I was at an archdiocesan meeting the other day, and the remarks of a prelate in attendance seemed to argue that the Catholic Church has a corner on Truth. I don’t think I buy that. Throughout my life, I’ve learned a lot from lots of people, many of whom weren’t Catholic. Such as Gwendolyn Brooks. Brooks, who died in December, 2000, was a poet of soaring lyricism and flinty vision whose work and way of living were rooted in the black experience in the United States. She was also more than a little skeptical about organized religion.
It happened that, a week or so after the death of Neil Armstrong, I picked up this 1947 novel, and to say it’s quaint is an understatement. It’s sort of a lunar version of a Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show” story.
The final two sentences of “Millions” by Frank Cottrell Boyce are: Sometimes money can leave your hand and fall like water from a pipe onto the hot ground, and the dusty earth swallows it up and bursts into food and flowers for miles and miles around. And all the seeds and roots and lives that were lying dead in the ground spring all the way back to life. I don’t mind admitting that I cried twice while reading “Millions” — and I knew the story.
Twenty years ago, a friend of mine, Steve Swanson, recommended Lytton Strachey’s “Eminent Victorians” as a classic in the field of biography — and a delightful read as well. I’ve owned a copy for nearly that long, but only now have come to make my way through it, and I find that everything Steve said about the book is true. Even more so. If you’re interested in history — in reading history and learning about history — you will relish “Eminent Victorians” for its psychological insights, its clear understanding of the landscape of a particular society, its honesty and courage, and Strachey’s skill at crafting sentences and turning phrases.
What happened two centuries ago on Aug. 15, 1812, on the Lake Michigan shore near what is now 18th Street has long been called the Fort Dearborn Massacre. But it wasn’t a massacre. It was a battle in two simultaneous wars.
Back in the 1990s, I saw a movie, set in a big city, that focused on a small group of people who wore very distinctive uniforms. This group wasn’t carrying out its mission very well. The members of the group were portrayed in the film stereotypically. One was gullible. One prayed too much. One was really, really dumb. But then they were saved when someone came from completely outside the group, someone totally unexpected. She got everyone working together. And the group was suddenly successful. The actress who portrayed that woman was Whoopi Goldberg. And the film was? No, it wasn’t “Sister Act.”
I found “Outliers: The Story of Success” by Malcolm Gladwell to be quick and entertaining to read — and ultimately dissatisfying. Part of it has to do with Gladwell’s glibness. And part with the sense he conveys of having discovered some inner secret to life.
Midway through “The Giant O’Brien,” I was more than a little lost. I couldn’t quite figure out how to take Hilary Mantel’s tale of the 18th-century Irish giant Charles O’Brien who comes to London to exhibit his massiveness and make his fortune — and crosses paths with John Hunter, a renowned surgeon, scientist, collector of bones and dissectionist.
Perhaps the best way to write about Paul Fussell’s 1975 masterpiece “The Great War and Modern Memory” would be to simply list willy-nilly some of the myriad insights, observations, facts, quotations and other interesting stuff that Fussell artfully, with ever so much care, throws on the page. When he died in May, one of the many British obituaries for Fussell, an American, described “The Great War and Modern Memory” as “magisterial.” I’m afraid, though, that the word suggests that Fussell’s book in some way gives a complete picture of World War I and its impact the past century, that it in some way fits all that into an understandable context, a frame in which the events of the war and its after-effects all have a place. Really, though, “The Great War and Modern Memory” is something very different — a hodge-podge of material. And that’s a good thing.
Now, let’s take these characters and make a novel! Ooops! I’m afraid I’m jumping the gun a bit here. I should tell you first what I’m talking about — “Imagined Lives,” a wonderful hybrid of a book newly published by the National Portrait Gallery in London. Since 1856, the Gallery has been collecting portraits. In some cases, though, a portrait of, say, Mary Queen of Scots has turned out to be, well, not her. So the Gallery has a bunch of paintings once thought to be of famous or semi-famous people, now more honestly described as being of unknown people. Or as Tarnya Cooper says in an essay, “lost souls whose quest for immortality has proved only partially successful.” In other words, their portraits were striking enough or beautiful enough or quirky enough that they’ve survived centuries, even if the names of the sitters have been forgotten. Imagined bios Last December, Cooper brought together 14 such paintings from the 16th and 17th centuries for a six-month exhibit at the Gallery — with an added twist. Eight prominent writers — John Banville, Tracy Chevalier, Julian Fellowes, Alexander McCall Smith, Terry Pratchett, Sarah Singleton, Joanna Trollope and Minette Walters — took one […]
Hello, newly minted college graduate. How are you liking real life? Scary, right? Especially for a young adult. Gone are the days when a parent could make a decision for you. And you’ve got some big decisions to make. To start making. That’s the thing to remember about decisions. They really do affect the course of your life. At the same time, they’re never final and absolute. What kind of work will you do? Where will you live? How will you live? Who will you love? What sort of person will you be? All these are questions that you have to begin answering. And each answer you come up with will begin to define you as your own person. None of these questions, however, will ever be fully answered. From the moment of your birth until your death, you’re a work in progress.
The North wasn’t the Promised Land. Or was it? The North didn’t have Jim Crow laws written into the books to keep African-Americans down. But it did have James Crow, a term for the attitudes of white Northerners and their unions and government officials and institutions limiting the extent to which a black person could be free. In Chicago, for instance, an African-American could vote, but, throughout most of the 20th century, he’d better not try to move into the Bridgeport neighborhood. And then there were the race riots in Northern cities, sparked during much of U.S. history by lower-class immigrant whites against blacks. “These violent clashes bore the futility of Greek tragedy,” writes Isabel Wilkerson in “The Warmth of Other Suns: the Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.” Each outbreak pitted two groups that had more in common with each other than either of them realized. Both sides were made up of rural and small-town people who had traveled far in search of the American Dream, both relegated to the worst jobs by industrialists who pitted one group against the other. Each side was struggling to raise its families in a cold, fast, alien place far from their homelands […]
Initially, I wondered if, in 1953, Robert Heinlein had had the still-very-new state of Israel in mind when he published “Revolt in 2100,” a collection of two short stories and a novella. That’s because the novella “ ‘If This Goes On…,’ ” which opens the book, centers on the efforts to overthrow a theocratic, totalitarian United States of America, governed by a Prophet Incarnate. I thought at first that maybe Heinlein was thinking about the potential of a faith-centered nation, like Israel, evolving into something repressively rigid. But then I realized that Israel was nothing more than a gleam in Zionist eyes in 1939 and 1940 when the novella and the other stories first saw the light of day. So I was left thinking that, for Heinlein, maybe the Prophet Incarnate was a stand-in for the Japanese emperor and the quasi-religious governmental structure that supported him. Or, more likely, for Adolf Hitler, with the religious element of the Prophet’s regime serving as a parallel to Nazism. In this case, the scapegoats of the Prophet’s regime, called pariahs, would be parallels for the Jews, homosexuals, Gypsies and other “non-peoples” identified and targeted by Hitler in the Holocaust. Of course, it really […]
“The Bear,” which was included in William Faulkner’s collection of seven fiction pieces in “Go Down, Moses” in 1942, has been called a short story. It’s also been labeled a novella. At 40,000 words or so, it is considered by many to be a novel. (Indeed, I read the piece in a collection titled, “Nine Short Novels.”) To further complicate matters, “Go Down, Moses” has been thought of as a grouping of related short stories, but Faulkner contended that these stories, taken together, formed a novel. I haven’t read the other six pieces in “Go Down, Moses,” but, about “The Bear,” I can say it’s something very much like an epic poem. The Iliad is about a war. The Odyssey is about a journey. “The Bear” is about something internal, an inner rot, a peculiarly American sin, the Original American Sin, if you will — slavery. This is the corruption that slavery wreaks upon the whites who see themselves as masters, and upon their children and children’s children — often, as in this story, brothers and sisters, cousins and kin of different colors. And not just slavery, but that particular American skill of turning land into real estate, the soil […]
Rembrandt had been dead for half a century when Arnold Houbraken wrote in one of the earliest biographies of the painter: And as to his female nudes, the noblest subject for the artist’s brush, the representation of which earned the fullest attention of the most celebrated old masters, well, as the proverb says, “too sad a song either to be sung or to be played.” His nudes are all sickening displays and one is astonished that a man of so much talent and imagination could have been so perverse in the selection of what to paint. Later, Houbraken quotes poet Andries Pels: If, as he sometimes did, he painted a naked woman, He took no Grecian Venus as his model but rather A washerwoman, or a peat-treader from a barn. He called this idiocy “copying nature” And everything else vain ornament. Flabby breasts, Contorted hands, even the creases left by straps On the body, or garters on the leg, They must all be copied else nature was not satisfied, His nature, that is, which tolerated neither rules Nor principles of proportion in the human figure. So, here is Rembrandt, one of the giants of Western art, being excoriated for his […]
Near the end of “The Long Earth,” after a long quest, the three central characters come face to face with an entity that one describes as “a destroyer of worlds. An eater of souls.” Or, as another more bluntly puts it, “the end of the world” for humans. That’s a lot for a reader to bite off and gobble down. The end of the world? Really? Yet, it’s a measure of the skill and imagination of Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter that, by this point in the novel, the reader doesn’t hear melodramatic echoes from bad sci-fi flicks. Instead, the reader is more likely to hear echoes from J. Robert Oppenheimer who, upon the detonation of the first atomic bomb, recalled the line from the Hindu holy book, the Bhagavad Gita: “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
In 2009, Thomas Pynchon published a (for him) short 369-page mystery novel “Inherent Vice” about a hippie private investigator trying to puzzle out a host of intricate and seemingly inter-related crimes, deaths, “deaths,” disappearances, hallucinations, scams, drug deals, relationships and betrayals. And was accused of betrayal by some critics and longtime Pynchon fans for slumming in genre fiction. On that question, I have nothing to say. Many years ago, I gave Pynchon a shot, trying and failing to get very far into a couple of his earlier novels. (Not much of an effort, I must admit.) So I’m in no position to judge whether he’s slumming. Yet, for what it’s worth, after reading “Inherent Vice,” I’m going to take a stab, sometime soon, at one of his “literary” works. Beside the point Actually, the distinction between literary and genre books is somewhat beside the point for a writer as talented as Pynchon.
Good morning residents, colleagues, family, and friends! Michael Whitmore said the three Rs of a successful urban teacher are resiliency, responsiveness, and reflectiveness. Residents, now that we have completed our residency, I know that we all have a deeper understanding of those three words than we ever did on that sunny August day at NLU. Our residency and the work we are committing ourselves to do is hard word. It is. Period. It requires us to be resilient. It requires us to be ready and flexible. It requires us to be reflective. Today is a special day to honor the hard work we have done and the hard work we will do. Every child deserves a quality education to realize their potential and we are the lucky ones that get to be a part of that. Our students will be the future doctors, poets, astronauts, mayors, and teachers of the next generation if we can help them get there. We have all read articles that show that quality teachers significantly affect student achievement. One article I read this year said that three quality teachers in a row can close the achievement gap for a student. Now, residents, I am going […]
The Lord croons melodious tunes. Praise God. The Lord whistles cool breezes. Praise God. The Lord laughs deep from the belly. Praise God. The Lord knows humor as a faithful friend. Praise God. Garden dirt is under the Lord’s fingernails. Praise God. The grit of soil, the Lord knows. Praise God. Sweating, the Lord’s muscles strain. Praise God. The load down, the Lord’s muscles ease. Praise God. The Lord grieves. Praise God. The Lord weeps. Praise God. The weight bows the Lord’s shoulders. Praise God. The Lord’s shoulders take the weight in balance. Praise God. The Lord sings full-throated songs in congregation. Praise God. The Lord’s voice joins all the voices singing. Praise God. The Lord croons melodious tunes. Praise God. Cool breezes are the whistling of the Lord. Praise God. Patrick T. Reardon 1999
Success, in the form of “Stranger in a Strange Land” (1961), went to Robert A. Heinlein’s head. He discovered a callow audience enthralled with his pop psychology and jejune philosophical rantings on free love, non-conformity, self-reliance and nudity, and took it as a license to pontificate. He became bombastic and preachy and, well, a crank. That Heinlein, thankfully, is nowhere to be found in “The Menace from Earth,” a crackerjack 1959 collection of eight stories published between 1941 and 1957. These stories are just plain terrific, displaying, in a highly concentrated form, Heinlein’s great story-telling abilities.
“American Characters: Selections from the National Portrait Gallery, Accompanied by Literary Portraits” by R.W.B. Lewis and Nancy Lewis is the sort of photo-art book that you don’t read from cover to cover. Except, it turns out, you do. At least, I did. This 1999 book is irresistibly readable because of — although some might argue in spite of — its being composed of four levels of stories that are told simultaneously.
This abridged history of the St. Gertrude Roman Catholic parish in the Edgewater neighborhood of Chicago was read at Pentecost mass on May 27, 2012. The full history is to be published later this year. Eileen Quinlan and the other parishioners here and there in the pews of St. Gertrude church knew something was wrong. Nine a.m. had come and gone, and, though the minutes ticked away, Father Bill Kenneally hadn’t arrived at the altar to start mass. “Then he came out, and he was white,” Quinlan remembers. “He said he just watched the second plane hit the building. He was so shaken, he could hardly say mass.” The bright, sparkling, clear-skied Tuesday was September 11, 2001.