October 29, 2011

Book review: “The Wannsee Conference and the Final Solution” by Mark Roseman

About midway through “The Wannsee Conference and the Final Solution” by Mark Roseman, I got to wondering how writers like Roseman do it. I mean, writers who spend a good chunk of their lives — or, for some, their entire careers — studying the Holocaust. It is, to my mind, a high calling, sifting through the orders, accounts, files, memoirs, photos, diaries, trial testimony and other documents to nail down the facts and wrestle with the important questions, such as: How could this have happened? What does the Holocaust say about human nature? To what extent was Hitler responsible? The German people? The anti-Semitism of the rest of the world? More than nuclear weapons, more than climate change, more than capitalism, terrorism or religious fundamentalism, the Holocaust is the central issue of humanity today. And probably for centuries to come. Human beings killed human beings in a conscious, factory-like, bureaucratically buttressed endeavor for no reason — for lack of a threat — except that the people were of a certain religion, culture and “race.” The killing of millions of Jews was the culmination of the murderous style of government that the Nazis used to grab and keep power, and kept […]
October 27, 2011

Book review: “Snuff” by Terry Pratchett

On Discworld, goblins live on — are beat up on, are exploited on, are starved on, die on — the edges. They stink. They steal chickens. They eat their young. And their religion is based on the reverent storage of earwax, fingernail clippings, toenail clippings, and snot. They are almost universally considered vermin and almost universally not considered human-like in the way that, on Discworld, trolls, dwarves, vampires and various other species are considered human-like. Or, at least, in the eyes of the law, are considered equal to humans. Goblins can be enslaved with impunity. And killed with impunity. If this sounds familiar in human history — and modern-day headlines — that’s Terry Pratchett’s point. (According to the International Labour Organization and other agencies, there are more slaves in the world today than ever before — anywhere from 12 million to 27 million.) In the newly published “Snuff,” the 39th novel in his Discworld series, Pratchett eloquently rages against racism and slavery. Which is to say that he ridicules those who mindlessly protect and exploit slavery; he skewers those who put on airs and look down their noses at those they identify as their inferiors; he explodes the myths and […]
October 24, 2011

Erasing Comiskey Park from the Face of the Earth

This essay will be a chapter in a book about Comiskey Park, edited by Floyd Sullivan, to be published probably in 2013 It’s a frigid weekend in March, and I’ve taken my kids to play in the park – Comiskey Park. On the infield grass, where Nellie Fox used to scoop up grounders, Sarah is running and bouncing and jumping, the cold wind twisting her curly hair this way and that. She’s not quite three. On her feet, she wears boots of dainty pink plastic because of all the mud. David, who is five, is racing like a gazelle near the pitcher’s mound where Ted Lyons, Billy Pierce and LaMarr Hoyt used to twist, turn and send the baseball hurtling to the plate. He’s laughing out loud with the joy of movement. Held tight in his hand is a golf ball he’s found somewhere on the field. Neither child has much of a sense of what this place is, or what this moment in time represents. Baseball was last played on this field five months ago and will never be played here again. After eighty-one years as the home of the Chicago White Sox, Comiskey Park is about to be […]
October 23, 2011

Book review: “Frank Lloyd Wright” by Ada Louise Huxtable

Sometime, apparently in the mid-1890s, Daniel Burnham set up a meeting with Frank Lloyd Wright to present him with an extraordinary offer. At the time, Burnham was basking in acclaim as the manager of Chicago’s wildly successful 1893 World’s Fair. He was the head of one of the city’s most prominent architectural firms, and at the center of social and economic might. Indeed, in 1909, he would be the central figure in a group of power brokers drafting the Plan of Chicago, a pioneering breakthrough in urban design and vision. Wright was not yet 30, growing in fame as the designer of homes in what became known as the Prairie style. “Burnham offered to send Wright to Paris for the three-year course at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, since Wright had no formal architecture education, and then to the American Academy in Rome for another two years,” writes Ada Louise Huxtable. “He would pay all expenses, and take care of Wright’s wife and children during that time. On Wright’s return, Burnham promised him a partnership in his firm. it was an amazing offer, carrying a guarantee of a prestigious career. “Wright refused.” It is easy, from reading Huxtable’s short but meaty […]
October 19, 2011

Thinking the thinkable

Recently, I sat down and wrote out a plan for my funeral service. A couple days later, I wrote about it in the Chicago Tribune. You can find it here: http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/ct-perspec-1019-death-20111019,0,1817717.story
October 16, 2011

Book review: “Continent” by Jim Crace

There is a vague, marshy border between poetry and prose. Marshy, as in rich with life, rich with the intermingling of earth and water and sunlight, crawling things, buzzing, flitting, sounds moist and dry on the breeze. This is where you find Jim Crace’s 1986 book “Continent.” It’s at the boundary in another way. It is comprised of seven short stories that, together, form a elliptical novel. • Lowdo, a rural boy at the University, ambivalent about his father and his father’s herd of freemartins, half-male/half-female cows whose “milk” is eagerly sought as an aphrodisiac. • A mistakenly arrested “political” prisoner, his retarded sister and the soldier for whom she had an unswerving affection. • The teacher from the city who jogs and is challenged to a race by the local horseman hero. • An elderly daughter trying to tease out the meaning of her anthropologist father, her cold and clever mother and a long-ago native tribe where fertile females were in heat only once a year — and all at the same time. • A aged calligrapher who, at the end of his life, becomes the darling of art collectors in faraway America and draws the attention of government […]
October 15, 2011

“Father Bernardin”

During a career as a news reporter that spanned nearly 40 years, I interviewed my share of high-ranking officials. When I was part of a small group of journalists to meet with President Jimmy Carter, I called him “Mr. President.” At a news conference or in an interview, I called Mayor Richard M. Daley “Mr. Mayor.” As a good Catholic from birth, I knew that, when conversing with a Cardinal, you addressed the man as “Your Eminence” or, at least, “Cardinal.” So I was surprised back in December, 1990, when I had my one and only interview with Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. It was during a period when Bernardin was having to close many parish schools for financial reasons, and he had just appeared on a radio show to talk about some new development. I was there in the lobby of the radio station with a reporter from another newspaper, and, when the Cardinal was off the air, we sat down with him for 10 or 15 minutes to run some questions past him. Nothing very memorable. When we were done and he’d left, I started walking back to my office when it dawned on me. For some reason — probably […]
October 15, 2011

Cardinal Joseph Bernardin: Model pastor, “saintly man”

For a long time, Eugene Kennedy was certain that Joseph Bernardin, the soft-spoken, bridge-building archbishop of Cincinnati, would become the first American-born Pope. “He was a perfect candidate for it,” says Kennedy, a psychologist, former priest and widely published writer who became Bernardin’s friend. “He was internationally known. He was internationally respected. He would have been a pope of peace.” But, even as Bernardin was raised in 1982 to head the archdiocese of Chicago, the largest in the nation at the time, and, a few months later, was consecrated as a cardinal, his star was on the wane. Reaction to the Second Vatican Council was setting in. The new pope, John Paul II, was much more conservative than the open-the-windows liberalism of the 1960s, and he was appointing regiments of new cardinals of a similar mind. Eventually, it became clear to even the most hopeful that Bernardin would never be pope. “He became something else,” Kennedy says. “He became a saint.” At the height of his success as Chicago’s Cardinal, Bernardin underwent three soul-shuddering trials — an accusation of sexual abuse, later recanted; an attack of cancer; and then a recurrence of the disease in a virulent and inoperable form […]
October 11, 2011

Book review: “Life Itself” by Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert’s “Life Itself” is a newspaperman’s memoir, which is to say it’s breezy, fact-filled and rather light on emotions. That makes sense, of course. For all his fame as a movie critic on TV, Ebert’s vocation, from his childhood, has been to be a newspaperman. As he explains in this book, Ebert ended up as a movie critic at the Chicago Sun-Times on an editor’s whim. He’s filled that role very well, producing literate, thoughtful and thought-provoking reviews. And, in that job, he’s remained a newspaperman, rooted in the journalistic style of fast and facile writing — and then onto the next movie. “Life Itself” is an unusual effort for Ebert inasmuch as his other books have all been compilations of one sort or another — movies, mainly, but also recipes (“The Pot and How to Use It: The Mystery and Romance of the Rice Cooker” [2010]) and walking routes (“The Perfect London Walk” with Daniel Curley [1986]). Even his one novel, “Behind the Phantom’s Mask,” was initially a newspaper serial. True, his long-form journalism, such as his Esquire pieces on Lee Marvin, were of a different sort. In these, Ebert often took the fly-on-the-wall approach, producing stories that […]
October 5, 2011

“A full hour before the party reached the city…” — a presentation at the Chicago Historical Society, Saturday, February 18, 2006

Consider this scene: A full hour before the party reached the city they had begun to note the perplexing changes in the atmosphere. It grew darker all the time, and upon the earth the grass seemed to grow less green. Every minute, as the train sped on, the colors of things became dingier; the fields were grown parched and yellow, the landscape hideous and bare. And along with the thickening smoke they began to notice another circumstance, a strange, pungent odor. They were not sure that it was unpleasant, this odor; some might have called it sickening, but their taste in odors was not developed, and they were only sure that it was curious. Welcome to Chicago, 1900…And to Chicago, 1950…And, in a real way, to Chicago, 2006. Recently, a colleague of mine at the Chicago Tribune asked me to recommend a book or two for a new reporter who had never lived in Chicago before. Well, I said, there’s The Local Community Fact Book. Published every 10 years going back to 1930, it gives detailed data on population, race, housing and poverty by neighborhood, and it’s an unparalleled resource book. But it doesn’t say anything about the way things […]
October 3, 2011

Book review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

In an often-reproduced photograph, Henrietta Lacks stands in a matching skirt and jacket, her hands at her hips, her hair complexly coiffed, a smile brightening her face. An attractive, lively African-American woman. “Henrietta had walnut eyes, straight white teeth, and full lips,” writes Rebecca Skloot. “She was a sturdy woman with a square jaw thick hips, short, muscular legs, and hands rough from tobacco fields and kitchens. She kept her nails short so bread dough wouldn’t stick under then when she kneaded it, but she always painted them a deep red to match her toenails. “Henrietta spent hours taking care of those nails, touching up chips and brushing on new coats of polish.” That was Henrietta in her late twenties. On October 4, 1951, just a month after turning 31, Henrietta died of a virulent cervical cancer that had spread throughout her body. Mary Kubicek was a lab technician who assisted at the autopsy of Henrietta’s body. “Mary stood beside Wilbur, waiting as he sewed Henrietta’s abdomen closed,” writes Skloot. “She wanted to run out of the morgue and back to the lab, but instead, she stared at Henrietta’s arms and legs — anything to avoid looking into her lifeless […]
September 26, 2011

Book review: The Gift of Stones by Jim Crace

It took me a long time to finish Jim Crace’s “The Gift of Stone” because, although short, it is a very, very good novel. At 179 pages, “The Gift of Stones,” published in 1988, has the look of a quick read. Yet, over and over again, I found myself making my way through five, six, seven pages, and then setting the novel aside. It wasn’t that I couldn’t go further or didn’t want to go further. No, I wanted to stop to savor what I’d just read. And also because it seemed that, having gone through a particular scene or event, I would be disrespecting the novel by rushing on. I don’t normally feel that way while reading a book, whether fiction or non-fiction. But, here, I had the sense that to rush on would taint what I was going to read as well as what I’d just read. “The Gift of Stones” is the story of a Stone Age community on the island now called England. The community mines and works flint into tools and other useful items, and then trades them for food, clothing and other necessities. Unknown to its self-satisfied residents, the community is standing at the […]
September 20, 2011

Book review: Miracle Ball: My Hunt for the Shot Heard ‘Round the World by Brian Biegel, with Peter Thomas Fornatale

“Miracle Ball” is a thin book, just 231 pages. And it could have been thinner. Even so, it’s a sweet story, a sort of Pilgrim’s Progress through the worlds of family, baseball, fate, faith and gritty independence of spirit. Written by Brian Biegel, with the help of Peter Thomas Fornatale, it is the account of Biegel’s obsessive search for the baseball that Bobby Thomson hit over the left field fence in the Polo Grounds on Oct. 3, 1951 in the ninth inning of the deciding playoff game for the National League pennant. That home run with two men on base gave the New York Giants a stunning come-from-behind 5-4 victory over the Brooklyn Dodgers. Walk-off home runs, broadcast ad nauseam on television, are old hat nowadays. But the Thomson blast came at the dawn of the TV age. For the first time, hundreds of thousands of fans across the country were watching the game and saw the dramatic reversal brought about by one swing of the third baseman’s bat. So it’s an iconic game — an iconic moment — for sports enthusiasts. Biegel got started on his search as a way of breaking out of a deep depression he was […]
September 19, 2011

Book review: Ball Four: The Final Pitch by Jim Bouton

More than 40 years after it was first published, Jim Bouton’s “Ball Four,” his diary of his 1969 season with two major league teams, remains eminently readable and entertaining. And still potent enough to make a baseball fan squirm. This version, published by Bouton himself in 2000, includes the original book, edited by Leonard Shecter, plus epilogues from 1981 (the “Ball Five” chapter), 1990 (“Ball Six”) and 2000 (“Ball Seven”). The 1981 epilogue is fun because Bouton reports on what happened to his teammates on the Seattle Pilots and the Houston Astros — many of whom were distinctive characters in “Ball Four” — since the book’s publication. Only four of the 70 or more players who were on the Seattle and Houston rosters during the 1969 season were still playing in 1981. It is also fun because Bouton tells what had happened to him, particularly how the book turned him into a pariah, denigrated by baseball authorities and many of the players. He acts surprised that a good number of his teammates were less than pleased with the book, but I’m not sure what he expected. Most of them didn’t know he was going to write about the season and […]
September 12, 2011

Book review: The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

In 2005, the British publishing house of Canongate began producing a series of short novels based on myths from Western and non-Western civilizations. “The Penelopiad” by Margaret Atwood was among a batch of three works that were published simultaneously to inaugurate the series. It’s a thin-ish work, running to just 196 pages with a lot of white space. In it, Atwood retells the Odyssey from the point of view of Penelope and of her 12 slave-servant girls. After massacring the 100 or so pesky suitors, Odysseus orders Telemachus to have the girls clean up the mess and then to take them outside and slaughter them. Instead, his son decides that such a death would be too clean, and, in T.E. Lawrence’s translation, “He made fast a dark-prowed ship’s hawser to a pillar and strained it round the great spiral of the vault, at too great a height for anyone to touch the floor with her feet. Sometimes in shrubbery men so stretch out nets, upon which long-winged thrushes or doves alight on their way to roost; and fatal the perch proves. Exactly thus were the women’s heads all held a-row with a bight of cord drawn round each throat, to […]
September 10, 2011

Book Review: The Odyssey by Homer, translated by T. E. Lawrence

When my daughter saw me reading “The Odyssey,” she made a face. Back in high school, I think it was, she had to read it, and hated it. Truth be told, my attempts at reading the book and its predecessor “The Iliad” have pretty much come to naught. All that slogging through archaic language. And where’s the plot? Well, T. E. Lawrence — yes, that T.E. Lawrence — in that unsettled (for him) period after he played a major role in re-shaping the Middle East as “Lawrence of Arabia,” tried his hand at translation. Not just any translation, but “The Odyssey.” Despite his lack of expertise at Greek, despite his many other interests, avocations and, for want of a better word, hobbies. And the result written in prose is just wonderful. Oddly — or, perhaps, given Lawrence’s deeply squirrelly nature, not unexpected — Lawrence dismisses “The Odyssey” as something less than art. In a translator’s note, he writes, “Crafty, exquisite, homogeneous — whatever great art may be, there are not [the Odyssey’s] attributes. In this tale every big situation is burked and the writing is soft. The shattered Iliad yet makes a masterpiece; while the Odyssey by its ease and […]
September 9, 2011

Hallowed ground

Which is this nation’s most hallowed ground? The phrase has been used to describe the Gettysburg battlefield, Arlington National Cemetery and Ground Zero. I write about this question in an op-ed piece in today’s Chicago Tribune: http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/ct-oped-0909-hallowed-20110909,0,7298628.story
September 8, 2011

Book review: The Return of Little Big Man by Thomas Berger

Thomas Berger was born in 1924. He was 40 in 1964 when he published his best-known novel, “Little Big Man,” chronicling the early life of Jack Crabb, a white who, at the age of 10, was adopted by a band of Cheyenne and who, over the next quarter-century, ping-ponged back and forth between the white and Native American worlds. During this period, Jack, known to the Cheyenne as Little Big Man, was a friend of Wild Bill Hickok and Bat Masterson and was present (on the Indian side) for the Washita Massacre by troops led by Gen. George Armstrong Custer and (on the soldier side) for the massacre of Custer and his troops at Little Big Horn. Jack, 111 at the time and in a nursing home, tells his story into the tape recorder of a dilettante historian who transcribes the tapes — he relates that Jack died soon after giving his oral history — and publishes the result. Highly popular, “Little Big Man” broke new ground by featuring historical figures as secondary characters in a literary novel — a fresh and piquant approach since adopted by many other writers. Thirty-five years later, in 1999, Berger published “The Return of […]
September 5, 2011

The man who envisioned Chicago: Daniel Burnham’s “plan” for the Windy City celebrates a century

Published in Illinois Heritage magazine in September, 2009 Daniel Burnham was depressed. The man known as “Uncle Dan” to his fellow architects and urban planners was someone who, through force of personality and a huge well of optimism, inspired confidence in clients, employees and co-workers. He was, acknowledged his critic Louis Sullivan, “a man of fixed determination and strong will.” He worked well with others. Here was a man who hobnobbed with the elite of Chicago. Indeed, he was a member of that elite. But he also was on good terms with less savory (but nonetheless powerful) characters such as First Ward Aldermen Mike “Hinky Dink” Kenna and “Bathhouse” John Coughlin, members of the corrupt Gray Wolves faction of the City Council. Coughlin liked Burnham so well that he named one of his racehorses “Dan Burnham.” But, on this afternoon in July, 1906, when Charles Dyer Norton and Frederic A. Delano strode into his office in the Railway Exchange Building (now the Santa Fe Building), they found a despondent Burnham sitting at his desk and staring out across the broad expanse of Lake Michigan. Norton and Delano had come to tell him that the members of the Merchants Club just […]
August 31, 2011

The Demons in “The Devil in the White City”

An address at the Chicago History Museum, December 14, 2006 When Erik Larson introduces Sol Bloom in his best-selling book “The Devil in the White City,” Bloom is a young man on the make — a 21-year-old entrepreneur who, two years earlier, had bought the rights to an Algerian village he saw on display at the Paris Exposition of 1889. Bloom was, as Larson describes him, a go-getter who got stuff done and a born salesman. It appears that those were the qualities that led Mike De Young to hire him to oversee the concessions for the Midway Plaisance at the World’s Columbian Exposition, to open two years later in 1893 in Chicago. Recounting a story from Bloom’s autobiography, Larson writes that, when De Young offered Bloom the job, the young man really didn’t want it. So he demanded the extraordinary salary of $1,000 a week — the same pay as the President of the United States — only to be surprised when he got it. In Chicago, Bloom earned his pay, bringing great energy and order to his task and a kind of promotional genius. Larson writes that the Harvard professor who’d originally had the job saw the Midway […]
August 28, 2011

Book review: Little Big Man by Thomas Berger

A half century after its publication, Thomas Berger’s novel “Little Big Man” is still a fine read, interesting and entertaining. But it doesn’t pack the wallop it did back in 1964 when it first hit bookstores. In writing “Little Big Man,” Berger broke new ground for a literary novel. His central character, Jack Crabb — born in a white family but raised from the age of 10 by Indians who call him Little big Man — interacts with various famous historical figures, including Gen. George Armstrong Custer and Wild Bill Hickok, and lives through various historical events, such as Custer’s Last Stand. Previous to this, a novel featuring historical figures would have had them at the center of the story. It would have been, essentially, a fictionalization of their lives. A literary novel, meanwhile, would have focused on characters who were the products of the author’s imagination, living a plot that he conceived. Berger mixed the two genres, creating a fresh, piquant work — indeed, it was a bestseller — offering a kind of sideways look at well-known people and events from the past. Unlike works of history or earlier historical fiction, it was leavened with humor and enlivened by […]
August 26, 2011

Book review: The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes

There is so much that is wonderful — and scary — in Richard Rhodes’ 1986 history of the creation of nuclear weapons, “The Making of the Atomic Bomb.” For me, the single most important sentence is on page 645: “No one should presume to judge these men as they struggled with a future that even a mind as fundamental as Niels Bohr’s could only barely imagine.” That sentence is important because, in the hands of a lesser writer and lesser historian, this book would have turned into a blame-fest. Not that Rhodes doesn’t allot responsibility. Indeed, immediately after that sentence, Rhodes notes that Robert Oppenheimer, in a committee meeting of U.S. policy-makers on the question of international control of nuclear weapons, failed to adequately explain Bohr’s position. Rhodes makes clear that, of all the people involved in one way or the other with the birth of the atomic bomb, Bohr was best able to see over the horizon and realize that, if the U.S. dropped the bomb during World War II and tried to keep a monopoly of the weapon, the result would be an arms race. That arms race, he foresaw, between the United States and the U.S.S.R. would […]
August 22, 2011

You can make history

Remarks at the January 21, 2010 meeting of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning If you look at a satellite view of this part of the globe, you can see the deep blue of Lake Michigan and the unbroken sweep of the landscape. It shows our region as a single fabric, closely woven, each thread linked to every other. It doesn’t show government boundaries. They are invisible because, in the natural world, they don’t exist. A black-crowned night heron flying above the Salt Creek rides the same breezes whether it’s over Addison, Palatine or Hillside. The current of the Des Plaines River is the same for a largemouth bass whether the water is flowing through Deerfield, Lyons or Lockport. Your experience is the same. You probably live in one neighborhood or town and work in another and shop at a mall in a third and visit friends in a fourth. You don’t pay a lot of attention to invisible governmental boundaries as you go about your life. For you, it’s all one landscape, all one region. At this beginning of the 21st century, we need to recognize this fact…. ….. We are the people of a region. We share this […]
August 18, 2011

Then I became a writer

It seems now, looking back, that I sleep-walked through much of my time at St. Thomas Aquinas Grade School in the Austin neighborhood on Chicago’s Far West Side. I know I didn’t do poorly. If I had, there would have been hell to pay from my parents. But I don’t have any memory of doing particularly well. Then, in sixth grade, there was this wonderful teacher, Miss Joan Krueger, who opened my eyes to the world. She was new to teaching. But she’d traveled extensively, spent a long time in Europe. And she treated us, not as children, but as, what we were, young minds hungry for the wonder of life. Miss Krueger sparked in me a love of history and words and literature. I blossomed. I did a lot of book reports for Miss Krueger, including one on the Russian Revolution. That might have been in eighth grade when I had her a second time. I typed most if not all of these reports because my handwriting was so bad. (Miss Krueger said my mind was working so fast that my hand couldn’t keep up with it. I loved her for seeing it that way.) My typing, I have […]
August 14, 2011

The lowly alley — shaper of Chicago

All, hail the lowly alley! Shaper of Chicago, home of garbage and gardens, danger and Dumpsters, the arena of kickball, hoops and gossip, of scavengers and shortcuts, of neighbors and rodents. Chicago’s alleys are older than the city itself. They were laid out as part of a 58-block grid in 1830, three years before Chicago was incorporated as a town and seven before it was chartered as a city. Chicago is prettier and greener because of its alleys, with much of the messiness of urban life moved around back out of sight. Tree-lined parkways line its streets instead of garbage cans. Think of Manhattan. Trash bins crowd many of New York City’s sidewalks for lack of alleys. Yet, by the early 1900s, when the suburban development boom began, alleys were thought of as dirty, ugly, disease-ridden places. So, as a selling point, new subdivisions boasted that they were alley-less. Of course, what this meant was that, once a week, the owners of those new homes had to drag their garbage out to the curb for pickup. They still do. Because Chicago is so flat and its streets are built on a grid, it is the alley capital of the world. […]