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
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