September 22, 2017

Absurdist/Fantasy novels — 2 — Book review: “The Place of the Lion” by Charles Williams

T.S. Eliot was a great admirer of the novels of Charles Williams, calling them “supernatural thrillers.” These handful of novels, written between 1931 and 1945, attracted other fans, such as C.S. Lewis, author of the seven-book Chronicles of Narnia, and J.R. R. Tolkien, creator of the epic trilogy The Lord of the Rings — both of whom became friends of Williams. All three — Williams, Lewis and Tolkien — could be termed writers of fantasies — although, depending on who is using the term and what context it’s used in, this can seem a term of denigration. I don’t mean it that way. There are light, flitty sorts of fantasy novels, but these men didn’t write that sort. They were more like the sorts of fantasy novels that have come from Neil Gaiman, the late Terry Pratchett and Christopher Moore. Before you jump down my throat with protests, let me say that I recognize that Gaiman, Pratchett and Moore have produced novels that are often funny and even silly. Moore’s stories have been called absurdist, but I believe that’s because he’s an American. If he were British, they’d be fantasy. Lewis can be somewhat playful, but Tolkien and Williams are […]
September 22, 2017

Absurdist/Fantasy novels — 3 — Book review: “Coyote Blue” by Christopher Moore

Christopher Moore has written a lot of comic novels in which supernatural — otherworldly — figures play havoc with the everyday, humdrum world we live in. These novels feature vampires and angels and lust lizards and various gods of violent mischief and death merchants and Jesus Christ. (The story of Jesus was told by his smart-aleck, somewhat randy childhood sidekick named Biff.) Three of his novels don’t have a supernatural figure, but they do involve giants from the world of literature and art — King Lear, Othello, Shylock and various hangers-on from the Shakespearian canon as well as Henri Toulouse-Lautrec (who was an artistic giant, even if only 4-foot-eight.)   Absurd or fantasy Moore is an American, Ohio-born, and his novels have been called absurdist. If he were British, however, like Neil Gaiman and the late Terry Pratchett, I suspect his books would be classed as fantasies. (There is a doctoral dissertation somewhere in this observation for anyone who would want to spend the drudge of doctoral research laughing.) I mention this because, while reading Coyote Blue, Moore’s second novel, published in 1994, I remembered a comment that Gaiman made about Pratchett (in an afterword for a new edition of […]
September 22, 2017

Absurdist/Fantasy novels — 1 — Book review: “Good Omens” by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

Originally published in 1990, Good Omens — the novel co-written by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett when both still early in their writing careers — was reissued in 2006 by the Science Fiction Book Club. It was one of 32 important sci-fi titles that the book club reissued as part of its 50th anniversary collection. This edition includes various supplements about how the book got conceived and midwifed, notably an essay by Pratchett about writing with Gaiman, and one by Gaiman about writing with Pratchett. In that latter essay, Gaiman — who went on to produce such novels as Stardust, American Gods and Coraline — had this to say about his writing partner for Good Omens: It was the way his mind worked: the urge to take it all apart, and put it back together in different ways, to see how it all fit together. It was the engine that drove Discworld [the setting for Pratchett’s enormously popular and hilariously inventive fantasy series of 41 novels] — it’s not a “what if…” or an “if only…” or even an “if this goes on…”; it was the far more subtle and dangerous “if there was really a…..what would that mean? How […]
September 20, 2017

Essay: An understanding heart

Solomon was a kid, but he was already wise. In the first book of Kings, God appears to the boy-king, saying, “Ask something of me, and I will give it to you.” Solomon doesn’t ask for money or revenge or a long life. What he wants is “an understanding heart.” I like that. If I have an understanding heart, I open myself to those around me. I’m able to see them — really see them — and hear them. And I’m able to let them see and hear me. I’m present to them, one human to another. It’s easy to be irritated by other people. If I’m in the Loop and hurrying to a meeting, the wandering, lollygagging tourists who block the sidewalk can be annoying. But, come on, I do the same thing when I’m strolling around Manhattan on vacation. Irritation is a natural human feeling, but an understanding heart doesn’t get stuck in that bile. An understanding heart sees the world in context — sees people in context. An understanding heart expects good from people rather than bad, opts for hope rather than cynicism. And how do I rise above spitefulness and venom? I don’t do it alone. I […]
September 4, 2017

Book review: “The ‘Book of Genesis’ – a Biography” by Ronald Hendel

Martin Luther, that flawed saint, had a lot to say about the biblical book of Genesis. His 16th-century rebellion against the Roman Catholic hierarchy also involved a revolt against the long-popular approach to the Bible, particularly Genesis, of seeing it all as an allegory. Luther, who is one of the handful of major figures in the history of Christianity, came to think that the best way to look at the Scripture was to try to understand the plain sense of it. In other words, take it at face value. As bible scholar Ronald Hendel notes in his 2013 examination of the history of the Bible’s first book, The “Book of Genesis” — a Biography, Luther’s rejection of allegory was part and parcel to his repudiation of the authority of the Catholic Church. The basis of faith, Luther argued, was Scripture alone — without the mediation of theologians and church leaders. As he frequently did, the former Augustinian priest employed scatological wit in his analysis: “When I was a monk I was a master in the use of allegories. I allegorized everything…even a chamber pot.” In modern times, Bob Dylan has sung, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way […]
September 1, 2017

Chicago History: The short and tragic life of Johnny Lindquist

For the last month of his short and tragic life in the summer of 1972, he was known to Chicago simply as Johnny.  Forty-five years ago today, he died. He was the West Side six-year-old who’d been beaten and kicked and slammed into a coma by his father, and his plight touched the hearts of those in the Chicago region and around the nation, and prompted a vigil of love, praying for his recovery. His story filled Chicago’s four daily newspapers and the radio and television newscasts. And it changed the law. For nearly half a century, Illinois children and those in the rest of the United States have been better protected against abuse and neglect because of what that young boy went through. His name was Johnny Lindquist. He was born in Chicago to William and Irene Lindquist on August 28, 1965. His mother contracted tuberculosis, and, for the first years of his life, Johnny shuttled back and forth between his parents and a series of foster homes. In 1969, a Catholic Charities caseworker reported to a Juvenile Court judge that, by the end of one recent visit, Johnny was “covered with bruises and scars inflicted by both parents.” A […]
September 1, 2017

Chicago History: The short life and tragic death of Johnny Lindquist

For the last month of his short and tragic life in the summer of 1972, he was known to Chicago simply as Johnny.  Forty-five years ago today, he died. He was the West Side six-year-old who’d been beaten and kicked and slammed into a coma by his father, and his plight touched the hearts of those in the Chicago region and around the nation, and prompted a vigil of love, praying for his recovery. His story filled Chicago’s four daily newspapers and the radio and television newscasts. And it changed the law. For nearly half a century, Illinois children and those in the rest of the United States have been better protected against abuse and neglect because of what that young boy went through.   His name was Johnny Lindquist. He was born in Chicago to William and Irene Lindquist on August 28, 1965. His mother contracted tuberculosis, and, for the first years of his life, Johnny shuttled back and forth between his parents and a series of foster homes. In 1969, a Catholic Charities caseworker reported to a Juvenile Court judge that, by the end of one recent visit, Johnny was “covered with bruises and scars inflicted by both parents.” […]