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Book review: “The Colour of Magic” by Terry Pratchett

Fifteen years ago, I interviewed Terry Pratchett for the Chicago Tribune about his new novel The Fifth Elephant. It was the 24th of his Discworld books, and it had to do with dwarfs, trolls, gnomes, humans, vampires, zombies and werewolves.
Terry Pratchett in 2007 (Robin Zebrowski)
Terry Pratchett in 2007 (Robin Zebrowski)
We met in the lobby of a hotel a few steps from Tribune Tower, and he was, as I wrote, “a short man who, with his bald head and grizzled white beard, looks a bit gnomish himself.” He spoke in a thin, high voice with an engaging lisp. He was 51 at the time. Fifth ElephantOver a period of a decade or so, I interviewed a lot of writers for the Tribune. It was an exhilarating experience, a sort of super-graduate-level course in the art of writing. I’d read whatever new book the author had produced, and then we’d sit down together and talk. Often, after reading one work, I’d get ahold of one or more of the authors other works. With Pratchett, though, it was different. After reading The Fifth Elephant — the title is the pun on a popular sci-fi movie of the time The Fifth Element — I went back to the beginning of the Discworld series and read all of the earlier 23. Then, I waited, like all of his hundreds of thousands of fans worldwide, for the next book and the next and the next.
The final Discworld novel --- "the Shepherd's Crown"
The final Discworld novel --- "the Shepherd's Crown"
Pratchett died on March 12. His final Discworld novel The Shepherd’s Crown is being published on September 1. I have my order in already. In my Tribune profile, I wrote:
As a writer, Pratchett is a smart aleck who loves puns and silliness and verbal surprises. (Think of Monty Python and Benny Hill.) But, in an understated way, he also has used his novels as means to think about and write about religious faith.
Actually, as I read the other Discworld books, I saw that Pratchett used his giddy foolishness to look at a lot of important social issues. Religion, though — the idea of belief and what belief brings about — was always there somewhere in his writing. "The nature of religion and belief runs through all of the Discworld series, either explicitly or implicitly," he told me.   “The Time of Mating” And so it is in the first Discworld novel The Colour of Magic. pratchett.colour But, first, let’s deal with a little silliness.

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“July 10, 1981” and a dozen other faith poems

july 1981.....July 10, 1981 By Patrick T. Reardon On this porch, on this cool summer day, when the moon is benign in afternoon sky, when birds sing from wire to wire, I have no argument. This may be the milk-and-honey time, the fulcrum, the equator. I may be on my way down or past or into. This will change, and I will change, and the wood of this porch will rot. The birds will die, and I will die, and new leaves will grow under other summer suns. I have no argument.

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Fiction: A Church Refreshed: A dispatch from an American Catholic future — Dateline: Chicago, March 13, 2063

Song leader Sophia Santiago stood to the right of the altar of St. Gertrude Church in Chicago and invited those in the crowded pews and in folding chairs to greet their neighbors. “All are welcome,” she proclaimed. To the simple notes of a single piano, the parish choir and the congregation sang a sweet, lilting version of “Come to the Water” as liturgical dancers, altar servers, ministers of the word, parish chancellor Emma Okere and pastor Rev. Antonio Fitzgerald processed up the center aisle. The song filled the soaring interior of the 131-year-old structure. On a banner high behind the altar, in large, easily readable lettering, was a quotation from Pope Francis: “Who am I to judge?” image...adjusted....1.. This was one of thousands of celebrations across the globe marking 50 years of rejuvenation and renewal dating from the election of Pope Francis in 2013, popularly called “refreshment of the faith.”   “Prisoners of our past” Consider St. Gertrude and the rest of the Archdiocese of Chicago. In 2013, St. Gertrude had been one of 356 parishes in the archdiocese, each with a church and one or more ancillary buildings, such as a rectory, a school and a former convent. Today, though, it is one of only 42 full parishes. Over the past five decades, successive Chicago Cardinals, working closely with lay Catholics and using a model developed in Europe, closed nearly 90 percent of the traditional parishes in Cook and Lake Counties, Illinois.

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Book review: “Storm” by George R. Stewart

Early in George R. Stewart’s Storm (1941), the new Junior Meteorologist in the San Francisco office of the U.S. Weather Bureau is putting the finishing touches on a map that spans a good portion of the Earth, from the eastern edge of Asia, across the Pacific, across North America, to the western edge of the Atlantic. In these early pre-dawn hours, he has been recording temperatures, wind velocities and barometric pressures on the large piece of paper so that the Chief Meteorologist will be able to use the map to make his forecast for the day. Then, Stewart writes:
He laid aside his eraser and colored pencils, and sat back to look at the work. Involuntarily, he breathed a little more deeply. To him, as to some archangel hovering in the ninth heaven, the weather lay revealed.
In many ways, this scene captures the whole of Storm. The map that covers such a large swath of the planet is an indication of the great sweep of Stewart’s story of a single January storm that hits San Francisco and its region. storm---- stewart 2 Like the weather, Storm is a sprawling saga, ranging across the oceans and land masses of the Junior Meteorologist’s map and beyond. The stories of individual people and places are intertwined — and, through the weather, interconnected.

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Book review: “Staring at the Sun — Overcoming the Terror of Death” by Irvin D. Yalom

Here’s an experiment: You wake up in the middle of the night, and standing next to your bed is an angel or a devil or a genii or some spirit of some kind. This being tells you that you are going to have to live your life again — exactly as you have already lived it. You will make the same choices, suffer the same pains, say the same words. Everything will be identical. This will not only happen once, but again and again and again on into eternity. What’s your reaction? Do you wail and gnash your teeth? Or do you think that would be just fine?   Shock therapy Friedrich Nietzsche laid out this “mightiest thought” in his late 19th-century book Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Psychiatrist Irvin D. Yalom includes it in his 2008 book Staring at the Sun — Overcoming the Terror of Death. And he adds:
The idea of living your identical life again and again for all eternity can be jarring, a sort of petite existential shock therapy. It often serves as a sobering thought experiment, leading you to consider seriously how you are really living.
yalom.sun   This scenario is like shock therapy, he writes, because it makes a person look at what his or her life is like at the moment. Is it relatively happy? Relatively fulfilling? Or dry and frustrating? scooge...detailAlong these lines, Yalom also recalls the story of Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. After leading a long life as an emotionally gnarled skinflint, Scrooge endures three dreams during the night of Christmas Eve, and wakes up vowing to turn over a new leaf. Those dreams were, Yalom writes,
a form of existential shock therapy or, as I shall refer to it in this book, an awakening experience. The Ghost of the Future (The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come) visits Scrooge and delivers a powerful dose of shock therapy by offering him a preview of the future. Scrooge observes his neglected corpse, sees strangers pawning his belongings (even his bed sheets and nightdress), and overhears members of his community discuss his death and dismiss it lightly.
Waking up, Scrooge realizes that the future he’s seen is not set. He can change it — and, Dickens writes, he does.
He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world….And it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.

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Book Review: “The Millionaire and the Bard: Henry Folger’s Obsessive Hunt for Shakespeare’s First Folio” by Andrea E. Mays

There is an image at the end of the glossy photo section in The Millionaire and the Bard by Andrea E. Mays. It shows 82 copies of the First Folio — the first full collection of Shakespeare’s plays, printed in 1623 — resting horizontally on thirteen shelves at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. folger folios This group, worth perhaps $100 million, represents more than a third of all the surviving First Folios known to exist, and each was purchased by Henry Folger during his intense four-decade-long career as a collector of all things Shakespeare. But Folger never saw his collection of First Folios together in this way — or together in any way.   “Never enjoyed” From 1889 until his death in 1930, Folger and Emily, his wife and collecting partner, never had their treasures on display. Their rented home in Brooklyn was filled with “books, books, books,” but not for show. The massive number of Shakespeare documents and other relics, purchased through lavish though prudent spending, ended up in crates in warehouses where no one — including the Folgers — ever saw them.
Thus, Henry Folger had never enjoyed the collector’s privilege of seeing all his books shelved together in one place [writes Mays]. His eyes had never danced from spine to spine, shelf to shelf, and case to case, beholding in one sweeping, exquisite moment the sum of what he had achieved.

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Book review: “Poetry in the Bible” by Garry Wills

Garry Wills was just 25 years old in 1960 when he completed Poetry in the Bible, a 63-page booklet that was part of the Catholic Know-You-Bible Program. He was at the start of a long career as a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, historian and journalist. Poetry in the Bible is rarely mentioned. Few people know that Wills wrote it. Yet, as one would expect, it’s an interesting little book, filled with insights about biblical verse, most from the Old Testament, and with Wills’ palpable joy in poetry and his religious faith. wills.poetry in bible This book was written more than half a century ago, a few years before the start of the Second Vatican Council. Since then, there is much that has changed in the Catholic Church, and also a great deal of biblical research that has been conducted. So, there are some aspects to Wills’ text that he might write differently today. But the core of his book is still vibrant.   “A strange song” The book’s audience was apparently adults and older children new to thinking about the Bible and its meanings. As a result, Wills writes in a simple style, taking his readers by the hand in a careful, instructive way.

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Book review: “The Hollywood Catechism” by Paul Fericano

fericano...hollywoodIf someone comes across a copy of Paul Fericano’s book of poems The Hollywood Catechism (Silver Birch Press, $16, 110 pages) a hundred years from now, I’m not sure what they’ll make of it. I’m not sure what someone today under the age of 40 would made of it. This is a book that seems to be firmly rooted in the American culture and mythology of the 1950s. Consider “Poem for Ralph Edwards” which is a single line: “This is your poem.” That’s hilarious — but only if you know that, during the 1950s, Ralph Edwards was the host of a sappy pseudo-reality show providing well-scrubbed video biographies of celebrities, called “This Is Your Life.” (By the way, in the Notes section of the book, there’s one for this poem that reads in toto, “This is your note.”) Sure, a reader can check the internet for background information about Edwards, but that makes for a clunky reading experience. So Fericano is running the risk of unintelligibility to many potential readers. My guess is that he doesn’t give a damn. After all, here is a guy who, for the central section of his book, has an 11-page poem called “The Howl of Lon Chaney, Jr.” which is nothing less than an effort to borrow the scheme, cadences, language and incantatory outrage of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and employ them in a slashing jeremiad against Hollywood in the voice of Lon Chaney Jr. who, in a variety of mid-20th century films, starred as the Wolf Man, the Mummy and Frankenstein’s monster.   “Baying the dirge of death” It’s ridiculous chutzpah. Yet, Fericano pulls it off.

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