December 19, 2013

Book review: “Old Man’s War” by John Scalzi

I’m going to give a copy of John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War to my 30-year-old nephew Kelly for Christmas. (Shhh! Don’t tell him.) But I don’t think he’s going to respond to the book in the way I did. A couple Christmases ago, Kelly gave me Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. That’s a science fiction book about children trained from an early age (before they are hindered by bad habits) in hyper-complicated, physically and mentally challenging war games. The idea is that they’ll transfer the skills they develop to the task of leading armies against aliens. (There was a pretty decent feature film based on the novel in theaters this year.) An underlying theme of the book is that the pace of life and technology is moving so fast that only the young are able to really get it under control and use it. Every generation has books like this. I remember reading and enjoying these sorts of books when I was in my teens and twenties. Kelly was in that age group when he first read Ender’s Game, and I’m sure that, as someone just coming on the scene, he could relate very closely to Andrew “Ender” Wiggin, […]
December 17, 2013

Book review: “The Gospel in Brief” by Leo Tolstoy

Reading Leo Tolstoy’s The Gospel in Brief was a truly disconcerting experience. Other writers have sought to re-tell the four gospels in a single narrative — Norman Mailer, for instance, with The Gospel According to the Son (1997), Charles Dickens with The Life of Our Lord (1849), and Nikos Kazantzakis with The Last Temptation of Christ (1955). Depending on their approach, they have stayed close to or strayed far from the details of the accounts in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, but they’ve written in their own words. Ostensibly, Tolstoy takes a different tack in The Gospel in Brief. He has, he writes, “effected the fusion of the four Gospels into one, according to the real sense of the teachings.” What he’s done, on the face of it, is to take all the verses in all four gospels and arrange them as he wishes in order tell the story of Jesus in the manner he wishes. So some verses from Luke will be followed by several from Mark and then several from Matthew. Except what you think you see isn’t really what you get. “Presented in full” Tolstoy writes in an introduction that, in his account, “the Gospel according to […]
December 11, 2013

Book review: “The Man Who Sold the Moon” by Robert Heinlein

I am pretty much an illiterate about the science of space travel. When talk turns to apogees and pounds-per-second and all that stuff, a fog descends on my brain. Still, from my low (and foggy) rung on the ladder of understanding, I am able to recommend Robert Heinlein’s 1950 short story collection The Man Who Sold the Moon to anyone who does have a glimmer of how the human race has been able to send people into space and land men on the moon. The interest, for such readers, will be in how well Heinlein was able to imagine space travel decades before it became a reality. And not just space travel, but other technological breakthroughs as well. Five of the book’s six stories were originally published in 1939 and 1940, and revised a bit for this collection to account for new scientific insights as of the mid-century mark. The title story, an 89-page novella, first saw the light of day in this book. As little as I know, I’m able to recognize that Heinlein got a lot wrong. We don’t, for instance, wear finger watches as he envisioned, and there are no huge regional networks of moving conveyor-belt-like roads […]
December 3, 2013

My ministry is…..basketball?

The other day, I got an email from my parish which began: “Dear Ministry Leaders…” I laughed. In the past, I’d chaired the adult education committee and the parish council. But, in recent years, the only thing I’ve been in charge of has been men’s basketball on Sunday afternoons and Monday nights. Actually, there are two of us, Dave and I, both in our mid-60s, both slower than slow and not exactly in the fittest of shape. But we like basketball so, each week, we’re there to open the gym, sweep the floor, oversee the games and lock up. That’s why I laughed when I got the email. We have some really great ministries in our parish, St. Gertrude on Chicago’s Far North Side — a long-running, highly successful support program for the elderly of our neighborhood, a troupe of liturgical dancers, a teen faith-sharing group and a gay and lesbian outreach effort, to name a few. But basketball? The Pope discussing hoops? It was funny to imagine some Congregation at the Vatican, or even the Pope, discussing hoops as a Catholic way of providing pastoral care, like running a hospital or teaching catechism. Still, Marge, the parish business manager, […]
December 2, 2013

Book review: “Titian: Nymph and Shepherd” by John Berger and Katya Berger Andreadakis

In 1990, renowned English art critic and novelist John Berger began an exchange of letters and cards with his daughter Katya Berger Andreadakis, a film critic. At the time, the father was in his mid-60s and his daughter in her late 20s. Their subject was their common delight in and reverence for the paintings of the 16th century Italian master Titian. In their back and forth way, they were trying to tease out the essence of Titian’s art — and of art in general. For instance, their ruminations lead Katya to focus on what makes art art, and she writes: Pictures by Rothko and Titian, but also by Courbet, possess this quality. They are completely themselves that they contain all the vertical depth of their being. They exclude any reference to rule or obedience. Snapping their fingers at others, they simply exist with us or without us. In another letter, she writes: The truth is that Titian’s art is itself untouchable, inviolable. It calls out and then it forbids. We remain open-mouthed. In 1996, their exchange was published in Titian: Nymph and Shepherd, one of nearly 50 titles in the Pegasus Series of sumptuously illustrated volumes issued between 1994 and […]
December 1, 2013

Book review: “Happy Together: New York and the Other World” by Jan Christiaan Braun

We tend to think of burial art as something solid, heavy, sedate and — as a contrast to what it commemorates — long-lived. We think of the pyramids in Egypt. We think of mausoleums in our own cemeteries. We think of gravestones. That’s not the funerary art that Jan Christiaan Braun has recorded in Happy Together: New York and the Other World, published in 2007 by Stichting Over Holland. This is an ephemeral art of bright colors — balloons, stuffed animals, plastic windmills, American flags, inflatable cartoon characters, t-shirts, and other mass-produced items, most of which could just as well fit into a front lawn holiday display. Except for the messages. You wouldn’t have “MOM” in white plastic flowers in a frame of red plastic flowers to decorate the outside of your home. Yet, it fits in a cemetery. Although not created to withstand much weather, it is a version of the “MOM” on a traditional marble grave marker. Same with “WIFE” and “DAD” and so on. Braun spend a year visiting cemeteries in the five boroughs of New York City, documenting “the passage of a calendar year in the more recent and so more ‘lively’ sections.” The result is […]
November 28, 2013

Love and the giving of thanks

By Sarah Reardon, David Reardon, Cathy Shiel-Reardon and Patrick T. Reardon Originally published in the St. Gertrude parish bulletin about 10-15 years ago It all comes back to love. Gratitude does, like everything else that is good in the world. Thomas Merton writes that gratitude “takes nothing for granted, is never unresponsive, is constantly awakening to new wonder….” His subject is the relationship that human beings share with God, but he could just as well be talking about the relationship that two people share when they love each other. Young lovers can’t get enough of each other. They want to be together all the time, share every experience, know everything there is to know about the beloved. They are intensely aware of the goodness and richness in the loved one — the humor, the compassion, the beauty, the intelligence, the sweetness. They can’t help but feel wonder — and gratitude. Imperfections And the imperfections of the loved one? These are recognized, of course. He may be moody or lazy or, well, a little overweight. She may be a couch potato or high-strung or spend too much on clothes. Knowing each other so well and learning more and more each day, […]
November 27, 2013

Book review: “One Summer: America, 1927” by Bill Bryson

This review originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune on October 13, 2013 You probably had no idea that Al Jolson, the star of the first talkie movie, “The Jazz Singer,” enjoyed urinating on people as a joke. Or that, once, in the middle of a conversation in the White House, President Warren G. Harding got up from his chair for a moment to urinate into a fireplace. Both stories are in Bill Bryson’s new rollicking, immensely readable popular history One Summer: America, 1927, and they’re indicative of his approach and tone. As a historian, Bryson is the antithesis of stuffy. He’s a storyteller, pure and simple, and One Summer is a collection of a great many tales about people and events, centered on (but not limited to) a single season in a single year. Many nonfiction books today are weighed down with an overblown subtitle (such as “The Secret History of…” or “The [Fill-in-the-blank] That Changed the World”), but Bryson avoids that pomposity. He isn’t arguing that 1927 was much more important than any other year, even though he does provide some insights into how life changed because of events then. I’m sure Bryson could have written a book just […]
November 27, 2013

Small gestures

This essay originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune on October 25, 2013 A couple years ago, when my sister Mary Beth was working a part-time job at a local health club, she was asked to care for a three-month-old infant while the girl’s mother got some needed exercise. She cradled the infant for a few minutes. Then, quietly, the child died. Mary Beth was shocked, of course. But she is someone who is deeply grounded. She later learned that, from birth, the baby had suffered from a condition that made her susceptible to death at any moment. Her mother knew that. It was happenstance that the infant drew her last breath when my sister was holding her. I was glad for the baby that my sister was there. We are from a large family. I am the oldest child. Mary Beth, two years younger, is the oldest girl. For more than a half century, she has held baby after baby in her arms — her brothers and sisters, her children, her grandchildren. I think my sister is pretty special. But, really, she’s not. Each of us have moments like Mary Beth when we are able to touch someone’s life for […]
November 27, 2013

Creaking up and down the court

This essay originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune on October 2, 3013 I started playing basketball when I was 11-years-old. That’s more than half a century ago. I still play, twice a week, but, more and more, there are times, when I stink to high heaven. My hook shot won’t fall. The guy I’m guarding gets around me with ease. I’m unable to dribble without getting the ball stolen out from under me. George, a friend from high school and a teammate on the basketball team, died in August out in Seattle where he’d long lived. George had had hip problems in recent years, but, from what I knew, his health was fine. Then — bang! — he was felled by a cerebral hemorrhage. I didn’t learn of George’s death until a month after it happened, and I had a particularly frustrating time on the court that night. I’d hoped that basketball would clear my head. Instead, I ran around the court, clumsily trying to do too much. This made my game even worse than it usually is.
November 27, 2013

No expert, just a do-gooder

This essay original appeared in the Chicago Tribune on August 25, 2013 Edward Paul Brennan was one of us. A nobody. Born in 1866, he made deliveries for his father’s grocery store, then worked downtown at the Lyon & Healy Co. music store as a bill collector and later as building superintendent. Yet, few individuals in Chicago’s history have had as much impact — for the good — on the daily lives of Chicagoans, suburbanites and visitors to the city. That’s why, on Friday (8/30), a little before noon, a small ceremony will be held to officially unveil the honorary street designation of the corner of State and Madison as Edward Brennan Way. On hand will be Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd), who sponsored the designation ordinance, and Brennan’s daughter, Adelaide, who will turn 99 that day. No intersection is more central to the identity of Chicago as State and Madison, and it’s an apt location to honor Brennan since he’s the one who gave the corner its prominence. In the summer of 1901 when he turned 35, Brennan took an armload of maps with him on vacation to Paw Paw, Mich., and came back, like a prophet from the desert, […]
November 27, 2013

Hope, baseball and A-Rod

This essay was originally published in the Chicago Tribune on August 7, 2013 I took my first baseman’s mitt to U.S. Cellular Field Monday night for the opening game of a three-game series between the White Sox and the Yankees. I probably should have been a bit sheepish about doing so, but baseball fans seem to have a great tolerance for a guy in his 60s channeling his inner 10-year-old. Yet, the more I thought about it, the more I came to realize that bringing my mitt to the game was something other than childish. In some way, it goes to the heart of why anyone is a fan of any sport. It also goes to the heart of the betrayal of Alex Rodriguez and the steroid era. It’s about hope. The little girl a few rows ahead of me brought her mitt to the Sox-Yankees game for the same reason I did. We were hoping to catch a ball. We were looking for a relic of the institution that is baseball. Actually, “institution” isn’t quite right. For a fan, baseball is something a religion. (I’m sure it’s the same for fans of other sports.)
November 27, 2013

Book review: “Burglars Can’t Be Choosers” by Lawrence Block

I’m not exactly sure why I liked Lawrence Block’s Bernie Rhodenbarr crime novel Burglars Can’t Be Choosers.
November 18, 2013

Book review: “Memento Mori” by Muriel Spark

Guy Leet, aged 75, stooped with various ailments, picks up the phone and hears a schoolboy say: Remember, you must die. He tells the boy to go to hell. Some days or weeks later, he is having a bitter literary argument with his irate poet-friend Percy Mannering, aged 74, when the phone rings and the same voice conveys the same message. “Oh, it’s you…Well, now, sonny, I’m busy at the moment. I have a poet friend here with me and we are just about to have a drink.” The voice asks if his guest is Mannering. Guy gives the receiver to Percy who hears an identical message. But, for Mannering, the voice isn’t a schoolboy’s. It sounds like one of the great poets of the 20th century, William Butler Yeats. Muriel Spark’s masterpiece In Muriel Spark’s 1958 novel Memento Mori, Guy and Percy are among a group of about a dozen elderly mid-century English people who are recipients of this call. Most of them are affluent Londoners and most are related to each other by love, blood, friendship or past romance. Spark was 40 when she published Memento Mori, her third of what would eventually number 22 novels and her […]
November 11, 2013

Book review: “Bitter River” by Julia Keller

Bell Elkins has just left Joyce’s Diner in the town of Aker’s Gap in Raythune County, West Virginia. She is the prosecuting attorney for the county and has a lot on her mind. Still, she can’t help but stop and look around, taking in the streets where she grew up and the peaks looming nearby. She knew the people who struggled to make a go of it here. Knew, too, the mountains piled up in the near distance, the jagged slabs of solid rock that always threatened — or so it had seemed to Bell, when she was a little girl — to gradually close over the top of the town, like a lid on a soup pot… She’s tried to describe it once to a big-city friend, tried to put into words the singular feeling of living in a place presided over by a watchful mass of black rock, by a permanence you couldn’t push back against. Well, you could try — but it wouldn’t matter. Bell is the central character in Julia Keller’s second mystery Bitter River as she was in the first one A Killing in the Hills. I was deeply impressed last year with the high […]
November 4, 2013

Book review: “Pudd’nhead Wilson” by Mark Twain

Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson is a wonderful mess. Or, maybe better put, a messy wonder. As Twain explains elsewhere, the 1894 novel started life as a much different story, focused on conjoined twins with different morals. If one twin is bad, can you punish both? But, as he was writing, he brought in other characters, as novelists are generally required to do: Among them came a stranger named Pudd’nhead Wilson, and a woman named Roxana; and presently the doings of these two pushed on into prominence a young fellow named Tom Driscoll, whose proper place was away in the obscure background. Before the book was half finished those three were taking things almost entirely into their own hands and working the whole tale as a private venture of their own — a tale which they had nothing at all to do with, by rights. Literary conjoined twins He finished the book, and it was bad. The two stories were literary conjoined twins, and very awkward page-fellows. So Twain did the necessary surgery. The original story didn’t come away from the operation in very good shape. Twain found a way to use it, however, by publishing it as the novella Those […]
October 27, 2013

Book review: “The Alchemy of Air: A Jewish Genius, a Doomed Tycoon, and the Scientific Discovery That Fed the World but Fueled the Rise of Hitler” by Thomas Hager

Grumpy Pat: I just finished Thomas Hager’s The Alchemy of Air: A Jewish Genius, a Doomed Tycoon, and the Scientific Discovery That Fed the World but Fueled the Rise of Hitler, and it was a real waste of time. Amiable Pat: C’mon, it wasn’t all that bad. I kind of liked some parts of it. Grumpy Pat: Alright, it wasn’t exactly a waste of time. It was a book that took 281 pages to tell a story that could have easily been communicated in 30. I should have known. It’s always a bad sign when a book has a subtitle as long and weighted as this one. “Genius” and “doomed” are favorite subtitle words. And anytime you can get Hitler in there, it’s golden. At least, as far as sales go. Amiable Pat: Well, you’re right about subtitles. But Hager’s book does feature some interesting stuff about guano and nitrate and saltpeter, and how they were used for fertilizer and gunpowder — to feed and to kill. That’s kind of ironic, isn’t it? Grumpy Pat: Yeah, yeah, but Hager spends the first third of the book on these natural sources of nitrogen. It’s over-padded and over-written. It’s not really about […]
October 27, 2013

A meditation on sainthood and Sammy Esposito

As a young boy, I was captivated by baseball stars, and I asked my Dad if a particular player was good. It may have been Sammy Esposito of the White Sox. His response was that, if Sammy was in the major leagues, he had to be good. Yes, even if Sammy was only batting .167. My thoughts go to that memory as we approach November 1, the Feast of All Saints. The Catholic Church has its own Hall of Fame of Saints, the official list of those canonized, and it includes such all-time greats as St. Francis of Assisi and St. Gertrude the Great. In addition, there are famous people who, unofficially, are considered saints, including Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King Jr. I wrote about that Catholic hall of fame in an op-ed piece last Friday in the Chicago Tribune, and I want to elaborate a bit more here. At my parish on the Far North Side of Chicago, St. Gertrude, our roll of parishioners doesn’t include any official or unofficial saints. Yet, if you look around at a parish meeting or at church during Mass or on the court of a 7th grade basketball game, we’re surrounded by […]
October 23, 2013

Book review: “A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters” by Julian Barnes

I thoroughly enjoyed A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters by Julian Barnes for its lively and witty storytelling, its multiplicity of writing styles and its refusal to fit. It’s a novel. It says so right there on the dust jacket. And, at his website, Barnes calls it a novel. Yet, it’s unlike just about any novel you’ve ever read.
October 8, 2013

Book review: “Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar” by Simon Sebag Montefiore

It might be helpful to think of Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Stalin: the Court of the Red Tsar as akin to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals. Except that, when Abraham Lincoln wanted to get someone out of his cabinet, he moved the guy somewhere else, like to the U.S. Supreme Court. When Stalin wanted to remove one of his inner circle of toadying confidantes, he had the guy killed. Like a Russian novel, Stalin: the Court of the Red Tsar has a seeming cast of thousands. There are really great photo inserts in the book, but I found it even more helpful to prepare my own handy bookmark-size collection of mugshots of 18 of Stalin’s closest aides. By the end of this long book and Stalin’s long reign as the Red Tsar, nine of the 18 were dead. Only two of those succumbed to natural causes. The rest were killed in some way or forced to commit suicide. And, of course, that doesn’t include the dozens of other less exalted leaders who were exterminated, often with their families. And the millions of bureaucrats, scientists, military men and people from just about every other walk of life who were purged (i.e., […]
October 8, 2013

Book review: “Everest 1953” by Nick Conefrey

The scribbled telegram text, sent by messenger from the top of Mount Everest, was bleak — but also a bit odd. Snow conditions bad stop advanced base abandoned yesterday stop awaiting improvement All well News of failure was not unexpected from the expedition on Everest in late May of 1953. After all, for more than 30 years, mountaineers, particularly those from Great Britain, had been attempting to reach the summit of the tallest peak on earth and had routinely come up short, writes Nick Conefrey in Everest 1953. This note, carried down the slopes to an Indian radio station and ultimately transmitted in a wire to the British Foreign Office, was sent by James Morris (later Jan Morris), the on-site reporter for the London Times. As he expected, it also went through the hands of ferociously competitive journalists who had bribed functionaries at various points in its journey. That “All well” at the end was curious, but the rest of the message seemed to confirm the latest rumors about the attempt to climb to the top of the world. So those snoopers ignored the message. And lost the biggest scoop of their lives. ALL THIS — AND EVEREST TOO Of […]
October 4, 2013

“Marriage Song” by Patrick T. Reardon

We exult at the joining of young lives. We dance the dance of joy. This is a time of merriment. This is a time of wonder. Who will argue at a time like this? Who will find fault? Fear is exiled. Jealousy is banished. We are in the land of milk and honey. We are in a rich and fertile land. We are anointed in these vows. In these promises, we are blessed. This rite is our consecration. This joining is our union. This is the time of the Spirit. This is the time of bright visions. Let us dance. Let us sing our songs. Let us smile and laugh together. We are in the Promised Land. We are on our soil. We are where we belong.
October 1, 2013

Book review: “The Long War” by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

When Roberta Golding first shows up in The Long War by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter, she’s described as “a dark, unsmiling girl of about fifteen.” Nothing too unusual in that, but there’s more. She is a student at a boarding school in Valhalla where Dan Valiente, the curious and alert eight-year-old son of Joshua and Helen, may soon be enrolled. During a tour, the headmaster asks Dan if he knows how Valhalla — a sort of neo-Chicago — survives as a major transportation link even though it isn’t surrounded and supported by a hinterland of farms. “Maybe you’re all robbers,” Dan quips. To which, Roberta says, “Valhalla is a city supported by combers. Hunter-gatherers. The logic is elementary. Intensive farming can support order of magnitude more people per acre than hunting and gathering…” And on she drones for half a page. “Joshua thought the kid spoke like a textbook,” Pratchett and Baxter write. For me, Roberta is the most intriguing character in a book fully littered with the odd, the eccentric and the downright alien. The context Before I explain, though, I need to provide the context, and there’s a lot.
September 18, 2013

The Woven Lives of a Parish

As a parallel to the story I wrote for National Catholic Reporter in July about St. Gertrude Church and the death of our longtime religious education director, I did a similar piece that was published this month in Reality, a Catholic magazine in Ireland. Here it is: Patrick T. Reardon 9.18.13 If the above copies of the magazine pages are too tough to read, here’s the story in a more readable format:
September 16, 2013

135 North Leamington Avenue, Chicago — where I grew up