December 28, 2011

What I Learned from Bill O’Reilly and His Book about Lincoln

This story appeared in the Dec. 28, 2011 issue of Streetwise magazine. If you’ve ever watched a panel discussion at a convention workshop or in a museum or university setting, you know how easy it is for the event to be deadly dull. Too often, each participant simply takes his or her allotted 10 minutes to trot out a boilerplate set of observations-arguments-data, regardless of the other panel members and their observations-arguments-data. That’s what we wanted to avoid on Dec. 7 when five of us gathered on the stage of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield to discuss “Killing Lincoln,” a new book by TV commentator Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard. Instead, we wanted to have a conversation about the O’Reilly-Dugard account of John Wilkes Booth’s murder of Lincoln. Not only would that be more interesting for the 200 or so people in the audience, but also a reasonable give-and-take about the book was more likely to spark new thoughts and insights about popular history and the place of Lincoln in American lore. A conversation and a flash of insight And we succeeded so well that, midway through the conversation, I had a flash of insight and […]
December 23, 2011

Book review: “The Girl Who Played with Fire” by Stieg Larsson

OK. This is more like it. The first book in Stieg Larsson’s trilogy centering on Lisbeth Salander, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” was slow and often clumsily written. This second installment “The Girl Who Played with Fire” is much, much better. Let me add quickly that, like “Tattoo,” this books starts off very slowly. In fact, at page 130 or so, I was getting fed up with the many detailed lists of purchases that Salander was making. As if I needed to know that, on one shopping trip, she bought a mop, a vacuum cleaner and a giant package of toilet paper. But, then, on page 141, things started to happen. And kept right on happening to the very last page (unlike “Tattoo” which took about 100 pages to very slowly tie up loose ends). Not only was there a lot of action in the final nearly 500 pages of “Fire,” but two really interesting characters were introduced — one, a creepy bad guy, a blond giant with muscles upon muscles and an insensitivity to pain; the other, a personable good guy, Paolo Roberto, a former prize-fighter, who has humor, loyalty and good will, something that many of the […]
December 21, 2011

Christmas: Early Morning

The small boy moves through deep snow down dark streets alone to the boulevard through the cold to the lights of the churchfront past thick wood doors inside to warmth and candles and colors and incense and mystery. An usher coughs. The belt of a coat slaps against a wooden pew. A baby in the back cries, is huddled close and rocked. Patrick T. Reardon written @1980
December 15, 2011

Book review: “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” by Stieg Larsson

“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” by Stieg Larsson is a curiously lumbering thriller. It starts slowly and ends slowly. In between, the novel has more than its share of often bizarre twists and turns. Yet, the shock value of these is consistently undercut by Larsson’s wooden writing. (Or is it the clunky translation by Reg Keeland that’s responsible?) Still, as an entertainment, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” does entertain. It keeps the reader turning pages. There is a cinematic quality to the story. Lots of visuals. Lots of action. No wonder the book has already been made into two movies, one in Swedish and one in English that will come out in less than a week in the U.S. And that the novel’s two sequels have already been filmed in Swedish, and are certain to get an English language treatment as well. There’s also, at the heart of the book, the fascinating enigma of Lisbeth Salander — she of the dragon tattoo — an ill-adjusted, erotically charged and scarred gamin and world-class computer hacker. She’s a haunted victim and a dangerous adversary, compelling enough to carry this overweight, overlong book on her thin shoulders. And enough to carry […]
December 11, 2011

The best Christmas gift — a life story

I get a lot of books for Christmas or my birthday, but the writings I’ve most treasured have been the autobiographies that my wife, Cathy, and our kids David and Sarah have written for me at my request. For instance, when Sarah was 9, she gave me a three-page memoir that began: “Hi, my name is Sarah Catherine Shiel Reardon. I remember, when I was younger, I grabbed the sharpest knife from the dishwasher and ran to the front of the house, and jumped on the couch. My dad came running after me, and grabbed the knife, and spanked me on my butt. But it didn’t really hurt because I had a diaper on.” Actually, Sarah didn’t remember that little incident — which scared me half to death — since she was just a toddler when it happened, waddling rapidly but unsteadily from one end of the house to the other with that shiny, terribly sharp knife. But she’d heard me tell the story so often, it was as if she could recall it. A couple paragraphs later, she wrote, “My mom is real crazy about feelings and emotions. That’s why she’s a social worker, and she really helps me […]
December 9, 2011

Book review: “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” by James Agee and Walker Evans

There are many ways to approach “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” the majestic, mystical and often maddening book that James Agee and Walker Evans published in 1941. I’m going to look at it here through the lens of journalism — how it subverts and critiques journalism as practiced in the United States. It is a book that subverts journalism, even as it reaches — strains achingly — to create a new journalism. It’s journalism as art. But not the sort of art that Agee is at pains to criticize through his book. The art that he is striving to create. But here, I’m afraid, I’m starting to sound like Agee. Let me try to be as clear as I can. I will write here mainly about Agee. The Evans photos are, like his text, majestic, mystical and at times maddening, but that’s another discussion. So too is the interplay between Agee’s words and the images by Evans. Neither exists without the other. Yet, here, I will write mainly about Agee. In the summer of 1936, Agee and Evans spent eight weeks traveling around the South, working on an assignment from Fortune magazine for a story about sharecroppers and tenant […]