September 26, 2011

Book review: The Gift of Stones by Jim Crace

It took me a long time to finish Jim Crace’s “The Gift of Stone” because, although short, it is a very, very good novel. At 179 pages, “The Gift of Stones,” published in 1988, has the look of a quick read. Yet, over and over again, I found myself making my way through five, six, seven pages, and then setting the novel aside. It wasn’t that I couldn’t go further or didn’t want to go further. No, I wanted to stop to savor what I’d just read. And also because it seemed that, having gone through a particular scene or event, I would be disrespecting the novel by rushing on. I don’t normally feel that way while reading a book, whether fiction or non-fiction. But, here, I had the sense that to rush on would taint what I was going to read as well as what I’d just read. “The Gift of Stones” is the story of a Stone Age community on the island now called England. The community mines and works flint into tools and other useful items, and then trades them for food, clothing and other necessities. Unknown to its self-satisfied residents, the community is standing at the […]
September 20, 2011

Book review: Miracle Ball: My Hunt for the Shot Heard ‘Round the World by Brian Biegel, with Peter Thomas Fornatale

“Miracle Ball” is a thin book, just 231 pages. And it could have been thinner. Even so, it’s a sweet story, a sort of Pilgrim’s Progress through the worlds of family, baseball, fate, faith and gritty independence of spirit. Written by Brian Biegel, with the help of Peter Thomas Fornatale, it is the account of Biegel’s obsessive search for the baseball that Bobby Thomson hit over the left field fence in the Polo Grounds on Oct. 3, 1951 in the ninth inning of the deciding playoff game for the National League pennant. That home run with two men on base gave the New York Giants a stunning come-from-behind 5-4 victory over the Brooklyn Dodgers. Walk-off home runs, broadcast ad nauseam on television, are old hat nowadays. But the Thomson blast came at the dawn of the TV age. For the first time, hundreds of thousands of fans across the country were watching the game and saw the dramatic reversal brought about by one swing of the third baseman’s bat. So it’s an iconic game — an iconic moment — for sports enthusiasts. Biegel got started on his search as a way of breaking out of a deep depression he was […]
September 19, 2011

Book review: Ball Four: The Final Pitch by Jim Bouton

More than 40 years after it was first published, Jim Bouton’s “Ball Four,” his diary of his 1969 season with two major league teams, remains eminently readable and entertaining. And still potent enough to make a baseball fan squirm. This version, published by Bouton himself in 2000, includes the original book, edited by Leonard Shecter, plus epilogues from 1981 (the “Ball Five” chapter), 1990 (“Ball Six”) and 2000 (“Ball Seven”). The 1981 epilogue is fun because Bouton reports on what happened to his teammates on the Seattle Pilots and the Houston Astros — many of whom were distinctive characters in “Ball Four” — since the book’s publication. Only four of the 70 or more players who were on the Seattle and Houston rosters during the 1969 season were still playing in 1981. It is also fun because Bouton tells what had happened to him, particularly how the book turned him into a pariah, denigrated by baseball authorities and many of the players. He acts surprised that a good number of his teammates were less than pleased with the book, but I’m not sure what he expected. Most of them didn’t know he was going to write about the season and […]
September 12, 2011

Book review: The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

In 2005, the British publishing house of Canongate began producing a series of short novels based on myths from Western and non-Western civilizations. “The Penelopiad” by Margaret Atwood was among a batch of three works that were published simultaneously to inaugurate the series. It’s a thin-ish work, running to just 196 pages with a lot of white space. In it, Atwood retells the Odyssey from the point of view of Penelope and of her 12 slave-servant girls. After massacring the 100 or so pesky suitors, Odysseus orders Telemachus to have the girls clean up the mess and then to take them outside and slaughter them. Instead, his son decides that such a death would be too clean, and, in T.E. Lawrence’s translation, “He made fast a dark-prowed ship’s hawser to a pillar and strained it round the great spiral of the vault, at too great a height for anyone to touch the floor with her feet. Sometimes in shrubbery men so stretch out nets, upon which long-winged thrushes or doves alight on their way to roost; and fatal the perch proves. Exactly thus were the women’s heads all held a-row with a bight of cord drawn round each throat, to […]
September 10, 2011

Book Review: The Odyssey by Homer, translated by T. E. Lawrence

When my daughter saw me reading “The Odyssey,” she made a face. Back in high school, I think it was, she had to read it, and hated it. Truth be told, my attempts at reading the book and its predecessor “The Iliad” have pretty much come to naught. All that slogging through archaic language. And where’s the plot? Well, T. E. Lawrence — yes, that T.E. Lawrence — in that unsettled (for him) period after he played a major role in re-shaping the Middle East as “Lawrence of Arabia,” tried his hand at translation. Not just any translation, but “The Odyssey.” Despite his lack of expertise at Greek, despite his many other interests, avocations and, for want of a better word, hobbies. And the result written in prose is just wonderful. Oddly — or, perhaps, given Lawrence’s deeply squirrelly nature, not unexpected — Lawrence dismisses “The Odyssey” as something less than art. In a translator’s note, he writes, “Crafty, exquisite, homogeneous — whatever great art may be, there are not [the Odyssey’s] attributes. In this tale every big situation is burked and the writing is soft. The shattered Iliad yet makes a masterpiece; while the Odyssey by its ease and […]
September 9, 2011

Hallowed ground

Which is this nation’s most hallowed ground? The phrase has been used to describe the Gettysburg battlefield, Arlington National Cemetery and Ground Zero. I write about this question in an op-ed piece in today’s Chicago Tribune:,0,7298628.story
September 8, 2011

Book review: The Return of Little Big Man by Thomas Berger

Thomas Berger was born in 1924. He was 40 in 1964 when he published his best-known novel, “Little Big Man,” chronicling the early life of Jack Crabb, a white who, at the age of 10, was adopted by a band of Cheyenne and who, over the next quarter-century, ping-ponged back and forth between the white and Native American worlds. During this period, Jack, known to the Cheyenne as Little Big Man, was a friend of Wild Bill Hickok and Bat Masterson and was present (on the Indian side) for the Washita Massacre by troops led by Gen. George Armstrong Custer and (on the soldier side) for the massacre of Custer and his troops at Little Big Horn. Jack, 111 at the time and in a nursing home, tells his story into the tape recorder of a dilettante historian who transcribes the tapes — he relates that Jack died soon after giving his oral history — and publishes the result. Highly popular, “Little Big Man” broke new ground by featuring historical figures as secondary characters in a literary novel — a fresh and piquant approach since adopted by many other writers. Thirty-five years later, in 1999, Berger published “The Return of […]
September 5, 2011

The man who envisioned Chicago: Daniel Burnham’s “plan” for the Windy City celebrates a century

Published in Illinois Heritage magazine in September, 2009 Daniel Burnham was depressed. The man known as “Uncle Dan” to his fellow architects and urban planners was someone who, through force of personality and a huge well of optimism, inspired confidence in clients, employees and co-workers. He was, acknowledged his critic Louis Sullivan, “a man of fixed determination and strong will.” He worked well with others. Here was a man who hobnobbed with the elite of Chicago. Indeed, he was a member of that elite. But he also was on good terms with less savory (but nonetheless powerful) characters such as First Ward Aldermen Mike “Hinky Dink” Kenna and “Bathhouse” John Coughlin, members of the corrupt Gray Wolves faction of the City Council. Coughlin liked Burnham so well that he named one of his racehorses “Dan Burnham.” But, on this afternoon in July, 1906, when Charles Dyer Norton and Frederic A. Delano strode into his office in the Railway Exchange Building (now the Santa Fe Building), they found a despondent Burnham sitting at his desk and staring out across the broad expanse of Lake Michigan. Norton and Delano had come to tell him that the members of the Merchants Club just […]