October 30, 2017

Book review: “The Sioux Spaceman” by Andre Norton

It’s amazing, if you think of it, how the covers of science-fiction paperbacks are so often completely misleading. This is true to some extent for paperback novels in general, but it seems to be the case most often in the sci-fi genre. I have no idea why that is. Or maybe I do. One reason: That other species One reason may have to do with the core audience of science fiction — teenage boys and young men as well as older men who, in some part of their being, remain teenage boys or young men. These are readers who tend to be bookish and more than a little shy. That may explain why, for the most part, there’s little or no sex in the regular run of futuristic novels although this has changed somewhat in recent years. Still, even today, most sci-fi gives its primary focus to the nuts and bolts of technology, ignoring those messy things like emotions and lusts. You wouldn’t know that, however, if you judged the books by their covers. This was especially true when pulp science fiction magazines regularly portrayed a hardly clothed creature from that other species…er, that other sex…on their covers. A slinky […]
October 26, 2017

Chicago History: The elevated Loop, a landmark in everything but name

The 1.8-mile-long elevated railroad Loop, which turns 120 on October 3, is not an official Chicago landmark — but it should be. Over the past 40 years, Chicago has publicly affirmed that some 200 buildings, sites, objects and districts as important to the city for historical, artistic and other reasons. Somehow, though, city leaders have overlooked the elevated Loop which, I would argue, is more important than most, if not all, of those designated landmarks. Enclosing 39 downtown blocks, the elevated Loop is lost amid the skyscrapers that loom above it. Yet, no other structure in Chicago’s history has had as important an impact on the city. Throughout much of its history, it was viewed by many as simply ugly. Indeed, even before the elevated Loop was finished and often in the decades that followed, there were calls for it to be razed. The last push to tear it down came in 1978. During those years, none of Chicago’s public officials, business leaders and promoters talked about elevated Loop as anything more than a way to get people into and out of downtown. And it’s certainly been an essential transportation system for the city.   Anchored Chicago’s downtown Yet, for […]
October 24, 2017

Book review: “The Adventures of Alyx” and “Picnic in Paradise” by Joanna Russ

Machine, the young man who has become Alyx’s lover, has disappeared into a hole in the snowscape, fallen into an ice chimney. He can be seen at the bottom, crumpled like a puppet with no strings. Machine is one of eight civilians on the planet of Paradise who need to go through a war zone to get from here to there, and the only way for them to do it is without using any technology — too easily traceable. Alyx, a Trans-Temporal Agent, has been assigned to move these pampered giants across a dangerous expanse without being spotted. She is from ancient Greece, nearly 4,000 years in the past. How she got to this moment around the year 3000 AD isn’t explained, like much about the story of Alyx. What’s clear is that Alyx is a runt compared with the eight civilians. Each is about seven or eight feet tall. She is, even for her time, short. Joanna Russ tells Alyx’s story — make that, stories — in her 1983 book The Adventures of Alyx which is made up of four short pieces from 1967-1970 and a stand-alone novel Picnic on Paradise from 1968.   A half century ago So […]
October 18, 2017

Book review: “History of Beauty,” edited by Umberto Eco

Consider the difficulty of those who pore through the dust and shards of earlier civilizations. You pick up a small sculpture which, to your Western eyes, seems to depict a deformed and twisted body. It looks ugly to you. But how did the people who made it perceive the sculpture? As Italian intellectual Humberto Eco writes in History of Beauty, the 2004 book he edited: Every culture has always accompanied its own concept of Beauty with its own idea of Ugliness, even though — in the case of archeological finds — it is hard to establish whether the thing portrayed was really considered ugly or not… Eco wrote the book’s introduction and nine of its 17 chapters. The other eight were written by Italian novelist Girolamo de Michele.   “Which canon, which tastes” Midway through the book, de Michele makes this point: For a painter portraying the Beauty of a body means responding to theoretical exigencies — what is Beauty and under what conditions is it knowable? — as well as practical ones — which canon, which tastes and social mores, allow us to describe a body as “beautiful”? How does the image of Beauty change over time, and how […]
October 16, 2017

Book review: “Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible” by Robert Alter

In this secular age, many writers striving to create literary works are uncomfortable with or antagonistic toward religion, religious faith and religious subject. For myriad reasons, faith isn’t hip. Yet, one doesn’t have to be a believer to recognize that Western literature and art have deep roots in the Bible, both the Hebrew Bible, also called the Old Testament, and the story of the life of Jesus and the beginnings of Christianity in the New Testament. Every writer of the West, either directly or indirectly, creates within a cultural universe where the Bible and its ideas and its stories are major elements. Think of Adam and Eve. Think of the crucifixion. Think of Noah and the Flood. Think of the Nativity. The Bible is woven deeply into Western culture, and, when it comes to the English-speaking portion of that culture, one version — the King James Bible — has had a direct and powerful influence on some of the greatest writing in the language, particularly in the United States.   “Its clang and its flavor” As Robert Alter writes in Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible: The King James Version was famously eloquent and a beautiful […]
October 13, 2017

Chicago History: Building the elevated Loop with trickery, brilliance and sheer will

Chicago’s elevated Loop, completed 120 years ago on Oct. 3, 1897, was the product of the audacious resolve of financial manipulator extraordinaire Charles Yerkes. To get the Union Loop, as it came to be called, built, Yerkes deceived, deluded and out-smarted his opposition. He played his foes off against each other. He gambled and blustered, and employed elaborately complicated money schemes that no one’s ever been able to figure out completely. Yerkes willed the Union Loop into existence, reaping huge profits and, even more important, bestowing onto Chicago a steel structure that has been a civic anchor for more than a century.   “Sure of an L Loop” The idea of a downtown terminal for the use of the city’s four elevated lines was endlessly discussed during the early 1890s, but it wasn’t until Yerkes made his move on Nov. 22, 1894, that it began to inch toward reality. That was when, backed by a crowd of ready investors, he incorporated the Union Elevated Railroad Company with the goal of erecting a union loop downtown. Triumphantly, the Tribune announced on its front page: “The Gordian knot has been cut. The question of an elevated railroad terminal is settled. There is […]
October 9, 2017

Book review: “King Arthur” by Nick Higham

First things first: Everything we think we know about King Arthur was made up out of whole cloth. There are no historical sources for a flesh-and-blood Lancelot or Merlin or Guinevere or Round Table or Camelot or Arthur. There’s no other conclusion for me after reading Nick Higham’s clear, clean, well-reasoned 2015 biography King Arthur, part of a series of short lives of great people called Pocket GIANTS from the History Press.   “No confidence” Higham spells this out in the book’s opening chapter “The Greatness of Arthur”: King Arthur’s giant presence in our culture is assured. There is, however, something distinctive and different about him. For, while we are in a position to offer a life story, with dates, for almost all the other figures featured in the Pocket GIANTS series, and to discuss their impact on their world, we can have no confidence in any particular outline of Arthur’s life, his family connections or his deeds. We do not know precisely where he lived or when. Indeed, there is doubt as to if a real ‘King Arthur’ lived at all. There may have been numerous different Arthurs whose stories have been woven together. Or perhaps the whole ‘King […]
October 6, 2017

Book review: “Ecclesiastes” from “The Wisdom Books,” translated by Robert Alter with commentary

I have seen all the deeds that are done under the sun, and, look, all is mere breath, and herding the wind. (1:14) When you look behind fantasy football, and binge-watching Game of Thrones on Netflix, and the morning commute to work, and CNN and Fox, and photos of grandchildren posted on Facebook, and weeding the garden, and Uber and Lyft, and the new blouse hanging in the closet, and Grandma’s recipe for spaghetti round steak, and the injured little finger needing minor surgery — well, it’s not a pretty sight. When you look behind life, you find death lurking in the wings. That’s not a new thought although much of modern American society is aimed at distracting us from that cold reality. We’re born to die, and that’s been a major or minor theme in much of world literature and art over the course of many millenniums. One of the most eloquent writers on this theme, someone who refuses to avert his eyes, is the author of the book of Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament).   “Most peculiar book” Written some twenty-two hundred years ago, Ecclesiastes is a Latinized version of the Hebrew word or name which […]