October 27, 2012

Book review: “Cloud Atlas” by David Mitchell

“Cloud Atlas,” the 2004 novel by David Mitchell, is a daring book. And, more than three-quarters of the way through its pages, Mitchell includes a daring passage. One of his many (or is it few?) characters, Robert Frobisher, is writing a letter in 1931 to his friend and former lover Rufus Sixsmith and describing “a sextet for overlapping soloists” that he is composing and that, the reader knows, will be called the Cloud Atlas Sextet. It is a work, he writes, for “piano, clarinet, ‘cello, flute, oboe and violin, each in its own language of key, scale and colour. In the 1st set, each solo is interrupted by its successor; in the 2nd, each interruption is recontinued, in order. Revolutionary or gimmicky?” That final sentence is the daring part. You see, at this point, the reader can see the parallels between the Cloud Atlas Sextet and Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas” novel. Like Frobisher’s musical composition, Mitchell has created a highly and unusually structured work. The novel is, in fact, six novellas, each of a different form and told in a different voice. There is (1) the sea journal of Adam Ewing, a rather stuffy, naïve 19th century American , (2) Frobisher’s […]
October 23, 2012

What do saints do?

In May, 1912, the St. Gertrude parish, where I am now a member, was just five months old, and Sunday mass was being celebrated in a temporary wood-and-steel structure on the site of the present rectory. Six miles to the south, a 15-year-old girl, living on Webster Street one block from Lincoln Park, fell in love for the first time. Her name was Dorothy Day. I love the idea of a saint who falls in love — falls in love over and over again throughout her teens and young adulthood. A saint who made mistakes like the rest of us, some of them soul-shattering, such as submitting to an abortion, a decision she regretted the rest of her life. I also like it that Dorothy was a journalist and that, although she’s identified with New York City, she lived in Chicago from 1906-14 and, later, in her twenties, from 1921-23. During that second sojourn, she worked at City News Bureau where I worked half a century later. Dorothy — who started the Catholic Worker movement, edited the Catholic Worker newspaper, ran a “house of hospitality” in the New York slums and went to jail in protests on behalf of the […]
October 19, 2012

Book Review: “The Plays of St. Therese of Lisieux,” introduction by Guy Gaucher, translated by Susan Conroy and David J. Dwyer

Abramin and his two confederates are bandits. Although they’re not exactly Robin Hoods, they live by burglary, not by violence. Abramin and his wife Susanna have a beautiful baby son Dismas. But Dismas is a leper. When Dismas fusses, Abramin says, “Give him to me; I’m going to chant a little song for him that will make him dream of glory and bravery.” He sings, and the boy goes to sleep. These are some of the characters in the short play “The Flight into Egypt,” one of eight edifying theatricals (or “pious recreations,” as the Carmelites called them) that were written and produced by the young Therese of Lisieux.
October 11, 2012

Book review: “Therese” by Dorothy Day

I’m not sure how to think about miracles. I mean, about what the story of a miracle may mean in my life. But here’s a miracle I can relate to: When Therese healed a little Irish child, she appeared to her as a little child in her First Communion frock, and shook hands with her as she left, and the radiant little patient who had been unconscious and at the brink of death, sat up and told her mother to bring her her clothes, and food because she was starving. This is from “Therese,” the biography of St. Therese of Lisieux that was written in 1960 by Dorothy Day. It’s such a homey touch that the cured little girl wanted to get dressed and eat “because she was starving.” It’s like Peter’s mother-in-law who, after being cured by Jesus, got up and began cooking for her guests.
October 3, 2012

Book review: “Dodger” by Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett’s new novel “Dodger” strikes me as his most personal book. He calls it “a historical fantasy…simply for the fun of it.” Yet, it’s much different from the 51 fantasies that he has produced since 1971, including his Discworld Series (40 books so far). And it’s doesn’t share much with the straight-ahead speculative science fiction that he and co-author Stephen Baxter offered in “The Long Earth,” which hit bookstores in June. Instead of the science fiction of “The Long Earth,” Pratchett offers a history lesson in “Dodger” about London early in the Victorian era — a horrid, noxious and deadly place for anyone poor. Rather than an imaginative look into the future, he is taking an imaginative look back. A tosher The central character is Dodger, a 17-year-old who survived childhood in an orphanage and now lives by his wits, mostly as a tosher, i.e., someone who scavenges through the sewers of London searching for valuables.
September 26, 2012

Book review: “Measuring America” by Andro Linklater

There is a photo on page 224 of “Measuring America” that, I suspect, anyone who has ever flown across the continental United States west of the Alleghenies will recognize. It’s an aerial view of a few square miles of farmland in South Dakota, but they could just as well be in Ohio or Iowa or Minnesota or New Mexico. They’re all squares and rectangles. The property lines are sharply delineated and bounded by right angles. The roads that run along those lines are straight as straight can be. Forty years ago, looking out an airplane window and seeing a similar scene, I wrote a poem that began, “Patchwork of earthwork, pattern of soil…” Andro Linklater, describing an eastbound flight from Los Angeles in “Measuring America,” notes that the same sorts of squares and rectangles can be seen in the property lines of that city. Then, after passing over desert, he writes: High up in the mountains [the pattern] emerges again in patches of cultivated bottomland where the edges of rectangular fields are aligned with the cardinal points of the compass. All at once, looking down through the clear air, you can imagine the surveyor’s straight line, drawn west to east […]
September 24, 2012

Why is the Mass like baseball?

Let me say first off that there are many times when I find Mass routine and less than exciting. It’s not like going to a movie or reading a book. It’s not an entertainment. It’s more like……well, like playing in a baseball game. In a baseball game, there’s a lot of standing around, on the field and in the dugout, waiting. Every once in a while, there’s something to do, such as fielding a grounder or taking a turn at bat. If you don’t know the game, it’s pretty boring. But the more you understand the strategy of how the fielders arrange themselves for each batter, and what a batter has to take into consideration in terms of the pitch count, the number of outs and the score, and how a pitcher and catcher work together to figure out how to deal with each batter, and how a manager decides when to pinch hit or bring in a reliever — the more you know, the richer the experience. For me, Mass is like that. There are times when it feels like I’m a right fielder, just standing out there daydreaming. But the more I put myself into the experience of […]
September 24, 2012

Book review: “A Killing in the Hills” by Julia Keller

Julia Keller’s novel “A Killing in the Hills” is on a par with the best of James Lee Burke and P.D. James. It is a mystery story of high literary ambition and quality. Like her bestselling peers, Keller employs the mystery formula as vehicle for looking at the way people act, live and breathe in a particular spot on the world and for examining the meaning of life. For P.D. James, the spot is London, and murder is a breaking of the social compact, a disordering of the order of life. For James Lee Burke, the spots are New Orleans and Texas, and murder is an outbreak of the violence just under the human surface, a violence that sparks more violence. In “A Killing in the Hills,” Keller is writing about Acker’s Gap, a small ragged town in West Virginia, the state where she was born and raised. For her, murder here is a spasm of despair and greed, coming out of physical and economic isolation, a cry of anguish from the margins of human society.
September 19, 2012

Did Jesus have a wife?

Yes, yes, it may be a hoax of some sort. But I’m excited by the news that a small rectangular piece of papyrus, seemingly from the writings of early Christians, has come to light which includes the phrase, “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…’ ” Historian Karen King of Harvard Divinity School, who translated the eight lines from the ancient Coptic language, thinks it’s authentic, and so do several of her colleagues. But, either way, real or fake, I’m excited. Here’s why:
September 13, 2012

Book review: “Looking for the Possible Dance” by A. L. Kennedy

After an idyllic four days, the fight begins on the drive home. Margaret notices with delight that she and Colin have had such a restful time that they’ve forgotten to latch on their seatbelts. “It’s called being relaxed,” Colin says. “Some people do it all the time.” Margaret thanks him for the weekend, and Colin responds, “You don’t have to thank me. I wouldn’t have gone without you, wouldn’t have thought of it. And it’s been so lovely to see you so happy. So calm. You were almost like a different person.” Ah, that’s the seed of what comes next —
September 9, 2012

“Not always night”

I was at an archdiocesan meeting the other day, and the remarks of a prelate in attendance seemed to argue that the Catholic Church has a corner on Truth. I don’t think I buy that. Throughout my life, I’ve learned a lot from lots of people, many of whom weren’t Catholic. Such as Gwendolyn Brooks. Brooks, who died in December, 2000, was a poet of soaring lyricism and flinty vision whose work and way of living were rooted in the black experience in the United States. She was also more than a little skeptical about organized religion.
September 5, 2012

Book review: “Rocket Ship Galileo” By Robert A. Heinlein

It happened that, a week or so after the death of Neil Armstrong, I picked up this 1947 novel, and to say it’s quaint is an understatement. It’s sort of a lunar version of a Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show” story.
August 30, 2012

Book review: “Millions” by Frank Cottrell Boyce

The final two sentences of “Millions” by Frank Cottrell Boyce are: Sometimes money can leave your hand and fall like water from a pipe onto the hot ground, and the dusty earth swallows it up and bursts into food and flowers for miles and miles around. And all the seeds and roots and lives that were lying dead in the ground spring all the way back to life. I don’t mind admitting that I cried twice while reading “Millions” — and I knew the story.
August 29, 2012

Book review: “Eminent Victorians” By Lytton Strachey

Twenty years ago, a friend of mine, Steve Swanson, recommended Lytton Strachey’s “Eminent Victorians” as a classic in the field of biography — and a delightful read as well. I’ve owned a copy for nearly that long, but only now have come to make my way through it, and I find that everything Steve said about the book is true. Even more so. If you’re interested in history — in reading history and learning about history — you will relish “Eminent Victorians” for its psychological insights, its clear understanding of the landscape of a particular society, its honesty and courage, and Strachey’s skill at crafting sentences and turning phrases.
August 22, 2012

Book review: “The Life of Pi” By Yann Martel

I finished “The Life of Pi” by Yann Martel a couple days ago, and I’m still not sure how to take it.
August 17, 2012

Book review: “The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson” By Robert Caro

On the final page of “The Passage of Power,” Robert Caro sums up the 604 pages that have come before with a single word. He calls Lyndon Baines Johnson “heroic.”
August 15, 2012

It Wasn’t the Fort Dearborn Massacre

What happened two centuries ago on Aug. 15, 1812, on the Lake Michigan shore near what is now 18th Street has long been called the Fort Dearborn Massacre. But it wasn’t a massacre. It was a battle in two simultaneous wars.
August 6, 2012

Dangerous Women

Back in the 1990s, I saw a movie, set in a big city, that focused on a small group of people who wore very distinctive uniforms. This group wasn’t carrying out its mission very well. The members of the group were portrayed in the film stereotypically. One was gullible. One prayed too much. One was really, really dumb. But then they were saved when someone came from completely outside the group, someone totally unexpected. She got everyone working together. And the group was suddenly successful. The actress who portrayed that woman was Whoopi Goldberg. And the film was? No, it wasn’t “Sister Act.”
July 31, 2012

Book review: “Outliers: The Story of Success” By Malcolm Gladwell

I found “Outliers: The Story of Success” by Malcolm Gladwell to be quick and entertaining to read — and ultimately dissatisfying. Part of it has to do with Gladwell’s glibness. And part with the sense he conveys of having discovered some inner secret to life.
July 24, 2012

Book review: “The Giant O’Brien” By Hilary Mantel

Midway through “The Giant O’Brien,” I was more than a little lost. I couldn’t quite figure out how to take Hilary Mantel’s tale of the 18th-century Irish giant Charles O’Brien who comes to London to exhibit his massiveness and make his fortune — and crosses paths with John Hunter, a renowned surgeon, scientist, collector of bones and dissectionist.
July 22, 2012

Book review: “The Great War and Modern Memory” by Paul Fussell

Perhaps the best way to write about Paul Fussell’s 1975 masterpiece “The Great War and Modern Memory” would be to simply list willy-nilly some of the myriad insights, observations, facts, quotations and other interesting stuff that Fussell artfully, with ever so much care, throws on the page. When he died in May, one of the many British obituaries for Fussell, an American, described “The Great War and Modern Memory” as “magisterial.” I’m afraid, though, that the word suggests that Fussell’s book in some way gives a complete picture of World War I and its impact the past century, that it in some way fits all that into an understandable context, a frame in which the events of the war and its after-effects all have a place. Really, though, “The Great War and Modern Memory” is something very different — a hodge-podge of material. And that’s a good thing.
July 20, 2012

Book review: “Imagined Lives: Portraits of Unknown People” — Fictional character sketches by John Banville, Tracy Chevalier, Julian Fellowes, Alexander McCall Smith, Terry Pratchett, Sarah Singleton, Joanna Trollope and Minette Walters

Now, let’s take these characters and make a novel! Ooops! I’m afraid I’m jumping the gun a bit here. I should tell you first what I’m talking about — “Imagined Lives,” a wonderful hybrid of a book newly published by the National Portrait Gallery in London. Since 1856, the Gallery has been collecting portraits. In some cases, though, a portrait of, say, Mary Queen of Scots has turned out to be, well, not her. So the Gallery has a bunch of paintings once thought to be of famous or semi-famous people, now more honestly described as being of unknown people. Or as Tarnya Cooper says in an essay, “lost souls whose quest for immortality has proved only partially successful.” In other words, their portraits were striking enough or beautiful enough or quirky enough that they’ve survived centuries, even if the names of the sitters have been forgotten. Imagined bios Last December, Cooper brought together 14 such paintings from the 16th and 17th centuries for a six-month exhibit at the Gallery — with an added twist. Eight prominent writers — John Banville, Tracy Chevalier, Julian Fellowes, Alexander McCall Smith, Terry Pratchett, Sarah Singleton, Joanna Trollope and Minette Walters — took one […]
July 18, 2012

Being a work-in-progress in the post-college world

Hello, newly minted college graduate. How are you liking real life? Scary, right? Especially for a young adult. Gone are the days when a parent could make a decision for you. And you’ve got some big decisions to make. To start making. That’s the thing to remember about decisions. They really do affect the course of your life. At the same time, they’re never final and absolute. What kind of work will you do? Where will you live? How will you live? Who will you love? What sort of person will you be? All these are questions that you have to begin answering. And each answer you come up with will begin to define you as your own person. None of these questions, however, will ever be fully answered. From the moment of your birth until your death, you’re a work in progress.
July 14, 2012

Book review: “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration” By Isabel Wilkerson

The North wasn’t the Promised Land. Or was it? The North didn’t have Jim Crow laws written into the books to keep African-Americans down. But it did have James Crow, a term for the attitudes of white Northerners and their unions and government officials and institutions limiting the extent to which a black person could be free. In Chicago, for instance, an African-American could vote, but, throughout most of the 20th century, he’d better not try to move into the Bridgeport neighborhood. And then there were the race riots in Northern cities, sparked during much of U.S. history by lower-class immigrant whites against blacks. “These violent clashes bore the futility of Greek tragedy,” writes Isabel Wilkerson in “The Warmth of Other Suns: the Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.” Each outbreak pitted two groups that had more in common with each other than either of them realized. Both sides were made up of rural and small-town people who had traveled far in search of the American Dream, both relegated to the worst jobs by industrialists who pitted one group against the other. Each side was struggling to raise its families in a cold, fast, alien place far from their homelands […]
July 13, 2012

Book review: “Revolt in 2100” by Robert Heinlein

Initially, I wondered if, in 1953, Robert Heinlein had had the still-very-new state of Israel in mind when he published “Revolt in 2100,” a collection of two short stories and a novella. That’s because the novella “ ‘If This Goes On…,’ ” which opens the book, centers on the efforts to overthrow a theocratic, totalitarian United States of America, governed by a Prophet Incarnate. I thought at first that maybe Heinlein was thinking about the potential of a faith-centered nation, like Israel, evolving into something repressively rigid. But then I realized that Israel was nothing more than a gleam in Zionist eyes in 1939 and 1940 when the novella and the other stories first saw the light of day. So I was left thinking that, for Heinlein, maybe the Prophet Incarnate was a stand-in for the Japanese emperor and the quasi-religious governmental structure that supported him. Or, more likely, for Adolf Hitler, with the religious element of the Prophet’s regime serving as a parallel to Nazism. In this case, the scapegoats of the Prophet’s regime, called pariahs, would be parallels for the Jews, homosexuals, Gypsies and other “non-peoples” identified and targeted by Hitler in the Holocaust. Of course, it really […]