May 27, 2019

Poem: “Coleman Hawkins (1904-1969)

Coleman Hawkins (1904-1969) By Patrick T. Reardon skeleton ancient network burned out the final sparks of life and music linger on true fire dies hard (he honeys his tenor sax for sweet Jesus) high priests surround the dying saint melodic prayers reverencing the final moments heavenly prayers to earth in rhythmic religion the monster is beyond life melody’s dying thread is out of place with tired nerves and sinews full of awe Patrick T. Reardon 5.28.19 This poem was originally published in Back Door in 1970.
May 27, 2019

Book review: “Stick” by Elmore Leonard

Nestor and Stick are talking about dreams. For most people, Nestor Soto is a scary dude — a Paraguay-born, Cuba-raised, Miami drug lord, also called El Chaco, a free-basing, voodoo-worshipping stone face whose similarly creepy father-in-law is his enforcer. Stick, aka Ernest Stickley Jr., a 42-year-old Oklahoman, just out of prison for armed robbery, is smart enough to know that Nestor is frightening.  But he also knows or has intuited that the safest thing for him to do is to go into this particular lion’s den and explain that he’s not a threat to tell police about Nestor’s involvement in the murder of one of Stick’s friends.  Nestor takes a liking to Stick’s chutzpah and his reasoning, and the two end up talking about their dreams.  Elmore Leonard writes in his 1983 novel Stick: Nestor dreamed of a jaguar that had walked down the deserted main street of Filadelfia, the town where he was born in the Chaco region of Paraguay.  The street was deserted because of the jaguar, the people watching the wild animal from windows and from doors that were open a few inches.  This jaguar was very likely the one that had killed several cows, a goat […]
May 24, 2019

Book review: “Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing” by Robert A. Caro

For more than half a century — for 52 years, to be exact — Robert A. Caro has been working full-time to research, understand and write about power in America. He has done this by looking at the lives of two men.  First, it was Robert Moses, the unelected holder of a host of appointive offices that he used to reshape the face of New York City — and the result was Caro’s 1974 book The Power Broker (1,336 pages). Then, he turned his sights on Lyndon B. Johnson, one of the greatest and worst of American presidents — and the result, so far, has been four installments of a series titled The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power (1990), The Means of Ascent (1991), Master of the Senate (2003) and The Passage of Power (2013).  A fifth and final volume is in the works, and Caro has told Time magazine that he has already written about 100,000 words.  That sounds like a lot, but, with Caro, it isn’t. When he wrote The Power Broker, Caro submitted a manuscript that was deemed to be too long, and, as he notes in his new memoir Working, he had to […]
May 22, 2019

Book review: “Night of Masks” by Andre Norton

Andre Norton’s 1964 novel Night of Masks is a claustrophobic reading experience — and not in a good way. This book followed her novel Catseye, published three years earlier, and, like that work, its central character is a resident of the Dipple, a ghetto area of the planet Korwar, a seedy slum where refugees and deportees from forty worlds have been unceremoniously dumped.  Some serve the purposes of the rulers, residents and visitors to the playground world; others simply scrape to survive. Catseye was a well-made sci-fi adventure, hinging on the ability of Troy Horan to communicate telepathically with animals.  It was his ticket out of the Dipple and into a place on the edges of the luxurious lifestyles of well-to-do Korwar people. In fact, his time in the Dipple, in terms of the book, is very short.  An opening chapter, and then he’s in the better part of town. No special skills The hero of Night of Masks, Nik Kolherne, is also from the Dipple, and, like Troy, he is finding a way out of there in the first few pages of the book.  Unlike Troy, however, Nik doesn’t have any special skills.  In fact, the bottom of his […]
May 22, 2019

Book review: “Royal Books & Holy Bones: Essays in Medieval Christianity” by Eamon Duffy

For the general public, Christianity before the Protestant Reformation is viewed as a fairly monolithic institution.  Yet, in Royal Books and Holy Bones, Eamon Duffy explains that, nowadays, historians of the medieval period think in terms of the plural “Christianities” of that era. Duffy, a professor of the history of Christianity at the University of Cambridge in England, writes that such scholars tend “to interest themselves in the rise of ‘micro-Christendoms’: the radically different and sometimes seemingly incompatible forms in which the Christian impulse, if it ever had been one impulse, metamorphosed and diversified as it adapted to changing times and new disparate cultures.”  As a result, research has moved away from looking at Popes and theological debates to an examination of these Christianities as “a set of practices, the religious strategies adopted by the people of the past to make sense of their daily existence.” Academic mumbo-jumbo? All this might seem like academic mumbo-jumbo to modern-day Catholics.  But think about it: Even without considering the Protestant-Catholic divide, there are, within Catholicism today, a wide range of approaches to the faith.  Yes, the Pope and the bishops claim the final say on theological issues (although they don’t always agree).  Still, […]
May 15, 2019

Poem: “She broke”

She broke By Patrick T. Reardon She broke my arm when I was a baby. It wasn’t my arm but call it an arm. It mended crooked, at an odd angle, thickened, clotted, stiff instead of supple, a wrinkled butterfly wing, an antelope limp. I could not swing a baseball bat or brush a lover’s hair. I still have the broken arm. My brother’s hurt was worse. He died of it. She tattooed her scripture on my spine, her gospel proclamations on the inside of my skull, her dire psalms on the bottom of my right heel, on the sweep of my right hip, black etched lines, leaking, insinuating. The tree grows out of my chest, another from my forearm, my jaw, my left shin. Syrup tapped, dripped, fermented, sold, re-sold.  A forest where Abel kills, Noah drowns, the Messiah leper never gets the ghost back. Let me open the apartment door of her limping mother in the kitchen, baking bread, breaking bread, the afternoon sun jeweling soil and backyard dung and growing things and creeping things and the newborn and the dying and the dead. Her bread was sprinkled with flour. Two candles under a throat to bless away. […]
May 13, 2019

Book review: “ ‘They Say’ : Ida B. Wells and the Reconstruction of Race” by James West Davidson

Born a slave during the Civil War, Ida B. Wells was among the first generation of African-Americans who, in the wake of emancipation, had to define themselves in a radically new way — and had to fight back attempts by the mainstream white society to impose on them a definition from the outside. As James West Davidson writes in his stellar ‘They Say’: Ida B. Wells and the Reconstruction of Race, freedom for blacks threatened to upend the white assertion that African-Americans were lesser human beings.  Race — and the separation of the races — suddenly became much more significant. The struggle arose out of the vacuum created when emancipation eliminated the legal categories of slave and free.  If the law of the land prescribed a status, slave, which could be upheld and regulated, race was a useful concept but not necessarily paramount. Once the legal props of slavery disappeared, however, it became much more difficult for one group of people to justify keeping another in an inferior position.  Race was the key.  A line was drawn — a color line, as Wells called it — that during the 1880s and 1890s was increasingly buttressed by new laws, customs, and […]
May 9, 2019

Poem: “Stone fence”

Stone fence I built me a stone fence by stacking one glass of Maker’s Mark whiskey on another, interspersed with large lumps of ice, mortared with sweet cider. I built me a stone fence in a circle and, when it was done, leaped inside the circuit and fell down the well to the center of the Earth where I met Buddha, Our Lady of Light, the Queen of Clubs and St. Augustine who wanted to get on the wagon but not just yet. I built me a stone fence across the face of northwest Ireland as if to corral the island’s saints, fairies, snakes, nuns and travelers in the backroom of a pub where the constable is writing poetry, and I long for coffee. I built me a stone fence and went out on Main Street in noonday sun where Johnny Raptor, wanted in seven states, called me out, and, as I drew, my skull was thundered with a screaming headache that no hangover remedy was ever going to calm. I built me a stone fence and then crawled under the weight of it all into my sympathetic grave. Patrick T. Reardon 5.9.19 This poem originally appeared in the anthology […]
May 8, 2019

Book review: “The Big Sleep” by Raymond Chandler

Halfway through Raymond Chandler’s 1939 hard-boiled, highly praised novel The Big Sleep, the rich and wild Vivian Regan turns Philip Marlowe in the front seat of their parked car and says: “Hold me close, you beast.” Eighty years ago, that must have had a different resonance.  It must have had an edge of shock for the reader — a married upper-class woman throwing herself sexually at a gumshoe, her father’s hireling. Today, though, it brings to mind generations of comedies and comedians who have parodied that sort of line to the point that what it raised in me wasn’t shock but a laugh. In minor ways, The Big Sleep is a victim of its own popularity and acclaim.  It spawned waves and waves of imitators, bad and good.  To read it today is to read it in the context of all those who were influenced so deeply by the book. It’s also a bit of a victim of its age.  Marlowe, the book’s narrator, is disgusted at the two gay characters in the story, and his denigrating comments make a modern reader squirm.  Because Chandler is presenting Marlowe as a rare decent person in a world of betrayal, selfishness, greed […]
May 1, 2019

Book review: “The Virgin Queen: Elizabeth I, Genius of the Golden Age” by Christopher Hibbert

Elizabeth I, especially early in her 44-year reign, had a lot of nagging health problems, but, notes Christopher Hibbert, she hated to be ill or to be thought to be ill. One time, she had an extremely painful toothache. Her doctors and members of her Privy Council — the equivalent of an American President’s Cabinet — told her the tooth had to be extracted, but she refused.  She kept saying, “no,” until “the Bishop of London allowed the surgeon to pull out one of his teeth to demonstrate the ease with which the operation could be performed.” “Highly strung” Elizabeth I dominated England as its queen for the entire second half of the 16th century, a time that came to be called the Elizabethan Age. She was intelligent, strong-willed, devious, vain, affectionate and enigmatic, holding her throne for more than four decades during an era when women weren’t supposed to wield such power. She was also a human being, and that’s the Elizabeth who is the subject of Christopher Hibbert’s luminous 1991 biography The Virgin Queen: Elizabeth I, Genius of the Golden Age. (By the way, for another look at this book, see my review in the Chicago Tribune in […]