January 30, 2018

Book review: “The Power and the Glory” by Graham Greene

He is a priest who has been on the run for eight years in a state in Mexico where authorities have leveled all churches in an effort to root out Catholicism. Religious books are banned, and even well-to-do women find themselves in jail if they’re found with one. It is the middle of the 20th century, and the new Socialist government wants to stamp out superstition. Some priests have fled. Some have stayed and, under duress, have gotten married. Others, like this one, have gone into hiding. When caught, a fugitive priest is shot for treason. As Graham Greene’s 1940 novel The Power and the Glory, opens, this priest is the last one at large, offering the sacraments — baptism, confession, the Mass — to believers where he can find them and when they feel it’s safe to be with him. Most of the time, it’s not safe. Over the past year, he has celebrated Mass just four times and had heard maybe a hundred confessions. No hero Now, a fervently anticlerical Army lieutenant is on his trail, and, when the officer finds that a village has been visited by the priest, he takes a hostage. He holds the hostages […]
January 29, 2018

Poem: “Four percent pantomime

Beethoven’s Symphony #7 In A, Opus 92, Allegretto, is dread and endurance, deepening in intensity with each new phrase. down into the core. And, for just a few beats, somewhere near the end, I see a ballerina, not leaping, but, with her shoulders wide, striding, step by measured step, as all of us must, to the executioner.   At the Museum of Fine Art, the glazed terra cotta della Robbia Mary holds her baby son with one large hand around his waist and the other over the top of his skull, gripping, with a raw ache, his hair through her fingers, holding for dear life, and, for a glimmer, I see the boy’s head move just slightly as if fussed by a bad dream and her lips bend to touch his forehead, as if to kiss away what is to come for her and for him after they return to their pose.   Over my head, the electricity of eight younger bodies cracks from one side of the back yard to the other as the sharp-moved mother arranges the line of food and dishes and utensils on the table and the dutied father is firing the hot dogs, and I […]
January 26, 2018

Poem: “Goddess boulder”

In Boston, at the MFA, the faith, love and hope of the Della Robbia family art, glazed terra cotta, one hundred and fifty years of saints and Madonnas with their Baby Jesus, the colors, five centuries old, glow like the warmth of living skin.   Then, with directions, I to the basement gallery of Olmec art to confront the huge squat crushing ugly boulder goddess that is shown in the museum guide and know it is the weight and threat of my mother   and find, instead, a life-size jade priest mask, turned by fire from green to gray, delicate, deadly attractive but not looming. Not huge. Only maybe pained. Seeming as much victim as butcher, except, of course, to the one to be sacrificed.   In the kitchen, she sang with Frank Sinatra about a surrey with fringe, and, in that moment, she was the most beautiful girl in the world.     Patrick T. Reardon 1.26.18   This poem was originally published in Requiem for David from Silver Birch Press in February, 2017.  
January 25, 2018

Poem: “Standing before Turner’s ‘Fall of the Rhine at Schaffhausen’ in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts”

The pounding crush of the falling Rhine waters has no end unlike these tiny foreground figures who reach and stretch to accomplish their small tasks, muscles straining, reaching, stretching, yearning.   A few feet from this Turner is one of Manet’s oils of the shooting squad execution of fake Mexican Emperor Maximilian, a fool if there ever was one, but aren’t we all fools who end in the vague smoke awaiting the coup de grace?   What, though, is the alternative? The urgency, as Brooks says, is in the blooming amid the noise and power of the flood.   We are all, victims and butchers, crushed by the same cataract, slain by the same bullet. You and me and David.   Patrick T. Reardon 1.25.18   This poem was originally published in Requiem for David from Silver Birch Press in February, 2017.  
January 22, 2018

Book review: “The City: A Vision in Woodcuts” by Frans Masereel

Frans Masereel, a Belgian-born artist who lived most of his life in France, published The City in 1925. It is a collection of 100 woodcuts that tell a story, and it is subtitled it A Vision in Woodcuts. Over the course of half a century, he published many such works, often called novels-in-woodcuts. There was something of a subgenre of such works in that era. In the United States, between 1929 and 1938, Lynd Ward, influenced by Masereel, published seven such novels-in-woodcuts. Today, The City is marketed as a graphic novel although, unlike most modern graphic novels, Maereel’s books are completely without words. Dark, sullen and pessimistic The City is called a “vision” because it doesn’t tell the story of particular identifiable characters moving through a plot. Instead, The City is more like a poem that describes great social forces and the individuals who, in the face of intense pressure, are winners or, much more often, losers. It is a grim vision, Germanic in its absoluteness (perhaps not surprising since Masereel lived for a time in Berlin), an indictment of the then-modern world, very dark and sullen and pessimistic — and it’s a vision that was created before the Great […]
January 22, 2018

Book review: “Equal Rites” by Terry Pratchett

In Equal Rites, the third of his Discworld novels, Terry Pratchett thinks deep thoughts…and silly thoughts. Sometimes, at the same time. For instance, Esk is a girl of nearly nine who is in training with Granny Weatherwax to be a witch and maybe a wizard. And she is astonished that Granny hasn’t given her goats names. “I imagine,” Granny says, “they’ve got names in Goat….What would they want names in Human for?” Esk ruminates about this, and so does Granny: Goats did have names for themselves, she well knew: there was “goat who is my kid,” “goat who is my mother,” “goat who is herd leader,” and half a dozen other names not least of which was “goat who is this goat.” They had a complicated herd system and four stomachs and a digestive system that sounded very busy on still nights, and Granny had always felt that calling all this names like Buttercup was an insult to a noble animal.   “Cesspit cleaners” That’s pretty silly. And maybe a bit deep. Published in 1987, Equal Rites is about whether Esk — who was born at the same time a wizard was dying and inherited the wizard’s staff and, hence, […]
January 18, 2018

Book review: “Catseye” by Andre Norton

Andre Norton’s 1974 novel Catseye is what’s often called a space opera. In other words, like the old Westerns — called horse operas — it’s an adventure story, set in space, featuring good guys and bad guys. And, in the end, the white hats win. In other words, we’re not talking King Lear or Paradise Lost here. Catseye is entertainment, pure and simple. And, yet, there is something noble about a well-crafted entertainment, made with pride and integrity and intelligence and a level of creativity.   A kinship Here, as in many other Norton novels, the story involves a human being — a young man from the wrong side of the tracks named Troy Horan — who is able to talk telepathically with animals. In this case, five animals from Earth — two cats, two foxes and a playful little monkey-like creature called a kinkajou. This theme was obviously important to Norton, and it’s not just a fun what-if feature to her stories. Deeper, it is a recognition of a kinship between humans and other creatures and, by extension, with all of creation — a proto-ecology idea when Norton originally used the concept sixty-five years ago in her first science-fiction […]
January 16, 2018

Book review: “Cover Her Face” by P.D. James

It was in 1962 that P.D. James published Cover Her Face, her first murder mystery featuring Detective Chief-Inspector Adam Dalgleish of Scotland Yard. At the time, Agatha Christie was still the dominant voice in the field, selling millions of mysteries each year and cranking out new novels at an annual pace. In the previous 41 years, she had published 59 mysteries. Her 60th The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side came in 1962. It was followed over the next 14 years by 13 more. This is worth noting because, in many ways, Cover Her Face is very much of the Christie genre. There is a hothouse quality to the novel, set as it is in the rural estate of landed gentry (albeit a little threadbare). The murder victim is found behind a locked door. And the solution is incredibly complex and far-fetched. I’ve seen reports that, later in her writing life, James said that she didn’t think much of this first effort, and there’s good reason. It’s a bit hokey in the way that most of Christie’s novels were hokey.   A novel trying to escape Even so, Cover Her Face is a pleasure to read. Throughout, there are hints […]
January 10, 2018

Book review: “Native Son” by Richard Wright

For 20-year-old Bigger Thomas, life in Chicago in early 1939 is one of fear and anger. On this day, he has just beaten up his friend Gus for no apparent reason — except that it meant that he and Gus and two of their friends would have to drop their plan to rob a white storeowner. This is early in Richard Wright’s Native Son, and Wright notes: His confused emotions had made him feel instinctively that it would be better to fight Gus and spoil the plan of the robbery than to confront a white man with a gun. But he kept this knowledge of his fear thrust firmly down in him; his courage to live depended upon how successfully his fear was hidden from his consciousness… This was the way he lived; he passed his days trying to defeat or gratify impulses in a world he feared.   “A world he feared” Bigger Thomas lives in Chicago’s South Side Black Belt, the largest of two African-American ghettos in the city. (A much smaller one is on the Near West Side.) He fears his world because, everywhere he turns, he is told in the words and actions of American society […]
January 8, 2018

Book review: “One Crazy Summer” by Rita Williams-Garcia

The cover of One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia indicates that this is a book for kids 9 to 12. And, sure, the reading level will fit that group of kids. But what makes the book so rich and courageous is that it deals with issues that kids will have to think about and deal with as adults — issues that are far from simple and aren’t likely to ever go away. Set in 1968, One Crazy Summer is about three African-American sisters from Brooklyn — Delphine, 11; Venetta, 9; and Fern, 7 — who fly across country to spend 28 days in Oakland with the mother who walked out on them when Fern was a newborn. Nearly everyone the sisters meet during their visit are black. This is a book about the black experience in 1968 and the black experience today, and its target audience are African-American kids. Even so, its secondary audience is all other kids. The questions raised in this book have to be faced most directly by black kids and adults. But non-black kids and adults have to come up with their own answers to these questions as well. For instance, the sisters spend their four […]
January 5, 2018

Book review: “Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America” by Garry Wills

Make no mistake: Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was a refounding of the United States. A redefinition of the nation — a revolution, if you will. It was the substitution of the Declaration of Independence with its clear, direct, unequivocal statement that “all men are created equal” as the country’s central document, in place of the U.S. Constitution with its acceptance of slavery and, in consequence, a lesser ideal. It was a clear commitment to the principle of equality after a half century of intellectual muddiness. And, as Garry Wills explains in his 1992 book Lincoln at Gettysburg, it was a revolution that was carried out in the space of three minutes and in the speaking of 272 words. A revolution carried out, peacefully, through logic, political genius and language that has resonated ever since through American history and culture — a revolution in thought and spirit, conveyed in what were billed simply as “remarks” at the dedication of the new cemetery for the Union dead from the Battle of Gettysburg, the turning point of a fiercely fought civil war in which body counts reached into the hundreds of thousands on both sides.   “To clear the infected atmosphere of American […]
January 3, 2018

The nine best books of 2017

In addition to the groups of books I highlighted on Tuesday, I wanted to honor the nine individual books that I read in 2017. These were books that left an impression on me because of their insights and artistry, and I would gladly recommend them to anyone. The listing of each book contains a somewhat meat excerpt from my review. If you’d like the full review, just click on the title. …   “The Wall of Respect: Public Art and Black Liberation in 1960s Chicago,” Edited by Abdul Alkalimat, Romi Crawford, and Rebecca Zorach Fifty years ago, William Walker, a veteran muralist, proposed to a group of other black artists and photographers that they collaborate to produce a mural on the side of a two-story tavern in the impoverished South Side neighborhood of Grand Crossing. After three weeks of labor at the building on the southeast corner of 43rd Street and Langley Avenue, the 20-foot-by-60-foot work of art, featuring dozens of African-American heroes, was completed on August 24, 1967. It was called the Wall of Respect, and it was dedicated several times over the next weeks. Sometime later, Walker came to the wall and saw a young man sitting on […]
January 2, 2018

The best groups of books of 2017

Looking back over the 60-plus books I read in 2017, I am struck by how many of the best — 19 to be exact — fall into groups that comprise sort of mini-seminars on a particular subject. For instance, there were six books about poverty that I reviewed, one after the other last spring. Published between 1890 and 1986, they provided a variety of views on the life of people who live in poverty, stressing their people-ness. In other words, for the most part, the writers of these books weren’t discussing these people as laboratory rats but as fellow folk. Another grouping — the books in Lives of Great Religious Books series from Princeton University Press — was one that I initially wrote about in the Chicago Tribune and then expanded for my website. This overview cites five books from the series that I have reviewed, some in 2016, some in 2017. All my life I have been fascinated by Joan of Arc, an interest that has grown in recent years. The four discussed her are among many I’ve read, and there are many more to read. Similarly, the four books about the Bible are, in general, part of a […]