July 13, 2015

The Burnham Plan as literature

The 1909 Plan of Chicago, written by Daniel Burnham and his co-author Edward Bennett, is a great work of American literature. There, I’ve said it. Now, let’s see if I can make my case. Literature is a pretty spongy term. For some people, it means fiction. So The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain is literature. But Black Boy by Richard Wright isn’t. Well, that’s certainly seems too narrow a definition. The Wright book, of course, is a great work about growing up as an African-American in the early 20th century. Other important non-fiction books include Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography which provides an insight into a key leader of the American Revolution and U.S. Grant’s Memoirs, one of the clearest accounts of the Civil War by any writer. It would be difficult to imagine a library of great American books that wouldn’t include all three.   Is that literature? Is that what literature is, a great book? Well, what about Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address?
July 10, 2015

Book review: “Searching for Robert Johnson” by Peter Guralnick

There is much that is mysterious and evocative and just plain odd about the life of blues legend Robert Johnson who died in 1938 at the age of 27, probably murdered with poison. One of the oddest is the idea of him playing “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” the 1930s country-western song recorded by Gene Autry and later by Bing Crosby and, most memorably, by The Sons of the Pioneers. In Searching for Robert Johnson, published in 1989, music historian Peter Guralnick writes of Johnson’s life as a musician: You had to be prepared to play what your audience wanted you to play, since you were being paid not by salary but by tips. You might be engaged to play all night at a juke joint for a dollar and a half, but you were liable to make your real money by filling a request for Leroy Carr’s latest release or a Duke Ellington number. By Johnny Shines’s account Robert Johnson was as likely to perform “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” or the latest Bing Crosby hit as one of his own compositions. In fact, the bluesman seems to have been a Bing Crosby fan, and, at times, in the 41 recordings that make up all […]
July 7, 2015

Book review: “The Colour of Magic” by Terry Pratchett

Fifteen years ago, I interviewed Terry Pratchett for the Chicago Tribune about his new novel The Fifth Elephant. It was the 24th of his Discworld books, and it had to do with dwarfs, trolls, gnomes, humans, vampires, zombies and werewolves. We met in the lobby of a hotel a few steps from Tribune Tower, and he was, as I wrote, “a short man who, with his bald head and grizzled white beard, looks a bit gnomish himself.” He spoke in a thin, high voice with an engaging lisp. He was 51 at the time. Over a period of a decade or so, I interviewed a lot of writers for the Tribune. It was an exhilarating experience, a sort of super-graduate-level course in the art of writing. I’d read whatever new book the author had produced, and then we’d sit down together and talk. Often, after reading one work, I’d get ahold of one or more of the authors other works. With Pratchett, though, it was different. After reading The Fifth Elephant — the title is the pun on a popular sci-fi movie of the time The Fifth Element — I went back to the beginning of the Discworld series and […]
July 2, 2015

“July 10, 1981” and a dozen other faith poems

July 10, 1981 By Patrick T. Reardon On this porch, on this cool summer day, when the moon is benign in afternoon sky, when birds sing from wire to wire, I have no argument. This may be the milk-and-honey time, the fulcrum, the equator. I may be on my way down or past or into. This will change, and I will change, and the wood of this porch will rot. The birds will die, and I will die, and new leaves will grow under other summer suns. I have no argument.
June 30, 2015

Fiction: A Church Refreshed: A dispatch from an American Catholic future — Dateline: Chicago, March 13, 2063

Song leader Sophia Santiago stood to the right of the altar of St. Gertrude Church in Chicago and invited those in the crowded pews and in folding chairs to greet their neighbors. “All are welcome,” she proclaimed. To the simple notes of a single piano, the parish choir and the congregation sang a sweet, lilting version of “Come to the Water” as liturgical dancers, altar servers, ministers of the word, parish chancellor Emma Okere and pastor Rev. Antonio Fitzgerald processed up the center aisle. The song filled the soaring interior of the 131-year-old structure. On a banner high behind the altar, in large, easily readable lettering, was a quotation from Pope Francis: “Who am I to judge?” This was one of thousands of celebrations across the globe marking 50 years of rejuvenation and renewal dating from the election of Pope Francis in 2013, popularly called “refreshment of the faith.”   “Prisoners of our past” Consider St. Gertrude and the rest of the Archdiocese of Chicago. In 2013, St. Gertrude had been one of 356 parishes in the archdiocese, each with a church and one or more ancillary buildings, such as a rectory, a school and a former convent. Today, though, […]
June 24, 2015

Marina Abramovic’s page at artsy.net

I’m a fan of Marina Abramovic’s performance art. I wrote about it three years ago in a review of “The Lovers” which was the catalogue for the work that she and her partner at the time Ulay carried out in 1988  a walk toward each other on the Great Wall of China. There’s also a wonderful video of her work The Artist is Present, put on in 2010 at MOMA.  A nice clip from it is available on YouTube. Now, artsy.net has put together a nifty and comprehensive webpage about her career, featuring images from scores of her works.  It appears to be a great resource. Patrick T. Reardon 6.24.15  
June 24, 2015

Book review: “Storm” by George R. Stewart

Early in George R. Stewart’s Storm (1941), the new Junior Meteorologist in the San Francisco office of the U.S. Weather Bureau is putting the finishing touches on a map that spans a good portion of the Earth, from the eastern edge of Asia, across the Pacific, across North America, to the western edge of the Atlantic. In these early pre-dawn hours, he has been recording temperatures, wind velocities and barometric pressures on the large piece of paper so that the Chief Meteorologist will be able to use the map to make his forecast for the day. Then, Stewart writes: He laid aside his eraser and colored pencils, and sat back to look at the work. Involuntarily, he breathed a little more deeply. To him, as to some archangel hovering in the ninth heaven, the weather lay revealed. In many ways, this scene captures the whole of Storm. The map that covers such a large swath of the planet is an indication of the great sweep of Stewart’s story of a single January storm that hits San Francisco and its region. Like the weather, Storm is a sprawling saga, ranging across the oceans and land masses of the Junior Meteorologist’s map […]
June 23, 2015

Book review: “Staring at the Sun — Overcoming the Terror of Death” by Irvin D. Yalom

Here’s an experiment: You wake up in the middle of the night, and standing next to your bed is an angel or a devil or a genii or some spirit of some kind. This being tells you that you are going to have to live your life again — exactly as you have already lived it. You will make the same choices, suffer the same pains, say the same words. Everything will be identical. This will not only happen once, but again and again and again on into eternity. What’s your reaction? Do you wail and gnash your teeth? Or do you think that would be just fine?   Shock therapy Friedrich Nietzsche laid out this “mightiest thought” in his late 19th-century book Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Psychiatrist Irvin D. Yalom includes it in his 2008 book Staring at the Sun — Overcoming the Terror of Death. And he adds: The idea of living your identical life again and again for all eternity can be jarring, a sort of petite existential shock therapy. It often serves as a sobering thought experiment, leading you to consider seriously how you are really living.   This scenario is like shock therapy, he writes, because […]
June 18, 2015

Book Review: “The Millionaire and the Bard: Henry Folger’s Obsessive Hunt for Shakespeare’s First Folio” by Andrea E. Mays

There is an image at the end of the glossy photo section in The Millionaire and the Bard by Andrea E. Mays. It shows 82 copies of the First Folio — the first full collection of Shakespeare’s plays, printed in 1623 — resting horizontally on thirteen shelves at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. This group, worth perhaps $100 million, represents more than a third of all the surviving First Folios known to exist, and each was purchased by Henry Folger during his intense four-decade-long career as a collector of all things Shakespeare. But Folger never saw his collection of First Folios together in this way — or together in any way.   “Never enjoyed” From 1889 until his death in 1930, Folger and Emily, his wife and collecting partner, never had their treasures on display. Their rented home in Brooklyn was filled with “books, books, books,” but not for show. The massive number of Shakespeare documents and other relics, purchased through lavish though prudent spending, ended up in crates in warehouses where no one — including the Folgers — ever saw them. Thus, Henry Folger had never enjoyed the collector’s privilege of seeing all his books shelved together […]
June 12, 2015

Book review: “Poetry in the Bible” by Garry Wills

Garry Wills was just 25 years old in 1960 when he completed Poetry in the Bible, a 63-page booklet that was part of the Catholic Know-You-Bible Program. He was at the start of a long career as a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, historian and journalist. Poetry in the Bible is rarely mentioned. Few people know that Wills wrote it. Yet, as one would expect, it’s an interesting little book, filled with insights about biblical verse, most from the Old Testament, and with Wills’ palpable joy in poetry and his religious faith. This book was written more than half a century ago, a few years before the start of the Second Vatican Council. Since then, there is much that has changed in the Catholic Church, and also a great deal of biblical research that has been conducted. So, there are some aspects to Wills’ text that he might write differently today. But the core of his book is still vibrant.   “A strange song” The book’s audience was apparently adults and older children new to thinking about the Bible and its meanings. As a result, Wills writes in a simple style, taking his readers by the hand in a careful, instructive way.
June 10, 2015

Book review: “The Hollywood Catechism” by Paul Fericano

If someone comes across a copy of Paul Fericano’s book of poems The Hollywood Catechism (Silver Birch Press, $16, 110 pages) a hundred years from now, I’m not sure what they’ll make of it. I’m not sure what someone today under the age of 40 would made of it. This is a book that seems to be firmly rooted in the American culture and mythology of the 1950s. Consider “Poem for Ralph Edwards” which is a single line: “This is your poem.” That’s hilarious — but only if you know that, during the 1950s, Ralph Edwards was the host of a sappy pseudo-reality show providing well-scrubbed video biographies of celebrities, called “This Is Your Life.” (By the way, in the Notes section of the book, there’s one for this poem that reads in toto, “This is your note.”) Sure, a reader can check the internet for background information about Edwards, but that makes for a clunky reading experience. So Fericano is running the risk of unintelligibility to many potential readers. My guess is that he doesn’t give a damn. After all, here is a guy who, for the central section of his book, has an 11-page poem called “The Howl […]
June 8, 2015

Poem: We are all Elijah on the mountain

The still, small voice is still an itch in the corner of the skull, a catch of breath, a comma, a hesitancy, a heartbeat, a hush, a scratching at the edge, a bloom in the storm,, a sideways glimpse, small as a spirit. Patrick T. Reardon 6.8.2015
June 8, 2015

Book review: MOON SINGER SERIES: “Moon of Three Rings,” “Exiles of the Stars,” “Flight in Yiktor” and Dare to Go a-Hunting” by Andre Norton

A year and a half ago, I read Andre Norton’s Moon of Three Rings (1966) and described it in a review as one of her best novels. I liked it so much that I got copies of its three sequels — Exiles of the Stars (1971), Flight in Yiktor (1986) and Dare to Go a-Hunting (1990) — which I read recently. For a long time, I have tried to figure out why I enjoy reading Norton’s novels. She’s not as good a writer as Robert Heinlein or Edgar Pangborn. Indeed, her characters tend to talk in a stilted, almost fairy-tale like way. “There will be many coming and going — and we shall make us a path through such a gathering to the Faxc entrance — from there it is but a step to the Street of Traders,” says one character in Flight in Yiktor. Neither is she very inventive in the way of science fiction writers. Her books don’t ponder theoretical speculations or try to figure out the physics of space travel. Almost always in her sci-fi books, her characters are landing on planets where the air is breathable and the gravity just fine.   “Hair to clothe her” […]
June 4, 2015

Book review: “Images of the American City” by Anselm L. Strauss

Near the end of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, five-term Mayor Carter Harrison Sr. gave a speech in the Music Hall to a crowd of visiting mayors and other officials. His subject: the “beautiful White City” that had been built in Jackson Park to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the voyage of Christopher Columbus to the Americas but, even more, to trumpet the greatness of Chicago. When [the Great Chicago Fire of 1871] swept over our city and laid it in ashes in twenty-four hours, then the world said, “Chicago and its boasting is now gone forever.” But Chicago said, “We will rebuild the city better than ever,” and Chicago has done that. (Applause) The White City is a mighty object lesson, but, my friends, come out of this White City, come out of those walls into our black city….The second city in America! Harrison’s use of the term “black city” was to contrast the busy, crowded, ever-growing, money-making metropolis with the pristine beauty of the temporary fairgrounds where uniformly gleaming white buildings had attracted more than 27 million visitors over a six-month period. For him and for other Chicago boosters, it was the “black city” — which undeniably […]
May 30, 2015

Fiction: “The Summer of ‘64”

“Summer vacation, 1964, the summer after my freshman year in high school, was the beginning of my dark night of the soul.” What the hell? What was Louis Sojo talking about? “It was,” he said, “the start of almost twenty years of wandering in a jagged wasteland, searching for something — I didn’t know what. Confused, uneasy, lost, I would get glimpses now and then of a direction to take, a turn to make. Was this the right way to go? I didn’t know. I just knew I had to be moving. I had to continue searching.” I just nodded. What else could I do? We were sitting in a booth at McDonald’s. Louis had a cup of coffee in front of him. I had pretty much finished my Diet Coke. His publisher — he’s a textbook writer — had sent him out to sit in on some classrooms where one of the company’s books, The Spirit of the Nation, was being used. At the John Coughlin Academy of Excellence and Justice, I turned a corner and suddenly I heard, “Chippy!” And there was Louis. Internally I cringed at that nickname. I hadn’t been called “Chippy” since my early 30s […]
May 29, 2015

Book review: “Vivian Maier: Street Photographer,” edited by John Maloof

Look. This graceful woman in a stylish black dress is walking across a city street. Her foot is about to step on a trolley rail. She is looking slightly to her left. Or maybe not. She is far away. The image of her is blurred. There is so much of her that is not known, so much hard to read. Yet, I find her compelling. I’m not sure why. This image is blurred because it is part of the background of a photo of a window-washer that is included in the 2011 book Vivian Maier: Street Photographer. For the moment, Maier’s story has overwhelmed an evaluation of her art. During the course of a half a century, she took 100,000 photographic negatives, mostly on city streets, but did virtually nothing to find an audience for them. She died. John Maloof, a Chicago writer researching a neighborhood history, discovered one box of her negatives and then more, printed some and then many, and then Vivian Maier, who had lived her life in obscurity, was the talk of the art world.   Disturbing I find her photos disturbing enough to think there’s something there. And maybe that’s why I was drawn to […]
May 27, 2015

Book review: “Quarantine” by Jim Crace

Five people trudged individually yet in an erratic line into the wilderness to spend forty days in quarantine in their individual caves, praying and meditating for their individual reasons. One was a rather fragile, timid young man from Galilee called Jesus, nicknamed Gally for his accent. He was idealistic and somewhat dopey. Parched and footsore — he’d left his sandals with a shepherd — this Jesus came upon a tent where he might get food and drink before beginning his month and a half of fasting. But no one responded to his call. Looking inside the tent, he found water and bread and dates and a dying man — Musa, wheezing his final breaths from the ravages of a fever. “Do not deny me water, cousin,” he said. “Let me take a mouth of it, and you’ll then have forty days of peace from me. I promise it. The merest drop.” He put his fingertips on Musa’s forehead. He stroked his eyelids with his thumb. “Are you unwell? I am not well myself.” As I said, a little dopey. A carpenter’s son who liked praying better than sleep, this Jesus talked himself into drinking some of the water and eating […]
May 19, 2015

Essay: Lincoln’s violent death and his legacy

A century and a half ago, Abraham Lincoln was laughing at the punchline at a stage play when he was shot once in the back of the head. He never regained consciousness and died nine hours later.   Tuesday, April 14, was the 150th anniversary of day that John Wilkes Booth snuck into the Presidential Box at Ford’s Theatre during a performance of the farcical comedy “Our American Cousin.” Actor Harry Hawk, alone on stage, gave what Booth knew was one of the funniest lines in the play: “Don’t know the manners of good society, eh? Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal; you sockdologizing old man-trap!” As always, uproarious laughter followed, and that was when the assassin — an actor himself and a rebel sympathizer — pulled the trigger. At 7:22 a.m. the next day, in a cramped bed in a boarding house across from the theater, Lincoln died. April 15, 2015, was the 150th anniversary of his death.   “Laughing all day” For a century and a half, Lincoln has been seen as a national martyr, as the final casualty of the Civil War. And that’s how he was viewed in the […]
May 18, 2015

Book review: “Strong Boy: The Life and Time of John L. Sullivan, America’s First Sports Hero” by Christopher Klein

Over the past 22 years, our History Book Club has read more than 130 books, and three of them have been about boxing and heavyweight champions of the world: • King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero by David Remnick — a wonderfully thoughtful biography of Ali that sets his story in the context of the two fighters who came before (Floyd Patterson and Sonny Liston) and of the revolutionary times in which he fought. • Beyond Glory: Joe Louis Vs. Max Schmeling, and a World at the Brink by David Margolick — a meaty book that examined the careers of Louis and Schmeling and their titanic fight in 1938 in the context of a key moment in world history. • Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson by Geoffrey C. Ward — a well-researched biography of a larger-than-life figure whose career was hampered but not crippled by American racism. None of us is a boxer, as far as I know. We’ve read these books because of what they had to say about race relations over the past century. Sports is a useful lens for such an endeavor. We all knew, to […]
May 15, 2015

Book review: “The Gates of Paradise: Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Renaissance Masterpiece,” edited by Gary M. Radke

Let’s talk about wonderment. About astonishment, awe. About ecstasy. But, first, let’s talk about feet. Specifically, the feet of Jacob as he approaches blind Isaac for the birthright blessing that rightly should go to his older twin Esau. This scene forms the left side of the Jacob and Esau panel in the east doors of Baptistery of Saint John in Florence. The right side is taken up with Isaac bestowing the blessing. There are ten gilded bronze panels by Lorenzo Ghiberti on these Baptistery doors, five on the right and five on the left, each based on Old Testament narratives. They are known by the name Michelangelo gave them, The Gates of Paradise, and they “rank among the greatest creations of Renaissance art,” according to Andrew Butterfield, a leading scholar of Italian Renaissance sculpture. Butterfield is one of a host of scholars who provided nine essays for The Gates of Paradise: Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Renaissance Masterpiece, edited by Gary M. Radke. The book was published in 2007 in connection with an exhibition of three of newly restored Ghiberti panels, held successively at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in […]
May 12, 2015

Book review: “The Photographer and the President: Abraham Lincoln, Alexander Gardner & the Images That Made a Presidency” by Richard S. Lowry

Near the end of his prose and poetry collection Memoranda During the War, Walt Whitman contemplated the scope of carnage across the national landscape — “the dead, the dead, the dead — our dead.” Those words, notes Richard S. Lowry, echo the battlefield photos that Whitman’s friend Alexander Gardner and his assistants made in the aftermath of such monumental Civil War clashes as Antietam and Gettysburg. Photography in mid-19th century was still a new technology, too bulky and slow to record actual firefights. Consequently, the Gardner photos were of unburied bodies littering fields and crumpled amid trees and rocks. As static as they appear to modern eyes, these images, displayed in Matthew Brady’s New York studio and later in Gardner’s own gallery, brought the war home to Americans in a new and visceral way. Gardner’s photographs, writes Lowry, “spoke less about flanking maneuvers and attacks and campaigns and the fate of the Union than about death — not a ‘good death,’ redeemed by noble causes and last words to the family by a sudden, anonymous, and profoundly violent end of life.” (46) In these black and white “views,” as they were called, it was difficult, if not impossible to determine […]
May 7, 2015

Book review: “Elvis Presley” by Bobbie Ann Mason

I missed the dawn of Elvis. I was just a bit too young, only four years old in July, 1954, when the King recorded “That’s All Right (Mama)” for Sun Records and, as Bobbie Ann Mason writes, “it was as if the nebulous, unformed kid was a genie let loose from a Coke bottle.” By the time I became aware of the world outside our family home in Chicago, Elvis was a major fixture in the American culture. Rock ‘n’ roll was already established. I heard stories of how shocking Presley had been, arriving on the scene, but that was old news. He was a name, like Ike and like Mickey Mantle, that everyone knew. He was — in that alchemy of celebrity — part of my life and the lives of everyone else. Mason’s short biography Elvis Presley, part of the Penguin Lives series, was sort of remedial reading for me. Mason, a Southerner, is a novelist and short story writer, and she spends her book looking at how it felt like Elvis, how he arose out of the fabric of the South, how his personality was formed by poverty and crushed by the expectations his talent and success […]
May 6, 2015

Book review: “The Hot Kid” by Elmore Leonard

There is, in a meandering way, a story here. But Elmore Leonard’s The Hot Kid isn’t really about story. Like all his other stuff, it’s about people. In this case, it’s people revolving around the youthful U.S. Marshall Carlos (Carl) Webster, the “hot kid” of the title, who has gained renown by tracking down violent miscreants and taking them in — or, more usually, taking them down, outdrawing them. Here are some descriptions of characters, and one place, and one politician, from the book. If you find them interesting, then you’ll like this book. If not, you might want to pick up a sense of humor somewhere.   Virgil and Narcissa Virgil Webster was forty-seven years old, a widower since Garciaplena died in ought-six giving him Carlos and requiring Virgil to look for a woman to nurse the child. He found Narcissa Raincrow, sixteen, a pretty little Creek girl related to Johnson Raincrow, deceased, an outlaw so threatening that peace officers shot him while he was sleeping. Narcissa had lost her own child giving birth, wasn’t married, and Virgil hired her on as a wet nurse. By the time little Carlos had lost interest in her breasts. Virgil had acquired […]
May 5, 2015

Book review: “Americans” by the National Portrait Gallery, with a forward by John Updike

Look at these three portraits:  Look at the eyes of Georgia O’Keefe in Paul Strand’s photograph. Leave aside the fact that she was a great 20th century artist. Leave aside the composition of the picture. Can you avoid looking at her eyes? They jar. They unsettle. The Robert Frank photograph of John F. Kennedy, taken in 1956 after JFK’s losing effort to win the Democratic nomination for Vice President, literally turns the idea of portraiture on its head. The image of Kennedy’s face is deeply woven into the American and world consciousness. Yet, with this picture, Frank makes us see the assassinated president anew. (It also hints at tantalizing “what ifs” of history.) Then there is a goofy-looking, goofy-posing George Armstrong Custer in this ambrotype taken during his years at the West Point Military Academy, probably in 1859. You’d never know it was Custer since he doesn’t have his thick, shaggy moustache nor his long flowing blond hair. But, in this image, doesn’t Custer give a sense of the man who would become the fame-monger who would die, through his own stupidity, at the Battle of Little Big Horn?   An American face? These three images are from Americans, a […]
May 4, 2015

Vance Bourjaily is back “in print”

It was almost 40 years ago. I was in my mid-20s, prowling around the cramped and labyrinthine aisles of a bookstore on Clark Street in Chicago, a couple blocks south of Diversey Boulevard. And, there on one of the rows of paperback fiction, I saw a title that caught my eye, Now Playing at Canterbury. It was by Vance Bourjaily, a major American writer whose star, by this time, was starting to set as literary fashions moved along to the Great Next. Now Playing at Canterbury was his wildly inventive modern version of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. I loved it. Then, I came across The Violated, his 1958 book about four friends whose lives are twisted and snarled in the aftermath of World War II. It knocked me off my feet. Over the years, I read everything I could of his. He was, and remains, my favorite author. I even had the chance to review his last published novel, Old Soldier, for the Chicago Tribune.   In print That was a quarter of a century ago, and, in the meantime, all of his books went out of print. Until now. Finally, nearly five years after his death at the age of […]