Saturday, December 10, 2005

Best Books of 2005: Saving the Best for Last

The best book I read all year is one that came to me late in the year: “Heavenly City: The Archdiocese Tradition of Catholic Chicago,” [Liturgy Training Publications: 2005], put together with a massive grant from the Graham Foundation for the Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts. Stunning photographs of the massive, ornate and exquisitely built key Catholic churches in the archdiocese: full color photos you would die for. Opening the big multi-colored book, you almost hear the orchestral strains of a film documentary. Photographs so defined, so wondrously alive with crisp definitions and chiaroscuro you would imagine no one could put it together. But they did! Photographs by James Morris, the script (a marvel in itself) by Denis R. McNamara, an architectural historian specializing in architectural and cultural subjects from around the world, whose text is an education in architecture and art itself, yet charmingly easy to read. Helping to supervise the amazing publication is John Powers (a frequent contributor to this blog), president of the Bricks & Mortar Foundation which joined with the Liturgical Institute of the University of St. Mary of the Lake, Mundelein. Sixty-eight churches and chapels, over 250 striking color photographs. It’s available on-line. Go to Vital read.

“Boss Cermak of Chicago: A Study of Political Leadership” by Alex Gottfried [University of Washington Press: 1962]. Anton Cermak is largely forgotten in popular books about Chicago, but this largely self-educated street politics genius was the George Washington of the Democratic machine, building it with smoothly lined ethnic coalitions. The Daleys were Johnny-come-lately next to Cermak who was born in Bohemia, was a Czech and the second Chicago mayor to be assassinated, standing by an open car in Miami talking to Franklin D. Roosevelt as president-elect. It has prompted the question, never fully answered: was the deranged assailant trying to kill FDR or sent on a mission from the Chicago Outfit to kill Cermak? A street politician, known as “Pushcart Tony,” Cermak was a religious free-thinker, never affiliating with any church. He fought for Al Smith’s nomination at the 1932 convention in Chicago and went to Miami to make up with FDR when he was plugged. His daughter married Otto Kerner. Vital read if you can get it: I think it’s out of print.

“Skylark: The Life and Times of Johnny Mercer” by Philip Furia [St. Martin’s Press: 2003] tells the story of my favorite lyricist who wrote enduring songs in the `40s: “Blues in the Night,” “Moon River,” “That Old Black Magic.” It convinced me that the toughest part of composing is writing the words. Vital read but only if you like Mercer. But then, who wouldn’t?

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