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 […]
July 7, 2014

Book review: “The Devil’s Larder” by Jim Crace

Jim Crace’s 2001 book The Devil’s Larder is a collection of 64 very short stories centering on food. There are stories here about strip fondue and about a waiter who can sing the names of all 90 pastas in alphabetical order. About an amen egg (timed by singing the 37th hymn) and about pot brownies that may have eased a condemned man’s transition from this world. One story focuses on the conundrum of being marooned on a raft in the middle of the ocean and having to choose between drinking salt water or one’s own urine. Another tells of Air and Light, a restaurant that serves only air and light. A mental itch Crace is a subtle writer, and these tight tales are poetic and often wry. They leave behind a mental itch that you can’t help scratching. Consider these examples: • A kitchen mystery: “Someone has taken off — and lost — the label on the can. There are two glassy lines of glue with just a trace of stripped paper where the label was attached. The can’s batch number — RG2JD 19547 — is embossed on one of the ends. Top or bottom end? No one can tell […]
July 6, 2014

Book review: “A Blink of the Screen” by Terry Pratchett

Is Terry Pratchett a fan of John Barth? I never gave it any thought until I read Pratchett’s 2012 collection of short fiction A Blink of the Screen which contains “Final Reward,” a story written in 1988 with a particularly Barthian bent. Kevin Dogger is an author who’s made a small fortune with a series of science fiction novels about the exploits of Erdan the Barbarian. One night, after drinking too much and fighting with his girlfriend, he comes home and, out of spite, writes the final chapter of Erdan and the Serpent of the Rim, killing off his hero on the final page. The next morning, he answers the door to find, on his doorstep, Erdan the Barbarian. “I have come to meet my maker,” the erstwhile now deceased champion says. (Erdan, by the way, is carrying Skung, the Sword of the Ice Gods, which, on the one hand, is able to speak, but, on the other, only says [“conversationally”], “I want to drink your blood.”) Characters and fantasy Throughout his long literary career, John Barth — who practices what is known as metafiction, i.e., fiction that goes beyond the idea of simply telling a story and focuses on […]
June 20, 2014

The Pelican’s Portrait

Sir Reginald Reginaldson, the son of a Danish merchant, grew up in the well-to-do mercantile community of Houndstooth-upon-Tweed on High Street in London during the second half of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. An inveterate hanger-on with the minor figures at the edge of the royal court, Reginaldson came to the notice of Elizabeth when he broke his nose dancing into a pillar during a ferradingo celebrating the eve of St. Thurstide’s Day. (The ferradingo, an import from Italy, involved a series of intricate steps, some of which were to be done with the eyes closed.) “Methinks the gallant’s nose flowed not had his leaps only ebbed,” the Queen said. Thereafter, Elizabeth frequently referred to Reginaldson has “my pelican.” This miniature portrait by Isaac Oliver, which now hangs in the Stuart M. Wedlow Museum of Fine Art in the Silver Dollar Casino in Reno, Nevada, was executed shortly before its subject’s execution in 1615 for what was believed to be an attempt on the life of Elizabeth’s successor James I. Reginaldson was accused to attempting to push the monarch off a parapet, allegedly out of anger for the habit of James to refer to him with a corruption of […]
June 4, 2014

Book review: “Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War” by Mark Harris

A book about five Hollywood directors in World War II? Well, OK. It was a book selected by one of my book clubs so I got a copy of Five Came Back by Mark Harris, but I didn’t expect much. After all, there have been thousands of books written about the Second World War. Books about D-Day, books about Hitler and the Nazis, books about Pearl Harbor and the Battle of Britain and the Battle of the Bulge and George Patton and Winston Churchill and the Russian front and U-boats and the occupation of Paris. And books about the Final Solution. What could a book about five well-to-do, American movie-makers add? Actually, a lot.
June 3, 2014

Book review: “Chimera” by John Barth

I suspect that anyone writing a review of a John Barth book is tempted to Barth Barth. Which is to say, to try to be as inventive and witty and playful and erudite and literary and subtle as Barth is. Which is to say, is tempted to certain failure. From his third novel The Sot-Weed Factor (1960) to his 17th book-length work of fiction Every Third Thought (2011), Barth has caroused in the funhouse of metafiction. Few have delighted so much in playing the game or sparked so much delight in those who have taken part. And probably no one has done it so well. The term “metafiction” I’ve never liked the term “metafiction.” I know, “meta” is from Greek, meaning “above” and “beyond,” and it indicates a type of fiction that looks at itself from the outside. Sort of. (After all, writing from an outside perspective about the act of creating fiction as part of a piece of fiction turns the “outside” into the “inside.” There’s no full objectivity. In addition, the autobiographical and writing-as-mechanics details that an author, such as Barth, weaves into this kind of fiction isn’t done for how-to reasons. Rather than clarifying things, this complicates […]
June 2, 2014

The Last Four Miles: Completing Chicago’s Lakefront Parks

Virtually my first freelance job after being laid off by the Chicago Tribune in April, 2009, was to edit (and write portions of) a report for the Friends of the Parks titled “The Last Four Miles: Completing Chicago’s Lakefront Parks.” The aim was the fulfill the dream of Daniel H. Burnham and generations of Chicagoans by creating a lakefront park spanning the city’s entire thirty-mile-long shoreline. The report was a call to action. When “The Last Four Miles” was published on June 9, 2009, I wrote about its vision and implications in the Burnham Blog for the Burnham Plan Centennial. (Five years later, much remains to be done.) Here, in slightly edited form, is the opening challenge from the Friends of the Parks plan: “The Lake front by right belongs to the people.” Daniel Burnham, Plan of Chicago, 1909 The time is now. A century after Daniel Burnham boldly proposed parkland for Chicago’s entire lakefront — essentially a single linear park for everyone’s use — the moment has come to commit ourselves as a city, as a region and as a generation to finish his work.
May 30, 2014

The departure of a feisty think tank

As of Saturday, May 31, Metropolis Strategies, formerly Metropolis 2020, closes its doors. I’m sorry to see the feisty think tank depart although, when it was founded in 1999 by the Commercial Club of Chicago, it was supposed to operate for ten years only. Its life was extended an extra five years because of its leadership of the Burnham Plan Centennial and its involvement in many pressing issues facing Chicago, its region, the state of Illinois and the Midwest, such as transportation and prison reform, to name just two. I feel a particular pang because, after I was laid off by the Chicago Tribune in April, 2009, Metropolis 2020 became my home for nine months. I will always be grateful to George A. Ranney, Frank Beal, Emily Harris, Paul O’Connor and many, many others for giving me the great opportunity to write about the Burnham Plan and present-day planning efforts three days a week in the Burnham Blog, a labor of love.
May 23, 2014

The prayer of writing

Norman Mailer called writing “the spooky art.” And anyone who’s been a writer, amateur or professional, knows what Mailer means. There’s a mysterious alchemy that takes place when the writer begins putting words together into sentences. There was nothing; now, there is something. The chaos of existence — that swirling, kaleidoscopic, overwhelming, storm of stimuli — is funneled down to the narrowest of straight lines. Tiny symbols, as regular in size as bricks or building stones but ever so small, are mortared across the page or screen or paper. Sculpture mimics the body. Painting plays the same tricks on the eyes that the physical world does. Music tickles the mathematics of our ears. Writing, though, speaks directly to the brain. The writing goes from one mind to another, from the writer to the reader. It doesn’t exist without a writer and a reader. It is a kind of a prayer, an effort to find and transmit truth, to reach across the chasm that separates people and enable them to see, hear and experience each other. It is God’s work. Something new I am always the first reader of what I write. And I’m always surprised in some way at how […]
May 18, 2014

Advice for new graduates: Believe. Jump. Leap. Trust.

If you’re one of the millions of young people who are graduating from high school or college this season, I have one word of advice for you: Believe. Believe in God. Believe in other people. Believe in yourself. I’m not sure how much your education and upbringing has prepared you for the question of faith. By its nature, faith is a squirrelly sort of concept. It doesn’t lend itself to test scores. A fact doesn’t require belief. Abraham Lincoln was the 16th president of the United States — that’s a fact. Anything that can be proved doesn’t require belief. If you put a cup of water in the freezer and wait a couple hours, you’ll find the cup is full of ice. You can see it with your own eyes. By contrast, faith isn’t something that’s forced on you by the facts. You have a choice. You can choose to believe or not to believe. You can make the leap of faith. Or stay put with your feet firmly planted in the rational world. Here’s my advice: Jump!
May 2, 2014

Book review: The Foundation Trilogy: “Foundation,” “Foundation and Empire,” and “Second Foundation” by Isaac Asimov

Some of the enthusiasms of youth travel well. Others don’t. When it comes to books, I can point to some I read in my teens and early twenties that still resonate with me today. For example, in science fiction, there are Walter M. Miller Jr.’s elliptical, transcendent A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960) and Andre Norton’s coming-into-manhood adventure Daybreak: 2250 A.D. (1952), originally titled Star Man’s Son. Both describe a post-apocalyptic world a relative short time after the bombs dropped. Isaac Asmiov’s Foundation Trilogy is something else again. The story told in three books — Foundation (1951), Foundation and Empire (1952) and Second Foundation (1953) — first saw the light of day in a string of short stories and novelettes published between 1942 and 1951. 30,000 years of chaos? As the first book opens,