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 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 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 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 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 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 16, 2015

Book review: “Resistance” by Owen Sheers

The characters in Owen Sheers’ 2007 alternative-history novel Resistance are caught in a world where they know they lack control. They are the five Welsh farmwomen in the Olchon valley who wake up one morning to find their husbands missing, gone into the hills to fight as guerillas against the occupation troops of a triumphant German military. They are also the six members of a German patrol who, sent into the valley to locate a rare artifact, find a kind of harmony, tranquility and even normality after the terrors of battle. It is 1944, and Albrecht Wolfram, the 33-year-old captain leading the patrol, is a veteran who knows how much his life and the lives of his men are at the mercy of “a thousand other vagaries beyond his own decisions.” Such quirks of fate as: Blocks of wood pushed across a table in Berlin. Arrows drawn on a map pinned to the wall at the new Southern UK Headquarters. The Fuhrer’s toothache. A general’s capricious fit of arrogance. The trembling cross hairs of a sniper’s sights settling over an Adams apple. Also feeling like pawns are the farmwomen who see the disappearance of their husbands as a kind of […]
November 6, 2015

Book review: “Montaillou” by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie

Most editions of Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s classic Montaillou, first published in French 40 years ago, have one of two subtitles, neither of which is very helpful. For some, the subtitle is Cathars and Catholics in a French Village 1294 – 1324 which is somewhat descriptive except who knows what a Cathar is? And, even if you know that they were heretics from the Catholic faith, also called Albigensians, why would you want to read a longish book about some religious dispute from seven centuries ago? For others, the subtitle is The Promised Land of Error which has the virtue and the fault of not saying anything. For the life of me, I can’t understand why the publishers didn’t take a phrase from the last page of Ladurie’s text and subtitle the book: A Factual History of Ordinary People. (To be fair, the cover of a more recent paperback edition skipped a subtitle and, in its place, described the book as “The bestselling portrait of life in a medieval village.”) As it was, despite seeing endless copies of this book in new and used bookstores for decades, I waited a long time to read Montaillou. Now, having finally gotten past […]
November 3, 2015

Book 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 element of her heritage, the Mexican celebration of the Day of the Dead. I wish I’d grown up closer to the border like my friend Maria Limon of El Paso. Cisneros’s new autobiographical work A House of My Own is very much about borders and about houses, particularly “the house one calls the self.” It is made up of 42 non-fiction chapters, most of which have previously appeared as book introductions or articles in newspapers and magazines, or were presented in lectures. “My stray lambs,” she calls them.   Complex and nuanced Make no mistake, though. A House of My Own isn’t a greatest hits collection or a slap-dash clean-out-the-archive grouping. It is a surprisingly resonant account of Cisneros’s life which is woven through each of these […]
November 2, 2015

Book review: “Windy City Sinners” by Melanie Villines

All religions are a little bit wacky, and that’s certainly true for a new church on Chicago’s Far Northwest Side. For one thing, there’s the name: Redemption Dry Cleaners. For another, the congregants are called customers. For a third, there is a series of stained-glass windows that are a sort of Stations of the Cross but featuring a goose. Then, there is the Christmas Day service at which Marek Jablonski, a 19-year-old Polish immigrant, walks down the aisle, carrying an envelope containing $200 as well as a box with a large plastic goose and an array of fitted outfits. Marek looks up at the final window which depicts in stained glass a goose being stolen by a man in a black ski mask. From his pocket, he pulls a black ski mask and puts it over his head, saying: “It is me.” “Ohhhh!” the crowd gasps, like the audience of an Oprah Winfrey show. “I was robber.” Virginia Martyniak who presides over this new church tells Marek to kneel and begins to pray: “Heavenly spirit, use your most powerful cleaning solutions to wipe the sins from this man’s soul.” Right away, Marek feels as if his body has been plugged […]
October 27, 2015

Book review: “Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World” by Jack Weatherford

I know that I should like Jack Weatherford’s Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World. It is a detailed, well-documented, well-researched look at the rise of Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire. Actually, I should say “empires” since the unified domain that Temujin created in the 13th century on his way to becoming Genghis Khan (which means “strong, wolf-like leader”) was quickly fragmented among four branches of his family. Weatherford’s 2004 book is filled with insights into the culture of the Mongols and their methods of war-making. He examines the seemingly endless ways in which the Mongols, in their empire-building, had an impact on every corner of Asia and Europe. So why do I come away from the book dissatisfied? The fault, I acknowledge, may lie with myself. Perhaps Weatherford provided so much information and perspective new to me that my circuits overloaded, and I just couldn’t hold my own as a reader.   Three faults? I can’t help thinking, though, that there were perhaps three faults of the book that caused me to lose my way. The first is that Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World is ostensibly a biography of Genghis Khan — […]
October 26, 2015

Book review: “The Marne” by Edith Wharton

Nearly a century after World War I, the hopeful, innocent, sentimental ending of Edith Wharton’s novella The Marne is jarring. This was a war in which much of a generation of young men on both sides lost their lives in bloody battles across huge stalemated fronts. A war in which attempts at strategy were overwhelmed by the armaments of heightened technical and industrial sophistication, grinding up waves of troops like mechanical threshers. It was a war that destroyed all military romance and glamor. A war exemplified in such novels as Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front and R. H. Mottram’s Spanish Farm Trilogy (1924-1926). Unlike those books, however, Wharton’s The Marne wasn’t published several years after the conflict when the shattering realities of the trenches could be faced in all their existential insanity and inanity.   The home front The war was still raging on October 26, 1918, when the 15,000-word novella was published in the Saturday Evening Post, and fighting continued for two more weeks. So, The Marne, which came out as a book later that year, doesn’t have the post-war, angst-filled perspective of Remarque, Mottram and other writers. Also, it really isn’t a book about […]
October 23, 2015

THREE COCHINEAL BOOKS – 3 – “A Red Like No Other: How Cochineal Colored the World — an Epic Story of Art, Culture, Science, and Trade,” Edited by Carmella Padilla and Barbara Anderson

A Red Like No Other is several books in one, and that may be too many for some readers and, at the same time, not enough. I found it fascinating. It often demanded hard work from me as a reader, but it always rewarded my efforts. It is the story of the American cochineal bug, a tiny insect that lives on a cactus and provides a deep red color like freshly shed blood that has been used as a dye since the second century B.C. The word “cochineal” is based on the combination of two Aztec words that mean “cactus blood.” DNA research, as well as other studies, indicates that the American cochineal species originated in the Oaxaca area of what is now Mexico. From there it spread into South American and, later, across the globe. The story of cochineal is about local and world economics, about transcontinental trade, about the rise and fall of empires, about slave-trading and the redcoats of the British army, about fashion and status, about brightly decorated furniture, about great works of Western art, about the chemistry and recipes of dye-making, about financial speculation and about elegant clothing throughout the world and down the centuries. […]
October 22, 2015

THREE COCHINEAL BOOKS – 2 – “Cochineal Red: The Art History of a Color” by Elena Phipps

In 1776, a French spy went to Oaxaca in Spanish-held Mexico. He was there to steal a treasure — a tiny bug called cochineal. The female of this insect species had been used in the Americas since at least the second century B.C. to provide a rich red dye, particularly for textiles. Following the arrival of the Spanish in the 1520s, it became an important trade good. Indeed, Elena Phipps writes in her 2010 book Cochineal Red: The Art History of a Color, “[B]y the mid-sixteenth century the Spanish flotillas that traveled annually between the Americas and Spain were bringing literally tons of the dried insects to Europe.” In one year alone, 72 tons of the dried bodies of cochineal was shipped from Lima to Spain. “Cochineal, along with gold and silver from the Americas,” Phipps notes, “enabled the Spanish Crown to finance its empire…” Throughout human history, red has been among the most highly prized colors because it’s so difficult to achieve. Phipps delineates the many means used to create red dye, such as minerals, and notes, “The most brilliant crimson red dye, however, was obtained from a group of scale insects of the superfamily Coccoidea.” And the most […]
October 21, 2015

THREE COCHINEAL BOOKS – 1 – “A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage and the Quest for the Color of Desire” by Amy Butler Greenfield

A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage and the Quest for the Color of Desire by Amy Butler Greenfield won wide praise from reviewers when it was published in 2005. Without question, it is a jaunty, entertaining and informative book. Yet, there is an awkwardness at its core. It is a book about the dyestuff cochineal which, when it arrived from the New World in the 16th century, “was the closest thing Europe had ever seen to a perfect red.” Previously, textile makers and painters had used a variety of red dyes, the best of which were St. John’s blood (later called Polish cochineal) and Armenian red (later called Armenian cochineal). Garfield writes: But cochineal had three advantages that St. John’s blood and Armenian red lacked. First, cochineal insects produced their carminic acid with far fewer lipids than did the plump little Armenian insects, whose fat melted in the dyepot and sometimes coated the threads of silk preventing the fibers from fully absorbing the dye. Second, cochineal could be more efficiently produced than either…, and it could be harvested several times a year. Third — and most important — cochineal yielded far more powerful dye than any of the Old World reds. […]
October 19, 2015

Book review: “The Plot Against America” by Philip Roth

Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America is a particularly scary book to read in the fall of 2015 when businessman Donald Trump and an array of other candidates for the Republican nomination for President are spouting an irresponsible and demagogic rhetoric, unheard at the center of American politics ever in the nation’s history.   It’s a novel of alternative — i.e., “what if?” — history, and it’s based on the proposition that, in 1940, Charles A. Lindbergh becomes the Republican presidential nominee and, running a campaign based solely on image, defeats FDR. Once in office, the Lindberg administration starts, quiet step by quiet step, to isolate and marginalize Jews. Within two years, there are Kristallnacht-like anti-Jewish riots in major cities across the nation as well as arrests of virtually all major Jewish figures and their Gentile supporters. It’s a warning that’s been written before. In 1935, as Adolf Hitler achieved dominance in Germany, Sinclair Lewis published It Can’t Happen Here, a novel about a newly elected American president who imposes totalitarian rule with the help of a paramilitary force. It Can’t Happen Here ends with the nation in a civil war. Oddly — and unaccountably to my mind — Roth […]
October 14, 2015

Book review: “Red & White Quilts: Infinite Variety” by Elizabeth V. Warren with Maggi Gordon

What would it be like to have 653 red and white American quilts assembled and displayed together in the same place? That unusual question was at the heart of the Infinite Variety exhibit in the Park Avenue Armory in New York City, sponsored in 2011 by the American Folk Art Museum for six days, March 25-30. The answer: A kind of delight-filled ecstasy. Historian and art critic Simon Schama wrote that his response to the show was pure, runaway, skipping-through-the-puddles joy. This show, featuring the treasure trove of a single collector, Joanna S. Rose, was, Schama wrote, “a monster of happiness that will have no competition anywhere this season for sheer sensory riot or ecstatic retinal shock.” Thousands attended the free show, but only those lucky enough to be in New York for the exhibit’s  short run.   Grandeur Now comes Red & White Quilts: Infinite Variety by Elizabeth V. Warren with Maggi Gordon (Skira Rizzoli, 352 pages, $60) in which all 653 quilts, exquisitely photographed by Gavin Ashworth, are displayed for close and careful inspection by anyone. So, what’s the response to seeing all of these quilts assembled in a single book? The answer: Breathless astonishment at the grandeur […]