February 26, 2014

Book review: “The Age of Innocence” by Edith Wharton

Why does Newland Archer leave? Why, on the final page of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, does Archer walk away from a chance to visit Ellen Olenska, the love of his life, for the first time in 25 years? She’s just up a few flights of stairs in her Paris apartment. His son has gone up, but Archer doesn’t follow him. He sits for a long time on a bench gazing at her fifth floor balcony. He says to himself, “It’s more real to me here than if I went up.” Then, as dusk falls, he rises and walks away. “Our kind” A friend of mine rejected the idea of reading The Age of Innocence because “it’s just chick-lit, and I have nothing in common with those New York high-society people.” I think he figured that it’s a love story, written by a woman, so it must be chick-lit. But The Age of Innocence has as much in common with that popular Oprah-ish romance-rooted literary fashion as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet does. Like Shakespeare’s play, Wharton’s 1923 novel is about two lovers, but that’s only on the surface. Both works are focused on something broader, something social rather than […]
February 11, 2014

Book review: “The Mother’s Recompense” by Edith Wharton

There is a moment, fairly early in Edith Wharton’s 1923 novel The Mother’s Recompense, when the central character Kate Clephane exclaims to herself, “I am rewarded!” I cringed when I read that — because of the peculiar nature of the word “reward” and “recompense” and because I had come to like Kate although her life view and life decisions were very different from mine. Let me explain. When I say that I had come to like Kate, a product of New York society, it wasn’t that I felt we would ever be friends in any sort of existence in which we would cross paths. As the novel opens just after the end of World War I, she is a woman in her mid-40s who is wandering around Europe, skimping by on a small allowance. It’s an aimless, meaningless life of leisure, spent with other aimless, purposeless souls awaiting…well, not really anything. This is a kind of anteroom to hell, and Kate and her circle of acquaintances are biding their time, biding their lives away. Her allowance comes from the family in New York that she abandoned nearly twenty years earlier to go off with Hylton Davies, a man with a […]
February 9, 2014

The joy of snow-shoveling

This essay originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune on January 3, 2014. I sing the joy of snow-shoveling. I rejoice in the movement of arms and back, legs and shoulders. I exult in the wonder of the cold white beauty. Okay, okay, I know there’s another way to look at snow-shoveling. And it’s not with delight. I know that, for many people, shoveling snow is simply a chore. No, that’s too mild. For many people, shoveling snow is a big fat pain-in-the-neck. You have to put on your boots. You have to swaddle yourself with your scarf and your hat and your gloves, and you have to zip up your jacket to the neck. You have to go out into the cold, and you’re not just going through the frigid air to some other warm place. You’re staying out in the freezing wind for a good long while, and you’re working. You’re doing heavy manual labor (especially when it’s a wet snow that’s just fallen) out in the cold. And you could give yourself a heart attack. What’s to like? All of that’s true, of course. But consider this: People pay thousands of dollars and travel hundreds of miles to […]
February 9, 2014

When the world starts afresh

This essay originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune on December 30, 2013. The coming of the new year brings lots of parties. And it’s a time when many people sit down and resolve to turn over a new leaf — be kinder, drink less, stop smoking, find a new job, lose weight, volunteer more. The parties come and go, and, often, so do the resolutions. Yet, at the heart of both is this realization: Flipping the calendar is an exciting time. And a scary time. And a mysterious time.
February 6, 2014

Poem: “….ad altare Dei”

I offer the purple sash and the white surplice. I offer the cold mornings when snow crunched and the church was dark and silent and an old man came down the aisle. I offer the cruets, and the words at the foot of the altar, and the priest, heavy with vestments Introibo ad altare Dei. I offer the bells and the cross, and incense sprinkled on coals. I offer the long white tapers and the flames. Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam. Patrick T. Reardon 2.6.14
February 5, 2014

Book review: “Michelangelo” by Stefanie Penck, translated by David Aston

There are hundreds of books about Michelangelo, many running to several hundred pages. I own several of them. Stefanie Penck’s Michelangelo, published in 2005 by Prestel, has only 95 pages of text and images, yet it’s a rich addition to the literature. The book is chuck full of sumptuous reproductions of the great artist’s paintings and images of his sculptures and architecture. Consider this photo of Mary’s hand holding the dead Christ’s shoulder from the Pieta. It’s a wonderful picture that captures the rich, supple, tender feel that the sculptor gave to the flesh of Jesus in the straining arms of his mother. This can’t be marble.