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 […]
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 […]