May 27, 2013

Book review: “Every Third Thought” by John Barth

Two-thirds of the way through Every Third Thought, John Barth has his central characters, the married couple of George Irving Newett and Amanda Jean Todd, allude to some lines in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. As Scene I ends, Prospero mentions his plan to “retire me to my Milan, where/Every third thought shall be my grave.” These lines arise in the context of George’s reminiscences of his childhood friend Ned Prosper who had a habit of saying “On second thought…” and “On third thought….” and who died (or, at least, disappeared) at the age of 24 while still working on (or, at least, talking about) his Great American Novel-in-progress which may, as George ruminates, have been a fictitious fiction. No manuscript was ever found. “Aiaiai!” as George says at several points in this 2011 novel. (I am pretty sure it is pronounced “aye-yi-yi.” But maybe not.) Prospero/Prosper, indeed!
May 22, 2013

Book review: “How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter” by Sherwin B. Nuland

I originally read Sherwin B. Nuland’s book How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter in 1995 when I was in my mid-forties and my mother was dying of congestive heart failure and a host of other diseases. Ever since, I’ve recommended it to virtually anyone who would listen as one of the best books I’d ever read. This time around, it was scarier. For one thing, I’m a couple decades closer to my own end than I was back in the ‘90s. For another, I’m the sort who takes descriptions of health problems and diseases much too much to heart, seeing each symptom in my body and getting anxious about it. Fairly quickly, though, I got over that. Nuland describes in exquisite and vibrant detail so many symptoms and so many ways in which the body breaks down that I didn’t feel so threatened by them. Or, maybe better put, I felt equally threatened by all of them, so they sort of canceled each other out. And his bottom-line message is still the same as I remembered it: Death is part of life.
May 12, 2013

Book review: “The Development” by John Barth

Gerry Frank has made an estimate of the number of beats his heart has pumped over his 68 years — 3,771,800, give or take a few thousand. Dick Felton is 75, and his wife Sue is in her late 60s. They’ve had a good life together, but now, as Dick says, they’re facing “the crappy last lap.” Tim Manning’s wife Marge — his “without-whom-nothing life partner” — is gone, and Tim is fed up to here with the idea of Assisted Living. He searches his keyboard and all of its buttons. “There ought to be one for Assisted Dying…,” he writes. John Barth’s 2008 book The Development has the slim, compact appearance that you’d expect for a volume of nine short stories. But — bam! — these stories carry a wallop. No, I don’t mean they pack O’Henry-like sudden-twist endings. Actually, in some cases, the stories don’t quite end, or don’t end at all. The angel of The End What I mean is that Barth — that old warhorse of storytelling and metafiction — is wrestling like Jacob with the angel of The End. I.e., the end of me, the end of you, the end of him, the end of […]
May 7, 2013

Book review: “The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War” by James Bradley

OMG! What a bad, bad man Theodore Roosevelt was! I mean, like, golly, he basically ruined the entire 20th century…..and he died in 1919, well before the century really got rolling. I mean, James Bradley, writing in his 2009 book The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War, tells me and his other readers: • That good ole T.R. was responsible for the rise of Mao Tse-tung in China and Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam (page 289). • That Roosevelt — known as the Rough Rider for his exploits in Cuba in the Spanish-American War — was responsible for World War II (page 251). • That the 26th President of the United States whose slogan was: “Speak softly and carry a big stick” was responsible for more than 30 million deaths in that conflict (page 320). Yet, there Roosevelt is — up there on Mount Rushmore with George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. Who knew? Let’s get out the jackhammers, and disappear his face off the mountain! Wildly over-stated Okay, enough with the sarcasm.
May 1, 2013

Book review: “Photobooth” by Babbette Hines

I want to talk about eyes. But, first, I want to thank Babbette Hines for the way she’s put together this quirky look into human nature, her 2002 book Photobooth. I have no doubt that she laid out these 700-plus images in a way that pleased her. Which is to say that I recognize that these self-portraits didn’t land randomly on the pages. But Hines has retained a sense of randomness. And that’s as it should be. Sure, she does group some soldiers together, and some men together, and some kids. She does some groupings. But she doesn’t try to ram these wonderfully idiosyncratic images into tight categories. There is a nice asymmetric rhythm to the design of this book. From page to page, you’re never sure what you’re going to find next. That’s always a positive. An immediacy of image-making As Hines points out in her short introduction, the photobooth was invented in 1925, and, in an era long before digital cameras, it provided an immediacy of image-making that was unique.
April 30, 2013

Book review: The African Trilogy: “Things Fall Apart,” “No Longer At Ease,” and “Arrow of God” by Chinua Achebe

Midway through Chinua Achebe’s 1959 novel Things Fall Apart, the central character Okonkwo is getting a dressing-down from his aged uncle Uchendu. Okonkwo has been sulking in deep despair because his gun was involved in an accidental shooting that left one man in his village dead. As a result, he’s been forced to take his family into exile for seven years in Uchendu’s village. The shame and the loss of his former high status has him wallowing in self-pity. Which is what Uchendu tells him. Do you know that men sometimes lose all their yams and even their children? I had six wives once. I have none now except that young girl who knows not her right from her left. Do you know how many children I have buried — children I begot in my youth and strength? Twenty-two. I did not hang myself, and I am still alive. If you think you are the greatest sufferer in the world ask my daughter, Akueni, how many twins she has borne and thrown away. Have you not hear the song they sing when a woman dies? “For whom is it well, for whom is it well? There is no one for […]
April 10, 2013

Book review: “The Lovers” by Thomas McEvilley, Marina Abramovic and Ulay

As originally conceived in 1983, The Lovers, The Great Wall Walk was probably a bit too cute. Performance art runs that risk — that risk of coming across as a gimmick — if it lacks grit, tension and instability. No question, it was clear from the start that there would be an immense effort required from Marina Abramovic and Ulay (real name: Frank Uwe Layslepen) in bringing the piece to life ¬— a walk along the Great Wall of China. Ulay would start in the west in the Gobi Desert, and Abramovic would jump off from the far eastern end of the Wall at the Yellow Sea. After more than 1,000 miles each, they would meet in the center and be married in a Chinese ceremony.
April 9, 2013

Book review: “War in Heaven” by Charles Williams

If you’re a teacher, you never know how something you do or say is going to affect one of your students — how a phrase or an idea may embed itself in a student’s mind and blossom, sooner or later, in some deep, rich way. More than 40 years ago at St. Louis University, I took an English literature course taught by an older Jesuit priest whose name I don’t recall. What I do remember is that he had a lot to say about the importance “point of view” in literature, except he pronounced it “poin’-a-view.” One of the books he taught in the course was Descent into Hell, a 1937 novel by Charles Williams. My memory of the book is that it seemed to me to be a bit of religious mumbo-jumbo, not at all in sync with my own Second Vatican Council sense of faith. Yet, I was enough struck by it that, ever since, I have kept my copy of the novel through my moves to California and back to Chicago, and through a succession of apartments and homes on the Southwest Side and in the neighborhoods of South Chicago, Lincoln Park, Lake View and Edgewater. And […]
March 27, 2013

Book review: “V.” by Thomas Pynchon

Oh, this was a frustrating book for me — V. by Thomas Pynchon. Frustrating because I couldn’t take it all in. I got — understood — enough of V. to know that it is a great work of literature. And I got enough to know how much I was missing. This is a book that wrestles with the great issues. With free will, and faith, and love, and existential dread, and more. Pynchon exhibits a profound understanding of the ways people relate to themselves and to others. And a profound ability to sketch a life story or a personality flaw or a yearning or a vision with the eye of a poet or sculptor. There are moments in this novel that are hard to forget or stop puzzling over. For instance, the nakedly cruel, nakedly vulnerable death of the character known as the Bad Priest.
March 15, 2013

Book review: “Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West” by William Cronon

Chicago exploded onto the world in the mid-19th century, rising in a few decades from a lonely frontier outpost to an economic behemoth that, except for New York, exerted more influence and flexed more power by far than any other American city. In his classic, ground-breaking work Nature’s Metropolis, published in 1991 and still the best book ever written about Chicago, William Cronon notes: During the nineteenth century, when Chicago was at the height of its gargantuan growth, its citizens rather prided themselves on the wonder and horror their hometown evoked in visitors. No other city in America had ever grown so large so quickly; none had so rapidly overwhelmed the countryside around it to create so urban a world. Those who sought to explain its unmatched expansion often saw it as being compelled by deep forces within nature itself, gathering the resources and energies of the Great West — the region stretching from the Appalachians and Great Lakes to the Rockies and the Pacific — and concentrating them in a single favored spot at the southwestern corner of Lake Michigan…a city destined for greatness by nature’s own prophesies: Nature’s Metropolis. Favored by nature? For a half century, Chicago played […]
March 6, 2013

Book review: “The Judgment of Eve” by Edgar Pangborn

There were more than a few moments when I was reading Edgar Pangborn’s The Judgment of Eve that I feared the 1966 book was heading to a lame conclusion. I was afraid that, like many another science fiction writer, Pangborn would manipulate his story so that his characters would find a future of happiness by living the way humans should live, rather than the way people actually do live. Robert Heinlein at his most bombastic falls into this trap. He likes the idea of free love so, in some of his novels, he’ll posit future societies where everyone falls into bed with everyone else, and jealousy never rears its ugly head. Forget it. In many sci-fi stories, this sort of utopian wishful thinking is not at the center of the story so it’s easy enough to ignore. Not so with The Judgment of Eve.
February 27, 2013

Book Review: “City Spaces: Photographs of Chicago Alleys” by Bob Thall

There are many photo books, such as Bob Thall’s City Spaces: Photographs of Chicago Alleys, that are akin to collections of found poems. A poet creates a found poem using a text written by someone else. That text is reshaped or recombined into poetic lines and given a title. The result, when done well, is something that reaches beyond the initial writer’s intent. For instance, Vanessa Mancini mined the testimony of cult leader Charles Manson at his murder trial, and came up with 15 three-line verses. Here’s one: Judgment of the Dead I will not judge you; Have no malice against you, no ribbons for you. Mancini saw something in Manson’s words that was deeper, richer and darker than he meant or than his hearers in court heard. A kind of music The same is true for photographers such as Thall. They look at something, created for one purpose, and see it with different eyes.
February 27, 2013

Book review: “Never Let Me Go” by Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel Never Let Me Go can be read on three levels. It can be approached as a cautionary tale about the unintended consequences of science. It can be seen as a metaphorical examination of slavery and exploitation. To my mind, though, it is best viewed as a meditation on the human condition. Which is odd — but, first, let me warn you that I’m going to be talking about some aspects of the novel that are unveiled slowly in its pages. There are strong hints early, and the outlines of the world in which the characters live are there from the beginning. Nonetheless, if you want to be able to approach Never Let Me Go with completely fresh eyes, you should avoid going any further into this review. The novel is well worth reading and pondering. That way As I was about to say above, it is perhaps a bit odd for me to think of Never Let Me Go as a meditation on the human condition since its three main characters — Kathy H., Tommy D. and Ruth — aren’t human at all. Or, at least, they aren’t seen that way, or think of themselves that […]
February 22, 2013

Book review: “Illinois: Mapping the Prairie State Through History” by Vincent Virga and Scotti McAuliff Cohn

I’m a sucker for map books. Words are a miraculous means developed by humans to communicate what’s inside our heads. Maps are a similarly wonder-full invention. They take landscapes and translate them into images. Most are images of the physical world in which we live, but not all. You can have a map of the brain, for instance, or one of a corporation (usually called an organizational chart), or a map of a process (like the ones that Rube Goldberg cartoons take to humorous extremes). We’re used to looking at maps to figure out how to get from here to there. But these images provide us much more, such as what the map-maker considered important. You can see that in the 53 maps in Illinois: Mapping the Prairie State Through History by Vincent Virga and Scotti McAuliff Cohn. Published in 2010, this is one of nine titles from Globe Pequot Press that focus on a single state and provide historic maps from the Library of Congress. A tiny geographical feature In the scope of things, the Chicago River is a tiny geographical feature. Yet, in map after map at the beginning of this book, it’s shown, greatly out of scale. […]
February 17, 2013

Book review: “Bring Up the Bodies” by Hilary Mantel

The title for Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies comes from a phrase used very late in the novel. Four courtiers to Henry VIII and his consort Anne Boleyn are being held in the Tower of London, awaiting trial for treason for having sex with the Queen and wishing the King dead. (The Queen herself as well as her brother George will also stand trial on the same charges.) The order goes to the Tower, “Bring up the bodies.” Deliver, that is, the accused men, by name Weston, Brereton, Smeaton and Norris, to Westminster Hall for trial. This calls to mind the term formerly used in American prisons, “Dead man walking,” which was shouted to alert guards and inmates that a condemned man was being taken down a hallway. Of course, technically, none of these six accused is condemned. But the trials are only formalities. The King, wishing to marry his third wife Jane Seymour, wanted Anne removed. She wouldn’t go quietly, and these trials are the result. Death is the only outcome. Henry’s right-hand man The one who brought this about is Henry’s right-hand man, Master Secretary Thomas Cromwell. And he is the central character of what Mantel has […]
February 14, 2013

Book review: “Industrial Archeology: A New Look at the American Heritage” by Theodore Anton Sande

The star of Theodore Anton Sande’s 1976 book Industrial Archeology: A New Look at the American Heritage is Chicago’s elevated Loop, originally called the Union Loop. It’s given pride of place as the final example of 32 structures — mills, mines, dams, factories and other industrial sites — that Sande highlights in this heavily illustrated look at the roots of U.S. industry. And it’s given eight pages out of the 115 in the main text, more than any other structure. Indeed, Sande, who helped found the study of industrial archeology, writes about the Loop with deep affection and admiration: The Union Loop, a massive web of riveted steel girders and shining tracks, arches over busy city streets, passing close by the windows of tall buildings on either side, and insistently threads its way through downtown Chicago…. For the industrial archeologist, the Chicago Loop provides an ideal case study of an entire transit system of reasonably manageable size that still serves its original purpose. Demolish the Loop? What Sande wrote then is still true today, of course. Except for renovation or replacement of the Loop stations, the elevated structure itself — that “massive web of riveted steel girders and shining tracks” […]
February 6, 2013

Book review: “White Robe, Black Robe” by Charles L. Mee Jr.

A decade of protests, riots and civil disobedience across the world had just ended when, in 1972, Charles L. Mee Jr. published White Robe, Black Robe, his dual biography of Pope Leo X and Martin Luther. So, it’s no wonder that Mee saw the struggle between the two men as a battle between the establishment and an outside agitator. Indeed, in closing the book, he points to the radical movements in Europe and the United States in the 1960s as an example of “the old controversy of the individual asserting his rights of sovereignty against authority…” Then he writes: None of these movements has yet found its Luther, and perhaps none will. But the establishment unhappily, maintains the breeding ground for him, nourishing the forces of its own ruin, clinging desperately and indiscriminately to its virtues and its corruptions, its liberties and its tyrannies, its ideals and its injustices — secure, like Leo X, in the knowledge that the powerful will prevail. Now we find ourselves at another moment in time when the powerless are challenging the powerful. We see it in Libya, Syria and Egypt. And we see it in the attacks by Islamic terrorists against the U.S. The […]
February 1, 2013

Book review: “Noah” and “Moses, Moses,” pictures by Ken Munowitz, text by Charles L. Mee Jr.

As a reader, I get hooked on a particular writer for any number of reasons. I suspect it’s the same for you. For instance, Patrick O’Brian’s series of 20 novels of the British Navy in the early 19th century, featuring Capt. Jack Aubrey and his particular friend, surgeon Stephen Maturin, captivate me. Writing with great style and verve, O’Brian interweaves the closely observed interactions of people in groups, usually ship crews, with rollicking adventure scenes. Then there’s Terry Pratchett who has taken a jaundiced but affectionate look at the foibles of today’s world through 40 or so books of humorous fantasy, most set on the flat and wacky planet of Discworld. I’m drawn as well to more serious novelists — such as Vance Bourjaily, Anthony Trollope, Muriel Spark, Saul Bellow, Charles Dickens, Marilynne Robinson, Frederick Busch, John Barth, Jim Crace, John Williams and W. M. Spackman ¬— for their voice, language, originality and insight into the human condition. And to historians who are able to study, understand and communicate big stories with a personal flair and panache, particularly David McCullough, Antonia Fraser, John Keegan, Barbara Tuchman, Robert Massie, Simon Schama, Bernard DeVoto and, best of all, Robert Caro. Paean I […]
January 21, 2013

Book review: “Nocturnes – Five Stories of Music and Nightfall” by Kazuo Ishiguro

The five stories in Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2009 collection Nocturnes are, in a way, about music and nightfall, as the subtitle indicates. Yes, but, even more, their subject is the fragility of love in the face of human nature. Or maybe the strength of love despite the clashings and dissonances of human nature. A famous singer croons to his wife from a gondola in Venice, and she weeps bitter tears. A London couple berate their visiting friend, all while befuddled at the way their lives have drifted apart and the bonds of their love have strained to the breaking point. A couple on vacation from Switzerland has a spat while gazing together at the English countryside that inspired the music by Edward Elgar they both treasure. A sax player in Los Angeles has his plain face reconstructed at the urging of his wife who has left him. A middle-age woman leads a young cellist to raise his craft to a higher level, and then her boyfriend shows up.
January 16, 2013

Book review: “The Faces of Jesus: A Life Story” by Frederick Buechner

Frederick Buechner’s The Faces of Jesus: A Life Story, published in 2005 by Paraclete Press, is an intense, dense poetic meditation on the life and person of Jesus. A Presbyterian minister and theologian, Buechner is also a novelist of such highly praised works as Godric and the four volumes of The Book of Bebb. And he writes about Jesus with such sharp focus and deep understanding that I’m tempted to quote extensively from this short book of fewer than 25,000 words. And I will. But, first, it should be noted that Buechner is one of a long line of novelists who have taken upon themselves the task of writing their own version of the gospel story. It’s quite a list, including such luminaries from the literary past and present as Nikos Kazantzakis, Leo Tolstoy, Philip Pullman, Christopher Moore, Jim Crace, Reynolds Price, Anne Rice, Gore Vidal and Charles Dickens. Most have written novels. Not Buechner. The purest of ore This is a book a pastor would write, a pastor with an artist’s eye for detail and an imagination for finding the story behind the story. That’s what gives this book its density. It is prose and poetry at the same […]
January 15, 2013

Book review: “Ender’s Game” by Orson Scott Card

Ender Wiggin is six at the start of Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, and eleven by the time the novel’s action has concluded. Over those five years, he has endured isolation and ostracization, has fought off two crowds of bullies with deadly results, has become a star at Battle School and a superstar at Command School, and has been asked to win a war with an alien people known as buggers. Not what you’d call a normal childhood.
January 12, 2013

Book review: “Changing Places” by David Lodge

David Lodge, I suspect, had fun writing his 1975 novel Changing Places. It’s a playful novel of two English professors — Morris Zapp from the prestigious West Coast school, Euphoric State (think the University of California at Berkeley), and Philip Swallow from the second-tier British school in a blue-collar city, the University of Rummidge (think of the University of Birmingham) — who trade positions for the spring term in 1969. That was a tumultuous year on college campuses in the U.S. and elsewhere, and also the year in which Lodge, an English professor at Birmingham, served as a visiting professor at Berkeley. So, in Changing Places, Lodge is taking the opportunity to compare and contrast, and gently send up, the academic communities in both places. Foolish but not fools And, like just about every well-done academic novel (except the bleak yet revelatory Stoner by John Williams), Changing Places is a comedy. Its characters are generally foolish. Lodge, however, is no ogre. He doesn’t make them fools.
January 6, 2013

Book Review: “Basil of Caesarea: A Guide to His Life and Doctrines” by Andrew Radde-Gallwitz

Basil of Caesarea (329/330 – 378) was an important early thinker about the still-developing world of monasticism, writing guidelines for those who sought to lead lives of quiet contemplation. Yet, as Andrew Radde-Gallwitz notes in his short, sprightly biography Basil of Caesarea, Basil saw little difference between ascetic and authentic Christianity, between living in a monastic setting and living in the wide, bustling world. Both, for him, were aspects of a “life centered on Christ’s commandments.” Both, too, involved living a God-focused existence within a community. Basil was suspicious of a “go it alone” model of spirituality. For him, to think of ourselves as self-sufficient would be to ignore the many ways in which we need each other, a mutuality that God our Creator intended. Moreover, Christ himself set the example of service-in-community. If you live entirely on your own, Basil asks, ‘whose feet will you wash?” Earthy, direct and deeply rooted “Whose feet will you wash?” — Basil won me over with that phrase, so earthy, so direct, and so deeply rooted in the central teachings and life of Jesus. And it wasn’t a fluke. The many quotations from Basil in this book show him to have been a […]
January 4, 2013

Book review: “Aquamarine” by Carol Anshaw

A mother is thinking about her aimless 19-year-old son and how, as a child, he enjoyed putting on magic shows and drawing, in crayon, various inhabitants of his imagination, such as a man made of water. And then somewhere along the way, he slipped from surprises into secrets, started becoming this elaborately unknowable person. Which makes [her] crazy. She sits quietly next to him and wants to tear him open and crawl inside, find out who the hell is in there. Yet, isn’t each one of us “elaborately unknowable”? Even to ourselves. That’s the reality at the heart of Aquamarine, Carol Anshaw’s first novel, published in 1992. It is a short book of fewer than 200 pages. Yet, it is intensely rich and multi-faceted — in part, because of a surprising bit of literary legerdemain that Anshaw is able to pull off, and, even more, because she is like a bulldog. From the first pages, she grabs onto this issue of unknowable-ness and won’t let go. A distraction Consider her central character Jesse Austin.
December 29, 2012

Book review: “Wicked: The life and times of the Wicket Witch of the West” by Gregory Maguire

My sister Mary Beth does a great Wicked Witch of the West. For about half a century, she’s been cracking us up with “I’ll get you my pretty. And your little dog too! Ah-hahaha!” It’s so funny because the green-faced witch from the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz is so freaking scary. Forget Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers and Lord Voldemort. When it comes to frightening the bejesus out of little kids, no one can approach Margaret Hamilton’s turn as the Wicked Witch. So, in 1995, when Gregory Maguire published Wicked, he was confronting a cultural touchstone deeply embedded in the psyches (and nightmares) of generations of moviegoers. And not just confronting it, but turning it on its head. Not the epitome of evil For him, the Wicked Witch, whom he named Elphaba, isn’t an old hag and the epitome of evil. Rather, she’s a sensitive person who, except for her odd coloration, is like any one of us, struggling along her road through life, misunderstood and misunderstanding herself in many ways, prone to failure (or, at least, only partial success), often unsure and unhappy, exquisitely vulnerable and prickly at the same time. She’s not a stand-in for Satan. […]