Book review: “Primitive Rebels: Studies in Archaic Forms of Social Movement in the 19th and 20th Centuries” by E. J. Hobsbawm

In Sicily in the late 19th century, the Socialists who went out into the rural areas to organize the peasants were hard-headed men. Their aims were economic, and their demands were very specific.

Not so for the peasants.

In rebelling against the oppression of landowners and the government, they were millennial in approach. Their hope was for a just and perfect world, a sort of heaven on earth. Their aims, as summarized by Marxist historian E. J. Hobsbawm in his 1959 book Primitive Rebels, were simple:

All should work. There should be neither rich nor poor. All should be equal. There should be no need to divide estates and houses. All should be put in common and the income should be justly distributed. This would not give rise to quarrels or selfishness because there would be brotherhood…and those who broke brotherhood would be punished.

hobsbawm.primitive rebels

These peasants, like most of the “primitive rebels” in Hobsbawm’s book, were pre-political. Their world was changing and had changed, but they didn’t have the intellectual framework with which to understand that change and respond to it.

They had been living an essentially medieval life, centered on their village, with rights, responsibilities and power dynamics that went back centuries. They were miserable but knew of no way to deal with their misery except with spasmodic rebellions that occurred at regular intervals.


“A true Socialist”

In the century’s final decade, though, Socialist organizers appeared and gave focus to that unrest. The peasants went along with them, but within the context of their medieval mindset.

These organizers were seen, Hobsbawm writes, as a sort of divine revelation — “good noble men, whom one peasant in Canicatti described as ‘angels come down from Paradise. We were in the dark and they have brought us light.’ ”

The peasants treated visiting Socialist leaders “as though they were bishops — men and women throwing themselves on the ground and strewing flowers in their path.”

It was, commentators frequently noted, “a new religion” — yet one that didn’t replace Christianity. For the peasants, it stood to reason that Socialists couldn’t be in conflict with the true faith of Jesus. They were a new expression of that faith.

They saw St. Francis of Assisi as “one of the first and greatest of Socialists, who had, among other things, abolished money.” After all, as one peasant woman told an interviewer, “Jesus was a true Socialist.”


“To hammer the lords”

Primitive Rebels is a short book — 174 pages of text with 19 pages of appendices — but a demanding read. Hobsbawm expects his reader to have a great knowledge of European labor and political history and a strong familiarity with Socialist, particularly Marxist, ideology. Continue reading

Book review: “Creatures of a Day and Other Tales of Psychotherapy” by Irvin D. Yalom

yalom --- creaturesAs I wrote in Sunday’s Printers Row section of the Chicago Tribune, psychiatrist Irvin D. Yalom’s new book Creatures of a Day and Other Tales of Psychotherapy deals with the emotions, fears and terrors that human beings — his clients and himself — bring to the subject of death.

In ten short chapters, each of which, for the most part, deals with a single client, the fear of the end of life is often hidden in seemingly unrelated behaviors and thoughts.

It’s Yalom’s skill as a therapist as well as the hard work and vulnerability of his patients that gets beyond those initial symptoms to the deeper causes of personal unrest and unhappiness.

In Creatures of a Day, Irvin D. Yalom is up-front about many of his techniques as a psychotherapist. This is likely to be of great help to other therapists, particularly those new to the field.

Even more, these methods can be used by people in therapy and those who are simply trying to examine and improve their lives. They’re various strategies for going deeper and facing essential truths and challenges.

Here are some:
Being there: “The most valuable thing I have to offer is my sheer presence.”
Employing an “old reliable” strategy: “I believe it would help our work today if you’d take me through, in detail, a typical twenty-four-hour day in your life. Pick a day earlier this week, and let’s start with your waking in the morning.”
Being open to learning: “Oh what a pleasure it was to be with Andrew! As he taught himself, he taught me too.”
Using first names: “How would you feel if we went by first names?”
Suggesting free association: “Just free-associate…, by which I mean: you try to let your mind run free and just observe it as though from a distance…almost as though you were watching a screen.”
Being open to the client: “Any questions you have for me?”
Using hunches as a gentle way of putting ideas into the give-and-take: “I have a hunch…”
Being “loose” about the therapist’s own experience: “I knew I was being a bit loose, but that often paid off — patients generally appreciate my sharing something of myself, and it usually works to accelerate more sharing.”
Asking about dreams: “Sometimes thoughts enter the mind involuntarily in daydreams, for example, or night dreams.”
Exploring the therapeutic relationship: “I always teach my students that, when you’re in trouble in a session, you can always bail yourself out by calling on your ever-reliable tool, the ‘process check’ — you halt the action and explore the relationship between you and the patient.”
Seeing therapy as a relationship: “The compelling two-person drama I had engaged in.”

Patrick T. Reardon

Book review: “Time for the Stars” by Robert A. Heinlein

heinlein -- time for the starsBack in 1905, Albert Einstein promulgated his relativity theory. One wrinkle had to do with how time would be experienced by someone on Earth as compared with someone else traveling in a rocket ship at near the speed of light. Twins, say.

I can’t claim to understand the mathematics or physics, but the idea is that time would be slowed down for the one in a rocket ship — to the extent that, on his return to Earth, he would find his twin much, much older than himself.

In his 1956 book Time for the Stars, Robert A. Heinlein took that theory and ran with it.

And ran with a lot of other stuff as well, including telepathy, the search for Earth-like planets, the strategies of family dynamics, psychosomatic injuries, the psychology of siblings, the nature of life on other worlds and the meaning of “alien.”

“How does it feel to be a little green man in a flying saucer,” says one character as a ship from Earth prepares to land on a newfound world.


“An oofoe. We’re an oofoe, do you realize that?”

“I suppose we are a U.F.O, sort of.”

No “sort of” about it. Heinlein understood that, just as Earthlings get scared at the idea of an “unidentified flying object” being a ship from space, so would any intelligent life forms on a planet visited by an Earth rocket. Continue reading

Book review: “Notes from a Small Island” by Bill Bryson

There are travel books, and then there are travel books.

One sort, such as Fodor’s, is jammed with facts about hotels, trains, battlefields, subways, mileage, restaurants, museums, exchange rates, airports, safety tips, trails, cathedrals, stadiums, cruises, tours, shopping…. You use this sort when you are going to a place as a tourist, and it functions as a handy, cleverly packaged, compact database to help you maneuver around.

The other type of travel book — such as Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island — isn’t about taking a journey yourself. It’s about going along for the ride without ever leaving home.

And what’s really curious is that it really isn’t so much about the place that’s being visited. It’s about hanging out with someone who is interesting, thoughtful, funny and alert.

That’s Bryson.

bryson --- small island


Cringe-producing moments

Certainly, no travel companion is perfect, and Bryson is smart enough as a writer to include a few cringe-producing moments like those that happen on any trip.

In Edinburgh, for instance, a “spotty young man” behind the counter at McDonald’s takes his order and then asks, “Do you want an apple turnover with that?” Bryson, who describes himself at this point as “fractious and impatient,” proceeds to browbeat the poor acne-plagued kid for nearly a full page — and then has the gall to complain that the kid isn’t filling his order fast enough.

Such moments, though, are few and far between. True, Bryson does go on a rant every once in a while — what good travel companion doesn’t have strong ideas and opinions? — but usually he’s just ranting to the reader rather than at someone.

And, even when he does rant, there’s always more than a touch of humor involved, such as when he thunders out his loathing of parking garages where, he notes, “everything about the [parking] process is intentionally — mark this, intentionally — designed to flood your life with unhappiness.”

You can’t help but laugh as Bryson lists all the many unhappy aspects of parking garages — especially when he concludes with this observation:

Did you know — this is a little-known fact but absolute truth — that when they dedicate a new multi-storey car park the Lord Mayor and his wife have a ceremonial pee in the stairwell? It’s true.

Continue reading

Book review: “Harvest” by Jim Crace

Jim Crace has said that his 2013 book Harvest will be his last novel. It’s not that he’s going to stop writing. He promises more books of other sorts but not another novel. We’ll see.

It would be a loss for readers. No novelist creates a world with quite the same intensity and tangibility as Crace does. The forces of Nature and their impact on human beings are always at the heart of his fiction. And so it is with Harvest.

crace --- harvest

It is set in an obscure corner of England in the 17th century — on the Jordan Estate, also called the Property of Edmund Jordan, a manor house, a barn, a dovecote and a cluster of cottages amid farm fields, hills and a forest. The place has no name as Walter Thirsk tells a visitor: “It’s just The Village. And it’s surrounded by The Land.”

Walt, the narrator of this tale, is a middle man, as even his name suggests. (One loutish character giggles with great glee when he realizes that Walt’s name sounds like “Water” and “Thirst.” Ha, ha.)

Walt was born in a town and grew up with Master Charles Kent as his boyhood playmate. Indeed, they both nursed at the breasts of Walter’s mother. As an adult, he worked as Master Kent’s manservant and came along when that gentleman’s wife inherited this property.

During the next dozen years, Walt fell in love with a village woman, Cecily, and left the manor house to live with her and join with the 50 or so other residents to farm the fields in the circuit of seasons as ancestors had done time out of mind.

He has become one of the villagers although he still does special jobs for Master Kent. Both men are now widowers.


“A commonwealth of habit”

Harvest tells about a week in the life of the Village when everything the villagers have known is turned on its head, in large part because of the appearance of Master Kent’s cousin Edmund. Continue reading

St. Scrooge

If I call you a “scrooge,” that’s not a good thing. We all know that a scrooge is a miser, a misanthrope, a bitter wasted soul. “Bah, humbug!”

It’s a word that goes back to Ebenezer Scrooge, the central character of A Christmas Carol, published by Charles Dickens in 1843.

Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge!” Dickens writes, “A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.


When asked to contribute to a holiday collection for the needy, Scrooge says such people should go to the workhouse or to prison. In response, he is told, “Many can’t go there, and many would rather die.”

To which Scrooge asserts:

“If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

Not a nice guy. And no wonder that his name has become synonymous with a particular kind of mean and prickly greed.

But wait. We do Scrooge a disservice. Think about it. What’s the heart of his story? Continue reading

Book review (1994): “How the Other Half Lives” by Jacob Riis

The five blind men and women lived in the attic room in a rundown tenement in New York City in the late 1800s, and Jacob A. Riis was there to take their photograph.

But Riis was clumsy, and the technique of flash-lit photography was new and still imperfect. And he ended up setting the paper and rags hanging on one wall ablaze.

It was a tragedy in the making. Not only were the other five people in the room blind, but so was nearly everyone else living in the building.

“The thought: How were they ever to be got out? made my blood run cold as I saw the flames creeping up the wall,” Riis later wrote, “and my first impulse was to bolt for the street and shout for help.”

Instead, with great effort, he was able to smother the fire himself.

Afterward, when I came down to the street, I told a policeman of my trouble. For some reason he thought it rather a good joke and laughed immoderately at my concern lest even then sparks should be burrowing in the rotten wall that might yet break out in flame and destroy the house with all that were in it.

He told me why, when he found time to draw breath. “Why, don’t you know,” he said, “that house is the Dirty Spoon? It caught fire six times last winter, but it wouldn’t burn. The dirt was so thick on the walls, it smothered the fire!”

What an irony. Here was one instance when poverty actually saved the lives of the poor. More often — much more often — poverty stunted lives, darkened lives, poisoned lives. It crowded the poor, squeezed, exploited, abused, abandoned and killed them.

This was the urban poverty, in all its oppressing, chaotic and disheartening aspect, that Jacob Riis addressed in his landmark book of social reform, a book of clear-eyed text and starkly moving photographs, How the Other Half Lives, published in 1890.

riis --- How-the-Other-Half-Lives

Continue reading

Book review (2015): “How the Other Half Lives” by Jacob Riis

There is much to say about Jacob Riis’s 1890 masterpiece How the Other Half Lives, but, first, let’s look at the faces in his book.


In our selfie-social media age, a collection like this — a collection of the faces of individuals — is nothing unusual. Yet, 125 years ago, these images were revolutionary.

If you were rich, you could have your portrait painted. If you were middle-class, you could pay for a photographic likeness. You might even buy your own Kodak box camera, introduced in 1888, and take up the expensive hobby of photography, making photos of family members and friends.

The poor couldn’t avail themselves of these options.

But Jacob Riis, newspaper reporter and reformer in New York, could and did. And, in lectures, articles and a series of books, starting with How the Other Half Lives, he bridged the economic, cultural and class gap to link those with solid, comfortable lives to their brothers and sisters trying to eke out a living in poverty.


Common humanity

riis --- How-the-Other-Half-LivesHow the Other Half Lives was a major milestone in journalism, in photojournalism and in social reform.

Riis’s text, often overlooked, is hard-edged and filled with a barely restrained anger.

His photos show every crooked board, every crack in the plaster, every smudge and detail of the rooms where poor families and individuals lived and often worked and of the buildings and neighborhoods in which they spent their days.


These images were startling and unsettling. And what was most startling and unsettling about them were the highly distinctive faces —- the individual faces — of this Italian and that tough, of this Jewish child and that Street Arab, of this sleeping laborer and that drunken woman.


Those with solid, comfortable lives generally didn’t look at the poor, and, when they thought of the poor, they pictured the mass of poor people rather than individuals.

The photos by Riis showed the particular room in which this family lived or the particular basement in which this man lived, sleeping atop a barrel — images that gave viewers new insights into the experience of being poor.

And they showed this family and that man — and the common humanity that each of these individuals shared with each of the viewers.

This above all else — showing the faces of fellow human beings with undeniable clarity and directness — was the triumph of Riis in How the Other Half Lives. Continue reading

Book review: “Valdez Is Coming” by Elmore Leonard

Westerns move toward the mythic, but they end up simply formulaic unless they’re peopled by living, breathing characters.

Initially, the mythic underpinning of western films and books was good guys versus bad guys — white hats versus black hats, Us versus Them, Good versus Evil.

Then, starting in the 1950s and accelerating in the 1960s, the trend was toward a muddier moral landscape.  We’re as bad as them.  The good guys were as bad as the bad guys — or, as in the Wild Bunch, they were the bad guys, just bad guys who weren’t as bad as the really bad guys.

Related to this shift was another trend.  It arose during the Civil Rights Movement, especially in the 1960s, when men and women on the margins — African-Americans, Hispanics, prostitutes, for instance — took center stage.  These movies bet that mainstream audiences, overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly middle class, could identify with such heroes, and, generally, they did.  (After all, Native American boys had long identified with the cowboys in movie westerns.)

The story of Valdez in movie and book brought these trends together, and populated the mythic structure with real people. Continue reading

Book review: “Up in Honey’s Room” by Elmore Leonard

leonard --- honeyA character in Elmore Leonard’s 2007 novel Up in Honey’s Room is wondering when he should draw a handgun, hidden in the cushions of a sofa, and shoot it out with this guy pointing a burp gun at him. His inner dialogue goes this way:

All right, when?

When you’re positive he’s gonna shoot.

You’re serious? This guy put on his best dress and makeup and brings along a machine gun and you aren’t sure he wants to kill you?

This scene comes very late in the novel, and the reader, by then, knows why the guy holding the burp gun is in a dress and why he’s pointing it at two men and a woman (the titular Honey) sitting cheek to jowl, so to speak, on a coach in her fourth-floor apartment (the titular room). And why those three are nude. And who that other woman is, the one standing off to the side with a Luger in her hand.

Leonard, who died in 2013 at the age of 87, produced 48 novels in his long career, many of them great. Up in Honey’s Room, his 45th, isn’t great. Leonard was in his early 80s when he wrote it, so maybe he was just tired.

Still, even so-so Leonard can be a lot of fun — for the reader and apparently for the author as well. Continue reading

Book review: “The Arms of Krupp” by William Manchester

manchester --- krupp


Nearly half a century ago, The Arms of Krupp by William Manchester was published to several decidedly negative reviews.

The reviewer for Kirkus Reviews wasn’t sure, after going through the book’s 833 pages of text, whether Manchester saw the Krupp family as fierce patriots or whores in their service to the Fatherland over two centuries of armament development and sales. The writing, according to the review, was, at times, leaden and, at other times, afflicted with pedantry.

Historian Alistair Horne complained in the New York Times that the book had many inaccuracies and was tainted by Manchester’s “visceral, anti-Germanism” as well as his “passion and prejudice.” Horne was unclear if the author believed that the final “sole proprietor” of the Krupp firm, Alfried Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach, was really guilty of war crimes.

Was Alfried responsible for the Krupp firm’s brutal use of 100,000 slave laborers from the conquered eastern nations and from the Third Reich’s concentration camps for Jews? Was he guilty of the deaths of tens of thousands of those people and even their babies? Horne wasn’t sure where Manchester stood.

In another New York Times review, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt asserted:

There are three basic kinds of history, and the historian takes his choice. He can dig up the record and lay it out for others to use — do basic research, in other words. Or he can filter the record through his imagination and write entertainment — popular history. Or he can shape the facts into an argument, prove something — write a thesis. The trouble with The Arms of Krupp is that Mr. Manchester has tried to do simply everything.

This paragraph, it seems to me, explains much, not just about Lehmann-Haupt’s antipathy for the book, but also the antagonism of other reviewers.


“No slain, no crime, no war”

But, first, let’s make something clear.

This entire book is an indictment of the Krupp family and the German people — and especially of Alfried.

It is an indictment of Alfried’s establishment of a factory adjacent to the Auschwitz concentration camp and his use of camp prisoners as slave laborers. It’s an indictment of the brutality inflicted upon tens of thousands of imprisoned Jews and other involuntary workers, including beatings and a torture cage in the basement of Alfried’s company headquarters, within earshot of his office. It’s an indictment of the company’s concentration camp for babies born to the slave laborers, babies who died for lack of food and proper treatment or, later, simply disappeared. Continue reading

Book review: “The Green Hills of Earth” by Robert A. Heinlein

heinlein -- green hills of earthSometimes, when he was younger, Robert A. Heinlein would speculate in his stories and novels about the science of space travel, and that could get a bit wonky. Sometimes, when he was older and had had wide success, he would fill his fiction with bombast about how humans should live, and that could get tedious.

In The Green Hills of Earth, Heinlein does what he does best — writes about that endlessly mysterious and endlessly curious thing called human nature.

The Green Hills of Earth is a 1951 collection of nine short stories and a novella, originally published during the previous decade. Here, there’s not much discussion of space hardware or theoretical physics. People are people, albeit in alien settings or in exotic circumstances.


“Nothing new”

The novella “The Logic of Empire” is set mainly on the harsh landscape of Venus (which seems very much like equatorial Earth, except hotter and muggier), but the subject is one that has been an aspect of human society from the beginning — slavery.

Through a series of unexpected events, lawyer Humphrey Wingate finds himself as a labor client on the second planet from the sun, which is to say that, since there is no way to buy his way out of his contract and obtain a flight back to Earth, he is a slave. Continue reading

Book review: “American Queen: The Rise and Fall of Kate Chase Sprague, Civil War ‘Belle of the North’ and Gilded Age Woman of Scandal” by John Oller

oller --- american queenMary Todd Lincoln was in her glory.

It was March 28, 1861, and she had hosted her first state dinner at the White House as the nation’s First Lady. She was saying good-bye to her guests, including Kate Chase, the daughter of her husband’s Treasury Secretary, Salmon P. Chase. “I shall be glad to see you any time, Miss Chase,” she said to the tall, elegant 20-year-old woman.

“Mrs. Lincoln,” said Chase, “I shall be glad to have you call on me at any time.”

What effrontery! Yet, two weeks before the start of the Civil War, the battle for dominance of Washington, D.C., society was already well underway between the diminutive, Kentucky-born Mary Lincoln and the queenly Kate Chase. And Chase was winning. Continue reading

Five mythic poems

Rodin photo for 5 mythic poems





Up Lake Shore Drive, I ride on my charger, black as a deep cave.
You don’t see me, commuter, too dull with science.

Onto Hollywood Avenue, then Ridge Avenue, then onto Clark Street.

Children see me. Ignore me. They know.

If you are a dancer, a painter, a singer,
don’t look my way. You have eyes,
but I will lash them with my whip of human spine.

Onto Granville, then to Paulina.
Up the street.

I arrive. You die.

Note: The Dullahan is a sort of Irish version of the Headless Horseman. I wondered how he’d do in present-day Chicago. Quite well, I discovered.

Continue reading

Thanks for things that go wrong — then right

During a softball game in the summer of 1981, a lively and otherwise intelligent redhead slid into first base and broke her leg. (Don’t ask.)

Meanwhile, a tall and slightly older newspaper editor, after years of ignoring his health, began to have problems that led him to quit cigarettes, stop drinking coffee and lose 40 pounds.

It was not a very delightful time for either of them. Yet, their temporary infirmities led them to the same religious retreat where they met.

And Cathy and I have been together ever since.

When it comes to Thanksgiving, the focus is usually on the blessings of life, the good things that we have and that we have experienced.

Think of the table set for the holiday meal, with its savory turkey and all the luscious side dishes and diet-be-damned desserts. It’s a reminder that Thanksgiving is about a bountiful harvest.

Think of the grace that’s said at the table. It’s about how good it is for family and friends to gather together in this way. It’s about the goodness of having a decent home, rewarding jobs and strong schools.


Things that go wrong

But I’m here today to tell you that, when I think of Thanksgiving, I also think of the things that go wrong — and then right.

The health problems that my future wife and I suffered more than three decades ago were no fun to endure. But they slowed us both down enough so that, when we met, we actually saw each other. We didn’t whiz past in a hurry to get something done or get somewhere else. Instead, we were moving at a more deliberate pace, and were able to take each other in.

And fall in love.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that I go looking for pain and suffering. Life brings enough of that for me without my going out in search of it.

Continue reading

Pickwick Lane and my mistakes

Ten years ago, I wrote a story in the Chicago Tribune about one of the oddest wrinkles in the Chicago cityscape — Pickwick Lane.

It is a short, nine-foot-wide private alley, hidden in the heart of the Loop, and it dead-ends in a three-story building at 22 E. Jackson Blvd. With its cobblestone paving — at least, that’s the paving it had a decade ago — the byway looked more like Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley than anything one would expect to find in present-day Chicago.

Pickwick Lane (Dennis McClendon)

Pickwick Lane (Dennis McClendon)

In recent months, that three-story building, often vacant over the past half century, has been in the news, opening as an Asado Coffee Co. location.

And, now, well, it’s time for me to set the record straight. In the years since I wrote my tiny 325-word story, I have come to realize that I made several errors. The main one is that the present building is NOT the original stable, and it is NOT a survivor of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.


The right story, as far as I can tell

Here’s what’s I’ve come to find out through further research, and, as far as I know at the moment, this is accurate: Continue reading

Book review: “Lust” by Simon Blackburn

blackburn.lustMost of us find it uncomfortable to speak about lust. Philosopher Simon Blackburn is no exception, even though he lectured on the subject at the New York Public Library and expanded his remarks into a short, spritely book Lust, published in 2004 by Oxford University Press.

In fact, Blackburn spends five of his book’s 133 pages, explaining why he shouldn’t have to take up the task, including his age (about 60 at the time), his being a male (in an era when women dominate gender discussions) and his British nationality.

We English are renowned for our cold blood and temperate natures, and our stiff upper lips….Other nationalities are amazed that we English reproduce at all. One cannot imagine an Englishman lecturing on lust in France.

Those sentences capture Blackburn’s witty, playful tone in Lust, and so does his discussion of the Cynics of ancient Greece who “thought too much song and dance was made about the whole thing.” Diogenes, one of the leading Cynics, argued that there was no good reason why shame should be attached to sex.

Rising to the challenge, Diogenes’ pupil Crates and his wife Hipparchia are credibly reported to have copulated first on the steps of the temple as they got married, and thereafter repeatedly and happily in public.

Yes, well. One wonders if such copulations should be classified as lust. My guess is that, philosophers being philosophers, any making-whoopee between Mr. and Mrs. Crates on the temple steps had more to do with the Mr.’s reason and desire to make an intellectual point than with desire plain and simple. Continue reading

Book review: “The Night in Question” by Tobias Wolff

A friend of mine is very big on stories having a beginning, a middle and an end.

The 15 stories in The Night in Question by Tobias Wolff don’t fit that at all.

Some have stutter-step endings that seem to go one way and then another and maybe a third, such as in “Casualty.” An American soldier in Vietnam is fatally wounded. A comrade grieves, or thinks he does. A nurse on a C141 med evac has trouble coping when she realizes the soldier she has been caring for is dead.

During a lull later on she stopped and leaned her forehead against a porthole [in the airplane]. The sun was just above the horizon. The sky was clear, no clouds between her and the sea below, whole name she loved to hear the pilots say — the East China Sea. Through the crazed Plexiglas she could make out some small islands and the white glint of a ship in the apex of its wake. Someday she was going to take passage on one of those ships, by herself or maybe with some friends…When she closed her eyes she could see the whole thing, perfectly

Many have endings that don’t really end, but open a new door through which the reader can get a glimpse of what is coming next. Continue reading

Book review: “Women of the Way: Discovering 2500 Years of Buddhist Wisdom” by Sallie Tisdale

A confession: I read Women of the Way: Discovering 2500 Years of Buddhist Wisdom because it was written by Sallie Tisdale. I know very little about Buddhism.

I have been an admirer of Tisdale’s writing for more than a quarter of a century, ever since I wrote a review of her book Lot’s Wife: Salt and the Human Condition for the Chicago Tribune.

That book, like most of her work, was, in essence, a book-long essay — in that case, about a common, everyday object that we don’t usually give much thought to. Others include The Best Thing I Ever Tasted: The Secret of Food (2000) and Talk Dirty to Me: An Intimate Philosophy of Sex (1994).

This book isn’t like those.

tisdale --- women of the way

This book is a sort of Buddhist version of the Lives of the Saints books that, as a Catholic, I’m very familiar with. It contains the thumbnail biographies of 60 or so important women in the history of Buddhism.

Tisdale, who was training for the Buddhist priesthood when her book was published in 2006, writes that she has studied as much of the historical record as she could in order to write these profiles, but, often, much was missing. Women teachers and nuns have been given short shrift by the Buddhist establishment — which is to say, men — for much of the history of the religion. So Tisdale filled in the gaps as best she could.

This is not a work of scholarship itself, but a narrative history, using known facts in historical context to tell the story of a life — of many lives. I have used what facts I can find to place the life of each woman in a proper context of time and culture, using her words and her teachers’ words, the events of their time, wherever it is known. But I have had to use my imagination to find the lives of these women. For the imagining, I don’t apologize.

sallie tisdaleIn her introduction, Tisdale focuses on the many ways that male Buddhists have treated and continue to treat female believers as second-class citizens of the faith. That’s all very familiar to someone like me whose Catholic religion, as defined by its male leaders, does the same thing.

One Buddhist tale, for instance, asserts that women prevent others from achieving rebirth and, thus, are “the source of hell…The dead snake and dog are detestable, but women are even more detestable than they are.”

And there’s the Buddhist saying: “The best thing about Buddhist heaven is that it has no women.”

So, there really hasn’t been a book like Women of the Way before. It’s an attempt to recover lives and stories that have been ignored, forgotten, lost.

As I said above, I don’t understand Buddhism. I have only vague impressions of the faith’s core beliefs. So, to adherents of the religion, I offer my apologies for any erroneous statements I make in this review.

To give a sense of Women of the Way, I have focused on Tisdale’s tales of six of the 60-plus women. Each section involves a longish quote from the book. I don’t know how representative these quotes are of Buddhism, but they resonate with me.

In part, that’s because they portray women who are, at times, fierce and tranquil and searching and finding. And also because their sense of the transcendent echoes, in some way, mine. And also because Tisdale’s writing is so luminous.

Here they are: Continue reading

Book review: “Building Lives: Constructing Rites and Passages” by Neil Harris

Humans name their babies and their pets and their battleships. And their buildings.

I’ve lived in Chicago buildings by the names of 135 N. Leamington Ave. and 7943 S. California Ave. and 1129 W. Wellington Ave. Addresses, after all, are simply another kind of name. We need to be able to tell one from another.

Large buildings, though, are often given fancier names in addition to their street addresses, notes cultural historian Neil Harris in his delightfully eye-opening 1999 book Building Lives: Constructing Rites and Passages.

In the case of office buildings, the name can testify to the size, wealth, and prestige of a major corporation. Speculative structures frequently entice major tenants by the promise of naming the new building after them. As a major space-user, the renting corporation reaps the additional publicity.

The same principle is at work when the naming rights for a publicly financed sports stadium are sold. U.S. Cellular Field where the Chicago White Sox play baseball is an advertisement for a wireless telecommunications network — a corporation that was willing to pay $68 million to turn the baseball park into a kind of billboard for 20 years.

The name given to a baby usually doesn’t have this monetary aspect to it although parents do consider how the name will influence the way wider world views the child.. (“Nathaniel Hawthorne” has a nice ring to it, but Marion Morrison — later changed to John Wayne — isn’t quite as euphonious.)

More commonly, the name given to a baby is a way to remember and honor a relative (e.g., I’m named for one of my grandfathers, and my son is named for one of his) or a public figure (e.g., former football player Roosevelt Grier). And the same, Harris writes, holds true for a goodly number of buildings.

In many cities office buildings bear the titles that previous structures on the same site once bore, or memorialize the owners of houses and homesteads that once stood there. New York’s Everett Building, or 200 Park South, memorializes the Everett House, one of the city’s major hotels, erected fifty years earlier. In Cleveland, a series of Williamson Buildings were opened on the Public Square, on the site of the Williamson family homestead.

In Chicago, the first McCormick Place was named for Robert R. McCormick, the Chicago Tribune publisher who spearheaded efforts for its erection. When it burned down, the structure that replaced it was given the same name.

The original McCormick Place (left) and its replacement

The original McCormick Place (left) and its replacement

And, as with humans, there are names, and there are nicknames. “In Chicago,” Harris writes, “what is now the Amoco Building, once the Standard Oil Building [and now the Aon Building], is familiarly called Big Stan, in distinction from Big John, the John Hancock, a few blocks to its north.”


Perhaps the best example of this is the iconic Flatiron Building in New York. Its builders wanted to call it the Fuller Building but were overruled by the public. Indeed — Harris doesn’t mention this — the “Fuller” name never had a chance. People began calling it the Flatiron Building while it was under construction because of its similarity to that household appliance.

The flatiron Building in New York was christened by the public while it was being built even though its owners wanted it to be called the Fuller Building.

The flatiron Building in New York was christened by the public while it was being built even though its owners wanted it to be called the Fuller Building.


“Sets of events”

Names are only one way that buildings are like people. Like me or you, a building is created, exists and then disappears. That’s the metaphor at the heart of Building Lives.

This isn’t the usual way we look at buildings, “the largest, most expensive, and most permanent products of human labor.” The tendency has been to view them through an architectural lens, as works of craft or art, or a commercial lens, as profit-making or –losing machines.

Yet, Harris argues that there is great benefit in studying them as “entities with life stories that can be as revealing as individual biographies.”

Further, he writes that “examining buildings through their life stages and modes of representation encourages us to conceive of them not simply as places but as sets of events, affixing a temporal dimension to their existence that is not simply an add-on but fundamental to their nature.”

That idea — that a building is a set of events — is attractive. Continue reading

Book review: “Harold Washington and the Civil Rights Legacy” by Christopher Chandler

chandler.washingtonChristopher Chandler, a former journalist at the Chicago Sun-Times and WBBM-TV (Channel 2), was an important press aide for Harold Washington.

He organized news conferences, planned media strategy and dealt directly with reporters and editors during Washington’s 1983 campaign to become Chicago’s first black mayor and then during the initial two years of his tenure on the fifth floor of City Hall.

Yet, in his memoir Harold Washington and the Civil Rights Legacy, Chandler writes, “I only had one serious conversation about politics with Harold Washington.

Following a news conference on the Southeast Side, as the two men waited for their ride back downtown, Washington asked Chandler who his favorite politician was.

“Bobby Kennedy.”

Washington was surprised. “I never understood the Kennedys,” he said.

As for his own favorite politician, Washington named Paul Robeson, the athlete, singer, actor and political activist who, as it happened, was one of the heroes of Chandler’s mother.



Christopher Cahndler in 2011

Christopher Cahndler in 2011

Chandler, a white man, came from the sort of mid-20th century American family that described itself as progressive. His father, a clergyman, and the rest of his relatives were committed to the cause of civil rights.

So committed, in fact, that, in April, 1968, his parents and other family members were living on Fifth Avenue in the middle of the West Side ghetto. “They were part of a project by the nearby Ecumenical Institute to plant ‘stakes’ in the neighborhood to help bring about revitalization,” writes Chandler.

When riots broke out following the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., his family had some scary moments, including threats by six black men, one of whom carried a gun. Terrorized, the family members eventually found a way out to safety.

Later, his father was among a group of clergy who asked Mayor Richard J. Daley to rescind his infamous order to “shoot to kill” arsonists. “Daley never forgave dad for preaching to him,” Chandler writes. “He referred to my father afterward as ‘that rioter’ and succeeded in forcing him out of town within a few months.”

It’s a bit frustrating that Chandler doesn’t explain how that happened. It’s one of many such incidents in his book that Chandler mentions but fails to elaborate on. As a self-published book, available at, Harold Washington and the Civil Rights Legacy is somewhat rough around the edges at times.



Yet, the book is valuable in providing insight into the experiences of the members of Washington’s coalition whom Chandler describes as progressive whites, black nationalists and political radicals. True-believers, in other words. Continue reading

Book review: “Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief” by James McPherson

In July, 1864, Gen. Jubal Early and his 15,000 Confederate troops were again raiding the North and threatening the federal capital of Washington, D.C.

It was a maneuver aimed at forcing Gen. U.S. Grant to weaken his siege of the Southern capital of Richmond by rushing soldiers north. Grant sent some surplus troops, enough to block Early but only that.

Abraham Lincoln asked him for more — not just to better protect Washington but even more to attempt to trap and “destroy the enemy’s force.” Grant complied.

As the new units arrived, they immediately began skirmishing with Early’s men near Fort Stevens, north of the city, and Lincoln went to watch.

The six-foot-four-inch president wearing his top hat made a large target as he peered over the parapet at enemy sharpshooters. As John Hay recorded the incident, “A soldier roughly ordered him to get down or he would have his head knocked off.”

Tradition has it that the soldier was Capt. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., a future U.S. Supreme Court Justice. And what he said was: “Get down, you fool!”

The cover of "Tried by War" includes a photograph of McClellan (far left) and Lincoln at the Antietam battlefiel.d

The cover of “Tried by War” includes a photograph of McClellan (far left) and Lincoln at the Antietam battlefiel.d

In Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief, James McPherson, one of the premier Civil War historians of this age, notes that there’s no proof one way or the other that Holmes said what he’s supposed to have said. But there’s no question that someone yelled at Lincoln, and no question that he was in danger.

The next day, as the Sixth Corps was preparing to drive Early away, Lincoln returned to Fort Stevens. A Union officer was shot while standing close to the president. This time General Wright himself ordered Lincoln to take cover (more politely than Holmes).


“The slows”

The story says a lot. Continue reading

Voting for wonder

I vote for wonder.

Amid the mudslinging of political campaigns, despite the reports of all that is going wrong across the world, I vote for joy and amazement at the richness of life.

Photo by Remi  Lanvin

Photo by Remi Lanvin

Many days, I see the sunshine strike the red bricks of the apartment building across the street, and it fills my day with beauty.  I am astonished at how green the grass is in my back yard after a rain.

And I am touched by people.  Like the woman who, today, reached out to help an elderly man with a walker get off a bus.  Or the cop — I saw the TV report, and you probably did, too — who gave brand new boots to a homeless man.

Yes, I know there is much hardship in the world.  I know there are people whose lives are disrupted by wars and epidemics and terror.  I know there are people who live with very little to eat.  I know there are fears of drought and violence, dread of oppression and plague.

I don’t ignore these realities.  I recognize the need to face them and solve them to whatever extent is possible.

But I will not let the evils of life frame my experience.  I shun cynicism.


Kept keeping on

I vote for wonder and joy and amazement and compassion.  And here’s why: Continue reading

Book review: “Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife” by Francine Prose

In Amsterdam, on the sunny and otherwise quiet morning of Friday, August 4, 1944, a car pulled up in front of the Opekta warehouse at 263 Prinsengracht.

That is all one needs to write, and already the reader knows who was hiding in the attic and the fate about to befall them.

These might easily have been the opening lines of American novelist Francine Prose’s complex, ferociously affectionate and tough-minded 2009 book Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife.

prose - anne frank

This non-fiction book is a work of reportage, literary analysis, cultural criticism and biography. It is a work in which Prose details her profound respect for Anne Frank’s brilliance as a writer and delves deeply into the troubled and often troubling history of her diary.

But these lines don’t come until page 63, and, by this point, Prose has already written about Anne Frank’s birth in Frankfort and her Jewish family’s flight to the Netherlands to escape the rise of the Nazis in Germany.

She has written about the decision of Anne’s family and four other Jews to go into hiding in the attic of the warehouse on Prinsengracht. And about how Anne’s diary recorded their daily life in the attic over a period of two years and a month, described their personalities and quirks and pondered her growing sexuality and her attempts to make sense of a world of violence, faith, love, hate, humor and ideals.

And she has written about the fate of the family after being betrayed. And about Anne’s death at the age of 15 from typhus at the concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen in early March, 1945, a few weeks before the camp was liberated by British soldiers.


The story of the book

Now, on page 63, Prose is going back to tell the story of the book that Anne Frank wrote, the book that became known to the world as The Diary of a Young Girl.

As Prose explains, there are actually three books. Continue reading

Book review: “Rocka Million: A Manifesto for the Gutsy Micropreneur” by Sue Reardon

When I was laid off by the Chicago Tribune five and a half years ago, I lost my desk and my byline, but also the community of smart, curious and generally wacky people who had surrounded me in one way or another for more than three decades.

Not just surrounded me. But supported me, encouraged me. Gave me answers to knotty questions that came up. Opened doors for me to new avenues of thought, new perspectives on the world. Told me stories, listened to my stories.

And gave me the feeling that, no matter what I was doing for Mother Tribune, I wasn’t alone.

That’s the message at the core of Sue Reardon’s Rocka Million: A Manifesto for the Gutsy Micropreneur.

Reardon --- rocka...smallerAs you might guess from Sue’s last name, she’s a relative, my sister-in-law. But, regardless of family ties, hers is a book with great advice for anyone who is freelancing, consulting and/or attempting to get a one-person business off the ground.

I wish it had been written five and a half years ago. I certainly would have  looked into finding the sort of coworking space — and coworking community — that Sue writes about. Continue reading

Book review: “Neverhome” by Laird Hunt

It was maybe an hour after I finished reading Laird Hunt’s new novel Neverhome that the gears of my mind suddenly shifted and fell into place..

Up until that point, I had been alternately impressed by the novel’s quietly dazzling language and irritated by much else, with irritation predominating. There was so much about the book that didn’t seem to fit together.

hunt - neverhomeNeverhome is the story of a young woman who calls herself Ash Thompson and goes off masquerading as a man to fight for the Union Army in the Civil War. But it’s not a historical novel — too much happens to Ash, she meets too many outlandish characters (even a trio of one-armed jugglers), her story takes too many sharp turns (as if it were a retelling of “The Perils of Pauline”). It’s clear that Hunt isn’t striving for realism.

And it isn’t chick lit, even though Ash and her husband Bartholomew can seem to be 21st century people stuck back in the Victorian era. After all, Ash is making her way with success in a man’s world while her stay-at-home husband, described by one character as a “little fellow,” keeps the home fires burning. Ash is stronger and a better shot than Bartholomew, but he is a better cook and a better dancer. He sews, writes like a poet, and sprinkles some French cologne on each morning before going out to work in the fields.

Despite that, Neverhome isn’t about the trials and tribulations of being a woman (or of being a modern-ish man). It turns out it’s about being a human being — although I didn’t understand that until later. Continue reading

Book review: “Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy” by Viktor E. Frankl

Sigmund Freud once said that, if you take a widely diverse set of people and starve them, soon all their differences will fall away to be replaced by “the uniform expression of the one unstilled urge” for food.

That didn’t happen “in the filth of Auschwitz,” writes psychiatrist Viktor E. Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy.

There, the “individual differences” did not “blur” but, on the contrary, people became more different: people unmasked themselves, both the swine and the saints.”

Frankl’s short, powerful book, rooted in his three years in Auschwitz and other German concentration camps, is an argument against the view that human life is simply biological responses to stimuli.

In some ways, the Holocaust can be seen as the epitome of this mechanistic view. Prisoners were stripped of identity and became, as Frankl notes, simply numbers in a system of slave labor and mass murder.

This genocide was carried out by the nation of Beethoven and Goethe, of Freud and Einstein. And it has been seen as proof that great science, great art and great thinking are insubstantial and unimportant in the face of power.

Could life have any meaning for any person living in a world that produced the Holocaust?

Even more, could life have any meaning for someone, like Frankl, who found himself in a concentration camp?

The answer, Frankl asserts, is “yes.”

frankl --- man's search for meaning

The meaning of life, he writes, isn’t as an object or a thing or an idea out in the world, a system or pattern that a person fits into. Rather, it is something that each person chooses. Far from being determined by outside forces, each person has the freedom — and the responsibility — to determine the meaning of his or her life.

A human being is not one thing among others; things determine each other, but man is ultimately self-determining. What he becomes — within the limits of endowment and environment — he has made out of himself. In the concentration camps, for example, in this living laboratory and on this testing ground, we watched and witnessed some of our comrades behave like swine while others behaved like saints. Man has both potentialities within himself; which one is actualized depends on decisions but not on conditions.

Continue reading

Poem: “Rose Red”


I answer the door. The bear is there. He says, “Fear not.”
He is cold and wants a fire to sit by.
In he comes.

Snow White raises her eyebrow as we brush the snow off his fur.
We play with him. We tickle him. We cover his eyes with our small hands.

He leaves in the morning.

And comes back each night during that long winter.
Mother likes him.

“I must go away,” he says in summer. “A wicked dwarf is trying to steal my treasure.”

Some days later, my sister and I find the dwarf caught in a tree by his beard.
We cut the beard and free him. “My beautiful beard!” he yells.

All summer, we find the dwarf in one danger or another in the forest and save him.
He is always angry with us.

Now, he tells us the bear is going to kill him.

The bear appears.
The dwarf says,
“Eat the girls!”

The bear kills the dwarf with a single swipe of his claw.

Snow White raises her eyebrow as the bear turns

Patrick T. Reardon

Poem: “The Birth of the Buddha — 11.22.1949″


New born,
I shine as gold.
My blue eyes glow.

Seven steps I take,
a lotus in each footprint.

Pointing to the sky, I say:
“I am born for the welfare of the entire world.”



The shock again.
The pain, weight, edge of body.

Trek again.
Find again the balance.
Find again the rhythm.
Find again.

Chuckle at the impossibility.
Chuckle at the simplicity.



Let go.

Patrick T. Reardon

NOTE: I’m Catholic, not Buddhist. Nonetheless, I found Little Buddha to be one of the most spiritual movies I’ve ever seen. It contains a charming and transcendent scene of the birth of Siddhartha, who became the Buddha. That story is repeated in a book I happen to be reading right now, Women of the Way: Discovering 2500 Years of Buddhist Wisdom by the wonderful writer Sallie Tisdale. These are descriptions of what those present saw. But what was it like for the baby himself? And how was his experience like mine, like everyone’s? (I was born on 11.22.1949.) I also find endearing the many descriptions of Buddha laughing and smiling.

The birth scene from "Little Buddha" and the cover of "Women of the Way"

The birth scene from “Little Buddha” and the cover of “Women of the Way”

Book review: “1776” by David McCullough

Give David McCullough credit.

After a hugely successful career as a historian, he set out, in his late 60s, to write a book that was a far cry from his earlier bestsellers.

McCullough had made a name for himself by writing big books that told big stories —- stories about monumental projects, such as the Panama Canal and the Brooklyn Bridge, and about major historical figures, such as John Adams, Theodore Roosevelt and Harry Truman. These averaged about 700 pages each although his book on Truman was more than 1,100 pages long.

With 1776, though, he was attempting something that, for him, was new. First of all, he didn’t try to tell the story of the entire Revolutionary War, just a single year, the first full year of the eight-year conflict. Then, he narrowed his focus even more to look only at the ragtag army under George Washington.

Finally — and this is the greatest difference — he rooted his book in the words of a multitude of eyewitnesses on both sides of the battles. Rather than provide a sweeping saga, McCullough produced an intimate look at the experiences of the soldiers and others who lived through that year.

mccullough --- 1776

The resulting book, published in 2005, has just under 300 pages of text, or about half as many as most of his earlier works.

With so many voices, 1776 doesn’t have the breadth and momentum of McCullough’s larger works. Yet, through those voices, the reader gains a penetrating and often visceral understanding of life in the midst of a rebellion that was far from assured of success.



Here is a quick look at the war through some of those voices: Continue reading

An open letter to Chicago’s archbishop-elect Blase Cupich

Cupich_2Dear Archbishop-elect Cupich:

Eat at Burger King. By yourself. In street clothes.

If you want to get to know Chicago and those of us who live here, go to the Burger King on Lawrence Avenue, just west of Western Avenue. And, as you’re eating your Whopper, watch the Mexican-American family that is likely to be eating there.

The father is just off work, and you can see the weariness drip off of him. He’s got some menial job — in a factory, or as a bus boy, or perhaps in the kitchen at another Burger King. Those are jobs without much dignity in our American culture, but, with his family, he holds his head high, and his kids chatter with him with great love and respect.

Listen to the two gray-haired, gray-bearded Serbian guys. Unless you’re a polyglot, you’re not going to be able to guess what they’re saying, but you can tell they’ve got strong opinions.

Look at the elderly man in a tie, white shirt and dark suit. He always sits alone at one of those small tables along a wall and does a crossword puzzle.

If you glance around, you’re likely to see some Asian-Americans, a homeless guy snoozing in front of a cold half-empty cup of coffee, African-Americans, at least one well-dressed person with a laptop and a cellphone using a booth as an office, young dudes with a lot of tattoos, women with unusual hair styles, and maybe some yuppies.

The voice of all believers

Archbishop-elect, 32 years ago, my friend Tim Unsworth wrote an open letter of advice to one of your predecessors, Joseph Bernardin, which was published in National Catholic Reporter. In writing to you, I’m following in his footsteps.

Tim, who died in 2008, started off his letter to Bernardin by urging him to eat at a local deli as the Episcopal bishop of Chicago was wont to do.

In my experience, though, Chicago is much more of a Burger King town than a deli town. For one thing, you’ll see a wide range of economic classes and a kaleidoscope of ethnicities and nationalities at Burger King. For another, there are just a lot more fast food places in Chicago and the suburbs than delis.

Some of the people you see at Burger King may be Catholic. Others, not. But that shouldn’t matter.

Coming to Chicago, you need to understand that, as the Catholic archbishop (and later as cardinal), you will be the single most visible religious leader in one of the great metropolitan regions of the world.

To be sure, when you speak, you will be speaking as a Catholic. Your words and ideas will come out of the Catholic tradition and the Catholic set of beliefs.

Still, in a real way, you will be the voice of all believers in the Chicago region. Continue reading

Book review: “Treasures of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library,” edited by Glenna R. Schroeder-Lein

The bust of Abraham Lincoln II

The bust of Abraham Lincoln II

My suspicion is that you don’t know that there was an Abraham Lincoln II.

I hadn’t until I read Treasures of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, edited by Glenna R. Schroeder-Lein, a spirited and beautifully illustrated book about some of the cool stuff in the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield.

Turns out that Abraham Lincoln II, called “Jack” by family and friends, was the only son of Robert Todd Lincoln, the only one of the 16th President’s four sons to reach adulthood. An important figure in Chicago and in national government during the late 19th century, Robert was the American ambassador to Great Britain in 1889. Jack was in boarding school there when a cut on his arm grew infected, and, within a few months, he was dead at the age of 16.

His grieving parents had a death mask made (just as a death mask had been made of his assassinated grandfather), and, from that, Theophilius Fisk Mills created a mournful 25-inch-tall porcelain bust of the boy that is now one of the Library’s treasures.

Another teeenager

Photograph of Abraham Lincoln in his coffin in the White House.

Photograph of Abraham Lincoln in his coffin in the White House.

Another treasure has to do with another teenager, an alert 14-year-old named Ronald D. Rietveld who, in 1952, was at the beginning of a lifelong fascination with Lincoln.

Rietveld was the sort of go-getter teen who would write letters to Carl Sandburg, and he had made friends with Dr. Harry E. Pratt, the Illinois state historian. One day, Pratt took the boy to the Illinois State Historical Library, then located in the Centennial Building in Springfield. (The institution was renamed the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum when the present two buildings were opened in 2004.)

Given a random manila file at from the archives of Lincoln’s two secretaries to look at, Rietveld paged through the materials and opened a letter from 1887 and, inside, found a photograph of Lincoln’s body in his coffin in the White House flanked by an Army general and a Navy admiral. The discovery of this previously unknown last photograph of the President quickly became front page news across the nation. Continue reading

Book review: “The Book of Bebb” by Frederick Buechner

Buechner --- bebb.....Miriam is dying.

Her twin brother Antonio has brought to her hospital room her two young sons 12-year-old Chris and 10-year-old Tony.

Her ex-husband Charlie, whose idea of a good time is getting a lot of sleep, opts out of the visit, just as later he will opt out of having much of a funeral for Miriam.

Charlie Blaine didn’t want to make any fuss about death any more than he wanted to make any fuss about life. His idea was to get through with both as quietly and painlessly as possible, with plenty of long naps along the way.

The two boys, awkward and clueless, don’t know what to say, and neither do Miriam and her brother. The visit fritters along with its only bright point a sudden and excited recapitulation by Tony of the Abbott and Costello movie he’d seen on TV the night before.

Later, though, when it is time to go, Tony seems wilted, giving an enormous yawn and knuckling his eyes. Perhaps it is because this action reminds Miriam of her ex-husband or of her own approaching death, but she reacts sharply, directly.

“Now you stay awake, Tony,” she says. “You just keep your eyes open and stay awake.”

Wrestling with God

Frederick Buechner’s The Book of Bebb is about staying awake.

Which is another way of saying that it’s about being alive. About living life with a fullness that accepts everything about human existence — its joy and its strife, its confusion and its insights, its loneliness and its community and its messiness and its deep, essential mystery.

The Book of Bebb, published in 1979, is composed of four short novels: Lion Country (1971), Open Heart (1972), Love Feast (1974) and Treasure Hunt (1977).

Buechner --- bebb......combo

It’s a comic tale that grapples with the issues of life, death, pain and belief. Picture wisecracking Robin Williams as Jacob in the Genesis story, wrestling all night with God. Continue reading