Book clubs aren’t about books. They’re about life.

book clubThis essay initially appeared
in the Chicago Tribune on 7.27.14.

When I was a young man, I reveled in my physical strength and intellectual acuity. Today, I’m very aware of my fragility.

When I was younger, I was hungry for new mountains to climb, new monsters to slay, and I was certain I could achieve any goal.

Today, at the age of 64, I’m very aware that I may not accomplish what I have set out to do, either because I just don’t have the talents or commitment or energy — or because I run out of time.

And I’ve come to the realization that, fragile and inadequate as I am, I can better face my remaining years as part of a group — as part of many groups, actually.

I’m sure this is a big reason why I’ve gotten even closer to my 13 siblings.

And why I play basketball every Sunday and Monday with different groups of guys. And why I’m in two all-male faith-sharing groups. And why I’m in a writers group.

And why I’m in two book clubs.

The truth about book clubs

My experience in both groups — and an observation often made by other members — is that some of the best discussions are rooted in books that, according to some or many of the group, weren’t very good.

The truth about book clubs, often overlooked, is that they’re not about books. They’re about life.

Not just talking about life. But living life. Continue reading

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Book review: “Summer of the Dead” by Julia Keller

Near the very end of Julia Keller’s new mystery Summer of the Dead (Minotaur, $25.99), I turned the page and shouted, “Holy shit!”

Out of the blue, suddenly, stunningly, a nurse brought word that a character — one whom I had come to admire and identify with — was dead.

I had to re-read the short paragraph two, three, maybe four times, looking for a loophole. Couldn’t find one.

It was the second sharp double-take I’d experienced within the space of ten pages because of a jarringly unforeseen twist in Keller’s story. And there were more to come. Indeed, if there’s such a thing a reader’s whiplash, I have it.

In other words, Summer of the Dead — like the two previous installments in Keller’s wonderfully written series of mysteries centered on Bell Elkins, the District Attorney of Raythune County, West Virginia — is filled with suspense and shock and awe. For those who love crime novels, it’s a great read.

The jaggedness of life

But, for this review, I don’t want to focus on Keller’s skills as a mystery writer.

keller --- summer

I want to look at her bona fides as writer, pure and simple. As a creator of literature. As an artist who looks at the human condition. Continue reading

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Book Review: “Fierce Patriot” by Robert L. O’Connell

This review initially appeared in the Chicago Tribune on July 20, 2014.

o'connell --- shermanThe American nation would be much different if Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman had never lived. Sherman was one of the four men (the others being Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant) who determined the outcome of the Civil War. His scorched-earth March to the Sea and its extended destruction up through the Carolinas broke the South psychologically and was a vital factor in bringing the conflict to a clean and final end in April 1865.

Like those other three and, indeed, like any major historical figure, the red-haired, temperamental Sherman was a complex personality. And, in telling his story in Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman, Robert L. O’Connell employs a highly complicated structure, literally offering three biographies, one following the other.

“I became convinced,” O’Connell writes, “that any attempt to confine Sherman to a single chronological track was bound to create confusion. Instead, it seemed to me that three separate story lines, each deserving independent development, emerged out of the man’s life.”

It’s an exciting idea, a sort of nonfiction version of three interrelated novellas looking at a character from three perspectives, a historiographical version of cubism.

Adds confusion

Alas, it doesn’t work. Crippled, in part, by a breezy style overly salted with modern-day jargon, O’Connell’s approach adds confusion rather than relieves it. Continue reading

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Book review: “Martin Luther” by Martin Marty

There are times, often, in his 2004 biography Martin Luther when Martin Marty seems more than a bit exasperated with his subject.

Luther, he writes, was a man of paradoxes, a man of ambiguities. And, over and over, Marty apologies — or, maybe, it’s that he grumbles — that he is constantly writing “at the same time.”

For instance, Luther, the former monk, did more than anyone to break the stranglehold of a single religious system (the Catholic Church) and make it possible for people to think in terms of making their own spiritual choices based on their own consciences.

And, yet, at the same time, he so hated chaos that he stressed obedience to authority and urged princes to crack down on the Peasants Revolt.

marty --- martin luther

He contended that all of the followers of Jesus should be members of “one, holy, Christian, and apostolic church” as a single flock.

And, yet, at the same time, he was the catalyst for the Big Bang of religion in the Christian West, the fragmentation of the flocks into myriad sects, denominations, cults, confessions, churches and factions. Continue reading

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How smart is Derek Jeter? He can do the math.

(Photographer: Keith Allison)

(Photographer: Keith Allison)

The world of Major League Baseball was taken aback in February when New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter announced that he would retire at the end of this season.

Part of the shock was that he chose to tell the world his news via his Facebook page. (Yet, when you think about it, what a great method for bypassing the media hysteria that would have resulted at the scheduling of a news conference.)

Even more, though, the surprise was rooted in Jeter’s competitiveness. He was coming back after more than a year of frustrating rehabilitation from the broken ankle he suffered in the 2012 American League Championship Series. No one knew if Jeter still had it in him to be successful on the diamond, but what if he could still play at a high level? How could he walk away from the game? After all, at the age of 38, he had hit .316 in the 2102 season and led the league in runs scored.

But walk away is what Jeter said back in February that he would do. And, although other players in recent years, such as Ryne Sandberg and Jeter’s longtime teammate Andy Pettitte, have retired only to return later to the field, that seems unlikely for the Yankee captain. Especially after the round of celebrations and gifts and ovations at every park he’s visited this year.

Jeter turned 40 on June 26 and is having a very solid season, hitting .275 going into Friday’s game, the 5th best batting average among American League shortstops. And his OPS was .329, second best among his colleagues at that position. He’s playing tantalizingly well, but, even if the Yankees don’t make the play-offs this season or don’t go far in the play-offs, don’t look for him to change his mind.

Don’t tempt fate

Life after 40 is not kind to major league ballplayers, even Hall of Famers. Looking around and looking back over baseball’s past, Jeter knows this.

In the last four decades, 41 position players have been elected to the Hall by the Baseball Writers Association of America. (This doesn’t include those voted in by the Veterans Committee who were from earlier eras.) Of those 41 position players, 25 didn’t play past the age of 40, and many left at a younger age.

So there’s one lesson: Three out of every five of these Hall of Famers didn’t tempt fate by playing into their “old age.”

Hitting like a backup catcher

The other lesson is starker: As a group, the 16 who played at least one season beyond the age of 40 had a lifetime batting average of .289. If they’d stopped playing after their age-40 season, it would have been .291 for the group.

jeter chart as image

A drop of two points in a batting average may not seem like much. But think of these proud and driven players and consider that, as a group, their batting average from their years of playing after 40 was a brutal .254. Or about at the level of a backup catcher. Continue reading

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Book review: “Pete Rose: An American Dilemma” by Kostya Kennedy

kennedy --- pete roseKostya Kennedy paints a compelling portrait of one of baseball’s greatest — and most scandal-laden — players in Pete Rose: An American Dilemma. The “dilemma” part, though, is more problematic.

As it is with many baseball fans, I know Pete Rose from watching him play, and later from watching him being banned from baseball, from watching him deny and then, finally, admit that he bet on baseball games, including those of the Cincinnati Reds when he was the team’s manager.

Here in Chicago, we loved to hate him. I suspect that’s how it was for all other fans, except those rooting for Rose’s team. His hustle of running to first base on a walk was, as Kennedy notes, “a piece of showmanship, a splash of needless panache.” We saw it as a piece of hot-dogging.

But his hustle in fielding and in running the bases, his hustle in out-thinking his opponents as a hitter and as a manager, his hustle in supporting, promoting, mentoring and cheerleading his teammates — those were game-changers. And we hated him even more for that.

Even as we respected him and his accomplishments which, ultimately, included reaching and passing Ty Cobb to become the all-time Hits King with 4,256.

About Rose’s hustle, Kennedy writes:

Rose’s approach to the game elevated not only his career, of course, but also the careers of many players around him, Hall of Famers as well as legions of less accomplished players…there was nothing superfluous in the way he went after it when the all was live. “If playing with Pete Rose did not inspire you to play the right way I don’t know what did,” says Dough Flynn, who was a part-time infielder for the Reds in the mid-1970s. “He ran out everything. I mean everything. Comebacker to the pitcher in the ninth inning of a lopsided game, Pete is busting down the line.”


In baseball, Pete Rose is one of a kind. His hard-nose, blue-collar, take-no-prisoners approach to the game was unparalleled in his era and remains so today. There were players in the early decades of the game who had some of his qualities — Cobb, of course — but they fit their times. Rose was someone, not just out of the past but out of another dimension. Continue reading

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Book review: “Crazy Horse” by Larry McMurtry

A novelist writes history like a novelist, not like an historian. In Crazy Horse, Larry McMurtry tells the story of the Sioux warrior who was an Indian leader on the Great Plains during the 1860s and 1870s and took part in many battles including Little Bighorn where vainglorious, foolhardy Gen. George Custer and his troops were wiped out.

He was assassinated by whites and Indians acting together and has been a symbol of the Native American spirit ever since.

The center of the painting of Crazy Horse by Stephen Johnson that is on the cover the Larry McMurtry's Cracy Horse

The center of the painting of Crazy Horse by Stephen Johnson that is on the cover the Larry McMurtry’s Cracy Horse

Even when alive, Crazy Horse was a mystery man, a loner who preferred his own company. He was never photographed. McMurtry emphasizes throughout this 147-page biography that any attempt to tell the warrior’s story is “an exercise in assumption, conjecture and surmise.” Indeed, he points out that we know more facts about Alexander the Great who died more than 2,000 years ago than we do about Crazy Horse.

For more than a century since the Sioux warrior died, historians and writers have produced thick books looking at him, his accomplishments and his legacy. McMurtry, the author of Lonesome Dove, is unlikely to have been interested in the sort of proofs, arguments and theories that are the meat and potatoes of such books — even if more facts about Crazy Horse had been available.

Instead, his writing is more impressionistic. He seeks the essence of Crazy Horse, rooting his effort not so much in data but in his sense of the kind of man that Crazy Horse was and the way the world in which he lived was rapidly and drastically changing.

There is so much simple, sensible and profound insight to this 1999 book that, as a reviewer, I’m going to step aside and let McMurtry sum up his book — and Crazy Horse — in his own words.
Continue reading

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

pratchett---long mars -- comboThe Long Mars is the third installment so far in a series of novels by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter — the earlier ones being The Long Earth and The Long War.

They’re rooted in a discovery in 2015 that the Earth on which humans evolved is only one of uncounted numbers of alternate-universe Earths. Each Earth resulted from a single random event that occurred in a way different from what happened on humanity’s home Earth, the Datum Earth, and different from what happened on all the other Earths.

It is possible to go from one Earth to the one next door by “stepping.” Some people have the innate skill to do this on their own. Most need a piece of technology, called a stepper box. Quickly, humans develop dirigible-like machines, called twains (as in Mark Twain), to step through many worlds very quickly.

In The Long Mars, two souped-up twains, the equivalent of battleships 120 years ago, take a trip westward through the Long Earth through 250 million Earths, showing the flag, as it were. Meanwhile, three wildcat explorers who find a way to Mars — it’s too complicated to explain here — take a couple of flimsy gliders through three million versions of Mars.

Delight and irritation

Each of the three novels, in its way, has delighted and irritated me. Continue reading

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Book review: “Bright Lights of the Second City: 50 Prominent Chicagoans on Living with Passion and Purpose” by Betsy Storm

When world-renowned violinist Rachel Barton Pine was three, she attended a service at Saint Pauls United Church of Christ in Lincoln Park and saw some pre-teen girls in long dresses up on the altar playing the violin. She stood up, pointed to the girls and announced, “I want to do that!”

A year later, she played her first Bach solo at the church.

There was a stained-glass window of J.S. Bach in the sanctuary, and, when I was very young, I thought Bach ranked right up there with the guys from the Bible — God, Jesus, and Bach — and not necessarily in that order. I grew up understanding that the purpose of music was to lift the human spirit and bring it closer to God.

This is a story that Barton tells in the newly published Bright Lights of the Second City: 50 Prominent Chicagoans on Living with Passion and Purpose by Betsy Storm.

“Midnight-oil burners”

As the subtitle indicates, Storm’s aim in this book is “to identify the motivations that enliven these movers and shakers, these midnight-oil burners” — highly successful people from law and sports, philanthropy and non-profits, art and journalism, and a host of other fields and disciplines.

The core of Bright Lights are in-depth interviews that she conducted with each person. Some readers will look to this book for hints from these high-achievers about finding profit and prosperity, happiness and fulfillment. And they’ll discover useful insights to ponder.

storm -- bright lights

I see Storm’s book as a valuable collection of oral histories of a certain segment of Chicago society in the second decade of the 21st century. Continue reading

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Alone but not isolated — an essay about the seven sacraments

Life is lonely. We’re born alone. We die alone.

No matter how much we’re surrounded by people, even people who love us, we experience life in a way that can only partially be shared.

You hear a song that makes your heart soar. But it does nothing for the person standing next to you. You read a book that touches you deeply. But you can’t find the words to make someone else — even a good friend, even a spouse — understand all the many ways it speaks to you.

In a deep insight into human nature, the Catholic Church recognizes this reality. Its seven sacraments are outward signs of God’s workings in the world, and six of them are given to individuals.

Water was poured on your head at Baptism. The cross was marked in holy oil upon your forehead at Confirmation. When you are gravely ill or near death, it will be your body that is anointed.



Only Marriage is a sacrament that is given to two people at the same moment, “that they might no longer be two, but one flesh.”

Marriage is the epitome of all the relationships that people have in life. In any relationship — such as parent-to-child or friend-to-friend or spouse-to-spouse — two people share their lives. They commit to each other.

Nowhere is that commitment as deep as in marriage. Spouses are more open with each other than with anyone else. They reveal more about their inner depths. They trust, and they gain support and encouragement from, each other. Yet, that sharing can only go so far. Continue reading

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Book review: “Luther” by John Osborne

Perhaps the core of Luther, the 1961 play by John Osborne, can be found midway through the play in a scene set on the steps of Castle Church in Wittenberg. It is October 31, 1517, and the monk-theologian has nailed his 95 theses to the church door.

In the sermon that follows and takes up the entire scene, Luther rails against all the magical aspects of Christian belief, such as relics and indulgences, and tells his listeners:

For you must be made to know that there’s no security, no security at all, either in indulgences, holy busywork or anywhere in this world. It came to me while I was in my tower, what they call the monk’s sweathouse, the jakes, the john, or whatever you are pleased to call it….And I sat on my heap of pain until the words emerged and opened out. “The just shall live by faith.” My pain vanished, my bowels flushed, and I could get up.

osborne -- luther

His dung-throwing

Throughout Osborne’s drama, Luther complains often about the sensitivity of his bowels and shows a willingness, even glee, to employ excretory metaphors for those he disagrees with — such as his father who, he says, is as contented as “a hog wallowing in its own crap.”

But it’s the church hierarchy wearing beautiful robes and living amid gold and jewels, who are the main targets of his verbal dung-throwing. Continue reading

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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

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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 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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