January 30, 2019

Book review: “Gunsights” by Elmore Leonard

The title of Elmore Leonard’s 1979 western Gunsights is a play on words although the reader doesn’t find that out until the plot twist on the novel’s final page. The pun has to do with a Wild West show in the 1890s.  For most of the story, though, “gunsights” seems to be about an expected shoot-out between Dana Moon and Brendan Early, two friends with a cross-hatched history who find themselves, sort of, on two sides of a land war in Arizona. Certainly, as the novel opens, reporters from big-city newspapers, camping out at the Gold Dollar in Sweetmary, are expecting this brother-in-arms-against-brother-in-arms battle, even to the point of toying with the idea of naming the violent real estate fight after the two — the Early-Moon Feud. As things turn out, however, there’s not really a feud, just a couple of guys who have worked closely together — such as the two tracking an Apache band who kidnapped a young woman (who, later, becomes Moon’s wife) and the one (Early) helping the other (Moon) break out of jail — while, now and again, getting a bit irritated with each other, as guys do. “I can go home…” I.e., during the […]
January 28, 2019

Book review: “The Moonshine War” by Elmore Leonard

Elmore Leonard writes amiable novels that tend to meander along until one of his dopey characters — all of his characters are, like humans, pretty dopey — breaks into violence that is shocking because of its casualness. That happens in The Moonshine War when 25-year-old gunman Dual Meaders — in addition to being dopey, most of Leonard’s characters have wonderfully odd names — anyway, Dual Meaders takes a cotton to a city dude’s  suit. It’s lunchtime at a café in rural Kentucky, and Dual is eating with his employer Dr. Emmett Taulbee and Taulbee’s female companion Miley Mitchell. At another table in the otherwise empty restaurant is a couple, both of them in their mid- or late-twenties with city written all over them.  They were trying to appear at ease, but the [waitress] could tell they were self-conscious… The new gabardine suit Dual keeps eying the man’s obviously new gabardine suit and, finally, gets up, goes over to their table and offers to buy it from him — not another of his suits, this one, right here, now. “What am I supposed to do, take it off right here and give it to you?” “That’s right.” The young city man […]
January 23, 2019

Book review: The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt: A Tyranny of Truth

Ken Krimstein’s 2018 graphic biography of Jewish-German-French-American philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt is titled The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt: A Tyranny of Truth. The cover with its three cartoon-character images of Arendt as a child, as a young woman and as an older woman signals that here is a book that doesn’t take itself too seriously.  Krimstein has fun, and so does the reader. Still, when it comes to Arendt, Krimstein is very, very serious.  Behind his jokey manner and often playful illustrations, he wants the reader to come away with the sense of Arendt as one of the most important 20th century intellectual figures. He convinced me — to the point that I rounded up and have started to read several of Arendt’s books: The Origins of Totalitarianism and The Human Condition and Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, as well as the lively, evocative odd-angle view of her method of rethinking the core ideas of humanity Unlearning with Hannah Arendt by Marie Luise Knott. Thank you, Ken Krimstein. Searching for her books Three Escapes is a sprightly, superficial retelling of the life and ideas of Arendt with an equal emphasis on her […]
January 21, 2019

Book review: “A Mind to Murder” by P.D. James

. A Mind to Murder, published in 1963, was the second mystery novel by P.D. James to center on British police detective Adam Dalgliesh, and it shows James as a still-developing writer. The plot is more than a bit complicated, having to do with the murder of the office manager of a psychiatric clinic, and the relationships among the suspects are intertwined in an awkwardly proliferation.  What I mean is that, in three cases, two suspects are having or have had affairs with one another — a total of six people in all, or nearly the entire suspect pool. Yet, those inelegances are rather minor inasmuch as, already, James is showing herself to be a serious writer, more interested in personality and character than in “characters” and plot.  This is evidenced in her evocations of the various personalities in the clinic, but, most, in her descriptions of Dalgliesh, a minor poet and major crime-solver. He feels a great deal For one thing, Dalgliesh is very much unlike the cold, calculating detectives of many other authors.  Indeed, he feels a great deal, such as when he considers that the slaying could as easily been the work of a woman as a […]
January 16, 2019

Poem: To Help Her Move

    To Help Her Move   She is told I’m like an elephant and calls on me to help her move, to burden her dressers and boxes to the truck and out of the truck to her new locked door.   She is separating from the bearded happy farmboy of her wedding.   I am alone.  My back is strong. I look for weight.   I take the box springs and carry it over my head, my arms extended as if it had a message for someone to read.   At the truck, I slide it on its side into the crevice in the furniture and return upstairs to dismantle more.     Patrick T. Reardon 1.16.19     Originally published in What It Can’t Save (Pudding Magazine), 1986
January 14, 2019

Essay: The home we own that doesn’t belong to us

    My wife Cathy and I have been in our two-flat on Paulina Street since 1984, and, even though the bank has always had its portion, we think of ourselves as the owners of this 108-year-old home. Yet, more and more, I’ve come to realize that this handsome, red-brick building with its large side yard and large backyard, with its beautiful summer garden, planted and tended by Cathy, and with its front, side and back sidewalks, shoveled by me in winter — this spot on earth that we think of as ours — doesn’t belong to us. Not really. A long time ago, I looked up the history of our property which is in the Edgewater neighborhood on Chicago’s Far North Side.  From the best I can remember, the house was built around 1910 and was the home of a German family for a long time.  By the time we bought it, it was on its third owner and was filled with three branches of an extended Japanese family. Each of these owners, each child who grew up in the house, each person who looked out mornings through its windows had his or her own experience of the place.  […]
January 9, 2019

Book review: “Grant” by Ron Chernow

      Ron Chernow’s 2017 biography of Ulysses S. Grant, military victor of the Civil War and a middling American president, contains much of value but is ultimately disappointing in capturing Grant as a person and public figure. His 959-page Grant is over-written and unfocused.  It is repetitive, making the same point — often in very similar words — over and over again, and rarely uses one quotation on an aspect of Grant’s life without following it with several more, frequently saying essentially the same thing. One very positive aspect of Grant is its clear-eyed look at its subject’s alcoholism.  Chernow writes in his introduction that a key aim for him in writing the book was to deal with the question of drinking, not as a moral failing (as earlier biographers had) but with the modern understanding of alcoholism as a disease.  He writes: The drinking issue, both real and imaginary, so permeated Grant’s career that a thoroughgoing account is needed to settle the matter.  This biography will contend that Grant was an alcoholic with an astonishingly consistent pattern of drinking, recognized by friend and foe alike: a solitary binge drinker who would not touch a drop of alcohol, […]
January 7, 2019

Book review: “The Reptile Room: A Series of Unfortunate Events” by Lemony Snicket

    The Baudelaire orphans find themselves yet again in an unfortunate event — in the clutches of Count Olaf. Midway through The Reptile Room, they are discussing the sad fact that the nefarious count wants to get ahold of their family’s fortune. “And,” Klaus continued, “once he gets his hands on it, he plans to kill us.” “Tadu,” Sunny murmured solemnly, which probably meant something along the lines of “It’s a loathsome situation in which we find ourselves.”   Tadu = “A loathsome situation” That’s funny. It’s always funny when Sunny has something to say.  As an infant with only four very sharp teeth, she says what seem like nonsense syllables, and author Lemony Snicket (Daniel Handler, in real life) explains what she means, usually a fairly long, complex statement, serious and sober. The sheer ridiculousness of it all — that Sunny could actually mean all that Lemony Snicket says she means, in this case, about “a loathsome situation” — is what makes this repeated trope in the Lemony Snicket books funny. Such humor is easy to understand.  What I’m more interested here, though, is why Lemony Snicket’s 13 books about the ever-so-many Unfortunate Events that befall the Baudelaire […]
January 1, 2019

Essay: The twelve best books of 2018

    Here are the twelve best books that I read in 2018: “Advice for Future Corpses (And Those Who Love Them): A Practical Perspective on Death and Dying” by Sallie Tisdale “Barchester Towers” by Anthony Trollope “David Copperfield“ by Charles Dickens “Golden Hill” by Francis Spufford “Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America” by Garry Wills “Native Son” by Richard Wright “The Art of Biblical Narrative” by Robert Alter “The Art of the Wasted Day” by Patricia Hampl “The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography” by Alan Jacobs “The Christ of the Miracle Stories: Portrait through Encounter” by Wendy Cotter CSJ “The Path to Power” by Robert A. Caro “The Power and the Glory” by Graham Greene These aren’t the best books published in 2018.  In fact, only two of the books hit bookshelves during the year.  The rest are older, in some cases, a lot older. I find it interesting that two of the book titles have to do with “The Art of…”  Two, with power, from different yet, perhaps, complementary perspectives.  Five are novels.  Two are book-long meditations on subjects that are far from run-of-the-mill.  Five have to do with religion in some way.  There’s a […]
January 1, 2019

Book review: “Being Dead” by Jim Crace (2019)

      Just before the first page of Jim Crace’s 1999 novel Being Dead, Joseph and Celice, zoologists married to each other, have been murdered in a clumsy, random robbery. They were the oddest pair, these dead, spread-eagled lovers on the coast:  Joseph and Celice. Both had been teachers…Hardly any of their colleagues had ever seen them together, or visited them at home, let alone witnessed them touch.  How unexpected, then, that these two, of all couples, should be found like this, without their underclothes, their heads caved in, unlikely victims of unlikely passions.  Who would have thought that unattractive people of that age and learning would encounter sex and murder in the open air! For a novel of only 196 pages, Being Dead has a great deal going on.  It is, in a minor way, a mystery, first, about how these two met their deaths, and, second, about whether the much-delayed search for them would ever find them. It is also a literary tour-de-force in which Crace dazzles the reader with his clear-eyed description of such aspects of human life as the inner workings of a daughter’s thoughts and emotions, the mastications of the insect and mammal world […]
January 1, 2019

Book Review: “Being Dead” by Jim Crace (2012 review)

  When she and her husband Joseph were murdered on an isolated stretch of beach, Celice’s body fell onto the sand, upending a dune beetle and trapping him in the folds of her black wool jacket. As the beetle worked his way out from under the fabric, English novelist Jim Crace writes: He didn’t carry with him any of that burden which makes the human animal so cumbersome, the certainty that death was fast approaching and could arrive at any time, with its plunging snout, blindly to break the surface of the pool….It’s only those who glimpse the awful, endless corridor of death, too gross to contemplate, that need to lose themselves in love or art. His species had no poets….He had not spent, like us, his lifetime concocting systems to deny mortality.  Nor had he passed his days in melancholic fear of death, the hollow and the avalanche.  Nor was he burdened with the compensating marvels of human, mortal life.  He had no schemes, no memories, no guilt or aspirations, no appetite for love, and no delusions.    “Feast on the blood” On the opening page of Being Dead, Joseph and Celice are already dead, their bodies just starting […]