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.
April 9, 2013

Book review: “War in Heaven” by Charles Williams

If you’re a teacher, you never know how something you do or say is going to affect one of your students — how a phrase or an idea may embed itself in a student’s mind and blossom, sooner or later, in some deep, rich way. More than 40 years ago at St. Louis University, I took an English literature course taught by an older Jesuit priest whose name I don’t recall. What I do remember is that he had a lot to say about the importance “point of view” in literature, except he pronounced it “poin’-a-view.” One of the books he taught in the course was Descent into Hell, a 1937 novel by Charles Williams. My memory of the book is that it seemed to me to be a bit of religious mumbo-jumbo, not at all in sync with my own Second Vatican Council sense of faith. Yet, I was enough struck by it that, ever since, I have kept my copy of the novel through my moves to California and back to Chicago, and through a succession of apartments and homes on the Southwest Side and in the neighborhoods of South Chicago, Lincoln Park, Lake View and Edgewater. And […]
April 2, 2013

When things go right

Years ago, when I was maybe 14, I ended up in a 16-inch softball game on a big field behind Austin High School on the Far West Side. It was just a few blocks from my home, but I don’t think I knew any of the other players. I just happened to be standing there and got put on one of the teams. Tall and lanky, I normally played first base. These guys, though, sent me to left field. We started the game in the late afternoon, and, as the innings went on, it began to get darker and harder to see the beat-up old, gray softball. Over my head So, I’m out in left field when this big bruiser comes to the plate. He takes a huge cut at a pitch and sends the ball soaring straight out in my direction. I can tell immediately that the ball is hit so hard and high that it’s going to go far over my head. Without thinking, I turn and run as fast as I can with my back to the rest of the field. After several steps, I look up, see the dark gray ball against the darker, almost black […]
March 30, 2013

An Easter meditation

Aunt Julia lived a counter-cultural life. That’s her in the 1985 photo above, walking on a wood plank over a small stream far up north in Minnesota. Hard to believe that this tiny rivulet, as it heads south, turns into the mighty Mississippi River, coursing over 2,500 miles, expanding at places to a width of more than two miles and draining a watershed of more than 1.2 million square miles. It’s kind of a miracle. Like Jesus rising from the dead. The quietest of lives Julia was my father’s older sister. She went into the convent in the late 1940s, becoming a Dominican nun. She led the quietest of lives, teaching in grade schools around the Midwest for something like half a century. She died in late 2011 at the age of 93. At her funeral at the motherhouse of the Sinsinawa Dominicans in a rural area of Wisconsin across the river from Dubuque, Iowa, I noticed that a listing of her assignments showed her moving every couple years. “Obviously, she was a trouble-maker,” I joked to one of the sisters. Gentle spirit She laughed, and said the real reason was because Sister Julia was such a gentle spirit that […]
March 27, 2013

Book review: “V.” by Thomas Pynchon

Oh, this was a frustrating book for me — V. by Thomas Pynchon. Frustrating because I couldn’t take it all in. I got — understood — enough of V. to know that it is a great work of literature. And I got enough to know how much I was missing. This is a book that wrestles with the great issues. With free will, and faith, and love, and existential dread, and more. Pynchon exhibits a profound understanding of the ways people relate to themselves and to others. And a profound ability to sketch a life story or a personality flaw or a yearning or a vision with the eye of a poet or sculptor. There are moments in this novel that are hard to forget or stop puzzling over. For instance, the nakedly cruel, nakedly vulnerable death of the character known as the Bad Priest.
March 19, 2013

A meditation on Sunday’s readings

In the first reading at mass on Sunday (Isaiah 43: 16-21), Isaiah says: Remember not the events of the past. The things of long ago consider not. See, I am doing something new! He is speaking to the Israelites in captivity in Babylon in the sixth century BC. Now it springs forth. Do you not perceive it? In the desert I make a way; in the wasteland, rivers. Wild beasts honor me, jackals and ostriches, for I put water in the desert and rivers in the wasteland for my chosen people to drink, the people whom I formed for myself, that they might announce my praise. For half a century, the Israelites had been living in exile more than 500 miles from their homeland. Psalm 137 recalls the sadness of those years: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.”
March 15, 2013

Book review: “Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West” by William Cronon

Chicago exploded onto the world in the mid-19th century, rising in a few decades from a lonely frontier outpost to an economic behemoth that, except for New York, exerted more influence and flexed more power by far than any other American city. In his classic, ground-breaking work Nature’s Metropolis, published in 1991 and still the best book ever written about Chicago, William Cronon notes: During the nineteenth century, when Chicago was at the height of its gargantuan growth, its citizens rather prided themselves on the wonder and horror their hometown evoked in visitors. No other city in America had ever grown so large so quickly; none had so rapidly overwhelmed the countryside around it to create so urban a world. Those who sought to explain its unmatched expansion often saw it as being compelled by deep forces within nature itself, gathering the resources and energies of the Great West — the region stretching from the Appalachians and Great Lakes to the Rockies and the Pacific — and concentrating them in a single favored spot at the southwestern corner of Lake Michigan…a city destined for greatness by nature’s own prophesies: Nature’s Metropolis. Favored by nature? For a half century, Chicago played […]
March 6, 2013

Book review: “The Judgment of Eve” by Edgar Pangborn

There were more than a few moments when I was reading Edgar Pangborn’s The Judgment of Eve that I feared the 1966 book was heading to a lame conclusion. I was afraid that, like many another science fiction writer, Pangborn would manipulate his story so that his characters would find a future of happiness by living the way humans should live, rather than the way people actually do live. Robert Heinlein at his most bombastic falls into this trap. He likes the idea of free love so, in some of his novels, he’ll posit future societies where everyone falls into bed with everyone else, and jealousy never rears its ugly head. Forget it. In many sci-fi stories, this sort of utopian wishful thinking is not at the center of the story so it’s easy enough to ignore. Not so with The Judgment of Eve.
February 27, 2013

Book Review: “City Spaces: Photographs of Chicago Alleys” by Bob Thall

There are many photo books, such as Bob Thall’s City Spaces: Photographs of Chicago Alleys, that are akin to collections of found poems. A poet creates a found poem using a text written by someone else. That text is reshaped or recombined into poetic lines and given a title. The result, when done well, is something that reaches beyond the initial writer’s intent. For instance, Vanessa Mancini mined the testimony of cult leader Charles Manson at his murder trial, and came up with 15 three-line verses. Here’s one: Judgment of the Dead I will not judge you; Have no malice against you, no ribbons for you. Mancini saw something in Manson’s words that was deeper, richer and darker than he meant or than his hearers in court heard. A kind of music The same is true for photographers such as Thall. They look at something, created for one purpose, and see it with different eyes.
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