April 24, 2019

Book review: “Witches Abroad” by Terry Pratchett

In Terry Pratchett’s 1991 Discworld novel Witches Abroad,  Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg and Magrat Garlick have an adventure in “foreign places,” in particular, Genua, a New Orleans-ish place that a witch named Lilith with a fondness for mirrors wants to change into a kind of Disneyland on steroids. You can tell while reading this that Pratchett had recently gone to New Orleans and fallen in love with the tastily weird food of that one-of-a-kind city. You can also tell that he had a bee in his bonnet about the sickly saccharine fairy tale stories that the Walt Disney studios specialized in — the sort in which everything happens just so, the bad queen/witch/mother gets her due, and the heroine and her savior (a girl, after all, needs a savior) live happily ever after. Or else Lilith is trying to inflict stories on Genua in the same way that Vladimir Lenin, Joe Stalin and their crew inflicted totalitarianism on Russia and its satellites.   You will be happy — or else! There’s also a swamp woman named Mrs. Gogol and a zombie named Saturday who are trying to inflict their own idea of a story on Genua. And there’s a young girl […]
April 21, 2019

Book review: “It Walks by Night” by John Dickson Car

On the second page of John Dickson Carr’s first murder mystery It Walks by Night, the book’s narrator, a young American named Jeff Marle, tells the reader that, on that first night, “I knew that there would be ugly things in the future.” Carr, an American himself, was at the start of a writing career that would span four decades and see him acclaimed as one of the greatest writers in the heyday of the sort of mysteries that were written with complex, plot-oriented stories centered on one or more puzzles that the reader was expected to be trying to solve as the pages were turned.  Indeed, he was a callow 24 when It Walks by Night was published in 1930, and that’s clear in the book.  He’s trying too hard. At this point, Agatha Christie had already published nearly a dozen mysteries, and Carr, along with a great many other writers, was trying to find his own spot at the bestseller table.  While Christie could be, at times, macabre, her books tended to be somewhat demur, featuring murders that, if not quite bloodless, were low on gore and high on brain work. “A slow and lifelike sway” In this […]
April 17, 2019

Book review: “Forty Lashes Less One” by Elmore Leonard

Halfway through Elmore Leonard’s 1972 novel Forty Lashes Less One, Everett Manly, the fill-in warden at Yuma Territorial Prison in Arizona is trying to get two convicts to find some purpose in life. One is Harold Jackson, a black former Marine who, during the Spanish-American War, walked away from his unit in Cuba and was locked up for desertion.  Later, he was convicted of murder. The other is Raymond San Carlos, an Indian-Mexican whose father fought with Geronimo and who is imprisoned for killing a cowboy who, once too often, called him a “red greaser.” “In labor and hardships” Mr. Manly, a longtime Protestant preacher, is explaining to the two men that St. Paul — “a Jew-boy” — was able to put up with great hardships because he had found a purpose in life, serving God. “You boys think you’ve experienced hardships, listen, I’m going to read you something.  From two Corinthians, ‘Brethren, gladly you put up with fools, because you are wise…’ Let me skip down. “But whereas any man is bold…Are they ministers of Christ?’ Here it is ‘…in many more labors, in lashes above measure, often exposed to death. From the Jews’ — listen to this — […]
April 15, 2019

Book review: “Advice for Future Corpses (and Those Who Love Them): A Practical Perspective on Death and Dying” by Sallie Tisdale

Back in high school, two years in a row, we had a retreat master who relished the session he did on death. “You will die,” he’d intone in a very theatrical way that was meant to scare the bejesus out of us, teens that we were.  It was part and parcel with a pre-Vatican II theology that saw death as a hammer hanging over the sinner: Don’t make a misstep.  At any moment, you….could….be….dead! Sallie Tisdale’s “Advice for Future Corpses” presents a much more balanced view of the end of life and, as the title indicates, contains more than a bit of humor.  While not religious in an institutional sense, her book contains the spiritual message that life is richer when you recognize that death is coming.  That death is a part of living — indeed, a key component of living — and, as such, part of God’s creation. Tisdale notes that modern Americans, particularly Baby Boomers like her, “choose not to notice” the reality of death. “We pretend that what we absolutely know to be true somehow isn’t true. But the nasty surprises can’t really be avoided.” Not an “if” That’s for sure.  As the retreat master said, “You […]
April 10, 2019

Poem: “vigilante”

vigilante big flake snow covered the grave and the body they had left in their haste and the strawberry vine grew up from his heart over his neck and into his eyes entwining his ankles and forearms and winter sparrows flew down to wonder at the stain upon the sacred snow. Patrick T. Reardon 4.10.19 This poem originally appeared in Aardwolf magazine in February, 1970.
April 8, 2019

Book review: “The Book of Genesis,” illustrated by R. Crumb

It’s not for nothing that the front cover of The Book of Genesis, illustrated by R. Crumb carries this warning: ADULT SUPERVISION RECOMMENDED FOR MINORS And this note: THE FIRST BOOK OF THE BIBLE GRAPHICALLY DEPICTED! NOTHING LEFT OUT! The illustrator of this 2009 book, after all, is R. Crumb, he of Fritz the Cat and a host of other scandalously in-your-face underground comix of the 1960s and later, adopted and promoted by the counterculture and still strenuously abhorred by various segments of American society, including feminists. That warning on the cover is needed because Crumb doesn’t pull any punches as he draws the entire book of Genesis, using for the most part the highly praised translation by Robert Alter and a bit of the King James Version. On the other hand, he does so respectfully.  He didn’t do this book as an exercise in campiness or as a way of making fun of religious faith.  Indeed, in his way, Crumb has striven to be true to the text, more than other drawn versions have been. “A powerful text” As he explains in an introduction: Every other comic book version of the Bible that I’ve seen contains passages of completely […]
April 3, 2019

Book review: “Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland” by Patrick Radden Keefe

I’m at a loss about the newly published Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe. As a reader, I find that, sometimes, books just hit me the wrong way.  I think everyone who reads has this experience.  When it occurs, I’m often not sure if I’m the problem or the book is the problem.  So, it might be that I’ve got a blind-spot here or just wasn’t in the mood to read Say Nothing.  So, take what I write with a grain of salt. On the plus side, this work by Keefe, a New Yorker staff writer, is a real page-turner.  He knows how to pull the reader through his story, and I found that, even as I started to have qualms about Say Nothing, I kept ripping along as if this were almost a thriller. My qualms My qualms began maybe 100 pages into the 348 pages of text, and they had to do with questions about what kind of a story I was reading. If you pay attention to the subtitle, this book is A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland.  Its first chapter tells the […]
April 1, 2019

Essay: My lay-off and the golden age of journalism

By Patrick T. Reardon This essay was originally posted on the 5th anniversary of my lay-off, April 23, 2014. Aside from adjusting the first sentence, I haven't changed it. Ten years ago this month, I was laid off by the Chicago Tribune.  I had company. More than 50 other editorial employees were let go the same week I was shown the door.  And another 70 or so had been sent packing during the previous nine months. For me, the lay-off didn’t come as a shock.  Earlier in the week, I’d had lunch with a colleague who’d asked me if I was worried about the announcement about staff cuts that we knew was imminent. “Anyone who doesn’t realize that he’s walking around with a big target on his back isn’t paying attention,” I said.  The next day — my day off — I was proved right. As if shattered by a laser beam I spent the rest of that day and most of the next in the office, packing up my files and books and tying up loose ends.  And it was then that I realized one jarring result of the cutback — a kind of atomization of those of us […]