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
December 15, 2011

Book review: “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” by Stieg Larsson

“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” by Stieg Larsson is a curiously lumbering thriller. It starts slowly and ends slowly. In between, the novel has more than its share of often bizarre twists and turns. Yet, the shock value of these is consistently undercut by Larsson’s wooden writing. (Or is it the clunky translation by Reg Keeland that’s responsible?) Still, as an entertainment, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” does entertain. It keeps the reader turning pages. There is a cinematic quality to the story. Lots of visuals. Lots of action. No wonder the book has already been made into two movies, one in Swedish and one in English that will come out in less than a week in the U.S. And that the novel’s two sequels have already been filmed in Swedish, and are certain to get an English language treatment as well. There’s also, at the heart of the book, the fascinating enigma of Lisbeth Salander — she of the dragon tattoo — an ill-adjusted, erotically charged and scarred gamin and world-class computer hacker. She’s a haunted victim and a dangerous adversary, compelling enough to carry this overweight, overlong book on her thin shoulders. And enough to carry […]
December 11, 2011

The best Christmas gift — a life story

I get a lot of books for Christmas or my birthday, but the writings I’ve most treasured have been the autobiographies that my wife, Cathy, and our kids David and Sarah have written for me at my request. For instance, when Sarah was 9, she gave me a three-page memoir that began: “Hi, my name is Sarah Catherine Shiel Reardon. I remember, when I was younger, I grabbed the sharpest knife from the dishwasher and ran to the front of the house, and jumped on the couch. My dad came running after me, and grabbed the knife, and spanked me on my butt. But it didn’t really hurt because I had a diaper on.” Actually, Sarah didn’t remember that little incident — which scared me half to death — since she was just a toddler when it happened, waddling rapidly but unsteadily from one end of the house to the other with that shiny, terribly sharp knife. But she’d heard me tell the story so often, it was as if she could recall it. A couple paragraphs later, she wrote, “My mom is real crazy about feelings and emotions. That’s why she’s a social worker, and she really helps me […]
December 9, 2011

Book review: “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” by James Agee and Walker Evans

There are many ways to approach “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” the majestic, mystical and often maddening book that James Agee and Walker Evans published in 1941. I’m going to look at it here through the lens of journalism — how it subverts and critiques journalism as practiced in the United States. It is a book that subverts journalism, even as it reaches — strains achingly — to create a new journalism. It’s journalism as art. But not the sort of art that Agee is at pains to criticize through his book. The art that he is striving to create. But here, I’m afraid, I’m starting to sound like Agee. Let me try to be as clear as I can. I will write here mainly about Agee. The Evans photos are, like his text, majestic, mystical and at times maddening, but that’s another discussion. So too is the interplay between Agee’s words and the images by Evans. Neither exists without the other. Yet, here, I will write mainly about Agee. In the summer of 1936, Agee and Evans spent eight weeks traveling around the South, working on an assignment from Fortune magazine for a story about sharecroppers and tenant […]
November 29, 2011

God’s voice in a scratching sound? an itch?

Published November 25, 2011 in the National Catholic Reporter Friends of mine get angry with the Catholic Church hierarchy, and, Lord knows, there’s enough reason for that. To err is human, as the poet says. And, as the clergy pedophile scandal and cover-up have shown, the Princes of the Church are deeply human. Nonetheless, they wear those fancy clothes, and they issue edicts as if they were the voice of God. I think that’s how they feel. What’s the point of a religious hierarchy, after all, if the people at the top can’t claim to be a pipeline from the Deity. And, of course, the Pope and the cardinals and the bishops can — and, sometimes, do — provide moral leadership in the world. But it seems to me that our faith isn’t built on pomp and circumstance, or on edicts from the throne. Ours is a humble faith. Really. “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Jesus asked. And he called a little kid over and said to his followers, “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Remember “One of Us,” the song Joan Osborne sang a few […]
November 29, 2011

Book Review: “Killing Lincoln” by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard

You’d never know from reading “Killing Lincoln” that Bill O’Reilly is a conservative political commentator. O’Reilly, the host of The O’Reilly Factor on the Fox News Channel, doesn’t use this story of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865, to push any particular political agenda. The account that he and his co-author, Martin Dugard, have written doesn’t draw any parallels to modern-day America. Instead, their aim is to make “Killing Lincoln” a thriller, as O’Reilly says in a Note to Readers at the beginning of the book, and also “a no spin American story.” As I’ve said, there is no political spin to the book. But there is a story-telling spin. Like a series of writers over the past century, O’Reilly and Dugard have opted to make “Killing Lincoln” as sensational a story as possible — as opposed to trying to make it as accurate as possible. Historians who are striving for accuracy weigh multiple sources. They try, to the best of their ability, to determine which statements and accounts are likely to be truthful and which aren’t. For instance, eyewitness reports, by their nature, tend to be muddled to begin with. But those […]
November 19, 2011

Book review: “No Night Without Stars” by Andre Norton

Andre Norton’s “No Night Without Stars” landed in bookstores in 1975. That was 23 years after her book “Star Man’s Son,” better known as “Daybreak — 2250 A.D.,” appeared in print. In 2003, Baen Books put the two short novels together into an omnibus titled “Darkness and Dawn.” I give this bit of publishing history because I read “No Night Without Stars” from that omnibus and because “Daybreak — 2250 A.D.” was a seminal book in my reading life. Both novels deal with a ravaged American landscape hundreds of years after an atomic war. Indeed, “Daybreak,” published just seven years after Hiroshima, may have been the first science-fiction novel to mine this concept. (Many other writers have since taken up the subject in books and movies, such as “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy and the Mad Max films.) In “Daybreak,” Fors is a mutant who, because of his silver hair and better eyesight, is viewed with fear by his clansmen. Overlooked yet again for full membership in his tribe, he flees his home village to search with his feline companion Lura for the lost city his father had been trying to find when he was slain in battle. I initially […]
November 16, 2011

Book review: “Tinkers” by Paul Harding

As “Tinkers” opens, George is dying. Paul Harding makes this clear with his first sentence: “George Washington Crosby began to hallucinate eight days before he died.” By the end of this short, intense, sharply observed novel, Harding’s vision is more evident. As Harding sees life, the characters in every novel are dying from the opening sentence. Ahab is dying. Sister Carrie. Madame Bovary. David Copperfield. Lolita. Olive Kitteridge. Rabbit. Augie March. And so, too, in every biography and memoir, every history. Lincoln, Bill Clinton, Cleopatra, Jane Addams, Elizabeth II, Victor Hugo, Shakespeare, Madonna, Goethe, Florence Nightingale — all of them, even as they live, are dying. Even as they lived. “Tinkers,” which won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, is a novel about the intertwining of life and death. About the journey of life toward death. About their inseparability. Midway through the book, a young George is crouching in a storage shed while his father looks on, thinking: So there is my son, already fading. The thought frightened him. The thought frightened because as soon as it came to him, he knew that it was true. He understood suddenly that even though his son knelt in front of him, familiar, […]
November 11, 2011

Honoring veterans — of all sorts

Striding purposely around a bend of a park path recently in Washington, D.C., Jim Chianakas suddenly saw before him the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. “There it is,” he said. “Wow!” Beside Chianakas, 85, of Princeville, Ill., was his brother George, 86, of Crystal Lake. The Chianakas brothers were among a group of 100 World War II veterans who had been flown to the nation’s capital that morning for an all-expenses-paid tour. Arranged and conducted by an organization called Honor Flight Chicago, the tour included the new National World War II Memorial as well as the other major Washington monuments…. See the rest of my op-ed piece in the 11.11.11 Chicago Tribune at this address: http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2011-11-10/news/ct-perspec-1111-honor-20111110_1_honor-veterans-honor-flights-honor-mothers
November 10, 2011

Book review: “Clarence Darrow: Atttorney for the Damned” by John A. Farrell

Finishing “Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned” by John A. Farrell, I was surprised to find myself underwhelmed by the book. No question, it’s a good solid effort. Farrell has done a yeoman’s job of tracking down, reading and incorporating the far-flung records of Darrow’s key trials, as well as much else in his life. (If you read the endnotes, you realize how sloppy other writers have been, including Darrow himself and Irving Stone, author of the 1941 “Clarence Darrow for the Defense.”) Perhaps Farrell’s book suffers a tad from all that research. On many occasions throughout the book, I had the wish that he had quoted less from Darrow’s courtroom speeches and his essays and his books. Darrow was nothing except his words and ideas, of course. Well, not nothing. There was his physical presence and his mannerisms, his body language, at which he was as adept as a great actor. Even more, there was his sly, cunning feel for human nature, his ability to read juries and play them like a musical instrument. The mannerisms, though, were there to frame his words, and his words were how he put to use that cunning feel for human nature. So, […]
November 9, 2011

Fully American: The election of JFK and the place of Catholics in the U.S.

When President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, I thought he would be canonized. St. JFK? It seems silly now. Now that all the stories of Kennedy’s womanizing have become public knowledge. Now that the glow of his presidency has faded and the memory of his glamour has soured. I was just a kid, a freshman in a high school seminary. I’d turned 14 on the day he was killed. But I wasn’t alone. There was much talk among Catholics and other Americans about “our martyred president.” In the hours immediately following the shooting, Federal Judge James B. Parsons, chairman of the Chicago Conference on Race and Religion, indicated his belief that Kennedy’s murder was the result of his Catholicism and his support of civil rights for U.S. blacks. “Like Christ, the President has died for the sin of racial and religious bigotry among us,” Parsons said. Fully American When Kennedy was elected to the White House on Nov. 8, 1960, he was a breath of fresh air. After decades of elderly and even infirm presidents, Americans were captivated by his easy charm, his beautiful wife, his youthfulness and young family, his sparkling smile. He was a superstar before […]