June 20, 2018

Poem: “Comment te dire adieu”

      Comment te dire adieu   How to say goodbye on a gray-blue morning?   In the end, turn and walk out the door, carrying the room on your back in a bag filled with camera clicks and sound grabs, looking ahead, always looking ahead, to the last closing door.   Patrick T. Reardon 6.20.18     “Comment te dire adieu” was originally published by Spank the Carp on June 1, 2017.    
June 18, 2018

Book review: “Abraham Lincoln” by Adam I.P. Smith

Abraham Lincoln by Adam I.P. Smith was published in 2014 by the Britain-based History Press as part of its Pocket Giants series of very short — 100 or so pages — biographies of great world figures. It’s a series that includes works about Jesus, Jane Austen, Napoleon, Queen Elizabeth II, John Lennon, King Arthur and Buddha, among many others. The idea, of course, is that these biographies are extremely concise, but there’s also a bit of a flair to them. They don’t read like a long encyclopedia (or Wikipedia) entry but take a point of view. For example, Nick Higham’s book on King Arthur focuses on the question of whether there was a real person at the heart of the myth and looks closely at how layers of story and anecdote were added to the legend throughout the centuries. Smith’s aim in Abraham Lincoln is to explain his subject to non-Americans who aren’t steeped in the vision of the 16th U.S. President as a civic saint, a martyr for the nation and a political and patriotic touchstone. Smith writes: Abraham Lincoln qualifies as a historical ‘giant’ not because of the ways his image and the stories about him have drawn […]
June 13, 2018

Poem: “Veronica”

Veronica   Veronica is not a name given to many baby girls today. She wiped the face of Jesus at the side of the packed- stone street the condemned man trudged with his cross rubbing his shoulder raw on his way to the hill. He left behind the image of his face on the cloth, like the Shroud of Turin but no need for x-rays. Did she hang it on the wall of her home? Store it in a drawer? It was certainly an odd miracle in which no cure was executed. Did Veronica and Simon the cross carrier meet later to trade notes or maybe just to look into each other’s stunned eyes with no words to say — then, interrupted in their silent communion by the angry cry of a hungry baby, they turn to see the mother raise to the infant mouth her breast.   Patrick T. Reardon 6.13.18   “Veronica” originally appeared in the Write City Magazine on 4.19.17.
June 11, 2018

Book review: “What If? — The World’s Foremost Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been,” edited by Robert Cowley

.There is no point to the study of history if each event, each action, each decision is seen in some mechanistic manner — as if what happened had to happen. The reality is that whatever happened might have been different. That’s why we study history.  We learn from history by looking at the results of an event, an action, a decision, and by considering how those results might have been different. What if George Washington had been shot in the fall of 1777?  What if Captain Patrick Ferguson of the British Army had chosen to pull the trigger when he had Washington in his sights?  If Ferguson had fatally shot the commander of United States forces at that particular moment, he would have changed the Revolutionary War in a drastic way. The lesson, here, is that an individual’s action (or, in this case, inaction) can have huge ramifications. Obviously, powerful people, such as queens and generals, make decisions that change the direction of the arrow of history, but, as the story of Ferguson shows, an Average Joe who is at the right spot at the right moment can also shift things.   Dozens of historical moments The Ferguson-Washington encounter is […]
June 6, 2018

Book review: “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer” by Michelle McNamara

People get obsessed.  They get obsessed with growing orchids.  With the fortunes of the Los Angeles Lakers or the Cincinnati Reds or the Cleveland Browns.  With the stock market. With mountain-climbing.  With old books.  With eating fancy meals. Michelle McNamara was obsessed with tracking down the man she named the Golden State Killer. This obsession grew out of her website True Crime Diary, launched in 2006.  In I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, she explains: When my family goes to sleep, I time travel and reframe stale evidence using twenty-first-century technology.  I start clicking, scouring the Internet for digitized clues authorities may have overlooked, combing digitized phone books, yearbooks, and Google Earth views of crime scenes: a bottomless pit of potential leads for the laptop investigator who now exists in the virtual world. I share my theories with loyal regulars who read my blog. I’ve written about hundreds of unsolved crimes, from chloroform murderers to killer priests.  The Golden State Killer, though, has consumed me the most. When the rapist-killer was active from 1976 through 1986, his crimes occurred in and around three California locations:  Sacramento, Santa Barbara and Orange County.  He was known as the East Area Rapist for […]
June 4, 2018

Finding a rich life by looking out the window: An interview with Patricia Hampl

Patricia Hampl laughs and says, “I have a list.” We’re talking over the phone about that bane of modern life, the to-do list, she in the kitchen of her St. Paul, Minnesota, home and me in Chicago in my own kitchen. I’ve just mentioned that interviewing her is on my to-do list for the day. It’s humorous because the subject of our conversation is her new book The Art of the Wasted Day (Viking, $26) which is about daydreaming, the antithesis of list-making. It’s about how rich life is when one focuses, at least part of the time, on being rather than on doing. “Pursuit” The idea of constantly doing something, of always accomplishing something, seems to be woven into the American DNA. Indeed, as Hampl, a critically hailed essayist, poet and memoir writer, notes in her book, the Declaration of Independence promises the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Which means that, while life and liberty are guaranteed, happiness isn’t, only the job of seeking it. “The essential American word isn’t happiness. It’s pursuit,” she writes. Over the phone, she expands on this: “Any form of rest in our culture is seen as sloth — […]
May 31, 2018

Book review: “The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel” by Robert Alter

It is a bit perplexing that the ancient story of David — the giant-killer, king, adulterer, father, sinner and old man — doesn’t have its own book in the Hebrew Bible. Instead, it’s spread over two full books (1 Samuel and 2 Samuel) and part of a third (1 Kings), 65 chapters in all. As a separate book, David would be the longest in the Bible with 40,000 words, much heftier than the actual leaders, Jeremiah with 33,000 and Genesis with 32,000. Yet, maybe it makes sense, given that David’s story is so sprawling and so meaty and so full of character, event and human dilemmas. A single book of David would be something akin to a single Shakespeare play that would include the plots and psychological depths of Macbeth, Hamlet and King Lear. Does that sound like an overstatement? Consider what Robert Alter writes at the start of his 1999 book The David Story, a translation of all 65 chapters with a detailed commentary: The story of David is probably the greatest single narrative representation in antiquity of a human life evolving by slow stages through time, shaped and altered by the pressures of political life, public institutions, family, the impulses […]
May 28, 2018

Poem: “The endless white around the corner”

The endless white around the corner   I know it comes, not when.   I am running to it, racing, straining, through the brittle leaves, the boggy mulch, deeply breathing in and out, alive to the breathing, to the muscles, to my sweat, to the rhythm, to the light — so much light.   I walk the cemetery.   I study the newsreel of the King’s coronation. He is gone. So are they all, gone, decayed, disappeared.   I am Lincoln in the moment of the bullet’s entry.   I am books unread. Books not written.   I am the red-brick apartment building in the rising sun, more beautiful than Solomon in all his glory. I am the deep green grass of a child’s lullaby, a dumb green field.   I am Earth from space, the stars.   I am a wildflower downtown in a concrete curb. I am a sound, echoing.   I am in the boat with others alone.     Patrick T. Reardon 5.28.18   This poem was originally published on the Silver Birch Press online journal on 1.14.15 and was included in my 2017 book Requiem for David.  
May 23, 2018

Book review: “The Patron Saint of Cauliflower” by Elizabeth Cohen

Let me make clear I’m no cook or baker. I have, I’ll admit, followed the directions to produce a Betty Crocker cake (with canned frosting) with relatively edible results. And, over the years, I’ve been able to put various food things in front of my wife and children when it was my turn in the kitchen, and there were few outright refusals. And I do like to eat. But the ingredients of meals, such as cabbage and cauliflower, pesto and olive oil, pears, asparagus, avocados, salt, apples, basil, artichokes and cream cheese, are pretty much a mystery to me. So, maybe I shouldn’t be reviewing Elizabeth Cohen’s collection of 32 seemingly kitchen-centered poems, The Patron Saint of Cauliflower, from Saint Julian Press in Houston. On the other hand, I think I have something to say. What I found particularly interesting about Cohen’s book was how I wasn’t lost in all the recipe language and garden harvests. That’s because, for all its talk about vegetables and seasonings, it’s not really about food. Or, better put, Cohen uses food as a doorway into the mystery at the center of all things.   Thoughts of future pain and incident Her opening poem is […]
May 21, 2018

Book review: “Noir” by Christopher Moore

Christopher Moore, the author of 15 wacky novels, explains in an afterword that he had planned for his latest book Noir to be about a “poor working mug” who got entangled with a “dangerous dame” in a dark and desperate story that involving a lot of fog, gunplay and danger. “What I ended up with is essentially ‘Perky Noir,’ a lot closer to Damon Runyon meets Bugs Bunny than Raymond Chandler meets Jim Thompson…But what was I going to do? ‘Noir’ was already typed at the top of every page.” The central character of a Christopher Moore novel is always a beta male, i.e., a nice guy who’s more than a little aimless, distracted and confused. In Noir, that’s Sammy Tiffin, a bartender in 1947 San Francisco who has a damaged foot and a past that he fears will catch up with him.   The Cheese Often, Moore’s guys are rather randy fellows, such as Pocket, King Lear’s jester in Fool, his 2009 adaptation of Shakespeare’s play. Moore is nothing if not gutsy when grabbing and remaking the works of great writers from the past. Indeed, he even retells — hilariously and, in an odd way, reverently — the story […]
May 16, 2018

Book review: “A Gentleman in Moscow” by Amor Towles

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, published in 2016, is a pleasant book, so playful and light that I fully expected to find, once I’d finished reading the novel, that a feel-good movie was planned starring Tom Hanks as Count Alexander Rostov. I was wrong. It’ll be a feel-good mini-series, starring Kenneth Branagh as Count Alexander Rostov. On the way to finding that out, I stumbled across a review that called the book Tolstoyan and asserted that it was a worthy update of the Great Russian Novel. I think that reviewer is wrong. True, like Anna Karenina, there is an attempted suicide in A Gentleman in Moscow. The difference is that, in Tolstoy’s masterpiece, Anna is successful, while the Count’s plan is interrupted comically at the last second by an old man obsessed with bees. True, A Gentleman in Moscow is set in Russia as are all Great Russian Novels. But where is the existential angst in the Towles book? Where is the evil? The closest thing to evil is a small-minded party member who’s nicknamed the Bishop for his overweening pomposity. But his appearance on the page never elicits dread. Instead, he’s a comic figure who sets in […]
May 14, 2018

Book review: “Zaftig: A Case for Curves” by Edward St. Paige

It’s not often that the National Catholic Reporter gets quoted in an art book. Nonetheless, the Catholic newspaper’s headline over a 1995 story by Demetria Martinez commenting on popular notions of how a woman’s body should look was incredibly apt for a book titled Zaftig: A Case for Curves. The headline read: “When it comes to women and bodies, God probably said: Let there be flesh.”     A spindly Venus Edward St. Paige who wrote the text and assembled the images in Zaftig notes on an early page: “The tendency of the female body is endomorphism (round and soft), but that has not kept humankind, at various times, from preferring one or another body shape, and using the mysterious force of fashion to promote and reward the prevailing ideal.” Of course, we’re in one of those moments now. St. Paige shows a variety of images of rail-thin women from the 1920s as well as a 16th century painting of a spindly Venus by Lucas Cranach. But he spends very little space on such thin bodies.   Attractive and desirable His purpose, rather, is to celebrate womanly fullness as expressed in art throughout the ages. The nearly 140 images in […]
May 9, 2018

Book review: “The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam” by Barbara W. Tuchman

At the end of The March of Folly, on its last page, historian Barbara W. Tuchman writes that the best way to avoid folly by government — the folly fueled by ambition, corruption, laziness, arrogance, ignorance and emotion — might be to follow the Lilliputians. Those tiny residents of the isle of Lilliput in Jonathan Swift’s 1726 satirical novel Gulliver’s Travels choose their leaders this way: “They have more regard for good morals than for great abilities, for, since government is necessary to mankind, they believe…that Providence never intended to make management of publick affairs a mystery, to be comprehended only by a few persons of sublime genius, of which there are seldom three born in any age. They suppose truth, justice, temperance and the like to be in every man’s power: the practice of which virtues, assisted by experience and a good intention, would qualify any man for service of his country, except where a course of study is required.” Pretty simple, right? A good leader is most likely one with a good character. A good leader, writes Montaigne, also quoted by Tuchman, needs to have “resolution and valor, not that which is sharpened by ambition but that which […]
May 7, 2018

Book review: “The Mysterious Affair at Styles” by Agatha Christie

When characters become the central figures in a long-running series of novels, they enter into some other dimension where they may age but essentially remain the same — where they don’t experience the passing of years in the way the reader does. For instance, in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Agatha Christie’s first published mystery, Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is already old. What “old” means isn’t specified, but it would seem not a stretch to say he’s at least 50. This book, written in 1916 and published in 1920, was Poirot’s first appearance. He was the center of 32 later books (out of Christie’s 66), and, by the final one, Curtain, he is definitely old — suffering from heart attacks and in a wheelchair because of his arthritis. Curtain, although written in the early 1940s, was published in 1975, or 55 years after The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Was Poirot 105 when he was solving his last case? Nah. He was residing in that dreamworld of long-running fictional characters.   A full-fledged Christie The Mysterious Affair at Styles, as a Christie murder mystery, is of course complicated although her plotting here seems a bit clunkier than it would be later […]
April 30, 2018

Book review: “The Call of the Wild” by Jack London

In November, 1902, Jack London wrote his non-fiction investigative book The People of the Abyss about the life of the poor of the East End of London. He’d spent seven weeks living there a few months earlier. Of the city’s 6.2 million residents, one in 14 lived in grinding oppressive poverty. Or, as the writer put it: “At this very moment, 450,000 of these creatures are dying miserably at the bottom of the social pit called ‘London.’ ” A month after writing The People of the Abyss, London was at work on the novel that made his name, The Call of the Wild. Both books were published in 1903.   A rejection of civilization? To my mind, there is a direct connection between the two books, and it has to do with a little-discussed aspect of The Call of the Wild. In his non-fiction book, London detailed the world that civilization made — a world in which nearly half a million “creatures” were left on a human trash heap, left to find their way for as long as they could struggle, left to a miserable life and an early death. In his novel, London told the story of the un-taming […]
April 23, 2018

Book review: “The Art of the Wasted Day” by Patricia Hampl

A child of her age, born in 1946, Patricia Hampl did her share of protesting in the streets as a young adult, against war, for human rights, and, through it all, she was proud of her nation’s founding document the Declaration of Independence and its words: “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” What other country, she asks in The Art of a Wasted Day, is founded on happiness? Crazy. Good crazy…. We address happiness individually, conceive of it as an intensely personal project, each of us busy about our own bliss. Loved that, love it still. And, yet — as she came to realize later in her life, the Declaration guarantees life and liberty but not happiness, only its pursuit. Happiness in the American credo is a job. No wonder that Hampl, like a lot of Americans, found herself with a to-do list that seemed a mile long. No wonder, too, that, in her fifties, she found herself the victim of panic attacks.  (See my interview with Hampl in the Chicago Tribune.)   “Taking in whatever is out there” No wonder that, in the face of such stress and distress, she decided to embrace daydreaming and redefine happiness as […]
April 16, 2018

Book review: “The Madonna” by Jean Guitton

On the opening page of his text for The Madonna, Jean Guitton, a French philosopher and theologian, notes that, in the Gospels, Mary doesn’t say much. That got me thinking, and, after a little Internet searching, I came across an article that listed the four times when an evangelist quotes the mother of Jesus — twice before his birth and twice after. Guitton’s essay in The Madonna, published in 1963, is interesting but seems theologically dated to me. Instead, I like the idea of considering the many beautiful images of Mary in this book next to the words that Mary says in the Gospels. In presenting them here, I’m not making a direct correlation between image and word. I’m looking at how the two methods of getting to know Mary interact. “I am the handmaid of the Lord” The first instance in which Mary is quoted is the Annunciation (Luke 1: 26-38) when the angel Gabriel comes to her, and this conversation takes place: “Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you. Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him […]
April 9, 2018

Book review: “Chicago and Downstate: Illinois as Seen by the Farm Security Administration Photographers 1936-1943,” edited by Robert L. Reid and Larry A. Viskochil

During a seven-year period, starting the Great Depression and extending into World War II, sixteen talented photographers from the Farm Security Administration (FSA) recorded more than 270,000 images of daily life in America. Often, these photographers would be asked by their subjects why they wanted to take their picture. “For history,” some of them replied. Larry A. Viskochil mentions this in his opening remarks for Chicago and Downstate: Illinois as Seen by the Farm Security Administration Photographers 1936-1943, which he co-edited with Robert L. Reid. It’s an answer that goes to the core of the FSA effort. The subjects of the FSA photographs tended to be those hardest hit by the harsh economic times and least likely to make a record of their own of what they were going through. They were, in other words, the sort of people who are easily lost to history.   The lives of the common people Consider simply the question of clothing: It’s easy enough to know what King Henry VIII and other royals of his era wore. They posed for many paintings that have survived. But what did the common people put on in the morning or, for that matter, upon going to […]
April 2, 2018

Essay: In praise of yet more biographies of Lincoln

The other day, in passing, a friend of mine asked me, “Why would someone write yet another biography of Abraham Lincoln? Aren’t there enough already?” I was dumbfounded and mumbled some half-answer. It seemed akin to asking me why people breathe. Throughout my life, I’ve read dozens of biographies of Lincoln and scores of books about the Civil War and his role in the conflict. I’ve reviewed Lincoln books and written essays on the 16th U.S. President, and, for several years, I served on the advisory board of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield For me, the study of Lincoln is fascinating and never-ending. Yet, my friend, a well-read guy, was really confused.   One life story? At the root of his question was the thought that each of us has one life story. So, once it’s told, there’s no need for it to be told again, right? I suspect he’s not alone in such thinking. He’s right, sort of, if the life story is in the form of a resume. The bullet points about schooling and jobs that were on my resume in 1981 were still true a few years ago when I put together a […]
March 29, 2018

Poem: “Gethsemane”

Forget the cross. I’m already crying like a baby. Why must I drink this fatal medicine? Why endure and then give up the ghost? Why, then, the scholars in the Temple? Why those fishes and loaves? Why Elijah and Moses on the mountain? Why all that light? That flood of light? Light is God, and God is the True Light. Why not a woman and children? Why not long years to breathe this air and see each morning the fill of light? Why put one step in front of the other? Why am I alone, now and always, even when those guys are awake? Why does the grass here smell of goat shit? Why choose? Why do it? Who will wipe these tears?     Patrick T. Reardon 3.29.18
March 28, 2018

Book review: “The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics” by Daniel James Brown

Daniel James Brown tells an exciting and engrossing tale in The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. It’s a page-turner, and that’s quite an accomplishment, given that most readers know little or nothing about rowing when they pick up the book and given that, when all is said and done, the eight-oar crew of students from the University of Washington essentially went undefeated during their four years on the water. (Actually, because of changing boat assignments, it was three of the crew members who were undefeated. But even the other five lost very few races while on other crews.) Brown does a good job of explaining how a crew does its job, from the use of the oars to the strategy of the coxswain, from the different responsibilities of each of the nine seats to the grueling physical workout that a race entails. In this and many other ways, he brings the reader deep enough into the world of rowing to know what’s at stake in a race and to feel the yearning and commitment of the rowers to triumph. To humanize his story, he focuses on Joe Rantz, […]
March 26, 2018

Essay: “This is the night”

Hosannas ring on Palm Sunday, and then comes the Passion. We look closely this week at the sufferings, torture and death of Jesus. And, then, his resurrection. On Holy Saturday, after the lighting of the pascal candle, this joyful news is told in a beautiful, solemn, mystical song called the Exsultet, or the Proclamation of Easter. It begins: Exult, let them exult, the hosts of heaven, exult, let Angel ministers of God exult, let the trumpet of salvation/sound aloud our mighty King’s triumph! Be glad, let earth be glad, as glory floods her, ablaze with light from her eternal King, let all corners of the earth be glad, knowing an end to gloom and darkness. “O happy fault” This song, usually sung alone by a cantor, goes back at least 1,500 years. It is filled with wonder and awe, repeating the phrase “This is the night,” including the lines: This is the night of which it is written: The night shall be as bright as day, dazzling is the night for me, and full of gladness. It is a song that confronts the pain of life, our own weakness and the might of God — and God’s impossible-to-fully-understand willingness to […]
March 21, 2018

Book review: “Curtain” by Agatha Christie

Throughout my 20s, I read a lot of Agatha Christie mysteries, nearly all of them, I suspect. So I’m sure I read Curtain, published in 1975 when I was in the midst of all that reading. It was the last novel published by Christie during her long life, but it had been written in the early 1940s during World War II when she, like many Britons, wasn’t sure she’d survive. Subtitled Poirot’s Last Case, the novel ends with the curtain coming down on the little Belgian detective. Yet, even in death, he solves the mystery, with a particularly unexpected turn. Back at the beginning Curtain was published four months before Christie’s death. It was followed a year later by Sleeping Murder: Miss Marple’s Last Case, also written in the early 1940s — but, by contrast, not involving Miss Marple’s death. In drafting Curtain, Christie playfully locates Poirot’s last case in the same setting as her first Poirot novel — her first published mystery — The Mysterious Affair at Styles, written in 1916 and published in 1920. In that first book, the matriarch of Styles, a country manor in Essex, was murdered with strychnine. In Curtain, set many years later, Styles […]
March 14, 2018

Book review: “Sourcery” by Terry Pratchett

Rincewind — the cowardly and inept wizard whose main skill is his ability to fear so well that he is able to escape from and survive great threats — is the main character in three of Terry Pratchett’s first five Discworld novels, and he makes a cameo in a fourth. He’s far from my favorite character in the Discworld series, and I’ve seen quotes that indicate Pratchett, at least later in his career, wasn’t all that enamored of him either. He’s a one-note Johnny. That, it would seem, was helpful to Pratchett at the beginning when Rincewind served as a kind of Everyman with whom readers could relate. He would move through the novel — like a lot of the central characters in novels by Charles Dickens — and meet a bunch of much more interesting people. Like Conina, the female assassin here in Sourcery, the fifth Discworld novel, the daughter of Cohen the Barbarian, who wants to be a hairdresser but is doomed by hereditary to seek adventure, danger and triumph. And the Librarian, an orangutan who used to be human and has a lot more on the ball than a lot of humans.   Ipslore the Red Actually, in […]
March 12, 2018

Essay: Forget the bucket list, and embrace the mystery of a new year

That transition from the end of one year to the start of the next always reminds me why I dislike the whole notion of having a bucket list. I hear people all the time saying, “Now that I’ve been to Disney World, I can check it off my bucket list,” or “Now that I have a grandchild…,” or “Now that I’ve eaten whale…” The idea is that a person is supposed to develop a list of things to accomplish, achieve or experience before death, i.e., kicking the bucket — and then do those things. This seems, to me, to be a weird way of viewing life — as if being alive means taking on the job of checking things off of some list. It presupposes that, at any given time in my life, I know exactly what I want, exactly what will make me feel happy and satisfied. What sort of list might I have made at the age of 28? It certainly would have been different from the list I’d have made at 48, right? And that would be different from the one I’d make now at 68.   Keeping an open mind and remaining nimble But I’m not […]