November 4, 2013

Book review: “Pudd’nhead Wilson” by Mark Twain

Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson is a wonderful mess. Or, maybe better put, a messy wonder. As Twain explains elsewhere, the 1894 novel started life as a much different story, focused on conjoined twins with different morals. If one twin is bad, can you punish both? But, as he was writing, he brought in other characters, as novelists are generally required to do: Among them came a stranger named Pudd’nhead Wilson, and a woman named Roxana; and presently the doings of these two pushed on into prominence a young fellow named Tom Driscoll, whose proper place was away in the obscure background. Before the book was half finished those three were taking things almost entirely into their own hands and working the whole tale as a private venture of their own — a tale which they had nothing at all to do with, by rights. Literary conjoined twins He finished the book, and it was bad. The two stories were literary conjoined twins, and very awkward page-fellows. So Twain did the necessary surgery. The original story didn’t come away from the operation in very good shape. Twain found a way to use it, however, by publishing it as the novella Those […]
October 27, 2013

Book review: “The Alchemy of Air: A Jewish Genius, a Doomed Tycoon, and the Scientific Discovery That Fed the World but Fueled the Rise of Hitler” by Thomas Hager

Grumpy Pat: I just finished Thomas Hager’s The Alchemy of Air: A Jewish Genius, a Doomed Tycoon, and the Scientific Discovery That Fed the World but Fueled the Rise of Hitler, and it was a real waste of time. Amiable Pat: C’mon, it wasn’t all that bad. I kind of liked some parts of it. Grumpy Pat: Alright, it wasn’t exactly a waste of time. It was a book that took 281 pages to tell a story that could have easily been communicated in 30. I should have known. It’s always a bad sign when a book has a subtitle as long and weighted as this one. “Genius” and “doomed” are favorite subtitle words. And anytime you can get Hitler in there, it’s golden. At least, as far as sales go. Amiable Pat: Well, you’re right about subtitles. But Hager’s book does feature some interesting stuff about guano and nitrate and saltpeter, and how they were used for fertilizer and gunpowder — to feed and to kill. That’s kind of ironic, isn’t it? Grumpy Pat: Yeah, yeah, but Hager spends the first third of the book on these natural sources of nitrogen. It’s over-padded and over-written. It’s not really about […]
October 27, 2013

A meditation on sainthood and Sammy Esposito

As a young boy, I was captivated by baseball stars, and I asked my Dad if a particular player was good. It may have been Sammy Esposito of the White Sox. His response was that, if Sammy was in the major leagues, he had to be good. Yes, even if Sammy was only batting .167. My thoughts go to that memory as we approach November 1, the Feast of All Saints. The Catholic Church has its own Hall of Fame of Saints, the official list of those canonized, and it includes such all-time greats as St. Francis of Assisi and St. Gertrude the Great. In addition, there are famous people who, unofficially, are considered saints, including Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King Jr. I wrote about that Catholic hall of fame in an op-ed piece last Friday in the Chicago Tribune, and I want to elaborate a bit more here. At my parish on the Far North Side of Chicago, St. Gertrude, our roll of parishioners doesn’t include any official or unofficial saints. Yet, if you look around at a parish meeting or at church during Mass or on the court of a 7th grade basketball game, we’re surrounded by […]
October 23, 2013

Book review: “A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters” by Julian Barnes

I thoroughly enjoyed A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters by Julian Barnes for its lively and witty storytelling, its multiplicity of writing styles and its refusal to fit. It’s a novel. It says so right there on the dust jacket. And, at his website, Barnes calls it a novel. Yet, it’s unlike just about any novel you’ve ever read.
October 8, 2013

Book review: “Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar” by Simon Sebag Montefiore

It might be helpful to think of Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Stalin: the Court of the Red Tsar as akin to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals. Except that, when Abraham Lincoln wanted to get someone out of his cabinet, he moved the guy somewhere else, like to the U.S. Supreme Court. When Stalin wanted to remove one of his inner circle of toadying confidantes, he had the guy killed. Like a Russian novel, Stalin: the Court of the Red Tsar has a seeming cast of thousands. There are really great photo inserts in the book, but I found it even more helpful to prepare my own handy bookmark-size collection of mugshots of 18 of Stalin’s closest aides. By the end of this long book and Stalin’s long reign as the Red Tsar, nine of the 18 were dead. Only two of those succumbed to natural causes. The rest were killed in some way or forced to commit suicide. And, of course, that doesn’t include the dozens of other less exalted leaders who were exterminated, often with their families. And the millions of bureaucrats, scientists, military men and people from just about every other walk of life who were purged (i.e., […]
October 8, 2013

Book review: “Everest 1953” by Nick Conefrey

The scribbled telegram text, sent by messenger from the top of Mount Everest, was bleak — but also a bit odd. Snow conditions bad stop advanced base abandoned yesterday stop awaiting improvement All well News of failure was not unexpected from the expedition on Everest in late May of 1953. After all, for more than 30 years, mountaineers, particularly those from Great Britain, had been attempting to reach the summit of the tallest peak on earth and had routinely come up short, writes Nick Conefrey in Everest 1953. This note, carried down the slopes to an Indian radio station and ultimately transmitted in a wire to the British Foreign Office, was sent by James Morris (later Jan Morris), the on-site reporter for the London Times. As he expected, it also went through the hands of ferociously competitive journalists who had bribed functionaries at various points in its journey. That “All well” at the end was curious, but the rest of the message seemed to confirm the latest rumors about the attempt to climb to the top of the world. So those snoopers ignored the message. And lost the biggest scoop of their lives. ALL THIS — AND EVEREST TOO Of […]
October 4, 2013

“Marriage Song” by Patrick T. Reardon

We exult at the joining of young lives. We dance the dance of joy. This is a time of merriment. This is a time of wonder. Who will argue at a time like this? Who will find fault? Fear is exiled. Jealousy is banished. We are in the land of milk and honey. We are in a rich and fertile land. We are anointed in these vows. In these promises, we are blessed. This rite is our consecration. This joining is our union. This is the time of the Spirit. This is the time of bright visions. Let us dance. Let us sing our songs. Let us smile and laugh together. We are in the Promised Land. We are on our soil. We are where we belong.
October 1, 2013

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

When Roberta Golding first shows up in The Long War by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter, she’s described as “a dark, unsmiling girl of about fifteen.” Nothing too unusual in that, but there’s more. She is a student at a boarding school in Valhalla where Dan Valiente, the curious and alert eight-year-old son of Joshua and Helen, may soon be enrolled. During a tour, the headmaster asks Dan if he knows how Valhalla — a sort of neo-Chicago — survives as a major transportation link even though it isn’t surrounded and supported by a hinterland of farms. “Maybe you’re all robbers,” Dan quips. To which, Roberta says, “Valhalla is a city supported by combers. Hunter-gatherers. The logic is elementary. Intensive farming can support order of magnitude more people per acre than hunting and gathering…” And on she drones for half a page. “Joshua thought the kid spoke like a textbook,” Pratchett and Baxter write. For me, Roberta is the most intriguing character in a book fully littered with the odd, the eccentric and the downright alien. The context Before I explain, though, I need to provide the context, and there’s a lot.
September 18, 2013

The Woven Lives of a Parish

As a parallel to the story I wrote for National Catholic Reporter in July about St. Gertrude Church and the death of our longtime religious education director, I did a similar piece that was published this month in Reality, a Catholic magazine in Ireland. Here it is: Patrick T. Reardon 9.18.13 If the above copies of the magazine pages are too tough to read, here’s the story in a more readable format:
September 16, 2013

135 North Leamington Avenue, Chicago — where I grew up

September 8, 2013

Book review: “Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song” by David Margolick

In early 1939, at Café Society, a rare integrated New York City night club, Billie Holiday first sang “Strange Fruit.” It was, writes David Margolick, a shocking, stunning, visceral song for the singer and her audience — a unique, courageous and bitter song about the lynching of blacks in the American South. And so it remained, arresting and horrific, for anyone who heard the battered and self-destructive Holiday sing it during the two decades she had left in her life, and for anyone who listens today to an audio or video recording of her singing the song. It was written by Abel Meeropol, a school teacher and songwriter with strong leftish sympathies. (Indeed, in later life, after Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for spying, he and his wife, who never met the Rosenbergs, adopted their two young sons.)  “Strange Fruit” by Lewis Allan (Abel Meeropol)   Southern trees bear a strange fruit,  Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,  Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,  Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees…. Strange Fruit is Margolick’s short book about the song. It began as a Vanity Fair article, and is subtitled […]
September 5, 2013

Book review: “Shalako” by Louis L’Amour

Louis L’Amour died in 1988 at the age of 80. In his long life as a writer, he published 105 novels and other books, almost all of them westerns or set in the West. He has more than 320 million copies of his works in print, and I’ve just read one of them, his 1962 novel Shalako. My expectations weren’t high, given that L’Amour’s books are genre westerns. Still, many have been turned into movies. In fact, that’s why I was reading Shalako — because, recently, I’d seen the 1968 film with Sean Connery in the title role and Brigitte Bardot as the love interest, a European noblewoman Irina. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PIgAL_KryIU Shalako has some of the negatives of genre fiction of all sorts. For instance, none of the characters is very complicated, particularly the baddest of the bad guys, Bosky Fulton. At one point, the reader is told there is “something unclean about the man.” Later, he is described as an “ill-smelling, hatchet-faced gunman.” And, toward the end, we learn that he has “yellow eyes.” To top it all off, Bosky strips the valuables from one of his dying friends, the second baddest guy, and leaves him to the Apaches. Near […]
September 5, 2013

Book review: “Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling, and a World on the Brink” by David Margolick

Sports books tend to be bland reading. They can’t hold a candle to watching an athlete ply his or her trade. In Beyond Glory, David Margolick does a good job of describing the key fights of Joe Louis and Max Schmeling, particularly their two against each other. Yet, as evocative as his writing is, it is nothing to a YouTube clip showing a totally befuddled Schmeling stagger across the canvas and along the ropes as Louis beats the crap out of him in their second bout. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rJGOADcmwS4 Beyond Glory, though, isn’t a sports book. It’s a book about a moment in time when a single sporting event — that second Louis-Schmeling fight — brought front-and-center the sins and aspirations of a world community. • Adolf Hitler and the Nazis saw Max Schmeling as a means to over-awe the culture of the globe, as Hitler had over-awed the political leaders. • African-Americans saw Joe Louis as a means to live out their fantasies of winning in a white man’s world — and literally beating a white man into submission. • American Jews saw Louis as a means of getting a small bit of revenge against Schmeling’s Nazi backers for their treatment […]
September 5, 2013

“Tell ’em about the dream, Martin!”

It was a moment of high drama. And Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was trying to find his rhythm. He stood before the Lincoln Memorial to address some quarter of a million black and white participants in the March on Washington as well as untold millions of television viewers watching a live broadcast. He was giving the speech he’d written for this auspicious day, August, 28, 1963. It was formal, sober, high-minded — and more than a bit clunky. One early line was: “And so today, let us go back to our communities as members of the international association for the advancement of creative dissatisfaction.” As King came to his line, he seemed to recognize the awkwardness of such polysyllabic phrasing, historian Taylor Branch writes, and decided to speak instead from the heart. Looking up from his text, he told his listeners: Go back to Mississippi; go back to South Carolina; go back to Georgia; go back to Louisiana; go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair. Those on the platform with him knew he had moved off […]
July 23, 2013

Book review: “But Come Ye Back” by Beth Lordan

I wonder if anyone has written about the waning years of a happy (and, at times, sharp-edged) marriage with as much sensitivity and nuance as Beth Lordan in But Come Ye Back. Published in 2004, But Come Ye Back is what’s called a novel in stories. There are seven stories, averaging around 25 pages each, and a novella of a little over 100. It’s a form that serves Lordan’s narrative well since it provides her a wide latitude in terms of tone, pace and point of view. Even so, at the heart of every section, no matter the literary techniques, beats the relationship — the love — of Mary and Lyle. As the book opens, Lyle has retired from his accountant’s job in Ohio, and the couple is moving to Ireland, Mary’s homeland and the native soil of Lyle’s parents. He is 65. She is 60. She wants to be back with her sister and other relatives. He goes along, only a bit grumpy. This is a book about stories not told. About how life is lived, experienced, and how memories are kept, savored, almost unknowingly. Even if you wanted to tell a story, how would you put it into […]
July 19, 2013

Book review: “Gates of Dannemora” by John L. Bonn

I think I was 12 when I read John L. Bonn’s Gates of Dannemora. That’s more than a half century ago. The Second Vatican Council was about to start, and I was in eighth grade, planning to go into a high school seminary. Since then, every once in a while, I’d think of the novel, but my memory was fuzzy. I could remember that it was about a modern-day prison in New York State and somehow about the “Good Thief” who was one of the two men crucified with Jesus. And that its short title included a long proper name that might have begun with a “D.” Recently, after it came to mind yet again, I wondered what it was about the book that kept it bouncing around my head. I went on the internet, employed some of the research skills I’d developed in a long career as a reporter, and, fairly quickly, found the title and ordered a copy of Gates of Dannemora. The 12-year-old me I could see immediately some of the elements of the novel that would have attracted the 12-year-old me. A young priest, Father Ambrose “Steve” Hyland, is the newly assigned Catholic chaplain at the […]
July 14, 2013

Book review: “Young Stalin” by Simon Sebag Montefiore

While reading Young Stalin, I was struck by the very human and, at times, very attractive portrait that Simon Sebag Montefiore paints of Joseph Stalin. At various points in the narrative, Montefiore describes Stalin as someone who could be (a) gentle with children and (b) the singing-laughing life of a party and (c) irresistible to women and (d) an intrepid hunter in the winter wastes of Siberia and (e) a self-taught philosopher and (f) a vociferous reader and (g) an anthologized poet. The lavish use of photos in this 2007 book adds to the perception of Stalin as someone who could fit well into a circle of friends — even the mug shots. Indeed, the mug shot used on the book jacket has been circulated around the Internet under the words “Young Stalin was hot,” and sparked one webpage of parody images of the young Communist that included a faux Cosmopolitan cover and an image titled “He’s fabulous…but he’s evil.” A Facebook image The most arresting image, for me, is opposite page 302. It shows a 26-year-old Stalin with dancing eyes and a wide smile, standing next to Soren Spandarian, his best friend. Spandarian is described as “a well-educated Armenian […]
July 8, 2013

Freedom “for all God’s children”

On August 28, 1963, a solemn, deliberate Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. began his address at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial — the climax of the March on Washington — with the words: I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation. It was the start of what has become known as King’s “I have a dream” speech, one of the most revered and most influential orations in history, a stirring improvised poem of human hope and possibility. At the time, many Americans thought that King was simply speaking about freedom for blacks, freedom from discriminatory laws and discriminatory attitudes and a discriminatory culture. Yet, half a century later, it’s clear that, when King said, “I have a dream today,” his vision was much greater. His dream was twofold. He sought freedom for all people everywhere — each man, woman and child — from the chains of repression. He dreamt that all people everywhere would someday stand on equal footing, without limitations imposed because of race, ethnicity or some other accident of fate. And, over the past fifty years, his […]
July 7, 2013

A parish, like a family, is made of woven lives

By Patrick T. Reardon The baby crawled along the carpet in an open area in the back of church. She was dressed in a celebration of white and red horizontal stripes, and she was happy. She was delighted at her newfound ability to get from here to there. She smiled and giggled. A few steps away was Ann, who was dying…… My story in the July 5, 2013 edition of National Catholic Reporter.
July 5, 2013

Book review: “A Perfect Spy” by John Le Carre

I am surprised that, having finished John Le Carre’s A Perfect Spy a few days ago, the image of Rick Pym that remains in my mind is this one: …Rick turned away to bestow a resigned smile on his subjects feasting around him. Then with his good hand he lightly pinged the edge of his Drambuie glass to indicate that he required another nice touch. Just as, by unlacing his shoes, he used to let it be known that somebody should fetch his bedroom slippers. Or by rolling on his back, after a lengthy banquet, and spreading his knees, he declared a carnal appetite. Rick is a con man extraordinaire, and I would have thought that my mind’s eye would see him running a con. There are certainly many, many, many examples of that in this novel. By the way, this is a novel about a spy — Rick’s son Magnus, the “perfect spy” of the title — but it’s not a spy novel. Le Carre, who has always written of espionage with high literary skill, essentially leaves the reservation with this 1986 book. This is the story of the wracked, warped, false, deep, rending, manipulative, counterfeit lives and relationship […]
July 5, 2013

Who is a saint?

The recent fast-track beatification of Pope John Paul II has got me thinking about saints. Throughout its 2,000-year history, the Catholic Church has canonized at least 12 kings and 60 popes. But I’m always a little leery when people who had high positions in life are given high positions in death. It seems too much like a kind of insider trading. My favorite image of a saint is a photograph of Therese of Lisieux, who later became known as the Little Flower. It was taken in the 1890s when she was a Carmelite nun, but she’s not in habit. Instead, she’s dressed in an attractively amateurish costume as Joan of Arc for one of the religious plays she wrote for the enjoyment and edification of the sisters in her convent. With her long hair (a wig) and direct gaze, she looks like any young woman in her early twenties. Like my daughter. Like the women I see on the el on their way to work. Like Janine Denomme.
June 29, 2013

Meditation: Independence Day and Freedom

There’s a strong element of loss and disaffectedness in Aimee Mann’s song “4th of July” which begins: Today’s the fourth of July. Another June has gone by. And when they light up our town I just think What a waste of gunpowder and sky. Independence Day is a celebration of our nation’s freedom from British rule, and of the freedoms we enjoy as Americans. Yet, as the song suggests, such open-ended liberty can leave you adrift. If you can do anything you want, what should you do?
June 21, 2013

Book review: “Meet Me at Pere Lachaise” by Anna Eriksson and Mason Bendewald

This is an unfair review. I’ve been to Paris twice, and, both times, I’ve made a trip out to the Pere Lachaise cemetery. I’m a fan of cemeteries, and, for someone like me, going to Pere Lachaise is like an art lover going to the Louvre, or a Catholic going to the Vatican. Meet Me at Pere Lachaise is a guided tour of the cemetery, with text by Anna Eriksson and photos by Mason Bendewald. I ordered the book because it’s been a couple years since my last visit and I’ve been getting nostalgic about strolling along the cemetery’s avenues and stumbling amid its gravestones. Meet Me at Pere Lachaise is fine as a guidebook. But, alas, it isn’t the book for me.
June 20, 2013

Book review: “Steel Barrio: The Great Mexican Migration to South Chicago, 1915-1940” by Michael Innis-Jimenez

On July 7, 1931, Thomas A. Green, a municipal judge in Chicago, caused an international incident when he tossed the acting Mexican consul into jail for six months. Adolfo Dominguez went to Green’s courtroom in support of an unemployed Mexican immigrant arrested on vagrancy. But, after hearing Green make insulting comments about Mexican “idlers” who were a “burden” on the city, the consul approached the bench to protest. Green didn’t want to listen. Dominguez wouldn’t back down. So the judge sent him to Cook County Jail. “It took a State Department letter to the Illinois governor to force Green to retract his decision regarding Dominguez,” writes Michael Innis-Jimenez in Steel Barrio: The Great Mexican Migration to South Chicago, 1915-1940, just published this month. (Dominguez served only four hours behind bars.) Decades later, Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in the South Chicago neighborhood were still talking about Green, not only for his jailing of the consul but also for his general mistreatment of their compatriots. Yet, the anti-Mexican prejudices expressed by Green are only part of the complex account that Innis-Jimenez provides about the early years of the Mexican community in South Chicago. It is an account of living in two cultures, of […]
June 13, 2013

Book review: “A Delicate Truth” by John Le Carre

Spy novels are about adventure, tension and plot. Think Robert Ludlum and the various Bourne books. Since the 1963 publication of John Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, they’ve also tended to be rather bleak. Over the past half century, the books by Le Carre and his many imitators have featured characters who find themselves knee-deep in moral ambiguity (no white hats, no black hats; a fog of gray) and often end up being ground to bits in the inanimate gears of forces, philosophies and political imperatives beyond their ken. Certainly, beyond their control. Le Carre remains among the best at unsettling the reader with the discomfiting realities of power and deceit in today’s world — or, maybe simply, in the world as it’s always been. Modern and universal His latest novel, A Delicate Truth, is about the cover-up of a complex operation that involved mercenaries, off-the-books British soldiers and a Foreign Office veteran who — let’s face it — was something of a likeable doofus. Over-planned, over-technologied, over-muscled, the effort went very wrong.