The stellar Penguin Lives series, published from 1999 to 2011, was a collective act of courage and chutzpah. Each of the 34 writers in the series dared to tell the life story of a major historical figure in 100 to 200 short pages — to plunge through all the events, ideas, words and actions of the subject, down to the essence of the person’s life and impact. None of the great writers who took part evidenced greater bravery and audacity than Sherwin B. Nuland whose biography of Leonardo da Vinci was published in 2000. In some 40,000 words, Nuland attempts to capture the life and genius of the 16th century man he calls “perhaps the most diversely expansive mind this world has ever known, and certainly the most engaging.” “An artist’s eye” To be sure, Nuland’s strategy is to focus predominately on Leonardo’s work as a scientific investigator and thinker, particularly his study of human anatomy. Yet, as Nuland writes, Leonardo’s life as an artist and a scientist were intrinsically intertwined. It was as a painter that he began his dissections and other researches into the way the human body works, even if that search piqued his world-size inquisitiveness and […]
Jim Crace’s 2001 book The Devil’s Larder is a collection of 64 very short stories centering on food. There are stories here about strip fondue and about a waiter who can sing the names of all 90 pastas in alphabetical order. About an amen egg (timed by singing the 37th hymn) and about pot brownies that may have eased a condemned man’s transition from this world. One story focuses on the conundrum of being marooned on a raft in the middle of the ocean and having to choose between drinking salt water or one’s own urine. Another tells of Air and Light, a restaurant that serves only air and light. A mental itch Crace is a subtle writer, and these tight tales are poetic and often wry. They leave behind a mental itch that you can’t help scratching. Consider these examples: • A kitchen mystery: “Someone has taken off — and lost — the label on the can. There are two glassy lines of glue with just a trace of stripped paper where the label was attached. The can’s batch number — RG2JD 19547 — is embossed on one of the ends. Top or bottom end? No one can tell […]
Is Terry Pratchett a fan of John Barth? I never gave it any thought until I read Pratchett’s 2012 collection of short fiction A Blink of the Screen which contains “Final Reward,” a story written in 1988 with a particularly Barthian bent. Kevin Dogger is an author who’s made a small fortune with a series of science fiction novels about the exploits of Erdan the Barbarian. One night, after drinking too much and fighting with his girlfriend, he comes home and, out of spite, writes the final chapter of Erdan and the Serpent of the Rim, killing off his hero on the final page. The next morning, he answers the door to find, on his doorstep, Erdan the Barbarian. “I have come to meet my maker,” the erstwhile now deceased champion says. (Erdan, by the way, is carrying Skung, the Sword of the Ice Gods, which, on the one hand, is able to speak, but, on the other, only says [“conversationally”], “I want to drink your blood.”) Characters and fantasy Throughout his long literary career, John Barth — who practices what is known as metafiction, i.e., fiction that goes beyond the idea of simply telling a story and focuses on […]
Sir Reginald Reginaldson, the son of a Danish merchant, grew up in the well-to-do mercantile community of Houndstooth-upon-Tweed on High Street in London during the second half of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. An inveterate hanger-on with the minor figures at the edge of the royal court, Reginaldson came to the notice of Elizabeth when he broke his nose dancing into a pillar during a ferradingo celebrating the eve of St. Thurstide’s Day. (The ferradingo, an import from Italy, involved a series of intricate steps, some of which were to be done with the eyes closed.) “Methinks the gallant’s nose flowed not had his leaps only ebbed,” the Queen said. Thereafter, Elizabeth frequently referred to Reginaldson has “my pelican.” This miniature portrait by Isaac Oliver, which now hangs in the Stuart M. Wedlow Museum of Fine Art in the Silver Dollar Casino in Reno, Nevada, was executed shortly before its subject’s execution in 1615 for what was believed to be an attempt on the life of Elizabeth’s successor James I. Reginaldson was accused to attempting to push the monarch off a parapet, allegedly out of anger for the habit of James to refer to him with a corruption of […]
A book about five Hollywood directors in World War II? Well, OK. It was a book selected by one of my book clubs so I got a copy of Five Came Back by Mark Harris, but I didn’t expect much. After all, there have been thousands of books written about the Second World War. Books about D-Day, books about Hitler and the Nazis, books about Pearl Harbor and the Battle of Britain and the Battle of the Bulge and George Patton and Winston Churchill and the Russian front and U-boats and the occupation of Paris. And books about the Final Solution. What could a book about five well-to-do, American movie-makers add? Actually, a lot.
I suspect that anyone writing a review of a John Barth book is tempted to Barth Barth. Which is to say, to try to be as inventive and witty and playful and erudite and literary and subtle as Barth is. Which is to say, is tempted to certain failure. From his third novel The Sot-Weed Factor (1960) to his 17th book-length work of fiction Every Third Thought (2011), Barth has caroused in the funhouse of metafiction. Few have delighted so much in playing the game or sparked so much delight in those who have taken part. And probably no one has done it so well. The term “metafiction” I’ve never liked the term “metafiction.” I know, “meta” is from Greek, meaning “above” and “beyond,” and it indicates a type of fiction that looks at itself from the outside. Sort of. (After all, writing from an outside perspective about the act of creating fiction as part of a piece of fiction turns the “outside” into the “inside.” There’s no full objectivity. In addition, the autobiographical and writing-as-mechanics details that an author, such as Barth, weaves into this kind of fiction isn’t done for how-to reasons. Rather than clarifying things, this complicates […]
Virtually my first freelance job after being laid off by the Chicago Tribune in April, 2009, was to edit (and write portions of) a report for the Friends of the Parks titled “The Last Four Miles: Completing Chicago’s Lakefront Parks.” The aim was the fulfill the dream of Daniel H. Burnham and generations of Chicagoans by creating a lakefront park spanning the city’s entire thirty-mile-long shoreline. The report was a call to action. When “The Last Four Miles” was published on June 9, 2009, I wrote about its vision and implications in the Burnham Blog for the Burnham Plan Centennial. (Five years later, much remains to be done.) Here, in slightly edited form, is the opening challenge from the Friends of the Parks plan: “The Lake front by right belongs to the people.” Daniel Burnham, Plan of Chicago, 1909 The time is now. A century after Daniel Burnham boldly proposed parkland for Chicago’s entire lakefront — essentially a single linear park for everyone’s use — the moment has come to commit ourselves as a city, as a region and as a generation to finish his work.
As of Saturday, May 31, Metropolis Strategies, formerly Metropolis 2020, closes its doors. I’m sorry to see the feisty think tank depart although, when it was founded in 1999 by the Commercial Club of Chicago, it was supposed to operate for ten years only. Its life was extended an extra five years because of its leadership of the Burnham Plan Centennial and its involvement in many pressing issues facing Chicago, its region, the state of Illinois and the Midwest, such as transportation and prison reform, to name just two. I feel a particular pang because, after I was laid off by the Chicago Tribune in April, 2009, Metropolis 2020 became my home for nine months. I will always be grateful to George A. Ranney, Frank Beal, Emily Harris, Paul O’Connor and many, many others for giving me the great opportunity to write about the Burnham Plan and present-day planning efforts three days a week in the Burnham Blog, a labor of love.
Norman Mailer called writing “the spooky art.” And anyone who’s been a writer, amateur or professional, knows what Mailer means. There’s a mysterious alchemy that takes place when the writer begins putting words together into sentences. There was nothing; now, there is something. The chaos of existence — that swirling, kaleidoscopic, overwhelming, storm of stimuli — is funneled down to the narrowest of straight lines. Tiny symbols, as regular in size as bricks or building stones but ever so small, are mortared across the page or screen or paper. Sculpture mimics the body. Painting plays the same tricks on the eyes that the physical world does. Music tickles the mathematics of our ears. Writing, though, speaks directly to the brain. The writing goes from one mind to another, from the writer to the reader. It doesn’t exist without a writer and a reader. It is a kind of a prayer, an effort to find and transmit truth, to reach across the chasm that separates people and enable them to see, hear and experience each other. It is God’s work. Something new I am always the first reader of what I write. And I’m always surprised in some way at how […]
If you’re one of the millions of young people who are graduating from high school or college this season, I have one word of advice for you: Believe. Believe in God. Believe in other people. Believe in yourself. I’m not sure how much your education and upbringing has prepared you for the question of faith. By its nature, faith is a squirrelly sort of concept. It doesn’t lend itself to test scores. A fact doesn’t require belief. Abraham Lincoln was the 16th president of the United States — that’s a fact. Anything that can be proved doesn’t require belief. If you put a cup of water in the freezer and wait a couple hours, you’ll find the cup is full of ice. You can see it with your own eyes. By contrast, faith isn’t something that’s forced on you by the facts. You have a choice. You can choose to believe or not to believe. You can make the leap of faith. Or stay put with your feet firmly planted in the rational world. Here’s my advice: Jump!
Some of the enthusiasms of youth travel well. Others don’t. When it comes to books, I can point to some I read in my teens and early twenties that still resonate with me today. For example, in science fiction, there are Walter M. Miller Jr.’s elliptical, transcendent A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960) and Andre Norton’s coming-into-manhood adventure Daybreak: 2250 A.D. (1952), originally titled Star Man’s Son. Both describe a post-apocalyptic world a relative short time after the bombs dropped. Isaac Asmiov’s Foundation Trilogy is something else again. The story told in three books — Foundation (1951), Foundation and Empire (1952) and Second Foundation (1953) — first saw the light of day in a string of short stories and novelettes published between 1942 and 1951. 30,000 years of chaos? As the first book opens,
Five years ago today, I was laid off by the Chicago Tribune. I had company. More than 50 other editorial employees were let go the same week I was shown the door. And another 70 or so had been sent packing during the previous nine months. For me, the lay-off didn’t come as a shock. Earlier in the week, I’d had lunch with a colleague who’d asked me if I was worried about the announcement about staff cuts that we knew was imminent. “Anyone who doesn’t realize that he’s walking around with a big target on his back isn’t paying attention,” I said. The next day — my day off — I was proved right. As if shattered by a laser beam I spent the rest of that day and most of the next in the office, packing up my files and books and tying up loose ends. And it was then that I realized one jarring result of the cutback — a kind of atomization of those of us involved. The day before, we had been part of the body of the Tribune. Now, though, it was as if each one of us had been shattered by laser beam […]
Terry Pratchett’s 40th Discworld novel Raising Steam, a wonderfully witty and thoughtful book, seems to have been a very personal novel for him to write. For one thing, Pratchett seems to be in love with locomotives and railroading, the latest new technology to come along and wreak vast changes, good and bad, on the nature of everyday life in Ankh-Morpork (the New York City of this particular alternate reality) and a large area of the Disc. In 1979, a German publisher issued The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the 19th Century, a wildly interesting look at the impact of the new technology of railroading on everyday life in our particular reality. Seven years later, it appeared in English. Its author was a German-born resident of New York City — Wolfgang Schivelbusch.(1) I’m betting Pratchett read Schivelbusch’s delightfully eye-opening book about how the railroad suddenly changed the way people thought of distances and speed and landscapes and each other. (2) (3)
No question, the guy on the cover of Umberto Eco’s 2007 book On Ugliness is truly ugly. And, in this sixteenth-century painting by Quentin Matsys, Ill-Matched Lovers, his ugliness is heightened by his pretty wife or girlfriend. She looks lovingly at him through lidded eyes and caresses his stubbled chin. He fondles her right breast under her bodice and gazes at her with what might be called a leer. Yet, I think the temptation to call it a leer is due to his ugliness. His look, his smile, could just as well be read as deep affection and delight. We would read it that way if he were a studly courtier, wouldn’t we? And here’s the thing: Ill-Matched Lovers is a much more interesting painting, more striking, more arresting, because of his ugliness. Even if repulsed by the guy’s ugliness, the viewer is still drawn irresistibly into the picture. You can’t not find it interesting.
This review initially appeared in the Printers Row section of the Chicago Tribune. on March 8, 2014. Storms at sea play a key role in the tale of John Jacob Astor’s attempt to establish a pivotal trading center on the unsettled, little-known northern Pacific Coast in the early 19th century. Yet, few modern readers have ever been in a fragile wooden sailing ship during a storm on the ocean, especially with its sails unfurled. So, in Astoria, Peter Stark describes the experience: A particularly powerful gust typically appears like a dark shape ruffling across the sea’s surface. When it slams into a square-rigger, the whole ship stains, the deck tilting as she heels over, the hull surging forward through the swells, the rigging running taut like the strings of a giant musical instrument, the scream of wind through the lines suddenly jumping to a shriek. If a ship has too much sail, with a sudden BOOM the sails will start to “blow out,” the fabric splitting apart under the enormous pressure of the gust like an over-filled balloon… Passages like that are what make Stark’s fine book truly distinctive. They raise Astoria above the level of a well-done historical adventure […]
Until now, I had never read Ray Bradbury’s 1953 science-fiction novel Fahrenheit 451. But, of course, I had read dozens of other books and seen scores of movies that were the book’s offspring. To name just one, 2010’s The Book of Eli, starring Denzel Washington. So it’s an odd experience to get to know Guy Montag and his world — a world I’ve never visited before but have gotten to know very well in, as it were, alternative universes. It’s also odd because, in many ways, I’m living in the world Bradbury envisioned. I get my cash from a robot teller. I rarely see anyone, especially anyone under the age of 30, reading a newspaper. The entertainment industry is selling consumers pre-packaged friends and family. Friends I suspect it’s not a coincidence that one of the seminal shows of this entertainment style was called Friends. And one of its stars, Jennifer Aniston, is a staple of what’s being peddled in magazines, tabloids and television gossip shows, years after Friends finished its run. (To be sure, it’s re-run seemingly nonstop on cable television.)
On March 20 — just as I was finishing Still Dreaming, the surprisingly readable memoir that U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez wrote with the help of Doug Scofield — the Chicago Tribune reported that the two men were under investigation by the House Ethics Committee. The story said that, over a ten-year period, Gutierrez paid more than $500,000 to The Scofield Company for staff training and publicity. The contract had been approved each year by the Ethics Committee until Gutierrez canceled it last year. Doug Scofield was a senior partner of that firm. In 1992, he ran Gutierrez’s first campaign for Congress and then served as the Congressman’s chief of staff for a decade. In Still Dreaming, published last year, Gutierrez describes Scofield as his partner in authorship. In his other work, the Tribune reported, Scofield was a campaign aide to Rod Blagojevich’s two successful runs for Illinois Governor, and worked for a time as deputy governor. The disgraced Blagojevich is now serving a prison term for corruption. Kinda murky It all seems kinda murky, even though — or maybe because — the Ethics Committee has promised to tell more by May 5.
This essay initially appeared in the March, 2014 edition of Reality magazine in Ireland. One of the great boons of our era is the ongoing effort at creating better, clearer and more accurate translations of the Bible. But, sometimes, you just can’t top the King James version. Consider the 23rd Psalm. In the New International Version, the fourth verse is translated this way: “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” That’s almost — but not quite — identical to the King James translation: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” To my mind, “darkest valley” is pretty bland. Especially when compared to “the valley of the shadow of death.” I’m no Bible expert, so maybe “darkest valley” is closer to the phrasing in the earliest versions we have of the Psalms. Still, “the valley of the shadow of death” is a much more poetic way of saying it — more poignant. That’s because it goes to the heart […]
The map of North America today — with much of the United States-Canadian border lying along the 49th parallel — might easily have been very different. American “manifest destiny” didn’t have to stop where it did but could have turned northward in the mid-19th century with a couple likely results: • That the entire Pacific Coast from southern California to the far tip of Alaska would now be U.S. territory. • That at least four western Canadian provinces — Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia — would instead be American states today. (Indeed, in 1868, the U.S. Senate went so far as to pass a resolution to pay $6 million for the area they now occupy.) There was a simple reason why none of this happened. The Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC). “The Canadian subcontinent” For just under two hundred years, the Company had a monopoly on fur trade in and rule over an area of North American that eventually grew to be ten larger times the size of the Holy Roman Empire and covered one-twelfth of the Earth’s surface. And, in doing this, held the line against American incursions. Not out of patriotism to Great Britain or to the still-nascent […]
A shorter version of this essay appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times on March 6, 2014 Snow has no respect for the calendar, so the snowfall season for the National Weather Service starts on July 1 and ends on June 30. So far this season, Chicagoans and suburbanites have already had to dig themselves out of more than 70 inches of snow, and the total keeps rising toward the record of 89.7 inches, set in 1978-1979. What’s made this season seem particularly ferocious is that we’ve had really mild winters in most years over the past decade and a half — averaging 31.9 inches between 1999 and 2007, and recording just 19.8 inches in 2011-2012. But those years look like blizzard conditions compared with the 1920-1921 winter when just 9.8 inches of snow settled on the city and its region. It was, wrote one reporter, the “summer winter.” Consider this: On January 1, 1921, the city was hit by two thunderstorms, the first ever on New Year’s Day in Chicago. That didn’t keep a couple of North Side men, A. E. Neuffer and John Reid, from taking a dip in the lake off of Winona Street in Uptown — not exactly […]
Why does Newland Archer leave? Why, on the final page of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, does Archer walk away from a chance to visit Ellen Olenska, the love of his life, for the first time in 25 years? She’s just up a few flights of stairs in her Paris apartment. His son has gone up, but Archer doesn’t follow him. He sits for a long time on a bench gazing at her fifth floor balcony. He says to himself, “It’s more real to me here than if I went up.” Then, as dusk falls, he rises and walks away. “Our kind” A friend of mine rejected the idea of reading The Age of Innocence because “it’s just chick-lit, and I have nothing in common with those New York high-society people.” I think he figured that it’s a love story, written by a woman, so it must be chick-lit. But The Age of Innocence has as much in common with that popular Oprah-ish romance-rooted literary fashion as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet does. Like Shakespeare’s play, Wharton’s 1923 novel is about two lovers, but that’s only on the surface. Both works are focused on something broader, something social rather than […]
There is a moment, fairly early in Edith Wharton’s 1923 novel The Mother’s Recompense, when the central character Kate Clephane exclaims to herself, “I am rewarded!” I cringed when I read that — because of the peculiar nature of the word “reward” and “recompense” and because I had come to like Kate although her life view and life decisions were very different from mine. Let me explain. When I say that I had come to like Kate, a product of New York society, it wasn’t that I felt we would ever be friends in any sort of existence in which we would cross paths. As the novel opens just after the end of World War I, she is a woman in her mid-40s who is wandering around Europe, skimping by on a small allowance. It’s an aimless, meaningless life of leisure, spent with other aimless, purposeless souls awaiting…well, not really anything. This is a kind of anteroom to hell, and Kate and her circle of acquaintances are biding their time, biding their lives away. Her allowance comes from the family in New York that she abandoned nearly twenty years earlier to go off with Hylton Davies, a man with a […]
This essay originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune on January 3, 2014. I sing the joy of snow-shoveling. I rejoice in the movement of arms and back, legs and shoulders. I exult in the wonder of the cold white beauty. Okay, okay, I know there’s another way to look at snow-shoveling. And it’s not with delight. I know that, for many people, shoveling snow is simply a chore. No, that’s too mild. For many people, shoveling snow is a big fat pain-in-the-neck. You have to put on your boots. You have to swaddle yourself with your scarf and your hat and your gloves, and you have to zip up your jacket to the neck. You have to go out into the cold, and you’re not just going through the frigid air to some other warm place. You’re staying out in the freezing wind for a good long while, and you’re working. You’re doing heavy manual labor (especially when it’s a wet snow that’s just fallen) out in the cold. And you could give yourself a heart attack. What’s to like? All of that’s true, of course. But consider this: People pay thousands of dollars and travel hundreds of miles to […]
This essay originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune on December 30, 2013. The 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.
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