April 5, 2012

Book review: “Fatherland” by Robert Harris

Historical fiction is dangerous territory for a writer. It’s all too easy to make actual people, say, Abraham Lincoln or John Wilkes Booth, into stick figures, and actual events, say, Booth’s assassination of Lincoln, into just another thriller or romance novel. Consider “Killing Lincoln” by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard. A related genre is based on alternate history, the field of what-if. What if the South had won the Civil War? MacKinlay Kantor came up with a plausible and interesting take on that in 1960. This can be pushed to silly extremes. What if Nazi-like South Africans from this era had travelled back in time to supply Robert E. Lee’s troops with AK-47s? Too silly to find a publisher, you say? Not at all. In 1992, Ballantine published “The Guns of the South” by Harry Turtledove, telling just that story. “Fatherland,” published in the same year, provides a much more nuanced look at how history might have evolved if a few events had gone differently. Indeed, in Robert Harris’s hands, it’s a crackerjack of a novel that meets the needs of genre fiction, yet also teaches a lesson from the past, perhaps the most important lesson of the last century. […]
April 4, 2012

Who’s not on first?

The new baseball season is upon us, and hope springs eternal across the major leagues as 30 teams and more than 700 players vie for a chance at the World Series. But I have one question: How come all of those players are men? I mean, I don’t get it. A woman today can be a mayor, or a cop, or a firefighter, or a doctor, or a U.S. Supreme Court justice, or a construction worker, or a bus driver, or an astronaut, or an oil tanker captain. But she can’t play baseball in the Show. Back in 2008, Hillary Clinton ran so well for the Democratic nomination for president that she nearly nabbed it. But no woman is permitted to run the bases at Wrigley Field or Yankee Stadium. A woman takes the battlefield today to defend this nation as a soldier. But she can’t take the field at Fenway Park to defend against the bunt. Sixty-five years ago, on April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson played first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers, becoming the first African-American major leaguer in baseball’s modern era and shattering a color barrier that had been a stain upon the sport since the late 19th […]
March 31, 2012

Sarah laughs — and other human moments

The Bible is filled with people acting like people — such as Sarah playing the nosy snoop in Genesis. She and Abraham are an aged childless couple. Outside their tent, Abraham is entertaining a visitor, and Sarah can’t help but eavesdrop. The guest turns out to be God, and God tells Abraham that he and Sarah will conceive and raise a child. Sarah laughs. Of course, she laughs — at the sheer impossibility of the thing but, even more, at the joyful idea that, after so many decades of disappointment, their love will bring a child into the world. The Passion narrative in Mark’s gospel starts off with a similar moment. A woman takes a costly perfumed oil and pours it on the head of Jesus as an anointing. This irks some of the disciples. “Why has there been this waste of perfumed oil?” they say. “It could have been sold for more than 300 days’ wages, and the money given to the poor.” That’s a very human reaction. But Jesus tells them to leave her be. “The poor you will always have with you,…but you will not always have me.” The irritable disciples and the nosy Sarah act the […]
March 27, 2012

Book review: “She’s on First” by Barbara Gregorich

Linda Sunshine plays shortstop for the Chicago Eagles, the first woman to become a major leaguer. Her manager, the star pitcher and some of her other teammates don’t like the idea. At all. Yet, for her — as for them — baseball is more than a living. It’s more than a game. “Ever since I can remember,” she tells sportswriter Neal Vanderlin, “I’ve wanted to be a baseball player.” So what does she like best about baseball? “Everything! The way it all fits together. You know — that the ball doesn’t score, people do. That the team with the ball can’t score, the team without the ball can. That there’s no time limit. That the diamonds and field and fences all fit together, and the runner’s speed and the fielder’s speed and the speed of the ball in flight.” In Barbara Gregorich’s “She’s on First,” Linda is the first woman to take the field as a player, but her rookie season is also a test. And, depending on how she does, other women may or may not have the chance to follow in her spike tracks. Sort of like a female Jackie Robinson. Indeed, when Al Mowerinski, the former Eagles […]
March 20, 2012

The impatience of Job

We talk about the “patience of Job,” and that makes him seem like a meek and mild fellow who heroically and stoically endures waves of misfortune from God and the devil. Don’t buy it. Job is a whiner, a complainer. “Is not man’s life on earth a drudgery?…I am filled with restlessness until the dawn…Remember that my life is like the wind; I shall not see happiness again.” Or: “Woe is me.” The Book of Job is the story of his efforts to convince God that it just isn’t fair that he’s afflicted with so many miseries. His faith in the Lord never wavers, but he argues again and again that he doesn’t deserve the disasters, conflagrations and boils that have befallen him. Finally, Yahweh has had enough and, “out of the whirlwind,” says: Where were you when I founded the earth?… When I made the clouds its garment and thick darkness its swaddling bands?…Have you ever in your lifetime commanded the morning?… Can you send the lightnings on their way, so that they say to you, “Here we are”?” And on and on and on. In other words: “I’m God. I see farther, deeper and more clearly than you.” […]
March 19, 2012

Book review” “The Maul and the Pear Tree” by P.D. James and T.A. Critchley

A little before midnight on the last night of his life Timothy Marr, a linen draper of Radcliffe Highway, set about tidying up the shop, helped by the shop-boy James Gowen. So begins “The Maul and the Pear Tree” by P.D. James and T.A. Critchley, a thorough account and re-thinking of the notorious Ratcliffe Highway Murders, committed in London’s East End in December, 1811. The slayings are well-known to Britons, particularly Londoners, although less so to Americans. On Dec. 7, the 24-year-old clothing merchant was gruesomely murdered in his combination shop and home along with his wife Cecilia, their three-month old son Timothy and the young lad Gowen. Three of the victims were bludgeoned to death with a heavy long-handled iron hammer, a maul, found matted with blood, hair and brains in one of the rooms. The baby… Someone called out, “The child, where’s the child?” and there was a rush for the basement. There they found the child, still in its cradle, the side of its mouth laid open with a blow, the left side of the face battered, and the throat slit so that the head was almost severed from the body. The slayings and their brutality shocked […]
March 18, 2012

God’s phone number

Half a century ago, phone numbers had prefixes as well as numbers (such as ESterbrook 9-3392), and the Roman Catholic Mass was in Latin. “Dominus vobiscum,” the priest would say. “Et cum spiritu tuo,” the altar boys would respond. Each generation of Catholic boys and girls, moving through schools run by nuns in voluminous black (or brown, or even white) habits, would hear that prayer from the altar day in and day out, and make a joke of it. “What’s God’s phone number? “Etcumspiri-2-2-0.” (Giggle.) All that changed, of course, with the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s. Now the prayer is said in English. “God be with you.” “And with your spirit.” That’s probably an improvement. After all, wishing each other God’s presence and support is not a bad gift. And it’s a lot easier to understand in the vernacular. Patrick T. Reardon 3.18.12
March 15, 2012

Book review: “Houses and Homes – Exploring Their History” by Barbara J. Howe, Dolores A. Fleming, Emory L. Kemp and Ruth Ann Overbeck

Every once in a while, when I’m in the basement and can see the foundations of our two-flat, or rummage in a closet and notice a crack in the plaster in the corner, or sit at my computer and look at the wallpaper that previous owners put up in the room, I wonder about the history of my home. That history is the procession of people and families who lived here — in the second-floor apartment where we live, in the first-floor apartment which we rent to another family and in the basement where my wife has her office and I have my research files. It’s also the time-lapse photography of what, on our block, was built first and what came next. Did our two-flat stand here as a single structure at some point a century ago? Or was it among a handful of early structures? What was along our street before that four-story apartment building at the end of the block was erected, taking up three or four lots? I suspect many people have thoughts like these. Even if you are the first person to live in a structure, you probably wonder what was there before? A worker’s cottage? […]
March 10, 2012

Waiting for Alzheimer’s

The other day, I was talking with some friends about movies, and somehow the conversation got onto the film “Elf.” There was a point I wanted to make about the actor who played Will Farrell’s father in the movie, but, for the life of me, I couldn’t remember his name. I knew he’d played Sonny Corleone in “The Godfather.” And Brian Piccolo in “Brian’s Song.” And Hugh Grant’s future father-in-law in “Mickey Blue Eyes.” But his name escaped me. I tried various mental tricks, such as running through the alphabet and trying out various first names, until finally after what seemed like a long time but was probably only — only? — 10 seconds I remembered he’s James Caan. If you’re over the age of 60, as I am, something like this has probably happened to you. And it’s probably happening with greater frequency. I see my friends stumbling over a recollection. And, more and more, I find myself groping for a memory. I tell them and I tell myself that these sorts of lapses are just part of getting older. With more than 60 years of events, numbers, people, interactions, books read, movies viewed, music listened to, baseball games […]
March 9, 2012

Lincoln, work and prayer

“Orare est laborare.” That’s the motto of the Benedictine order. It means: Working is praying. By most accounts, Abraham Lincoln wasn’t terribly interested in organized religion. But that’s not to say he wasn’t spiritual. As president, his work was his prayer. Lincoln rooted his policies in a faith in the idea of union and democracy, in a hope that the divisions of a bitter, brother-against-brother war could be healed, and in a charity that refused to see those in rebellion as anything other than fellow Americans. His speeches often rose to the level of civic prayer. At Gettysburg, he concluded his short remarks with words that redefined the national identity: It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth. Those words honored the […]
March 7, 2012

In Austin

I grew up in the Austin neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago. I am the oldest of 14 children, and one of my jobs, growing up, was to watch my younger sisters in the afternoon after school. We lived on the second floor of a two-flat at 135 N. Leamington Ave. on the same block as our parish church (St. Thomas Aquinas), our parish school and the convent where the nuns lived. It was a crowded apartment, as you might imagine, and “watching the kids” meant taking two or three of the youngest girls to Grandma’s apartment a couple blocks away for a visit. I alternated this job with my brother David. I was 11 or 12. He was a year younger. I did the job until I was 13 and away at high school — at a religious seminary that was a boarding school. My sister Mary Beth, a year younger than David, took my place. The main idea was to get the youngest kids out of the house to give Mom some breathing space. She didn’t drive, and Dad, a Chicago police officer, was often at work at odd hours during the day or sleeping to get […]
March 5, 2012

Book review: “The Art of Fielding” by Chad Harbach

Chad Harbach’s intention in “The Art of Fielding” seems to be to subvert the traditional sports story — boy of great talent hones his craft, reaches heights, stumbles but learns from his errors (sometimes, literally) to become a better player and man. Here, Henry Skirmshander is a brilliant, if light-hitting, high school shortstop who is spotted by Mike Schwartz and recruited for the Westish College baseball team. On campus, Schwartz, the team’s catcher and a year older than Henry, takes the willowy freshman under his wing. He teaches Henry how to train, bulks him up, sharpens his hitting and transforms him into the team’s leading batter, its field general and heart and soul. Henry’s skill is so prodigious that, as his name is being talked about for one of the high draft rounds, he is on the verge of breaking the college record for games without an error, long held by his boyhood idol Aparicio Rodriguez. Rodriguez is not only a Hall-of-Fame legend but also the author of “The Art of Fielding,” a compendium of savvy and sometimes gnomic advice about how to play baseball and live life the right way. So far so good, but, during the game in […]
February 27, 2012

JFK and the cafeteria bishops

A half century ago, John F. Kennedy was elected the first Catholic President of the United States because he convinced American voters that he wouldn’t take orders from the Pope. Now, however, Catholic politicians across the U.S., particularly those running for national office, are increasingly facing criticism from some members of the hierarchy — because they won’t take orders from the church. Consider: — In 1984, Geraldine Ferraro, a Catholic, was the Democratic nominee for vice president and the first women on a major party’s national ticket. But Bishop James Timlin of Scranton, Pennsylvania, and Archbishop John O’Connor of New York publicly rebuked her for advocating legalized abortion. When she gave a speech in Scranton, one sign in the crowd read: “FERRARO — A CATHOLIC JUDAS.” — In 1990, O’Connor, now a cardinal, warned Catholic politicians that they were “at risk of excommunication” if they didn’t oppose abortion. — In 2003, Archbishop Sean O’Malley of Boston told Catholic lawmakers that they should stop receiving Communion if they voted to approve abortion legislation. — In 2004, John Kerry was named to head the Democratic ticket, becoming the first Catholic since Kennedy to be nominated for president. But, earlier in the year, […]
February 15, 2012

Book review: “Being Dead” by Jim Crace

When she and her husband Joseph were murdered on an isolated stretch of beach, Celice’s body fell onto the sand, upending a dune beetle and trapping him in the folds of her black wool jacket. As the beetle worked his way out from under the fabric, English novelist Jim Crace writes: He didn’t carry with him any of that burden which makes the human animal so cumbersome, the certainty that death was fast approaching and could arrive at any time, with its plunging snout, blindly to break the surface of the pool….It’s only those who glimpse the awful, endless corridor of death, too gross to contemplate, that need to lose themselves in love or art. His species had no poets….He had not spent, like us, his lifetime concocting systems to deny mortality. Nor had he passed his days in melancholic fear of death, the hollow and the avalanche. Nor was he burdened with the compensating marvels of human, mortal life. He had no schemes, no memories, no guilt or aspirations, no appetite for love, and no delusions. On the opening page of “Being Dead,” Joseph and Celice are already dead, their bodies just starting to decompose. What happens to those […]
February 13, 2012

Book review: “The Uncommon Reader” by Alan Bennett

Reading the last line of Alan Bennett’s “The Uncommon Reader,” I laughed out loud. I can’t guarantee you will, but I suspect you will find this short 2007 novel funny and surprisingly thoughtful. It’s about Queen Elizabeth II stumbling into a deep passion for books, particularly novels. And about how this new avocation brings into her life a sudden flood of other voices, experiences and perspectives that change her radically. After a long life of dutifully going through the motions — which, when you get down to it, in this age when royals wield no real power, is what the Queen and her family spend their lives doing — she begins thinking. Indeed, the Queen realizes, with regret, that, throughout her many years, she has met many literary figures but uniformly failed to take advantage of their acquaintance since she hadn’t read any of their works. “But ma’am must have been briefed, surely?” says Sir Kevin, her personal secretary, a supercilious New Zealander. “Of course, but briefing is not reading,” she responds. “In fact it is the antithesis of reading. Briefing is terse, factual and to the point. Reading is untidy, discursive and perpetually inviting. Briefing closes down a subject, […]
February 6, 2012

Book review: “How to Train Your Dragon” by Cressida Cowell

Okay, so I’m a 10-year-old boy at heart. I found the 2010 movie “How to Train Your Dragon,” starring Jay Baruchel as the hapless Hiccup, endlessly droll, inventive, touching and visually inviting. So I got myself a copy of the book upon which the film is based. Sort of. Kind of. Cressida Cowell’s 2004 book has the same title as the movie. It also features a hapless Hiccup who, in the course of an adventure, discovers his inner hero. Hiccup has a pet dragon whom he names Toothless. (But this Toothless, unlike his cinematic counterpart, is tiny, selfish and irritating.) The names and personalities of many of the secondary figures are the same — Hiccup’s father (Stoick the Vast), mentor (Gobber the Belch) and a couple of classmates (Snotlout and Fishlegs). Oh, and there’s also a big test that Hiccup and his friends have to face. But, basically, the movie tells a much different story of Hiccup as an odd kid who, nonetheless, has this inventive bent which he puts to good use in helping Toothless regain his power of flight and, ultimately, saving Hiccup’s village. That said, the book, in telling its own adventure, is fun, droll and inventive. […]
February 5, 2012

Book review: “Food in History” by Reay Tannahill

When Reay Tannahill began working on the book that became “Food in History,” she was entering virgin territory. No one before her had attempted to chronicle the relationship of humans and their food from before the dawn of history down to modern times. The result, published in 1973, was a surprise bestseller. Tannahill came back with a revised and expanded edition in 1988, and, despite many later books on the subject, “Food in History” continues to sell well. There is much to praise in the book — its erudition, its wit, its common sense, its utter lack of snobbishness, its lively writing. Tannahill does a bang-up job of taking the reader along on an adventure as she, using the findings of historians, sociologists and archeologists, describes the food of people across the globe and down the centuries. It’s an adventure because she is writing not so much about food, but about people. Why do people choose to eat what they eat? What did food mean socially? Politically? How much is too much? Not enough? Food as ostentation. Food and religion. Food in the city. The railroads and food. Tanahill mines hundreds of texts for zesty quotes and anecdotes, but it’s […]
February 1, 2012

My funeral service

At 62, I know the creakiness of my body. My knees ache. My back tightens up. Still, I’m in pretty good health. But my baby brother John, who is 57, had a heart attack recently. Dave, a guy with whom I play basketball twice a week, suddenly learned he had leukemia. And an elderly friend, Marty, died. So saying that final good-bye has been on my mind. And, when I attended Marty’s well-planned requiem mass at our parish church, I got to wondering what sort of funeral I’d like to have. Later, at home, I sat down and typed up a draft of my own service. Although it may sound ghoulish, it was an interesting exercise. More than an exercise, it was something of a self-examination. Well, what is important to me? How would I like my life summed up? I used the mass booklet from Marty’s service as an outline, and quickly realized that I’m not all that interested in the music that’s part of my funeral. Sure, I’d like Pachelbel’s Canon in D and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue to be played at some point. (Both are from the service Cathy and I put together for our wedding back […]
January 22, 2012

Book review: “Memory Mambo” by Achy Obejas

I thoroughly enjoyed “Memory Mambo” when I read it in early 1997, shortly after it was published. Fifteen years later, I savored it even more. Achy Obejas is a friend, and we were co-workers at the Chicago Tribune when she published this book, her first novel. That personal connection added something to the pleasure of the book, but there’s no question: Even if I hadn’t known Obejas, I still would have relished reading and re-reading such a funny, dramatic, insightful story. “Memory Mambo” works on a great many levels simultaneously. The book gives a glimpse into the Cuban-American culture — its intersection with and friction with other Hispanic heritages, its grappling with the reality of exile, its wrestling with racial identity, its tasty cuisine, its insularity and strong family ties. The 24-year-old narrator, Juani Casas, is the second of her parents’ three children, but one of a host of sibling-like cousins whose lives intertwine in complex ways, particularly around the family-run laundromat on Milwaukee Avenue in the Logan Square neighborhood of Chicago. The Cubans and other Hispanics are relatively new arrivals in the neighborhood, taking the place of Poles, many of whom — but not all — have moved out […]
January 16, 2012

Book review: “Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the RISE and FALL of the COMANCHES, the Most POWERFUL INDIAN Tribe in American History” by S. C. Gwynne

Let’s talk about book titles, and book covers, and book marketing. For all intents and purposes, S.C. Gwynne’s 2010 book “Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the RISE and FALL of the COMANCHES, the Most POWERFUL INDIAN Tribe in American History,” appears to be a biography of Quanah Parker. For one thing, an image of Parker takes up more than half of the book cover, the part not covered by the title and the subtitle. That subtitle, by the way, is strange, with its odd mix of some, but not all, words in boldface and some, but not all, of those boldface words in all capital letters. “Quanah Parker” is the only boldface word that is not all caps, but, in a way, that gives more emphasis to the name. And, of course, it’s further emphasized by being the start of the subtitle. (By the way, here’s another odd thing about the title itself: Nowhere in the book does Gwynne or anyone he quotes refer to the Comanche dominance on the Plains as the Empire of the Summer Moon. And, from what I can tell, it’s not a term that’s ever been used anywhere else to refer to […]
January 4, 2012

My first byline

January 3, 2012

Book review: “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest” by Stieg Larsson

Lisbeth Salander is fascinating. Thin, short and socially stunted, she is a victim of abuse, domestic and institutional. Yet, she is even more a survivor — one with extraordinary skills as a hacker, a fluid, computer-like intelligence and a steel will. Often, she is in control. She is the reason to read Stieg Larsson’s crime trilogy: “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” “The Girl Who Played with Fire” and “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest.” Alas, in the third book, “Hornets’ Nest” — an overfed 743 pages — she rarely appears. For literally hundreds of pages, people meet, people fight, people argue, people search, people scheme, people pontificate, people have sex, people have meals, people go for a run, people murder, people nab bad guys. But Lisbeth isn’t one of them. She’s stuck in a hospital bed, and then in a prison, and the nervous, exhilarating energy she has as she moves through the world is totally missing from the book. Even so, when she’s on the page, even when she can’t move a muscle without great pain, she captivates the reader. Of course, the reason Lisbeth is immobilized is that, as the book opens, she’s recuperating from a […]
December 28, 2011

What I Learned from Bill O’Reilly and His Book about Lincoln

This story appeared in the Dec. 28, 2011 issue of Streetwise magazine. If you’ve ever watched a panel discussion at a convention workshop or in a museum or university setting, you know how easy it is for the event to be deadly dull. Too often, each participant simply takes his or her allotted 10 minutes to trot out a boilerplate set of observations-arguments-data, regardless of the other panel members and their observations-arguments-data. That’s what we wanted to avoid on Dec. 7 when five of us gathered on the stage of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield to discuss “Killing Lincoln,” a new book by TV commentator Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard. Instead, we wanted to have a conversation about the O’Reilly-Dugard account of John Wilkes Booth’s murder of Lincoln. Not only would that be more interesting for the 200 or so people in the audience, but also a reasonable give-and-take about the book was more likely to spark new thoughts and insights about popular history and the place of Lincoln in American lore. A conversation and a flash of insight And we succeeded so well that, midway through the conversation, I had a flash of insight and […]
December 23, 2011

Book review: “The Girl Who Played with Fire” by Stieg Larsson

OK. This is more like it. The first book in Stieg Larsson’s trilogy centering on Lisbeth Salander, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” was slow and often clumsily written. This second installment “The Girl Who Played with Fire” is much, much better. Let me add quickly that, like “Tattoo,” this books starts off very slowly. In fact, at page 130 or so, I was getting fed up with the many detailed lists of purchases that Salander was making. As if I needed to know that, on one shopping trip, she bought a mop, a vacuum cleaner and a giant package of toilet paper. But, then, on page 141, things started to happen. And kept right on happening to the very last page (unlike “Tattoo” which took about 100 pages to very slowly tie up loose ends). Not only was there a lot of action in the final nearly 500 pages of “Fire,” but two really interesting characters were introduced — one, a creepy bad guy, a blond giant with muscles upon muscles and an insensitivity to pain; the other, a personable good guy, Paolo Roberto, a former prize-fighter, who has humor, loyalty and good will, something that many of the […]
December 21, 2011

Christmas: Early Morning

The small boy moves through deep snow down dark streets alone to the boulevard through the cold to the lights of the churchfront past thick wood doors inside to warmth and candles and colors and incense and mystery. An usher coughs. The belt of a coat slaps against a wooden pew. A baby in the back cries, is huddled close and rocked. Patrick T. Reardon written @1980