November 28, 2018

Book review: “Through the Bookstore Window” by Bill Petrocelli

  I picked up Bill Petrocelli’s Through the Bookstore Window in the midst of reading David Copperfield by Charles Dickens.  I wasn’t looking for a break, but I had already gone more than 500 pages into what is a book of nearly 900 pages, so maybe I was wanting a small respite.  In any case, I picked up Through the Bookstore Window, and the opening chapter was enough to entice me into reading the whole book. I’m not sure if it’s fair to any author to try to read the author’s work while also reading Dickens.  So, when Petrocelli’s book dragged a bit — well, a lot — in the first half, I figured it might not be his fault. In the end, it was a workmanlike book that, for me, collapsed under the weight of too many social issues, trends and controversies that were crammed into its 278 pages.  To wit, in no particular order: Incest The Bosnian War A kidnapping A back-alley abortionist Two near suicides A workplace shooting A drive-by shooting A sniper shooting A rape The Vietnam War Sex trafficking A gay female couple A gay male couple A pregnant teen A transgender character Fundamentalist Christianity […]
November 26, 2018

Book review: “Barons of the Sea…And Their Race to Build the World’s Fastest Clipper Ship” by Steven Ujifusa

    Steven Ujifusa’s Barons of the Sea ends with a quote from Captain Charlie Porter Low, a man who had run away to sea and spent his life as the master of large, fast merchant ships plying the oceans between China and New York, London and San Francisco. One who loves the sailing of a ship is always watching for the wind to blow, and the wind is never in the same quarter for any length of time, and the sails have to be trimmed very often and the yards braced forwards or squared, to catch the veering winds. In the trade winds from Cape of Good Hope, you can run for weeks without altering the yards, in which time you can trice up all the running rigging clear of the rails, tar down all the standing rigging, scrape and oil the masts, paint the ship inside and out, holystone and oil the decks, and have her all ready to go into port in good shape; but in the variable winds, you must have everything ready for bad weather at any time. Barons of the Sea was written for two audiences: (1) sailors and those who love sailing, and […]
November 21, 2018

Poem: We are all Elijah on the mountain

      The still, small voice is still an itch in the corner of the skull, a catch of breath, a comma, a hesitancy, a heartbeat, a hush, a scratching at the edge, a bloom in the storm, a sideways glimpse, small as a spirit.   Patrick T. Reardon 11.22.2018  
November 19, 2018

Book review: “The Talmud: A Biography” by Barry Scott Wimpfheimer

In 1997, near the end of the long-running television comedy Seinfeld, Larry Charles said that, when he and the other writers would sit down to produce a script, it was like “writing the Talmud — a dark Talmud.  You have a lot of brilliant minds examining a thought or ethical question from every possible angle.” It is highly unlikely that any of those writers had studied the Talmud, writes Barry Scott Wimpfheimer in The Talmud: A Biography, but “there is something profoundly Talmudic to the microscopic musings of a ‘Seinfeld’ episode and the way in which the characters free-associate in Talmudic fashion.” Indeed, this sort of hyper-detailed examination of the mundane from a wide variety of perspectives is also the hallmark of many Jewish entertainers, whether in standup comedy (Sarah Silverman), novels (Saul Bellow) or movies (Woody Allen), and it’s an example of what Wimpfheimer characterizes as the emblematic Talmud.   Three definitions In the opening pages of The Talmud:  A Biography, Wimpfheimer, an associate professor of religious studies at Northwestern University, explains that the Babylonian Talmud can be defined in three different, somewhat overlapping and equally accurate ways. First, the Talmud is a religious work of nearly two million […]
November 14, 2018

Book review: Three books about Shakespeare —3— “Religion Around Shakespeare” by Peter Iver Kaufman

    On the first page of Religion Around Shakespeare, Peter Iver Kaufman makes it clear that he’s not writing about Shakespeare the believer, Shakespeare the adherent to this or that religious faith. What I do in this book is give everyone interested in reading, watching, interpreting or performing the plays a good look at the religion around Shakespeare.  Circumstance is my subject. There has developed a cottage industry of books and other writings which attempt to use Shakespeare’s plays and poems as evidence that he was a Catholic or a Calvinist or the disciple of a “hybrid faith.”  But Kaufman asserts, “I am not mining for that metal…Circumstance — the religion around the playwright, not his faith or the plays’ proper interpretations — is my subject.” Take Falstaff, one of Shakespeare’s greatest personalities. Kaufman notes that some scholars read the plays in which Falstaff is featured and assert that he is a parody of puritans, at least as they were depicted by their opponents, since “Falstaff spouted sanctimonious judgments while remorselessly grasping at wealth and influence.”  Or, as one proponent of this argument writes, he is “a thoroughly worn out and flabby…type of Protestant hero.” On the other hand, […]
November 12, 2018

Book review: Three books about Shakespeare —2— “Lear: The Great Image of Authority” by Harold Bloom

    Twice, King Lear says, “Nothing will come from nothing.”  It is one of the most striking of the many striking lines in William Shakespeare’s masterpiece King Lear. Harold Bloom comments on the first instance in which this is said: “Nothing will come from nothing” to Lear means he will withdraw Cordelia’s dowry.  He cannot know that he has prophesied the final emptiness that will afflict his world. In the second instance, Lear is talking with his fool: Fool: Can you make use of nothing, nuncle? Lear: Why, no, boy, nothing can be made out of nothing. Here, Bloom asks the question: “Is Lear on some level cognizant that he is obsessed with ‘nothing’?” Certainly, as Bloom points out in his 2018 book Lear: The Great Image of Authority, Shakespeare’s play is obsessed with it.  He notes: “Nothing” is a term prevalent in this tragedy.  There are thirty-four uses of “nothing” and forty-two of “nature,” “natural,” “unnatural.”  The relationship between nothing and nature is a vexed one throughout Shakespeare and is particularly anguished in The Tragedie of King Lear.  In the Christian argument, God creates nature out of nothingness.  The end of nature, according to the Revelation of St. […]
November 7, 2018

Book review: Three books about Shakespeare —1— “Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics” by Stephen Greenblatt

  Donald Trump looms over Stephen Greenblatt’s Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics like one of the Bard’s ghosts, unavoidable, untouched, a dark dream of dread too fearsome to face. In his Acknowledgements section at the book’s end, Greenblatt writes: Not very long ago, though it feels like a century has passed, I sat in a verdant garden in Sardinia and expressed my growing apprehensions about the possible outcome of an upcoming election.  My historian friend Bernhard Jussen asked me what I was doing about it.  “What can I do?” I asked.  “You can write something,” he said.  And so I did. In the next paragraph, he writes: And then, after the election confirmed my worst fears, my wife Ramie Targott and son Harry, listening at the dinner table to my musings about Shakespeare’s uncanny relevance to the political world in which we now find ourselves, urged me to pursue the subject.  And so I have.   Nod-nod-wink-wink Note that Greenblatt writes of his trepidations about “an upcoming election,” and that “the election confirmed my worst fears.” He’s being coy, and that doesn’t help his book.  He’s talking about Donald Trump, but he won’t deign to use the President’s name here or […]
November 5, 2018

Book review: “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” by Joseph Campbell

    There is much about Joseph Campbell’s 1948 book The Hero with a Thousand Faces that I find problematic. Campbell displays amazing erudition in this book and a vast knowledge of the mythologies, literatures and sacred writings of cultures from one end of the globe to the other.  Perhaps this is why so much of it, particularly the second half, seems so esoteric and arcane. Perhaps it’s because, intellectually, I can’t keep up with him.  Perhaps it’s because such myths as virgin births don’t resonate with me. For whatever reason, I read the first half of The Hero with a Thousand Faces with great excitement and enjoyment.  By contrast, the second half was heavy sledding.   “His deeds have been good” The book’s first half deals with the archetypal hero’s journey that shows up universally in all cultures — a call to search for some treasure, the endurance of many trials, the winning of that treasure and the return of the hero, much changed, to his or her old setting. For me, the epitome of Campbell’s look at the many ways this hero’s journey plays out in human mythology is his discussion of the Book of Job from the […]