April 30, 2018

Book review: “The Call of the Wild” by Jack London

In November, 1902, Jack London wrote his non-fiction investigative book The People of the Abyss about the life of the poor of the East End of London. He’d spent seven weeks living there a few months earlier. Of the city’s 6.2 million residents, one in 14 lived in grinding oppressive poverty. Or, as the writer put it: “At this very moment, 450,000 of these creatures are dying miserably at the bottom of the social pit called ‘London.’ ” A month after writing The People of the Abyss, London was at work on the novel that made his name, The Call of the Wild. Both books were published in 1903.   A rejection of civilization? To my mind, there is a direct connection between the two books, and it has to do with a little-discussed aspect of The Call of the Wild. In his non-fiction book, London detailed the world that civilization made — a world in which nearly half a million “creatures” were left on a human trash heap, left to find their way for as long as they could struggle, left to a miserable life and an early death. In his novel, London told the story of the un-taming […]
April 23, 2018

Book review: “The Art of the Wasted Day” by Patricia Hampl

A child of her age, born in 1946, Patricia Hampl did her share of protesting in the streets as a young adult, against war, for human rights, and, through it all, she was proud of her nation’s founding document the Declaration of Independence and its words: “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” What other country, she asks in The Art of a Wasted Day, is founded on happiness? Crazy. Good crazy…. We address happiness individually, conceive of it as an intensely personal project, each of us busy about our own bliss. Loved that, love it still. And, yet — as she came to realize later in her life, the Declaration guarantees life and liberty but not happiness, only its pursuit. Happiness in the American credo is a job. No wonder that Hampl, like a lot of Americans, found herself with a to-do list that seemed a mile long. No wonder, too, that, in her fifties, she found herself the victim of panic attacks.  (See my interview with Hampl in the Chicago Tribune.)   “Taking in whatever is out there” No wonder that, in the face of such stress and distress, she decided to embrace daydreaming and redefine happiness as […]
April 16, 2018

Book review: “The Madonna” by Jean Guitton

On the opening page of his text for The Madonna, Jean Guitton, a French philosopher and theologian, notes that, in the Gospels, Mary doesn’t say much. That got me thinking, and, after a little Internet searching, I came across an article that listed the four times when an evangelist quotes the mother of Jesus — twice before his birth and twice after. Guitton’s essay in The Madonna, published in 1963, is interesting but seems theologically dated to me. Instead, I like the idea of considering the many beautiful images of Mary in this book next to the words that Mary says in the Gospels. In presenting them here, I’m not making a direct correlation between image and word. I’m looking at how the two methods of getting to know Mary interact. “I am the handmaid of the Lord” The first instance in which Mary is quoted is the Annunciation (Luke 1: 26-38) when the angel Gabriel comes to her, and this conversation takes place: “Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you. Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him […]
April 9, 2018

Book review: “Chicago and Downstate: Illinois as Seen by the Farm Security Administration Photographers 1936-1943,” edited by Robert L. Reid and Larry A. Viskochil

During a seven-year period, starting the Great Depression and extending into World War II, sixteen talented photographers from the Farm Security Administration (FSA) recorded more than 270,000 images of daily life in America. Often, these photographers would be asked by their subjects why they wanted to take their picture. “For history,” some of them replied. Larry A. Viskochil mentions this in his opening remarks for Chicago and Downstate: Illinois as Seen by the Farm Security Administration Photographers 1936-1943, which he co-edited with Robert L. Reid. It’s an answer that goes to the core of the FSA effort. The subjects of the FSA photographs tended to be those hardest hit by the harsh economic times and least likely to make a record of their own of what they were going through. They were, in other words, the sort of people who are easily lost to history.   The lives of the common people Consider simply the question of clothing: It’s easy enough to know what King Henry VIII and other royals of his era wore. They posed for many paintings that have survived. But what did the common people put on in the morning or, for that matter, upon going to […]
April 2, 2018

Essay: In praise of yet more biographies of Lincoln

The other day, in passing, a friend of mine asked me, “Why would someone write yet another biography of Abraham Lincoln? Aren’t there enough already?” I was dumbfounded and mumbled some half-answer. It seemed akin to asking me why people breathe. Throughout my life, I’ve read dozens of biographies of Lincoln and scores of books about the Civil War and his role in the conflict. I’ve reviewed Lincoln books and written essays on the 16th U.S. President, and, for several years, I served on the advisory board of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield For me, the study of Lincoln is fascinating and never-ending. Yet, my friend, a well-read guy, was really confused.   One life story? At the root of his question was the thought that each of us has one life story. So, once it’s told, there’s no need for it to be told again, right? I suspect he’s not alone in such thinking. He’s right, sort of, if the life story is in the form of a resume. The bullet points about schooling and jobs that were on my resume in 1981 were still true a few years ago when I put together a […]