Book review: “Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy” by David Nasaw

David Nasaw writes that Joseph P. Kennedy was always “the most vital, the smartest, the dominant one in a room” who “imposed his will on family members, friends, and acquaintances, on those he worked for and with, on political associates, business colleagues, and the hundreds of topside and not so topside men and women he came in contact with.”

All of that may be a bit of an overstatement, but not by much.

Nasaw offers this statement at the very end of his 2012 biography Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Time of Joseph P. Kennedy when he’s leading into his description of the stroke that left the elderly Kennedy unable to walk or speak, a frail and pitiable figure.

Not that I have much pity for Kennedy. By the end of — well, actually early on in — Nasaw’s book, I came to dislike the man. Not hate him, not despise him, as a good many people do. He was too small a person to hate.

Then, again, I never met him.

Oversize personality

nasaw --- patriarchIt seems, from Nasaw’s extensively researched book, that Kennedy was so charming, so vibrant, so confident that he would fill most any room he walked into with his oversize personality. Women not his wife fell for him, including Hollywood actresses such as Gloria Swanson. Business and political associates were awed and beguiled by him.

He had a knack for making money — in the stock market, in the movies, in real estate — by “skating along the [ethical] edges” and playing the angles and playing it safe and taking a bearish (pessimistic) approach to every question. When it came to amassing wealth, he was brilliant.

Those skills and that money set his nine children up in life — pampered, challenged and driven. And four died early of violent deaths — Joseph Jr. on a World War II bombing mission; Kathleen, who married into the British aristocracy, in a plane crash; John, killed by a sniper’s bullet in Dallas in the third year of his presidency; and Robert, gunned down in a hotel corridor during his own run to be U.S. President.

And then there was Rosemary, born mildly retarded, whose life was ruined by a lobotomy. Continue reading

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Book review: “Star Gate” by Andre Norton

norton --- star gateThe idea of alternative universes is old hat.

Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter just published The Long Mars, the third installment in their Long Earth series about uncountable millions of versions of Earth, set in uncountable millions of versions of the Universe.

In the 2011 film Another Earth, a lookalike planet is discovered, and the more our Earth learns about it, the more it seems to have come somehow from a parallel cosmos. In a key scene, a scientist trying to make contact with the planet suddenly finds herself talking to herself.

There are a wide variety of ways in which to envision alternate universes. The Long Earth and Another Earth are of the type that posits the existence of different versions of the same place at the same time, each slightly or hugely different based on chance happenings.

That’s the concept at the heart of Andre Norton’s 1958 Star Gate, an early attempt to see how this theory might play out in life. Rather than Earth, her story is set on Gorth, and one of the characters explains:

“As it is with men, so it is also with nations and with worlds. There are times when they come to points of separation, and from those points their future takes two roads. And, thus, Kincar, there are many Gorths, each formed by some decision of history, lying as these bands, one beside the other, but each following its own path — .”

Star Lords and Gorthians

Kincar, Star Gate’s central character, is a half-breed. His father Rud was a dark tall Star Lord. His mother Anora was a light-skinned native Gorthian. Continue reading

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Jane Jacobs and the New York City Gay Pride Parade, 2014

555 Hudson Street, New York, the former home of Jane Jacobs

555 Hudson Street, New York, the former home of Jane Jacobs

On a recent trip to New York City, I went looking for Jane Jacobs and found the Gay Pride Parade.

My little excursion was incongruous on several levels, but, first, let me set the stage.

In Chicago, before travelling to New York, I had the idea that it would be fun to spend an afternoon on a sort of pilgrimage to the home at 555 Hudson Street where Jacobs lived for 21 years (1947-1968).

I say “sort of pilgrimage” because it’s not like I’m an acolyte at Jacobs’ altar.

I recognize she was immensely important to assert, as she did in her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, that urban planning must be approached, at least in part, from the ground up. From the street level. From the sidewalk level where people see and greet each other, pass each other, build a community together — or not.

She single-handedly changed the midcentury debate about cities and about municipal development and, in her way, became as powerful as her nemesis Robert Moses, the epitome of the slash-and-build school of urban renewal.

In her book, Jacobs stated her insights about cities aggressively, clearly and, no question about it, arrogantly. And that’s where, to my mind, she tripped up. She thought that she could take her experience on a Manhattan street and extrapolate it to the rest of the nation, to the rest of the world.

Saving Hudson Street

She worked hard to save Hudson Street and its Greenwich Village neighborhood as a place where people of various incomes and backgrounds could live together. And it worked!

Until it didn’t.

The buildings and the streets remain, but the diversity is gone. Her neighborhood has been gentrified to the point that only the rich and very rich live there, people such as actress Emma Stone and CNN anchor Anderson Cooper.

I’ve written about this twice — once in 2009 in “Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs: A question of power,” one of my postings on the Burnham Blog, and again in 2012 on my own blog in an in-depth review of Death and Life a half century after its publication.

JJ - parade comboTwo ironies

New York is New York, so I figure that every corner will be clotted with people waiting to cross the street, but, as I approached Broadway, it dawned on me that the crowd wasn’t looking to get to the other side but waiting to watch this year’s Gay Pride Parade. When the cops let me and some others cross Broadway, I could see to the north the first contingents of the parade approaching.

Making a mental note to return to watch the parade, I went on to Hudson, only to find two ironies — one I expected and one I hadn’t. Continue reading

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Book review: “The Lowland” by Jhumpa Lahiri

lahiri --- lowlandIt’s easy enough to miss or disregard several faint Biblical echoes in Jhumpa Lahiri’s 2013 novel The Lowland. After all, this is a very modern story about Indians born in the mid-20th century, some of whom immigrate to the United States.

The novel centers on two brothers, Subhash and Udayan, born into a neighborhood on the edge of Calcutta in 1943. Because of their actions, one dies and one’s life is ruined. Yet, throughout much of the novel, theirs doesn’t seem to be the Cain and Abel story.

In the first half of the book, there is a mother who is about to give birth, and a quiet, stoic Joseph-like man who steps in to care for the Madonna and child. A similar scenario develops in the second half. Still, it’s not as if anyone’s talking about virgin birth.

There is the lowland itself, a depression in the landscape near their home where the brothers played together during their childhood, amid the water hyacinth and puddles still draining from the year’s monsoons.

It is a kind of Eden, part of the cycle of Nature, flooding and draining, flooding and draining. By the end of the novel, though, it is filled in and covered over with homes and concrete. Even so, it was never a garden of delights.

None of these echoes seem to be much until the final pages of The Lowland when it becomes clear that, at the center of its action — a narrative of seven lives, spanning two continents and seven decades — is original sin. Continue reading

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Me, myself and Jim Brosnan and Anne Hollander

I suspect that Jim Brosnan and Anne Hollander never met. They moved in different circles.

They died eight days apart — Brosnan on June 29 at the age of 84, Hollander on July 6 at the age of 83. Continue reading

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Book review: “Leonardo da Vinci: A Penguin Life” by Sherwin B. Nuland

The stellar Penguin Lives series, published from 1999 to 2011, was a collective act of courage and chutzpah.

Each of the 34 writers in the series dared to tell the life story of a major historical figure in 100 to 200 short pages — to plunge through all the events, ideas, words and actions of the subject, down to the essence of the person’s life and impact.

None of the great writers who took part evidenced greater bravery and audacity than Sherwin B. Nuland whose biography of Leonardo da Vinci was published in 2000. In some 40,000 words, Nuland attempts to capture the life and genius of the 16th century man he calls “perhaps the most diversely expansive mind this world has ever known, and certainly the most engaging.”

“An artist’s eye”

To be sure, Nuland’s strategy is to focus predominately on Leonardo’s work as a scientific investigator and thinker, particularly his study of human anatomy. Yet, as Nuland writes, Leonardo’s life as an artist and a scientist were intrinsically intertwined. It was as a painter that he began his dissections and other researches into the way the human body works, even if that search piqued his world-size inquisitiveness and became an end in itself.

fetus davinci

In order to answer his perennial question of why, he had first to understand how, which demanded a meticulous attention to accurate anatomical detail such as had never before been so much as considered by any predecessor….His was an artist’s eye, but his also was the scientist’s curiosity and the scientist’s apperception that only by reducing a phenomenon to its component elements can it be fully understood. And only by knowing the minute particulars of structure can function even begin to be elucidated.

“The greatest of all books”

Leonardo wrote in his notes that scholars and experts of his day dismissed him as “totally unlettered.” This, Nuland points out, was a good thing because it helped keep Leonardo relatively (but not totally) free of the commonly accepted misconceptions of his time. Continue reading

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Book review: “The Devil’s Larder” by Jim Crace

Jim Crace’s 2001 book The Devil’s Larder is a collection of 64 very short stories centering on food.

There are stories here about strip fondue and about a waiter who can sing the names of all 90 pastas in alphabetical order. About an amen egg (timed by singing the 37th hymn) and about pot brownies that may have eased a condemned man’s transition from this world.

One story focuses on the conundrum of being marooned on a raft in the middle of the ocean and having to choose between drinking salt water or one’s own urine. Another tells of Air and Light, a restaurant that serves only air and light.

crace -- larder

A mental itch

Crace is a subtle writer, and these tight tales are poetic and often wry. They leave behind a mental itch that you can’t help scratching. Consider these examples:

A kitchen mystery: “Someone has taken off — and lost — the label on the can. There are two glassy lines of glue with just a trace of stripped paper where the label was attached. The can’s batch number — RG2JD 19547 — is embossed on one of the ends. Top or bottom end? No one can tell what’s up or down. The metal isn’t very old.” (story #1)
A ritual of atonement through grape seeds: “On birthdays in our village on the estuary, where spitting was as commonplace as fish, we had a sweet observance for children. We didn’t blow out candles on the cake. Instead,…we spit the past year out….We expectorated all our vices, errors and misdeeds so that our coming year could start anew.” (story #35) Continue reading

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Book review: “A Blink of the Screen” by Terry Pratchett

pratchett --- blinkIs Terry Pratchett a fan of John Barth?

I never gave it any thought until I read Pratchett’s 2012 collection of short fiction A Blink of the Screen which contains “Final Reward,” a story written in 1988 with a particularly Barthian bent.

Kevin Dogger is an author who’s made a small fortune with a series of science fiction novels about the exploits of Erdan the Barbarian. One night, after drinking too much and fighting with his girlfriend, he comes home and, out of spite, writes the final chapter of Erdan and the Serpent of the Rim, killing off his hero on the final page.

The next morning, he answers the door to find, on his doorstep, Erdan the Barbarian.

“I have come to meet my maker,” the erstwhile now deceased champion says.

(Erdan, by the way, is carrying Skung, the Sword of the Ice Gods, which, on the one hand, is able to speak, but, on the other, only says [“conversationally”], “I want to drink your blood.”)

Characters and fantasy

Throughout his long literary career, John Barth — who practices what is known as metafiction, i.e., fiction that goes beyond the idea of simply telling a story and focuses on the storyteller and the storytelling process — has had a similarly complex relationship with his characters.

In 1979, for instance, Barth published LETTERS, ostensibly an exchange of correspondence between him and various characters from his earlier novels, including Jerome Bray who appeared in two: Chimera and Giles Goat-Boy. In Chimera, published in 1972, Barth turns up in various guises amid the demi-gods of Greek myths and in the bedroom of Scheherazade, the author of famed collection of Arabian tales One Thousand and One Nights. Not only does he meet these luminaries, but, well, he gets a novel out of it — Chimera.

And what is the name that Terry Pratchett’s author-character Kevin Dogger gives to Erdan’s world? Chimera. Continue reading

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The Pelican’s Portrait

reginald reginaldsonSir Reginald Reginaldson, the son of a Danish merchant, grew up in the well-to-do mercantile community of Houndstooth-upon-Tweed on High Street in London during the second half of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

An inveterate hanger-on with the minor figures at the edge of the royal court, Reginaldson came to the notice of Elizabeth when he broke his nose dancing into a pillar during a ferradingo celebrating the eve of St. Thurstide’s Day. (The ferradingo, an import from Italy, involved a series of intricate steps, some of which were to be done with the eyes closed.)

“Methinks the gallant’s nose flowed not had his leaps only ebbed,” the Queen said. Thereafter, Elizabeth frequently referred to Reginaldson has “my pelican.”

This miniature portrait by Isaac Oliver, which now hangs in the Stuart M. Wedlow Museum of Fine Art in the Silver Dollar Casino in Reno, Nevada, was executed shortly before its subject’s execution in 1615 for what was believed to be an attempt on the life of Elizabeth’s successor James I.

Reginaldson was accused to attempting to push the monarch off a parapet, allegedly out of anger for the habit of James to refer to him with a corruption of the Queen’s nickname “pemmican.” (Pemmican, a food used by Native Americans and shared with English explorers and sailors, was a concentrated mixture of fat and meat. Indeed, the word means “fat grease.”)

Reginaldson’s defense was that he had tripped.

See “The Pelican’s Fall” by D.W.C. Eaton (London, 1939)

Patrick T. Reardon
6.20.14

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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.

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.

Foundation-Trilogy-Isaac-Asimov

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.”

http://www.dreamstime.com/stock-image-psalm-23-image1276981

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.

http://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-image-2014-calendar-vector-illustrator-image22985996The 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
2.6.14

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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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