November 29, 2015

David Michael Reardon (1951-2015)

Oh, David. You’ve gone, and we have been left behind. I feel sadness and anger and guilt and pain and so many other emotions. This is why so much great art is about tragedy. We live our lives. Our bodies fall apart. We die. A couple of images have stuck with me over the past week. One is this: I see God opening his arms for you and giving you a deep hug as he welcomes you to heaven. But I know that you didn’t believe in such stuff. And I don’t want you to come back as a ghost to haunt me. So I’ll go to the other image. Our family, down the generations, is an intricately woven fabric. With your death, there is a rip in that fabric. It’s a rip that, over time, will be repaired. But there will always be a scar there. We are not the same now as we were earlier this month.   ***   You’re gone. But here’s the thing: You’re not gone. You are still with us in the fabric of our experiences, in the fabric of our existence. You have touched each of us in unique ways. You have helped […]
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 4, 2015

History Poems

At the Mayor’s Funeral By Patrick T. Reardon Those boys stayed in the church until seven the next morning, through the night. Do you know what tough duty that is? That’s a mother who’s giving stiffness to the spines of her children. ….. A. Einstein By Patrick T. Reardon The woman walked naked around the room, and I could not think. She bore me sons with that body, but wore at me with questions. I saw the film of the camp and the women stripped and led, awkward, holding themselves from the cold and from the stares, to the ovens. I hate those men and all the uniformed men, buttoned to the neck, chaste. I hate them more than I loved her ….. Two Deaths By Patrick T. Reardon (Lincoln) His finger compresses the tongue of metal. The hammer strikes. The bullet crosses space, embeds. (Booth) The spur catches. The bone breaks. The fire rages in the farmhouse surrounded. ….. Home life By Patrick T. Reardon Faulkner would slap his wife, once, hard, when her mind would drift and her speech slur. He would slap her face without thought and resume his conversation. MacArthur spoiled his son with toys the […]
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 […]