March 30, 2013

An Easter meditation

Aunt Julia lived a counter-cultural life. That’s her in the 1985 photo above, walking on a wood plank over a small stream far up north in Minnesota. Hard to believe that this tiny rivulet, as it heads south, turns into the mighty Mississippi River, coursing over 2,500 miles, expanding at places to a width of more than two miles and draining a watershed of more than 1.2 million square miles. It’s kind of a miracle. Like Jesus rising from the dead. The quietest of lives Julia was my father’s older sister. She went into the convent in the late 1940s, becoming a Dominican nun. She led the quietest of lives, teaching in grade schools around the Midwest for something like half a century. She died in late 2011 at the age of 93. At her funeral at the motherhouse of the Sinsinawa Dominicans in a rural area of Wisconsin across the river from Dubuque, Iowa, I noticed that a listing of her assignments showed her moving every couple years. “Obviously, she was a trouble-maker,” I joked to one of the sisters. Gentle spirit She laughed, and said the real reason was because Sister Julia was such a gentle spirit that […]
March 27, 2013

Book review: “V.” by Thomas Pynchon

Oh, this was a frustrating book for me — V. by Thomas Pynchon. Frustrating because I couldn’t take it all in. I got — understood — enough of V. to know that it is a great work of literature. And I got enough to know how much I was missing. This is a book that wrestles with the great issues. With free will, and faith, and love, and existential dread, and more. Pynchon exhibits a profound understanding of the ways people relate to themselves and to others. And a profound ability to sketch a life story or a personality flaw or a yearning or a vision with the eye of a poet or sculptor. There are moments in this novel that are hard to forget or stop puzzling over. For instance, the nakedly cruel, nakedly vulnerable death of the character known as the Bad Priest.
March 19, 2013

A meditation on Sunday’s readings

In the first reading at mass on Sunday (Isaiah 43: 16-21), Isaiah says: Remember not the events of the past. The things of long ago consider not. See, I am doing something new! He is speaking to the Israelites in captivity in Babylon in the sixth century BC. Now it springs forth. Do you not perceive it? In the desert I make a way; in the wasteland, rivers. Wild beasts honor me, jackals and ostriches, for I put water in the desert and rivers in the wasteland for my chosen people to drink, the people whom I formed for myself, that they might announce my praise. For half a century, the Israelites had been living in exile more than 500 miles from their homeland. Psalm 137 recalls the sadness of those years: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.”
March 15, 2013

Book review: “Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West” by William Cronon

Chicago exploded onto the world in the mid-19th century, rising in a few decades from a lonely frontier outpost to an economic behemoth that, except for New York, exerted more influence and flexed more power by far than any other American city. In his classic, ground-breaking work Nature’s Metropolis, published in 1991 and still the best book ever written about Chicago, William Cronon notes: During the nineteenth century, when Chicago was at the height of its gargantuan growth, its citizens rather prided themselves on the wonder and horror their hometown evoked in visitors. No other city in America had ever grown so large so quickly; none had so rapidly overwhelmed the countryside around it to create so urban a world. Those who sought to explain its unmatched expansion often saw it as being compelled by deep forces within nature itself, gathering the resources and energies of the Great West — the region stretching from the Appalachians and Great Lakes to the Rockies and the Pacific — and concentrating them in a single favored spot at the southwestern corner of Lake Michigan…a city destined for greatness by nature’s own prophesies: Nature’s Metropolis. Favored by nature? For a half century, Chicago played […]
March 6, 2013

Book review: “The Judgment of Eve” by Edgar Pangborn

There were more than a few moments when I was reading Edgar Pangborn’s The Judgment of Eve that I feared the 1966 book was heading to a lame conclusion. I was afraid that, like many another science fiction writer, Pangborn would manipulate his story so that his characters would find a future of happiness by living the way humans should live, rather than the way people actually do live. Robert Heinlein at his most bombastic falls into this trap. He likes the idea of free love so, in some of his novels, he’ll posit future societies where everyone falls into bed with everyone else, and jealousy never rears its ugly head. Forget it. In many sci-fi stories, this sort of utopian wishful thinking is not at the center of the story so it’s easy enough to ignore. Not so with The Judgment of Eve.