February 27, 2013

Book review: “Never Let Me Go” by Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel Never Let Me Go can be read on three levels. It can be approached as a cautionary tale about the unintended consequences of science. It can be seen as a metaphorical examination of slavery and exploitation. To my mind, though, it is best viewed as a meditation on the human condition. Which is odd — but, first, let me warn you that I’m going to be talking about some aspects of the novel that are unveiled slowly in its pages. There are strong hints early, and the outlines of the world in which the characters live are there from the beginning. Nonetheless, if you want to be able to approach Never Let Me Go with completely fresh eyes, you should avoid going any further into this review. The novel is well worth reading and pondering. That way As I was about to say above, it is perhaps a bit odd for me to think of Never Let Me Go as a meditation on the human condition since its three main characters — Kathy H., Tommy D. and Ruth — aren’t human at all. Or, at least, they aren’t seen that way, or think of themselves that […]
February 23, 2013

“Lincoln” and me

The movie Lincoln is a strong contender for the Oscar for Best Picture Sunday night, and Daniel Day-Lewis has to be considered the front-runner for Best Actor after portraying the 16th U.S. President as a flesh-and-blood person instead of the usual cinematic saint. The critics rave. Audiences are awed. Just about everyone loves it. Why not me? Without question, Day-Lewis turns in a great performance, but I found the movie bombastic and preachy, a history lesson masquerading as drama. Consider me a minority of one. Too persnickety? It’s possible that, having read a lot about Lincoln throughout my life, I’m too persnickety.
February 22, 2013

Book review: “Illinois: Mapping the Prairie State Through History” by Vincent Virga and Scotti McAuliff Cohn

I’m a sucker for map books. Words are a miraculous means developed by humans to communicate what’s inside our heads. Maps are a similarly wonder-full invention. They take landscapes and translate them into images. Most are images of the physical world in which we live, but not all. You can have a map of the brain, for instance, or one of a corporation (usually called an organizational chart), or a map of a process (like the ones that Rube Goldberg cartoons take to humorous extremes). We’re used to looking at maps to figure out how to get from here to there. But these images provide us much more, such as what the map-maker considered important. You can see that in the 53 maps in Illinois: Mapping the Prairie State Through History by Vincent Virga and Scotti McAuliff Cohn. Published in 2010, this is one of nine titles from Globe Pequot Press that focus on a single state and provide historic maps from the Library of Congress. A tiny geographical feature In the scope of things, the Chicago River is a tiny geographical feature. Yet, in map after map at the beginning of this book, it’s shown, greatly out of scale. […]
February 19, 2013

The new Pope: Hoping for another “holy old boy”

With the announcement of Pope Benedict XVI’s plan to resign, the Roman Catholic Church stands at an important crossroad. There are many Catholics and non-Catholics alike who have bristled at the increasingly hyper-orthodox hard line that the Vatican and many bishops have taken in recent years. From the U.S. to Ireland to Sri Lanka to Brazil, the hierarchy has cracked down on those who have sought an open discussion of such issues as abortion, gay marriage, women priests and papal infallibility. It’s been an our-way-or-the-highway message, starting under Pope John Paul II and growing more strident under his successor Benedict. Nonetheless, anyone tempted to celebrate the departure of Benedict on Feb. 28 needs to think twice. More of the same The new pope will be elected by a conclave of cardinals dominated by those who were given their red hats by John Paul and Benedict. For the most part, these prelates rose through the ranks because they toed the Vatican’s conservative line and didn’t rock the boat. Don’t expect them to want to do any boat-rocking now. In all likelihood, these cardinals will settle on someone who, they believe, fits the John Paul-Benedict mold, someone who wants to battle against […]
February 17, 2013

Book review: “Bring Up the Bodies” by Hilary Mantel

The title for Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies comes from a phrase used very late in the novel. Four courtiers to Henry VIII and his consort Anne Boleyn are being held in the Tower of London, awaiting trial for treason for having sex with the Queen and wishing the King dead. (The Queen herself as well as her brother George will also stand trial on the same charges.) The order goes to the Tower, “Bring up the bodies.” Deliver, that is, the accused men, by name Weston, Brereton, Smeaton and Norris, to Westminster Hall for trial. This calls to mind the term formerly used in American prisons, “Dead man walking,” which was shouted to alert guards and inmates that a condemned man was being taken down a hallway. Of course, technically, none of these six accused is condemned. But the trials are only formalities. The King, wishing to marry his third wife Jane Seymour, wanted Anne removed. She wouldn’t go quietly, and these trials are the result. Death is the only outcome. Henry’s right-hand man The one who brought this about is Henry’s right-hand man, Master Secretary Thomas Cromwell. And he is the central character of what Mantel has […]
February 16, 2013

Yankee hat

February 14, 2013

Book review: “Industrial Archeology: A New Look at the American Heritage” by Theodore Anton Sande

The star of Theodore Anton Sande’s 1976 book Industrial Archeology: A New Look at the American Heritage is Chicago’s elevated Loop, originally called the Union Loop. It’s given pride of place as the final example of 32 structures — mills, mines, dams, factories and other industrial sites — that Sande highlights in this heavily illustrated look at the roots of U.S. industry. And it’s given eight pages out of the 115 in the main text, more than any other structure. Indeed, Sande, who helped found the study of industrial archeology, writes about the Loop with deep affection and admiration: The Union Loop, a massive web of riveted steel girders and shining tracks, arches over busy city streets, passing close by the windows of tall buildings on either side, and insistently threads its way through downtown Chicago…. For the industrial archeologist, the Chicago Loop provides an ideal case study of an entire transit system of reasonably manageable size that still serves its original purpose. Demolish the Loop? What Sande wrote then is still true today, of course. Except for renovation or replacement of the Loop stations, the elevated structure itself — that “massive web of riveted steel girders and shining tracks” […]
February 13, 2013

History Book Club — 20-year book list — 119 books, one of which read twice

Month Book Author March, 1993 Nature’s Metropolis William Cronon May, 1993 Capt. Sir Richard Francis Burton Edward Rice July, 1993 Memoirs U.S. Grant September, 1993 A World Lit Only By Fire William Manchester November, 1993 The Oregon Trail Franics Parkman January, 1994 Homestead William Serrin March, 1994 The Price of Admiralty John Keegan May, 1994 The Great Bridge David McCullough July, 1994 1066 David Howarth September, 1994 Truman David McCullough November, 1994 Out of the Storm Noah Andre Trudeau January, 1995 Plagues and Peoples William H. McNeill
February 6, 2013

Book review: “White Robe, Black Robe” by Charles L. Mee Jr.

A decade of protests, riots and civil disobedience across the world had just ended when, in 1972, Charles L. Mee Jr. published White Robe, Black Robe, his dual biography of Pope Leo X and Martin Luther. So, it’s no wonder that Mee saw the struggle between the two men as a battle between the establishment and an outside agitator. Indeed, in closing the book, he points to the radical movements in Europe and the United States in the 1960s as an example of “the old controversy of the individual asserting his rights of sovereignty against authority…” Then he writes: None of these movements has yet found its Luther, and perhaps none will. But the establishment unhappily, maintains the breeding ground for him, nourishing the forces of its own ruin, clinging desperately and indiscriminately to its virtues and its corruptions, its liberties and its tyrannies, its ideals and its injustices — secure, like Leo X, in the knowledge that the powerful will prevail. Now we find ourselves at another moment in time when the powerless are challenging the powerful. We see it in Libya, Syria and Egypt. And we see it in the attacks by Islamic terrorists against the U.S. The […]
February 3, 2013

A chapter from a small book I’m writing: Catholic and Starting Out: 5 Challenges and 5 Opportunities — First Opportunity: The Exciting World

Free at last! You’ve moved beyond childhood, beyond adolescence. And now you’re an adult. It may not feel that way. After all, you’ve spent your life viewing adults as other people — your parents, your teachers, store owners, bus drivers, carpenters, coaches, cops, TV personalities, firefighters, doctors, politicians and all the rest of the “big people” around you. You’ve lived in their world. Well, now it’s your world. You’re one of them. Simply by virtue of your age, you have a place as an adult. Your job, from here forward, will be to determine what that place is. That’s the exciting part. Your life is in your hands. You will choose which roads you will take. Which friends you will make. What work you will do. True, this is something you have to do. No one else is going to take responsibility for you. Even more, though, it’s something you get to do. You will shape yourself — your self. Rich in options Your bank account may be empty. But you are rich in options.
February 1, 2013

Book review: “Noah” and “Moses, Moses,” pictures by Ken Munowitz, text by Charles L. Mee Jr.

As a reader, I get hooked on a particular writer for any number of reasons. I suspect it’s the same for you. For instance, Patrick O’Brian’s series of 20 novels of the British Navy in the early 19th century, featuring Capt. Jack Aubrey and his particular friend, surgeon Stephen Maturin, captivate me. Writing with great style and verve, O’Brian interweaves the closely observed interactions of people in groups, usually ship crews, with rollicking adventure scenes. Then there’s Terry Pratchett who has taken a jaundiced but affectionate look at the foibles of today’s world through 40 or so books of humorous fantasy, most set on the flat and wacky planet of Discworld. I’m drawn as well to more serious novelists — such as Vance Bourjaily, Anthony Trollope, Muriel Spark, Saul Bellow, Charles Dickens, Marilynne Robinson, Frederick Busch, John Barth, Jim Crace, John Williams and W. M. Spackman ¬— for their voice, language, originality and insight into the human condition. And to historians who are able to study, understand and communicate big stories with a personal flair and panache, particularly David McCullough, Antonia Fraser, John Keegan, Barbara Tuchman, Robert Massie, Simon Schama, Bernard DeVoto and, best of all, Robert Caro. Paean I […]
January 21, 2013

Book review: “Nocturnes – Five Stories of Music and Nightfall” by Kazuo Ishiguro

The five stories in Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2009 collection Nocturnes are, in a way, about music and nightfall, as the subtitle indicates. Yes, but, even more, their subject is the fragility of love in the face of human nature. Or maybe the strength of love despite the clashings and dissonances of human nature. A famous singer croons to his wife from a gondola in Venice, and she weeps bitter tears. A London couple berate their visiting friend, all while befuddled at the way their lives have drifted apart and the bonds of their love have strained to the breaking point. A couple on vacation from Switzerland has a spat while gazing together at the English countryside that inspired the music by Edward Elgar they both treasure. A sax player in Los Angeles has his plain face reconstructed at the urging of his wife who has left him. A middle-age woman leads a young cellist to raise his craft to a higher level, and then her boyfriend shows up.
January 16, 2013

Book review: “The Faces of Jesus: A Life Story” by Frederick Buechner

Frederick Buechner’s The Faces of Jesus: A Life Story, published in 2005 by Paraclete Press, is an intense, dense poetic meditation on the life and person of Jesus. A Presbyterian minister and theologian, Buechner is also a novelist of such highly praised works as Godric and the four volumes of The Book of Bebb. And he writes about Jesus with such sharp focus and deep understanding that I’m tempted to quote extensively from this short book of fewer than 25,000 words. And I will. But, first, it should be noted that Buechner is one of a long line of novelists who have taken upon themselves the task of writing their own version of the gospel story. It’s quite a list, including such luminaries from the literary past and present as Nikos Kazantzakis, Leo Tolstoy, Philip Pullman, Christopher Moore, Jim Crace, Reynolds Price, Anne Rice, Gore Vidal and Charles Dickens. Most have written novels. Not Buechner. The purest of ore This is a book a pastor would write, a pastor with an artist’s eye for detail and an imagination for finding the story behind the story. That’s what gives this book its density. It is prose and poetry at the same […]
January 15, 2013

Book review: “Ender’s Game” by Orson Scott Card

Ender Wiggin is six at the start of Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, and eleven by the time the novel’s action has concluded. Over those five years, he has endured isolation and ostracization, has fought off two crowds of bullies with deadly results, has become a star at Battle School and a superstar at Command School, and has been asked to win a war with an alien people known as buggers. Not what you’d call a normal childhood.
January 12, 2013

Book review: “Changing Places” by David Lodge

David Lodge, I suspect, had fun writing his 1975 novel Changing Places. It’s a playful novel of two English professors — Morris Zapp from the prestigious West Coast school, Euphoric State (think the University of California at Berkeley), and Philip Swallow from the second-tier British school in a blue-collar city, the University of Rummidge (think of the University of Birmingham) — who trade positions for the spring term in 1969. That was a tumultuous year on college campuses in the U.S. and elsewhere, and also the year in which Lodge, an English professor at Birmingham, served as a visiting professor at Berkeley. So, in Changing Places, Lodge is taking the opportunity to compare and contrast, and gently send up, the academic communities in both places. Foolish but not fools And, like just about every well-done academic novel (except the bleak yet revelatory Stoner by John Williams), Changing Places is a comedy. Its characters are generally foolish. Lodge, however, is no ogre. He doesn’t make them fools.
January 6, 2013

Book Review: “Basil of Caesarea: A Guide to His Life and Doctrines” by Andrew Radde-Gallwitz

Basil of Caesarea (329/330 – 378) was an important early thinker about the still-developing world of monasticism, writing guidelines for those who sought to lead lives of quiet contemplation. Yet, as Andrew Radde-Gallwitz notes in his short, sprightly biography Basil of Caesarea, Basil saw little difference between ascetic and authentic Christianity, between living in a monastic setting and living in the wide, bustling world. Both, for him, were aspects of a “life centered on Christ’s commandments.” Both, too, involved living a God-focused existence within a community. Basil was suspicious of a “go it alone” model of spirituality. For him, to think of ourselves as self-sufficient would be to ignore the many ways in which we need each other, a mutuality that God our Creator intended. Moreover, Christ himself set the example of service-in-community. If you live entirely on your own, Basil asks, ‘whose feet will you wash?” Earthy, direct and deeply rooted “Whose feet will you wash?” — Basil won me over with that phrase, so earthy, so direct, and so deeply rooted in the central teachings and life of Jesus. And it wasn’t a fluke. The many quotations from Basil in this book show him to have been a […]
January 4, 2013

Book review: “Aquamarine” by Carol Anshaw

A mother is thinking about her aimless 19-year-old son and how, as a child, he enjoyed putting on magic shows and drawing, in crayon, various inhabitants of his imagination, such as a man made of water. And then somewhere along the way, he slipped from surprises into secrets, started becoming this elaborately unknowable person. Which makes [her] crazy. She sits quietly next to him and wants to tear him open and crawl inside, find out who the hell is in there. Yet, isn’t each one of us “elaborately unknowable”? Even to ourselves. That’s the reality at the heart of Aquamarine, Carol Anshaw’s first novel, published in 1992. It is a short book of fewer than 200 pages. Yet, it is intensely rich and multi-faceted — in part, because of a surprising bit of literary legerdemain that Anshaw is able to pull off, and, even more, because she is like a bulldog. From the first pages, she grabs onto this issue of unknowable-ness and won’t let go. A distraction Consider her central character Jesse Austin.
December 30, 2012

“Woven Lives: 100 years in the story of the St. Gertrude faith family” by Patrick T. Reardon

My new book — Woven Lives: 100 years in the story of the St. Gertrude faith family — is a history of my parish, written as part of St. Gertrude’s centennial celebration. It’s a modest, 64-page work, and, alas, isn’t available through amazon.com or from a bookstore or library. However, if you’d like a copy, send me an email at AirVermeer@gmail.com. Include your name and street address, and I’m mail you a copy. Pat Reardon
December 29, 2012

Book review: “Wicked: The life and times of the Wicket Witch of the West” by Gregory Maguire

My sister Mary Beth does a great Wicked Witch of the West. For about half a century, she’s been cracking us up with “I’ll get you my pretty. And your little dog too! Ah-hahaha!” It’s so funny because the green-faced witch from the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz is so freaking scary. Forget Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers and Lord Voldemort. When it comes to frightening the bejesus out of little kids, no one can approach Margaret Hamilton’s turn as the Wicked Witch. So, in 1995, when Gregory Maguire published Wicked, he was confronting a cultural touchstone deeply embedded in the psyches (and nightmares) of generations of moviegoers. And not just confronting it, but turning it on its head. Not the epitome of evil For him, the Wicked Witch, whom he named Elphaba, isn’t an old hag and the epitome of evil. Rather, she’s a sensitive person who, except for her odd coloration, is like any one of us, struggling along her road through life, misunderstood and misunderstanding herself in many ways, prone to failure (or, at least, only partial success), often unsure and unhappy, exquisitely vulnerable and prickly at the same time. She’s not a stand-in for Satan. […]
December 27, 2012

Skipping and twirling through life

I don’t have any grandchildren yet, so I enjoy seeing little kids with their families in fast food restaurants. The babies, of course, and the toddlers, and the two-year-olds, and the three-year-olds. Those older tots take special pleasure in being asked to throw some of the remains of a meal — a balled-up hunk of paper, perhaps, or a few plastic forks — into the garbage. They feel a bit grown-up. They like knowing what to do and how to do it. Often, on his way to the garbage, a little boy will start skipping. Or, on the way back, a little girl will suddenly have the urge to execute a clumsy yet endearing ballet twirl. I’ve wondered why they add these small grace notes to their trip to the trash. Or at other times when I see them — when they’re walking down the street with a parent, for instance, or waiting by the family car to climb into a car seat. It is, I think, an instinctual celebration of life. I can imagine children in medieval Spain spinning and hopping, and in the families of earliest humanity in Africa, or outside a yurt of a nomad tribe in […]
December 19, 2012

Book review: “11/22/63” by Stephen King

For the past 45 years, Stephen King has been writing and writing and writing. He has published 50 novels and more than 100 short stories. He has 350 million books in print and is estimated to be worth about $400 million. He knows how to write a gripping best-selling novel. So why am I disappointed — more than a bit — with 11/22/63?
December 10, 2012

Book review: “Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians” By Robert W. Merry

There is a thin concept behind Where They Stand by Robert W. Merry, an examination of the periodic rankings of U.S. presidents by groups of scholars and political observers. Enough of a concept, maybe, for a magazine story, but not for a book of 200-plus pages. Merry, a political journalist and columnist, believes there is much that these rankings tell us about the presidency and about what makes a successful tenure in the White House. He focuses on seven such lists compiled between 1948 and 2005 and on seemingly interesting wrinkles in those rankings. I say “seemingly” because my suspicion is that there is less substance to the exact placement of a particular president on a particular list than Merry supposes.
November 30, 2012

Book review: “Carry the One” by Carol Anshaw

Here’s what I hate. I hate that it doesn’t matter if we see each other. There’s still this connection, between me and him because we were both in the car. Like in arithmetic. Because of the accident, we’re not just separate numbers. When you add us up, you always have to carry the one. Alice is talking with her sister Carmen about a folksinger they know named Tom. He is fatuous and self-centered, and they don’t really like him. But, because of a car crash in 1983, they don’t have a choice. It was in rural Wisconsin, on the day that an already pregnant Carmen married Matt. It was sometime after midnight; everyone was worn out from a day of revelry. Crowding into the last car to leave were five of the guests — Nick (the brother of Carmen and Alice), his girlfriend Olivia, Tom, Alice and her new lover Maude (the sister of Matt). Nick and Olivia, who was driving, were high. As the car drove away, Carmen noticed that its headlights weren’t on. “Hey,” she shouted. “Your lights!” When the car disappeared from view, Matt said, “She’ll figure it out eventually.” A few minutes later, the car was […]
November 28, 2012

Book review: “The Photo Album of St. Therese of Lisieux,” commentary by Rev. Francois de Sainte-Marie

I grew up with the idea that St. Therese of Lisieux was a somewhat insipid saint. There were images of her all over the place, and each tended to be some version of the middle section of the triptych above, a painting of St. Therese by her sister Celine, Sister Genevieve of the Holy Face. During her long life, Celine cranked out paintings, watercolors and drawings that attempted to capture the ideal image of her younger sister. As Father Francois notes in the 1962 book The Photo Album of St. Therese of Lisieux, this was the style of religious art at the time. In doing so, however, Celine hid Therese rather than revealed her. Photos of a saint Then, in 1997, during my long career as a Chicago Tribune reporter, I was out doing a story about interesting places throughout the suburbs and came across the National Shrine of St. Therese of Lisieux in Darien.
November 26, 2012

Book review sidebar: “Life” by Keith Richards

In the review I posted a few days ago, I mentioned that the best part of “Life,” the autobiography of Keith Richards, is his description in musical terms of the creation of many Rolling Stones songs. Even for a non-musician like me, these paragraphs were revealing. They have helped me listen to those Stones songs in a new way and enjoy them even more. I decided to write this sidebar to that review in order to focus on another service that Richards provided, albeit indirectly. Throughout the books, he mentions, to one extent or another, various musicians who influenced him and various Stones songs with which I was somewhat or totally unfamiliar. For instance, early on, Richards is talking about various singers and groups he liked when he was 15. One is Johnny Restivo who was known for his song “The Shape I’m In.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R8eoZ9tMMyA Because the Band has a song of the same title, I tracked down Restivo’s tune, and it turns out that he’s a Buddy Holly sound-alike, and his song shares only the title with the Robbie Robertson tune. A pro Then there’s Wizz Jones,