May 31, 2018

Book review: “The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel” by Robert Alter

It is a bit perplexing that the ancient story of David — the giant-killer, king, adulterer, father, sinner and old man — doesn’t have its own book in the Hebrew Bible. Instead, it’s spread over two full books (1 Samuel and 2 Samuel) and part of a third (1 Kings), 65 chapters in all. As a separate book, David would be the longest in the Bible with 40,000 words, much heftier than the actual leaders, Jeremiah with 33,000 and Genesis with 32,000. Yet, maybe it makes sense, given that David’s story is so sprawling and so meaty and so full of character, event and human dilemmas. A single book of David would be something akin to a single Shakespeare play that would include the plots and psychological depths of Macbeth, Hamlet and King Lear. Does that sound like an overstatement? Consider what Robert Alter writes at the start of his 1999 book The David Story, a translation of all 65 chapters with a detailed commentary: The story of David is probably the greatest single narrative representation in antiquity of a human life evolving by slow stages through time, shaped and altered by the pressures of political life, public institutions, family, the impulses […]
May 28, 2018

Poem: “The endless white around the corner”

The endless white around the corner   I know it comes, not when.   I am running to it, racing, straining, through the brittle leaves, the boggy mulch, deeply breathing in and out, alive to the breathing, to the muscles, to my sweat, to the rhythm, to the light — so much light.   I walk the cemetery.   I study the newsreel of the King’s coronation. He is gone. So are they all, gone, decayed, disappeared.   I am Lincoln in the moment of the bullet’s entry.   I am books unread. Books not written.   I am the red-brick apartment building in the rising sun, more beautiful than Solomon in all his glory. I am the deep green grass of a child’s lullaby, a dumb green field.   I am Earth from space, the stars.   I am a wildflower downtown in a concrete curb. I am a sound, echoing.   I am in the boat with others alone.     Patrick T. Reardon 5.28.18   This poem was originally published on the Silver Birch Press online journal on 1.14.15 and was included in my 2017 book Requiem for David.  
May 23, 2018

Book review: “The Patron Saint of Cauliflower” by Elizabeth Cohen

Let me make clear I’m no cook or baker. I have, I’ll admit, followed the directions to produce a Betty Crocker cake (with canned frosting) with relatively edible results. And, over the years, I’ve been able to put various food things in front of my wife and children when it was my turn in the kitchen, and there were few outright refusals. And I do like to eat. But the ingredients of meals, such as cabbage and cauliflower, pesto and olive oil, pears, asparagus, avocados, salt, apples, basil, artichokes and cream cheese, are pretty much a mystery to me. So, maybe I shouldn’t be reviewing Elizabeth Cohen’s collection of 32 seemingly kitchen-centered poems, The Patron Saint of Cauliflower, from Saint Julian Press in Houston. On the other hand, I think I have something to say. What I found particularly interesting about Cohen’s book was how I wasn’t lost in all the recipe language and garden harvests. That’s because, for all its talk about vegetables and seasonings, it’s not really about food. Or, better put, Cohen uses food as a doorway into the mystery at the center of all things.   Thoughts of future pain and incident Her opening poem is […]
May 21, 2018

Book review: “Noir” by Christopher Moore

Christopher Moore, the author of 15 wacky novels, explains in an afterword that he had planned for his latest book Noir to be about a “poor working mug” who got entangled with a “dangerous dame” in a dark and desperate story that involving a lot of fog, gunplay and danger. “What I ended up with is essentially ‘Perky Noir,’ a lot closer to Damon Runyon meets Bugs Bunny than Raymond Chandler meets Jim Thompson…But what was I going to do? ‘Noir’ was already typed at the top of every page.” The central character of a Christopher Moore novel is always a beta male, i.e., a nice guy who’s more than a little aimless, distracted and confused. In Noir, that’s Sammy Tiffin, a bartender in 1947 San Francisco who has a damaged foot and a past that he fears will catch up with him.   The Cheese Often, Moore’s guys are rather randy fellows, such as Pocket, King Lear’s jester in Fool, his 2009 adaptation of Shakespeare’s play. Moore is nothing if not gutsy when grabbing and remaking the works of great writers from the past. Indeed, he even retells — hilariously and, in an odd way, reverently — the story […]
May 16, 2018

Book review: “A Gentleman in Moscow” by Amor Towles

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, published in 2016, is a pleasant book, so playful and light that I fully expected to find, once I’d finished reading the novel, that a feel-good movie was planned starring Tom Hanks as Count Alexander Rostov. I was wrong. It’ll be a feel-good mini-series, starring Kenneth Branagh as Count Alexander Rostov. On the way to finding that out, I stumbled across a review that called the book Tolstoyan and asserted that it was a worthy update of the Great Russian Novel. I think that reviewer is wrong. True, like Anna Karenina, there is an attempted suicide in A Gentleman in Moscow. The difference is that, in Tolstoy’s masterpiece, Anna is successful, while the Count’s plan is interrupted comically at the last second by an old man obsessed with bees. True, A Gentleman in Moscow is set in Russia as are all Great Russian Novels. But where is the existential angst in the Towles book? Where is the evil? The closest thing to evil is a small-minded party member who’s nicknamed the Bishop for his overweening pomposity. But his appearance on the page never elicits dread. Instead, he’s a comic figure who sets in […]
May 14, 2018

Book review: “Zaftig: A Case for Curves” by Edward St. Paige

It’s not often that the National Catholic Reporter gets quoted in an art book. Nonetheless, the Catholic newspaper’s headline over a 1995 story by Demetria Martinez commenting on popular notions of how a woman’s body should look was incredibly apt for a book titled Zaftig: A Case for Curves. The headline read: “When it comes to women and bodies, God probably said: Let there be flesh.”     A spindly Venus Edward St. Paige who wrote the text and assembled the images in Zaftig notes on an early page: “The tendency of the female body is endomorphism (round and soft), but that has not kept humankind, at various times, from preferring one or another body shape, and using the mysterious force of fashion to promote and reward the prevailing ideal.” Of course, we’re in one of those moments now. St. Paige shows a variety of images of rail-thin women from the 1920s as well as a 16th century painting of a spindly Venus by Lucas Cranach. But he spends very little space on such thin bodies.   Attractive and desirable His purpose, rather, is to celebrate womanly fullness as expressed in art throughout the ages. The nearly 140 images in […]
May 9, 2018

Book review: “The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam” by Barbara W. Tuchman

At the end of The March of Folly, on its last page, historian Barbara W. Tuchman writes that the best way to avoid folly by government — the folly fueled by ambition, corruption, laziness, arrogance, ignorance and emotion — might be to follow the Lilliputians. Those tiny residents of the isle of Lilliput in Jonathan Swift’s 1726 satirical novel Gulliver’s Travels choose their leaders this way: “They have more regard for good morals than for great abilities, for, since government is necessary to mankind, they believe…that Providence never intended to make management of publick affairs a mystery, to be comprehended only by a few persons of sublime genius, of which there are seldom three born in any age. They suppose truth, justice, temperance and the like to be in every man’s power: the practice of which virtues, assisted by experience and a good intention, would qualify any man for service of his country, except where a course of study is required.” Pretty simple, right? A good leader is most likely one with a good character. A good leader, writes Montaigne, also quoted by Tuchman, needs to have “resolution and valor, not that which is sharpened by ambition but that which […]
May 7, 2018

Book review: “The Mysterious Affair at Styles” by Agatha Christie

When characters become the central figures in a long-running series of novels, they enter into some other dimension where they may age but essentially remain the same — where they don’t experience the passing of years in the way the reader does. For instance, in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Agatha Christie’s first published mystery, Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is already old. What “old” means isn’t specified, but it would seem not a stretch to say he’s at least 50. This book, written in 1916 and published in 1920, was Poirot’s first appearance. He was the center of 32 later books (out of Christie’s 66), and, by the final one, Curtain, he is definitely old — suffering from heart attacks and in a wheelchair because of his arthritis. Curtain, although written in the early 1940s, was published in 1975, or 55 years after The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Was Poirot 105 when he was solving his last case? Nah. He was residing in that dreamworld of long-running fictional characters.   A full-fledged Christie The Mysterious Affair at Styles, as a Christie murder mystery, is of course complicated although her plotting here seems a bit clunkier than it would be later […]