December 20, 2017

Book review: “Pronto” by Elmore Leonard

There’s no indication in Elmore Leonard’s 1993 crime novel Pronto what the title is supposed to mean. In American English, “pronto” is an adverb, meaning “quickly.” It comes from Spanish in which the word means “quick.” However, Leonard’s novel is peopled with members and associates of the Italian crime mob in Miami as well as the lawmen who try to stop their scheming and skullduggery. A goodly portion of the story takes place in Italy, both in flashbacks to World War II and in present-day shenanigans. So maybe it has to do with the Italian word “pronto” which means “ready.” Which doesn’t immediately bring to mind any person or action in the story, except maybe Raylan Givens, a Deputy U.S. Marshal and former miner in Kentucky. He’s the center of this typically loose-limbed Leonard novel in the sense of the person who makes things happen. (And he’s the central character in two later books — Riding the Rap (1993) and Leonard’s final novel Raylan (2012).) And, in Pronto, Raylan does seem to be ready when he needs to be. Still, it’s kind of a stretch since the word “pronto” and its meaning “ready” don’t appear anywhere in the book.   […]
December 18, 2017

Book review: “Fashion” by Christopher Breward

Well, what is fashion? In Fashion, a carefully calibrated look at Western couture over the past 200 years, Christopher Breward notes that fashion can be viewed “as art, social process, or commercial product,” and continues: Is fashion the sketch of a designer, informed by reference to historical precedent or contemporary cultural influences and translated into surfaces and seams of a refined sculptural beauty? Is it the ritualistic adorning of the body by a subject whose sartorial actions relate to predominant aesthetic and sociological contexts?  Or is it the limp textile construction, replicated according to body size and spending power, which hangs on the rail of a boutique, given meaning and relevance for the potential consumer by its reproduction of the promotional images of a magazine? For his book, he writes, the most productive approach is to consider all three and their inter-relationships, a complicated undertaking. The three aspects of fashion To this end, Fashion is in three parts. The first examines the production of fashion, including the rise of the designer as a “name” and celebrity, the production of apparel and the processes through which styles evolve. The second has to do with the promotion of fashion through advertising, film, […]
December 13, 2017

Book review: “Fresh Verdicts on Joan of Arc,” edited by Bonnie Wheeler and Charles T. Wood

Published in 1996, Fresh Verdicts on Joan of Arc, edited by Bonnie Wheeler and Charles T. Wood, is a collection of eighteen scholarly essays looking at various aspects of the life and legacy of the woman who led French armies to victories in the early 15th century, was branded a sorcerer and executed by the enemy English and, five hundred years later, was declared a Catholic saint. The idea of “fresh verdicts” is that these essays examine aspects of Joan’s story that have been ignored or confused over the many centuries since her death at the English stake as a heretic. Not that Joan’s story itself has been ignored all that time. Indeed, in an opening essay, Kelly DeVries, a historian at Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore, asserts: No person of the Middle Ages, male or female, has been the subject of more study than Joan of Arc. She has been portrayed as saint, heretic, religious zealot, seer, demented teenager, protofeminist, aristocratic wanna-be, savior of France, “turner-of-the-tide” of the Hundred Years War, and even Marxist liberator. Similarly, in one of the concluding essays, Kevin J. Harty, an English professor at LaSalle University in Philadelphia, sees a similar pattern in the […]
December 11, 2017

Book review: “A Field Guide to Getting Lost” by Rebecca Solnit

Rebecca Solnit’s 2005 A Field Guide to Getting Lost is a celebration of much that is disdained and feared by mainstream American society:   The Unknown Loss Getting Lost Being Lost Hell Solitude Tragedy Melancholy Emptiness Ruins Death Sadness Wanting Captivity The Wild Heartbreak The Void Mortality Disappearance Darkness Does that list give you nightmares? Then, A Field Guide to Getting Lost is not for you.   Three recognitions Solnit looks deeply into how various people and peoples have faced all of these seemingly negative aspects of existence and how she has faced them in her own history. And she finds in them the deepest life. The deep place where life is richest, fullest. It has to do with a recognition that, first, none of these is avoidable, and that, second, each is the yin to a yang of some seemingly positive aspect of human existence. For instance, you can’t have heartbreak without having had love. You die because you’ve been alive. Darkness is part of the texture of light. Her third recognition is that these aren’t negative at all.   The Turtle Man Near the very end of her book, Solnit tells a story of having a dream one […]
December 6, 2017

Chicago History: The Brooklyn Bridge and Chicago’s elevated Loop

The Brooklyn Bridge and Chicago’s elevated Loop don’t seem to have much in common aside from being large transportation structures. From its completion in 1883, the 1,600-foot suspension bridge spanning the East River has been a dominant element on the New York scene. In his 1965 book Brooklyn Bridge: Fact and Symbol, Alan Trachtenberg notes that the bridge’s designer John Roebling predicted that it would be ranked as a national monument and as “a great work of art.” Roebling’s claims [writes Trachtenberg] were far from modest, but history has borne them out. There is no more famous bridge in all the world. And in 1964, almost a hundred years later, the American government proclaimed the structure an official national monument. By contrast, the 1.8-mile elevated Loop, which turned 120 in October, rises just two stories above four Chicago streets. Although it encloses 39 downtown blocks, it is lost amid the skyscrapers that loom above it. Rare is the aerial photograph that captures more than a sliver of the rectangle of tracks. Indeed, it can only be viewed in full from directly above it (such as from a space satellite) — and even then, unless the sunlight is exactly right, the […]
December 4, 2017

Book Review: “The Wall of Respect: Public Art and Black Liberation in 1960s Chicago,” edited by Abdul Alkalimat, Romi Crawford, and Rebecca Zorach

Fifty years ago, William Walker, a veteran muralist, proposed to a group of other black artists and photographers that they collaborate to produce a mural on the side of a two-story tavern in the impoverished South Side neighborhood of Grand Crossing. After three weeks of labor at the building on the southeast corner of 43rd Street and Langley Avenue, the 20-foot-by-60-foot work of art, featuring dozens of African-American heroes, was completed on August 24, 1967. It was called the Wall of Respect, and it was dedicated several times over the next weeks. Sometime later, Walker came to the wall and saw a young man sitting on the sidewalk with his back resting on the art work. “How are you doing, brother?” Walker asked. “I’m getting my strength,” the man said.   Long overdue book about long overlooked milestone This story is told twice in The Wall of Respect: Public Art and Black Liberation in 1960s Chicago, edited by Abdul Alkalimat, Romi Crawford, and Rebecca Zorach, and it provides an insight into what the outdoor mural, created with direct community input, meant to African-Americans in the neighborhood, in Chicago and across the nation. The work of art, the first of its […]