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 […]
October 1, 2015

Book review: “At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past” by A. Roger Ekirch

I found A. Roger Ekirch’s At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, published in 2004, endlessly fascinating — and endlessly irritating. What Ekirch set out to do in this book was to look at the myriad aspects of life after dark for the people in preindustrial Europe and North America (generally 1500 through 1750). He looks at how people got around (and didn’t) in the dark, how they used moonlight and candlelight to see after sunset, how they acted on the roadways and in their homes at night, and much, much, much more. And he succeeds wonderfully in examining hundreds of ways in which life after dark was different than life in the daylight — and, by implication, the ways in which life at night in the preindustrial world was different than life at night in the present-day. For instance, did you ever wonder what it must have been like to fall ill in a world before electricity and other artificial illumination? Ekirch did, and he reports: Not only was sickness common, but darkness contributed its share of injuries. Families possessed a passing knowledge of remedies and cures, combined with a small inventory of potions, plasters, and possets, some acquired […]
September 23, 2015

Book review: “When God Was a Little Girl” by David R. Weiss, illustrated by Joan Hernandez Lindeman

David R. Weiss tells a sweet story about a father and a young daughter in When God Was a Little Girl, playfully and joyfully illustrated by Joan Hernandez Lindeman. Yet, the power of this 32-page children’s book isn’t that it’s another finely produced work to entertain and inspire young people. This book takes the radical approach of imagining God as a child, not an adult; as a Supreme Being of giggles, not a thundering blame-leveler; and, most significantly as a female, not a male. God transcends time and space, transcends physical characteristics such as gender. You might just as well assert that God has brown skin or red hair or blue eyes. Still, as human beings, we like to picture God as one of us. Jesus, of course, was one of us — is one of us. Nonetheless, that doesn’t mean that we are required to think of the Creator as an old guy with a long white beard. Or of the Holy Spirit as a little white bird. As human beings, we use our imaginations to fit abstract concepts into physical images. Or maybe it’s better to say that we look at our physical world and develop abstract concepts. […]
September 18, 2015

Book review: “The Shepherd’s Crown” by Terry Pratchett

Granny Weatherwax returned home from her work as a witch, the most powerful witch on the Discworld. She took a very short nap — “Granny Weatherwax allowed herself not forty winks but just one” — and then went out and cleaned the privy, scrubbing and scrubbing and scrubbing. Then, looking into the privy’s shimmering water, she realized she could also see her face. And she sighed and said, “Drat, and tomorrow was going to be a much better day.” The next few pages, early as they are in The Shepherd’s Crown, are the core of the novel, the last of Terry Pratchett’s dozens of books about the fantastic flat planet of Discworld where the dwarfs, vampires, humans, goblins, elves, wizards, werewolves, trolls, witches and other odd living being are, well, pretty much like us.     Pure Pratchett But, before I discuss those few pages, let me get a few things out of the way. In December, 2007, Pratchett announced that he was suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s disease. In the face of this dread diagnosis, he redoubled his efforts to get the stories bouncing around in his head onto the pages of his books, producing five and, now posthumously, […]
September 9, 2015

Book review: “Hild” by Nicola Griffith

The Catholic Church is big on books about the Lives of the Saints. There’s even a term for it: “hagiography.” Nicola Griffith’s 2013 novel Hild is the first of a planned trilogy about the life of St. Hilda of Whitby, a major figure in medieval Britain. But it’s definitely not hagiography — at least, hagiography in its traditional Catholic form. The Church uses the lives of saints as tools for teaching morality, ethics and spirituality. There are two general types of traditional lives: (1) relatively simplistic and pious accounts, emphasizing miracles and a kind of religious sweetness, and (2) more rigorous, historically based narratives that grapple with the real-world existence of the saint and his or her theological insights.   Not pious Griffith’s novel, which is peopled almost entirely with characters who are found in the historical record, is certainly not pious. And there is much in it, including words that almost certainly have never appeared before in a written Life of a Saint, to offend or scandalize believers with expectations of what a saint is and isn’t. For one thing, Griffith’s Hild is bisexual, and the novel is spiced with full-blooded sex scenes, including one that follows a rough-and-tumble […]
August 31, 2015

Book review: “Sexing the Cherry” by Jeanette Winterson.

In Sexing the Cheery, her elliptical 1989 novel — equal parts poetry and philosophy — Jeanette Winterson tells of a handful of characters in the complex setting of time and of space. Jordan in 17th century England and his mother called Dog-woman by her neighbors. Fortunata, one of 12 dancing sisters, Another (?) Jordan in the United States of 1990. A 20th century Fortunata-like woman fighting polluters. The narration in the book shimmies and shifts like mercury as paragraph follows paragraph. Fortunata’s 11 sisters have a walk-on part near the midpoint of the novel during which each explains why and how her marriage to a prince failed. “But he never touched me,” one says. “It was a boy he loved. I pierced them both with a single arrow where they lay.” There are numbered LIES that are dropped here and there into the tale, such as LIES 8 which has to do with Fortunata’s report that the first thing she ever saw was a winter landscape, which parallels the opening page of the book on which Jordan (the 17th century one) reports that the first thing he saw was a night scene in a field. LIES 8: It was not […]
August 25, 2015

Book review: “Last Ragged Breath” by Julia Keller

The tone of Last Ragged Breath is set on the book’s first pages when Goldie, a six-year-old shepherd-retriever mix, is running joyously along the bank of Old Man’s Creek after “something [that] smelled mighty good — that is, powerful and unusual.” In this fourth installment in her radiant series of Bell Elkins crime novels, Julia Keller writes: The smell, as it intensified, became even more intoxicating…Goldie plunged forward, whipping back and forth between the leafless trees…[T]he smell drawing her forward asserted its dominance… It was the King of Smells. It ratcheted up in deliciousness a few notches more, even after it seemed that it couldn’t get any more wonderful. Goldie finds the source of the smell in a brown mass in the water, exuding the “strong smell [that] was still pleasurable but also perplexing.” She waits as the man who has taken her on this walk climbs down the side of the bank to investigate. What he finds is a body and, separated from it, “like a bobbing beach ball,” a human head. Goldie, sensing his shock, not sure what she ought to do about it, went from barking to a kind of eerie, sirenlike crooning, an ancient song of […]
August 17, 2015

Book review: “The Light Fantastic” by Terry Pratchett

In Terry Pratchett’s second Discworld novel The Light Fantastic, a mob of Ankh-Morpork citizens has marched through the streets to the gates of the Unseen University to demand that the wizards there save their flat, round world. That is, most of the mob has. “There were one or two freelance rioters here [in a nearby alley], mostly engaged in wrecking shops.” Also in the alley are Rincewind, a failed wizards, and two friends, planning to sneak onto the University grounds a back way. But, to gain entry, Rincewind needs a knife to pry away some stones so he sends his friends to get one. “All the shops have been smashed open,” one says upon returning. “There were a whole bunch of people across the street helping themselves to musical instruments, can you believe that?” “Yeah,” says Rincewind. “Luters, I expect.”   Hamlet in Swedish I’m not sure how many times Terry Pratchett’s name has been used in the same sentence as the name of another British writer, William Shakespeare — but here’s one. The two writers share a lot. There is, of course, their love of puns. “Luters” is an example from Pratchett. Here’s one from the Bard of Avon: […]
August 10, 2015

Book review: “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game” by Michael Lewis

Some books are like a lot of magazine articles and newspaper stories. They are so rooted in a present moment that, in the long run, they don’t stand up. Circumstances shift; suppositions are exploded. Michael Lewis’s Moneyball, published in 2003, is one of those books. It’s an interesting historical document, one that not only recorded a moment in the evolution of major league baseball but also helped nudge that evolution forward. Twelve years after the publication of Moneyball, it’s impossible to read about baseball or watch coverage on television or the Internet without being aware of the numbers revolution that has occurred. On-base percentage, WHIP (walks and hits per inning), WAR (wins above replacement) and dozens of other arcane but useful statistics are gathered and discussed today with a religious fervor. Moneyball helped make that occur. When published, the book was a sort of manifesto for an analytical approach to the game, and, like all manifestos, it over-stated its case. Moneyball tells the story of the Oakland A’s and their general manager Billy Beane, a can’t-miss prospect who could and did miss and then, at the helm of one of the poorest franchises in the majors, found amazing success. No […]
August 4, 2015

Book Review: “Killers of the King” by Charles Spencer

On the afternoon of January 27, 1649, Charles I, King of England, was told by a court of his subjects that, for committing high treason, he would “be put to death by the severing of his head from his body.” The court, writes Charles Spencer in Killers of the King, was comprised of 59 commissioners, appointed by the Rump Parliament under the control of the nation’s army which, itself, was under the control of Oliver Cromwell. The death warrant was read to the King. Then, in seven columns on the page, each of the commissioners added his signature, pressing his seal into hot wax next to his name. It was a solemn moment, yet not completely: During the signings, Cromwell and Henry Marten were in such high spirits that they flicked ink at one another from their pens, like naughty schoolboys. Three days later, the sentence was carried out, and, Spencer writes, the 59 commissioners were now regicides — “a term that would be extended by the Royalists to include the officers of the court during Charles’s trial, and those involved in the act of execution. In all, there would be around eighty men who were considered directly responsible for […]
July 22, 2015

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

The Long Utopia doesn’t sound much like the late Terry Pratchett, but neither have any of the earlier three novels in the Long Earth series — The Long Earth, The Long War and The Long Mars. I’ve read each because Pratchett’s name was there on the cover as co-author with Stephen Baxter, and, each time, I’ve come away disappointed. Indeed, while reading The Long Utopia, I often find myself asking: “Did Terry Pratchett want to write a dull book?” Well, maybe “dull” isn’t the right word. The Long Utopia, like its predecessors, is cold and hard, exhibiting little emotional depth or psychological sensitivity. In contrast to Pratchett’s delightfully and endlessly interesting Discworld novels, the books in the Long Earth series aren’t really concerned with people. Over the course of more than 1,000 pages so far, its characters remain talking heads and (somewhat) animate plot devices. How very much unlike the people — well, you know what I mean: the werewolves, trolls, dwarfs, humans and other human-ish entities — in the Discworld! One-of-a-kind sort of people such as Granny Weatherwax, Sam Rimes, Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler, Lord Sir Henry King, Sergeant Fred Colon and Corporal Nobby Nobbs, Lord Vetinari, Tiffany Aching, Moist von Lipwig and […]
July 17, 2015

Book review: “BODY,” edited by Anthony Bond

Given our complicated feelings about our bodies, it’s no wonder that most of the art works included in BODY, edited by Anthony Bond, are unsettling. This book — the catalogue of a 1997 exhibition of the same name that was held at The Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia — focuses mainly on nudes of one sort or another, but not just any nudes. The curator of the exhibit and the book’s essayists aren’t very concerned with elbows or toes. Rather, the emphasis is on those parts that pack the most emotional impact for us. Lots of penises, breasts, vaginas and butts. Consider BODY’‘s front cover with its image of Auguste Renoir’s “Young Boy with Cat” (1869) and the back cover with Gustave Courbet’s “The Source.” Even those artworks featuring the clothed human body are often unnerving. Indeed, the most disturbing image for me doesn’t exhibit any erotic areas, but a seeming acre of bare skin that suggests them — George Lambert’s “Chesham Street” (1910). A well-to-do, well-muscled, well-whiskered man is holding up his shirt almost to his neck (where he still has on a tie). His pants are open, well below the navel, and a doctor […]
July 10, 2015

Book review: “Searching for Robert Johnson” by Peter Guralnick

There is much that is mysterious and evocative and just plain odd about the life of blues legend Robert Johnson who died in 1938 at the age of 27, probably murdered with poison. One of the oddest is the idea of him playing “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” the 1930s country-western song recorded by Gene Autry and later by Bing Crosby and, most memorably, by The Sons of the Pioneers. In Searching for Robert Johnson, published in 1989, music historian Peter Guralnick writes of Johnson’s life as a musician: You had to be prepared to play what your audience wanted you to play, since you were being paid not by salary but by tips. You might be engaged to play all night at a juke joint for a dollar and a half, but you were liable to make your real money by filling a request for Leroy Carr’s latest release or a Duke Ellington number. By Johnny Shines’s account Robert Johnson was as likely to perform “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” or the latest Bing Crosby hit as one of his own compositions. In fact, the bluesman seems to have been a Bing Crosby fan, and, at times, in the 41 recordings that make up all […]
July 7, 2015

Book review: “The Colour of Magic” by Terry Pratchett

Fifteen years ago, I interviewed Terry Pratchett for the Chicago Tribune about his new novel The Fifth Elephant. It was the 24th of his Discworld books, and it had to do with dwarfs, trolls, gnomes, humans, vampires, zombies and werewolves. We met in the lobby of a hotel a few steps from Tribune Tower, and he was, as I wrote, “a short man who, with his bald head and grizzled white beard, looks a bit gnomish himself.” He spoke in a thin, high voice with an engaging lisp. He was 51 at the time. Over a period of a decade or so, I interviewed a lot of writers for the Tribune. It was an exhilarating experience, a sort of super-graduate-level course in the art of writing. I’d read whatever new book the author had produced, and then we’d sit down together and talk. Often, after reading one work, I’d get ahold of one or more of the authors other works. With Pratchett, though, it was different. After reading The Fifth Elephant — the title is the pun on a popular sci-fi movie of the time The Fifth Element — I went back to the beginning of the Discworld series and […]