October 31, 2018

Book review: “The Path to Power” by Robert A. Caro

  After 768 pages of text and more than 350,000 words, the reader of Robert A. Caro’s The Path to Power might easily come away wondering: “Well, who was Lyndon B. Johnson?” In this book — the first of what is now expected to be five volumes in a series titled The Years of Lyndon Johnson — Caro writes deeply about many aspects of LBJ’s personality. About Johnson’s flattery of older, powerful men, a latter-day Uriah Heep.  About Johnson’s physical and emotional restlessness. About Johnson’s need to be the center of attention. About Johnson’s ability to attract men of strong skills but weak personalities and his cold use of them, regardless their desires, for his own purposes for decades at a time.  About Johnson’s convoluted relationship with his father, the man in whose footsteps he followed, the man whose mannerisms he copied, the man he once idolized and then came to disdain. About Johnson’s compassion in teaching, for a year, a classroom of Mexican-American children in Cotulla in South Texas near the Mexican border and in obtaining for the isolated farms and towns of the Hill Country, then living a medieval existence, the miracles of electricity. About Johnson’s ability to […]
October 29, 2018

Book review: “Guards! Guards!” by Terry Pratchett

  The high point of Terry Pratchett’s eighth Discworld novel Guards! Guards!, published in 1989, comes when Carrot Ironfoundersson, the six-foot-six-inch dwarf and probationary member of the Ankh-Morpork Watch, arrests the Dragon which is approximately the size of a small battleship and has been terrorizing the city. Which comes before the Dragon’s romantic pas de deux in the sky. But after Captain Sam Vimes has gotten drunk, again. But before Vimes falls in love. But after Discworld readers have been introduced for the first time to Sgt. Fred Colon, who “was the sort of man who, if he took up a military career, would automatically gravitate to the post of sergeant…[or else] looked cut out for something like, perhaps, a sausage butcher; some job where a big red face and a tendency to sweat even in frosty weather were practically part of the specification,” and Cpl. Nobby Nobbs, “a small, bandy-legged man, with a certain resemblance to a chimpanzee who never got invited to tea parties” and about whom “the only reason you couldn’t say…was close to the animal kingdom was that the animal kingdom would get up and walk away.” But before Colon, Nobby, Carrot, Vimes and a growing […]
October 23, 2018

Book review: “David Copperfield” by Charles Dickens

  Among the many distinctive characters in David Copperfield, I have a soft spot in my heart for Jane Murdstone. Actually, that’s wrong.  It’s not so much a soft spot for her.  It’s for the way Charles Dickens makes it clear who this woman is. David is still a very young boy.  His mother Clara has just remarried.  His stepfather — one might as well say “evil stepfather” — Edward Murdstone has Clara under his thumb.  Even so, he calls in his spinster sister as a reinforcement: It was Miss Murdstone who was arrived, and a gloomy-looking lady she was; dark, like her brother, whom she greatly resembled in face and voice; and with very heavy eyebrows, nearly meeting over her large nose, as if, being disabled by the wrongs of her sex from wearing whiskers, she had carried them to that account. She brought with her two uncompromising hard black boxes, with her initials on the lids in hard brass nails. When she paid the coachman she took her money out of a hard steel purse, and she kept the purse in a very jail of a bag which hung upon her arm by a heavy chain, and shut […]
October 22, 2018

Book review: “The Christ of the Miracle Stories: Portrait through Encounter” by Wendy Cotter CSJ

  Twice in her 2010 book The Christ of the Miracle Stories, Wendy Cotter tells this story about the Roman emperor Hadrian: He was on a journey, and a woman on the roadside asked him to speak to him. “I haven’t time,” he said, brushing her off. “Cease, then, being emperor!” she cried out with sharp sarcasm. He stopped, went back and talked with her. This, Cotter says, is an example of the virtue of epieikeia, the willingness to hear — really hear — the words of someone else, even someone considered by society inferior in some way, and to recognize the wisdom in the person’s words. As the leader of the Roman empire in the early 100s, Hadrian was the most powerful man on earth.  Yet, in this and other incidents, he showed an open-mindedness in dealing with other people, a readiness to take in opinions and ideas that were different from those he held.   “Spunky, noisy, pushy and outrageous” It may seem odd to start off a review of a book about Jesus with an anecdote about a Roman emperor.  Yet, this story is an example of the way that Cotter has mined the documents of the […]
October 18, 2018

Book review: “The Mouse that Roared” by Leonard Wibberley

The Mouse that Roared, a comic, satirical, even silly novel by Leonard Wibberley, was published in 1955, a decade after the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan to end World War II. As one character notes, however, the end of the war didn’t bring peace. Indeed, Cold War tensions were high and getting higher, and everyone around the world was living under the pall of nuclear threat. So, this seemingly frivolous book with its outlandish premise — that the Grand Duchy of Fenwick, the smallest nation in the world, hoping to reap a miniature Marshall Plan, attacks the U.S. in a war it plans to lose, but unaccountably wins — is an oddly unsettling read for a citizen of 2018. The Q-bomb That’s because the plot centers on the Q-bomb, the only one in the world, developed by an American scientist and grabbed by the duchy’s invasion force when, as luck would have it, the couple dozen soldiers landed in Manhattan during a major air raid practice when virtually everyone was dutifully underground. One of the few exceptions is Dr. Alfred Kokintz who is taken as a prisoner of war along with his bomb. When the force and […]
October 17, 2018

Book review: “Murder on the Links” by Agatha Christie

Much of Agatha Christie 1923 mystery Murder on the Links seems, nearly a century after its publication, pretty hokey. There is a drawing-room, stage-set feel to its scenes, and Christie’s characters always seem to be over-acting: the loveable doofus Captain Arthur Hastings; Monsieur Giraud, the supremely arrogant Parisian detective who flashes his modern methods with the same élan as he does his disdain; the mysterious young woman Hastings dubs “Cinderella” with her “modern girl” manners and brightness; and, of course, Hercule Poirot, the retired Belgian detective who, as a private investigator, is persnickety in solving unsolvable crimes through the application of his “gray cells.” Murder on the Links has many more characters than those four, more than a few with more than one name, and they come across as roles that are being filled rather than as human beings. Indeed, the formulaic quality of the story and Christie’s writing had me wondering midway through the novel how she put her puzzle together so that it would be attractively puzzling. I wondered if she came up with the ending and then worked backwards to make things so muddy that no one could come up with the answer until Poirot pontificated. I […]
October 15, 2018

Book Review: Two Books about Dying — 2 — “Advice for Future Corpses (And Those Who Love Them): A Practical Perspective on Death and Dying” by Sallie Tisdale

  Over the years, I’ve read a fair number of books about death, but I found Sallie Tisdale’s Advice for Future Corpses so rich and powerful that, by the time I got through the first couple chapters, I’d ordered a copy for my wife. I wanted her to read the book so, together, we could think about the questions and issues that Tisdale raises.  And I wanted her to have her own copy so she’d have it handy when needed. Note, I didn’t say “if and when.”  Death is a “when” for me and for you and for all of us.   “Hard to deny” Tisdale doesn’t let the reader forget this. When it comes to the process of dying, she doesn’t flinch from talking about pain and intrusive friends and loose bowels and fear and burial and denial and coercive family members and cremation.  Consider this paragraph: “Despite many costs, for a grieving person cremation can have a kind of stark beauty.  George Bernard Shaw watched his mother’s body enter the crematorium, feet-first: ‘The feet burst miraculously into streaming ribbons of garnet colored lovely flame, smokeless and eager, like pentacostal tongues,” he wrote, “and as the whole coffin passed […]
October 10, 2018

Book Review: Two Books about Dying — 1 — “How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter” By Sherwin B. Nuland

Samuel Johnson, that great English expert on words, once wrote: “Hope is itself a species of happiness, and perhaps the chief happiness which this word affords.” Sherwin B. Nuland highlights that quote in his 1994 book How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter. He highlights the idea of hope in a book about the inevitability of death. But how can human beings be hopeful — how can they be happy — when they know that, sooner or later, they will die? That’s the beautiful paradox of Nuland’s great book.  Death helps us be hopeful.  Death helps us be happy. Without death, we would be bored.   We’re not eternal Think of it:  If you had an eternal existence, what difference would it make if today is sunny?  Or if the tree outside your window is blooming?  Or if you took a trip to Paris this year?  Or if children were playing on the sidewalk outside your home? A sunny day would be just another of an infinite series of sunny days to come, and the tree would be just one of an infinite series of trees that will bloom.  Paris will always be there, anytime.  And the children?  Youth […]
October 8, 2018

Essay: In praise of the backup catcher

  Throughout this major league baseball season, I’ve been cheering on one particular player — Austin Romine. Never heard of him?  Not surprising.  He’s the backup catcher of the New York Yankees and rarely gets featured in a television highlight or in a print or online headline.  Nonetheless, after each Yankee game, I’ve looked at the box score with burning questions:  Had Romine gotten a hit, perhaps a homer?  Had he gone 0 for 4?  Had he even played?   Smart and tough Like many major league catchers, Romine is both tough and smart.  He runs the bases with a stiff back reminiscent of catcher Carlton Fisk’s baserunning during his Chicago White Sox days.  Romine had a bumpy time finding a place on the Yankee roster and, at one point, was offered on waivers to every other team.  No one wanted him. I’ve watched his career partially because — to the mystification of my friends and family — I, despite being a lifelong Chicagoan, am a Yankee fan.  (Let’s leave that story for another time.)  If I were a White Sox fan, I’d probably be cheering for backup catcher Kevan Smith. In the last couple seasons, Romine has found himself […]
October 5, 2018

Poem: “How puzzle the prayer”

    How puzzle the prayer   Walking seminary fields, silent-hour recollection days, calloused caress of color and blaze, sharp tender bright air slicing wet morning grass.   Filled with wide light.   How steel my legs? How blade the grip lack? How bell the jerk and jag of breath?   How pipe the foreign? How altar the yearn? How street the knowledge of death?   How ocean the benediction? How rosary the examination? How sculpture the confession?   I confess.  I crucify. I abjure. I sacrifice.   Prophet’s blood off rawed skin to splat road dust, paste for blind eyes and full stomachs. Blessed are the lost.   Lauds. Compline. Psalm-song. Psalm of David. Psalm of the great empty white.   My God, my God, why?   How architecture the touch?   I will go to the table of the Lord. Break my bread. Spill my wine. Wash my sins. White my garments. Angel my innocent’s neck. Good news, good news. Call me blessed.   How ghost the surrender?   Patrick T. Reardon 10.5.18   “How puzzle the prayer” was originally published on 6.21.18 by Under a Warm Green Linden.  
October 3, 2018

Essay: Why write?

  Since the age of 12 when I had my first byline on a Father’s Day essay in the neighborhood newspaper, I’ve been addicted to writing. Over the years, I’ve loved seeing my byline on literally thousands of Chicago Tribune stories, and on countless freelance pieces, and on the covers of my eight books. But that’s not what I’m hooked on.  I’m addicted to the challenge of taking some aspect of the chaos of our existence and making sense of it by putting a bunch of words down on a page, whether physical or digital, in a manner that is clear and maybe playful, pleasing and informative. I enjoy the idea that stuff I write helps readers better understand the world in which we all live.  That’s an important reason I write, but, even more, I write to help myself better understand the world, better understand life.   Hard work and delight Norman Mailer once said something to the effect that he didn’t know what he thought about anything until he wrote about it.  That’s the experience I have.  I get to know myself, and to define myself, in the act of writing. Writing is hard work.  It’s a strain […]
October 1, 2018

Book Review: “The Plan of Chicago” By Daniel H. Burnham and Edward H. Bennett

  I’m a card-carrying nerd and a guy who, during a long career at the Chicago Tribune and later in other forums, has written much about cities and demographics.  And I just love reading reports, statistics and plans. There are two reasons for this: First, I can mine these documents for facts that reveal to me, in some way, how people go about or have gone about their lives. Example: a collection of maps showing the changing settlement patterns of various immigrant groups in Chicago over a series of decades. Second, most offer an analysis of some aspect of life and a vision, at least implicitly, of how it can be better. For instance: reports on the hypersegregation of whites and blacks in Chicago. One report, however, rises head-and-shoulders above all the others I’ve read — the 1909 Plan of Chicago by Daniel H. Burnham and Edward H. Bennett, known also as the Burnham Plan.   A touchstone I’ve dealt with it as an important historic document, but also as a living document since it has been a touchstone for all sorts of plans for Chicago and the metropolitan region over the past 100-plus years. Virtually every attempt to analyze […]