October 16, 2019

Book review: “On the Road with the Archangel” by Frederick Buechner

Frederick Buechner’s 1997 novel On the Road with the Archangel is a wry, tender and knowing look at humans being humans. Which is to say, at the quirkiness at the center of what human beings say, do and think. It is a re-telling of the Book of Tobit, a work that is included in the Catholic and Orthodox scripture but not accepted as canonical by Judaism or Protestantism.  Modern scholars believe it was written no later than the second century BC. Buechner sticks close to the contours of the Tobit story as well as even to some of its wording but brings forth the elements that will appeal to modern readers, the better to help those readers understand the tale’s meaning.   Modest and unassuming Tobit, though, is not one of those thunder-and-lightning stories from the Bible, like Cain and Abel or David slaying Goliath or Jesus on the cross or Paul being knocked off his horse.  Those and similar accounts address in very clear-cut ways major moral questions and issues. Think about Job on his dung hill. Tobit, though, is more like a short story.  Or, in this case, a short novel.  Very modest and unassuming.  Yet, colorful, filled […]
October 14, 2019

Book review: “Song of Solomon” by Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison’s 1977 novel Song of Solomon is one of those great works of literature that demands re-reading.  Once through isn’t enough. There is just too much going on for a reader to absorb. It’s like a complex piece of music — like a Beethoven symphony or a Bach cantata — that brings great pleasure in a single hearing.  But, even as it ends, the listener wants to hear it again, soon, to be able to pay better attention to its subtleties, its themes, its relationships, the way this section talks with that section, the way one section sets the stage for another. Song of Solomon is like that.  After finishing my first reading of it, I want to read it again, soon.  I will wait a time, though, to let my first impressions simmer, as it were, ripen, mature. Even so, I have some ideas about what I will want to look for when I next read the book. A new scripture A major thread in Song of Solomon is the Bible, but not the Bible of institutional belief systems.  Morrison is using the Bible for her own purposes. Consider one of her key characters, Pilate Dead, the aunt […]
October 8, 2019

Book review: “All the Powers of Earth: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln Vol. III, 1856-1860” by Sidney Blumenthal

“Long John” Wentworth, Chicago’s 6 foot-6-inch mayor, wanted to be Abraham Lincoln’s political boss. But Lincoln wasn’t biting. In late April, 1860, the Illinois Republican wrote to a political colleague, “The taste is in my mouth a little.”  Yet, even as he acknowledged his embryonic presidential candidacy, Lincoln found himself having to settle a feud between Wentworth and state legislator Norman B. Judd.  He sided with Judd despite advice from his campaign manager Judge David Davis to back Wentworth. He also had to get back into his camp two longtime supporters — Sen. Lyman Trumbull and Tribune owner Joseph Medill — who were flirting with other presidential hopefuls, Sen. William H. Seward of New York and U.S. Supreme Court Justice John McLean. Less then three weeks later, Davis arrived in Chicago for the Republican convention, and, as Sidney Blumenthal writes in “All the Powers of Earth,” he “created a political machine overnight,” including Judd and the Tribune’s editors.  But not the city’s mayor. “Wentworth was the outrider, angry that Lincoln had named Judd and not him as a delegate, and out of resentment and mischief sent the police on raids of the extensive whorehouses to arrest delegates.” Talk about a […]
October 7, 2019

Poem: Angels are out tonight

Angels are out tonight By Patrick T. Reardon Tonight, the typewriter keys slam rhythm to ease coarse electricity under the skin. The Sister of the Sacred Heart pleads alms and sweats under her habit as angels stride thickly east and west on her sidewalk. Angels fly complex patterns over the drunk anesthesiologist and the beautiful child. Angels are out tonight. The boy rocks his body right and left to sleep as angels whisper green forests in his ear without mentioning the future gun, a charity. Angels are out tonight as the fox scouts among the headstones, as the sigh ends in stillness, as Brother Pain is traded for Sister Death. Tonight, angels are on the wind, like a tune up the sidewalk, like the white paint piers of the elevated, like the ocean of police marching State Street, Newman’s jolly coppers, the white-glove parade. Down the court run fast-break angels, in the chemistry moment, actions and reactions, without finish or start. Angels are out tonight, lining the beige nursing home walls, and planless fireflies starscape the orphan shelter lawn. Angels with assumed names mingle the Cubs crowd tonight after a loss and smoke Winstons outside the gay bar and close […]
October 1, 2019

Book review: “Victory on Janus” by Andre Norton

Like Odysseus, the Ift warrior Ayyar spends much of Victory on Janus in long, eventful journeying. For 48 pages — nearly 20 percent — of Andre Norton’s 1966 science fiction novel, Ayyar is probing deeper and deeper into the stronghold of the immensely powerful, unseen being, known by the Ift, the people of Janus, as THAT WHICH ABIDES, or IT. Despite surviving many trials, including an Ift femme fatale named Vallylle, the warrior penetrates very close but not close enough, coming up against a dense jagged mass of metal blocking his way. His return trek, much more difficult, takes up another 21 pages, and, later, with help, his second attempt, this time successful, is covered in another 51 pages.   In all, about half of Victory on Janus involves descriptions of Ayyar’s travels. Norton’s imagination I mention this because, it seems to me, Norton’s stories rarely, if ever, feature so many long treks on foot.  Ayyar is on a quest, and it’s a quest for which he gains aid from another immensely but obscurely powerful being known as the Mirror of Thanth, a constructed lake that somehow has a mind of its own.  He’s also helped by Illylle, the Sower […]