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 […]
July 29, 2014

Book review: “Bright Lights of the Second City: 50 Prominent Chicagoans on Living with Passion and Purpose” by Betsy Storm

When world-renowned violinist Rachel Barton Pine was three, she attended a service at Saint Pauls United Church of Christ in Lincoln Park and saw some pre-teen girls in long dresses up on the altar playing the violin. She stood up, pointed to the girls and announced, “I want to do that!” A year later, she played her first Bach solo at the church. There was a stained-glass window of J.S. Bach in the sanctuary, and, when I was very young, I thought Bach ranked right up there with the guys from the Bible — God, Jesus, and Bach — and not necessarily in that order. I grew up understanding that the purpose of music was to lift the human spirit and bring it closer to God. This is a story that Barton tells in the newly published Bright Lights of the Second City: 50 Prominent Chicagoans on Living with Passion and Purpose by Betsy Storm. “Midnight-oil burners” As the subtitle indicates, Storm’s aim in this book is “to identify the motivations that enliven these movers and shakers, these midnight-oil burners” — highly successful people from law and sports, philanthropy and non-profits, art and journalism, and a host of other fields […]
July 23, 2014

Alone but not isolated — an essay about the seven sacraments

Life is lonely. We’re born alone. We die alone. No matter how much we’re surrounded by people, even people who love us, we experience life in a way that can only partially be shared. You hear a song that makes your heart soar. But it does nothing for the person standing next to you. You read a book that touches you deeply. But you can’t find the words to make someone else — even a good friend, even a spouse — understand all the many ways it speaks to you. In a deep insight into human nature, the Catholic Church recognizes this reality. Its seven sacraments are outward signs of God’s workings in the world, and six of them are given to individuals. Water was poured on your head at Baptism. The cross was marked in holy oil upon your forehead at Confirmation. When you are gravely ill or near death, it will be your body that is anointed. Marriage Only Marriage is a sacrament that is given to two people at the same moment, “that they might no longer be two, but one flesh.” Marriage is the epitome of all the relationships that people have in life. In any […]
July 22, 2014

Book review: “Luther” by John Osborne

Perhaps the core of Luther, the 1961 play by John Osborne, can be found midway through the play in a scene set on the steps of Castle Church in Wittenberg. It is October 31, 1517, and the monk-theologian has nailed his 95 theses to the church door. In the sermon that follows and takes up the entire scene, Luther rails against all the magical aspects of Christian belief, such as relics and indulgences, and tells his listeners: For you must be made to know that there’s no security, no security at all, either in indulgences, holy busywork or anywhere in this world. It came to me while I was in my tower, what they call the monk’s sweathouse, the jakes, the john, or whatever you are pleased to call it….And I sat on my heap of pain until the words emerged and opened out. “The just shall live by faith.” My pain vanished, my bowels flushed, and I could get up. His dung-throwing Throughout Osborne’s drama, Luther complains often about the sensitivity of his bowels and shows a willingness, even glee, to employ excretory metaphors for those he disagrees with — such as his father who, he says, is as […]
July 16, 2014

Book review: “Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy” by David Nasaw

David Nasaw writes that Joseph P. Kennedy was always “the most vital, the smartest, the dominant one in a room” who “imposed his will on family members, friends, and acquaintances, on those he worked for and with, on political associates, business colleagues, and the hundreds of topside and not so topside men and women he came in contact with.” All of that may be a bit of an overstatement, but not by much. Nasaw offers this statement at the very end of his 2012 biography Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Time of Joseph P. Kennedy when he’s leading into his description of the stroke that left the elderly Kennedy unable to walk or speak, a frail and pitiable figure. Not that I have much pity for Kennedy. By the end of — well, actually early on in — Nasaw’s book, I came to dislike the man. Not hate him, not despise him, as a good many people do. He was too small a person to hate. Then, again, I never met him. Oversize personality It seems, from Nasaw’s extensively researched book, that Kennedy was so charming, so vibrant, so confident that he would fill most any room he walked […]
July 14, 2014

Book review: “Star Gate” by Andre Norton

The idea of alternative universes is old hat. Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter just published The Long Mars, the third installment in their Long Earth series about uncountable millions of versions of Earth, set in uncountable millions of versions of the Universe. In the 2011 film Another Earth, a lookalike planet is discovered, and the more our Earth learns about it, the more it seems to have come somehow from a parallel cosmos. In a key scene, a scientist trying to make contact with the planet suddenly finds herself talking to herself. There are a wide variety of ways in which to envision alternate universes. The Long Earth and Another Earth are of the type that posits the existence of different versions of the same place at the same time, each slightly or hugely different based on chance happenings. That’s the concept at the heart of Andre Norton’s 1958 Star Gate, an early attempt to see how this theory might play out in life. Rather than Earth, her story is set on Gorth, and one of the characters explains: “As it is with men, so it is also with nations and with worlds. There are times when they come to […]
July 11, 2014

Jane Jacobs and the New York City Gay Pride Parade, 2014

On a recent trip to New York City, I went looking for Jane Jacobs and found the Gay Pride Parade. My little excursion was incongruous on several levels, but, first, let me set the stage. In Chicago, before travelling to New York, I had the idea that it would be fun to spend an afternoon on a sort of pilgrimage to the home at 555 Hudson Street where Jacobs lived for 21 years (1947-1968). I say “sort of pilgrimage” because it’s not like I’m an acolyte at Jacobs’ altar. I recognize she was immensely important to assert, as she did in her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, that urban planning must be approached, at least in part, from the ground up. From the street level. From the sidewalk level where people see and greet each other, pass each other, build a community together — or not. She single-handedly changed the midcentury debate about cities and about municipal development and, in her way, became as powerful as her nemesis Robert Moses, the epitome of the slash-and-build school of urban renewal. In her book, Jacobs stated her insights about cities aggressively, clearly and, no question about it, […]
July 10, 2014

Book review: “The Lowland” by Jhumpa Lahiri

It’s easy enough to miss or disregard several faint Biblical echoes in Jhumpa Lahiri’s 2013 novel The Lowland. After all, this is a very modern story about Indians born in the mid-20th century, some of whom immigrate to the United States. The novel centers on two brothers, Subhash and Udayan, born into a neighborhood on the edge of Calcutta in 1943. Because of their actions, one dies and one’s life is ruined. Yet, throughout much of the novel, theirs doesn’t seem to be the Cain and Abel story. In the first half of the book, there is a mother who is about to give birth, and a quiet, stoic Joseph-like man who steps in to care for the Madonna and child. A similar scenario develops in the second half. Still, it’s not as if anyone’s talking about virgin birth. There is the lowland itself, a depression in the landscape near their home where the brothers played together during their childhood, amid the water hyacinth and puddles still draining from the year’s monsoons. It is a kind of Eden, part of the cycle of Nature, flooding and draining, flooding and draining. By the end of the novel, though, it is filled […]
July 9, 2014

Me, myself and Jim Brosnan and Anne Hollander

I suspect that Jim Brosnan and Anne Hollander never met. They moved in different circles. They died eight days apart — Brosnan on June 29 at the age of 84, Hollander on July 6 at the age of 83.
July 8, 2014

Book review: “Leonardo da Vinci: A Penguin Life” by Sherwin B. Nuland

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 […]