When the world starts afresh

This essay originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune on December 30, 2013.

http://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-image-2014-calendar-vector-illustrator-image22985996The coming of the new year brings lots of parties. And it’s a time when many people sit down and resolve to turn over a new leaf — be kinder, drink less, stop smoking, find a new job, lose weight, volunteer more.

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

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

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Poem: “….ad altare Dei”

I offer the purple sash
and the white surplice.

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

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

Introibo ad altare Dei.

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

I offer
the long white tapers
and the flames.

Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam.

Patrick T. Reardon
2.6.14

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

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

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

penck- michelangelo

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

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

m --- pieta

This can’t be marble. Continue reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Della Robbia---combo

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

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

“Embodied dreams”

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

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

Was Jesus breast-fed?

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

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

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

And also whether Jesus had a wife.

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

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

La Donne and Aslan

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

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Saint Lincoln

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

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

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

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

Saint Lincoln?

Saint Lincoln?

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

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

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

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

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

norton--- moon of three rings

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

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

Face-to-face with the Other

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scientific searchings

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

mukherjee --- emperor

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

Such as: Continue reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

Liebling’s literary gifts

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

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

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

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

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

Bernadette and her family

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

The central character is Bernadette Fox. Continue reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“More to life”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Presented in full”

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

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

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

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

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

Complicating “the exposition”

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

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

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Book review: “The Man Who Sold the Moon” by Robert Heinlein

I am pretty much an illiterate about the science of space travel. When talk turns to apogees and pounds-per-second and all that stuff, a fog descends on my brain.

Still, from my low (and foggy) rung on the ladder of understanding, I am able to recommend Robert Heinlein’s 1950 short story collection The Man Who Sold the Moon to anyone who does have a glimmer of how the human race has been able to send people into space and land men on the moon.

The interest, for such readers, will be in how well Heinlein was able to imagine space travel decades before it became a reality.

And not just space travel, but other technological breakthroughs as well.

heinlein --- man who sold moon

Five of the book’s six stories were originally published in 1939 and 1940, and revised a bit for this collection to account for new scientific insights as of the mid-century mark. The title story, an 89-page novella, first saw the light of day in this book.

As little as I know, I’m able to recognize that Heinlein got a lot wrong. We don’t, for instance, wear finger watches as he envisioned, and there are no huge regional networks of moving conveyor-belt-like roads for getting from one city to another as a daily commute.

That’s beside the point, though. What’s interesting is how much he got right — or, maybe, how well he grappled with the scientific issues, using only public documents as his resource.

At least, I suspect that’s what a knowledgeable person would find interesting. Continue reading

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My ministry is…..basketball?

The other day, I got an email from my parish which began: “Dear Ministry Leaders…”

I laughed.

In the past, I’d chaired the adult education committee and the parish council. But, in recent years, the only thing I’ve been in charge of has been men’s basketball on Sunday afternoons and Monday nights.

Actually, there are two of us, Dave and I, both in our mid-60s, both slower than slow and not exactly in the fittest of shape. But we like basketball so, each week, we’re there to open the gym, sweep the floor, oversee the games and lock up.

That’s why I laughed when I got the email.

We have some really great ministries in our parish, St. Gertrude on Chicago’s Far North Side — a long-running, highly successful support program for the elderly of our neighborhood, a troupe of liturgical dancers, a teen faith-sharing group and a gay and lesbian outreach effort, to name a few.

But basketball?

The Pope discussing hoops?

It was funny to imagine some Congregation at the Vatican, or even the Pope, discussing hoops as a Catholic way of providing pastoral care, like running a hospital or teaching catechism.

aDSC06994

Still, Marge, the parish business manager, had included me and Dave in that email so I figured that, in some way, the parish thought that what we do each week has some — dare I say it? — spiritual benefit.

Certainly, the Sunday and Monday games provide a chance for a bunch of guys to get a bit of exercise in a competitive context. I’ve never been one for jogging. Too boring. But I’ll run up and down the court for two hours in the heat of the games, working up a sweat and enjoying myself. (Well, at least when my shot is falling.)

Monday Night Basketball has been going since 1995, and it was initially designed for middle-aged men. But members of the original group began to drop off because they’d gotten injured or were busy raising their families or didn’t want to take the aches and pains any more. Now, at 8 p.m. on Mondays, when we line up to shoot free throws for teams, most of the players are in their 20s. For them, Dave and I are just plain prehistoric.

You know, like geriatrics

The Sunday games, which begin around 4 p.m., were initiated in 2007 by Peter, the parish pastoral associate at the time, in another effort to provide court time for more mature players. It’s called Geri-Ball — you know, like geriatrics or Geritol.

Over the last five years, we’ve had drop outs from Geri-Ball, but not as bad as what happened with Monday Night Basketball.

That’s because, from the beginning, guys started bringing their sons and, on occasion, their daughters. The presence of these teenagers and young adults means that we almost always have enough players for two or three teams. That means the older guys are able to take a rest when they need one instead of dragging themselves up and down the court just to fill out a team.

Once a year, we encourage all the fathers to bring their children, even the younger ones, and we spend the Sunday with teams ranging in age from 7 to 72. Literally. (Neil, who is in his mid-70s, plays every week — he’s a hero to Dave and me —and there are a couple other 70-year-olds who join us every once in a while.)

Gawky to fleet

Over the years, we’ve seen kids who were gawky and unsure of themselves handling the ball blossom into fleet forwards and dead-eye guards, flying up the court and leaving their elders in the dust.

There’s nowhere else quite like a basketball court for a father and son, or father and daughter, to get a sense of each other. My daughter Sarah likes to guard me and gets particular enjoyment when she can box me out from a rebound.

Many of the Geri-ball players are from the parish. Others are from the neighborhood or are friends of players.

I can’t think of another setting in which a group of guys and their kids can come together, on such equal footing, and get to know each other in quite this way. Here, my son David can drive into the lane and launch an in-your-face jumper over me. Here, too, the other fathers become like uncles to him, interested in how work is going and the plans he and his fiancé are making for their wedding.

Geri-Ball essentially is a community. We show up and, on the court, express in some way who we are, pretty much without words. (We’re guys, after all.)

Our very-evident foibles

We accept each other with all our very-evident foibles — this guy’s tendency to hog the ball, that guy’s inability to play defense, a third guy’s lack of competitive fire. We get along. We like each other. No one’s there to trounce anyone.

DSC00132

So, when Dave and I open the gym and sweep the floor, it’s not just for a couple hours of exercise. Even more, it’s about a couple hours of community-building. Continue reading

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Book review: “Titian: Nymph and Shepherd” by John Berger and Katya Berger Andreadakis

In 1990, renowned English art critic and novelist John Berger began an exchange of letters and cards with his daughter Katya Berger Andreadakis, a film critic.

Details of Titian paintings "Penitent Magdalene," "Saint John the Almsgiver: and "Bacchus and Ariandne" from the opening pages of "Titian: Nymph and Shepherd"

Details of Titian paintings “Penitent Magdalene,” “Saint John the Almsgiver: and “Bacchus and Ariandne” from the opening pages of “Titian: Nymph and Shepherd”

At the time, the father was in his mid-60s and his daughter in her late 20s. Their subject was their common delight in and reverence for the paintings of the 16th century Italian master Titian. In their back and forth way, they were trying to tease out the essence of Titian’s art — and of art in general.

For instance, their ruminations lead Katya to focus on what makes art art, and she writes:

Pictures by Rothko and Titian, but also by Courbet, possess this quality. They are completely themselves that they contain all the vertical depth of their being. They exclude any reference to rule or obedience. Snapping their fingers at others, they simply exist with us or without us.

In another letter, she writes:

The truth is that Titian’s art is itself untouchable, inviolable. It calls out and then it forbids. We remain open-mouthed.

In 1996, their exchange was published in Titian: Nymph and Shepherd, one of nearly 50 titles in the Pegasus Series of sumptuously illustrated volumes issued between 1994 and 2007 by Prestel. (Alas, the series seems to have come to its end.)

Berger --- TitianThis volume lovingly lays out for the reader 66 paintings and, more often, details of paintings by Titian, the vast majority of them in color. Indeed, no text intrudes on the opening dozen pages of the book. Those are home to eight narrowly focused details from major works, opulent in their specificity. Continue reading

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Book review: “Happy Together: New York and the Other World” by Jan Christiaan Braun

braun---happyWe tend to think of burial art as something solid, heavy, sedate and — as a contrast to what it commemorates — long-lived. We think of the pyramids in Egypt. We think of mausoleums in our own cemeteries. We think of gravestones.

That’s not the funerary art that Jan Christiaan Braun has recorded in Happy Together: New York and the Other World, published in 2007 by Stichting Over Holland.

This is an ephemeral art of bright colors — balloons, stuffed animals, plastic windmills, American flags, inflatable cartoon characters, t-shirts, and other mass-produced items, most of which could just as well fit into a front lawn holiday display.

Except for the messages.

You wouldn’t have “MOM” in white plastic flowers in a frame of red plastic flowers to decorate the outside of your home. Yet, it fits in a cemetery. Although not created to withstand much weather, it is a version of the “MOM” on a traditional marble grave marker. Same with “WIFE” and “DAD” and so on.

Braun spend a year visiting cemeteries in the five boroughs of New York City, documenting “the passage of a calendar year in the more recent and so more ‘lively’ sections.” The result is 150 images. Like this one:

braun --- wife

This is fairly subdued. It appears to have been placed on a newly dug grave. Notice the red banner. It reads: “Christmas in Heaven.” Many of Braun’s photos have a similar message, reflecting a special day or the holiday of the season: “Birthday in Heaven” or “Happy Easter in Heaven.”

In this next shot, I don’t see a “Happy Independence Day in Heaven” sign, but it could easily be there somewhere in the vast array of flags and other patriotic exuberance. Continue reading

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Love and the giving of thanks

By Sarah Reardon, David Reardon, Cathy Shiel-Reardon and Patrick T. Reardon

Originally published in the St. Gertrude parish bulletin about 10-15 years ago

It all comes back to love.

Gratitude does, like everything else that is good in the world.

Thomas Merton writes that gratitude “takes nothing for granted, is never unresponsive, is constantly awakening to new wonder….” His subject is the relationship that human beings share with God, but he could just as well be talking about the relationship that two people share when they love each other.

Young lovers can’t get enough of each other. They want to be together all the time, share every experience, know everything there is to know about the beloved. They are intensely aware of the goodness and richness in the loved one — the humor, the compassion, the beauty, the intelligence, the sweetness.

They can’t help but feel wonder — and gratitude.

Imperfections

And the imperfections of the loved one? These are recognized, of course. He may be moody or lazy or, well, a little overweight. She may be a couch potato or high-strung or spend too much on clothes.

Knowing each other so well and learning more and more each day, the lovers can’t ignore these imperfections. They can’t pretend they don’t exist. Indeed, these flaws will lead to friction and to anger, fights and tears. But, as the song says, “It’s all in the game.” Continue reading

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Book review: “One Summer: America, 1927″ by Bill Bryson

This review originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune on October 13, 2013

You probably had no idea that Al Jolson, the star of the first talkie movie, “The Jazz Singer,” enjoyed urinating on people as a joke.

Or that, once, in the middle of a conversation in the White House, President Warren G. Harding got up from his chair for a moment to urinate into a fireplace.

bryson -- summerBoth stories are in Bill Bryson’s new rollicking, immensely readable popular history One Summer: America, 1927, and they’re indicative of his approach and tone.

As a historian, Bryson is the antithesis of stuffy. He’s a storyteller, pure and simple, and One Summer is a collection of a great many tales about people and events, centered on (but not limited to) a single season in a single year.

Many nonfiction books today are weighed down with an overblown subtitle (such as “The Secret History of…” or “The [Fill-in-the-blank] That Changed the World”), but Bryson avoids that pomposity. He isn’t arguing that 1927 was much more important than any other year, even though he does provide some insights into how life changed because of events then.

I’m sure Bryson could have written a book just as interesting about the summer of 1949 or 1913. That’s because his subject isn’t really a year. It’s human nature in all its odd and amazing array. Continue reading

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Small gestures

This essay originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune on October 25, 2013

A couple years ago, when my sister Mary Beth was working a part-time job at a local health club, she was asked to care for a three-month-old infant while the girl’s mother got some needed exercise.

She cradled the infant for a few minutes. Then, quietly, the child died.

Mary Beth was shocked, of course. But she is someone who is deeply grounded. She later learned that, from birth, the baby had suffered from a condition that made her susceptible to death at any moment. Her mother knew that. It was happenstance that the infant drew her last breath when my sister was holding her.

I was glad for the baby that my sister was there. We are from a large family. I am the oldest child. Mary Beth, two years younger, is the oldest girl. For more than a half century, she has held baby after baby in her arms — her brothers and sisters, her children, her grandchildren.

I think my sister is pretty special. But, really, she’s not.

rembrandt_harmensz_van_rijn_-_return_of_the_prodigal_son_-_google_art_project-x0-y1Each of us have moments like Mary Beth when we are able to touch someone’s life for the better. I don’t mean life-and-death moments. I mean, helping someone off a bus. Or offering a kind word to a friend in distress. Or listening to a co-worker go on and on about some happy event in his life.

No question, we’re all grouchy at times. But I like to recognize that we’re also sunny at times, compassionate at times. It’s a choice we have, and it’s a fact that we often make good choices. Continue reading

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Creaking up and down the court

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

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

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

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

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

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No expert, just a do-gooder

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

Edward Paul Brennan was one of us. A nobody.

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

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

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

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

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

How chaotic? Continue reading

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Hope, baseball and A-Rod

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

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

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

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

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

It’s about hope.

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

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

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

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

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Book review: “Memento Mori” by Muriel Spark

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

Remember, you must die.

He tells the boy to go to hell.

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

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

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

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

spark - memento mori

Muriel Spark’s masterpiece

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

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

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

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Book review: “Bitter River” by Julia Keller

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bitter River is better. Continue reading

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

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

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

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

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

Literary conjoined twins

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Those three”

And then there are those three characters. Continue reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grumpy Pat and Amiable Pat

Grumpy Pat and Amiable Pat

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

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

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A meditation on sainthood and Sammy Esposito

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

Yes, even if Sammy was only batting .167.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One year, he hit .235.

Patrick T. Reardon
10.27.13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The two bullets

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

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Book review: “Everest 1953” by Nick Conefrey

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

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

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

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

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

And lost the biggest scoop of their lives.

ALL THIS — AND EVEREST TOO

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

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