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 […]
October 29, 2011

Book review: “The Wannsee Conference and the Final Solution” by Mark Roseman

About midway through “The Wannsee Conference and the Final Solution” by Mark Roseman, I got to wondering how writers like Roseman do it. I mean, writers who spend a good chunk of their lives — or, for some, their entire careers — studying the Holocaust. It is, to my mind, a high calling, sifting through the orders, accounts, files, memoirs, photos, diaries, trial testimony and other documents to nail down the facts and wrestle with the important questions, such as: How could this have happened? What does the Holocaust say about human nature? To what extent was Hitler responsible? The German people? The anti-Semitism of the rest of the world? More than nuclear weapons, more than climate change, more than capitalism, terrorism or religious fundamentalism, the Holocaust is the central issue of humanity today. And probably for centuries to come. Human beings killed human beings in a conscious, factory-like, bureaucratically buttressed endeavor for no reason — for lack of a threat — except that the people were of a certain religion, culture and “race.” The killing of millions of Jews was the culmination of the murderous style of government that the Nazis used to grab and keep power, and kept […]
October 27, 2011

Book review: “Snuff” by Terry Pratchett

On Discworld, goblins live on — are beat up on, are exploited on, are starved on, die on — the edges. They stink. They steal chickens. They eat their young. And their religion is based on the reverent storage of earwax, fingernail clippings, toenail clippings, and snot. They are almost universally considered vermin and almost universally not considered human-like in the way that, on Discworld, trolls, dwarves, vampires and various other species are considered human-like. Or, at least, in the eyes of the law, are considered equal to humans. Goblins can be enslaved with impunity. And killed with impunity. If this sounds familiar in human history — and modern-day headlines — that’s Terry Pratchett’s point. (According to the International Labour Organization and other agencies, there are more slaves in the world today than ever before — anywhere from 12 million to 27 million.) In the newly published “Snuff,” the 39th novel in his Discworld series, Pratchett eloquently rages against racism and slavery. Which is to say that he ridicules those who mindlessly protect and exploit slavery; he skewers those who put on airs and look down their noses at those they identify as their inferiors; he explodes the myths and […]
October 24, 2011

Erasing Comiskey Park from the Face of the Earth

This essay will be a chapter in a book about Comiskey Park, edited by Floyd Sullivan, to be published probably in 2013 It’s a frigid weekend in March, and I’ve taken my kids to play in the park – Comiskey Park. On the infield grass, where Nellie Fox used to scoop up grounders, Sarah is running and bouncing and jumping, the cold wind twisting her curly hair this way and that. She’s not quite three. On her feet, she wears boots of dainty pink plastic because of all the mud. David, who is five, is racing like a gazelle near the pitcher’s mound where Ted Lyons, Billy Pierce and LaMarr Hoyt used to twist, turn and send the baseball hurtling to the plate. He’s laughing out loud with the joy of movement. Held tight in his hand is a golf ball he’s found somewhere on the field. Neither child has much of a sense of what this place is, or what this moment in time represents. Baseball was last played on this field five months ago and will never be played here again. After eighty-one years as the home of the Chicago White Sox, Comiskey Park is about to be […]
October 23, 2011

Book review: “Frank Lloyd Wright” by Ada Louise Huxtable

Sometime, apparently in the mid-1890s, Daniel Burnham set up a meeting with Frank Lloyd Wright to present him with an extraordinary offer. At the time, Burnham was basking in acclaim as the manager of Chicago’s wildly successful 1893 World’s Fair. He was the head of one of the city’s most prominent architectural firms, and at the center of social and economic might. Indeed, in 1909, he would be the central figure in a group of power brokers drafting the Plan of Chicago, a pioneering breakthrough in urban design and vision. Wright was not yet 30, growing in fame as the designer of homes in what became known as the Prairie style. “Burnham offered to send Wright to Paris for the three-year course at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, since Wright had no formal architecture education, and then to the American Academy in Rome for another two years,” writes Ada Louise Huxtable. “He would pay all expenses, and take care of Wright’s wife and children during that time. On Wright’s return, Burnham promised him a partnership in his firm. it was an amazing offer, carrying a guarantee of a prestigious career. “Wright refused.” It is easy, from reading Huxtable’s short but meaty […]
October 19, 2011

Thinking the thinkable

Recently, I sat down and wrote out a plan for my funeral service. A couple days later, I wrote about it in the Chicago Tribune. You can find it here: http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/ct-perspec-1019-death-20111019,0,1817717.story
October 16, 2011

Book review: “Continent” by Jim Crace

There is a vague, marshy border between poetry and prose. Marshy, as in rich with life, rich with the intermingling of earth and water and sunlight, crawling things, buzzing, flitting, sounds moist and dry on the breeze. This is where you find Jim Crace’s 1986 book “Continent.” It’s at the boundary in another way. It is comprised of seven short stories that, together, form a elliptical novel. • Lowdo, a rural boy at the University, ambivalent about his father and his father’s herd of freemartins, half-male/half-female cows whose “milk” is eagerly sought as an aphrodisiac. • A mistakenly arrested “political” prisoner, his retarded sister and the soldier for whom she had an unswerving affection. • The teacher from the city who jogs and is challenged to a race by the local horseman hero. • An elderly daughter trying to tease out the meaning of her anthropologist father, her cold and clever mother and a long-ago native tribe where fertile females were in heat only once a year — and all at the same time. • A aged calligrapher who, at the end of his life, becomes the darling of art collectors in faraway America and draws the attention of government […]
October 15, 2011

“Father Bernardin”

During a career as a news reporter that spanned nearly 40 years, I interviewed my share of high-ranking officials. When I was part of a small group of journalists to meet with President Jimmy Carter, I called him “Mr. President.” At a news conference or in an interview, I called Mayor Richard M. Daley “Mr. Mayor.” As a good Catholic from birth, I knew that, when conversing with a Cardinal, you addressed the man as “Your Eminence” or, at least, “Cardinal.” So I was surprised back in December, 1990, when I had my one and only interview with Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. It was during a period when Bernardin was having to close many parish schools for financial reasons, and he had just appeared on a radio show to talk about some new development. I was there in the lobby of the radio station with a reporter from another newspaper, and, when the Cardinal was off the air, we sat down with him for 10 or 15 minutes to run some questions past him. Nothing very memorable. When we were done and he’d left, I started walking back to my office when it dawned on me. For some reason — probably […]
October 15, 2011

Cardinal Joseph Bernardin: Model pastor, “saintly man”

For a long time, Eugene Kennedy was certain that Joseph Bernardin, the soft-spoken, bridge-building archbishop of Cincinnati, would become the first American-born Pope. “He was a perfect candidate for it,” says Kennedy, a psychologist, former priest and widely published writer who became Bernardin’s friend. “He was internationally known. He was internationally respected. He would have been a pope of peace.” But, even as Bernardin was raised in 1982 to head the archdiocese of Chicago, the largest in the nation at the time, and, a few months later, was consecrated as a cardinal, his star was on the wane. Reaction to the Second Vatican Council was setting in. The new pope, John Paul II, was much more conservative than the open-the-windows liberalism of the 1960s, and he was appointing regiments of new cardinals of a similar mind. Eventually, it became clear to even the most hopeful that Bernardin would never be pope. “He became something else,” Kennedy says. “He became a saint.” At the height of his success as Chicago’s Cardinal, Bernardin underwent three soul-shuddering trials — an accusation of sexual abuse, later recanted; an attack of cancer; and then a recurrence of the disease in a virulent and inoperable form […]