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.
June 6, 2013

Book review: “Francis of Assisi: A New Biography” by Augustine Thompson, O.P.

Perhaps the best way to begin a discussion of Francis of Assisi: A New Biography by Augustine Thompson, O.P. — a rich, austere and complex portrait of one of the most famous and admired saints in Catholicism — is to look at the greeting that Francis used: May the Lord give you peace. Francis said he learned this greeting from God, and Thompson writes: This phrase was not a command or a didactic instruction; it was a prayer. Its use placed Francis within a medieval “peace movement” going back to the period of the Gregorian Reforms in the eleventh century, but its use as a greeting was revolutionary in its novelty… Francis’s greeting did not use the imperative as a priest’s blessing would have; rather, setting aside any priestly authority, he prayed that God grant the hearer peace. Something about the greeting was so disturbing and novel that when Francis was traveling with one of his early brothers…, people reacted with confusion or anger at it…. One thing that distinguishes Francis from earlier and later medieval peacemakers was his absolute lack of any program of legal or social reforms. He did not diagnose the moral roots of social disease or […]
June 3, 2013

Book review: “Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis” by Harold M. Mayer and Richard C. Wade

During my long career as a Chicago Tribune reporter, much of my time was spent covering urban affairs, and often, when working on deadline and in need of a quick dose of background information, I’d turn to a book I thought of, simply, as Mayer-Wade. I wasn’t the only one. Mayer-Wade — officially Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis by Harold M. Mayer and Richard C. Wade — has been a go-to book for Chicago region reporters, planners, professors, historians and activists since it was published in 1969. The Plan of Chicago? Quick, turn to Mayer-Wade. The history of Evanston? Mayer-Wade. The Illinois & Michigan Canal? How Chicago looked at the time of the Great Fire of 1871? The before and after of urban renewal? Mayer-Wade was always there with some clear, pithy bit of history and often a photo, drawing, map or other image. Indeed, it was those images that set Mayer-Wade apart. Harold Mayer was a geographer, and Richard Wade an historian. They joined together to tell the story of Chicago in a uniquely integrated way: This volume…tries to do more than show physical development — it attempts to suggest how the city expanded and why it looks the […]
May 27, 2013

Book review: “Every Third Thought” by John Barth

Two-thirds of the way through Every Third Thought, John Barth has his central characters, the married couple of George Irving Newett and Amanda Jean Todd, allude to some lines in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. As Scene I ends, Prospero mentions his plan to “retire me to my Milan, where/Every third thought shall be my grave.” These lines arise in the context of George’s reminiscences of his childhood friend Ned Prosper who had a habit of saying “On second thought…” and “On third thought….” and who died (or, at least, disappeared) at the age of 24 while still working on (or, at least, talking about) his Great American Novel-in-progress which may, as George ruminates, have been a fictitious fiction. No manuscript was ever found. “Aiaiai!” as George says at several points in this 2011 novel. (I am pretty sure it is pronounced “aye-yi-yi.” But maybe not.) Prospero/Prosper, indeed!
May 22, 2013

Book review: “How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter” by Sherwin B. Nuland

I originally read Sherwin B. Nuland’s book How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter in 1995 when I was in my mid-forties and my mother was dying of congestive heart failure and a host of other diseases. Ever since, I’ve recommended it to virtually anyone who would listen as one of the best books I’d ever read. This time around, it was scarier. For one thing, I’m a couple decades closer to my own end than I was back in the ‘90s. For another, I’m the sort who takes descriptions of health problems and diseases much too much to heart, seeing each symptom in my body and getting anxious about it. Fairly quickly, though, I got over that. Nuland describes in exquisite and vibrant detail so many symptoms and so many ways in which the body breaks down that I didn’t feel so threatened by them. Or, maybe better put, I felt equally threatened by all of them, so they sort of canceled each other out. And his bottom-line message is still the same as I remembered it: Death is part of life.
May 12, 2013

Book review: “The Development” by John Barth

Gerry Frank has made an estimate of the number of beats his heart has pumped over his 68 years — 3,771,800, give or take a few thousand. Dick Felton is 75, and his wife Sue is in her late 60s. They’ve had a good life together, but now, as Dick says, they’re facing “the crappy last lap.” Tim Manning’s wife Marge — his “without-whom-nothing life partner” — is gone, and Tim is fed up to here with the idea of Assisted Living. He searches his keyboard and all of its buttons. “There ought to be one for Assisted Dying…,” he writes. John Barth’s 2008 book The Development has the slim, compact appearance that you’d expect for a volume of nine short stories. But — bam! — these stories carry a wallop. No, I don’t mean they pack O’Henry-like sudden-twist endings. Actually, in some cases, the stories don’t quite end, or don’t end at all. The angel of The End What I mean is that Barth — that old warhorse of storytelling and metafiction — is wrestling like Jacob with the angel of The End. I.e., the end of me, the end of you, the end of him, the end of […]
May 7, 2013

Book review: “The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War” by James Bradley

OMG! What a bad, bad man Theodore Roosevelt was! I mean, like, golly, he basically ruined the entire 20th century…..and he died in 1919, well before the century really got rolling. I mean, James Bradley, writing in his 2009 book The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War, tells me and his other readers: • That good ole T.R. was responsible for the rise of Mao Tse-tung in China and Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam (page 289). • That Roosevelt — known as the Rough Rider for his exploits in Cuba in the Spanish-American War — was responsible for World War II (page 251). • That the 26th President of the United States whose slogan was: “Speak softly and carry a big stick” was responsible for more than 30 million deaths in that conflict (page 320). Yet, there Roosevelt is — up there on Mount Rushmore with George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. Who knew? Let’s get out the jackhammers, and disappear his face off the mountain! Wildly over-stated Okay, enough with the sarcasm.
May 1, 2013

Book review: “Photobooth” by Babbette Hines

I want to talk about eyes. But, first, I want to thank Babbette Hines for the way she’s put together this quirky look into human nature, her 2002 book Photobooth. I have no doubt that she laid out these 700-plus images in a way that pleased her. Which is to say that I recognize that these self-portraits didn’t land randomly on the pages. But Hines has retained a sense of randomness. And that’s as it should be. Sure, she does group some soldiers together, and some men together, and some kids. She does some groupings. But she doesn’t try to ram these wonderfully idiosyncratic images into tight categories. There is a nice asymmetric rhythm to the design of this book. From page to page, you’re never sure what you’re going to find next. That’s always a positive. An immediacy of image-making As Hines points out in her short introduction, the photobooth was invented in 1925, and, in an era long before digital cameras, it provided an immediacy of image-making that was unique.
April 30, 2013

Book review: The African Trilogy: “Things Fall Apart,” “No Longer At Ease,” and “Arrow of God” by Chinua Achebe

Midway through Chinua Achebe’s 1959 novel Things Fall Apart, the central character Okonkwo is getting a dressing-down from his aged uncle Uchendu. Okonkwo has been sulking in deep despair because his gun was involved in an accidental shooting that left one man in his village dead. As a result, he’s been forced to take his family into exile for seven years in Uchendu’s village. The shame and the loss of his former high status has him wallowing in self-pity. Which is what Uchendu tells him. Do you know that men sometimes lose all their yams and even their children? I had six wives once. I have none now except that young girl who knows not her right from her left. Do you know how many children I have buried — children I begot in my youth and strength? Twenty-two. I did not hang myself, and I am still alive. If you think you are the greatest sufferer in the world ask my daughter, Akueni, how many twins she has borne and thrown away. Have you not hear the song they sing when a woman dies? “For whom is it well, for whom is it well? There is no one for […]
April 26, 2013

What is a parish? Woven lives

The baby crawled along the carpet in 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 new-found ability to get from here to there. She smiled and giggled. A few steps away was Ann who was dying. It was the 10 a.m. Sunday mass at our parish, St. Gertrude, on the far north side of Chicago. It was a special mass to honor Ann, the longtime religious education director who, six months earlier, had been struck down with a vicious cancer. After the gospel reading, dozens of children throughout the church walked, ran and skipped up the aisles to the altar and went through a side door into the rectory for Kid’s Word. That’s a weekly age-appropriate lesson in faith that the children receive on their own while their parents and older siblings take in the homily. It was instituted years ago by Ann. But, on this Sunday, Ann wasn’t yet in church. Merry shadows on the carpet And she wasn’t there when our pastor preached about all the great work she had done while on the parish staff.
April 10, 2013

Book review: “The Lovers” by Thomas McEvilley, Marina Abramovic and Ulay

As originally conceived in 1983, The Lovers, The Great Wall Walk was probably a bit too cute. Performance art runs that risk — that risk of coming across as a gimmick — if it lacks grit, tension and instability. No question, it was clear from the start that there would be an immense effort required from Marina Abramovic and Ulay (real name: Frank Uwe Layslepen) in bringing the piece to life ¬— a walk along the Great Wall of China. Ulay would start in the west in the Gobi Desert, and Abramovic would jump off from the far eastern end of the Wall at the Yellow Sea. After more than 1,000 miles each, they would meet in the center and be married in a Chinese ceremony.