February 5, 2014

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

There are hundreds of books about Michelangelo, many running to several hundred pages. I own several of them. Stefanie Penck’s Michelangelo, published in 2005 by Prestel, has only 95 pages of text and images, yet it’s a rich addition to the literature. The book is chuck full of sumptuous reproductions of the great artist’s paintings and images of his sculptures and architecture. Consider this photo of Mary’s hand holding the dead Christ’s shoulder from the Pieta. It’s a wonderful picture that captures the rich, supple, tender feel that the sculptor gave to the flesh of Jesus in the straining arms of his mother. This can’t be marble.
January 22, 2014

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

It would be difficult to think of a collection of artworks that could challenge the Tres Riches Heures in terms of sumptuous color and elegance. And all within a single binding! Tres Riches Heures is a book of hours — a lavishly illustrated prayer book — created for John, the Duke of Berry, by the three Limbourg brothers –Paul, Herman and Jean. It was begun in 1412 but was left uncompleted in 1416, the year when the three brothers and the Duke all died. (This was an era when the plague routinely wiped out families, households and towns in the blink of an eye.) The paintings in Tres Riches, sometimes accompanied by text and sometimes not, are called miniatures. They are small but not tiny. Each of the 206 leaves in the work measures about 8.5 inches by 12 inches — or about the same size as a piece of printer paper. Some additional work was done on the book in the middle of the 15th century, and it was completed by 1489 by the painter Jean Colombe. All of the leaves, no matter which artist did the main work on them, display an extraordinarily high degree of artistry and […]
January 22, 2014

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

There is something breath-taking in the hopes, dreams and faith of young Flannery O’Connor. What I am asking for is really very ridiculous. Oh, Lord, I am saying, at present I am a cheese, make me a mystic, immediately. But then God can do that — make mystics out of cheese….[My soul] is a moth who would be king, a stupid slothful thing, a foolish thing, who wants God, who made the earth to be its Lover. Immediately.
January 21, 2014

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

A century ago, Masters in Art was a series of monthly monographs offered for the annual subscription price of $1.50. Single copies were 15 cents. The Lucca and Andrea della Robbia issue that I have was published in September, 1901. My copy, originally part of the collection at the Cleveland Museum of Art Library, is hardbound. I’m not sure if this was done by the library or if that’s how these monographs were produced and delivered. This issue, which is probably representative of the series, is made up of 10 plates of photographs of the works of Luca della Robbia and his nephew Andrea, followed by 20 pages of text. That text is divided into three sections: biographies of the two men, discussions of their art and detailed commentaries on the works displayed in the 10 plates. All of the text in these sections draws on earlier commentaries. For example, the section on the art of the della Robbias includes excerpts from articles by writers identified as Allan Marquard; Cavalucci and Molinier; the editors of Vasari’s Lives; Mrs. Oliphant; Marcel Reymond; and Walter Pater. These excerpts themselves include quotations from various other experts as well. “Embodied dreams” Luca and Andrea […]
January 19, 2014

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

Was Jesus breast-fed? That’s a question that Anthony Le Donne asks near the end of his reasonable and provocative new book The Wife of Jesus: Ancient Texts and Modern Scandals (Oneworld). And, if it’s the sort of question that unsettles you or angers you, this book isn’t for you. Le Donne, a scholar in the study of the historical Jesus, is attempting to understand the flesh-and-blood human being who walked the roads of Judea and Galilee and the lanes of Jerusalem 2,000 years ago. He’s an historian, not a theologian. That’s why he’s asking the question of whether Jesus was breast-fed. And also whether Jesus had a wife. Le Donne’s conclusion on that latter question — spoiler alert! — is that, no, Jesus probably wasn’t married. But his book is courageous anyway. Simply to ask the question is to make himself a lightning rod for controversy. Ask Reza Aslan, the author of the recently published Zealot, a book that characterizes Jesus as a political revolutionary. And one that became a bestseller after a clumsily antagonistic Fox News interview went viral this summer in which Aslan was bashed as a Muslim who dared to write about founder of Christianity. La Donne […]
January 18, 2014

Saint Lincoln

It’s too bad, really, that Abraham Lincoln has been accorded sainthood. Not that we call him Saint Abe or put a halo around his image, but Americans do just about everything else to turn our 16th President into a plaster statue up on a pedestal rather than a person who lived and breathed and ticked people off. Consider that, in 2011, a national poll found that 91 percent of Americans esteemed Lincoln, one percentage point higher than the 90 percent recorded for Jesus. In our national rhetoric and myth-making, Lincoln has become the sum of all American virtues — kind, self-deprecating, funny, thoughtful, visionary. A martyr. It was the bullet of John Wilkes Booth that turned Lincoln into a saint. Up until that moment — for all his talk about the Union, and, indeed, because of it — he had been one of the most divisive figures in American politics.
January 13, 2014

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

Andre Norton’s Moon of Three Rings is one of her best books. That’s saying something since she wrote more than 200 novels of science fiction and, to a lesser extent, fantasy. Not that it’s perfect. It has the limitations that are woven into Norton’s writing style, story-telling approach and target audience. She wrote for teenage boys and young adult men. That means there’s not much psychological or emotional nuance to her books. For her — and for her readers, including me (who, for better and worse, is no longer a boy or young man) — adventure is the key. Norton’s books are like westerns in space — good guys against bad guys, set in a strange, foreboding landscape where cultures collide (cowboy and Indian, humans and aliens). There are parallels to these stories throughout human history. Some of the best examples include Beowulf, Gilgamesh, the Iliad, the Odyssey, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, Treasure Island and Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea. None of Norton’s books is in that class. Face-to-face with the Other Still, for nearly three-quarters of a century, Norton who lived to the age of 93, produced high quality science fiction of a […]
January 9, 2014

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

The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee was a difficult book for me to read, as I suspect it will be for most people. That’s not because it’s a bad book, but because it is such a thorough, courageous look at a disease — well, a family of many diseases — that is bedeviling humanity to an ever greater extent today as we live longer and survive or avoid other causes of death. It is difficult, in part, because cancer is a great fear. Most of us know someone who has or has had cancer, or have or have had it ourselves. Many know people who have died from it. A poignant element for me as I read this book over the last month or so was to learn from the news that Janet Rowley, a University of Chicago researcher mentioned often in Mukherjee’s text, had died on December 17, of complications from ovarian cancer. Scientific searchings It was difficult for me because the final 130 or so pages of The Emperor of All Maladies deals with the exquisitely refined scientific searchings and discoveries of the nature of cancer and of new methods for attacking various versions of the […]
January 7, 2014

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

It’s been more than 60 years since A. J. Liebling skewered Chicago in three caustic pieces in the New Yorker, soon after collected into a short book of 30,000 words or so, Chicago: The Second City. Of course, “caustic” was Liebling’s specialty, so his acerbic reading of the city shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone. Yet, ever since, anti-Liebling rhetoric has routinely found its way into print in Chicago. In 1980, for instance, Chicago Tribune columnist Jack Mabley dismissed the book as the work of “a New York writer [who] once came to Chicago for several months…and interviewed people who came into the bar where he hung out. The essays he sent back to Manhattan were filled with startling inaccuracies which comforted New Yorkers in their oneness. No. 1-ness.” Fourteen years later, in a Tribune story about his new publishing venture Academy Chicago, Jordan Miller was quoted as describing Liebling as “that creep.” Eighteen years after that, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg made a significant reference to Chicago: The Second City in his 2012 book about the city. It had to do with something Liebling writes in an introduction to his book — that, after his New Yorker […]
January 3, 2014

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

The authors of novels about rich Americans face a greater challenge than those who write about the other 90 percent. If your characters are poor, working-class, middle-class and even upper middle-class, they have built-in struggles that help the reader identify with them — the struggle to keep body and soul together or, at least, the struggle to keep up with the Joneses. The struggle, in other words, to make it somehow. The struggle for the rich is not to blow it. They have it made in the shade, and so any problem they face is going to seem like not much of a problem to readers out of their income bracket. Bernadette and her family Take Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette. The central character is Bernadette Fox.
December 19, 2013

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

I’m going to give a copy of John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War to my 30-year-old nephew Kelly for Christmas. (Shhh! Don’t tell him.) But I don’t think he’s going to respond to the book in the way I did. A couple Christmases ago, Kelly gave me Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. That’s a science fiction book about children trained from an early age (before they are hindered by bad habits) in hyper-complicated, physically and mentally challenging war games. The idea is that they’ll transfer the skills they develop to the task of leading armies against aliens. (There was a pretty decent feature film based on the novel in theaters this year.) An underlying theme of the book is that the pace of life and technology is moving so fast that only the young are able to really get it under control and use it. Every generation has books like this. I remember reading and enjoying these sorts of books when I was in my teens and twenties. Kelly was in that age group when he first read Ender’s Game, and I’m sure that, as someone just coming on the scene, he could relate very closely to Andrew “Ender” Wiggin, […]
December 17, 2013

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

Reading Leo Tolstoy’s The Gospel in Brief was a truly disconcerting experience. Other writers have sought to re-tell the four gospels in a single narrative — Norman Mailer, for instance, with The Gospel According to the Son (1997), Charles Dickens with The Life of Our Lord (1849), and Nikos Kazantzakis with The Last Temptation of Christ (1955). Depending on their approach, they have stayed close to or strayed far from the details of the accounts in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, but they’ve written in their own words. Ostensibly, Tolstoy takes a different tack in The Gospel in Brief. He has, he writes, “effected the fusion of the four Gospels into one, according to the real sense of the teachings.” What he’s done, on the face of it, is to take all the verses in all four gospels and arrange them as he wishes in order tell the story of Jesus in the manner he wishes. So some verses from Luke will be followed by several from Mark and then several from Matthew. Except what you think you see isn’t really what you get. “Presented in full” Tolstoy writes in an introduction that, in his account, “the Gospel according to […]
December 11, 2013

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

I am pretty much an illiterate about the science of space travel. When talk turns to apogees and pounds-per-second and all that stuff, a fog descends on my brain. Still, from my low (and foggy) rung on the ladder of understanding, I am able to recommend Robert Heinlein’s 1950 short story collection The Man Who Sold the Moon to anyone who does have a glimmer of how the human race has been able to send people into space and land men on the moon. The interest, for such readers, will be in how well Heinlein was able to imagine space travel decades before it became a reality. And not just space travel, but other technological breakthroughs as well. Five of the book’s six stories were originally published in 1939 and 1940, and revised a bit for this collection to account for new scientific insights as of the mid-century mark. The title story, an 89-page novella, first saw the light of day in this book. As little as I know, I’m able to recognize that Heinlein got a lot wrong. We don’t, for instance, wear finger watches as he envisioned, and there are no huge regional networks of moving conveyor-belt-like roads […]
December 3, 2013

My ministry is…..basketball?

The other day, I got an email from my parish which began: “Dear Ministry Leaders…” I laughed. In the past, I’d chaired the adult education committee and the parish council. But, in recent years, the only thing I’ve been in charge of has been men’s basketball on Sunday afternoons and Monday nights. Actually, there are two of us, Dave and I, both in our mid-60s, both slower than slow and not exactly in the fittest of shape. But we like basketball so, each week, we’re there to open the gym, sweep the floor, oversee the games and lock up. That’s why I laughed when I got the email. We have some really great ministries in our parish, St. Gertrude on Chicago’s Far North Side — a long-running, highly successful support program for the elderly of our neighborhood, a troupe of liturgical dancers, a teen faith-sharing group and a gay and lesbian outreach effort, to name a few. But basketball? The Pope discussing hoops? It was funny to imagine some Congregation at the Vatican, or even the Pope, discussing hoops as a Catholic way of providing pastoral care, like running a hospital or teaching catechism. Still, Marge, the parish business manager, […]
December 2, 2013

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

In 1990, renowned English art critic and novelist John Berger began an exchange of letters and cards with his daughter Katya Berger Andreadakis, a film critic. At the time, the father was in his mid-60s and his daughter in her late 20s. Their subject was their common delight in and reverence for the paintings of the 16th century Italian master Titian. In their back and forth way, they were trying to tease out the essence of Titian’s art — and of art in general. For instance, their ruminations lead Katya to focus on what makes art art, and she writes: Pictures by Rothko and Titian, but also by Courbet, possess this quality. They are completely themselves that they contain all the vertical depth of their being. They exclude any reference to rule or obedience. Snapping their fingers at others, they simply exist with us or without us. In another letter, she writes: The truth is that Titian’s art is itself untouchable, inviolable. It calls out and then it forbids. We remain open-mouthed. In 1996, their exchange was published in Titian: Nymph and Shepherd, one of nearly 50 titles in the Pegasus Series of sumptuously illustrated volumes issued between 1994 and […]
December 1, 2013

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

We tend to think of burial art as something solid, heavy, sedate and — as a contrast to what it commemorates — long-lived. We think of the pyramids in Egypt. We think of mausoleums in our own cemeteries. We think of gravestones. That’s not the funerary art that Jan Christiaan Braun has recorded in Happy Together: New York and the Other World, published in 2007 by Stichting Over Holland. This is an ephemeral art of bright colors — balloons, stuffed animals, plastic windmills, American flags, inflatable cartoon characters, t-shirts, and other mass-produced items, most of which could just as well fit into a front lawn holiday display. Except for the messages. You wouldn’t have “MOM” in white plastic flowers in a frame of red plastic flowers to decorate the outside of your home. Yet, it fits in a cemetery. Although not created to withstand much weather, it is a version of the “MOM” on a traditional marble grave marker. Same with “WIFE” and “DAD” and so on. Braun spend a year visiting cemeteries in the five boroughs of New York City, documenting “the passage of a calendar year in the more recent and so more ‘lively’ sections.” The result is […]
November 28, 2013

Love and the giving of thanks

By Sarah Reardon, David Reardon, Cathy Shiel-Reardon and Patrick T. Reardon Originally published in the St. Gertrude parish bulletin about 10-15 years ago It all comes back to love. Gratitude does, like everything else that is good in the world. Thomas Merton writes that gratitude “takes nothing for granted, is never unresponsive, is constantly awakening to new wonder….” His subject is the relationship that human beings share with God, but he could just as well be talking about the relationship that two people share when they love each other. Young lovers can’t get enough of each other. They want to be together all the time, share every experience, know everything there is to know about the beloved. They are intensely aware of the goodness and richness in the loved one — the humor, the compassion, the beauty, the intelligence, the sweetness. They can’t help but feel wonder — and gratitude. Imperfections And the imperfections of the loved one? These are recognized, of course. He may be moody or lazy or, well, a little overweight. She may be a couch potato or high-strung or spend too much on clothes. Knowing each other so well and learning more and more each day, […]
November 27, 2013

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

This review originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune on October 13, 2013 You probably had no idea that Al Jolson, the star of the first talkie movie, “The Jazz Singer,” enjoyed urinating on people as a joke. Or that, once, in the middle of a conversation in the White House, President Warren G. Harding got up from his chair for a moment to urinate into a fireplace. Both stories are in Bill Bryson’s new rollicking, immensely readable popular history One Summer: America, 1927, and they’re indicative of his approach and tone. As a historian, Bryson is the antithesis of stuffy. He’s a storyteller, pure and simple, and One Summer is a collection of a great many tales about people and events, centered on (but not limited to) a single season in a single year. Many nonfiction books today are weighed down with an overblown subtitle (such as “The Secret History of…” or “The [Fill-in-the-blank] That Changed the World”), but Bryson avoids that pomposity. He isn’t arguing that 1927 was much more important than any other year, even though he does provide some insights into how life changed because of events then. I’m sure Bryson could have written a book just […]
November 27, 2013

Small gestures

This essay originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune on October 25, 2013 A couple years ago, when my sister Mary Beth was working a part-time job at a local health club, she was asked to care for a three-month-old infant while the girl’s mother got some needed exercise. She cradled the infant for a few minutes. Then, quietly, the child died. Mary Beth was shocked, of course. But she is someone who is deeply grounded. She later learned that, from birth, the baby had suffered from a condition that made her susceptible to death at any moment. Her mother knew that. It was happenstance that the infant drew her last breath when my sister was holding her. I was glad for the baby that my sister was there. We are from a large family. I am the oldest child. Mary Beth, two years younger, is the oldest girl. For more than a half century, she has held baby after baby in her arms — her brothers and sisters, her children, her grandchildren. I think my sister is pretty special. But, really, she’s not. Each of us have moments like Mary Beth when we are able to touch someone’s life for […]
November 27, 2013

Creaking up and down the court

This essay originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune on October 2, 3013 I started playing basketball when I was 11-years-old. That’s more than half a century ago. I still play, twice a week, but, more and more, there are times, when I stink to high heaven. My hook shot won’t fall. The guy I’m guarding gets around me with ease. I’m unable to dribble without getting the ball stolen out from under me. George, a friend from high school and a teammate on the basketball team, died in August out in Seattle where he’d long lived. George had had hip problems in recent years, but, from what I knew, his health was fine. Then — bang! — he was felled by a cerebral hemorrhage. I didn’t learn of George’s death until a month after it happened, and I had a particularly frustrating time on the court that night. I’d hoped that basketball would clear my head. Instead, I ran around the court, clumsily trying to do too much. This made my game even worse than it usually is.
November 27, 2013

No expert, just a do-gooder

This essay original appeared in the Chicago Tribune on August 25, 2013 Edward Paul Brennan was one of us. A nobody. Born in 1866, he made deliveries for his father’s grocery store, then worked downtown at the Lyon & Healy Co. music store as a bill collector and later as building superintendent. Yet, few individuals in Chicago’s history have had as much impact — for the good — on the daily lives of Chicagoans, suburbanites and visitors to the city. That’s why, on Friday (8/30), a little before noon, a small ceremony will be held to officially unveil the honorary street designation of the corner of State and Madison as Edward Brennan Way. On hand will be Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd), who sponsored the designation ordinance, and Brennan’s daughter, Adelaide, who will turn 99 that day. No intersection is more central to the identity of Chicago as State and Madison, and it’s an apt location to honor Brennan since he’s the one who gave the corner its prominence. In the summer of 1901 when he turned 35, Brennan took an armload of maps with him on vacation to Paw Paw, Mich., and came back, like a prophet from the desert, […]
November 27, 2013

Hope, baseball and A-Rod

This essay was originally published in the Chicago Tribune on August 7, 2013 I took my first baseman’s mitt to U.S. Cellular Field Monday night for the opening game of a three-game series between the White Sox and the Yankees. I probably should have been a bit sheepish about doing so, but baseball fans seem to have a great tolerance for a guy in his 60s channeling his inner 10-year-old. Yet, the more I thought about it, the more I came to realize that bringing my mitt to the game was something other than childish. In some way, it goes to the heart of why anyone is a fan of any sport. It also goes to the heart of the betrayal of Alex Rodriguez and the steroid era. It’s about hope. The little girl a few rows ahead of me brought her mitt to the Sox-Yankees game for the same reason I did. We were hoping to catch a ball. We were looking for a relic of the institution that is baseball. Actually, “institution” isn’t quite right. For a fan, baseball is something a religion. (I’m sure it’s the same for fans of other sports.)
November 27, 2013

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

I’m not exactly sure why I liked Lawrence Block’s Bernie Rhodenbarr crime novel Burglars Can’t Be Choosers.
November 18, 2013

Book review: “Memento Mori” by Muriel Spark

Guy Leet, aged 75, stooped with various ailments, picks up the phone and hears a schoolboy say: Remember, you must die. He tells the boy to go to hell. Some days or weeks later, he is having a bitter literary argument with his irate poet-friend Percy Mannering, aged 74, when the phone rings and the same voice conveys the same message. “Oh, it’s you…Well, now, sonny, I’m busy at the moment. I have a poet friend here with me and we are just about to have a drink.” The voice asks if his guest is Mannering. Guy gives the receiver to Percy who hears an identical message. But, for Mannering, the voice isn’t a schoolboy’s. It sounds like one of the great poets of the 20th century, William Butler Yeats. Muriel Spark’s masterpiece In Muriel Spark’s 1958 novel Memento Mori, Guy and Percy are among a group of about a dozen elderly mid-century English people who are recipients of this call. Most of them are affluent Londoners and most are related to each other by love, blood, friendship or past romance. Spark was 40 when she published Memento Mori, her third of what would eventually number 22 novels and her […]
November 11, 2013

Book review: “Bitter River” by Julia Keller

Bell Elkins has just left Joyce’s Diner in the town of Aker’s Gap in Raythune County, West Virginia. She is the prosecuting attorney for the county and has a lot on her mind. Still, she can’t help but stop and look around, taking in the streets where she grew up and the peaks looming nearby. She knew the people who struggled to make a go of it here. Knew, too, the mountains piled up in the near distance, the jagged slabs of solid rock that always threatened — or so it had seemed to Bell, when she was a little girl — to gradually close over the top of the town, like a lid on a soup pot… She’s tried to describe it once to a big-city friend, tried to put into words the singular feeling of living in a place presided over by a watchful mass of black rock, by a permanence you couldn’t push back against. Well, you could try — but it wouldn’t matter. Bell is the central character in Julia Keller’s second mystery Bitter River as she was in the first one A Killing in the Hills. I was deeply impressed last year with the high […]