November 28, 2016

Book review: “Big Bosses: A Working Girl’s Memoir of Jazz Age America” by Althea McDowell Altemus, edited and annotated by Robin F. Bachin

In 1922, after working more than four years in Florida as an executive secretary, Althea McDowell Altemus took her eight-year-old son Robert and headed for home territory: Chicago. For a carefree two months, the 35-year-old widow and Tidbits, as she called her son, made Chicago their playground, as she explains in the newly published Big Bosses: A Working Girl’s Memoir of Jazz Age America (University of Chicago Press): We had given the once over to every toy in Field’s playroom – we could tell you about every animal in the Lincoln Park Zoo – we knew every kid at Clarendon Beach – we had sported joy rides on the top of every bus line approaching the Loop – we had even been out in the country and helped milk the cows and bring in the eggs… It was nearly a century ago, but the Chicago playground that Altemus describes in Big Bosses won’t be unfamiliar to many present-day residents of the city and suburbs. True, Marshall Field’s is now Macy’s, but the department store retains more than a bit of its aura as a fixture on the city’s business and cultural landscape. The Lincoln Park Zoo and the lake beaches […]
November 23, 2016

Chicago history: When the Tribune’s home was covered in “deep chocolate” soot

With great fanfare, the Chicago Tribune celebrated its new headquarters on the southeast corner of Dearborn and Madison Streets on July 23, 1902. It was the seventh location for the 55-year-old newspaper, and the third erected on that spot. The newspaper was proud as punch of its new home and wasn’t shy about tooting its own horn. (After all, this was a journalistic institution that, beginning in 1911, would refer to itself for decades as “The World’s Greatest Newspaper.”) In a 32-page special “historical supplement” on that July day, Tribune writers rhapsodized about the new building as “one of the handsomest and best-equipped newspaper offices in the world.” Headlines, over photographs and stories, proclaimed the new building’s virtues: • “Heating System Is Perfect” • “Tribune Walls Waterproof” • “Setting Boilers a Giant Task” • “No Life Lost in Building” • “Editorial Rooms Are Large” • “Beauty of Business Offices” • “Washed Air in New Building”   Soon to fall victim But perhaps the newspaper’s greatest boast was in another headline: “Building One of City’s Sights: New Home of ‘The Tribune’ Already One of Chicago’s Prominent Show Places.” Alas, as handsome as the building was and as certain as the newspaper […]
November 21, 2016

Poem: “Absent angel”

Absent angel   Mary on the hill, her dying son, her aching bones and flesh, her flock of his friends looking to her for what?   She endured. The next step is a step in any direction.   The thirteen of us swim in the suicide of our brother. We can’t help but drink in the gall.   A sister sends a text with David’s voice like Abraham’s blooded knife and no angel swooping to the rescue.   Patrick T. Reardon 11.21.16
November 21, 2016

Poem: “David Reardon (January 23, 1951-November 21, 2015)”

David Reardon (January 23, 1951-November 21, 2015)   You were there, David, with me. I was there with you.   We were drawn together and pushed apart by circumstances, our souls, our yearnings, ignorant luck and fatal choice.   Now you have left without me. I am left without you.   Patrick T. Reardon 11.21.16 This poem originally was published by Silver Birch Press on December 6, 2015.  It is also one of the poems in the collection Requiem for David to be published by Silver Birch Press in February.
November 17, 2016

Book review: “Pagan Babies” by Elmore Leonard

When is a priest a priest? And when is he not? Five years ago, Terry Dunn came to the small village in Rwanda to help his aged missionary uncle out and became the village priest when his uncle died. In Elmore Leonard’s 2000 novel Pagan Babies, Terry Dunn is a Detroit boy who, five years earlier, came to the small village in Rwanda to help his aged missionary uncle out. When the uncle died, Terry became the village priest. He is a Catholic boy whose mother had always wanted him to get ordained. He’d been an altar boy, and, like generations of Catholic school kids, he’d kicked in small change to the jar labeled “For Pagan Babies,” the collection for mission work in foreign lands. Terry had served his parishioners, living their life as one of them. As he explained to his well-to-do lawyer brother Fran in a letter home: “Listen to this, [Fran says to his wife Mary Pat]. He lists the different smells you become aware of in the village, like the essence of the place. Listen. He says, ‘The smell of mildew, the smell of raw meat, cooking oil, charcoal-burning fires, the smell of pit latrines, the […]
November 14, 2016

Book review: “Rodin: The Gates of Hell” by Antoinette Le Normand-Romain

I’m fascinated by the Falling Man near the top of Auguste Rodin’s masterwork The Gates of Hell, just to the left of The Thinker. It’s featured in a full-page photograph in Antoinette Le Normand-Romain’s 1999 book Rodin: The Gates of Hell. Holding on with his left arm, the nude figure is contorted, his muscles taut, straining, as he is just moments away from losing his grip and tumbling off into the abyss.   Never finished Rodin’s Gates of Hell is a monumental work — roughly 20 feet tall, 13 feet wide and three feet deep — that was never finished. He tinkered with it for decades. Actually, “tinkered” is the wrong word. Rodin interacted with this huge work of his imagination, adding and subtracting, and borrowing from its forms to create separate works, such as The Thinker. What is viewed as the definitive version of the work was completed in 1889 or 1890, but wasn’t cast in bronze until after the sculptor’s death in 1917. It is made up of 227 figures that stretch, strain, touch, bend, twist, writhe and reach out in the chaos of movement up and down the two (never-to-be-opened) doors, from top to bottom and from […]
November 11, 2016

Poem: “The empty cave”

Let me be clear: In the face of hate and fear, I choose hope and love.   But what about the Ku Klux Klan? What about the yahoos in the gas station: “Watch out. We’re in charge again”? What about the man to the woman, “Bow down”? What about the weeping eight-year-old Mexican boy?   I will not demonize. I will not stew in cozy bile.   I will live with the complex pain of living — yeah, that slash and gash and throb and nerve-ending scream.   I will act not on shadows and phantoms.   I will offer cheek, coat, open wound.   Yes, I want to curl up and close my eyes and suck at some convenient breast, but I choose to look into the face of each soul and — hard as it is — to show my true face, the face I am trying to find.   I have seen fear kill — over the centuries and in a backyard in Oak Lawn.   I know the nails were hammered into innocent wrists. He could have gotten up the night before and walked out of that fetid garden. Afraid, he chose.   He died. And, […]
November 9, 2016

Poem: “Render”

Caesar will do what Caesar will do. Do the lilies worry? Do the lilies give orders to the sun? The rain? The soil food?   The rain does what the rain does. The lily stretches to the sun. The lily turns its face to the sun. The lily reaches out roots. The roots reach and reach and suck in the soil food. The rain comes. The soil drinks. The lily drinks.   The soul of the soil is silent. The soil’s soul is as deep as the pain of breathing, as deep as the delight of the lily in the bright-white sun.   Amen. Alleluia. The Lord gives. The Lord takes away. Caesar will do what Caesar will do.   I am a lily among lilies on the mountainside, a field of lilies with roots that reach out, stretch, wrap and intertwine, sharing soil-food, the rain, the hug of the sun. And the danger of a hoof and the nibble of a rabbit and a passing stroller who takes a fancy to the bloom.   It is autumn now. The snow of winter will come. Each flower will die and, in the spring, be reborn. Is this consolation?   The […]
November 3, 2016

Book review: “The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and the Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther” by Jeffrey Haas

The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and the Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther is much more readable than I would have expected it to be. This 2010 book by Jeffrey Haas tells the story of a 1969 Chicago police raid on the home of local Black Panther leader Jeff Fort in which Fort and another Panther, Mark Clark, were fatally shot, and it asserts that Fort’s death was murder — an assassination which was planned by Cook County State’s Attorney Edward Hanrahan and arranged by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The raid was part of a national FBI campaign to ensure that a black “messiah” did not arise and threaten the status quo. Haas, one of a tiny group of idealistic white attorneys who worked on behalf of the Panthers (and other Anti-Establishment African-Americans), was deeply involved in legal effort to bring this story to light. It was an effort that, after a 13-year battle, was so successful that the city of Chicago, Cook County and the federal government ponied up $1.85 million for the survivors of the raid and the families of Fort and Clark rather than face a trial on civil rights violations.   True-believer […]
November 1, 2016

Essay: Job 1 is voting

Voting is my job. Voting is your job. It’s Job One for us as Americans. When we go to the polling place, enter the voting booth and cast our ballot, we are doing Important work.  Essential work. As electors, we are directly involved in determining who will serve us — all of us — in public office and indirectly in determining the policies that will guide the actions of government and the decisions on who will be helped and how. As citizens and as human beings, you and I have a responsibility to work to make the world a better place, and voting is the way we do that by carrying our part of the burden of government. If we fail to vote, we fall down on the job. If we vote carelessly and thoughtlessly, we pervert our sacred task.   Our vocation as citizens Our vocation as citizens is to study the candidates and their policies, to weigh their characters and past actions and to evaluate them in the context of the needs and aspirations of the people.  And then — only then — to enter the booth and mark our ballot. We live in the real world, and […]
October 31, 2016

Book review: “The House on Mango Street” by Sandra Cisneros

There is a universal quality to Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street and also something very specific. This is the story of Esperanza Cordero, and, at its heart, it is the story of every child who has gone through the very difficult transformation into becoming a teenager with all its excitement, fear, challenge and risk. No wonder it’s read in so many high school classes. At the same time, the book’s strength as literature is that it tells the story of a unique girl in a unique place — a Mexican-American girl in the neighborhoods of Chicago whose life is focused not only on the changes in her body but also on her need to figure out how to maneuver in the broader world. Esperanza lives in a community that is made up of newly arrived immigrants from Mexico and first-generation Americans, but also includes black and white people from such places as Texas, Kentucky, Tennessee and Puerto Rico. There’s even Ruthie, an emotionally fragile woman, who wears a babushka, the colorful traditional Russian headscarf that, in mid-twentieth century Chicago, was ubiquitous as a means of protecting the hair of women of many backgrounds from the wind. Ruthie, tall […]
October 24, 2016

Book review: “White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America” by Nancy Isenberg

Well, this book is a mess. Given its title, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Louisiana State University history professor Nancy Isenberg would seem to be a book about a certain group, or class, in American society. But, throughout the book, Isenberg adamantly and continually avoids defining that group. A lot of times, it’s poor Southern whites, but, at other times, it’s only some poor Southern whites. Sometimes, it includes poor whites from elsewhere in the country, such as Maine and California. And, sometimes, she’s not talking about white trash at all, but about the fact that, from the beginning, there was the stratification of classes in the British colonies and then in the new United States. She is shocked — just shocked! — at the reality that there are rich and poor in this nation, and that it’s hard for the poor to rise up the economic ladder as, ideally, they are supposed to be able to do.   Other, better books I acknowledge that this book, riding its White Trash title, may lead to other, better books. Isenberg’s text hints at what some of those books might be: A book on the treatment […]
October 21, 2016

Essay: Chicago’s deadly streets in the late 19th and early 20th century

On the evening of March 9, 1903, Maria Stanton wanted to cross Clark Street at Goethe Street, on the edge of Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood, the enclave of many of the city’s richest families. A household servant in her early thirties, she was plainly dressed in a heavy brown blouse and skirt of rough material and a dark blue jacket. Her only jewelry were a pair of plain gold crescent earrings. In her pocketbook, she carried $1.50, the equivalent of about $25 today. Stepping off the western curb, she started across the pavement, only to look up and see a crowded cable train bearing down on her.  The Chicago Tribune reported: Bystanders said the victim started to cross Clark street toward the east, immediately behind a south bound train. As she stepped on the other tracks she found herself a few feet from a north bound Lincoln avenue train. She paused, looked back, and saw another car approaching from the north, shutting off retreat. The gripman rang the gongs and the passengers shouted, but the dazed woman still stood motionless on the tracks while the north bound Lincoln avenue train struck her and knocked her down. She fell forward and […]
October 19, 2016

Book review: “The Children of Men” by P.D. James

There is something of a happy ending to The Children of Men by P.D. James, but that’s only if you don’t think past the final page. On the plus side, humanity has suddenly found a way to dodge a catastrophic extinction event, albeit one that, at the start of the book, has been playing out for a quarter of a century. On the negative side, people are still people, and that’s a bleak reality for James. This is one profoundly desolate novel, and James had no business at all conjuring up a feel-good conclusion. I think she wanted to find hope despite her dark view of human nature. Her perspective is pretty dark, such as the take on marriage given by her narrator Dr. Theodore “Theo” Faron, an Oxford don and very much a bloodless prig. He is asked if he loved his wife at any point during their now-ended marriage, and he responds: “I convinced myself I did when I married. I willed myself into the appropriate feelings without knowing what the appropriate feelings were. I endowed her with qualities she didn’t have and then despised her for not having them. Afterwards I might have learned to love her […]
October 17, 2016

Book review: “A Dirty Job” by Christopher Moore

A Dirty Job is a book about death. And it’s hilarious. It’s Christopher Moore, after all. As with all really funny books, there’s a deeper meaning to the laughs in A Dirty Job, published in 2006. Think of Terry Pratchett’s ridiculously humorous novels about his fantasy Discworld which grapple with real-life issues such as racism, pollution, technology, war, stick-up-the-ass-ness and, yes, death. All the time, Death. (Well, he is a major character in the series.) Reading A Dirty Job, I couldn’t help but wonder what Pratchett and Moore would have thought of each other and how they might — or might not — have gotten along if they’d met. (Alas, Pratchett died in March, 2015.) Their books are the products of writers with a skewed vision of the world and, for all their great humor, a sorrowful one as well. You can’t laugh if everything in life is just  hunky-dory.  Tragedy, though, betrayal, pain and, yes, again, death — these are what bring on the hilarity. Either that, or it’s a weepfest.   Side job A Dirty Job opens and closes with a death. In the first pages, Charlie Asher’s wife Rachel dies, leaving him with their newborn daughter Sophie. […]
October 12, 2016

The ten best books about Chicago: a list

There are many very good and even great books about Chicago, and here are the 10 that I think are the best: Nature’s Metropolis by William Cronon Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis by Harold M. Mayer and Richard C. Wade Plan of Chicago by Daniel H. Burnham and Edward H. Bennett Chicago: City on the Make by Nelson Algren The Jungle by Upton Sinclair Boss by Mike Royko Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City by St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros Chicago: The Second City by A. J. Liebling Forever Open, Clear, and Free: The Struggle for Chicago’s Lakefront by Lois Wille Certainly, at another time, I might come up with others. After all, this list doesn’t include Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March or Richard Wright’s Native Son. Maybe it should. The best books about Chicago, whether fiction or non-fiction, examine a city that is the fabric of the interwoven lives of its citizens. The great books about the city know that its streets are escape routes and borders. They know that its weather batters and caresses. They know that its rust is beautiful. […]
October 11, 2016

Essay: Chicago’s Trail of Tears

In London during the summer of 1835, demonstration trains began giving free rides along a newly completed section of the London and Greenwich Railway, the first railway of any sort in the city as well as the very first elevated railroad in the world. In addition to testing the track and viaduct, these trial runs were aimed at boosting public awareness of the new technology and were so successful that taking a trip on the trains became the fashionable thing to do. “For a few weeks in the summer,” writes R. H. G. Thomas in London’s First Railway: The London & Greenwich, “ladies made up parties to ride in the [train] carriages….Groups of foreign visitors, members of the Society of Friends and parties of Cambridge scientists all found their way there, as did several MPs [Members of Parliament], the Swedish ambassador and the Prince of Orange [the future King William II of the Netherlands] and suite.” London was an old city, originally settled around 50 A.D. As the capital of the expanding British Empire, it had grown by this time to some 1.7 million residents and had pushed past Beijing to become the most populous city on the planet. It […]
September 29, 2016

Book review: “Della Robbia: Sculpting with Color in Renaissance Florence” by Marietta Cambareri

Six hundred years ago in Italy, Luca Della Robbia created an artistic technique that permitted him to fashion what might be called three-dimensional paintings or brightly colored sculpture. It was a technique that resulted in glazed terracotta works that today remain as vibrant as when they were first fired. He and his nephew Andrea and Andrea’s five sons formed a workshop that, over the course of more than a century, produced hundreds of small and large glazed terracotta sculptures. They had a handful of competitors, some of whom apparently learned the secret of the Della Robbia glazing method while working for the family. The early works, particularly those of Luca, often featured figures in white against a rich, blue background. Later ones from the workshop worked in a broader range of colors. However, by the middle of the 16th century, the Della Robbias were gone and their competitors as well, and no other artists arose to follow in their footsteps. None, it would seem, had learned the secret formula. The art of the Della Robbias, in this way, is locked into a certain era of the past (from about 1440 through 1560), reflective of the tastes and concerns of that […]
September 27, 2016

Book review: “Rodin” by Raphael Masson and Veronique Mattiussi

I have a key question about Rodin by Raphael Masson and Veronique Mattiussi, but, first, I need to commend the Musee Rodin and the publisher Flammarion for selecting the relatively obscure marble sculpture Danaid for the cover of the book. Rodin is one of the artist-victims of modern pop culture — Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci are among the others — who have produced a piece of work that has embedded itself into the broad culture and the public mind that it becomes unseeable as  art. Leonardo’s Mona Lisa is an example, and Michelangelo’s David. Rodin is twice victimized with The Thinker and The Kiss. For millions of people who know nothing of art, such works have come to represent “ART” and are accorded a certain reverence that makes it nearly impossible to approach them with a fresh and open mind. In addition, the images of these works have been appropriated for billboards and t-shirts and key-rings and parodies and myriad other purposes. They are no longer themselves. They are an accumulation of millions of messages that they have been employed to convey. Anyone attempting to see them as a work of art must fight off a bombardment of preconceptions and […]
September 22, 2016

Book Review: “Ulysses S. Grant: Memoirs and Selected Letters.” edited by Mary McFeely and William S. McFeely

There is a famous photograph of Ulysses S. Grant, sitting on the porch of his home in upstate New York on an obviously very cold day in 1885, writing his memoirs. He appears a forlorn figure. He is in a rush, cranking out as many as 50 pages a day, even as he is suffering greatly from the throat cancer that eventually spreads to the rest of his body. He is in a hurry because con-artists have taken him for his life savings, and the only way to ensure his family’s future is to complete this manuscript so that his friend Mark Twain can publish it. He finishes on July 18, and, five days later, he dies. His Memoirs — which focus heavily on his experience in the Civil War and not at all on his presidency — are a best seller, netting his wife Julia more than $420,000, or about $10 million in today’s dollars.   “I am a verb” Out of copyright today, the book, reprinted by many publishers, still sells. I am partial to the carefully prepared and artfully presented 1990 Library of America edition, edited by Mary and William McFeely. In addition to the memoirs themselves, […]
September 16, 2016

Book review: “Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939” by Adam Hochschild

In the book world, there is developing a subgenre of history-writing that takes an event or a place in world history and examines it from the perspectives and perceptions of the Americans who were present. An example from 2010 is Citizens of London: The Americans Who Stood with Britain in Its Darkest, Finest Hour by Lynne Olson.  A year later came The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris by David McCullough. Now, here’s Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939 by Adam Hochschild. It seems to me that there are positives and negatives to this approach. On the plus side, the presence of Americans in the text makes it easier for American readers to relate to the topic.  It’s as if these fellow citizens are stand-ins for us.  They are coming from a world we are familiar with and finding themselves in a different place.  Their reactions are, in some way, our reactions.  Or, to use a piece of jargon, we at least know where they’re coming from. This permits us as readers to take in the history more easily, as if we were experiencing it.   A story-telling tension There is a tendency, anyway, in modern […]
September 15, 2016

Essay: Chicago’s hangmen reformers

Donald Trump’s loose talk in early August about the Second Amendment got  a lot of people worrying that he was not so subtly calling for armed violence,or even assassination. More than a century ago, Chicago reformers weren’t so delicate. In what might be called “good government terrorism,” they actively talked about a mob stringing up a businessman widely hated for his power and corruption — the streetcar-elevated line magnate Charles Tyson Yerkes. As the nineteenth century neared its end, Yerkes was attempting to vastly improve the value of his streetcar lines by obtaining franchise agreements extending for 50 or, even better, 99 years. However, while he’d been able to win most such battles in the past, he found himself this time up against an increasingly organized coalition of reformers who, to their own surprise, were working hand-in-glove with some of the same corrupt politicians formerly in the financier’s pocket. Indeed, in 1897-98, Yerkes was the target of an unprecedented campaign in which he was routinely and publicly threatened with violence. “Decorating a lamp post” Consider these statements: • Ald. John Harlan, a reformer, speaking before a crowd of 3,500, issued a warning to “that proud and haughty bandit, that great highwayman…arrogant […]
September 14, 2016

Book review: “Sensing Chicago: Noisemakers, Strikebreakers, and Muckrakers” by Adam Mack

Historians have always focused on the facts of the past — What happened? They have also studied the reasons behind those facts — Why did it happen? Above all, they have sought to figure out how the past has shaped the present — What did it mean? Today, there’s a new genre of history-writing that asks a question that has long been over-looked or little reported — How did it feel? This is called sensory history, and it examines how things smelled and sounded and felt for someone who lived in a certain place at a certain time in the past, as well as the causes of those smells, sounds and physical feelings; the meanings that people of the time attached to those sensory perceptions; and the impacts that the senses had on the decisions that people made, individually and as groups. In other words, it’s doing all the same things that historians have been doing when examining, say, the life of Abraham Lincoln or the fall of the Roman Empire, but, in this case, focusing on sensory experiences. The question of how things looked has long been woven into the usual approach of historians.  The physical sense of taste […]
September 8, 2016

Book review: “Dialogues with Silence: Prayers and Drawings” by Thomas Merton, edited by Jonathan Montaldo

  Lessons from Thomas Merton in the pages of the 2001 collection of his writings, Dialogues with Silence: Prayers and Drawings, edited by Jonathan Montaldo: Merton experiences prayer as something not isolated in a place or into words. Instead, he writes: My God, I pray to You by breathing. He recognizes that reaching out to God requires something beyond — above? deeper than? — human limitations: I will travel to You, Lord, through a thousand blind alleys. You want to bring me to You through stone walls. Love is an act of will, or at least vulnerability. But it is also — maybe in its essence — being. The trees indeed love You without knowing You. Without being aware of Your presence, the tiger lilies and cornflowers proclaim that they love You. The beautiful dark clouds ride slowly across the sky musing on You like children who do not know what they are dreaming of as they play. God is Being, too, as Merton notes that as the clock ticks and the thermostat stops humming, “God is in this room. He is in my heart.” And Merton tries to open himself to God if he can first overcome “my sin […]
September 6, 2016

Book review: “Pennant Race” by Jim Brosnan

It’s midway through the 1961 major league baseball season, and Jim Brosnan, a right-handed relief pitcher of the Cincinnati Reds, is talking with Joey Jay, the staff ace, about when the challenge hitter with pitches. Brosnan relates the short conversation in his second baseball book Pennant Race and then steps back and tells the reader: Of course, when I don’t think I have good stuff — and there are such days — I don’t see how I can get anybody out. Usually I don’t. Brosnan, who was a pretty good pitcher during his nine years in the big leagues, is nothing if not rawly honest and drily witty in Pennant Race (published in 1962) as well as in his earlier baseball book The Long Season (1960). Both explain what it is like for a professional baseball player to go through a season of gamesplaying. And more than that — what it’s like for any high-performing athlete to try to harness the mystery of his or her skill within the context of the business, competition and fishbowl of major sports.   An elegiac quality There is, in fact, an elegiac quality to Brosnan’s writing, an underlying melody of loss. Just behind […]