June 19, 2017

Book review: “Architecture by Birds and Insects: A Natural Act” by Peggy Macnamara

Some birds and bugs construct nests by sewing or weaving strands of material together. And some fashion nests out of various kinds of paper-like stuff that they create using their saliva. And some form nests out of mud. And in depressions they make or find. And in mounds they raise. And some carve nests out of wood. Sometimes, nests — at times, many by the same individual — are constructed as part of a mating ceremony, but, much more often, they’re created to be the home of incubating young and to serve as their birthing room and as their childhood playhouse. But not always. The uglynest caterpillar builds a nest for its eggs in rose bushes or in cherry or hawthorn trees. But, then, when the eggs hatch, the larvae themselves build a web nest, also called a tent nest (often seen by humans as unattractive, hence, the insect’s name), in which they go through various stages until they come out as moths.   “Homes and safe places” Nests are little works of art, built with care and precision, confident and complete. They work!…Best of all, they are of use, providing a service. They are natural materials recycled to create […]
June 14, 2017

Book review: “You Suck: A Love Story” by Christopher Moore

You Suck: A Love Story, published in 2007, is a sequel to Christopher Moore’s 1995 novel Bloodsucking Fiends: A Love Story. It was then followed, in 2010, by Bite Me: A Love Story. You may notice a pattern here. The temptation with sequels — it’s something that’s good and bad — is to regurgitate the plot and characters of the first book in a slightly different (but pretty much the same) way. It worked the first time, right? The good part is that fans of the first book tend to lap up (if you’ll excuse the image) the slightly different (but pretty much the same) sequel. It was, after all, fun the first time. The bad part is that, well, it can come across as stale. For Christopher Moore, though, “stale” is a word that hasn’t been invented. His comic sense transcends triteness because I’m not sure he knows the meaning of “boring.” (I mean, I’m sure he knows the meaning of the word “boring,” but I don’t think that he’s able to write a boring page if he tried. [Well, maybe if he tried, all in the service of a higher comic purpose. So, in that case, he would […]
June 12, 2017

Book review: “Galactic Derelict” by Andre Norton

Galactic Derelict, published in 1959, is the second in a series of Andre Norton novels that began a year earlier with Time Traders. After stumbling onto a long-lost alien technology that permits time travel, two groups of humans — the Reds (i.e., the Soviet Union), originally, and then the United States, trying to catch up — endeavor to go into the past in a search for other scientific miracles. In order to fit in, the Americans masquerade as traders. It’s not clear how the Reds present themselves, and, by the end of the first novel, it doesn’t matter since they’ve gotten their comeuppance from a group of aliens that are discovered lurking thousands of years ago.   Runaway space ship Galactic Derelict, set in the late 1970s, starts off immediately after the first book and centers on a large ball-like space ship that’s found 12,000 years back in time in what is now the arid stretches of the American Southwest. All those thousands of years ago, however, the land is a lush green place where sabretooth tigers and huge mammoths are threats, as are some primitive humans. The plan is to set up machinery to send the entire ship back […]
June 8, 2017

Signing (and selling) books on Sunday morning at the Printers Row Lit Fest

I nabbed the coveted 10 am-noon slot on Sunday, June 11, at the Printers Row Lit Fest in the South Loop, and I’ll be signing and selling copies of the Pulitzer Prize-nominated poetry collection Requiem for David in tent RR, three tents west of State Street on Polk Street. I’m sure there will be billboards pointing to the place. Come on down and say hi!  
June 7, 2017

Like politics, all faith is local

There is a common phrase in American democracy asserting that “All politics is local.” It’s most often attributed to Thomas “Tip” O’Neill, the masterful Massachusetts Democratic Congressman who, from 1977 to 1987, was Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. Those four words are a cautionary tale to any politician who, caught up in high-flown ideals or the high status of office, forgets to take care of his or her constituents. In 1979, Chicago Mayor Michael Bilandic learned this to his chagrin. After a January blizzard dumped 35 inches of snow in a two-day period, he failed to clear the city’s streets and keep the elevated trains operating in all neighborhoods. The result: Bilandic was voted out of office a month later.   All faith The same is true for belief: “All faith is local.” As with politics, the believer has to have ideals. That means working — on a citywide and statewide and national and international level — for moral policies and programs that benefit everyone, particularly those on the margins of society. It’s important to be an activist for peace and justice by voting in a sober, thoughtful way and by taking part in the political dialogue by […]
June 5, 2017

Book review: “The Book of Joan” by Lidia Yuknavitch

In her new novel The Book of Joan, Lidia Yuknavitch creates a central character Joan of Dirt who shares some parallels with the fifteenth-century French heroine and Roman Catholic saint Joan of Arc. Both are named Joan and grow up in Domrémy, France. Yuknavitch calls it by its modern-day name, Domrémy-la-Pucelle, which means Domremy of the Maid, a reference to Joan of Arc. This, though, goes unremarked by Yuknavitch. Indeed, despite the parallels between Joan of Dirt and Joan of Arc, there is no mention in the novel about the historic figure. Joan of Dirt’s story is told by Christine Pizan, a contemporary, while one of the chroniclers of the life of Joan of Arc was her own contemporary, Christine de Pizan. Both Joans, as young girls, begin to hear otherworldly sounds that give direction and meaning to their lives. For Joan of Arc, the sounds were the voices of saints, angels and God. For Joan of Dirt, they were a song — “a hum, like a thousand children hitting the same low note.” Both, as teenage girls, lead armies and win battles, are captured, labeled by the authorities as heretics and burned at the stake.   Killing and dying […]
June 1, 2017

Book review: “Bloodsucking Fiends: A Love Story” by Christopher Moore

The key scene in Christopher Moore’s 1995 comic novel Bloodsucking Fiends: A Love Story, comes at the end of the first of three sections. In the aftermath of making love for the first time, Jody is trying to convince Tommy that she is a vampire. But he’s not buying it. “I’m a vampire.” “That’s okay,” Tommy said. “I knew this girl in high school who gave me a hickey that covered the whole side of my neck.” “No, Tommy, I’m really a vampire.” She looked him in the eye and did not smile or look away. She waited. He said, “Don’t goof on me, okay?” It goes on like this for another page or so as Jody keeps coming up with ways to show him that she’s, well, not quite human any more, and Tommy isn’t getting it. Then, to prove to him that she can see in the dark, Jody has Tommy open one of Jack Kerouac’s books — Tommy is a would-be writer living in San Francisco, so, of course, he has a copy of Kerouac — and proceeds to read half a page in the total dark of the bedroom. The light starts to dawn in Tommy’s […]
May 30, 2017

Book review: “Called Out: A novel of base ball and America in 1908” by Floyd Sullivan

August Herrmann, president of the Cincinnati Reds, arrived early for a meeting in the New York office of the National League, and he made himself at home. He sat down at a rolltop desk, and, as he chatted with Lenore Caylor of the league staff, he folded back the corners of his parcel “to reveal four long chunks of cooked meat on thick hooflike bones.” Lenore stepped back and put her hand over her mouth. He rubbed his hands together in two quick motions. “Can you believe I had to teach the cook at the Waldorf-Astoria how to properly prepare pigs’ feet? Now let’s see.” He reached into his coat and produced a silver fork, a small wood-handled carving knife, and a bottle of beer…Two brown eggs completed Hermann’s morning feast. He rolled one on the table and began to peel it, dropping the bits of shell onto the butcher paper… Picking up the knife and fork he carved a morsel of meat from one of the pigs’ feet. He closed his eyes as he savored his first bite. He wedged a thumb under the metal collar that held the beer’s cork stopper in place and popped open the bottle. […]
May 26, 2017

Chicago history: The guerilla mural that was The Wall of Respect

The community-based outdoor mural movement, now international in scope, began half a century ago when a collective of African-American artists created “The Wall of Respect” on the side of a two-story tavern building on Chicago’s South Side. That artwork, created in August, 1967, featured the images of more than 50 black heroes and was a revolutionary act that echoed the Black Power rebellion in the streets. “It was a guerilla mural,” said artist Jeff Donaldson in an interview a few months before his death in 2004. “It was a clarion call, a statement of existence of a people. It became a rallying point for a lot of radical things.”   An exhibit at the Chicago Cultural Center The Wall is the subject of an exhibit that opened February 25 at the Chicago Cultural Center at 78 E. Washington St. and will continue through July 30. I visited the exhibit recently, and, as you can see, there’s a half-size version of The Wall of Respect covering an entire wall of one room. This image looks real enough that you can easily take a photograph that makes it seem like you’re standing in front of the real thing. Alas, the real Wall is […]
May 22, 2017

Chicago History: Johnny Lindquist update

In response to my op-ed piece in Sunday’s Tribune, I received a number of questions about Johnny Lindquist’s parents. Here’s what I have found out: His biological father Jimmy Lindquist, 57, died in Peoria on March 16, 1999. It appears that he and Johnny’s mother were divorced. His foster father Robert Karvanek, 72, died in Wittenberg, Wisconsin, on February 8, 2003. He and Johnny’s foster mother Florence Karvanek were divorced. His biological mother Irene Lindquist, 60, died in Peoria on January 20, 2007. Robert Karvanek Jr., the other foster son of the Karvaneks, died in Panama City, Florida, on January 27, 2010. Patrick T. Reardon 5.22.17
May 22, 2017

Book review: “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood

The Women’s Prayvaganzas are for group weddings which is to say arranged marriages. In this one, there are twenty Angels — that’s a military designation for men who are soldiers in units such as the Angels of the Apocalypse and the Angels of Light — and twenty daughters, dressed in white as if for First Communion, behind white veils, some of them as young as fourteen. The leaders of this politico-religious American regime, called Gilead, are known as Commanders, and the Commander in charge recites a prayer that is more of an assertion than anything sacral, although it’s framed as something scriptural, deeply meaningful: “I will that women adorn themselves in modest apparel with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with braided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array. “But (which becometh women professing godliness) with good works. “Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. All. “But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. “For Adam was first formed, then Eve. “And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression. “Notwithstanding, she shall be saved by childbearing, if they continue in faith […]
May 16, 2017

Book review: “Black Like Me” by John Howard Griffin

For twenty-one days in 1959, John Howard Griffin, a white journalist and novelist from Texas, moved through the Deep South as black man. Under a doctor’s care, he took drugs to darken his skin, he laid under a sun lamp and he used dye on the most visible parts of his body: his face, arms and legs. From November 8 through November 28, he spent his days and nights as a black man in Louisiana (New Orleans), Mississippi (Hattiesburg and Biloxi), Alabama (Mobile and Montgomery) and Georgia (Atlanta). Then, for 16 days, he moved back and forth between the black and white worlds, finding ways to tinker with his coloring so that he could pass for white or pass for black as he needed. On December 14, a little more than five weeks after he’d started, he resumed his white identity a final time. I felt strangely sad to leave the world of the Negro after having shared it so long — almost as though I were fleeing my share of his pain and heartache.   “Tenth-rate citizen” Griffin started his experiment in New Orleans, and, initially, he thought that the city’s whites were nicer to blacks than he’d expected. That […]
May 15, 2017

Book review: “The Time Traders” by Andre Norton

Andre Norton was a woman (Alice May Norton), writing as a man in a field dominated by men whose readers were generally teenage boys and young adult men. She knew how it felt to be a misfit, operating in an alien world. During her long 93 years, Norton wrote more than 200 novels of science fiction and, to a lesser extent, fantasy. Her central characters were always misfits of a sort. Such as Ross Murdock, a young troublemaker and minor criminal with a chip on his shoulder about authority.   “A bad little boy” Norton’s 1958 novel The Time Traders begins with Murdock coming before a judge in late 20th century America and, because of his incorrigible nature, facing the likelihood that he will have to undergo “the treatment.” He doesn’t know exactly what “the treatment” is, but he’s heard enough rumors to be afraid of it. Although Murdock is anti-social, he’s far from stupid, and, as he stands before the judge, he’s ready to go into his act: It never paid to talk back, to allow any sign of defiance to show. He would go through the motions as if he were a bad little boy who had realized […]
May 8, 2017

Book review: “The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words – 1000 BC – 1492 AD” by Simon Schama

There is a lot that Simon Schama wants to say in The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words: 1000 BC–1492 AD, the first of a three-volume history. And maybe there’s too much. What I mean is that Schama, a noted historian who is Jewish, is may be too close to his subject. British-born, Schama is an expert in art history, French history and British history, and has written wonderfully erudite and insightful books about such subjects as the French Revolution (Citizens, 1989), the interaction of landscape and culture (Landscape and Memory, 1995), Rembrandt (Rembrandt’s Eyes, 1999), the history of Britain (a three-volume set, 2000-2002), and the slave trade (Rough Crossings, 2005).Here, though, the subject is clearly very personal to him — his people. There are a great deal of penetrating, eye-opening observations in this first volume of The Story of the Jews, and I’ll get to some of those in a bit.   Baroquely intricate and idiosyncratic My problem is that these intriguing understandings of who the Jews have been and what they’ve done and what’s been done to them were often lost, for me, in a text that seemed increasingly to turn in on itself. Schama isn’t the […]
May 1, 2017

Book review: “Joan of Arc and Spirituality,” edited by Ann W. Astell and Bonnie Wheeler

Joan of Arc was a mystic and a saint with a sense of humor. George H. Tavard — the great Catholic theologian and one of the first to take a deeper look into the role of women in the history of the Church — recalls two of her quips in his essay in Joan of Arc and Spirituality, edited by Ann W. Astell and Bonnie Wheeler. It was just after she’d come to the Dauphin to tell him that she would lead his troops to drive back the English and get a crown on his head at Rheims as Charles VII. Understandably, His Royal Highness wanted to be sure he wasn’t being duped by this teenage girl with all her talk about hearing voices. So he convened a meeting of churchmen, one of whom was a Dominican friar. The friar, writes Tavard, “reported that la Pucelle had made fun of his provincial pronunciation when she said that her voices spoke French with a better accent than his.” Three months later, as she and the French army came to Troyes, a Franciscan approached her, made the sign of the cross and splashed her with holy water, to which Joan replied: Approach […]
April 24, 2017

Book review: “Motherprayer: Lessons in Loving” by Barbara Mahany

Kids go to school and learn things like geometry and the Magna Carta and chromosomes and similes and square roots and Franklin D. Roosevelt, but none of their textbooks has much to say about parenting. If educators and the American society that hires them ever see the light and recognize the need for children to learn how to grow up and take care of children, one of the first textbooks in the classroom should be Barbara Mahany’s new Motherprayer: Lessons in Loving. Consider this insight about what it means to take on the job of mothering a child: Motherhood is not for the faint of heart, and the heart needs to triple its size, so it seems, to pack in the requisite vast and infinite wisdom — and patience and sheer calculation and imagination and stamina and worry and second-guessing and, yes, full-throttle pangs of remorse when we get it wrong, time after time. “Mother-ing Day” Yes, we, parents, do get it wrong a lot, but it’s not for want of trying. Motherprayer is a primer on how to think about being a parent, and that’s what’s really important. It’s not a manual for how to raise the brightest or […]
April 17, 2017

Book review: “Reading, Praying, Living Pope Francis’s ‘The Joy of Love’: A Faith Formation Guide” by Julie Hanlon Rubio

A year ago, Pope Francis published his apostolic exhortation on marriage and families, Joy of Love (Amoris laetitia), which, at about 60,000 words, is believed to be the longest papal document ever written. It would be difficult to find any papal document written with the beauty, simplicity, gusto and accessibility that Francis brings to the task. Nonetheless, Joy of Love is no simple read. It wrestles with important and complex theological ideas in ways that are refreshingly and, for some, unsettlingly, innovative. It’s good to have a guide, and that’s what Julie Hanlon Rubio, an ethicist at St. Louis University, provides with her newly published Reading, Praying, Living Pope Francis’s “The Joy of Love”: A Faith Formation Guide,” from Liturgical Press. And the bottom line — if I can jump ahead to the final page of her text — is this: What Francis offers is beauty with plenty of weeds.   Joy and pain That may seem so cryptic as to be useless, but bear with me. Rubio, who is speaking on the Pope’s exhortation on Wednesday at 7 pm at Dominican University in River Forest, writes this in summarizing the Pope’s analysis of marriage in the context of Catholic beliefs. […]
April 17, 2017

Book review: “Tenth of December” by George Saunders

In a diary he’s been keeping, a 40-year-old husband and father of three writes about winning $10,000 with a lottery ticket, and, since he expects these jottings to be read years and years down the line, he adds: Note to future generations: Happiness is possible. And when happy, so much better than opposite, i.e., sad. Hopefully you know! I knew, but forgot. Got used to being slightly sad! Slightly sad, due to stress, due to worry vis-à-vis limitations. But now, wow, no: happy!” This paragraph comes almost exactly halfway through George Saunders’ 2013 collection of ten short stories Tenth of December.   All but impossible And, by this point, the reader knows that happiness is all but impossible in the universe that Saunders describes — a universe of chain-stores with names such as YourItalianKitchen, of jobs so boring and meaningless they’re filled with dread and difficult to stomach, of good being equated with affluence, of economic winners living plastic lives, of everyone else scrambling to avoid falling further and further behind, of near-constant daydreaming about something happy that might happen if fingers are kept crossed. A universe in which female refugees from the Third World, known as SGs, are hooked […]
April 12, 2017

Chicago history: Turn-of-the-century Chicago in Willa Cather’s “Lucy Gayheart”

Much of the first half of Willa Cather’s novel Lucy Gayheart is set in the first few months of 1902 in downtown Chicago. Written in 1935, the book is an existential novel in which the main characters strive purposefully through life only to discover that the meaning they thought was present and the control they thought they exercised was illusory. In the context of this, Chicago is a metaphor for human activity and energy and enterprise.   “A very individual map of Chicago” Early in the novel, Lucy is returning to the city from a visit to her small Nebraska home of Haverford: Lucy carried in her mind a very individual map of Chicago: a blur of smoke and wind and noise, with flashes of blue water, and certain clear outlines rising from the confusion; a high building on Michigan Avenue when Sebastian had his studio — the stretch of park where he sometimes walked in the afternoon — the Cathedral door out of which she had seen him come one morning — the concert hall where she first heard him sing. This city of feeling rose out of the city of fact like a definite composition, — beautiful because […]
April 10, 2017

Book review: “Lucy Gayheart” by Willa Cather

Willa Cather was a writer of frontier novels in which Nature — the landscape, the weather, the seasons — is a major character, frequently set in contrast with the big city, usually Chicago. So it is with Lucy Gayheart, written in 1935, as I  discuss in a separate post. Yet, something else is at play here as well. When she wrote the novel, Cather had just turned 60 and was in tune with the zeitgeist that, shortly, would produce the works of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. In her homey yet subtle way, she tapped into the modern loss of faith. And she created an existential novel.   A romance, a feminist story It doesn’t seem that way at the beginning. Indeed, Lucy Gayheart appears to be nothing more than a confection of a romance. Lucy is the bright, lively, musical girl, a stand-out among her young adult peers in the small Nebraska town of Haverford where Harry Gordon, the banker’s son, is the most eligible bachelor. They seem made for each other as they skate together on the Platte River in the novel’s opening scene. They have always seemed made for each other. But Lucy wants a career and […]
April 5, 2017

Book review: “Redwall” by Brian Jacques

In the menagerie of literature, fantasy is a curious animal. By its nature, fantasy is supposed to bend reality — but not too much. Fantasy only works if its tethered to the real world in some way so that the fantastic story can comment on the life its readers are living. For instance, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels are all about dwarfs and vampires and golems and witches and wizards and trolls and the undead, but what they’re really about is racism and evil and religion and politics and higher education and the lower classes and the sheer ornery oddness of life and, of course, Death — who isn’t only a theme but also a major character in the books. A lot has to do with the audience. Pratchett’s books seem like books for kids, but those under the age of, say, 13 would miss almost all of their humor, and so would many under the age of 23. That’s not the case with the 22-book series of books by Englishman Brian Jacques that are centered on Redwall, a redstone abbey with an abbot, monks and a community of people, all of whom are mice. They are neighbors to and friends […]
March 22, 2017

Book review: “Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal” by Christopher Moore

As Biff notes at the beginning of Christopher Moore’s comic 2002 novel Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, his friend’s name was Joshua. Jesus, he explains, is a Greek translation of the Hebrew name Yeshua. Also, Christ isn’t his last name. It’s Greek for the Hebrew word messiah, meaning anointed. Biff goes on: I have no idea what the “H” in Jesus H. Christ stood for. It’s one of the things I should have asked him. That gives you an idea of the general tone of Lamb and of Levi who is called Biff, one in a long line of Christopher Moore characters who are ribald, raunchy, cheeky, confused, intrepid, vibrant and — did I mention? — randy smart alecks with a heart of gold. Here, for instance, is how Biff summarizes the gist of virtually every sermon he ever heard Joshua give: “You should be nice to people, even creeps.” Generations of Christian theologians would probably nit-pick that teaching to death, and, yet, really, isn’t that the heart of Christianity?   “Lush blossoms” Here’s the thing about Lamb: It’s very funny and outrageous and in the worst possible taste, as in this scene: The new guy…noticed […]
March 13, 2017

Book review: “Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door” by Barbara Mahany

There are many paragraphs in Barbara Mahany’s Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door, that could be scanned as poetry, such as this one: Blessed be the golden days and star-stitched nights of autumn.   Blessed be triumphant blast of light, and jewel-toned tapestry, as the Northern Hemisphere lets out its final hallelujah before deepening, drawing in.   And bless those among us who are wide-eyed in wonderment.   Barbara Mahany has been a friend of mine for more than 30 years, and, for many of those years, we were colleagues at the Chicago Tribune. In the excerpt above, there are echoes of Gerard Manly Hopkins and St. Francis of Assisi, but it’s pure Barbara. She has always been one who is “wide-eyed in wonderment” before the beauty, mystery and complexity of creation, as this 2014 book shows.   “Everyone you meet” Slowing Time is meditative, descriptive, prayerful — and completely out of step with much of what American mainstream society concerns itself. That’s a good thing. It’s countercultural in the gentlest and steeliest of ways. Barbara is a believer during an era when belief is either ignored as superstitious claptrap or blamed for violence and unrest in […]
March 10, 2017

Six Poverty Books

In the past couple weeks, I’ve posted reviews of six books about people living in poverty, published between 1890 and 1986 — nearly a century’s worth. Below are the books with links to the reviews. But, first, a few observations from my reading of the books: Poor people are people. They have full lives with the full range of human emotions.       They are not a breed apart.       They are us. Poverty is no fun. It’s a complicated, stress-filled existence. Personal choices have an important impact on an individual life and can be a factor in that person living in poverty. Yet, even more important is the machinery of society and the economy which builds in a greater or lesser amount of unemployment and provides greater or lesser access to opportunities through education and housing. Here are the books with an excerpt:   1890 — How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis: “How the Other Half Lives was a major milestone in journalism, in photojournalism and in social reform. Riis’s text, often overlooked, is hard-edged and filled with a barely restrained anger. His photos show every crooked board, every crack in the plaster, every […]
March 9, 2017

Book review: Poverty books — 1985 — “The American Millstone: An examination of the nation’s permanent underclass” by the staff of the Chicago Tribune

In the late summer of 1985, Jim Gallagher, one of my editors at the Chicago Tribune, came to my desk and told me to put everything on hold. Instead of my normal duties as a general assignment reporter, I was assigned to write several stories as part of an in-depth investigation into the existence and implications of what was then being called the black underclass. The series was to be titled The American Millstone: An Examination of the nation’s permanent underclass. Comprising the underclass were African-American people living in deep poverty with little or no expectation of escape. As blacks, they were limited by racism. As poor people, they were limited by a reduced access to good education and decent-paying jobs — they lacked the networks that those elsewhere in society used to learn about and take advantage of opportunities. Yet, not everyone who was black and poor was in the underclass.   Distinctive about this group What was distinctive about this group was that they lived in a subculture in which crime was a threat and, for some, an occupation. It was a subculture in which many sought escape through drugs and many made money selling drugs. Indeed, many […]