August 30, 2017

Chicago history: The Wall of Respect

A half century ago, on Aug. 27, 1967, local residents, poets, painters, photographers and gang members gathered to dedicate the “Wall of Respect”, a mural painted on the side of a dilapidated tavern on the southeast corner of 43rd Street and Langley Avenue in Chicago’s impoverished Grand Boulevard neighborhood. It was a revolutionary act of art and politics that has reverberated throughout the nation ever since. It sparked the community-based outdoor mural movement that has provided thousands of neighborhoods of virtually every ethnicity and economic level with a language and format for asserting their pride and distinctiveness. At its start, the “Wall of Respect” was an unprecedented assertion of black identity and an important yet often over-looked moment in U.S. cultural history. “Hit a nerve” “The Wall hit a nerve at the center of the Black consciousness,” writes Abdul Alkalimat in a soon-to-be-published book “The Wall of Respect: Public Art and Black Liberation in 1960s Chicago” (Northwestern University Press). An African-American writer and historian, formerly known as Gerald McWorter, Alkalimat watched as the mural was created by friends and colleagues, and adds, “News of it spread from coast to coast.” Indeed, over the next eight years, more than 1,500 murals […]
August 25, 2017

Twenty-two noir or otherwise very odd covers of great works of literature

The book covers of mass market paperbacks are often strange and, many times, wildly inaccurate in terms of illustrating the book inside the covers. There should probably be a scholarly study about what they say about Western civilization — and, now that I think of it, there have probably been several. The strangeness gets really wacky when noir art is used to sell, say, Voltaire’s “Candide” or Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road.” Here are 22 very odd covers of very good, often great, novels. (Thanks to Melanie Villines for help in finding these.)  Not all of the covers are noir. Those that aren’t noir as strange enough, I’d say.                                   8.25.17        
August 23, 2017

Essay: A Mighty Act of God

Picture this: You and your friends, fearful and confused, are gathered in a room, overlooking a garden perhaps, and a great noise comes from the sky like the strongest wind, like the gale of a storm, and fills the entire house, from top to bottom, from side to side. And over your heads are tongues of flame, and you are filled with the Holy Spirit, and you go out of the house and proclaim the Word of God, and everyone who hears you understands what you are saying, no matter their language — Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene, as well as travelers from Rome, Cretans and Arabs. You find yourself taking part in a mighty act of God. This Pentecost moment seems to come right out of one of the epic Hollywood films of today, heavy on special effects and Dolby stereo. Few of us are likely to ever be caught up in such an awe-filled scene. Yet, each day, each of us takes part in the mighty acts of God. Each day, we tap into the ever-flowing river of grace […]
August 21, 2017

Book review: “Fast Falls the Night” by Julia Keller

Fast Falls the Night, the sixth of Julia Keller’s series of novels set in fictional Acker’s Gap, West Virginia, is, like the others, a mystery. Its puzzle is solved in a sharp and scary twist in its final three pages. In fact, there are several abrupt and unsettling turns in the last chapter or so. But, as with the other books, the plot here is secondary to larger concerns that Keller has — questions of hope and despair, and of right and wrong.   “That kind of day” Consider this scene early in the book. Shirley Dolan has come to an unfamiliar minister to talk about two secrets she is holding close to her heart. When she tries to light a cigarette in the careworn study, the pastor tells her that smoking isn’t permitted. The pack went back into her purse. She dropped the purse on the floor, using her heel to wedge it under her chair. To keep it out of the way. Out of her reach. So that she didn’t forget and go for a cigarette all over again. It had been that kind of day. That kind of week. The kind when you forget things. Screw up. […]
August 17, 2017

Essay: A Time to Die

It may seem odd today, but, at one point, a half century ago, the top-selling popular song in America was made up of lyrics from the Bible — specifically, from the third chapter of the Book of Ecclesiastes. The song, written in the late 1950s by the great folk-singer Pete Seeger, was “Turn, Turn, Turn.” It wasn’t his version that reached number-one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart on December 4, 1965. It was the rock version by the Byrds, and it began: To everything (turn, turn, turn) there is a season (turn, turn, turn), and a time to every purpose under the heaven, a time to be born, a time to die, a time to plant, a time to reap…. You might think that all the teenagers like me who were grooving to the song back then would have taken in the import of those words, particularly “A time to be born, a time to die.” But we were young and felt immortal.   A finality that slapped us I think back on that song today, a year and a half after my brother David, suffering great pain and fearing to lose control of his life, killed himself during a […]
August 15, 2017

Book review: “The Great Time Machine Hoax” by Keith Laumer

Well, Keith Laumer is trying to be wacky here in The Great Time Machine Hoax, but the laughs are pretty tepid. So’s the imagination. Oh, the 1964 novel is interesting enough as a cultural artifact since it deals with speculations from that time in a story about a huge, self-aware computer (embodied in a beautiful [and naked] “girl”) and glitches relating to time travel and a future culture of mind over matter and a past culture under the sway of a circus operator and an all-male community of back-to-nature men who, as portrayed in the book, don’t appear to be gay but also don’t seem to miss the presence of women. That’s a lot of storylines for a 210-page novel, and Laumer doesn’t seem to know what to do with them.   “The shrill cries of social injustice” The “hoax” of the title, for instance, isn’t really a hoax, but more of a miscommunication. The time machine aspect of the story permits Laumer to send his main character Chester W. Chester here and there through history and the future and alternatives thereof.  Each landing place has its own story, but none of the stories is that compelling, and they bear […]
August 9, 2017

Lives of Great Religious Books: Princeton University Press

For outsiders, religions are often mysterious. Yet, down the centuries, the great books of faith have played major roles in shaping the world of believers and non-believers alike, influencing politics, art, philosophy, literature, language and culture. It’s with that in mind that, since 2011, Princeton University Press has been publishing a series of lively and energetic “biographies” of these important works, titled Lives of Great Religious Books. “The series may strike some people as odd, but I find it tremendously fun to publish,” says executive editor Fred Appel who came up with the idea during a conversation with an Israeli philosopher.   Light touch by experts What makes these “biographies,” each about 250 pages long, so readable is that they’re written with a light touch by experts who are excited about the stories they have to tell and who understand that they are writing for non-experts. Many of them, says Appel, also teach college courses “where they have to make great books interesting to 19-year-olds who may not know anything about them. Consider some examples:   From “The Koran” in English: A Biography by Bruce B. Lawrence: “To move from Latin to Arabic is to move from a language with […]
August 7, 2017

Book review: “ ‘The Koran’ in English: A Biography” by Bruce B. Lawrence

For Muslims, the Qur’an is the Word of God, given directly to Muhammad at the start of the 7th century AD by the Archangel Michael in oral messages in Arabic that the prophet — the last prophet — would repeat for his followers. Only later were these words written down in 6,236 verses in 114 suras, also called chapters or signs. For Islam, the Qur’an is untranslatable. This, writes Bruce B. Lawrence, is why so many translations of the sacred book include, often in the title or in a subtitle, such words as “the meaning of…” or “an interpretation of…” or “an explanation of…” Lawrence, a religion professor at Duke University, notes in his new book “ ‘The Koran’ in English: A Biography” that all translations are something other than the original work, an effort to communicate and approximate the source. “Translation is hard work, never more so than when translating a scripture from its original language into another,” he writes. “To ponder the meaning of esoteric words is to explore the signs of other realities and then render them into their lyrical equivalents.” Citified life and desert life An Englishman, Robert of Kenton, created in 1143 a Latin translation […]
August 4, 2017

Book review: “Botticelli — Images of Love and Spring” by Frank Zollner

It’s difficult to know how 15th century Italians experienced the paintings of Sandro Botticelli. What did they see, for instance, when they looked at La Primavera, the artist’s giant 70-square-foot canvas with a bunch of male and female figures, one of which has a vine coming out of her mouth? What was the message or messages that Botticelli was sending? What was the message or messages that his patrons were paying him to convey? Those are the sort of questions that German art historian Frank Zollner sets out to answer in the 1998 book Botticelli: Images of Love and Spring. (This is one of nearly 50 titles in the Pegasus Series of sumptuously illustrated volumes issued between 1994 and 2007 by Prestel. Others include Arabian Nights: Four Tales from A Thousand and One Nights, art by Marc Chagall, text by Richard Francis Burton, and Titian: Nymph and Shepherd by John Berger and Katya Berger Andreadakis.) Zollner parses La Primavera as well as The Birth of Venus, Mars and Venus, Minerva and the Centaur and two of the Villa Lemmi frescoes: Lorenzo Tornabuoni Presented to the Liberal Arts and Giovanna Albizzi, Venus and the Three Graces. And it’s hard to imagine […]
August 1, 2017

Book review: “The Defiant Agents” by Andre Norton

What’s striking about Andre Norton’s 1962 novel The Defiant Agents is how political and moral it is. Norton was a writer of adventure novels, cranking out an average of about three a year during her 70-year career as a novelist for a total of more than 200.  (She died at the age of 93 in 2005.) She specialized in science fiction and, to a lesser extent, fantasy.  Her usual goal wasn’t to make political commentary the way, say, George Orwell did in 1984. The Defiant Agents is the third book in what came to be called the Time Traders series which began in 1958 with The Time Traders and continued in 1959 with Galactic Derelict.  Although both books pitted American agents against the menacing Reds of the Soviet Union, it was just the usual white hat/black hat dichotomy.     Political and moral reasons Here, though, in the midst of the adventure in The Defiant Agents, Norton is making clear and direct commentary on the daily headlines of her era — the headlines dealing with the threat, seemingly unavoidable, of nuclear weapons. The title is a hint.  The agents in the book are defiant for political and moral reasons. Perhaps […]