January 26, 2015

Book review: “Harvest” by Jim Crace

Jim Crace has said that his 2013 book Harvest will be his last novel. It’s not that he’s going to stop writing. He promises more books of other sorts but not another novel. We’ll see. It would be a loss for readers. No novelist creates a world with quite the same intensity and tangibility as Crace does. The forces of Nature and their impact on human beings are always at the heart of his fiction. And so it is with Harvest. It is set in an obscure corner of England in the 17th century — on the Jordan Estate, also called the Property of Edmund Jordan, a manor house, a barn, a dovecote and a cluster of cottages amid farm fields, hills and a forest. The place has no name as Walter Thirsk tells a visitor: “It’s just The Village. And it’s surrounded by The Land.” Walt, the narrator of this tale, is a middle man, as even his name suggests. (One loutish character giggles with great glee when he realizes that Walt’s name sounds like “Water” and “Thirst.” Ha, ha.) Walt was born in a town and grew up with Master Charles Kent as his boyhood playmate. Indeed, they […]
January 23, 2015

St. Scrooge

If I call you a “scrooge,” that’s not a good thing. We all know that a scrooge is a miser, a misanthrope, a bitter wasted soul. “Bah, humbug!” It’s a word that goes back to Ebenezer Scrooge, the central character of A Christmas Carol, published by Charles Dickens in 1843. Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge!” Dickens writes, “A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. When asked to contribute to a holiday collection for the needy, Scrooge says such people should go to the workhouse or to prison. In response, he is told, “Many can’t go there, and many would rather die.” To which Scrooge asserts: “If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.” Not a nice guy. And no wonder that his name has become synonymous with a particular kind of mean and prickly greed. But wait. We do Scrooge a disservice. Think about it. What’s the heart of his story?
January 19, 2015

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

The five blind men and women lived in the attic room in a rundown tenement in New York City in the late 1800s, and Jacob A. Riis was there to take their photograph. But Riis was clumsy, and the technique of flash-lit photography was new and still imperfect. And he ended up setting the paper and rags hanging on one wall ablaze. It was a tragedy in the making. Not only were the other five people in the room blind, but so was nearly everyone else living in the building. “The thought: How were they ever to be got out? made my blood run cold as I saw the flames creeping up the wall,” Riis later wrote, “and my first impulse was to bolt for the street and shout for help.” Instead, with great effort, he was able to smother the fire himself. Afterward, when I came down to the street, I told a policeman of my trouble. For some reason he thought it rather a good joke and laughed immoderately at my concern lest even then sparks should be burrowing in the rotten wall that might yet break out in flame and destroy the house with all that were […]
January 19, 2015

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

There is much to say about Jacob Riis’s 1890 masterpiece How the Other Half Lives, but, first, let’s look at the faces in his book. In our selfie-social media age, a collection like this — a collection of the faces of individuals — is nothing unusual. Yet, 125 years ago, these images were revolutionary. If you were rich, you could have your portrait painted. If you were middle-class, you could pay for a photographic likeness. You might even buy your own Kodak box camera, introduced in 1888, and take up the expensive hobby of photography, making photos of family members and friends. The poor couldn’t avail themselves of these options. But Jacob Riis, newspaper reporter and reformer in New York, could and did. And, in lectures, articles and a series of books, starting with How the Other Half Lives, he bridged the economic, cultural and class gap to link those with solid, comfortable lives to their brothers and sisters trying to eke out a living in poverty.   Common humanity How the Other Half Lives was a major milestone in journalism, in photojournalism and in social reform. Riis’s text, often overlooked, is hard-edged and filled with a barely restrained anger. His […]
January 19, 2015

Book review: “Valdez Is Coming” by Elmore Leonard

Westerns move toward the mythic, but they end up simply formulaic unless they’re peopled by living, breathing characters. Initially, the mythic underpinning of western films and books was good guys versus bad guys — white hats versus black hats, Us versus Them, Good versus Evil. Then, starting in the 1950s and accelerating in the 1960s, the trend was toward a muddier moral landscape.  We’re as bad as them.  The good guys were as bad as the bad guys — or, as in the Wild Bunch, they were the bad guys, just bad guys who weren’t as bad as the really bad guys. Related to this shift was another trend.  It arose during the Civil Rights Movement, especially in the 1960s, when men and women on the margins — African-Americans, Hispanics, prostitutes, for instance — took center stage.  These movies bet that mainstream audiences, overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly middle class, could identify with such heroes, and, generally, they did.  (After all, Native American boys had long identified with the cowboys in movie westerns.) The story of Valdez in movie and book brought these trends together, and populated the mythic structure with real people.
January 12, 2015

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

A character in Elmore Leonard’s 2007 novel Up in Honey’s Room is wondering when he should draw a handgun, hidden in the cushions of a sofa, and shoot it out with this guy pointing a burp gun at him. His inner dialogue goes this way: All right, when? When you’re positive he’s gonna shoot. You’re serious? This guy put on his best dress and makeup and brings along a machine gun and you aren’t sure he wants to kill you? This scene comes very late in the novel, and the reader, by then, knows why the guy holding the burp gun is in a dress and why he’s pointing it at two men and a woman (the titular Honey) sitting cheek to jowl, so to speak, on a coach in her fourth-floor apartment (the titular room). And why those three are nude. And who that other woman is, the one standing off to the side with a Luger in her hand. Leonard, who died in 2013 at the age of 87, produced 48 novels in his long career, many of them great. Up in Honey’s Room, his 45th, isn’t great. Leonard was in his early 80s when he wrote it, […]
December 29, 2014

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

  Nearly half a century ago, The Arms of Krupp by William Manchester was published to several decidedly negative reviews. The reviewer for Kirkus Reviews wasn’t sure, after going through the book’s 833 pages of text, whether Manchester saw the Krupp family as fierce patriots or whores in their service to the Fatherland over two centuries of armament development and sales. The writing, according to the review, was, at times, leaden and, at other times, afflicted with pedantry. Historian Alistair Horne complained in the New York Times that the book had many inaccuracies and was tainted by Manchester’s “visceral, anti-Germanism” as well as his “passion and prejudice.” Horne was unclear if the author believed that the final “sole proprietor” of the Krupp firm, Alfried Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach, was really guilty of war crimes. Was Alfried responsible for the Krupp firm’s brutal use of 100,000 slave laborers from the conquered eastern nations and from the Third Reich’s concentration camps for Jews? Was he guilty of the deaths of tens of thousands of those people and even their babies? Horne wasn’t sure where Manchester stood. In another New York Times review, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt asserted: There are three basic kinds of […]
December 17, 2014

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

Sometimes, when he was younger, Robert A. Heinlein would speculate in his stories and novels about the science of space travel, and that could get a bit wonky. Sometimes, when he was older and had had wide success, he would fill his fiction with bombast about how humans should live, and that could get tedious. In The Green Hills of Earth, Heinlein does what he does best — writes about that endlessly mysterious and endlessly curious thing called human nature. The Green Hills of Earth is a 1951 collection of nine short stories and a novella, originally published during the previous decade. Here, there’s not much discussion of space hardware or theoretical physics. People are people, albeit in alien settings or in exotic circumstances.   “Nothing new” The novella “The Logic of Empire” is set mainly on the harsh landscape of Venus (which seems very much like equatorial Earth, except hotter and muggier), but the subject is one that has been an aspect of human society from the beginning — slavery. Through a series of unexpected events, lawyer Humphrey Wingate finds himself as a labor client on the second planet from the sun, which is to say that, since there […]
December 10, 2014

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

Mary Todd Lincoln was in her glory. It was March 28, 1861, and she had hosted her first state dinner at the White House as the nation’s First Lady. She was saying good-bye to her guests, including Kate Chase, the daughter of her husband’s Treasury Secretary, Salmon P. Chase. “I shall be glad to see you any time, Miss Chase,” she said to the tall, elegant 20-year-old woman. “Mrs. Lincoln,” said Chase, “I shall be glad to have you call on me at any time.” What effrontery! Yet, two weeks before the start of the Civil War, the battle for dominance of Washington, D.C., society was already well underway between the diminutive, Kentucky-born Mary Lincoln and the queenly Kate Chase. And Chase was winning.
December 1, 2014

Five mythic poems

  FIVE MYTHIC POEMS   Dullahan Up Lake Shore Drive, I ride on my charger, black as a deep cave. You don’t see me, commuter, too dull with science. Onto Hollywood Avenue, then Ridge Avenue, then onto Clark Street. Children see me. Ignore me. They know. If you are a dancer, a painter, a singer, don’t look my way. You have eyes, but I will lash them with my whip of human spine. Onto Granville, then to Paulina. Up the street. I arrive. You die. Note: The Dullahan is a sort of Irish version of the Headless Horseman. I wondered how he’d do in present-day Chicago. Quite well, I discovered.
November 28, 2014

Thanks for things that go wrong — then right

During a softball game in the summer of 1981, a lively and otherwise intelligent redhead slid into first base and broke her leg. (Don’t ask.) Meanwhile, a tall and slightly older newspaper editor, after years of ignoring his health, began to have problems that led him to quit cigarettes, stop drinking coffee and lose 40 pounds. It was not a very delightful time for either of them. Yet, their temporary infirmities led them to the same religious retreat where they met. And Cathy and I have been together ever since. When it comes to Thanksgiving, the focus is usually on the blessings of life, the good things that we have and that we have experienced. Think of the table set for the holiday meal, with its savory turkey and all the luscious side dishes and diet-be-damned desserts. It’s a reminder that Thanksgiving is about a bountiful harvest. Think of the grace that’s said at the table. It’s about how good it is for family and friends to gather together in this way. It’s about the goodness of having a decent home, rewarding jobs and strong schools.   Things that go wrong But I’m here today to tell you that, when […]
November 17, 2014

Pickwick Lane and my mistakes

Ten years ago, I wrote a story in the Chicago Tribune about one of the oddest wrinkles in the Chicago cityscape — Pickwick Lane. It is a short, nine-foot-wide private alley, hidden in the heart of the Loop, and it dead-ends in a three-story building at 22 E. Jackson Blvd. With its cobblestone paving — at least, that’s the paving it had a decade ago — the byway looked more like Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley than anything one would expect to find in present-day Chicago. In recent months, that three-story building, often vacant over the past half century, has been in the news, opening as an Asado Coffee Co. location. And, now, well, it’s time for me to set the record straight. In the years since I wrote my tiny 325-word story, I have come to realize that I made several errors. The main one is that the present building is NOT the original stable, and it is NOT a survivor of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.   The right story, as far as I can tell Here’s what’s I’ve come to find out through further research, and, as far as I know at the moment, this is accurate:
November 14, 2014

Book review: “Lust” by Simon Blackburn

Most of us find it uncomfortable to speak about lust. Philosopher Simon Blackburn is no exception, even though he lectured on the subject at the New York Public Library and expanded his remarks into a short, spritely book Lust, published in 2004 by Oxford University Press. In fact, Blackburn spends five of his book’s 133 pages, explaining why he shouldn’t have to take up the task, including his age (about 60 at the time), his being a male (in an era when women dominate gender discussions) and his British nationality. We English are renowned for our cold blood and temperate natures, and our stiff upper lips….Other nationalities are amazed that we English reproduce at all. One cannot imagine an Englishman lecturing on lust in France. Those sentences capture Blackburn’s witty, playful tone in Lust, and so does his discussion of the Cynics of ancient Greece who “thought too much song and dance was made about the whole thing.” Diogenes, one of the leading Cynics, argued that there was no good reason why shame should be attached to sex. Rising to the challenge, Diogenes’ pupil Crates and his wife Hipparchia are credibly reported to have copulated first on the steps of […]
November 13, 2014

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

A friend of mine is very big on stories having a beginning, a middle and an end. The 15 stories in The Night in Question by Tobias Wolff don’t fit that at all. Some have stutter-step endings that seem to go one way and then another and maybe a third, such as in “Casualty.” An American soldier in Vietnam is fatally wounded. A comrade grieves, or thinks he does. A nurse on a C141 med evac has trouble coping when she realizes the soldier she has been caring for is dead. During a lull later on she stopped and leaned her forehead against a porthole [in the airplane]. The sun was just above the horizon. The sky was clear, no clouds between her and the sea below, whole name she loved to hear the pilots say — the East China Sea. Through the crazed Plexiglas she could make out some small islands and the white glint of a ship in the apex of its wake. Someday she was going to take passage on one of those ships, by herself or maybe with some friends…When she closed her eyes she could see the whole thing, perfectly Many have endings that don’t […]
November 7, 2014

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

A confession: I read Women of the Way: Discovering 2500 Years of Buddhist Wisdom because it was written by Sallie Tisdale. I know very little about Buddhism. I have been an admirer of Tisdale’s writing for more than a quarter of a century, ever since I wrote a review of her book Lot’s Wife: Salt and the Human Condition for the Chicago Tribune. That book, like most of her work, was, in essence, a book-long essay — in that case, about a common, everyday object that we don’t usually give much thought to. Others include The Best Thing I Ever Tasted: The Secret of Food (2000) and Talk Dirty to Me: An Intimate Philosophy of Sex (1994). This book isn’t like those. This book is a sort of Buddhist version of the Lives of the Saints books that, as a Catholic, I’m very familiar with. It contains the thumbnail biographies of 60 or so important women in the history of Buddhism. Tisdale, who was training for the Buddhist priesthood when her book was published in 2006, writes that she has studied as much of the historical record as she could in order to write these profiles, but, often, much was […]
November 6, 2014

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

Humans name their babies and their pets and their battleships. And their buildings. I’ve lived in Chicago buildings by the names of 135 N. Leamington Ave. and 7943 S. California Ave. and 1129 W. Wellington Ave. Addresses, after all, are simply another kind of name. We need to be able to tell one from another. Large buildings, though, are often given fancier names in addition to their street addresses, notes cultural historian Neil Harris in his delightfully eye-opening 1999 book Building Lives: Constructing Rites and Passages. In the case of office buildings, the name can testify to the size, wealth, and prestige of a major corporation. Speculative structures frequently entice major tenants by the promise of naming the new building after them. As a major space-user, the renting corporation reaps the additional publicity. The same principle is at work when the naming rights for a publicly financed sports stadium are sold. U.S. Cellular Field where the Chicago White Sox play baseball is an advertisement for a wireless telecommunications network — a corporation that was willing to pay $68 million to turn the baseball park into a kind of billboard for 20 years. The name given to a baby usually doesn’t have […]
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.