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 […]
September 30, 2019

Book review: “Judgment on Janus” by Andre Norton

Naill Renfro has the Green Sick and has been exiled into the great, dark forest.  He awakens from a fever dream and drags himself to a nearby pool for a drink.  Instead, he makes a shocking discovery when he looks in the water.   “No!” that denial was torn out of him in a word half a moan.  Naill drove his fist at the surface of the pool, to break that lying mirror, to blot out the thing it reported.  Yet, even as he denies what his eyes see, his fingers force him to accept what has happened: Naill’s hands went to his head for a second touch — exploration, to verify the reflection.  Hairless head — ears larger than human, with the upper tips sharply pointed and rising well above the top line of his skull. And — he held his shaking hands out before him, forcing his eyes wide open for that study — his skin, which should have been an even brown, was now green!…It was true — he was green! Great changes Even before this scene occurs five chapters into Judgement on Janus, Andre Norton’s 1963 science fiction novel, Naill has already undergone great changes. Born […]
September 25, 2019

Book review: “The Instructions” by Adam Levin

Adam Levin’s 2010 novel The Instructions is nothing if not ambitious. Weighing in at 1,030 pages, it deals deeply with the interior lives of pre-teens, the hair-splitting debates of Torah and Talmudic scholarship, the question of turning the other cheek and the status of Jews as outsiders in world society. It deals deeply with what its characters call The Arrangement — the oppressive authoritarian, bureaucratic, totalitarian systems of education that also exist in virtually every other area of American society in which people, in this case, teens, are simply data points to be kept in clear-cut lines and rows with no regard for individuality, and the robotic quality of otherwise good people who participate in The Arrangement, and the sadistic glee of some not-so-good people.  Think Franz Kafka’s The Trial or, say, Nazi Germany. And it deals deeply with the reality or non-reality of religious miracles, Jewish anger at each other, the use of religious powers to kill, the writing of a new Jewish scripture, Israel as a modern Promised Land for Jews, the coming of the Messiah, and the possible presence in this world right now of the Messiah. In other words, this is a book that aims to […]
September 23, 2019

Book review: “Soul Music” by Terry Pratchett

There is a temptation to start off this review with a pun, but no dice.  I know that I’m nowhere near as good at it as Terry Pratchett, as he shows in Soul Music, published in 1995. For instance, the talking raven — of course, there’s a talking raven in a Terry Pratchett novel — is having a discussion with the skull on which he spends most of his time.  The conversation concludes with the skull saying: “Yes. Quit while you’re ahead, that’s what I say.” Or, later, when music — in the form of an alternate universe version of rock ‘n’ roll — has infected the entire city of Anhk-Morpork, including the wizards of the Unseen University, to the point that the wizards are now wearing crepe-soled shoes (the better to dance to the music of The Band with Rocks In), the Archchancellor is aghast, saying, “Proper footwear for a wizard is pointy shoes or good stout boots.  When one’s footwear turns creepy, something’s amiss.”  He starts another sentence, “When you’re boots change by themselves…,” which the Dean finishes: “There’s magic afoot?” Or, when two of the members of the Band with Rocks In, Glod the dwarf and Buddy, […]
September 18, 2019

Book review: “Safekeeping” by Gregory McDonald

When Bill Sikes is introduced in Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens describes him thusly: “The man who growled out these words, was a stoutly-built fellow of about five-and-thirty, in a black velveteen coat, very soiled drab breeches, lace-up half boots, and grey cotton stockings which enclosed a bulky pair of legs, with large swelling calves—the kind of legs, which in such costume, always look in an unfinished and incomplete state without a set of fetters to garnish them. He had a brown hat on his head, and a dirty belcher handkerchief round his neck: with the long frayed ends of which he smeared the beer from his face as he spoke. He disclosed, when he had done so, a broad heavy countenance with a beard of three days’ growth, and two scowling eyes; one of which displayed various parti-coloured symptoms of having been recently damaged by a blow.” In that first sentence, Dickens makes clear that Bill Sikes, called Mr. Sikes by the boy Oliver Twist throughout the novel, has the appearance of someone who belongs in chains, hence, the legs looking incomplete “without a set of fetters to garnish them.” In other words, Bill Sikes is a bad one.  And […]
September 16, 2019

Book review: “The Bounty Hunters” by Elmore Leonard

Elmore Leonard’s first novel The Bounty Hunters was published in 1953, just eight years after World War II, and it was part of a movement in American arts to reevaluate the national myths. On the surface level, the war seemed to endorse the rightness of U.S. ideals and actions. Nonetheless, artists, such as those in movies, painting and novels, were expressing what might be called the Great Ambiguity.  Yes, the United States fought for freedom and democracy against the soul-crushing, murderous Nazis and their allies.  Still, there is much that America and American soldiers did in battle that unsettled the consciences of thoughtful people.  “By white standards” With The Bounty Hunters, Leonard is setting forth the subject matter that he will deal with more than 40 other novels as well as short stories and screenplays. First, there is Leonard’s affinity for those on the edges of society, an affinity for the zest and piquancy that other cultures and other approaches to the questions of living bring to the communal life. In this novel, it’s expressed in his openness to the Apache way of life which, in American myth of that time, was seen as debased, pagan and inhuman.  By contrast, […]
September 11, 2019

Book review: “The Song of Songs: A Biography” by Ilana Pardes

The Song of Songs is one of three very odd books in the Bible.  Ecclesiastes expresses a deep mournful existential angst not found anywhere else in the Jewish and Christian scriptures; life is short and hard.  Meanwhile, Job wrestles with the question of why bad things happen to good people — and loses; God essentially says in a long rant out of the whirlwind that God’s ways can’t be comprehended by humans, and Job comes to give up on his whining and say: OK.  The essential act of faith. Neither book provides the message that’s found in the rest of the Bible — that, if you do the right thing, God will take care of you in some way. The Song of Songs is even more singular.  It is, on its face, a joyfully sensual celebration of romantic and physical love.  The female lover is identified as the Shulamite, and her breasts are extravagantly praised eight times in the 2,700-word poem.  Depending on the translation, God is mentioned once or not at all. Nonetheless, as Ilana Pardes notes in The Song of Songs: A Biography (Princeton University Press, 280 pages, $24.95), Rabbi Akiva, one of the founders of rabbinic Judaism […]
September 9, 2019

Essay: Tweet at me, Mr. President

I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m feeling sort of left out. This past weekend, President Donald Trump tweeted about how much he dislikes singer and activist John Legend and his wife Chrissy Teigen, throwing schoolyard insults at them. But, so far, at least, that little rant pales in comparison to his tweet storm a month or so ago against a whole lot of people, including five members of Congress — Reps. Elijah Cummings (Maryland), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (New York), Rashida Tlaib (Michigan), Ilhan Omar (Minnesota) and Ayanna Pressley (Massachusetts). Also targeted was Rev. Al Sharpton, a private citizen and public activist. So, I thought, Well, why not me? True, I haven’t been elected to Congress. Neither am I like four of those U.S. Representatives a woman, nor am I a person of color like the six people targeted in these tweets. Nor am I as accomplished artisticly as Legend and Teigen, also people of color. But, like them, I am an American citizen.  If President Trump is going to spend a lot of time trying to bully these people, I’m OK with him trying to bully me.  It’s gotten to be a kind of badge of honor, in a […]
September 4, 2019

Book review: “The Periodic Table” by Primo Levi, translated by Raymond Rosenthal

Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table, published in Italian in 1975, is a literary memoir of high art and broad ambition.  It covers the waterfront. The periodic table, of course, is a major subject — that list of chemical elements, now totaling 118, that comprise everything in the Universe. All matter. (The sole exception is dark matter which, according to scientists, is made up of something other than the chemical elements but no one’s sure what that something is.) Levi, who worked all his life as a chemist — indeed, his chemical expertise saved his life during the Holocaust — constructs his book with 21 chapters, each keyed to an element on the periodic table.  Two of these, the ones for lead and mercury, are short stories that a 22-year-old Levi wrote when he was working off by himself in a plant on an island in 1941.  He was, he writes, in semi-hiding as a Jew in Fascist Italy, pondering “my freedom, a freedom I would perhaps soon lose.”  He writes, in Raymond Rosenthal’s English translation: From this rocky love and these asbestos-filled solitudes, on some other of those long nights were born two stories of islands and freedom, the first […]
September 2, 2019

Essay: Let’s celebrate working when we’re working

On the occasion of this 126th Labor Day as a national holiday, I’d like to make a modest proposal: Let’s have a second one — Labor Day 2 — that’s not a day off. I know that might sound like heresy.  A day off has been intertwined with the idea of Labor Day since the late 19th century when it was a holiday in some states but not yet nationally. But the deeper aim of Labor Day is to honor workers — all those millions of women and men (and, at times in our national history, children) who have struggled throughout the past 243 years to keep body and soul together and help this nation accomplish, grow and prosper.  To honor them with a day, the way we honor George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and the nation’s armed forces veterans. A day off is a fine way to bestow that honor, and, let me say, I’ve got nothing against a day off.  When I was working for a boss, I was just as glad as the next person to have paid time away from work.  Saying, “Thank you,” on Labor Day 2 But here’s […]
August 28, 2019

Poem: “Visions”

Visions By Patrick T. Reardon I see the hand of God write on the wall the sins of the king. I see the bloody knife. I see the father lead the son to slaughter. I smell the burning bush. I see the furnace, three inside unburnt. I hear the walls fall, taste bitter herbs before travel, stand on sacred ground, see the salt woman, the honey and milk land, the river red with blood. I see the face of God I hear the Lord speak my name. I feel the touch of fearful blessing. Patrick T. Reardon 8.22.19
August 26, 2019

Book review: “The Cold Way Home” by Julia Keller

Near the very end of Julia Keller’s latest Acker’s Gap novel The Cold Way Home (Minotaur, 306 pages, $27.99), Jake Oakes wants something that he knows he may never get, and he tells the woman he loves, Molly Drucker: “I can’t wait and hope.  It hurts too much.  I don’t want to hope anymore.” “We can’t give up on hope,” was Molly’s quiet reply. “Why not? Why the hell not?  What’s so special about hope?” “Sweetheart,” Molly said… “It’s all we’ve got.  It’s all anybody’s got.” Pain, oppression and…. The Cold Way Home is a novel about pain and oppression, about twisted loyalties and dead-end addictions, about commission and confession, about easily snuffed-out passion and enduring friendship, about the grind of making ends meet and the sap and the decay of roots. It is also a mystery involving two murders that are solved by former county prosecutor Belfa Elkins and her fellow investigators, mysteries involving a long-leveled state hospital for women who, in their homes, didn’t fit in and who suffered from the hands of the hospital staff.  A mystery that ends with a showdown in a forest between Bell and the killer. It is, as all of Keller’s Acker’s […]
August 21, 2019

Book review: “Lords and Ladies” by Terry Pratchett

Granny Weatherwax hears a noise outside her witch’s cottage: There was something in the garden. It wasn’t much of a garden.  There were the Herbs, and the soft fruit bushes, a bit of lawn, and, of course, the beehives.  And it was open to the woods.  The local wildlife knew better than to invade a witch’s garden. Granny opened the door carefully. The moon was setting.  Pale silver light turned the world into monochrome. There was a unicorn on the lawn.  The stink of it hit her. Not that kind of book Terry Pratchett’s 1992 novel Lords and Ladies is about fairies, sprites and elves — but it’s not that kind of book. This is not a book about cute fairies, sprites and elves.  There is nothing sweet nor sentimental nor charming nor adorable about these fairies, sprites and elves. Consider the ones in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. All’s well that ends well, as someone said once, so you’re likely to remember them as playful and a bit naughty but basically harmless. Think about it, though.  They operate completely without morals.  They use humans for their entertainment (including one human baby who’s the pet of Oberon, the King of the […]
August 19, 2019

Book review: “Playback” by Raymond Chandler

Two-thirds of the way through Raymond Chandler’s novel Playback, Philip Marlowe is having a conversation with Henry Clarendon IV, an aged, wealthy man who spends his days sitting in a hotel lobby, watching the other guests and anyone else who happens by. He gives Marlowe some helpful information for the case — or is it cases? — he’s working on, and a bit more. “Do you believe in God, young man?” Marlowe says, if he’s talking about an omniscient, omnipotent God, well, no. “But you should, Mr. Marlowe.  It is a great comfort. We all come to it in the end because we have to die and become dust.  Perhaps for the individual that is all, perhaps not. There are grave difficulties about the afterlife.  I don’t think I should really enjoy a heaven in which I shared lodgings with a Congo pygmy or a Chinese coolie or a Levantine rug peddler or even a Hollywood producer.” Clarendon goes on, talking about his difficulty with envisioning a God in a long white beard and a heaven that sounds pretty dull. “On the other hand how can I imagine a hell in which a baby that died before baptism occupies the […]
August 15, 2019

Book review: “The Souls of Black Folks” by W. E. B. Du Bois

Published in 1903, The Souls of Black Folks by W. E. B. Du Bois is an important book of American literature, a significant work in the development of the field of sociology and a foundational text for the study of race relations in the United States. Yet, for me, the heart of the book is far from the objective, analytical, theoretical world of social science. For me, the heart of the book is Du Bois’s cry from the soul that is Chapter 11.  Its title is “Of the Passing of the First-Born,” and it is his account of the death of his 18-month-old son, Burghardt Gomer Du Bois. He was away when he got the telegram that Burghardt had been born and raced home to see the newborn: “What is this tiny formless thing, this newborn wail from an unknown world, — all head and voice?  I handle it curiously, and watch perplexed its winking, breathing, and sneezing.  I did not love it then; it seemed a ludicrous thing to love; but her I loved, my girl-mother…Through her I came to love the wee thing, as it grew and waxed strong; as its little soul unfolded itself in twitter and […]
August 13, 2019

Poem: “The perfect act outside of Brady’s Tavern”

The perfect act outside of Brady’s Tavern By Patrick T. Reardon Stop, short the physical. Yes, you know the noxic feel in the deep and up throat and out, and the thick wet stink up your nose, even though it is his feel, his nose, fellow feeling as you watch. See in ghost dark and shadow light of this alley the arc of acid flow, all orange from the Viceroy butter chicken, balletic, an architecture of color, contrast, tone, texture. Build a sanctuary beneath it. Hold here a coronation. Mark the forehead with chrism under the liquid vault. Is this not divine clockmade? Can you deny the beauty here? And then a flash. Cigarette lit. Aroma of fire and flora fiber under the unseen night cosmos. Patrick T. Reardon 8.13.19 This poem was originally published 7.16.19 in Eclectica.
August 12, 2019

Book review: “Small Gods” by Terry Pratchett

Two dead men. Long ago, the first tried to kill the second with a horrible torture but was killed by an act of a god. The second lived a long, fruitful and productive live and, then, in the normal course of things, died. Now, the second finds the first at the edge of the black desert that must be crossed to Judgement.  For decades, the first has been at this spot, curled up inside himself, as he had been in life, unable to move. Now, the second sees him, takes pity and picks him up to carry (once again, as he had in life) through the desert, no longer alone. A god, like an idea If that sounds like a religious parable, well, yeah. Although not exactly what a Discworld reader expects from Terry Pratchett who tells this story in his 1992 novel Small Gods. Here is the core of all great religions:  We are in this together, and we need to help each other out. Pratchett, a writer of wit, kick and clear-eyed insight, is not your usual devotional author.  And, really, Small Gods isn’t so much devotional (since it rips organized religion up and down) as it is […]
August 7, 2019

Book review: “La Brava” by Elmore Leonard

On the last page of Elmore Leonard’s 1983 novel La Brava, his title character, Joe La Brava, is told by former screen siren Jean Shaw, “It’s not the movies, Joe.” There are ironies upon ironies in that statement that the reader, by that point, is aware of….and Jean is aware of….and Joe is aware of.  Joe, being one of Leonard’s usual pretty-nice-guy heroes, i.e., not averse to twisting the law but dead set against breaking his own code, says, “Swell,” and that about sums it up. “Then [I]  gave them a nice smile: maybe a little weary but still a nice one.  Why not?’ A major literary award La Brava is the only one of Leonard’s 45 novels to win a major literary award, the Edgar for Best Mystery Novel of 1983. Make no mistake, Leonard’s career was honored in many ways, including the 1992 Grand Master Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Mystery Writers of America, the 2008 F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Award for outstanding achievement in American literature; and the 2012 National Book Award Medal for his distinguished contribution to American letters. All of his books and short stories demonstrate high wit and literary skill as well as […]
August 6, 2019

Book review: “Edward Hopper: Portraits of America” by Wieland Schmied

On one of the final pages of his 1995 study Edward Hopper: Portraits of America, Wieland Schmied emphasizes the starkness, bleakness and harshness of light in Hopper’s paintings, especially those featuring human figures. He contrasts Hopper with Rembrandt and Vermeer, and writes: Rembrandt enfolds his figures in a protective darkness as if in a mantle.  His dusky chiaroscuro mercifully hides the things he does not wish to show.  Rembrandt’s pictures seem to say: what takes place in a person’s heart must always remain obscure. Hopper in a sense removed Rembrandt’s people from their comforting shadows and subjects them to the light of Vermeer.  Unlike Rembrandt’s figures, however, Vermeer’s were created for the light — born into a brighter, more rational world, they were more forthright and self-disciplined, and less vulnerable.  Hopper’s figures, in turn, are as vulnerable as Rembrandt’s, but they have been expelled from Rembrandt’s paradise, the paradise of the past, to be forever subjected to the harsh light of the present. “The human situation” It’s not odd to think of Rembrandt’s or Vermeer’s characters walking into one of Hopper’s paintings which, like a stone goddess, seem to be solidly, profoundly timeless. Humans are the subject of any Hopper […]
July 31, 2019

Book review: “Pavane” by Keith Roberts

Lady Eleanor, a young ruler in the county of Dorset in southern England, is quiet and thoughtful, sitting alone in Corfe Castle with her seneschal, John Faulkner.  Just hours earlier, she pulled the cord on a cannon to start a battle with the Catholic Church, the international institution that dominates this latter half of the 20th century as it has dominated Europe for many hundreds of years.  All hell is about to break loose upon her head and the heads of her people. “You know,” she said, “it’s strange, Sir John; but it seemed this morning when I fired the gun I was standing outside myself, just watching what my body did.  As if I, and you too, all of us, were just tiny puppets on the grass.  Or on a stage.  Little mechanical things playing out parts we didn’t understand…. “It’s like a….dance somehow, a minuet or a pavane.  Something stately and pointless with all its steps set out.  With a beginning, and an end…” She goes on to ruminate about how all of life seems like a single fabric, and to pull or clip one thread — to take any action — is to alter the pattern of […]
July 29, 2019

Poem: “Bethlehem”

Bethlehem By Patrick T. Reardon Motel sign, blinking, blinking, blinking: “Jesus Christ slept here.”  Put up a theme park with dioramas and interactive learning centers and miniature railroad circuits and, as one of the attractions, a You-Are-Crucified ride that ends in a big splash of death and then a quiet slide to redemption. Or oblivion in the Tunnel of Love. Patrick T. Reardon 7.29.19 Originally published in Ariel Chart on 7.8.19.