July 8, 2014

Book review: “Leonardo da Vinci: A Penguin Life” by Sherwin B. Nuland

The stellar Penguin Lives series, published from 1999 to 2011, was a collective act of courage and chutzpah. Each of the 34 writers in the series dared to tell the life story of a major historical figure in 100 to 200 short pages — to plunge through all the events, ideas, words and actions of the subject, down to the essence of the person’s life and impact. None of the great writers who took part evidenced greater bravery and audacity than Sherwin B. Nuland whose biography of Leonardo da Vinci was published in 2000. In some 40,000 words, Nuland attempts to capture the life and genius of the 16th century man he calls “perhaps the most diversely expansive mind this world has ever known, and certainly the most engaging.” “An artist’s eye” To be sure, Nuland’s strategy is to focus predominately on Leonardo’s work as a scientific investigator and thinker, particularly his study of human anatomy. Yet, as Nuland writes, Leonardo’s life as an artist and a scientist were intrinsically intertwined. It was as a painter that he began his dissections and other researches into the way the human body works, even if that search piqued his world-size inquisitiveness and […]
July 7, 2014

Book review: “The Devil’s Larder” by Jim Crace

Jim Crace’s 2001 book The Devil’s Larder is a collection of 64 very short stories centering on food. There are stories here about strip fondue and about a waiter who can sing the names of all 90 pastas in alphabetical order. About an amen egg (timed by singing the 37th hymn) and about pot brownies that may have eased a condemned man’s transition from this world. One story focuses on the conundrum of being marooned on a raft in the middle of the ocean and having to choose between drinking salt water or one’s own urine. Another tells of Air and Light, a restaurant that serves only air and light. A mental itch Crace is a subtle writer, and these tight tales are poetic and often wry. They leave behind a mental itch that you can’t help scratching. Consider these examples: • A kitchen mystery: “Someone has taken off — and lost — the label on the can. There are two glassy lines of glue with just a trace of stripped paper where the label was attached. The can’s batch number — RG2JD 19547 — is embossed on one of the ends. Top or bottom end? No one can tell […]
July 6, 2014

Book review: “A Blink of the Screen” by Terry Pratchett

Is Terry Pratchett a fan of John Barth? I never gave it any thought until I read Pratchett’s 2012 collection of short fiction A Blink of the Screen which contains “Final Reward,” a story written in 1988 with a particularly Barthian bent. Kevin Dogger is an author who’s made a small fortune with a series of science fiction novels about the exploits of Erdan the Barbarian. One night, after drinking too much and fighting with his girlfriend, he comes home and, out of spite, writes the final chapter of Erdan and the Serpent of the Rim, killing off his hero on the final page. The next morning, he answers the door to find, on his doorstep, Erdan the Barbarian. “I have come to meet my maker,” the erstwhile now deceased champion says. (Erdan, by the way, is carrying Skung, the Sword of the Ice Gods, which, on the one hand, is able to speak, but, on the other, only says [“conversationally”], “I want to drink your blood.”) Characters and fantasy Throughout his long literary career, John Barth — who practices what is known as metafiction, i.e., fiction that goes beyond the idea of simply telling a story and focuses on […]
June 4, 2014

Book review: “Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War” by Mark Harris

A book about five Hollywood directors in World War II? Well, OK. It was a book selected by one of my book clubs so I got a copy of Five Came Back by Mark Harris, but I didn’t expect much. After all, there have been thousands of books written about the Second World War. Books about D-Day, books about Hitler and the Nazis, books about Pearl Harbor and the Battle of Britain and the Battle of the Bulge and George Patton and Winston Churchill and the Russian front and U-boats and the occupation of Paris. And books about the Final Solution. What could a book about five well-to-do, American movie-makers add? Actually, a lot.
June 3, 2014

Book review: “Chimera” by John Barth

I suspect that anyone writing a review of a John Barth book is tempted to Barth Barth. Which is to say, to try to be as inventive and witty and playful and erudite and literary and subtle as Barth is. Which is to say, is tempted to certain failure. From his third novel The Sot-Weed Factor (1960) to his 17th book-length work of fiction Every Third Thought (2011), Barth has caroused in the funhouse of metafiction. Few have delighted so much in playing the game or sparked so much delight in those who have taken part. And probably no one has done it so well. The term “metafiction” I’ve never liked the term “metafiction.” I know, “meta” is from Greek, meaning “above” and “beyond,” and it indicates a type of fiction that looks at itself from the outside. Sort of. (After all, writing from an outside perspective about the act of creating fiction as part of a piece of fiction turns the “outside” into the “inside.” There’s no full objectivity. In addition, the autobiographical and writing-as-mechanics details that an author, such as Barth, weaves into this kind of fiction isn’t done for how-to reasons. Rather than clarifying things, this complicates […]
May 2, 2014

Book review: The Foundation Trilogy: “Foundation,” “Foundation and Empire,” and “Second Foundation” by Isaac Asimov

Some of the enthusiasms of youth travel well. Others don’t. When it comes to books, I can point to some I read in my teens and early twenties that still resonate with me today. For example, in science fiction, there are Walter M. Miller Jr.’s elliptical, transcendent A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960) and Andre Norton’s coming-into-manhood adventure Daybreak: 2250 A.D. (1952), originally titled Star Man’s Son. Both describe a post-apocalyptic world a relative short time after the bombs dropped. Isaac Asmiov’s Foundation Trilogy is something else again. The story told in three books — Foundation (1951), Foundation and Empire (1952) and Second Foundation (1953) — first saw the light of day in a string of short stories and novelettes published between 1942 and 1951. 30,000 years of chaos? As the first book opens,
April 14, 2014

Book review: “Raising Steam” by Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett’s 40th Discworld novel Raising Steam, a wonderfully witty and thoughtful book, seems to have been a very personal novel for him to write. For one thing, Pratchett seems to be in love with locomotives and railroading, the latest new technology to come along and wreak vast changes, good and bad, on the nature of everyday life in Ankh-Morpork (the New York City of this particular alternate reality) and a large area of the Disc. In 1979, a German publisher issued The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the 19th Century, a wildly interesting look at the impact of the new technology of railroading on everyday life in our particular reality. Seven years later, it appeared in English. Its author was a German-born resident of New York City — Wolfgang Schivelbusch.(1) I’m betting Pratchett read Schivelbusch’s delightfully eye-opening book about how the railroad suddenly changed the way people thought of distances and speed and landscapes and each other. (2) (3)
April 10, 2014

Book review: “On Ugliness” by Umberto Eco

No question, the guy on the cover of Umberto Eco’s 2007 book On Ugliness is truly ugly. And, in this sixteenth-century painting by Quentin Matsys, Ill-Matched Lovers, his ugliness is heightened by his pretty wife or girlfriend. She looks lovingly at him through lidded eyes and caresses his stubbled chin. He fondles her right breast under her bodice and gazes at her with what might be called a leer. Yet, I think the temptation to call it a leer is due to his ugliness. His look, his smile, could just as well be read as deep affection and delight. We would read it that way if he were a studly courtier, wouldn’t we? And here’s the thing: Ill-Matched Lovers is a much more interesting painting, more striking, more arresting, because of his ugliness. Even if repulsed by the guy’s ugliness, the viewer is still drawn irresistibly into the picture. You can’t not find it interesting.
April 9, 2014

book Review: “Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire — A Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival” by Peter Stark

This review initially appeared in the Printers Row section of the Chicago Tribune. on March 8, 2014. Storms at sea play a key role in the tale of John Jacob Astor’s attempt to establish a pivotal trading center on the unsettled, little-known northern Pacific Coast in the early 19th century. Yet, few modern readers have ever been in a fragile wooden sailing ship during a storm on the ocean, especially with its sails unfurled. So, in Astoria, Peter Stark describes the experience: A particularly powerful gust typically appears like a dark shape ruffling across the sea’s surface. When it slams into a square-rigger, the whole ship stains, the deck tilting as she heels over, the hull surging forward through the swells, the rigging running taut like the strings of a giant musical instrument, the scream of wind through the lines suddenly jumping to a shriek. If a ship has too much sail, with a sudden BOOM the sails will start to “blow out,” the fabric splitting apart under the enormous pressure of the gust like an over-filled balloon… Passages like that are what make Stark’s fine book truly distinctive. They raise Astoria above the level of a well-done historical adventure […]
April 3, 2014

Book review: “Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury

Until now, I had never read Ray Bradbury’s 1953 science-fiction novel Fahrenheit 451. But, of course, I had read dozens of other books and seen scores of movies that were the book’s offspring. To name just one, 2010’s The Book of Eli, starring Denzel Washington. So it’s an odd experience to get to know Guy Montag and his world — a world I’ve never visited before but have gotten to know very well in, as it were, alternative universes. It’s also odd because, in many ways, I’m living in the world Bradbury envisioned. I get my cash from a robot teller. I rarely see anyone, especially anyone under the age of 30, reading a newspaper. The entertainment industry is selling consumers pre-packaged friends and family. Friends I suspect it’s not a coincidence that one of the seminal shows of this entertainment style was called Friends. And one of its stars, Jennifer Aniston, is a staple of what’s being peddled in magazines, tabloids and television gossip shows, years after Friends finished its run. (To be sure, it’s re-run seemingly nonstop on cable television.)
March 22, 2014

Book review: “Still Dreaming: My Journey from the Barrio to Capitol Hill” by Luis Gutierrez with Doug Scofield

On March 20 — just as I was finishing Still Dreaming, the surprisingly readable memoir that U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez wrote with the help of Doug Scofield — the Chicago Tribune reported that the two men were under investigation by the House Ethics Committee. The story said that, over a ten-year period, Gutierrez paid more than $500,000 to The Scofield Company for staff training and publicity. The contract had been approved each year by the Ethics Committee until Gutierrez canceled it last year. Doug Scofield was a senior partner of that firm. In 1992, he ran Gutierrez’s first campaign for Congress and then served as the Congressman’s chief of staff for a decade. In Still Dreaming, published last year, Gutierrez describes Scofield as his partner in authorship. In his other work, the Tribune reported, Scofield was a campaign aide to Rod Blagojevich’s two successful runs for Illinois Governor, and worked for a time as deputy governor. The disgraced Blagojevich is now serving a prison term for corruption. Kinda murky It all seems kinda murky, even though — or maybe because — the Ethics Committee has promised to tell more by May 5.
March 8, 2014

Book review: “Empire of the Bay: the Company of Adventurers That Seized a Continent” by Peter C. Newman

The map of North America today — with much of the United States-Canadian border lying along the 49th parallel — might easily have been very different. American “manifest destiny” didn’t have to stop where it did but could have turned northward in the mid-19th century with a couple likely results: • That the entire Pacific Coast from southern California to the far tip of Alaska would now be U.S. territory. • That at least four western Canadian provinces — Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia — would instead be American states today. (Indeed, in 1868, the U.S. Senate went so far as to pass a resolution to pay $6 million for the area they now occupy.) There was a simple reason why none of this happened. The Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC). “The Canadian subcontinent” For just under two hundred years, the Company had a monopoly on fur trade in and rule over an area of North American that eventually grew to be ten larger times the size of the Holy Roman Empire and covered one-twelfth of the Earth’s surface. And, in doing this, held the line against American incursions. Not out of patriotism to Great Britain or to the still-nascent […]
February 26, 2014

Book review: “The Age of Innocence” by Edith Wharton

Why does Newland Archer leave? Why, on the final page of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, does Archer walk away from a chance to visit Ellen Olenska, the love of his life, for the first time in 25 years? She’s just up a few flights of stairs in her Paris apartment. His son has gone up, but Archer doesn’t follow him. He sits for a long time on a bench gazing at her fifth floor balcony. He says to himself, “It’s more real to me here than if I went up.” Then, as dusk falls, he rises and walks away. “Our kind” A friend of mine rejected the idea of reading The Age of Innocence because “it’s just chick-lit, and I have nothing in common with those New York high-society people.” I think he figured that it’s a love story, written by a woman, so it must be chick-lit. But The Age of Innocence has as much in common with that popular Oprah-ish romance-rooted literary fashion as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet does. Like Shakespeare’s play, Wharton’s 1923 novel is about two lovers, but that’s only on the surface. Both works are focused on something broader, something social rather than […]
February 11, 2014

Book review: “The Mother’s Recompense” by Edith Wharton

There is a moment, fairly early in Edith Wharton’s 1923 novel The Mother’s Recompense, when the central character Kate Clephane exclaims to herself, “I am rewarded!” I cringed when I read that — because of the peculiar nature of the word “reward” and “recompense” and because I had come to like Kate although her life view and life decisions were very different from mine. Let me explain. When I say that I had come to like Kate, a product of New York society, it wasn’t that I felt we would ever be friends in any sort of existence in which we would cross paths. As the novel opens just after the end of World War I, she is a woman in her mid-40s who is wandering around Europe, skimping by on a small allowance. It’s an aimless, meaningless life of leisure, spent with other aimless, purposeless souls awaiting…well, not really anything. This is a kind of anteroom to hell, and Kate and her circle of acquaintances are biding their time, biding their lives away. Her allowance comes from the family in New York that she abandoned nearly twenty years earlier to go off with Hylton Davies, a man with a […]
February 5, 2014

Book review: “Michelangelo” by Stefanie Penck, translated by David Aston

There are hundreds of books about Michelangelo, many running to several hundred pages. I own several of them. Stefanie Penck’s Michelangelo, published in 2005 by Prestel, has only 95 pages of text and images, yet it’s a rich addition to the literature. The book is chuck full of sumptuous reproductions of the great artist’s paintings and images of his sculptures and architecture. Consider this photo of Mary’s hand holding the dead Christ’s shoulder from the Pieta. It’s a wonderful picture that captures the rich, supple, tender feel that the sculptor gave to the flesh of Jesus in the straining arms of his mother. This can’t be marble.
January 22, 2014

Book review: “Tres Riches Heures: Behind the Gothic Masterpiece” by Lillian Schacherl, translated by Fiona Elliott

It would be difficult to think of a collection of artworks that could challenge the Tres Riches Heures in terms of sumptuous color and elegance. And all within a single binding! Tres Riches Heures is a book of hours — a lavishly illustrated prayer book — created for John, the Duke of Berry, by the three Limbourg brothers –Paul, Herman and Jean. It was begun in 1412 but was left uncompleted in 1416, the year when the three brothers and the Duke all died. (This was an era when the plague routinely wiped out families, households and towns in the blink of an eye.) The paintings in Tres Riches, sometimes accompanied by text and sometimes not, are called miniatures. They are small but not tiny. Each of the 206 leaves in the work measures about 8.5 inches by 12 inches — or about the same size as a piece of printer paper. Some additional work was done on the book in the middle of the 15th century, and it was completed by 1489 by the painter Jean Colombe. All of the leaves, no matter which artist did the main work on them, display an extraordinarily high degree of artistry and […]
January 22, 2014

Book Review: ” A Prayer Journal” by Flannery O’Connor

There is something breath-taking in the hopes, dreams and faith of young Flannery O’Connor. What I am asking for is really very ridiculous. Oh, Lord, I am saying, at present I am a cheese, make me a mystic, immediately. But then God can do that — make mystics out of cheese….[My soul] is a moth who would be king, a stupid slothful thing, a foolish thing, who wants God, who made the earth to be its Lover. Immediately.
January 21, 2014

Book review: “Luca and Andrea della Robbia” (Masters in Art)

A century ago, Masters in Art was a series of monthly monographs offered for the annual subscription price of $1.50. Single copies were 15 cents. The Lucca and Andrea della Robbia issue that I have was published in September, 1901. My copy, originally part of the collection at the Cleveland Museum of Art Library, is hardbound. I’m not sure if this was done by the library or if that’s how these monographs were produced and delivered. This issue, which is probably representative of the series, is made up of 10 plates of photographs of the works of Luca della Robbia and his nephew Andrea, followed by 20 pages of text. That text is divided into three sections: biographies of the two men, discussions of their art and detailed commentaries on the works displayed in the 10 plates. All of the text in these sections draws on earlier commentaries. For example, the section on the art of the della Robbias includes excerpts from articles by writers identified as Allan Marquard; Cavalucci and Molinier; the editors of Vasari’s Lives; Mrs. Oliphant; Marcel Reymond; and Walter Pater. These excerpts themselves include quotations from various other experts as well. “Embodied dreams” Luca and Andrea […]
January 19, 2014

Book review: “The Wife of Jesus” by Anthony Le Donne

Was Jesus breast-fed? That’s a question that Anthony Le Donne asks near the end of his reasonable and provocative new book The Wife of Jesus: Ancient Texts and Modern Scandals (Oneworld). And, if it’s the sort of question that unsettles you or angers you, this book isn’t for you. Le Donne, a scholar in the study of the historical Jesus, is attempting to understand the flesh-and-blood human being who walked the roads of Judea and Galilee and the lanes of Jerusalem 2,000 years ago. He’s an historian, not a theologian. That’s why he’s asking the question of whether Jesus was breast-fed. And also whether Jesus had a wife. Le Donne’s conclusion on that latter question — spoiler alert! — is that, no, Jesus probably wasn’t married. But his book is courageous anyway. Simply to ask the question is to make himself a lightning rod for controversy. Ask Reza Aslan, the author of the recently published Zealot, a book that characterizes Jesus as a political revolutionary. And one that became a bestseller after a clumsily antagonistic Fox News interview went viral this summer in which Aslan was bashed as a Muslim who dared to write about founder of Christianity. La Donne […]
January 13, 2014

Book review: “Moon of Three Rings” by Andre Norton

Andre Norton’s Moon of Three Rings is one of her best books. That’s saying something since she wrote more than 200 novels of science fiction and, to a lesser extent, fantasy. Not that it’s perfect. It has the limitations that are woven into Norton’s writing style, story-telling approach and target audience. She wrote for teenage boys and young adult men. That means there’s not much psychological or emotional nuance to her books. For her — and for her readers, including me (who, for better and worse, is no longer a boy or young man) — adventure is the key. Norton’s books are like westerns in space — good guys against bad guys, set in a strange, foreboding landscape where cultures collide (cowboy and Indian, humans and aliens). There are parallels to these stories throughout human history. Some of the best examples include Beowulf, Gilgamesh, the Iliad, the Odyssey, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, Treasure Island and Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea. None of Norton’s books is in that class. Face-to-face with the Other Still, for nearly three-quarters of a century, Norton who lived to the age of 93, produced high quality science fiction of a […]
January 9, 2014

Book review: “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer” by Siddhartha Mukherjee

The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee was a difficult book for me to read, as I suspect it will be for most people. That’s not because it’s a bad book, but because it is such a thorough, courageous look at a disease — well, a family of many diseases — that is bedeviling humanity to an ever greater extent today as we live longer and survive or avoid other causes of death. It is difficult, in part, because cancer is a great fear. Most of us know someone who has or has had cancer, or have or have had it ourselves. Many know people who have died from it. A poignant element for me as I read this book over the last month or so was to learn from the news that Janet Rowley, a University of Chicago researcher mentioned often in Mukherjee’s text, had died on December 17, of complications from ovarian cancer. Scientific searchings It was difficult for me because the final 130 or so pages of The Emperor of All Maladies deals with the exquisitely refined scientific searchings and discoveries of the nature of cancer and of new methods for attacking various versions of the […]
January 7, 2014

Book review: “Chicago: The Second City” by A.J. Liebling

It’s been more than 60 years since A. J. Liebling skewered Chicago in three caustic pieces in the New Yorker, soon after collected into a short book of 30,000 words or so, Chicago: The Second City. Of course, “caustic” was Liebling’s specialty, so his acerbic reading of the city shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone. Yet, ever since, anti-Liebling rhetoric has routinely found its way into print in Chicago. In 1980, for instance, Chicago Tribune columnist Jack Mabley dismissed the book as the work of “a New York writer [who] once came to Chicago for several months…and interviewed people who came into the bar where he hung out. The essays he sent back to Manhattan were filled with startling inaccuracies which comforted New Yorkers in their oneness. No. 1-ness.” Fourteen years later, in a Tribune story about his new publishing venture Academy Chicago, Jordan Miller was quoted as describing Liebling as “that creep.” Eighteen years after that, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg made a significant reference to Chicago: The Second City in his 2012 book about the city. It had to do with something Liebling writes in an introduction to his book — that, after his New Yorker […]
January 3, 2014

Book review: “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” by Maria Semple

The authors of novels about rich Americans face a greater challenge than those who write about the other 90 percent. If your characters are poor, working-class, middle-class and even upper middle-class, they have built-in struggles that help the reader identify with them — the struggle to keep body and soul together or, at least, the struggle to keep up with the Joneses. The struggle, in other words, to make it somehow. The struggle for the rich is not to blow it. They have it made in the shade, and so any problem they face is going to seem like not much of a problem to readers out of their income bracket. Bernadette and her family Take Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette. The central character is Bernadette Fox.
December 19, 2013

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

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

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

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