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,
November 23, 2012

Book review: “Life” by Keith Richards

Keith Richards’s autobiography “Life” is irritating, frustrating, disappointing and, at times, revealing. When I say “revealing,” I’m not talking about his tales of extensive drug use which, at a guess, take up probably a third of the book. What he was using when is of little interest to me. And I’m not talking about his attitudes towards women whom — no surprise — he often refers to as “bitches.” I’m talking about the real insights he gives the reader into the creation of many Rolling Stones songs, a detailed recounting of his contribution in terms of chord progressions, riffs and other musical elements to such songs at the core of rock ‘n’ roll as “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “Gimme Shelter” and “Satisfaction.” “Imagining horns” Regarding that last tune, he writes:
November 23, 2012

Book review: “An Irrepressible Hope: Notes from Chicago Catholics,” edited by Claire Bushey

There is a great deal of yearning in the newly published “An Irrepressible Hope: Notes from Chicago Catholics.” And some bitterness, too. But that is to be expected. Edited by Claire Bushey and published by ACTA, this book is a collection of 33 essays that, on one level, serves as a sort of primer for the next archbishop of Chicago. The idea for the book was sparked earlier this year when Cardinal Francis George turned 75 and submitted his letter of resignation to Pope Benedict XIV. It was, as George said in an interview with the Chicago Tribune, “formula almost,” a requirement under Vatican rules. As the Cardinal indicated, the resignation wasn’t something the Pope was likely to act on for at least two years. But George’s new health concerns — a recurrence of cancer in August — may accelerate the process. A mirror On a deeper level, though, the 84-page book has a much broader audience — all Chicago-area Catholics and, indeed, all American Catholics.
November 19, 2012

A kind of martyrdom

In 2010, Janine Denomme died of cancer. We were members of the St. Gertrude parish in Edgewater. We served on the parish council together. Janine was one of the pillars of the parish. But, when she died, we couldn’’t host her funeral. The archdiocese said she couldn’’t be buried out of any Catholic church —— because, a month earlier, Janine had been ordained a priest by the Roman Catholic Womenpriests organization. Janine loved the church, even though, as a lesbian, she argued with some Catholic teachings. She sought priesthood to be even more closely involved in the church’’s mission. Women would make great priests. Just look at the deeply spiritual, vibrantly active female pastors in other Christian faiths as well as the women serving as rabbis. Just look at the women doctors, public officials, firefighters, college professors, judges, editors, CEOs, and cops —— to name just a few professions that were closed or all but closed to women, just 50 years ago. The world is better for the talent, worldview, and energy that women bring to those jobs. The church would be better with women priests for the same reason. I am certain in my bones that, someday, maybe sooner […]
November 18, 2012

Book review: “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” by Jane Jacobs

A half century after its publication in 1961, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” is a complex document to read. I approached the Jane Jacobs masterpiece with a bit of guilt since I’d never previously read it, even though I’d spent a career as a newspaper reporter covering urban planning issues and am now writing a history of Chicago. But then an urban affairs expert I respect told me, “Oh, nobody reads the whole thing.”
November 13, 2012

Katey Feit: Listening to the voice inside

Jesus was a carpenter, and the people in Nazareth knew him as one of the village’s young men. Then he heard the “still, small voice” of his Father and began his ministry. Katey Feit grew up in my parish, St. Gertrude, on the Far North Side of Chicago. She was the product of a middle-class family, the third child of six, the second girl. She went to grade school at St. Gertrude and later trained to be a pediatric nurse. Then, she followed the stirrings of her conscience and went to prison. In their quiet way Today, when there is much about the Catholic church that is disturbing — the pedophile scandal, the way the Vatican is bullying nuns — I take heart from people like Katey who, in their quiet way, provide an example of living a good life.
November 2, 2012

No sample ballot from the Vatican

I’m Catholic, and I vote. But I don’t get my sample ballot from the Vatican. Don’t get me wrong. I listen to what official church leaders have to say about the issues — about war and peace, about abortion and gay rights, about immigration and the treatment of the poor. I also listen to the moral teachings of Jesus in the gospels. I meditate on the Bible. I read the news. I study history. I talk with other Catholics and with non-Catholics. I reflect on my experience in life. For instance, the Catholic Church is officially against gay marriage. I don’t agree. I have friends who are gay couples. They are married whether they have a piece of paper or not. They are in love for the long haul. Some raise children, and, as parents, they are as proud, doting, frazzled and affectionate as my wife Cathy and I have been with our two kids. I do not understand the opposition to the idea of two men loving each other, or two women loving each other. To my mind, any increase in love in the world is a good thing. Catholic gay marriage At some future date, the Catholic Church […]
October 29, 2012

Like setting fire to a $50 bill

I walk out the door of my suburban newspaper office, out to the parking lot, in the harsh sunlight of dusk on an early Friday evening. It’s been a long day. It’s been a long summer and autumn. I’m drained and want nothing more than to get in my car and head back into Chicago, to my empty apartment, for a supper of carefully calibrated proportions and a night of whatever’s on television. The year is 1981. It’s late October. I’m dieting. I’ve lost 40 pounds in the last four months. I don’t eat desserts or anything else made with processed sugar. I’ve quit cigarettes. I’ve given up caffeinated coffee. I feel like a monk. Or, more accurately, a prisoner, living a circumscribed existence dictated by my body’s confusing signals of distress and my doctor’s grasping for answers. At this moment, though, I have to make a choice.
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 […]