December 11, 2013

Book review: “The Man Who Sold the Moon” by Robert Heinlein

I am pretty much an illiterate about the science of space travel. When talk turns to apogees and pounds-per-second and all that stuff, a fog descends on my brain. Still, from my low (and foggy) rung on the ladder of understanding, I am able to recommend Robert Heinlein’s 1950 short story collection The Man Who Sold the Moon to anyone who does have a glimmer of how the human race has been able to send people into space and land men on the moon. The interest, for such readers, will be in how well Heinlein was able to imagine space travel decades before it became a reality. And not just space travel, but other technological breakthroughs as well. Five of the book’s six stories were originally published in 1939 and 1940, and revised a bit for this collection to account for new scientific insights as of the mid-century mark. The title story, an 89-page novella, first saw the light of day in this book. As little as I know, I’m able to recognize that Heinlein got a lot wrong. We don’t, for instance, wear finger watches as he envisioned, and there are no huge regional networks of moving conveyor-belt-like roads […]
December 2, 2013

Book review: “Titian: Nymph and Shepherd” by John Berger and Katya Berger Andreadakis

In 1990, renowned English art critic and novelist John Berger began an exchange of letters and cards with his daughter Katya Berger Andreadakis, a film critic. At the time, the father was in his mid-60s and his daughter in her late 20s. Their subject was their common delight in and reverence for the paintings of the 16th century Italian master Titian. In their back and forth way, they were trying to tease out the essence of Titian’s art — and of art in general. For instance, their ruminations lead Katya to focus on what makes art art, and she writes: Pictures by Rothko and Titian, but also by Courbet, possess this quality. They are completely themselves that they contain all the vertical depth of their being. They exclude any reference to rule or obedience. Snapping their fingers at others, they simply exist with us or without us. In another letter, she writes: The truth is that Titian’s art is itself untouchable, inviolable. It calls out and then it forbids. We remain open-mouthed. In 1996, their exchange was published in Titian: Nymph and Shepherd, one of nearly 50 titles in the Pegasus Series of sumptuously illustrated volumes issued between 1994 and […]
December 1, 2013

Book review: “Happy Together: New York and the Other World” by Jan Christiaan Braun

We tend to think of burial art as something solid, heavy, sedate and — as a contrast to what it commemorates — long-lived. We think of the pyramids in Egypt. We think of mausoleums in our own cemeteries. We think of gravestones. That’s not the funerary art that Jan Christiaan Braun has recorded in Happy Together: New York and the Other World, published in 2007 by Stichting Over Holland. This is an ephemeral art of bright colors — balloons, stuffed animals, plastic windmills, American flags, inflatable cartoon characters, t-shirts, and other mass-produced items, most of which could just as well fit into a front lawn holiday display. Except for the messages. You wouldn’t have “MOM” in white plastic flowers in a frame of red plastic flowers to decorate the outside of your home. Yet, it fits in a cemetery. Although not created to withstand much weather, it is a version of the “MOM” on a traditional marble grave marker. Same with “WIFE” and “DAD” and so on. Braun spend a year visiting cemeteries in the five boroughs of New York City, documenting “the passage of a calendar year in the more recent and so more ‘lively’ sections.” The result is […]
November 27, 2013

Book review: “One Summer: America, 1927” by Bill Bryson

This review originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune on October 13, 2013 You probably had no idea that Al Jolson, the star of the first talkie movie, “The Jazz Singer,” enjoyed urinating on people as a joke. Or that, once, in the middle of a conversation in the White House, President Warren G. Harding got up from his chair for a moment to urinate into a fireplace. Both stories are in Bill Bryson’s new rollicking, immensely readable popular history One Summer: America, 1927, and they’re indicative of his approach and tone. As a historian, Bryson is the antithesis of stuffy. He’s a storyteller, pure and simple, and One Summer is a collection of a great many tales about people and events, centered on (but not limited to) a single season in a single year. Many nonfiction books today are weighed down with an overblown subtitle (such as “The Secret History of…” or “The [Fill-in-the-blank] That Changed the World”), but Bryson avoids that pomposity. He isn’t arguing that 1927 was much more important than any other year, even though he does provide some insights into how life changed because of events then. I’m sure Bryson could have written a book just […]
November 27, 2013

Book review: “Burglars Can’t Be Choosers” by Lawrence Block

I’m not exactly sure why I liked Lawrence Block’s Bernie Rhodenbarr crime novel Burglars Can’t Be Choosers.
November 18, 2013

Book review: “Memento Mori” by Muriel Spark

Guy Leet, aged 75, stooped with various ailments, picks up the phone and hears a schoolboy say: Remember, you must die. He tells the boy to go to hell. Some days or weeks later, he is having a bitter literary argument with his irate poet-friend Percy Mannering, aged 74, when the phone rings and the same voice conveys the same message. “Oh, it’s you…Well, now, sonny, I’m busy at the moment. I have a poet friend here with me and we are just about to have a drink.” The voice asks if his guest is Mannering. Guy gives the receiver to Percy who hears an identical message. But, for Mannering, the voice isn’t a schoolboy’s. It sounds like one of the great poets of the 20th century, William Butler Yeats. Muriel Spark’s masterpiece In Muriel Spark’s 1958 novel Memento Mori, Guy and Percy are among a group of about a dozen elderly mid-century English people who are recipients of this call. Most of them are affluent Londoners and most are related to each other by love, blood, friendship or past romance. Spark was 40 when she published Memento Mori, her third of what would eventually number 22 novels and her […]
November 11, 2013

Book review: “Bitter River” by Julia Keller

Bell Elkins has just left Joyce’s Diner in the town of Aker’s Gap in Raythune County, West Virginia. She is the prosecuting attorney for the county and has a lot on her mind. Still, she can’t help but stop and look around, taking in the streets where she grew up and the peaks looming nearby. She knew the people who struggled to make a go of it here. Knew, too, the mountains piled up in the near distance, the jagged slabs of solid rock that always threatened — or so it had seemed to Bell, when she was a little girl — to gradually close over the top of the town, like a lid on a soup pot… She’s tried to describe it once to a big-city friend, tried to put into words the singular feeling of living in a place presided over by a watchful mass of black rock, by a permanence you couldn’t push back against. Well, you could try — but it wouldn’t matter. Bell is the central character in Julia Keller’s second mystery Bitter River as she was in the first one A Killing in the Hills. I was deeply impressed last year with the high […]
November 4, 2013

Book review: “Pudd’nhead Wilson” by Mark Twain

Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson is a wonderful mess. Or, maybe better put, a messy wonder. As Twain explains elsewhere, the 1894 novel started life as a much different story, focused on conjoined twins with different morals. If one twin is bad, can you punish both? But, as he was writing, he brought in other characters, as novelists are generally required to do: Among them came a stranger named Pudd’nhead Wilson, and a woman named Roxana; and presently the doings of these two pushed on into prominence a young fellow named Tom Driscoll, whose proper place was away in the obscure background. Before the book was half finished those three were taking things almost entirely into their own hands and working the whole tale as a private venture of their own — a tale which they had nothing at all to do with, by rights. Literary conjoined twins He finished the book, and it was bad. The two stories were literary conjoined twins, and very awkward page-fellows. So Twain did the necessary surgery. The original story didn’t come away from the operation in very good shape. Twain found a way to use it, however, by publishing it as the novella Those […]
October 27, 2013

Book review: “The Alchemy of Air: A Jewish Genius, a Doomed Tycoon, and the Scientific Discovery That Fed the World but Fueled the Rise of Hitler” by Thomas Hager

Grumpy Pat: I just finished Thomas Hager’s The Alchemy of Air: A Jewish Genius, a Doomed Tycoon, and the Scientific Discovery That Fed the World but Fueled the Rise of Hitler, and it was a real waste of time. Amiable Pat: C’mon, it wasn’t all that bad. I kind of liked some parts of it. Grumpy Pat: Alright, it wasn’t exactly a waste of time. It was a book that took 281 pages to tell a story that could have easily been communicated in 30. I should have known. It’s always a bad sign when a book has a subtitle as long and weighted as this one. “Genius” and “doomed” are favorite subtitle words. And anytime you can get Hitler in there, it’s golden. At least, as far as sales go. Amiable Pat: Well, you’re right about subtitles. But Hager’s book does feature some interesting stuff about guano and nitrate and saltpeter, and how they were used for fertilizer and gunpowder — to feed and to kill. That’s kind of ironic, isn’t it? Grumpy Pat: Yeah, yeah, but Hager spends the first third of the book on these natural sources of nitrogen. It’s over-padded and over-written. It’s not really about […]
October 23, 2013

Book review: “A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters” by Julian Barnes

I thoroughly enjoyed A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters by Julian Barnes for its lively and witty storytelling, its multiplicity of writing styles and its refusal to fit. It’s a novel. It says so right there on the dust jacket. And, at his website, Barnes calls it a novel. Yet, it’s unlike just about any novel you’ve ever read.
October 8, 2013

Book review: “Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar” by Simon Sebag Montefiore

It might be helpful to think of Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Stalin: the Court of the Red Tsar as akin to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals. Except that, when Abraham Lincoln wanted to get someone out of his cabinet, he moved the guy somewhere else, like to the U.S. Supreme Court. When Stalin wanted to remove one of his inner circle of toadying confidantes, he had the guy killed. Like a Russian novel, Stalin: the Court of the Red Tsar has a seeming cast of thousands. There are really great photo inserts in the book, but I found it even more helpful to prepare my own handy bookmark-size collection of mugshots of 18 of Stalin’s closest aides. By the end of this long book and Stalin’s long reign as the Red Tsar, nine of the 18 were dead. Only two of those succumbed to natural causes. The rest were killed in some way or forced to commit suicide. And, of course, that doesn’t include the dozens of other less exalted leaders who were exterminated, often with their families. And the millions of bureaucrats, scientists, military men and people from just about every other walk of life who were purged (i.e., […]
October 8, 2013

Book review: “Everest 1953” by Nick Conefrey

The scribbled telegram text, sent by messenger from the top of Mount Everest, was bleak — but also a bit odd. Snow conditions bad stop advanced base abandoned yesterday stop awaiting improvement All well News of failure was not unexpected from the expedition on Everest in late May of 1953. After all, for more than 30 years, mountaineers, particularly those from Great Britain, had been attempting to reach the summit of the tallest peak on earth and had routinely come up short, writes Nick Conefrey in Everest 1953. This note, carried down the slopes to an Indian radio station and ultimately transmitted in a wire to the British Foreign Office, was sent by James Morris (later Jan Morris), the on-site reporter for the London Times. As he expected, it also went through the hands of ferociously competitive journalists who had bribed functionaries at various points in its journey. That “All well” at the end was curious, but the rest of the message seemed to confirm the latest rumors about the attempt to climb to the top of the world. So those snoopers ignored the message. And lost the biggest scoop of their lives. ALL THIS — AND EVEREST TOO Of […]
October 1, 2013

Book review: “The Long War” by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

When Roberta Golding first shows up in The Long War by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter, she’s described as “a dark, unsmiling girl of about fifteen.” Nothing too unusual in that, but there’s more. She is a student at a boarding school in Valhalla where Dan Valiente, the curious and alert eight-year-old son of Joshua and Helen, may soon be enrolled. During a tour, the headmaster asks Dan if he knows how Valhalla — a sort of neo-Chicago — survives as a major transportation link even though it isn’t surrounded and supported by a hinterland of farms. “Maybe you’re all robbers,” Dan quips. To which, Roberta says, “Valhalla is a city supported by combers. Hunter-gatherers. The logic is elementary. Intensive farming can support order of magnitude more people per acre than hunting and gathering…” And on she drones for half a page. “Joshua thought the kid spoke like a textbook,” Pratchett and Baxter write. For me, Roberta is the most intriguing character in a book fully littered with the odd, the eccentric and the downright alien. The context Before I explain, though, I need to provide the context, and there’s a lot.
September 8, 2013

Book review: “Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song” by David Margolick

In early 1939, at Café Society, a rare integrated New York City night club, Billie Holiday first sang “Strange Fruit.” It was, writes David Margolick, a shocking, stunning, visceral song for the singer and her audience — a unique, courageous and bitter song about the lynching of blacks in the American South. And so it remained, arresting and horrific, for anyone who heard the battered and self-destructive Holiday sing it during the two decades she had left in her life, and for anyone who listens today to an audio or video recording of her singing the song. It was written by Abel Meeropol, a school teacher and songwriter with strong leftish sympathies. (Indeed, in later life, after Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for spying, he and his wife, who never met the Rosenbergs, adopted their two young sons.)  “Strange Fruit” by Lewis Allan (Abel Meeropol)   Southern trees bear a strange fruit,  Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,  Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,  Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees…. Strange Fruit is Margolick’s short book about the song. It began as a Vanity Fair article, and is subtitled […]
September 5, 2013

Book review: “Shalako” by Louis L’Amour

Louis L’Amour died in 1988 at the age of 80. In his long life as a writer, he published 105 novels and other books, almost all of them westerns or set in the West. He has more than 320 million copies of his works in print, and I’ve just read one of them, his 1962 novel Shalako. My expectations weren’t high, given that L’Amour’s books are genre westerns. Still, many have been turned into movies. In fact, that’s why I was reading Shalako — because, recently, I’d seen the 1968 film with Sean Connery in the title role and Brigitte Bardot as the love interest, a European noblewoman Irina. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PIgAL_KryIU Shalako has some of the negatives of genre fiction of all sorts. For instance, none of the characters is very complicated, particularly the baddest of the bad guys, Bosky Fulton. At one point, the reader is told there is “something unclean about the man.” Later, he is described as an “ill-smelling, hatchet-faced gunman.” And, toward the end, we learn that he has “yellow eyes.” To top it all off, Bosky strips the valuables from one of his dying friends, the second baddest guy, and leaves him to the Apaches. Near […]
September 5, 2013

Book review: “Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling, and a World on the Brink” by David Margolick

Sports books tend to be bland reading. They can’t hold a candle to watching an athlete ply his or her trade. In Beyond Glory, David Margolick does a good job of describing the key fights of Joe Louis and Max Schmeling, particularly their two against each other. Yet, as evocative as his writing is, it is nothing to a YouTube clip showing a totally befuddled Schmeling stagger across the canvas and along the ropes as Louis beats the crap out of him in their second bout. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rJGOADcmwS4 Beyond Glory, though, isn’t a sports book. It’s a book about a moment in time when a single sporting event — that second Louis-Schmeling fight — brought front-and-center the sins and aspirations of a world community. • Adolf Hitler and the Nazis saw Max Schmeling as a means to over-awe the culture of the globe, as Hitler had over-awed the political leaders. • African-Americans saw Joe Louis as a means to live out their fantasies of winning in a white man’s world — and literally beating a white man into submission. • American Jews saw Louis as a means of getting a small bit of revenge against Schmeling’s Nazi backers for their treatment […]
July 23, 2013

Book review: “But Come Ye Back” by Beth Lordan

I wonder if anyone has written about the waning years of a happy (and, at times, sharp-edged) marriage with as much sensitivity and nuance as Beth Lordan in But Come Ye Back. Published in 2004, But Come Ye Back is what’s called a novel in stories. There are seven stories, averaging around 25 pages each, and a novella of a little over 100. It’s a form that serves Lordan’s narrative well since it provides her a wide latitude in terms of tone, pace and point of view. Even so, at the heart of every section, no matter the literary techniques, beats the relationship — the love — of Mary and Lyle. As the book opens, Lyle has retired from his accountant’s job in Ohio, and the couple is moving to Ireland, Mary’s homeland and the native soil of Lyle’s parents. He is 65. She is 60. She wants to be back with her sister and other relatives. He goes along, only a bit grumpy. This is a book about stories not told. About how life is lived, experienced, and how memories are kept, savored, almost unknowingly. Even if you wanted to tell a story, how would you put it into […]
July 19, 2013

Book review: “Gates of Dannemora” by John L. Bonn

I think I was 12 when I read John L. Bonn’s Gates of Dannemora. That’s more than a half century ago. The Second Vatican Council was about to start, and I was in eighth grade, planning to go into a high school seminary. Since then, every once in a while, I’d think of the novel, but my memory was fuzzy. I could remember that it was about a modern-day prison in New York State and somehow about the “Good Thief” who was one of the two men crucified with Jesus. And that its short title included a long proper name that might have begun with a “D.” Recently, after it came to mind yet again, I wondered what it was about the book that kept it bouncing around my head. I went on the internet, employed some of the research skills I’d developed in a long career as a reporter, and, fairly quickly, found the title and ordered a copy of Gates of Dannemora. The 12-year-old me I could see immediately some of the elements of the novel that would have attracted the 12-year-old me. A young priest, Father Ambrose “Steve” Hyland, is the newly assigned Catholic chaplain at the […]
July 14, 2013

Book review: “Young Stalin” by Simon Sebag Montefiore

While reading Young Stalin, I was struck by the very human and, at times, very attractive portrait that Simon Sebag Montefiore paints of Joseph Stalin. At various points in the narrative, Montefiore describes Stalin as someone who could be (a) gentle with children and (b) the singing-laughing life of a party and (c) irresistible to women and (d) an intrepid hunter in the winter wastes of Siberia and (e) a self-taught philosopher and (f) a vociferous reader and (g) an anthologized poet. The lavish use of photos in this 2007 book adds to the perception of Stalin as someone who could fit well into a circle of friends — even the mug shots. Indeed, the mug shot used on the book jacket has been circulated around the Internet under the words “Young Stalin was hot,” and sparked one webpage of parody images of the young Communist that included a faux Cosmopolitan cover and an image titled “He’s fabulous…but he’s evil.” A Facebook image The most arresting image, for me, is opposite page 302. It shows a 26-year-old Stalin with dancing eyes and a wide smile, standing next to Soren Spandarian, his best friend. Spandarian is described as “a well-educated Armenian […]
July 5, 2013

Book review: “A Perfect Spy” by John Le Carre

I am surprised that, having finished John Le Carre’s A Perfect Spy a few days ago, the image of Rick Pym that remains in my mind is this one: …Rick turned away to bestow a resigned smile on his subjects feasting around him. Then with his good hand he lightly pinged the edge of his Drambuie glass to indicate that he required another nice touch. Just as, by unlacing his shoes, he used to let it be known that somebody should fetch his bedroom slippers. Or by rolling on his back, after a lengthy banquet, and spreading his knees, he declared a carnal appetite. Rick is a con man extraordinaire, and I would have thought that my mind’s eye would see him running a con. There are certainly many, many, many examples of that in this novel. By the way, this is a novel about a spy — Rick’s son Magnus, the “perfect spy” of the title — but it’s not a spy novel. Le Carre, who has always written of espionage with high literary skill, essentially leaves the reservation with this 1986 book. This is the story of the wracked, warped, false, deep, rending, manipulative, counterfeit lives and relationship […]
June 21, 2013

Book review: “Meet Me at Pere Lachaise” by Anna Eriksson and Mason Bendewald

This is an unfair review. I’ve been to Paris twice, and, both times, I’ve made a trip out to the Pere Lachaise cemetery. I’m a fan of cemeteries, and, for someone like me, going to Pere Lachaise is like an art lover going to the Louvre, or a Catholic going to the Vatican. Meet Me at Pere Lachaise is a guided tour of the cemetery, with text by Anna Eriksson and photos by Mason Bendewald. I ordered the book because it’s been a couple years since my last visit and I’ve been getting nostalgic about strolling along the cemetery’s avenues and stumbling amid its gravestones. Meet Me at Pere Lachaise is fine as a guidebook. But, alas, it isn’t the book for me.
June 20, 2013

Book review: “Steel Barrio: The Great Mexican Migration to South Chicago, 1915-1940” by Michael Innis-Jimenez

On July 7, 1931, Thomas A. Green, a municipal judge in Chicago, caused an international incident when he tossed the acting Mexican consul into jail for six months. Adolfo Dominguez went to Green’s courtroom in support of an unemployed Mexican immigrant arrested on vagrancy. But, after hearing Green make insulting comments about Mexican “idlers” who were a “burden” on the city, the consul approached the bench to protest. Green didn’t want to listen. Dominguez wouldn’t back down. So the judge sent him to Cook County Jail. “It took a State Department letter to the Illinois governor to force Green to retract his decision regarding Dominguez,” writes Michael Innis-Jimenez in Steel Barrio: The Great Mexican Migration to South Chicago, 1915-1940, just published this month. (Dominguez served only four hours behind bars.) Decades later, Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in the South Chicago neighborhood were still talking about Green, not only for his jailing of the consul but also for his general mistreatment of their compatriots. Yet, the anti-Mexican prejudices expressed by Green are only part of the complex account that Innis-Jimenez provides about the early years of the Mexican community in South Chicago. It is an account of living in two cultures, of […]
June 13, 2013

Book review: “A Delicate Truth” by John Le Carre

Spy novels are about adventure, tension and plot. Think Robert Ludlum and the various Bourne books. Since the 1963 publication of John Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, they’ve also tended to be rather bleak. Over the past half century, the books by Le Carre and his many imitators have featured characters who find themselves knee-deep in moral ambiguity (no white hats, no black hats; a fog of gray) and often end up being ground to bits in the inanimate gears of forces, philosophies and political imperatives beyond their ken. Certainly, beyond their control. Le Carre remains among the best at unsettling the reader with the discomfiting realities of power and deceit in today’s world — or, maybe simply, in the world as it’s always been. Modern and universal His latest novel, A Delicate Truth, is about the cover-up of a complex operation that involved mercenaries, off-the-books British soldiers and a Foreign Office veteran who — let’s face it — was something of a likeable doofus. Over-planned, over-technologied, over-muscled, the effort went very wrong.
June 6, 2013

Book review: “Francis of Assisi: A New Biography” by Augustine Thompson, O.P.

Perhaps the best way to begin a discussion of Francis of Assisi: A New Biography by Augustine Thompson, O.P. — a rich, austere and complex portrait of one of the most famous and admired saints in Catholicism — is to look at the greeting that Francis used: May the Lord give you peace. Francis said he learned this greeting from God, and Thompson writes: This phrase was not a command or a didactic instruction; it was a prayer. Its use placed Francis within a medieval “peace movement” going back to the period of the Gregorian Reforms in the eleventh century, but its use as a greeting was revolutionary in its novelty… Francis’s greeting did not use the imperative as a priest’s blessing would have; rather, setting aside any priestly authority, he prayed that God grant the hearer peace. Something about the greeting was so disturbing and novel that when Francis was traveling with one of his early brothers…, people reacted with confusion or anger at it…. One thing that distinguishes Francis from earlier and later medieval peacemakers was his absolute lack of any program of legal or social reforms. He did not diagnose the moral roots of social disease or […]
June 3, 2013

Book review: “Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis” by Harold M. Mayer and Richard C. Wade

During my long career as a Chicago Tribune reporter, much of my time was spent covering urban affairs, and often, when working on deadline and in need of a quick dose of background information, I’d turn to a book I thought of, simply, as Mayer-Wade. I wasn’t the only one. Mayer-Wade — officially Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis by Harold M. Mayer and Richard C. Wade — has been a go-to book for Chicago region reporters, planners, professors, historians and activists since it was published in 1969. The Plan of Chicago? Quick, turn to Mayer-Wade. The history of Evanston? Mayer-Wade. The Illinois & Michigan Canal? How Chicago looked at the time of the Great Fire of 1871? The before and after of urban renewal? Mayer-Wade was always there with some clear, pithy bit of history and often a photo, drawing, map or other image. Indeed, it was those images that set Mayer-Wade apart. Harold Mayer was a geographer, and Richard Wade an historian. They joined together to tell the story of Chicago in a uniquely integrated way: This volume…tries to do more than show physical development — it attempts to suggest how the city expanded and why it looks the […]