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. […]
August 14, 2011

10 reasons why kids at Mass are great preachers

At St. Gertrude Church, my home parish, our pastor emeritus is a brilliant guy who still gives homilies that are both witty and profound, erudite and down-to-earth. His replacement, our new pastor, is a story-teller. He enjoys teasing out theological insights from the simplicity (and complexity) of everyday life. But as much as I like to hear what these smart, holy men have to say, and as much as I learn from them, I usually don’t sit as close to the pulpit as I probably should. Instead, I’m in the back of church because that’s where parents with little kids tend to hang out. I’m a sucker for little kids. I loved watching my own at that age, and it’s still great fun to see the latest crop of tiny new humans toddle around and stare with wonder at this world of ours. And, more than fun, these children — many of whom have a vocabulary limited to “Mommy” and “Daddy” — preach the greatest sermons in the world. Totally unselfconscious, little kids teach great lessons because they interact with life directly. They don’t second-guess themselves. When they’re face to face with life, they don’t blink. For anyone trying to […]
August 14, 2011

Book Review: A People’s History of the United States — from 1492 to the Present by Howard Zinn

There is much in this book that’s infuriating. I’m not referring to the myriad ways in which the people of the United States (and earlier in the American colonies) have failed to live up to the nation’s founding ideals. It is sad and shameful how majorities have oppressed minorities throughout our history. And how the rich have lorded over the poor. And how racial prejudice, xenophobia, sexism and greed have pushed us apart from each other, isolating groups, blocking the ability for united action. We could be a much better people. We certainly say we want to be in our founding documents and more than two centuries of official pronouncements. So Zinn has an important, necessary story to tell in “A People’s History.” This was especially true in 1980 when his book was first published. Then, it was a tonic to the hyper-propaganda that passed for history in our textbooks and official histories. Yes, history is more than simply a story of the winners, more than simply the account of Important People, more than the narrative of the wealthy and those who seek to be wealthy. That was Zinn’s message, and it was an essential one. Three decades later, this […]
August 14, 2011

Book Review: A Girl Named Zippy: Growing Up Small in Mooreland, Indiana by Haven Kimmel

If Emily Dickinson had had a sense of humor, she might have written “A Girl Named Zippy.” And if she’d been born in 1965 in Indiana. That’s when and where Haven Kimmel arrived on the planet and spent her childhood in the small (population: 300) town of Mooreland — the subject of her fun and funny and subtly poetic memoir. Her father, she explains, nicknamed her Zippy after a roller-skating chimp he saw on TV because she zipped around the family home like the monkey. Of course, the book might just as easily been called “A Girl Named Haven.” What sort of name is Haven? Kimmel doesn’t explain, and it’s one of many questions, large and small, that she declines to address. Why, for instance, did her father wear a .38 in a shoulder holster? (Not addressed.) Why did her mother sit seemingly rooted in a corner of the couch, day in and day out, reading books, mainly science fiction? (Not addressed.) There is a light tone throughout this memoir. It is an evocative entertainment, and Kimmel clearly loves her parents, her sister and her brother and enjoyed growing up in their presence. But there are darker elements of her […]
August 13, 2011

How does God speak to us?

At the mountain of God, Horeb, Elijah came to a cave where he took shelter. Then the LORD said to him, “Go outside and stand on the mountain before the LORD; the LORD will be passing by.” A strong and heavy wind was rending the mountains and crushing rocks before the LORD — but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake — but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake there was fire — but the LORD was not in the fire. After the fire there was a tiny whispering sound. When he heard this, Elijah hid his face in his cloak and went and stood at the entrance of the cave. — 1 Kings 19:9a, 11-13a How does God speak to us? In this account from first book of Kings, God doesn’t speak to Elijah in a hurricane or in an earthquake or in a roaring fire. But in “a tiny whispering sound.” You know you’re onto something special when biblical translators can’t agree on a particular phrase. In this case — “a tiny whispering sound” — they’re all over the map. Depending on the translation, God speaks to […]
August 11, 2011

The joy of being out of contact

I was in a hurry. My wife and I were leaving for a vacation in Paris the next day. So I didn’t give much thought to the canned email response I left for anyone who tried to reach me during the 11 days we would be gone. “Out of contact” was what I put in the subject line, and my message was: “I’ll be out of contact until July 8. I’ll get back to you after that.” As I say, I hadn’t given the wording much thought. I guess I didn’t want to say we’d be on vacation. That seemed like an invitation for a break-in, even though our daughter Sarah would be home holding down the fort. “Out of contact” just came into my head. In Paris, though, I was continuously reminded how apt it was. I left my Blackberry at home. So I wasn’t getting any phone calls interrupting whatever moment I was having before Michelangelo’s “Dying Slave” in the Louvre, say, or while strolling in the Tuileries Garden. Most of the time, Cathy and I were together, but, when we weren’t, I didn’t feel the need to call her to tell her what I was doing or […]
August 8, 2011

Book review: “General Grant by Matthew Arnold, with a Rejoinder by Mark Twain,” edited by John Y. Simon

In 1867, the British poet Matthew Arnold published his 37-line lyric poem “Dover Beach,” which concludes with this stanza: Ah, love, let us be true To one another! for the world, which seems To lie before us like a land of dreams, So various, so beautiful, so new, Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain; And we are here as on a darkling plain Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, Where ignorant armies clash by night. It’s a strikingly downbeat insight into life. Yes, life can seem various, beautiful and new. But, behind that curtain, there is no joy, love, light, certainty, peace or ease from pain. Instead, we stand “as on a darkling plain/Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,/Where ignorant armies clash by night.” War as chaos — a metaphor for life. Twenty years later, in a two-part article published on Murray’s Magazine in England, Arnold used some 13,000 words to review — and promote — the recently published “Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant.” Grant, the victor of the Civil War and a former American president, was bankrupt and suffering from terminal cancer when, racing death, […]
July 26, 2011

Book review: “In Rough Country” by Joyce Carol Oates

I don’t usually read books like this, collections of smaller pieces. In this case, six essays and 23 literary reviews. I call them “literary reviews” rather than “book reviews” because, in them, Oates examines at least a good chunk — and often the entire breadth — of a writer’s work. Her essays deal with the sudden death of her husband after 48 years of marriage; her growing up in and near Lockport, N.Y.; and her life as a prominent author. I prefer the essays. The reviews flummoxed me. They display Oates’s deep knowledge of American literature. (In one of her essays, she estimates that she has read, in part or entirely, “thousands — tens of thousands? — ” of books in her life.) She comments with insight and sensitivity on writers ranging from Cormac McCarthy to Sharon Olds, from Jim Crace to Annie Proulx, from Shirley Jackson to Flannery O’Connor. My difficulty is that I’ve read maybe one or two works by most of these authors, and none by some. So, often here, I’m getting Oates’s analysis of work of which I know nothing, or next to nothing. It’s like reading a Roger Ebert review of a movie I’ll never […]
July 23, 2011

Book review: “I Shall Wear Midnight” by Terry Pratchett

Starting to read a new Terry Pratchett novel, for me, has been a different experience since December, 2007. That’s when Pratchett announced that he was suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Each time, I wonder: Is this the book that will show the impact of the disease? Will this be the one that shows the diminution of his skill? And: What kind of a ghoul am I to be thinking this? How can I worry about the quality of the books when this man — whom I’ve met and interviewed — is watching his brain slip away? A man of great writing skill and imagination recognizing that he is losing so much of what has made him him? It is a high measure of Pratchett’s skill that, once I’ve gotten into one of his post-announcement books, those questions quickly fade away. Pretty much. “I Shall Wear Midnight,” completed in May, 2010, is one of Pratchett’s darker novels. Which isn’t to say that it’s without its humorous asides, its droll footnotes and its odd and odder-than-odd characters. After all, the Nac Mac Feegles, tiny blue people also known as the Wee Free Men, are major figures here (if that’s not a contradiction […]