July 4, 2012

Book review: “Lives of Rembrandt: Sandrart, Baldinucci and Houbraken,” introduced by Charles Ford

Rembrandt had been dead for half a century when Arnold Houbraken wrote in one of the earliest biographies of the painter: And as to his female nudes, the noblest subject for the artist’s brush, the representation of which earned the fullest attention of the most celebrated old masters, well, as the proverb says, “too sad a song either to be sung or to be played.” His nudes are all sickening displays and one is astonished that a man of so much talent and imagination could have been so perverse in the selection of what to paint. Later, Houbraken quotes poet Andries Pels: If, as he sometimes did, he painted a naked woman, He took no Grecian Venus as his model but rather A washerwoman, or a peat-treader from a barn. He called this idiocy “copying nature” And everything else vain ornament. Flabby breasts, Contorted hands, even the creases left by straps On the body, or garters on the leg, They must all be copied else nature was not satisfied, His nature, that is, which tolerated neither rules Nor principles of proportion in the human figure. So, here is Rembrandt, one of the giants of Western art, being excoriated for his […]
July 1, 2012

Book review: “The Long Earth” by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

Near the end of “The Long Earth,” after a long quest, the three central characters come face to face with an entity that one describes as “a destroyer of worlds. An eater of souls.” Or, as another more bluntly puts it, “the end of the world” for humans. That’s a lot for a reader to bite off and gobble down. The end of the world? Really? Yet, it’s a measure of the skill and imagination of Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter that, by this point in the novel, the reader doesn’t hear melodramatic echoes from bad sci-fi flicks. Instead, the reader is more likely to hear echoes from J. Robert Oppenheimer who, upon the detonation of the first atomic bomb, recalled the line from the Hindu holy book, the Bhagavad Gita: “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
June 19, 2012

Book review: “Inherent Vice” by Thomas Pynchon

In 2009, Thomas Pynchon published a (for him) short 369-page mystery novel “Inherent Vice” about a hippie private investigator trying to puzzle out a host of intricate and seemingly inter-related crimes, deaths, “deaths,” disappearances, hallucinations, scams, drug deals, relationships and betrayals. And was accused of betrayal by some critics and longtime Pynchon fans for slumming in genre fiction. On that question, I have nothing to say. Many years ago, I gave Pynchon a shot, trying and failing to get very far into a couple of his earlier novels. (Not much of an effort, I must admit.) So I’m in no position to judge whether he’s slumming. Yet, for what it’s worth, after reading “Inherent Vice,” I’m going to take a stab, sometime soon, at one of his “literary” works. Beside the point Actually, the distinction between literary and genre books is somewhat beside the point for a writer as talented as Pynchon.
June 18, 2012

AUSL Master’s Degree graduation valedictory by Sarah Catherine Shiel Reardon on June 9, 2012

Good morning residents, colleagues, family, and friends! Michael Whitmore said the three Rs of a successful urban teacher are resiliency, responsiveness, and reflectiveness. Residents, now that we have completed our residency, I know that we all have a deeper understanding of those three words than we ever did on that sunny August day at NLU. Our residency and the work we are committing ourselves to do is hard word. It is. Period. It requires us to be resilient. It requires us to be ready and flexible. It requires us to be reflective. Today is a special day to honor the hard work we have done and the hard work we will do. Every child deserves a quality education to realize their potential and we are the lucky ones that get to be a part of that. Our students will be the future doctors, poets, astronauts, mayors, and teachers of the next generation if we can help them get there. We have all read articles that show that quality teachers significantly affect student achievement. One article I read this year said that three quality teachers in a row can close the achievement gap for a student. Now, residents, I am going […]
June 9, 2012

Psalm

The Lord croons melodious tunes. Praise God. The Lord whistles cool breezes. Praise God. The Lord laughs deep from the belly. Praise God. The Lord knows humor as a faithful friend. Praise God. Garden dirt is under the Lord’s fingernails. Praise God. The grit of soil, the Lord knows. Praise God. Sweating, the Lord’s muscles strain. Praise God. The load down, the Lord’s muscles ease. Praise God. The Lord grieves. Praise God. The Lord weeps. Praise God. The weight bows the Lord’s shoulders. Praise God. The Lord’s shoulders take the weight in balance. Praise God. The Lord sings full-throated songs in congregation. Praise God. The Lord’s voice joins all the voices singing. Praise God. The Lord croons melodious tunes. Praise God. Cool breezes are the whistling of the Lord. Praise God. Patrick T. Reardon 1999
June 7, 2012

Book review: “The Menace from Earth” by Robert A. Heinlein

Success, in the form of “Stranger in a Strange Land” (1961), went to Robert A. Heinlein’s head. He discovered a callow audience enthralled with his pop psychology and jejune philosophical rantings on free love, non-conformity, self-reliance and nudity, and took it as a license to pontificate. He became bombastic and preachy and, well, a crank. That Heinlein, thankfully, is nowhere to be found in “The Menace from Earth,” a crackerjack 1959 collection of eight stories published between 1941 and 1957. These stories are just plain terrific, displaying, in a highly concentrated form, Heinlein’s great story-telling abilities.
June 6, 2012

Book review: “The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan, 1811-2011,” edited by Hilary Ballon

Two hundred and one years ago, when New York comprised the small southern tip of Manhattan Island, three commissioners laid out the future of the city as a grid. It was an act of chutzpah.
June 3, 2012

Book review: “American Characters: Selections from the National Portrait Gallery, Accompanied by Literary Portraits” by R.W.B. Lewis and Nancy Lewis

“American Characters: Selections from the National Portrait Gallery, Accompanied by Literary Portraits” by R.W.B. Lewis and Nancy Lewis is the sort of photo-art book that you don’t read from cover to cover. Except, it turns out, you do. At least, I did. This 1999 book is irresistibly readable because of — although some might argue in spite of — its being composed of four levels of stories that are told simultaneously.
June 1, 2012

A history of St. Gertrude: One hundred years in the life of a faith family

This abridged history of the St. Gertrude Roman Catholic parish in the Edgewater neighborhood of Chicago was read at Pentecost mass on May 27, 2012. The full history is to be published later this year. Eileen Quinlan and the other parishioners here and there in the pews of St. Gertrude church knew something was wrong. Nine a.m. had come and gone, and, though the minutes ticked away, Father Bill Kenneally hadn’t arrived at the altar to start mass. “Then he came out, and he was white,” Quinlan remembers. “He said he just watched the second plane hit the building. He was so shaken, he could hardly say mass.” The bright, sparkling, clear-skied Tuesday was September 11, 2001.
May 30, 2012

A new shepherd for Chicago

Earlier this year, Cardinal Francis George turned 75 and submitted his letter of resignation to Pope Benedict XIV as archbishop of Chicago. As George said in an interview with the Tribune, it was “formula almost.” A requirement under Vatican rules, but, as the Cardinal indicated, not something the Pope is likely to act on for at least two years. Nonetheless, George has begun the transition process, tidying up his administrative house and naming new aides who will carry on the work of the archdiocese under the new archbishop — whoever that is. That’s a key question, of course, for me and for the other 2.3 million Catholics in Cook and Lake Counties. The spiritual leader of the archdiocese will set the tone for us in terms of how we pray together and live our faith. But the eventual appointment of Chicago’s new Catholic leader is also important for the millions of Protestants, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, other believers, agnostics and atheists in the metropolitan region.
May 30, 2012

Book review: “The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ” by Philip Pullman

As a Christian, I’ve read a lot of stuff by other believers about the life of Jesus and its meaning. In addition, I’ve always found it enjoyable and instructive to read what non-believers — or, at least, unofficial commentators — have to say. Historians, as professionals without the overlay of theology, shed an interesting light on what is known and what can be guessed. But, even more insightful are novelists who bring a keen eye and ear to the job. And many, great and not-so-great, have taken a shot at it, including Norman Mailer, Leo Tolstoy, Anne Rice, Reynolds Price, Jose Saramago, Jim Crace, Gore Vidal, Charles Dickens and Nikos Kazantzakis. Now, here’s Philip Pullman with his 2010 book “The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ,” part of the Canongate Myth Series.
May 25, 2012

Book review: “Little Jackrabbit at Home in the Desert” by Jim Strickler, illustrations by Karen Pritchett

I’m not four-years-old, but I learned something from this sweet short story about Baby Jack — written by my friend Jim Strickler. I learned: • That a mother jackrabbit scrapes out a smooth spot under a sagebrush and lines it with her own fur as a place where she can give birth in private and comfort. • That the desert has “many wonderful sounds: the songs of a meadowlark, the barking of a prairie dog, and the ‘hooooo’ of the wind blowing across the dry land.” • That, during the heat of the day, a jackrabbit rests in a clump of brown grass where his fur blends in with the grass and the sandy soil so that “hungry coyotes and eagles that are hunting for food cannot see him easily.” • That jackrabbits have developed a way to chew a hole in a cactus in order to avoid “the prickly spines on the outside” and get at “the moist part inside.” • That a mother jackrabbit alerts her children to the presence of a coyote or other danger by “pounding one of her back paws against the hard ground.” I enjoyed Baby Jack’s joy at the departure of a coyote. […]
May 25, 2012

Book review: “The Warden” by Anthony Trollope

OK, “The Warden” by Anthony Trollope, published in 1855, is one of the classics of English literature. Over the past century and a half, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of readers have enjoyed Trollope’s humorous, poignant and sharp-eyed account of the travails of Rev. Septimus Harding, a minor clergyman in the (fictional) cathedral town of Barchester. Mr. Harding is the elderly warden of Hiram’s Hospital, a charity home established more than 400 years earlier for a dozen aged laborers no longer able to earn their daily bread.
May 20, 2012

Book review: “The Company of Glory” by Edgar Pangborn

Edgar Pangborn’s science-fiction novel “The Company of Glory” was initially serialized in three parts in Galaxy magazine in the latter half of 1974. It was published in 1975. Pangborn died on February 1, 1976, at the age of 66. I mention this because “The Company of Glory” is the story of Demetrios, a storyteller in the early stages of a post-apocalyptic world who is in his early 60s and in failing health. Is it in some way the story of storyteller Pangborn who, I would guess, was in failing health as he was writing this, his final novel?
May 16, 2012

Book review: “The Jesuits: a Multibiography” by Jean Lacouture

There are times when Jean Lacouture draws a picture of a particular Jesuit that takes your breath away. Consider his description of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the 20th century scientist-theologian who was silenced for much of his professional life by the church for describing an evolving Universe in place of traditional Catholic teaching of a static world, rooted in the Book of Genesis. Agnostic intellectuals and researchers, Lacouture writes, saw, in Teilhard, “a luminous personality almost recklessly offered, open to the point of innocence,” and a man in constant, quick movement, “pulsing with joyful vitality and optimism.” Further, he writes: Teilhard walked through life with long strides, from continent to continent, from millennium to millennium, from the Gobi Desert to Harar in Abyssinia, a beret on his head, or a sun helmet, or a turban, a cape slung across his shoulders, in shorts and bush jacket, wearing boots or rope soles — something of a Marco Polo, something of Claudel, something of Rimbaud — tough, laughing, pick or hammer in hand and a parable on his lips, twenty stories in his head, a too human human at once riveted in priestly fetters he had accepted and in permanent violation of […]
May 15, 2012

Book review: “Driving Mr. Yogi: Yogi Berra, Ron Guidry and Baseball’s Greatest Gift” by Harvey Araton

“Driving Mr. Yogi” by Harvey Araton is a fun book for a Yankee fan. I suspect it wouldn’t be much of a read for anyone else.
May 14, 2012

A remembrance: AUDREY REARDON, June 21, 1926 – December 5, 1995

A eulogy by Patrick T. Reardon St. Thomas More Church December 9, 1995 Audrey Joanne Thomas……Audrey Thomas Reardon……69……the mother of 14 children……died Tuesday in her Oak Lawn home. Mrs. Reardon, who was born and raised in the Austin neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side, graduated from Providence High School. During World War II, she was a singer in USO shows for American troops in the city, and later worked as an executive secretary at the Loop headquarters of the Quaker Oats Co. On October 16, 1948, she married David J. Reardon, a postal worker who later served more than three decades as a Chicago police officer. The couple, who moved to the Ashburn neighborhood on the city’s Southwest Side in 1969 and to Oak Lawn last August, raised fourteen children, all of whom still live in the Chicago area: Rita, Jeanne, Geralyn, Teri, Kathy, Marie, Laura, Rosemary, John, Tim, Eileen, Mary Beth, David and Patrick. She is also survived by 30 grandchildren. = I want to tell you about my mother……about our mother……about the wife of our father……about the woman who touched—directly or indirectly—the lives of everyone here today……and many, many more. Do you remember how bright and crisp and clear […]
May 11, 2012

Book review: “Hard Times” by Charles Dickens

I suspect that Charles Dickens was in a pretty foul mood when he wrote “Hard Times” in 1854. He draws stark differences between the “good” people and the “bad” people in this story, and assigns bleak fates to nearly all of them. As usual in Dickens, the “bad” people are those that the society of his day saw as good — the upholders of civilization, the ambitious businessmen who made the British Empire hum, the refined, the educated, the proper, the gentry and the would-be gentry. The “good” characters for him are those that civilized society looked down on — the workers, the domestics, the vagabonds, the entertainers. The salt of the earth. In “Hard Times,” the “bad” people are especially ignoble. They are blowhards and snoops. They manipulate others out of boredom. They bully. They lack self-knowledge. They are self-satisfied, unctuous. Supercilious. Insipid. Throughout the book, they cause constant havoc in the lives of other people, particularly the “good” characters. Those “good” characters, with the exception of clear-headed Sissy Jupe, are victims. One is victimized by her father and her own stubbornness. The father is victimized by his belief in “Facts!” An honest laborer has four separate persecutors, including […]
May 11, 2012

Memo to NATO diplomats: Ignore the Chicago hype

Hey, NATO diplomats! I’m know you’re being flooded with lots of official and commercial stuff about Chicago: Where views of the city are most beautiful. Where dinners are most tasty. Where to find the “real Chicago.” Ignore them. These attempts at indoctrinating you about the city, when not just out and out wrong, are as superficial as a picture postcard. Like Paris or Brussels or London, Chicago can’t be “discovered” in the course of a quick — or long — visit. People who have lived here their entire lives and love the city passionately are always learning something new. Let me offer something else. Let me offer you glimpses of Chicago that hint at its character and texture. If you can pull yourself away from all those world-shaping discussions of trade relations and military forecasts, you’ll get a richer sense of our city by experiencing one or more of these. Take a look, for instance, at “Childhood Is Without Prejudice,” the mural that, in 1977, William Walker created on the southern wall of an underpass beneath the Metra tracks at 56th Street, near Stony Island Avenue. Walker was the central figure in a collective of African-American artists who, in 1967, […]
May 7, 2012

Book review: “Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman” by Robert K. Massie

The subtitle of Robert K. Massie’s “Catherine the Great” is “Portrait of a Woman.” But that’s too limiting. This 574-page biography is the portrait of a person — one who happens to have been a woman and who happens to have been the empress of Russia for more than thirty years in the late 1700s. On the final page of the book, Massie makes the argument — hard to dispute — that Catherine was the greatest monarch of her era and the equal to her predecessor, Peter the Great. That’s saying a lot since Peter was the man who, four decades earlier, had dragged his nation out of the Middle Ages and into modern eighteenth-century Europe to play a significant role in world affairs. “Peter imported technology and government institutions,” Massie writes. “Catherine brought European moral, political and judicial philosophy, literature, art, architecture, sculpture, medicine and education.” Indeed, Catherine created the Hermitage Palace in St. Petersburg and its original collection of art by such luminaries as Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Raphael and Titian. Today, it contains the largest collection of paintings in the world, and is considered one of the greatest art museums on earth. She also commissioned “The Bronze Horseman,” […]
May 3, 2012

A game

It seemed like a good idea at the time, I guess. I mean, my two-year-old daughter’s decision to grab a long, exceedingly sharp butcher’s knife from the dishwasher and run the entire length of the house with it in her hand — and leap playfully onto the couch in the front room. I’d been unloading the dishwasher when Sarah wormed past my legs to get the knife. I think she just wanted to liven up the afternoon. I remember running as fast as I could after her, unable to reach down far enough from my height to slow or stop her, and worrying each second that, by chasing her, I was increasing the danger that she’d fall and the knife would go —- well, I didn’t want to think where the knife might go. It turned out fine. She got to the couch and I got to her without any slashes, punctures or other sorts of wounds occurring. Awash with relief and yet still coming to the full realization of how dangerous our little jaunt had been, I gave Sarah the only spanking of her life. That turned out fine, too. The three slaps I directed to her rump were […]
April 28, 2012

Book review: “The Berlin Ending: A Novel of Discovery” by E. Howard Hunt

As spy novels go, “The Berlin Ending” by E. Howard Hunt, published 38 years ago, is okay. For readers looking for an addictive page-turner, it will probably be on the slow side. Hunt, who died in 2007, had actually been in the CIA and knew what he was talking about. But the verisimilitude that this brings to his story seems to make the book a bit clunky. For readers looking for literature along the lines of John LeCarre, this novel will be unsatisfying. Characters are flat. Motivations, weak. Descriptions, clichéd. “The Berlin Ending” is a competent work, even so. Yet, I didn’t read it so much for itself — although I enjoy a good spy yarn — but because Hunt was a key figure in the June 17, 1972 burglary of the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate office building. It was the attempts of the Richard Nixon White House to cover up the administration’s connection to Hunt and the burglars that led to the ruination of Nixon and so many of the men around him. That amazing fall from national grace, a fit subject for a Shakespeare, was treated well if superficially in the recently published novel “Watergate” […]
April 8, 2012

Book review: Stories We Keep, edited by Dawn Curtis and Robin Bourjaily

“Stories We Keep” is a small book, only 64 pages. And it’s even shorter if you’re a reader like me who isn’t very hip to yoga or interested in recipes involving yams. Nonetheless, its five short stories are startlingly vivid evocations of the sharp shards of life. Let me explain. These stories are from five female writers who use a particular trademarked approach to yoga — Yoga as Muse — to expand their creative horizons. Hence, the Q&A at the end of each writer’s story concerning the interaction of the disciplines of yoga and writing. They call themselves the YAM Tribe. Hence, the recipes for yams that most of them add as well. All of which may set up expectations for New Age-ish narratives about crystals and Gaia. Not to worry. Jeffrey Davis, the originator of Yoga as Muse, writes in an introduction: This anthology contains no epiphanies. No ecstatic moments of the writer or a character becoming one with green leaves and mountain streams. No Rumi-esque songs of the Divine. What a relief. Moving toward truth Yoga, according to Davis, isn’t about ecstasy or epiphany. And neither is writing. Practicing yoga does not remove all maladies. Nor does writing […]
April 8, 2012

Book review: “Watergate” by Thomas Mallon

Well, Thomas Mallon’s “Watergate” is certainly a readable novel. It’s an amazement, really, that he’s been able to take the tottering heap of jagged historical events, involving scores of politicians and suchlike, and weave them into a narrative about the fall of Richard Nixon that flows smoothly, steadily, inexorably. That flow continues even as the end approaches. When I’d pick up the book, I’d find myself right back into the middle of the story. The thing is, as the conclusion neared, I wasn’t in a rush to pick it up. I knew — as any reader would know — where Nixon’s story was heading. It sort of sapped the suspense. Mallon works to keep the reader reading through the use of a couple subplots: What will happen between Pat Nixon and her fictional lover Tom Garahan? And what will Fred LaRue and his fictional lover Clarine “Larrie” Lander do about a missing envelope, marked with the handwritten word “MOOT” and containing an investigative report about the deepest question in LaRue’s life? Only three of the book’s 100-plus characters aren’t from the historical record — Garahan, Lander and Billy Pope, a senatorial aide who has a minor walk-on. Yet, in the […]
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. […]