May 30, 2012

Book review: “The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ” by Philip Pullman

As a Christian, I’ve read a lot of stuff by other believers about the life of Jesus and its meaning. In addition, I’ve always found it enjoyable and instructive to read what non-believers — or, at least, unofficial commentators — have to say. Historians, as professionals without the overlay of theology, shed an interesting light on what is known and what can be guessed. But, even more insightful are novelists who bring a keen eye and ear to the job. And many, great and not-so-great, have taken a shot at it, including Norman Mailer, Leo Tolstoy, Anne Rice, Reynolds Price, Jose Saramago, Jim Crace, Gore Vidal, Charles Dickens and Nikos Kazantzakis. Now, here’s Philip Pullman with his 2010 book “The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ,” part of the Canongate Myth Series.
May 25, 2012

Book review: “Little Jackrabbit at Home in the Desert” by Jim Strickler, illustrations by Karen Pritchett

I’m not four-years-old, but I learned something from this sweet short story about Baby Jack — written by my friend Jim Strickler. I learned: • That a mother jackrabbit scrapes out a smooth spot under a sagebrush and lines it with her own fur as a place where she can give birth in private and comfort. • That the desert has “many wonderful sounds: the songs of a meadowlark, the barking of a prairie dog, and the ‘hooooo’ of the wind blowing across the dry land.” • That, during the heat of the day, a jackrabbit rests in a clump of brown grass where his fur blends in with the grass and the sandy soil so that “hungry coyotes and eagles that are hunting for food cannot see him easily.” • That jackrabbits have developed a way to chew a hole in a cactus in order to avoid “the prickly spines on the outside” and get at “the moist part inside.” • That a mother jackrabbit alerts her children to the presence of a coyote or other danger by “pounding one of her back paws against the hard ground.” I enjoyed Baby Jack’s joy at the departure of a coyote. […]
May 25, 2012

Book review: “The Warden” by Anthony Trollope

OK, “The Warden” by Anthony Trollope, published in 1855, is one of the classics of English literature. Over the past century and a half, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of readers have enjoyed Trollope’s humorous, poignant and sharp-eyed account of the travails of Rev. Septimus Harding, a minor clergyman in the (fictional) cathedral town of Barchester. Mr. Harding is the elderly warden of Hiram’s Hospital, a charity home established more than 400 years earlier for a dozen aged laborers no longer able to earn their daily bread.
May 20, 2012

Book review: “The Company of Glory” by Edgar Pangborn

Edgar Pangborn’s science-fiction novel “The Company of Glory” was initially serialized in three parts in Galaxy magazine in the latter half of 1974. It was published in 1975. Pangborn died on February 1, 1976, at the age of 66. I mention this because “The Company of Glory” is the story of Demetrios, a storyteller in the early stages of a post-apocalyptic world who is in his early 60s and in failing health. Is it in some way the story of storyteller Pangborn who, I would guess, was in failing health as he was writing this, his final novel?
May 16, 2012

Book review: “The Jesuits: a Multibiography” by Jean Lacouture

There are times when Jean Lacouture draws a picture of a particular Jesuit that takes your breath away. Consider his description of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the 20th century scientist-theologian who was silenced for much of his professional life by the church for describing an evolving Universe in place of traditional Catholic teaching of a static world, rooted in the Book of Genesis. Agnostic intellectuals and researchers, Lacouture writes, saw, in Teilhard, “a luminous personality almost recklessly offered, open to the point of innocence,” and a man in constant, quick movement, “pulsing with joyful vitality and optimism.” Further, he writes: Teilhard walked through life with long strides, from continent to continent, from millennium to millennium, from the Gobi Desert to Harar in Abyssinia, a beret on his head, or a sun helmet, or a turban, a cape slung across his shoulders, in shorts and bush jacket, wearing boots or rope soles — something of a Marco Polo, something of Claudel, something of Rimbaud — tough, laughing, pick or hammer in hand and a parable on his lips, twenty stories in his head, a too human human at once riveted in priestly fetters he had accepted and in permanent violation of […]
May 15, 2012

Book review: “Driving Mr. Yogi: Yogi Berra, Ron Guidry and Baseball’s Greatest Gift” by Harvey Araton

“Driving Mr. Yogi” by Harvey Araton is a fun book for a Yankee fan. I suspect it wouldn’t be much of a read for anyone else.
May 14, 2012

A remembrance: AUDREY REARDON, June 21, 1926 – December 5, 1995

A eulogy by Patrick T. Reardon St. Thomas More Church December 9, 1995 Audrey Joanne Thomas……Audrey Thomas Reardon……69……the mother of 14 children……died Tuesday in her Oak Lawn home. Mrs. Reardon, who was born and raised in the Austin neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side, graduated from Providence High School. During World War II, she was a singer in USO shows for American troops in the city, and later worked as an executive secretary at the Loop headquarters of the Quaker Oats Co. On October 16, 1948, she married David J. Reardon, a postal worker who later served more than three decades as a Chicago police officer. The couple, who moved to the Ashburn neighborhood on the city’s Southwest Side in 1969 and to Oak Lawn last August, raised fourteen children, all of whom still live in the Chicago area: Rita, Jeanne, Geralyn, Teri, Kathy, Marie, Laura, Rosemary, John, Tim, Eileen, Mary Beth, David and Patrick. She is also survived by 30 grandchildren. = I want to tell you about my mother……about our mother……about the wife of our father……about the woman who touched—directly or indirectly—the lives of everyone here today……and many, many more. Do you remember how bright and crisp and clear […]
May 11, 2012

Book review: “Hard Times” by Charles Dickens

I suspect that Charles Dickens was in a pretty foul mood when he wrote “Hard Times” in 1854. He draws stark differences between the “good” people and the “bad” people in this story, and assigns bleak fates to nearly all of them. As usual in Dickens, the “bad” people are those that the society of his day saw as good — the upholders of civilization, the ambitious businessmen who made the British Empire hum, the refined, the educated, the proper, the gentry and the would-be gentry. The “good” characters for him are those that civilized society looked down on — the workers, the domestics, the vagabonds, the entertainers. The salt of the earth. In “Hard Times,” the “bad” people are especially ignoble. They are blowhards and snoops. They manipulate others out of boredom. They bully. They lack self-knowledge. They are self-satisfied, unctuous. Supercilious. Insipid. Throughout the book, they cause constant havoc in the lives of other people, particularly the “good” characters. Those “good” characters, with the exception of clear-headed Sissy Jupe, are victims. One is victimized by her father and her own stubbornness. The father is victimized by his belief in “Facts!” An honest laborer has four separate persecutors, including […]
May 11, 2012

Memo to NATO diplomats: Ignore the Chicago hype

Hey, NATO diplomats! I’m know you’re being flooded with lots of official and commercial stuff about Chicago: Where views of the city are most beautiful. Where dinners are most tasty. Where to find the “real Chicago.” Ignore them. These attempts at indoctrinating you about the city, when not just out and out wrong, are as superficial as a picture postcard. Like Paris or Brussels or London, Chicago can’t be “discovered” in the course of a quick — or long — visit. People who have lived here their entire lives and love the city passionately are always learning something new. Let me offer something else. Let me offer you glimpses of Chicago that hint at its character and texture. If you can pull yourself away from all those world-shaping discussions of trade relations and military forecasts, you’ll get a richer sense of our city by experiencing one or more of these. Take a look, for instance, at “Childhood Is Without Prejudice,” the mural that, in 1977, William Walker created on the southern wall of an underpass beneath the Metra tracks at 56th Street, near Stony Island Avenue. Walker was the central figure in a collective of African-American artists who, in 1967, […]
May 7, 2012

Book review: “Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman” by Robert K. Massie

The subtitle of Robert K. Massie’s “Catherine the Great” is “Portrait of a Woman.” But that’s too limiting. This 574-page biography is the portrait of a person — one who happens to have been a woman and who happens to have been the empress of Russia for more than thirty years in the late 1700s. On the final page of the book, Massie makes the argument — hard to dispute — that Catherine was the greatest monarch of her era and the equal to her predecessor, Peter the Great. That’s saying a lot since Peter was the man who, four decades earlier, had dragged his nation out of the Middle Ages and into modern eighteenth-century Europe to play a significant role in world affairs. “Peter imported technology and government institutions,” Massie writes. “Catherine brought European moral, political and judicial philosophy, literature, art, architecture, sculpture, medicine and education.” Indeed, Catherine created the Hermitage Palace in St. Petersburg and its original collection of art by such luminaries as Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Raphael and Titian. Today, it contains the largest collection of paintings in the world, and is considered one of the greatest art museums on earth. She also commissioned “The Bronze Horseman,” […]
May 3, 2012

A game

It seemed like a good idea at the time, I guess. I mean, my two-year-old daughter’s decision to grab a long, exceedingly sharp butcher’s knife from the dishwasher and run the entire length of the house with it in her hand — and leap playfully onto the couch in the front room. I’d been unloading the dishwasher when Sarah wormed past my legs to get the knife. I think she just wanted to liven up the afternoon. I remember running as fast as I could after her, unable to reach down far enough from my height to slow or stop her, and worrying each second that, by chasing her, I was increasing the danger that she’d fall and the knife would go —- well, I didn’t want to think where the knife might go. It turned out fine. She got to the couch and I got to her without any slashes, punctures or other sorts of wounds occurring. Awash with relief and yet still coming to the full realization of how dangerous our little jaunt had been, I gave Sarah the only spanking of her life. That turned out fine, too. The three slaps I directed to her rump were […]
April 28, 2012

Book review: “The Berlin Ending: A Novel of Discovery” by E. Howard Hunt

As spy novels go, “The Berlin Ending” by E. Howard Hunt, published 38 years ago, is okay. For readers looking for an addictive page-turner, it will probably be on the slow side. Hunt, who died in 2007, had actually been in the CIA and knew what he was talking about. But the verisimilitude that this brings to his story seems to make the book a bit clunky. For readers looking for literature along the lines of John LeCarre, this novel will be unsatisfying. Characters are flat. Motivations, weak. Descriptions, clichéd. “The Berlin Ending” is a competent work, even so. Yet, I didn’t read it so much for itself — although I enjoy a good spy yarn — but because Hunt was a key figure in the June 17, 1972 burglary of the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate office building. It was the attempts of the Richard Nixon White House to cover up the administration’s connection to Hunt and the burglars that led to the ruination of Nixon and so many of the men around him. That amazing fall from national grace, a fit subject for a Shakespeare, was treated well if superficially in the recently published novel “Watergate” […]
April 8, 2012

Book review: Stories We Keep, edited by Dawn Curtis and Robin Bourjaily

“Stories We Keep” is a small book, only 64 pages. And it’s even shorter if you’re a reader like me who isn’t very hip to yoga or interested in recipes involving yams. Nonetheless, its five short stories are startlingly vivid evocations of the sharp shards of life. Let me explain. These stories are from five female writers who use a particular trademarked approach to yoga — Yoga as Muse — to expand their creative horizons. Hence, the Q&A at the end of each writer’s story concerning the interaction of the disciplines of yoga and writing. They call themselves the YAM Tribe. Hence, the recipes for yams that most of them add as well. All of which may set up expectations for New Age-ish narratives about crystals and Gaia. Not to worry. Jeffrey Davis, the originator of Yoga as Muse, writes in an introduction: This anthology contains no epiphanies. No ecstatic moments of the writer or a character becoming one with green leaves and mountain streams. No Rumi-esque songs of the Divine. What a relief. Moving toward truth Yoga, according to Davis, isn’t about ecstasy or epiphany. And neither is writing. Practicing yoga does not remove all maladies. Nor does writing […]
April 8, 2012

Book review: “Watergate” by Thomas Mallon

Well, Thomas Mallon’s “Watergate” is certainly a readable novel. It’s an amazement, really, that he’s been able to take the tottering heap of jagged historical events, involving scores of politicians and suchlike, and weave them into a narrative about the fall of Richard Nixon that flows smoothly, steadily, inexorably. That flow continues even as the end approaches. When I’d pick up the book, I’d find myself right back into the middle of the story. The thing is, as the conclusion neared, I wasn’t in a rush to pick it up. I knew — as any reader would know — where Nixon’s story was heading. It sort of sapped the suspense. Mallon works to keep the reader reading through the use of a couple subplots: What will happen between Pat Nixon and her fictional lover Tom Garahan? And what will Fred LaRue and his fictional lover Clarine “Larrie” Lander do about a missing envelope, marked with the handwritten word “MOOT” and containing an investigative report about the deepest question in LaRue’s life? Only three of the book’s 100-plus characters aren’t from the historical record — Garahan, Lander and Billy Pope, a senatorial aide who has a minor walk-on. Yet, in the […]
April 5, 2012

Book review: “Fatherland” by Robert Harris

Historical fiction is dangerous territory for a writer. It’s all too easy to make actual people, say, Abraham Lincoln or John Wilkes Booth, into stick figures, and actual events, say, Booth’s assassination of Lincoln, into just another thriller or romance novel. Consider “Killing Lincoln” by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard. A related genre is based on alternate history, the field of what-if. What if the South had won the Civil War? MacKinlay Kantor came up with a plausible and interesting take on that in 1960. This can be pushed to silly extremes. What if Nazi-like South Africans from this era had travelled back in time to supply Robert E. Lee’s troops with AK-47s? Too silly to find a publisher, you say? Not at all. In 1992, Ballantine published “The Guns of the South” by Harry Turtledove, telling just that story. “Fatherland,” published in the same year, provides a much more nuanced look at how history might have evolved if a few events had gone differently. Indeed, in Robert Harris’s hands, it’s a crackerjack of a novel that meets the needs of genre fiction, yet also teaches a lesson from the past, perhaps the most important lesson of the last century. […]
April 4, 2012

Who’s not on first?

The new baseball season is upon us, and hope springs eternal across the major leagues as 30 teams and more than 700 players vie for a chance at the World Series. But I have one question: How come all of those players are men? I mean, I don’t get it. A woman today can be a mayor, or a cop, or a firefighter, or a doctor, or a U.S. Supreme Court justice, or a construction worker, or a bus driver, or an astronaut, or an oil tanker captain. But she can’t play baseball in the Show. Back in 2008, Hillary Clinton ran so well for the Democratic nomination for president that she nearly nabbed it. But no woman is permitted to run the bases at Wrigley Field or Yankee Stadium. A woman takes the battlefield today to defend this nation as a soldier. But she can’t take the field at Fenway Park to defend against the bunt. Sixty-five years ago, on April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson played first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers, becoming the first African-American major leaguer in baseball’s modern era and shattering a color barrier that had been a stain upon the sport since the late 19th […]
March 31, 2012

Sarah laughs — and other human moments

The Bible is filled with people acting like people — such as Sarah playing the nosy snoop in Genesis. She and Abraham are an aged childless couple. Outside their tent, Abraham is entertaining a visitor, and Sarah can’t help but eavesdrop. The guest turns out to be God, and God tells Abraham that he and Sarah will conceive and raise a child. Sarah laughs. Of course, she laughs — at the sheer impossibility of the thing but, even more, at the joyful idea that, after so many decades of disappointment, their love will bring a child into the world. The Passion narrative in Mark’s gospel starts off with a similar moment. A woman takes a costly perfumed oil and pours it on the head of Jesus as an anointing. This irks some of the disciples. “Why has there been this waste of perfumed oil?” they say. “It could have been sold for more than 300 days’ wages, and the money given to the poor.” That’s a very human reaction. But Jesus tells them to leave her be. “The poor you will always have with you,…but you will not always have me.” The irritable disciples and the nosy Sarah act the […]
March 27, 2012

Book review: “She’s on First” by Barbara Gregorich

Linda Sunshine plays shortstop for the Chicago Eagles, the first woman to become a major leaguer. Her manager, the star pitcher and some of her other teammates don’t like the idea. At all. Yet, for her — as for them — baseball is more than a living. It’s more than a game. “Ever since I can remember,” she tells sportswriter Neal Vanderlin, “I’ve wanted to be a baseball player.” So what does she like best about baseball? “Everything! The way it all fits together. You know — that the ball doesn’t score, people do. That the team with the ball can’t score, the team without the ball can. That there’s no time limit. That the diamonds and field and fences all fit together, and the runner’s speed and the fielder’s speed and the speed of the ball in flight.” In Barbara Gregorich’s “She’s on First,” Linda is the first woman to take the field as a player, but her rookie season is also a test. And, depending on how she does, other women may or may not have the chance to follow in her spike tracks. Sort of like a female Jackie Robinson. Indeed, when Al Mowerinski, the former Eagles […]
March 20, 2012

The impatience of Job

We talk about the “patience of Job,” and that makes him seem like a meek and mild fellow who heroically and stoically endures waves of misfortune from God and the devil. Don’t buy it. Job is a whiner, a complainer. “Is not man’s life on earth a drudgery?…I am filled with restlessness until the dawn…Remember that my life is like the wind; I shall not see happiness again.” Or: “Woe is me.” The Book of Job is the story of his efforts to convince God that it just isn’t fair that he’s afflicted with so many miseries. His faith in the Lord never wavers, but he argues again and again that he doesn’t deserve the disasters, conflagrations and boils that have befallen him. Finally, Yahweh has had enough and, “out of the whirlwind,” says: Where were you when I founded the earth?… When I made the clouds its garment and thick darkness its swaddling bands?…Have you ever in your lifetime commanded the morning?… Can you send the lightnings on their way, so that they say to you, “Here we are”?” And on and on and on. In other words: “I’m God. I see farther, deeper and more clearly than you.” […]
March 19, 2012

Book review” “The Maul and the Pear Tree” by P.D. James and T.A. Critchley

A little before midnight on the last night of his life Timothy Marr, a linen draper of Radcliffe Highway, set about tidying up the shop, helped by the shop-boy James Gowen. So begins “The Maul and the Pear Tree” by P.D. James and T.A. Critchley, a thorough account and re-thinking of the notorious Ratcliffe Highway Murders, committed in London’s East End in December, 1811. The slayings are well-known to Britons, particularly Londoners, although less so to Americans. On Dec. 7, the 24-year-old clothing merchant was gruesomely murdered in his combination shop and home along with his wife Cecilia, their three-month old son Timothy and the young lad Gowen. Three of the victims were bludgeoned to death with a heavy long-handled iron hammer, a maul, found matted with blood, hair and brains in one of the rooms. The baby… Someone called out, “The child, where’s the child?” and there was a rush for the basement. There they found the child, still in its cradle, the side of its mouth laid open with a blow, the left side of the face battered, and the throat slit so that the head was almost severed from the body. The slayings and their brutality shocked […]
March 18, 2012

God’s phone number

Half a century ago, phone numbers had prefixes as well as numbers (such as ESterbrook 9-3392), and the Roman Catholic Mass was in Latin. “Dominus vobiscum,” the priest would say. “Et cum spiritu tuo,” the altar boys would respond. Each generation of Catholic boys and girls, moving through schools run by nuns in voluminous black (or brown, or even white) habits, would hear that prayer from the altar day in and day out, and make a joke of it. “What’s God’s phone number? “Etcumspiri-2-2-0.” (Giggle.) All that changed, of course, with the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s. Now the prayer is said in English. “God be with you.” “And with your spirit.” That’s probably an improvement. After all, wishing each other God’s presence and support is not a bad gift. And it’s a lot easier to understand in the vernacular. Patrick T. Reardon 3.18.12
March 15, 2012

Book review: “Houses and Homes – Exploring Their History” by Barbara J. Howe, Dolores A. Fleming, Emory L. Kemp and Ruth Ann Overbeck

Every once in a while, when I’m in the basement and can see the foundations of our two-flat, or rummage in a closet and notice a crack in the plaster in the corner, or sit at my computer and look at the wallpaper that previous owners put up in the room, I wonder about the history of my home. That history is the procession of people and families who lived here — in the second-floor apartment where we live, in the first-floor apartment which we rent to another family and in the basement where my wife has her office and I have my research files. It’s also the time-lapse photography of what, on our block, was built first and what came next. Did our two-flat stand here as a single structure at some point a century ago? Or was it among a handful of early structures? What was along our street before that four-story apartment building at the end of the block was erected, taking up three or four lots? I suspect many people have thoughts like these. Even if you are the first person to live in a structure, you probably wonder what was there before? A worker’s cottage? […]
March 10, 2012

Waiting for Alzheimer’s

The other day, I was talking with some friends about movies, and somehow the conversation got onto the film “Elf.” There was a point I wanted to make about the actor who played Will Farrell’s father in the movie, but, for the life of me, I couldn’t remember his name. I knew he’d played Sonny Corleone in “The Godfather.” And Brian Piccolo in “Brian’s Song.” And Hugh Grant’s future father-in-law in “Mickey Blue Eyes.” But his name escaped me. I tried various mental tricks, such as running through the alphabet and trying out various first names, until finally after what seemed like a long time but was probably only — only? — 10 seconds I remembered he’s James Caan. If you’re over the age of 60, as I am, something like this has probably happened to you. And it’s probably happening with greater frequency. I see my friends stumbling over a recollection. And, more and more, I find myself groping for a memory. I tell them and I tell myself that these sorts of lapses are just part of getting older. With more than 60 years of events, numbers, people, interactions, books read, movies viewed, music listened to, baseball games […]
March 9, 2012

Lincoln, work and prayer

“Orare est laborare.” That’s the motto of the Benedictine order. It means: Working is praying. By most accounts, Abraham Lincoln wasn’t terribly interested in organized religion. But that’s not to say he wasn’t spiritual. As president, his work was his prayer. Lincoln rooted his policies in a faith in the idea of union and democracy, in a hope that the divisions of a bitter, brother-against-brother war could be healed, and in a charity that refused to see those in rebellion as anything other than fellow Americans. His speeches often rose to the level of civic prayer. At Gettysburg, he concluded his short remarks with words that redefined the national identity: It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth. Those words honored the […]
March 7, 2012

In Austin

I grew up in the Austin neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago. I am the oldest of 14 children, and one of my jobs, growing up, was to watch my younger sisters in the afternoon after school. We lived on the second floor of a two-flat at 135 N. Leamington Ave. on the same block as our parish church (St. Thomas Aquinas), our parish school and the convent where the nuns lived. It was a crowded apartment, as you might imagine, and “watching the kids” meant taking two or three of the youngest girls to Grandma’s apartment a couple blocks away for a visit. I alternated this job with my brother David. I was 11 or 12. He was a year younger. I did the job until I was 13 and away at high school — at a religious seminary that was a boarding school. My sister Mary Beth, a year younger than David, took my place. The main idea was to get the youngest kids out of the house to give Mom some breathing space. She didn’t drive, and Dad, a Chicago police officer, was often at work at odd hours during the day or sleeping to get […]