to or strayed far from the details of the accounts in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, but they’ve written in their own words.

Ostensibly, Tolstoy takes a different tack in The Gospel in Brief. He has, he writes, “effected the fusion of the four Gospels into one, according to the real sense of the teachings.”

What he’s done, on the face of it, is to take all the verses in all four gospels and arrange them as he wishes in order tell the story of Jesus in the manner he wishes. So some verses from Luke will be followed by several from Mark and then several from Matthew.

Except what you think you see isn’t really what you get.

“Presented in full”

Tolstoy writes in an introduction that, in his account, “the Gospel according to the four Evangelists is presented in full.”

Yet, not really “in full.” That’s because in the next sentence, he writes:

But in the rendering now given, all passages are omitted which treat of the following matters, namely, — John the Baptist’s conception and birth, his imprisonment
and death; Christ’s birth, and his genealogy; his mother’s flight with him into Egypt; his miracles at Cana and Capernaum; the casting out of devils; the walking on the sea; the cursing of the fig-tree; the healing of sick, and the raising of dead people; the resurrection of Christ himself; and finally, the reference to prophecies fulfilled in his life

Tolstoy published The Gospel in Brief in 1893 when he was in his mid-60s and his greatest works of fiction — War and Peace (1869), Anna Karenina (1877), and The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886) — were well behind him.

He had become enthralled with the ethical teachings of Jesus and wrote extensively about a Christ-based pacifism which later had a deep impact on such non-violent leaders as Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi.

Complicating “the exposition”

As for miracles and the resurrection of Jesus after his crucifixion — Tolstoy didn’t need or care about them, it seems.

Indeed, in his introduction, he explains that he decided to exclude reports of most of the miraculous acts attributed to Jesus as well as the other material because “they complicate the exposition.” Continue reading

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