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 […]
October 11, 2011

Book review: “Life Itself” by Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert’s “Life Itself” is a newspaperman’s memoir, which is to say it’s breezy, fact-filled and rather light on emotions. That makes sense, of course. For all his fame as a movie critic on TV, Ebert’s vocation, from his childhood, has been to be a newspaperman. As he explains in this book, Ebert ended up as a movie critic at the Chicago Sun-Times on an editor’s whim. He’s filled that role very well, producing literate, thoughtful and thought-provoking reviews. And, in that job, he’s remained a newspaperman, rooted in the journalistic style of fast and facile writing — and then onto the next movie. “Life Itself” is an unusual effort for Ebert inasmuch as his other books have all been compilations of one sort or another — movies, mainly, but also recipes (“The Pot and How to Use It: The Mystery and Romance of the Rice Cooker” [2010]) and walking routes (“The Perfect London Walk” with Daniel Curley [1986]). Even his one novel, “Behind the Phantom’s Mask,” was initially a newspaper serial. True, his long-form journalism, such as his Esquire pieces on Lee Marvin, were of a different sort. In these, Ebert often took the fly-on-the-wall approach, producing stories that […]
October 5, 2011

“A full hour before the party reached the city…” — a presentation at the Chicago Historical Society, Saturday, February 18, 2006

Consider this scene: A full hour before the party reached the city they had begun to note the perplexing changes in the atmosphere. It grew darker all the time, and upon the earth the grass seemed to grow less green. Every minute, as the train sped on, the colors of things became dingier; the fields were grown parched and yellow, the landscape hideous and bare. And along with the thickening smoke they began to notice another circumstance, a strange, pungent odor. They were not sure that it was unpleasant, this odor; some might have called it sickening, but their taste in odors was not developed, and they were only sure that it was curious. Welcome to Chicago, 1900…And to Chicago, 1950…And, in a real way, to Chicago, 2006. Recently, a colleague of mine at the Chicago Tribune asked me to recommend a book or two for a new reporter who had never lived in Chicago before. Well, I said, there’s The Local Community Fact Book. Published every 10 years going back to 1930, it gives detailed data on population, race, housing and poverty by neighborhood, and it’s an unparalleled resource book. But it doesn’t say anything about the way things […]
October 3, 2011

Book review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

In an often-reproduced photograph, Henrietta Lacks stands in a matching skirt and jacket, her hands at her hips, her hair complexly coiffed, a smile brightening her face. An attractive, lively African-American woman. “Henrietta had walnut eyes, straight white teeth, and full lips,” writes Rebecca Skloot. “She was a sturdy woman with a square jaw thick hips, short, muscular legs, and hands rough from tobacco fields and kitchens. She kept her nails short so bread dough wouldn’t stick under then when she kneaded it, but she always painted them a deep red to match her toenails. “Henrietta spent hours taking care of those nails, touching up chips and brushing on new coats of polish.” That was Henrietta in her late twenties. On October 4, 1951, just a month after turning 31, Henrietta died of a virulent cervical cancer that had spread throughout her body. Mary Kubicek was a lab technician who assisted at the autopsy of Henrietta’s body. “Mary stood beside Wilbur, waiting as he sewed Henrietta’s abdomen closed,” writes Skloot. “She wanted to run out of the morgue and back to the lab, but instead, she stared at Henrietta’s arms and legs — anything to avoid looking into her lifeless […]