February 28, 2018

Book review: “Golden Hill: A Novel of Old New York” by Francis Spufford

There are many pleasures to Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill: A Novel of Old New York, and the greatest is its sheer unexpectedness. It is fresh in startling ways. It is idiosyncratic storytelling that’s robustly accessible, a literary experiment that melds a variety of novel-writing approaches ranging from the early 1700s up to our present minute — and, yet, always clear and present and eye-opening. And, from start to finish, it has its own language and voice, a vibrantly individual work of fiction. I describe Golden Hill, published in 2016, as an experiment because Spufford had never written a novel before and because it is one of a kind.   Historical fiction, love story, mystery? You could call it historical fiction since it does cover a 45-day period at the end of 1746 in New York City, but this is no fancy-dress tale. It has no hackneyed plot, nor is it an effort to explain what happened behind the scenes of some major event. You could call it a love story since it does involve a very awkward but ardent courtship — as if involving two porcupines — between Richard Smith, a surprise visitor from London, and Tabitha Lovell, the shrewishly […]
February 25, 2018

Book review: “Richard Nixon: The Life” by John A. Farrell

The most striking thing about John A. Farrell’s Richard Nixon: The Life is how evenhanded a biography it is. Picture yourself nearly half a century in the future — in 2061 — and imagine you are reading an even-handed biography of Donald Trump. It’s startling to conceive of such a thing, given the intensely high emotions that the 45th President of the United States elicits from his supporters and opponents. In 43 years, could emotions cool enough that a biographer could write about Trump and his presidency with dispassion? That’s what Farrell has done with Nixon in a book published last year, 43 years after Nixon resigned the presidency in disgrace for the Watergate break-in of the Democratic National Committee and a host of other dirty tricks and, most of all, for the democracy-threatening attempt to cover-up all those democracy-threatening shenanigans. Farrell was a college student in 1974 when Nixon left office, and it would be impossible for a reader of this book to have much of a sense of where Farrell stood in that very divisive moment in American history.   Shakespearean Perhaps the question is whether any biography of Nixon should be even-handed. But, before I get into […]
February 22, 2018

Book review: “Glory Days” by Melissa Fraterrigo

Glory Days by Melissa Fraterrigo is a raw piece of fiction about the scarred and wounded lives of people lost in the dying small town of Ingleside, Nebraska. It is sort of a novel inasmuch as it could be described as a novel told in stories or as a collection of related stories. And it has some of the usual imperfections of such variations on the usual form. There are a variety of tones among the fourteen stories (chapters) that, at times, collide somewhat awkwardly with each other. There are confusing time gaps and plot details that would probably be clearer in the context of a straight-ahead novel. Part of the problem may be that Glory Days is Fraterrigo’s first book-length work of fiction, and she’s still finding her voice.   Tormented spirits Even so, “Glory Days” is a brutally beautiful tale about tortured souls in a Midwestern Inferno of lost jobs, lost hopes, lost connections. Everyone in this book is damaged goods — from Luann, the adopted girl whose mother is newly dead in the opening story, to Teensy, her fire-scarred father, to Footer, an orphan who came into the world when a crazy woman sliced his mother open […]
February 21, 2018

Essay: Fast Food Community

A couple years ago, I met my friend Thomas at the McDonald’s on Broadway, near Loyola University’s lakefront campus on the Far North Side. As we sat down, Thomas said it was just like being in the McDonald’s back home in Iowa. That’s the impression a lot of people have — that all McDonald’s restaurants are the same. Same menus, same lighting, same trays, napkins, etc. All that is true, but what I’ve found is that the uniformity of a McDonald’s — or any major fast food chain, for that matter — is like the setting of a fine jewel. The sameness of the décor and the food means that what I notice when I’m eating at a McDonald’s are the people.   A community of people And here’s the thing: At each McDonald’s, there is a unique community of people. Some, like me, go there for the anonymity. It’s a good place to read and write without having to concern myself with a server who wants to tell me his name is Christopher. (Full disclosure: My daughter-in-law just started working for an ad agency whose only client is McDonald’s. But that’s not why I eat there.) Other people go […]
February 13, 2018

Book review: “Death in Chicago: Winter” by Dominic J. Grassi

Cosmo Grande moves awkwardly, humanly, through Chicago, looking for clues and epiphany. Grande, a fiftyish private investigator who drinks too much and smokes too much weed, is the central character created by my friend Dom Grassi for his first novel Death in Chicago: Winter. It’s a murder mystery and is planned to be the first of four, the others taking Cosmo and the sort of skullduggery one enjoys in mysteries through spring, summer and fall. You know, like Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, only in this case the Italian isn’t writing music but trying to find his way around Chicago while endeavoring to figure out what’s going on — and avoid getting blown up or otherwise iced. In Death in Chicago: Winter, Cosmo is trying to get to the bottom of a whole lot of messiness, including three suicides that might be murder, a dirty cop, a murdered tow-truck driver, a rogue bishop, a “retired” mob boss and a clandestine group of deacons trying to save the Catholic Church from its bad apples.   A rollicking tale It’s a rollicking tale that pulls the reader along as Cosmo, a former seminarian, maneuvers through a hidden church scandal of wide-ranging financial sins while […]
February 12, 2018

Essay: Ben the barber’s light touch of love

We live in a corrosive age, characterized by bitterness, rancor and fury. Loud voices of rage drown out the quiet virtues of calm and broad-mindedness. My friend Ben wasn’t rageful, and he wasn’t bitter. If anyone had the right to be angry, it was Ben. But he took life as it came, with equanimity and a kind of joy. Ben was my barber for more than 30 years. He cut the hair of my son David from when he was a toddler to when he went off to college. His barbershop on California Avenue, just north of Touhy Avenue, was a frequent Saturday stop for me and David and his younger sister Sarah. They grew knowing Ben as a kind grandfatherly presence in their lives. And they grew up knowing the blue numbers tattooed on his arm.   Surviving Auschwitz as a barber Ben, as he told me and the kids, had spent two years in the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz. He and his brother survived because they could cut hair. They were assigned to cut the hair of fellow Jews and other people who were put to killing labor or sent directly to the crematoria. All other members […]
February 7, 2018

Book review: “The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve” by Stephen Greenblatt

At the end of the 19th century, Mark Twain had fun with the story of Adam and Eve, writing in “Adam’s Diary” about the first man’s confusion over the sudden appearance of the first woman: “This new creature with the long hair is a good deal in the way. It is always hanging around and following me about. I don’t like this; I am not used to company. I wish it would stay with the other animals….Cloudy today, wind in the east; think we shall have rain….WE? Where did I get that word — the new creature uses it.” Such playfulness, though, gives no hint of the two and a half millenniums during which the Bible account of the first people in the Garden Eden was taken very seriously, even to the point of life and death, as Stephen Greenblatt shows in The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve.   “A breath” Greenblatt, a Pulitzer Prize winner and the general editor of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, has written a book that is thoughtfully readable and deeply erudite, a book steeped in humanity and in the unending efforts of humans to figure out who they are and why […]
February 5, 2018

Book review: “Mort” by Terry Pratchett

There is an awkward disconnect toward the end of Mort, Terry Pratchett’s 1987 Discworld novel, the fourth of 41 in the series. It has to do with Albert, Death’s manservant and cook. OK, if you haven’t read any Discworld novels, that job description may sound odd. As Pratchett’s regular Discworld readers know, Death is the guy in the long black robe with the ever-so-sharp scythe — oh, and he’s a skeleton— who appears in just about every one of these books. You know he’s there, even if he isn’t immediately identified, because of his distinctive way of speaking — in “a voice like lead slabs being dropped on granite,” all in small caps. For instance, when he hires the 16-year-old Mort as his apprentice, Death asks his name: “Mortimer…sir. They call me Mort.” “WHAT A COINCIDENCE.” (“Mort” being the root word in Latin for “death,” and, by way of Middle French and Middle English, the root of such English words as “moral.” But you knew that.)   Stood-still-time Death’s job is to head out each day to be present at the death of, generally but not always, important people. The causes of such deaths can be any of the usual […]
February 2, 2018

Essay: Van Gogh’s “Self-Portrait” (1887) at the Art Institute of Chicago

It was one of those joyous moments in life when, at my home computer with its large, wide screen, I was able to look at a photo that I had taken on Tuesday of Van Gogh’s 1887 “Self-Portrait” at the Art Institute of Chicago.     According to the museum, this oil painting is just a little over 16 inches high and just under 12 inches wide.  So I was able to get close and still get the whole image in a photo.  Then, I got a bit closer and got a center section of the painting in another photo.     What took my breath away was how detailed my photo was — and, even more, how I could see each of Van Gogh’s individual brushstrokes. And my amazement and delight grew, the closer I looked.   And, again, when I focused solely on the eye.   First, look at the colors Van Gogh uses that, as a non-painter, I wouldn’t expect to see in a portrait.  Look at all that dark green.  And those three little yellow lines. And then there are the reds.  That dark red outlining the top of the eye lid.  And then a more […]
February 1, 2018

Book review: “The Art of Biblical Narrative” by Robert Alter

The writers of the Hebrew Bible, when they’re telling a story, they’re like Homer with the Iliad — they’re omniscient. They know the story as if they’ve watched it unfold from some vantage point above and around and inside the action. However, unlike Homer, the biblical storyteller doesn’t make the characters and their motives clear to the reader. Instead, the storyteller is selective, as Robert Alter explains in his groundbreaking 1981 study The Art of the Biblical Narrative: He may on occasion choose to privilege us with the knowledge of what God thinks of a particular character or action — omniscient narration can go no higher — but as a rule, because of his understanding of the nature of his human subjects, he leads us through varying darknesses which are lit up by intense but narrow beams, phantasmal glimmerings, sudden strobic flashes. We are compelled to get at character and motive, as in impressionistic writers like Conrad and Ford Madox Ford, through a process of inference from fragmentary data, often with crucial pieces of narrative exposition strategically withheld, and this leads to multiple and sometimes even wavering perspectives on characters. There is, in other words, an abiding mystery in character […]