March 8, 2016

Book review: “Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin” by Timothy Snyder

Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin is a monumental, heavily detailed, ground-breaking and deeply humane look at the political murder of 14 million people by the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany from 1932 through 1945. Published in 2010, it is a bludgeon of a book, brutally direct and honest and unflinching. It is also a keening elegy for the dead whose tragedy it was to find themselves inside a portion of Europe that was occupied by invaders from the Soviet Union or Germany or, worse case, both. It is an elegy for the millions of men, women and children who were starved to death so food could be exported to boost the Soviet balance of trade or to feed German soldiers, and shot to death as they stood at the edge of body-filled pits, and gassed to death in one of the five death factories, or killed in a multitude of other ways for a multitude of policy reasons. Killed for the sin of being where they were. and being Jewish or Polish or Ukrainian or a prisoner of war or a farmer or just handy to serve as a target for a reprisal for a resistance attack. […]
March 2, 2016

Three times a great read — an appreciation of “Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis” by Harold M. Mayer and Richard C. Wade

Back in the mid-1970s, when I was a newly minted reporter, I covered Chicago’s City Hall for a while. I remember that, at news conferences, Mayor Richard J. Daley, the first of the Mayor Daleys, would talk about the suburbs as “country towns,” as if they were these quaint, almost fanciful places. This, at a time when the suburban population was nearly equal to that of the city. Today, there are twice as many suburbanites as Chicagoans. It was around the same time that I started using as a key reference work the 1969 book Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis by geographer Harold M. Mayer and historian Richard C. Wade. If I needed to know about the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, I’d look in Mayer-Wade. The reversal of the flow of the Chicago River? Mayer-Wade. The 1909 Plan of Chicago? Mayer-Wade. The book, filled with more than 900 photographs and dozens of maps, has a text that is direct and to the point. And, unlike that first Mayor Daley, the authors weren’t Chicago-centric. They viewed the city in the context of its region — the rest of Cook County and the five collar counties: DuPage, Kane, Lake and McHenry. […]
February 23, 2016

Book review: “Manhole Covers,” text by Mimi Melnick, photographs by Robert A. Melnick

Manhole covers are beautiful. There, I’ve said it. Just give them a look. I mean, really look at them. You’ll agree. Take these six from Manhole Covers, the 1994 book by Mimi Melnick with photos by her husband Robert. Look at the one on the top right. It looks like a rose window on the front wall of a cathedral, doesn’t it? They were created out of the same spirit. Like the other five, this one was created to sit inside a rim in the pavement of a street or sidewalk as the door to a hole six to 18 feet deep, leading down to a sewer or maybe a clump of electrical wires or any of a variety of other underground systems that, out of sight, out of mind, serve the modern metropolis. These six covers, like all of their sort, had to fit snugly in their rims. They had to be easy for workers with the right tools to open. And they had to have some sort of height difference across their surface so that, originally, horses and, later, autos and other motorized vehicles wouldn’t slip and slide on their metal surface as if across a patch of […]
February 16, 2016

Meditation: Living life

In the eighth chapter of the Book of Nehemiah in the Bible, the Jewish people are celebrating a feast in which they are re-accepting God’s law and covenant. It is, they are told by Nehemiah and Ezra, a sacred day but not a somber one: Today is holy to the LORD your God. Do not be sad, and do not weep. Go, eat rich foods and drink sweet drinks, and allot portions to those who had nothing prepared; for today is holy to our LORD. This all happened about 2,600 years ago, yet the message still reverberates today.   A covenant As God’s people, we have a covenant. And it requires us to keep each day holy which means to “Go, eat rich foods…” Which means to savor the abundance that God has provided us. In other words, to live life richly and vibrantly. But not selfishly. We are called to “allot portions” — to share our abundance with those in need. We don’t live life alone. We live it together.   Being holy This is what it means to be holy — to be as fully alive as possible: To smell the fragrances, aromas and, yes, odors of the world that […]
February 10, 2016

Book review: “Methuselah’s Children” by Robert A. Heinlein

In Methuselah’s Children, Robert A. Heinlein is all over the map — the celestial map. The novel starts on Earth, approaches the sun. hightails it to one Earth-like world with human-ish residents and then gets sent off careening through space to a second Earth-like world with a population of beings that seem pretty human but aren’t. Finally, it’s off to a third world, even more like Earth, and then the central character, the 200-plus-year-old Lazarus Long, decides to go off on an expedition to explore the Universe. It’s also all over the science fiction map in the sense that Heinlein envisions a cadre of long-lived humans who voluntarily breed with others like them to create families of people who can live, well, like Lazarus, 200 years and more. (He, though, is the oldest surviving family member.) He envisions controlled weather and a jury-rigged inertia-less space ship drive. He envisions a group soul and a civilization in which the members of a human-like race are the domesticated animals of another. In Methuselah’s Children, the story arc is so convoluted and the pages are filled with such a grab-bag of ideas that the novel is a mess. Yet, it’s a wonderful mess. […]
February 8, 2016

The last day and the first day

This essay originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune on December 31, 2015 My brother David Michael died suddenly a few days before Thanksgiving, and I’m thinking a lot about him as this year comes to an end. The last day, December 31, is shaping up for me as a Day of the Dead, a day for looking back and remembering David and others I have lost over the past 365 days and before. Maybe a lot of people do this on this last day. Maybe it’s a human need to look back and ponder loss amid the pain of grief. David and I had known each other longer than anyone else alive. I’d known him all his life. I was 14 months old in January, 1951, when he was born. The two of us were followed by two brothers and ten sisters. Our parents, David and Audrey, raised the 14 of us as a tight, affectionate, inter-connected family. Both are gone now. Mom died in 1995, and Dad in 2003.   A family Christmas party We remain extremely close, probably closer now that we have to rely on each other than we were before. All of us live in the […]
February 4, 2016

Book review: “The Haymarket Conspiracy” by Timothy Messer-Kruse

In late April, 1885, Chicago’s small, tight, deeply committed group of anarchists marched to protest the opening of the new Board of Trade Building. Turned away by police, the group ended up hearing speeches nearby at the building in which the group’s newspaper Arbeiter-Zeitung was housed. An undercover policeman, Thomas Treharn, made his way up to the paper’s editorial offices where he found several people, including editor August Spies two well-known anarchist speakers Albert Parsons and Samuel Fielden. Someone asked Spies to show “the package” he had displayed a few days earlier, and, writes historian Timothy Messer-Kruse: Spies handed Parsons a foot-long tube with a fuse protruding from one end. Parsons boasted there was “enough there to blow up the building.” [Treharn] asked Parsons why he had not challenged the police barricades and later remembered Parson saying, “We’re not exactly prepared to-night…here is a thing I could knock a hundred [police] down with like tenpins.” A little more than a year later, a mile and a half away, near Haymarket Square, a similarly homemade bomb was thrown into the midst of nearly 200 policemen. They fell like tenpins.   Riot, tragedy or conspiracy? It’s been called the Haymarket Riot and […]
February 1, 2016

Book review: “Arabian Nights: Four Tales from A Thousand and One Nights,” art by Marc Chagall, text by Richard Francis Burton

It is not often that three works of art can be found in one volume. But that’s the case with Arabian Nights with art by Marc Chagall and text by Richard Francis Burton. As Norbert Nobis explains in an introduction, Arabian Nights, also called Tales of a Thousand and One Nights, is a collection of stories from a wide array of cultures, including Indian, Persian, Hebrew, Arabian, Syrian, Egyptian and Mesopotamian, “merged into a single work welded together by the Arabic language and the Islamic faith.” These stories — their number varies from edition to edition — are framed by a tale that starts and ends the work and starts and ends each “night.” This frame story involves a King who marries a succession of virgins. Each one comes to his bed on their wedding night and, in the morning, is executed. The reason: The King doesn’t want to be the victim of his wife’s infidelity. (This, by the way, is the sort of over-the-top, operatic, baroque thinking that’s on exhibit throughout Arabian Nights.) The latest of the King’s wives is Scheherazade, but she has a plan. When she comes to her wedding bed, she begins to tell the King […]
January 29, 2016

Poem: Psalm

Psalm By Patrick T. Reardon   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 1.29.16
January 27, 2016

Book review: “The Forgotten Frontier: Urban Planning in the American West before 1890” by John W. Reps

In 1856, some 60 Roman Catholics from eastern Iowa, calling themselves St. Patrick’s Colony, moved together to the Nebraska side of the Missouri River where they laid out an elaborate town site called St. John’s, near the present-day hamlet of Jackson. North-south streets were conventionally numbered [writes John W. Reps], but those running east-west constituted a partial hagiology of the canonized: St. Margaret, St. Elizabeth, St. Monica, St. Anastasia, and so forth. Even saints could not guarantee urban salvation, however, and after the financial panic of 1857 the town began a steady decline. By the mid-1870s it consisted of no more than a handful of houses, a fate shared by several others whose ghostly remains dotted the river bluffs. Throughout the 19th-century across the American West, pioneers crossed prairies, mountains and deserts, and built cities for themselves. Some, like St. Patrick’s Colony and, much more successfully, the Church of the Latter Day Saints, were seeking religious solidarity in the creation of their new urban places. Some wanted to be next to railroad lines or near established outposts, such as military forts and mines for gold and other precious ores. Almost all of them involved speculators of one sort or another. […]
January 25, 2016

Poem: Visions

Visions By Patrick T. Reardon I see the hand of God write on the wall the sins of the king. I see the bloody knife. I see the father lead the son to slaughter. I smell the burning bush. I see the furnace, three inside unburnt. I hear the walls fall, taste bitter herbs before travel, stand on sacred ground, see the salt woman, the honey and milk land, the river red with blood. I see the face of God I hear the Lord speak my name. I feel the touch of fearful blessing.   1.25.16
January 21, 2016

Book review: “The Law and the Prophets,” edited by Robin Fox

The man’s left hand is on the boy’s neck, holding the head down. On the boy’s face is a grimace. In this tight detail, nothing else of the man is seen except his right hand. It holds a sharp knife and is moving to make the initial cut. The man is Abraham. The boy is Isaac. The detail is from the 1603 painting by Caravaggio, The Sacrifice of Isaac. This image is featured on pages 68-69 in The Law and the Prophets, an art book published by Harry N. Abrams, Inc., in the late 1960s or early 1970s. Robin Fox was the editor, and the book was based on a 1967 NBC documentary by Richard Hanser and Donald B. Hyatt. To the left of the image are sparse words of text: And God’s servant, Abraham, obeyed. He journeyed into the Land of Moriah. And there he took the knife to slay his son Isaac, whom he loved.   A labor of love Nearly half a century after its publication, what’s striking about The Law and the Prophets is its earnestness. And its showmanship. Those two aren’t mutually exclusive. Consider the Roman Catholic liturgy with all the robes, candles, marble altars, […]
January 19, 2016

Book review: “A History of Heaven: The Singing Silence” by Jeffrey Burton Russell

Life is a journey. We get to the edge, and then — what? As a Catholic, I grew up with lots of talk about heaven and all the other aspects of the afterlife. As an adult, I’ve approached the question from a different angle. I am intensely aware that, when I look down the road of life toward its end, there is an edge beyond which I cannot see. It is as if life were a painting which has an exquisitely detailed mass of images on the left side but, on the right side, there is only blank canvas. Or, maybe, it’s not blank canvas. Instead, it’s a hole in the wall, dark, black, empty. I am intensely aware that, when I get to the edge of life, there will be this great formless white that will show nothing except all that white. When I cross the edge of life, I’ll enter that white, and maybe I’ll cease to exist, or maybe I’ll find myself in the process of reincarnation, or maybe I’ll discover myself to be in hell, purgatory or heaven. As a Catholic, I believe that there is some sort of an afterlife with God — that God […]
January 14, 2016

Memo to the GOP: Dump Trump

Enough is enough. It is time — right now — for the Republican Party to expel Donald Trump. If the GOP acts now, it will not only do the right and moral thing, but also it will take the offensive against a man who has bullied and hate-mongered his way into the heart of American politics. If Republican leaders don’t move swiftly and decisively, Trump will continue to poison the party of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan — and poison this year’s presidential campaign. He will continue to call the shots, and the Republican Party will continue to dance to his tune. Trump’s unfitness for the presidency has become painfully clear by his words and actions. He’s a bigot, calling for a ban on Muslims coming into the United States, and a liar, continuing to assert the discredited claim of Muslims in New Jersey celebrating the September 11 attacks. He has made fun of disabled people. He has belittled his opponents. He has denigrated women. He has demonized illegal Mexican immigrants as criminals and drug dealers.   Drummed out of the party Trump needs to be drummed out of the Republican Party. Right now. Karl Rove will know […]
January 13, 2016

R. H. Mottram, looking back to Trollope and forward to Bellow

A young William Faulkner admired R. H. (Ralph Hale) Mottram, comparing the literary achievement of the British writer’s trilogy of novels about World War I with Stephen Crane’s insights into the reality of the American Civil War in The Red Badge of Courage. Yet, Mottram — a highly praised writer not just of war but also of life in a small English city; a poet and essayist; and a protégé and biographer of novelist John Galsworthy — is virtually unknown in literary circles today. I came across him in a roundabout way a decade ago, and have found his books richly satisfying, books that look back to Anthony Trollope and forward to Saul Bellow. According to scholar Max Putzel, Faulkner used Mottram’s writings on the war as a model for his own early work: Mottram had given Faulkner an example for dealing with war by indirection, understating or disguising the powerful emotions Crane had boldly undertaken to summon up…. Mottram’s three novels — The Spanish Farm, Sixty-four, Ninety-four! and The Crime of Vanderlynden’s — were set in Flanders, mostly behind the lines, and were based on Mottram’s own military experiences. They were published individually in the late 1920s and later issued […]
January 11, 2016

Book review: “Dragons at Crumbling Castle and Other Tales” by Terry Pratchett

Climbing a mountain in search of the abominable snowman, the group of adventures come across a tiny water wheel on which is attached a piece of parchment. It reads: When is a door not a door?… When it is a jar (ajar). Groan. Yet, this is not your run-of-the-mill (ahem) pun. As one of the explorers explains, this is a joke wheel. It’s like the prayer wheels of Tibetan Buddhism except, instead of a prayer, there’s a joke that’s repeated with each revolution of the wheel. It’s put there by the Joke Monks. You see, they think the world was created as a joke, so everyone should give thanks by having a good laugh. That’s why they tie jokes to the water wheels. Each time the wheel goes around, a joke goes up to heaven…. Do you know, they reckon that there are 7,777.777,777,777 jokes in the world, and when they’ve all been told, the world will come to an end, like switching off a light.” One character spends the rest of the journey wondering how soon the 7,777,777,777,777th joke will be told.   Cub reporter This scene with its pun, its wry humor and its fascination with religious faith […]
January 6, 2016

Book review: “The Holocaust in American Life” by Peter Novick

Peter Novick’s 1999 book The Holocaust in American Life examines in great detail and with great insight — and great skepticism — how the killing of six million Jews by the Nazis during World War II came to loom so large in the cultural, social and political life of the United States. After all, as Novick notes, none of the concentration camps was in this country, and no Jews living in the U.S. during the war were threatened. No Americans took part in the murders although some of the perpetrators moved here after 1945. It’s easy enough to overlook this reality today when the Holocaust is a major touchstone for American Jews and non-Jews alike, but it hasn’t always been such. There’s been an evolution in the importance of the Holocaust in American consciousness. It’s an evolution, Novick argues, that’s taken place mainly because of the perceptions and needs of American Jewry. Also important has been the perceived weakness or strength of Israel. And the loosening of ties among U.S. Jews. And the growing importance of the Jewish vote for all politicians.   “Inhibitions” Initially, American Jews were inhibited from talking about the Holocaust in public. There was a Cold […]
January 4, 2016

The Prayer of Pope Francis (Adapted from his speech at the conclusion of the 2014 synod)

Lord, help us to avoid the temptation to hostile inflexibility. Lord, help us to avoid the temptation to treat symptoms and not root causes, to bind wounds without first treating them and curing them. Lord, help us to avoid the temptation to transform bread into a stone and cast it against sinners, the weak and the sick. Lord, help us to avoid the temptation to come down off the Cross, to please the people, to bow down to a worldly spirit instead of purifying it and bending it to the Spirit of the Lord. Lord, help us to avoid the temptation to act as owners or masters of the faith. Lord, help us to avoid the temptation to turn our eyes away from reality.   Lord, help us build a Church that is not afraid to roll up her sleeves to pour oil and wine on people’s wounds. A Church that doesn’t see humanity as a house of glass to judge or categorize people. A Church, one, holy, catholic, apostolic, that is composed of sinners, needful of God’s mercy. A Church that is the true Bride of Christ. A Church that is not afraid to eat and drink with prostitutes […]
January 3, 2016

My Top Eleven Books of 2015

Why eleven? I couldn’t cut the list down to ten, that’s why. Last year, I read and reviewed 69 books on my website, some of which had originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune. This isn’t, by any means, a list of the best books of 2015. Some of the works among these eleven were published last year, but most are older. One came out in 1935; another, in 1890. They aren’t ranked, just given in alphabetical order. These are simply eleven that I’m really glad to have read. There are a lot of others. On another day, the list would be somewhat different, maybe a lot different. So, here they are along with a portion of my review:   “A House of My Own” by Sandra Cisneros With a phrasing and bravado echoing Saul Bellow’s Augie March, Sandra Cisneros writes: I was north-of-the-border born and bred, an American-Mexican from “Chicano, Illinois,” street tough and city smart, wise to the ways of trick or treat. Yet, even as she writes those words, originally published in Elle magazine in 1991, she’s undercutting them, explaining that, because of her Chicago birth and upbringing, she knew nothing for a long time about a key […]
December 28, 2015

Book review: “Be Cool” by Elmore Leonard

I want to talk about Elmore Leonard as a practitioner at that high altar of modern literature, metafiction, but first… In Leonard’s 1999 novel Be Cool, Chili Palmer is explaining some insights he’s gathered about his new career in the music industry: The label, the manager and the lawyer are the tree and its branches. They nourish the fruit, the fruit being the artist. The tree has to be healthy to bear good fruit, or else the fruit falls to the ground and rots. Elaine Levin, a movie studio executive (and, eventually, Chili’s love interest), asks, “Why does that sound familiar?” There are a great many people who would say: Of course, that’s familiar. It echoes the seventh chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, verses 17-19, which begin: “So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit,” as well as a parable in the 13th chapter of that gospel which starts: “A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they […]
December 21, 2015

Book review: “Get Shorty” by Elmore Leonard

As Elmore Leonard showed in his early novels and short stories, he could write a straight-ahead tale with a tight plot that unfolded step-by-step-by-step to a climax. In most of his later work, though, Leonard employed a much different approach. What there is of a plot, even if it involves danger and violence, isn’t very pressing. It is simply a flat stage on which his characters move. It is his characters who have his interest — and that of his readers. Get Shorty is one of these later books, published in 1990. Chili Palmer is a Miami loan shark who’s getting out of the business. Well, he’s being chased out by Ray “Bones” Barboni, a mobster he once cold-cocked and who’s had it in for Chili ever since. Anyway, Chili ends up in Hollywood. He hooks up with longtime schlock film producer Harry Zimm who, for the first time in his life, has a high-concept project to push. Also moving in and out of the story are Karen Flores, a former starlet famous for her full-throated scream in various Zimm movies; rich wastrel Ronnie Wingate and his savvy partner in a limousine-drug operation, Bo Catlett; and three-time Academy Award-winner Martin […]
December 15, 2015

Book review: “The Summons” by John Grisham

I was looking for a page-turner, and, for its opening chapters, The Summons by John Grisham supplied that. Ray Atlee, a law professor at the University of Virginia School of Law in Charlottesville, Virginia, gets a letter addressed to him and his younger brother Forrest from their father. It reads: Please make arrangements to appear in my study on Sunday, May 7, at 5 p.m., to discuss the administration of my estate. Sincerely, Rueben V. Atlee It’s a letter that gives an immediate insight into the relationship — and lack of one — that Ray has had up until now with his father, a retired judge who, until being unseated in an election nine years earlier, had been a major figure in Ford County, Mississippi. Forrest, a wastrel, lifelong addict, has had an even more tortuous connection with the Judge. Ray knows that his 79-year-old father is dying of cancer so he is shaken but not completely surprised when he arrives at the family home for the appointment to find his father dead with a packet of morphine nearby.   Neat packets of hundred-dollar bills What does stun him, though, is his discovery in dozens of boxes in cabinets in […]
December 8, 2015

Book review: “Women in Clothes” by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, Leanne Shapton & 639 others

Women in Clothes is a wonderful book, a cornucopia of insights into the ever-so-complicated feelings that women have about clothing. Although I like the idea of fashion as a kind of practical, everyday art, it’s an art for which I am without aptitude. I do love, however, to study the way human beings think and act, what makes us tick, especially human beings in groups that don’t include me. This book provided me with a delightful and ever-surprising glimpse into the psyches of women as reflected in their clothing and their emotions about their clothing. It allowed me to listen in on literally hundreds of women as they took part in a conversation about a subject that, clearly, is of great import to them. For a guy, reading the book might be called voyeuristic, yet I’m a human being who wears clothes, so none of this is completely foreign to me. While men in Western society aren’t as into fashion and clothing as women (except a small percentage that includes my son David), I’m sure any guy who reads Women in Clothes would feel resonances. Guys have their own clothing issues, and all of us are close to women who […]
December 7, 2015

Book review: “It Can’t Happen Here” by Sinclair Lewis

The Vermont doctor, successful and respected, is with friends, listening to the radio as Senator Buzz Windrip is nominated by the Democratic Party to become President of the United States. Windrip is a shoo-in in the 1936 election, and some of the friends around that radio fear that, given his proposals and the sorts of people he has gathered around himself, Windrip will become an American dictator. Bosh, the doctor says. Dictatorship? Better come into the office and let me examine your heads! Why, America’s the only free nation on earth. Besides! Country’s too big for a revolution. No, no! Couldn’t happen here! Yet, it does. And the doctor is one of the first to be marched out behind the courthouse and summarily executed by a firing squad. The book, written in 1935, is by Sinclair Lewis. Its title is: It Can’t Happen Here. And it’s all about how it can and, in this story of the then near-future, it does. Throughout the book, one character after another says, one way or another, says, “It can’t happen here.” And yet it does.   Alarming vision Windrip is a version of Louisiana Senator Huey Long, a demagogue, who was gearing up […]
November 29, 2015

David Michael Reardon (1951-2015)

Oh, David. You’ve gone, and we have been left behind. I feel sadness and anger and guilt and pain and so many other emotions. This is why so much great art is about tragedy. We live our lives. Our bodies fall apart. We die. A couple of images have stuck with me over the past week. One is this: I see God opening his arms for you and giving you a deep hug as he welcomes you to heaven. But I know that you didn’t believe in such stuff. And I don’t want you to come back as a ghost to haunt me. So I’ll go to the other image. Our family, down the generations, is an intricately woven fabric. With your death, there is a rip in that fabric. It’s a rip that, over time, will be repaired. But there will always be a scar there. We are not the same now as we were earlier this month.   ***   You’re gone. But here’s the thing: You’re not gone. You are still with us in the fabric of our experiences, in the fabric of our existence. You have touched each of us in unique ways. You have helped […]