November 30, 2017

Book review: “The Hundred Years War: The English in France, 1337-1453” by Desmond Seward

Desmond Seward is adamant in The Hundred Years War: The English in France, 1337-1453: No matter what the French or several generations of modern writers, such as George Bernard Shaw, have to say, he writes: In 1428 an illiterate shepherdess of seventeen decided she had been called by God to save France and expel the English. In fact, far from driving out the English, Joan of Arc merely checked the English advance by reviving Dauphinist morale, and the [English] Regent managed to halt the counter-offensive. It was not the Maid who ended English rule in France. Seward has his own perspective as an English writer, and he does a praiseworthy job of summarizing the Hundred Years War (which lasted 116 years) in 265 brisk pages in this fine 1978 history. The English of the 15th-century saw Joan as a witch since she seemed to cause things to happen that resulted in unaccountable French victories over the long-dominant English. The French saw her as a saint.   “Failed” Yet, even as Seward is trying to set the record straight as he sees it, his telling of Joan’s story over eight pages of his text is not unsympathetic. And, good historian that […]
November 28, 2017

Book Review: “The Ninth Hour” by Alice McDermott

Sister St. Saviour, a no-nonsense Catholic nun with the networking skills of Tammany Hall, stands in the near dawn at the window of a burned-out apartment in her Brooklyn neighborhood in the early 20th century. A gas explosion it was that caused the fire. One man died, Jim “Mc-something” — as he’d wanted. An Irishman who’d lost a good job as a trainman because he didn’t like bosses controlling his time. Sister St. Saviour is doing what she can to cover up the suicide, to protect his young and pregnant wife. Looking into the garbage-strewn courtyard, she is disheartened, and, then, just for a moment, she catches sight down there of what she takes to be “a man, crawling, cowering was the word, beneath the black tangle of junk and dead leaves, the new vague light just catching the perspiration on his wide brow, his shining forehead, the gleam of a tooth or an eye.”   Ghosts of actions taken, choices made Alice McDermott’s new novel The Ninth Hour is about the ghosts that haunt lives down the decades, especially in families. Ghosts, like the one in the courtyard, that seem to appear as visions, but, even more, the ghosts […]
November 21, 2017

Essay: My brother’s suicide and my “heart’s howl”

Back in 1960, my brother David was about nine-years-old when he left the Marbro Theatre near Madison Street and Pulaski Road in the middle of whatever movie we were watching and walked home. He didn’t tell the group of us siblings he was leaving. He just went out the door and walked the two miles west to our home on Leamington. A couple years later, he was goofing around downtown with his friends, and they ditched him, as boys will do. He wasn’t worried and got on an el to return to the West Side. But he soon realized he was on the wrong train, so he got off and, having no more money, walked back downtown, and then headed west on Lake Street. It was a walk of at least seven miles. Two years ago, on November 21, 2015, a few days before Thanksgiving, David took a last journey on his own. He walked out the back door of his Oak Lawn home at 3 a.m. into a frigid snow-rain and took his life.   My own journey David was born in 1951, fourteen months after me. Following him were twelve other children, two boys and ten girls. As […]
November 17, 2017

Book review: “Riding the Rap” by Elmore Leonard

Elmore Leonard titled his 1995 novel Riding the Rap, but he might have easily called it Be Cool — a name, as it turned out, that he later gave to his 1999 sequel to Get Shorty. But it would have fit Riding the Rap well, maybe better than Riding the Rap. All through the novel, guys are saying to one another, “Be cool.” Usually because they’re not all that cool at that moment. Still, they’re guys who pride themselves on their coolness — coolness in life, and coolness in moments of stress, and coolness in the midst of violence. In the two moments of greatest violence in Leonard’s novel, there’s a character who’s been totally cool and who seems to be acting one way and then, well, goes another. This is what happens when you’re dealing with sociopaths, as colorful as they may be.   “Nothing to it” For instance, two bad guys are watching a third on a closed-circuit television screen as he walks up to a hostage they’ve taken in hopes of making a killing, financially. They think he’s going to punch the obstreperous hostage. Instead, they watch him reach under his loose shirt and pull out an […]
November 13, 2017

Meditation: Stay awake!

Most Christians know well the story of the ten virgins that Jesus told: Ten young women wait outside for the bridegroom to show up and the wedding party to start. He’s late. It’s getting dark. The women doze off. Finally, at midnight, here he is, but only five of the women have oil for their lamps to lead him to the feast. The other five had to run to get some, and, by the time they return, the door to the feast is locked. The punchline is the final sentence in which Jesus tells his disciples: “Stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”   Keeping our eyes open Don’t sleep away your life. Our job as human beings is to keep our eyes open to life and to other people. Our task is to show up, to be alert, to take in the world and the reality of existence in all its fullness — in all its pain and joy — and to be present to those around us. To see those around us, really see them. To listen to them with our full attention, to really hear them. And to share with them our own […]
November 10, 2017

Book review: “Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold and the Fate of the American Revolution” by Nathaniel Philbrick

Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold and the Fate of the American Revolution by Nathaniel Philbrick is a mess of a book. I should have known by looking at the title and subtitle. From those, I guessed that this would be a book centering on Benedict Arnold. After all, lots of other books are out there about Washington, and Arnold was the infamous traitor of the American Revolution. Hence, the “Fate” reference. As it turns out, the book sort of centers on Arnold, a talented military leader who was self-centered in the extreme. At least, that’s how Philbrick paints him. I’m not sure I fully trust Philbrick’s reading of Arnold.   Three thirds Let me explain: In 326 pages, Valiant Ambition seems to be attempting to do too much. It covers a four-year period (1776 – 1780). About a third of the book has to do with what Arnold did during that period, and about a third with what Washington did. The other third is about other stuff going on, such as campaigns by other generals and the doings of the Continental Congress. One of the points that Philbrick seems to try to make is that Washington had many failings […]
November 6, 2017

Chicago History: Third World Press — “Strong and Black for 50 Years”

The poem was one of many recited by teenagers during the gala in October honoring the 50th anniversary of Chicago’s literary jewel, the Third World Press. In its rhythms and sharp humor, the poem, written by Haki Madhubuti, captured the spirit of the evening and of the South Side publishing house that he founded. It was written in the mid-1960s around the time when Third World Press, today the nation’s largest black publishing house, was just getting started, and when Madhubuti was still known as Don L. Lee. Titled “Gwendolyn Brooks,” it honored his mentor, and it reveled in the then-new focus of African-Americans on blackness, including more than a dozen lines like these: “…black doubleblack purpleblack blue-black beenblack was black daybeforeyesterday blackerthan ultrablack super black blackblack yellowblack….. so black we can’t even see you black on black in black by black technically black mantanblack winter black coolblack 360degreesblack….”   Chicago’s cultural treasure Most Chicagoans know of the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Art Institute of Chicago, but, unfortunately, few realize that Third World Press is one of the city’s cultural treasures. And all Chicagoans, no matter their color, ethnicity, economic status, sexual orientation or political preference, benefit from […]
November 3, 2017

Chicago History: A Dive into the “Inky Waters” of the Chicago River

Each year, through myriad government efforts, the Chicago River gets cleaner although no one would call it “clean.” Nonetheless, as polluted as its water remains, the river used to be much, much, much worse as a story from more than a century ago illustrates. It was 4 p.m. on a Monday afternoon, Labor Day, September 6, 1897, when the lumber steamer S.K. Martin, heading southwest in the South Branch of the Chicago River, signaled for the raising of the Halsted Street Bridge, just north of Archer Avenue. This bridge, designed by J.A.L. Waddell, was known as “the red bridge,” the gateway to the hardscrabble neighborhood of Bridgeport. As the tender operated the machinery, the bridge platform — a 130-foot-long, cedar-block-paved section of Halsted Street — began to rise slowly between two metal towers, like an open-air elevator. Standing on that pavement and taking the ride up were 22-year-old George William Clarke and a young woman identified by the Tribune as “his sweetheart Miss Kinzie.” Also on the platform were two policemen from the nearby Deering Street Station. Just as the platform was reaching its full height of 160 feet above the turbid river, Clarke, a professional diver, began whipping off […]