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 […]
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.