November 4, 2014

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

Christopher Chandler, a former journalist at the Chicago Sun-Times and WBBM-TV (Channel 2), was an important press aide for Harold Washington. He organized news conferences, planned media strategy and dealt directly with reporters and editors during Washington’s 1983 campaign to become Chicago’s first black mayor and then during the initial two years of his tenure on the fifth floor of City Hall. Yet, in his memoir Harold Washington and the Civil Rights Legacy, Chandler writes, “I only had one serious conversation about politics with Harold Washington. Following a news conference on the Southeast Side, as the two men waited for their ride back downtown, Washington asked Chandler who his favorite politician was. “Bobby Kennedy.” Washington was surprised. “I never understood the Kennedys,” he said. As for his own favorite politician, Washington named Paul Robeson, the athlete, singer, actor and political activist who, as it happened, was one of the heroes of Chandler’s mother.   Progressive Chandler, a white man, came from the sort of mid-20th century American family that described itself as progressive. His father, a clergyman, and the rest of his relatives were committed to the cause of civil rights. So committed, in fact, that, in April, 1968, his […]
November 2, 2014

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

In July, 1864, Gen. Jubal Early and his 15,000 Confederate troops were again raiding the North and threatening the federal capital of Washington, D.C. It was a maneuver aimed at forcing Gen. U.S. Grant to weaken his siege of the Southern capital of Richmond by rushing soldiers north. Grant sent some surplus troops, enough to block Early but only that. Abraham Lincoln asked him for more — not just to better protect Washington but even more to attempt to trap and “destroy the enemy’s force.” Grant complied. As the new units arrived, they immediately began skirmishing with Early’s men near Fort Stevens, north of the city, and Lincoln went to watch. The six-foot-four-inch president wearing his top hat made a large target as he peered over the parapet at enemy sharpshooters. As John Hay recorded the incident, “A soldier roughly ordered him to get down or he would have his head knocked off.” Tradition has it that the soldier was Capt. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., a future U.S. Supreme Court Justice. And what he said was: “Get down, you fool!” In Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief, James McPherson, one of the premier Civil War historians of […]
November 1, 2014

Voting for wonder

I vote for wonder. Amid the mudslinging of political campaigns, despite the reports of all that is going wrong across the world, I vote for joy and amazement at the richness of life. Many days, I see the sunshine strike the red bricks of the apartment building across the street, and it fills my day with beauty.  I am astonished at how green the grass is in my back yard after a rain. And I am touched by people.  Like the woman who, today, reached out to help an elderly man with a walker get off a bus.  Or the cop — I saw the TV report, and you probably did, too — who gave brand new boots to a homeless man. Yes, I know there is much hardship in the world.  I know there are people whose lives are disrupted by wars and epidemics and terror.  I know there are people who live with very little to eat.  I know there are fears of drought and violence, dread of oppression and plague. I don’t ignore these realities.  I recognize the need to face them and solve them to whatever extent is possible. But I will not let the evils […]
October 27, 2014

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

In Amsterdam, on the sunny and otherwise quiet morning of Friday, August 4, 1944, a car pulled up in front of the Opekta warehouse at 263 Prinsengracht. That is all one needs to write, and already the reader knows who was hiding in the attic and the fate about to befall them. These might easily have been the opening lines of American novelist Francine Prose’s complex, ferociously affectionate and tough-minded 2009 book Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife. This non-fiction book is a work of reportage, literary analysis, cultural criticism and biography. It is a work in which Prose details her profound respect for Anne Frank’s brilliance as a writer and delves deeply into the troubled and often troubling history of her diary. But these lines don’t come until page 63, and, by this point, Prose has already written about Anne Frank’s birth in Frankfort and her Jewish family’s flight to the Netherlands to escape the rise of the Nazis in Germany. She has written about the decision of Anne’s family and four other Jews to go into hiding in the attic of the warehouse on Prinsengracht. And about how Anne’s diary recorded their daily life in the […]
October 19, 2014

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

When I was laid off by the Chicago Tribune five and a half years ago, I lost my desk and my byline, but also the community of smart, curious and generally wacky people who had surrounded me in one way or another for more than three decades. Not just surrounded me. But supported me, encouraged me. Gave me answers to knotty questions that came up. Opened doors for me to new avenues of thought, new perspectives on the world. Told me stories, listened to my stories. And gave me the feeling that, no matter what I was doing for Mother Tribune, I wasn’t alone. That’s the message at the core of Sue Reardon’s Rocka Million: A Manifesto for the Gutsy Micropreneur. As you might guess from Sue’s last name, she’s a relative, my sister-in-law. But, regardless of family ties, hers is a book with great advice for anyone who is freelancing, consulting and/or attempting to get a one-person business off the ground. I wish it had been written five and a half years ago. I certainly would have  looked into finding the sort of coworking space — and coworking community — that Sue writes about.
October 15, 2014

Book review: “Neverhome” by Laird Hunt

It was maybe an hour after I finished reading Laird Hunt’s new novel Neverhome that the gears of my mind suddenly shifted and fell into place.. Up until that point, I had been alternately impressed by the novel’s quietly dazzling language and irritated by much else, with irritation predominating. There was so much about the book that didn’t seem to fit together. Neverhome is the story of a young woman who calls herself Ash Thompson and goes off masquerading as a man to fight for the Union Army in the Civil War. But it’s not a historical novel — too much happens to Ash, she meets too many outlandish characters (even a trio of one-armed jugglers), her story takes too many sharp turns (as if it were a retelling of “The Perils of Pauline”). It’s clear that Hunt isn’t striving for realism. And it isn’t chick lit, even though Ash and her husband Bartholomew can seem to be 21st century people stuck back in the Victorian era. After all, Ash is making her way with success in a man’s world while her stay-at-home husband, described by one character as a “little fellow,” keeps the home fires burning. Ash is stronger […]
October 14, 2014

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

Sigmund Freud once said that, if you take a widely diverse set of people and starve them, soon all their differences will fall away to be replaced by “the uniform expression of the one unstilled urge” for food. That didn’t happen “in the filth of Auschwitz,” writes psychiatrist Viktor E. Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy. There, the “individual differences” did not “blur” but, on the contrary, people became more different: people unmasked themselves, both the swine and the saints.” Frankl’s short, powerful book, rooted in his three years in Auschwitz and other German concentration camps, is an argument against the view that human life is simply biological responses to stimuli. In some ways, the Holocaust can be seen as the epitome of this mechanistic view. Prisoners were stripped of identity and became, as Frankl notes, simply numbers in a system of slave labor and mass murder. This genocide was carried out by the nation of Beethoven and Goethe, of Freud and Einstein. And it has been seen as proof that great science, great art and great thinking are insubstantial and unimportant in the face of power. Could life have any meaning for any person living […]
October 12, 2014

Poem: “Rose Red”

. I answer the door. The bear is there. He says, “Fear not.” He is cold and wants a fire to sit by. In he comes. Snow White raises her eyebrow as we brush the snow off his fur. We play with him. We tickle him. We cover his eyes with our small hands. He leaves in the morning. And comes back each night during that long winter. Mother likes him. “I must go away,” he says in summer. “A wicked dwarf is trying to steal my treasure.” Some days later, my sister and I find the dwarf caught in a tree by his beard. We cut the beard and free him. “My beautiful beard!” he yells. All summer, we find the dwarf in one danger or another in the forest and save him. He is always angry with us. Now, he tells us the bear is going to kill him. The bear appears. The dwarf says, “Eat the girls!” The bear kills the dwarf with a single swipe of his claw. Snow White raises her eyebrow as the bear turns away. Patrick T. Reardon 10.12.2014
October 3, 2014

Poem: “The Birth of the Buddha — 11.22.1949”

(A) New born, I shine as gold. My blue eyes glow. Seven steps I take, a lotus in each footprint. Pointing to the sky, I say: “I am born for the welfare of the entire world.” . (B) The shock again. The pain, weight, edge of body. Seeing. Trek again. Find again the balance. Find again the rhythm. Find again. Chuckle at the impossibility. Chuckle at the simplicity. Chuckle. . (C) Let go. Patrick T. Reardon 10.3.14 NOTE: I’m Catholic, not Buddhist. Nonetheless, I found Little Buddha to be one of the most spiritual movies I’ve ever seen. It contains a charming and transcendent scene of the birth of Siddhartha, who became the Buddha. That story is repeated in a book I happen to be reading right now, Women of the Way: Discovering 2500 Years of Buddhist Wisdom by the wonderful writer Sallie Tisdale. These are descriptions of what those present saw. But what was it like for the baby himself? And how was his experience like mine, like everyone’s? (I was born on 11.22.1949.) I also find endearing the many descriptions of Buddha laughing and smiling.
October 2, 2014

Book review: “1776” by David McCullough

Give David McCullough credit. After a hugely successful career as a historian, he set out, in his late 60s, to write a book that was a far cry from his earlier bestsellers. McCullough had made a name for himself by writing big books that told big stories —- stories about monumental projects, such as the Panama Canal and the Brooklyn Bridge, and about major historical figures, such as John Adams, Theodore Roosevelt and Harry Truman. These averaged about 700 pages each although his book on Truman was more than 1,100 pages long. With 1776, though, he was attempting something that, for him, was new. First of all, he didn’t try to tell the story of the entire Revolutionary War, just a single year, the first full year of the eight-year conflict. Then, he narrowed his focus even more to look only at the ragtag army under George Washington. Finally — and this is the greatest difference — he rooted his book in the words of a multitude of eyewitnesses on both sides of the battles. Rather than provide a sweeping saga, McCullough produced an intimate look at the experiences of the soldiers and others who lived through that year. The […]
September 20, 2014

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

Dear Archbishop-elect Cupich: Eat at Burger King. By yourself. In street clothes. If you want to get to know Chicago and those of us who live here, go to the Burger King on Lawrence Avenue, just west of Western Avenue. And, as you’re eating your Whopper, watch the Mexican-American family that is likely to be eating there. The father is just off work, and you can see the weariness drip off of him. He’s got some menial job — in a factory, or as a bus boy, or perhaps in the kitchen at another Burger King. Those are jobs without much dignity in our American culture, but, with his family, he holds his head high, and his kids chatter with him with great love and respect. Listen to the two gray-haired, gray-bearded Serbian guys. Unless you’re a polyglot, you’re not going to be able to guess what they’re saying, but you can tell they’ve got strong opinions. Look at the elderly man in a tie, white shirt and dark suit. He always sits alone at one of those small tables along a wall and does a crossword puzzle. If you glance around, you’re likely to see some Asian-Americans, a homeless […]
September 19, 2014

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

My suspicion is that you don’t know that there was an Abraham Lincoln II. I hadn’t until I read Treasures of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, edited by Glenna R. Schroeder-Lein, a spirited and beautifully illustrated book about some of the cool stuff in the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield. Turns out that Abraham Lincoln II, called “Jack” by family and friends, was the only son of Robert Todd Lincoln, the only one of the 16th President’s four sons to reach adulthood. An important figure in Chicago and in national government during the late 19th century, Robert was the American ambassador to Great Britain in 1889. Jack was in boarding school there when a cut on his arm grew infected, and, within a few months, he was dead at the age of 16. His grieving parents had a death mask made (just as a death mask had been made of his assassinated grandfather), and, from that, Theophilius Fisk Mills created a mournful 25-inch-tall porcelain bust of the boy that is now one of the Library’s treasures. Another teeenager Another treasure has to do with another teenager, an alert 14-year-old named Ronald D. Rietveld who, in 1952, was […]
September 18, 2014

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

Miriam is dying. Her twin brother Antonio has brought to her hospital room her two young sons 12-year-old Chris and 10-year-old Tony. Her ex-husband Charlie, whose idea of a good time is getting a lot of sleep, opts out of the visit, just as later he will opt out of having much of a funeral for Miriam. Charlie Blaine didn’t want to make any fuss about death any more than he wanted to make any fuss about life. His idea was to get through with both as quietly and painlessly as possible, with plenty of long naps along the way. The two boys, awkward and clueless, don’t know what to say, and neither do Miriam and her brother. The visit fritters along with its only bright point a sudden and excited recapitulation by Tony of the Abbott and Costello movie he’d seen on TV the night before. Later, though, when it is time to go, Tony seems wilted, giving an enormous yawn and knuckling his eyes. Perhaps it is because this action reminds Miriam of her ex-husband or of her own approaching death, but she reacts sharply, directly. “Now you stay awake, Tony,” she says. “You just keep your eyes […]
September 7, 2014

Poem: How to throw bricks

Pavement cave-in around manhole. Excavated on the fallen side of the brick chimney to the deep sewer. A small pit, earth here, damaged brick tower there. Mason climbs down with mortar bucket. Summer laborer, son of friend of legislator, throws bricks. “Hey!” Not like that. Two bricks pressed together with laborer’s two hands, pressed together with hands, firm and soft. Swung down in languid, forward movement. The press-together holds. Mason catches them with his two hands, pressing them still together, soft and firm. Stacks them. Patrick T. Reardon 9.7.2014
September 5, 2014

Books that remain in my heart and head

On Facebook, Andy Bourgeois posted a list of books that had stayed with him, and suggested that several people, including me, do the same. Andy is a real-world friend of mine. We played basketball every week for about five or six years, and we’d often talk about books. I love trying to come up with a list like this. On the one hand, it’s impossible. What about the books that just don’t come to mind immediately? How do I draw the line between number 10 and number 11? But the sheer impossibility of it makes it fun because whatever I come up with is not the final word, not by a longshot. If I try to come up with a list tomorrow or a month from now or a year from now, other books will elbow their way into the top 10 and some on this list will fall off. Here’s my annotated list: “The Violated” by Vance Bourjaily — I love all of Bourjaily’s novels. In this one, his opening pages describe a play that is being put on by several children. It gets interrupted, and I’ve been waiting ever since for it to resume. Also, this novel includes […]
September 1, 2014

Poem: Hamstring injury

Clutch, clench, the back of the thigh. Then, emptiness, a hollow, danger, a hobble, a caution, a warning. Tendons wear. Skin thins. The final hollow. Patrick T. Reardon 9.1.14
August 31, 2014

Meditation: The job of living

The prophet Jeremiah got exasperated with God: “You duped me, O Lord, and I let myself be duped; you were too strong for me, and you triumphed. All the day I am an object of laughter; everyone mocks me.” On this Labor Day weekend, it’s important to remember that work isn’t simply what we do for money. It’s also the task of living our lives in a right and just manner, in a way that is good for all people. It’s risky, of course, to live an ethical life rather than doing what’s convenient or comfortable or profitable. In doing so, you often bump heads with people who have other priorities — your business partner who wants to make an extra buck by cutting corners, your friends who think you’re ridiculous for being willing to pay higher taxes to provide assistance to the needy, your co-worker who tells racist jokes. If I am in one of those situations, I have to either cave in to peer pressure, or stand on my own two feet — and take a chance on becoming “an object of laughter.” If I have ethics and have beliefs that shape the way I live my life, […]
August 27, 2014

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

This essay initially appeared in the Chicago Tribune on 7.27.14. When I was a young man, I reveled in my physical strength and intellectual acuity. Today, I’m very aware of my fragility. When I was younger, I was hungry for new mountains to climb, new monsters to slay, and I was certain I could achieve any goal. Today, at the age of 64, I’m very aware that I may not accomplish what I have set out to do, either because I just don’t have the talents or commitment or energy — or because I run out of time. And I’ve come to the realization that, fragile and inadequate as I am, I can better face my remaining years as part of a group — as part of many groups, actually. I’m sure this is a big reason why I’ve gotten even closer to my 13 siblings. And why I play basketball every Sunday and Monday with different groups of guys. And why I’m in two all-male faith-sharing groups. And why I’m in a writers group. And why I’m in two book clubs. The truth about book clubs My experience in both groups — and an observation often made by other […]
August 26, 2014

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

Near the very end of Julia Keller’s new mystery Summer of the Dead (Minotaur, $25.99), I turned the page and shouted, “Holy shit!” Out of the blue, suddenly, stunningly, a nurse brought word that a character — one whom I had come to admire and identify with — was dead. I had to re-read the short paragraph two, three, maybe four times, looking for a loophole. Couldn’t find one. It was the second sharp double-take I’d experienced within the space of ten pages because of a jarringly unforeseen twist in Keller’s story. And there were more to come. Indeed, if there’s such a thing a reader’s whiplash, I have it. In other words, Summer of the Dead — like the two previous installments in Keller’s wonderfully written series of mysteries centered on Bell Elkins, the District Attorney of Raythune County, West Virginia — is filled with suspense and shock and awe. For those who love crime novels, it’s a great read. The jaggedness of life But, for this review, I don’t want to focus on Keller’s skills as a mystery writer. I want to look at her bona fides as writer, pure and simple. As a creator of literature. As […]
August 20, 2014

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

This review initially appeared in the Chicago Tribune on July 20, 2014. The American nation would be much different if Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman had never lived. Sherman was one of the four men (the others being Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant) who determined the outcome of the Civil War. His scorched-earth March to the Sea and its extended destruction up through the Carolinas broke the South psychologically and was a vital factor in bringing the conflict to a clean and final end in April 1865. Like those other three and, indeed, like any major historical figure, the red-haired, temperamental Sherman was a complex personality. And, in telling his story in Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman, Robert L. O’Connell employs a highly complicated structure, literally offering three biographies, one following the other. “I became convinced,” O’Connell writes, “that any attempt to confine Sherman to a single chronological track was bound to create confusion. Instead, it seemed to me that three separate story lines, each deserving independent development, emerged out of the man’s life.” It’s an exciting idea, a sort of nonfiction version of three interrelated novellas looking at a character from […]
August 18, 2014

Book review: “Martin Luther” by Martin Marty

There are times, often, in his 2004 biography Martin Luther when Martin Marty seems more than a bit exasperated with his subject. Luther, he writes, was a man of paradoxes, a man of ambiguities. And, over and over, Marty apologies — or, maybe, it’s that he grumbles — that he is constantly writing “at the same time.” For instance, Luther, the former monk, did more than anyone to break the stranglehold of a single religious system (the Catholic Church) and make it possible for people to think in terms of making their own spiritual choices based on their own consciences. And, yet, at the same time, he so hated chaos that he stressed obedience to authority and urged princes to crack down on the Peasants Revolt. He contended that all of the followers of Jesus should be members of “one, holy, Christian, and apostolic church” as a single flock. And, yet, at the same time, he was the catalyst for the Big Bang of religion in the Christian West, the fragmentation of the flocks into myriad sects, denominations, cults, confessions, churches and factions.
August 8, 2014

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

The world of Major League Baseball was taken aback in February when New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter announced that he would retire at the end of this season. Part of the shock was that he chose to tell the world his news via his Facebook page. (Yet, when you think about it, what a great method for bypassing the media hysteria that would have resulted at the scheduling of a news conference.) Even more, though, the surprise was rooted in Jeter’s competitiveness. He was coming back after more than a year of frustrating rehabilitation from the broken ankle he suffered in the 2012 American League Championship Series. No one knew if Jeter still had it in him to be successful on the diamond, but what if he could still play at a high level? How could he walk away from the game? After all, at the age of 38, he had hit .316 in the 2102 season and led the league in runs scored. But walk away is what Jeter said back in February that he would do. And, although other players in recent years, such as Ryne Sandberg and Jeter’s longtime teammate Andy Pettitte, have retired only to […]
August 6, 2014

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

Kostya Kennedy paints a compelling portrait of one of baseball’s greatest — and most scandal-laden — players in Pete Rose: An American Dilemma. The “dilemma” part, though, is more problematic. As it is with many baseball fans, I know Pete Rose from watching him play, and later from watching him being banned from baseball, from watching him deny and then, finally, admit that he bet on baseball games, including those of the Cincinnati Reds when he was the team’s manager. Here in Chicago, we loved to hate him. I suspect that’s how it was for all other fans, except those rooting for Rose’s team. His hustle of running to first base on a walk was, as Kennedy notes, “a piece of showmanship, a splash of needless panache.” We saw it as a piece of hot-dogging. But his hustle in fielding and in running the bases, his hustle in out-thinking his opponents as a hitter and as a manager, his hustle in supporting, promoting, mentoring and cheerleading his teammates — those were game-changers. And we hated him even more for that. Even as we respected him and his accomplishments which, ultimately, included reaching and passing Ty Cobb to become the all-time […]
July 31, 2014

Book review: “Crazy Horse” by Larry McMurtry

A novelist writes history like a novelist, not like an historian. In Crazy Horse, Larry McMurtry tells the story of the Sioux warrior who was an Indian leader on the Great Plains during the 1860s and 1870s and took part in many battles including Little Bighorn where vainglorious, foolhardy Gen. George Custer and his troops were wiped out. He was assassinated by whites and Indians acting together and has been a symbol of the Native American spirit ever since. Even when alive, Crazy Horse was a mystery man, a loner who preferred his own company. He was never photographed. McMurtry emphasizes throughout this 147-page biography that any attempt to tell the warrior’s story is “an exercise in assumption, conjecture and surmise.” Indeed, he points out that we know more facts about Alexander the Great who died more than 2,000 years ago than we do about Crazy Horse. For more than a century since the Sioux warrior died, historians and writers have produced thick books looking at him, his accomplishments and his legacy. McMurtry, the author of Lonesome Dove, is unlikely to have been interested in the sort of proofs, arguments and theories that are the meat and potatoes of such […]
July 30, 2014

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

The Long Mars is the third installment so far in a series of novels by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter — the earlier ones being The Long Earth and The Long War. They’re rooted in a discovery in 2015 that the Earth on which humans evolved is only one of uncounted numbers of alternate-universe Earths. Each Earth resulted from a single random event that occurred in a way different from what happened on humanity’s home Earth, the Datum Earth, and different from what happened on all the other Earths. It is possible to go from one Earth to the one next door by “stepping.” Some people have the innate skill to do this on their own. Most need a piece of technology, called a stepper box. Quickly, humans develop dirigible-like machines, called twains (as in Mark Twain), to step through many worlds very quickly. In The Long Mars, two souped-up twains, the equivalent of battleships 120 years ago, take a trip westward through the Long Earth through 250 million Earths, showing the flag, as it were. Meanwhile, three wildcat explorers who find a way to Mars — it’s too complicated to explain here — take a couple of flimsy gliders […]