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 […]
March 7, 2018

Book review: “The Griff: A Graphic Novel” by Christopher Moore and Ian Corson with Jennyson Rosero

The Griff, published in 2011, is like many another graphic novel, which is to say that it’s like many a megaplex blockbuster. Tell me if this sounds familiar: Invaders from outer space (in this case, big flying, fire-breathing dragons) attack the Earth and kill off just about everyone. The only people left are a bunch of misfits (in this case, a game developer, a guy who worked the makeup counter at Macy’s, a dolphin trainer, a guy dressed in a squirrel outfit, a private first class, and a skateboarder) who set out to save the world. And do.   Along for the ride What sets The Griff apart is that one of its co-authors is Christopher Moore, the writer of a string of very, very funny novels. The other is Ian Corson, a filmmaker. The guy who did all the drawings is Jennyson Rosero, and he should probably get more credit than a “with.” In any case, Moore is a very funny guy, but The Griff isn’t all that funny. It appears from Moore’s foreword and Corson’s afterword that the two had a lot of fun writing the text — essentially, a script for a movie that they don’t expect […]
March 5, 2018

Book review: Three books from the University of Nebraska’s Discovering the Great Plains series — “Great Plains Bison,” “Great Plains Indians” and “Great Plains Geology”

For most Americans, the Great Plains, covering a million or so square miles in the center of the continent, are a place to fly over or, maybe, drive through. This makes sense since much of the area was once known as the Great American Desert. The average person has a fairly vague idea of what the Great Plains are and what’s happened there. Even experts can’t seem to agree on its boundaries, producing, as R. F. Diffendal Jr. notes in “Great Plains Geology,” more than 50 maps with great variations. There’s general agreement that the area’s western border is roughly the Rocky Mountains. On the south, it’s seen as covering all or much of Texas, and, on the north, it goes up about halfway through the Canadian provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. But, on the east, some maps stretch as far as Illinois, or even Indiana. But most stop somewhere near the eastern boundaries of Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, and North Dakota.   A variety of perspectives Diffendal’s book is one of three published so far in the University of Nebraska’s Discovering the Great Plains series, and, in a way, those three, plus the three more in the pipeline, […]
February 28, 2018

Book review: “Golden Hill: A Novel of Old New York” by Francis Spufford

There are many pleasures to Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill: A Novel of Old New York, and the greatest is its sheer unexpectedness. It is fresh in startling ways. It is idiosyncratic storytelling that’s robustly accessible, a literary experiment that melds a variety of novel-writing approaches ranging from the early 1700s up to our present minute — and, yet, always clear and present and eye-opening. And, from start to finish, it has its own language and voice, a vibrantly individual work of fiction. I describe Golden Hill, published in 2016, as an experiment because Spufford had never written a novel before and because it is one of a kind.   Historical fiction, love story, mystery? You could call it historical fiction since it does cover a 45-day period at the end of 1746 in New York City, but this is no fancy-dress tale. It has no hackneyed plot, nor is it an effort to explain what happened behind the scenes of some major event. You could call it a love story since it does involve a very awkward but ardent courtship — as if involving two porcupines — between Richard Smith, a surprise visitor from London, and Tabitha Lovell, the shrewishly […]
February 25, 2018

Book review: “Richard Nixon: The Life” by John A. Farrell

The most striking thing about John A. Farrell’s Richard Nixon: The Life is how evenhanded a biography it is. Picture yourself nearly half a century in the future — in 2061 — and imagine you are reading an even-handed biography of Donald Trump. It’s startling to conceive of such a thing, given the intensely high emotions that the 45th President of the United States elicits from his supporters and opponents. In 43 years, could emotions cool enough that a biographer could write about Trump and his presidency with dispassion? That’s what Farrell has done with Nixon in a book published last year, 43 years after Nixon resigned the presidency in disgrace for the Watergate break-in of the Democratic National Committee and a host of other dirty tricks and, most of all, for the democracy-threatening attempt to cover-up all those democracy-threatening shenanigans. Farrell was a college student in 1974 when Nixon left office, and it would be impossible for a reader of this book to have much of a sense of where Farrell stood in that very divisive moment in American history.   Shakespearean Perhaps the question is whether any biography of Nixon should be even-handed. But, before I get into […]
February 22, 2018

Book review: “Glory Days” by Melissa Fraterrigo

Glory Days by Melissa Fraterrigo is a raw piece of fiction about the scarred and wounded lives of people lost in the dying small town of Ingleside, Nebraska. It is sort of a novel inasmuch as it could be described as a novel told in stories or as a collection of related stories. And it has some of the usual imperfections of such variations on the usual form. There are a variety of tones among the fourteen stories (chapters) that, at times, collide somewhat awkwardly with each other. There are confusing time gaps and plot details that would probably be clearer in the context of a straight-ahead novel. Part of the problem may be that Glory Days is Fraterrigo’s first book-length work of fiction, and she’s still finding her voice.   Tormented spirits Even so, “Glory Days” is a brutally beautiful tale about tortured souls in a Midwestern Inferno of lost jobs, lost hopes, lost connections. Everyone in this book is damaged goods — from Luann, the adopted girl whose mother is newly dead in the opening story, to Teensy, her fire-scarred father, to Footer, an orphan who came into the world when a crazy woman sliced his mother open […]
February 21, 2018

Essay: Fast Food Community

A couple years ago, I met my friend Thomas at the McDonald’s on Broadway, near Loyola University’s lakefront campus on the Far North Side. As we sat down, Thomas said it was just like being in the McDonald’s back home in Iowa. That’s the impression a lot of people have — that all McDonald’s restaurants are the same. Same menus, same lighting, same trays, napkins, etc. All that is true, but what I’ve found is that the uniformity of a McDonald’s — or any major fast food chain, for that matter — is like the setting of a fine jewel. The sameness of the décor and the food means that what I notice when I’m eating at a McDonald’s are the people.   A community of people And here’s the thing: At each McDonald’s, there is a unique community of people. Some, like me, go there for the anonymity. It’s a good place to read and write without having to concern myself with a server who wants to tell me his name is Christopher. (Full disclosure: My daughter-in-law just started working for an ad agency whose only client is McDonald’s. But that’s not why I eat there.) Other people go […]
February 13, 2018

Book review: “Death in Chicago: Winter” by Dominic J. Grassi

Cosmo Grande moves awkwardly, humanly, through Chicago, looking for clues and epiphany. Grande, a fiftyish private investigator who drinks too much and smokes too much weed, is the central character created by my friend Dom Grassi for his first novel Death in Chicago: Winter. It’s a murder mystery and is planned to be the first of four, the others taking Cosmo and the sort of skullduggery one enjoys in mysteries through spring, summer and fall. You know, like Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, only in this case the Italian isn’t writing music but trying to find his way around Chicago while endeavoring to figure out what’s going on — and avoid getting blown up or otherwise iced. In Death in Chicago: Winter, Cosmo is trying to get to the bottom of a whole lot of messiness, including three suicides that might be murder, a dirty cop, a murdered tow-truck driver, a rogue bishop, a “retired” mob boss and a clandestine group of deacons trying to save the Catholic Church from its bad apples.   A rollicking tale It’s a rollicking tale that pulls the reader along as Cosmo, a former seminarian, maneuvers through a hidden church scandal of wide-ranging financial sins while […]
February 12, 2018

Essay: Ben the barber’s light touch of love

We live in a corrosive age, characterized by bitterness, rancor and fury. Loud voices of rage drown out the quiet virtues of calm and broad-mindedness. My friend Ben wasn’t rageful, and he wasn’t bitter. If anyone had the right to be angry, it was Ben. But he took life as it came, with equanimity and a kind of joy. Ben was my barber for more than 30 years. He cut the hair of my son David from when he was a toddler to when he went off to college. His barbershop on California Avenue, just north of Touhy Avenue, was a frequent Saturday stop for me and David and his younger sister Sarah. They grew knowing Ben as a kind grandfatherly presence in their lives. And they grew up knowing the blue numbers tattooed on his arm.   Surviving Auschwitz as a barber Ben, as he told me and the kids, had spent two years in the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz. He and his brother survived because they could cut hair. They were assigned to cut the hair of fellow Jews and other people who were put to killing labor or sent directly to the crematoria. All other members […]
February 7, 2018

Book review: “The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve” by Stephen Greenblatt

At the end of the 19th century, Mark Twain had fun with the story of Adam and Eve, writing in “Adam’s Diary” about the first man’s confusion over the sudden appearance of the first woman: “This new creature with the long hair is a good deal in the way. It is always hanging around and following me about. I don’t like this; I am not used to company. I wish it would stay with the other animals….Cloudy today, wind in the east; think we shall have rain….WE? Where did I get that word — the new creature uses it.” Such playfulness, though, gives no hint of the two and a half millenniums during which the Bible account of the first people in the Garden Eden was taken very seriously, even to the point of life and death, as Stephen Greenblatt shows in The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve.   “A breath” Greenblatt, a Pulitzer Prize winner and the general editor of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, has written a book that is thoughtfully readable and deeply erudite, a book steeped in humanity and in the unending efforts of humans to figure out who they are and why […]
February 5, 2018

Book review: “Mort” by Terry Pratchett

There is an awkward disconnect toward the end of Mort, Terry Pratchett’s 1987 Discworld novel, the fourth of 41 in the series. It has to do with Albert, Death’s manservant and cook. OK, if you haven’t read any Discworld novels, that job description may sound odd. As Pratchett’s regular Discworld readers know, Death is the guy in the long black robe with the ever-so-sharp scythe — oh, and he’s a skeleton— who appears in just about every one of these books. You know he’s there, even if he isn’t immediately identified, because of his distinctive way of speaking — in “a voice like lead slabs being dropped on granite,” all in small caps. For instance, when he hires the 16-year-old Mort as his apprentice, Death asks his name: “Mortimer…sir. They call me Mort.” “WHAT A COINCIDENCE.” (“Mort” being the root word in Latin for “death,” and, by way of Middle French and Middle English, the root of such English words as “moral.” But you knew that.)   Stood-still-time Death’s job is to head out each day to be present at the death of, generally but not always, important people. The causes of such deaths can be any of the usual […]
February 2, 2018

Essay: Van Gogh’s “Self-Portrait” (1887) at the Art Institute of Chicago

It was one of those joyous moments in life when, at my home computer with its large, wide screen, I was able to look at a photo that I had taken on Tuesday of Van Gogh’s 1887 “Self-Portrait” at the Art Institute of Chicago.     According to the museum, this oil painting is just a little over 16 inches high and just under 12 inches wide.  So I was able to get close and still get the whole image in a photo.  Then, I got a bit closer and got a center section of the painting in another photo.     What took my breath away was how detailed my photo was — and, even more, how I could see each of Van Gogh’s individual brushstrokes. And my amazement and delight grew, the closer I looked.   And, again, when I focused solely on the eye.   First, look at the colors Van Gogh uses that, as a non-painter, I wouldn’t expect to see in a portrait.  Look at all that dark green.  And those three little yellow lines. And then there are the reds.  That dark red outlining the top of the eye lid.  And then a more […]
February 1, 2018

Book review: “The Art of Biblical Narrative” by Robert Alter

The writers of the Hebrew Bible, when they’re telling a story, they’re like Homer with the Iliad — they’re omniscient. They know the story as if they’ve watched it unfold from some vantage point above and around and inside the action. However, unlike Homer, the biblical storyteller doesn’t make the characters and their motives clear to the reader. Instead, the storyteller is selective, as Robert Alter explains in his groundbreaking 1981 study The Art of the Biblical Narrative: He may on occasion choose to privilege us with the knowledge of what God thinks of a particular character or action — omniscient narration can go no higher — but as a rule, because of his understanding of the nature of his human subjects, he leads us through varying darknesses which are lit up by intense but narrow beams, phantasmal glimmerings, sudden strobic flashes. We are compelled to get at character and motive, as in impressionistic writers like Conrad and Ford Madox Ford, through a process of inference from fragmentary data, often with crucial pieces of narrative exposition strategically withheld, and this leads to multiple and sometimes even wavering perspectives on characters. There is, in other words, an abiding mystery in character […]
January 30, 2018

Book review: “The Power and the Glory” by Graham Greene

He is a priest who has been on the run for eight years in a state in Mexico where authorities have leveled all churches in an effort to root out Catholicism. Religious books are banned, and even well-to-do women find themselves in jail if they’re found with one. It is the middle of the 20th century, and the new Socialist government wants to stamp out superstition. Some priests have fled. Some have stayed and, under duress, have gotten married. Others, like this one, have gone into hiding. When caught, a fugitive priest is shot for treason. As Graham Greene’s 1940 novel The Power and the Glory, opens, this priest is the last one at large, offering the sacraments — baptism, confession, the Mass — to believers where he can find them and when they feel it’s safe to be with him. Most of the time, it’s not safe. Over the past year, he has celebrated Mass just four times and had heard maybe a hundred confessions. No hero Now, a fervently anticlerical Army lieutenant is on his trail, and, when the officer finds that a village has been visited by the priest, he takes a hostage. He holds the hostages […]
January 29, 2018

Poem: “Four percent pantomime

Beethoven’s Symphony #7 In A, Opus 92, Allegretto, is dread and endurance, deepening in intensity with each new phrase. down into the core. And, for just a few beats, somewhere near the end, I see a ballerina, not leaping, but, with her shoulders wide, striding, step by measured step, as all of us must, to the executioner.   At the Museum of Fine Art, the glazed terra cotta della Robbia Mary holds her baby son with one large hand around his waist and the other over the top of his skull, gripping, with a raw ache, his hair through her fingers, holding for dear life, and, for a glimmer, I see the boy’s head move just slightly as if fussed by a bad dream and her lips bend to touch his forehead, as if to kiss away what is to come for her and for him after they return to their pose.   Over my head, the electricity of eight younger bodies cracks from one side of the back yard to the other as the sharp-moved mother arranges the line of food and dishes and utensils on the table and the dutied father is firing the hot dogs, and I […]
January 26, 2018

Poem: “Goddess boulder”

In Boston, at the MFA, the faith, love and hope of the Della Robbia family art, glazed terra cotta, one hundred and fifty years of saints and Madonnas with their Baby Jesus, the colors, five centuries old, glow like the warmth of living skin.   Then, with directions, I to the basement gallery of Olmec art to confront the huge squat crushing ugly boulder goddess that is shown in the museum guide and know it is the weight and threat of my mother   and find, instead, a life-size jade priest mask, turned by fire from green to gray, delicate, deadly attractive but not looming. Not huge. Only maybe pained. Seeming as much victim as butcher, except, of course, to the one to be sacrificed.   In the kitchen, she sang with Frank Sinatra about a surrey with fringe, and, in that moment, she was the most beautiful girl in the world.     Patrick T. Reardon 1.26.18   This poem was originally published in Requiem for David from Silver Birch Press in February, 2017.  
January 25, 2018

Poem: “Standing before Turner’s ‘Fall of the Rhine at Schaffhausen’ in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts”

The pounding crush of the falling Rhine waters has no end unlike these tiny foreground figures who reach and stretch to accomplish their small tasks, muscles straining, reaching, stretching, yearning.   A few feet from this Turner is one of Manet’s oils of the shooting squad execution of fake Mexican Emperor Maximilian, a fool if there ever was one, but aren’t we all fools who end in the vague smoke awaiting the coup de grace?   What, though, is the alternative? The urgency, as Brooks says, is in the blooming amid the noise and power of the flood.   We are all, victims and butchers, crushed by the same cataract, slain by the same bullet. You and me and David.   Patrick T. Reardon 1.25.18   This poem was originally published in Requiem for David from Silver Birch Press in February, 2017.  
January 22, 2018

Book review: “The City: A Vision in Woodcuts” by Frans Masereel

Frans Masereel, a Belgian-born artist who lived most of his life in France, published The City in 1925. It is a collection of 100 woodcuts that tell a story, and it is subtitled it A Vision in Woodcuts. Over the course of half a century, he published many such works, often called novels-in-woodcuts. There was something of a subgenre of such works in that era. In the United States, between 1929 and 1938, Lynd Ward, influenced by Masereel, published seven such novels-in-woodcuts. Today, The City is marketed as a graphic novel although, unlike most modern graphic novels, Maereel’s books are completely without words. Dark, sullen and pessimistic The City is called a “vision” because it doesn’t tell the story of particular identifiable characters moving through a plot. Instead, The City is more like a poem that describes great social forces and the individuals who, in the face of intense pressure, are winners or, much more often, losers. It is a grim vision, Germanic in its absoluteness (perhaps not surprising since Masereel lived for a time in Berlin), an indictment of the then-modern world, very dark and sullen and pessimistic — and it’s a vision that was created before the Great […]
January 22, 2018

Book review: “Equal Rites” by Terry Pratchett

In Equal Rites, the third of his Discworld novels, Terry Pratchett thinks deep thoughts…and silly thoughts. Sometimes, at the same time. For instance, Esk is a girl of nearly nine who is in training with Granny Weatherwax to be a witch and maybe a wizard. And she is astonished that Granny hasn’t given her goats names. “I imagine,” Granny says, “they’ve got names in Goat….What would they want names in Human for?” Esk ruminates about this, and so does Granny: Goats did have names for themselves, she well knew: there was “goat who is my kid,” “goat who is my mother,” “goat who is herd leader,” and half a dozen other names not least of which was “goat who is this goat.” They had a complicated herd system and four stomachs and a digestive system that sounded very busy on still nights, and Granny had always felt that calling all this names like Buttercup was an insult to a noble animal.   “Cesspit cleaners” That’s pretty silly. And maybe a bit deep. Published in 1987, Equal Rites is about whether Esk — who was born at the same time a wizard was dying and inherited the wizard’s staff and, hence, […]
January 18, 2018

Book review: “Catseye” by Andre Norton

Andre Norton’s 1974 novel Catseye is what’s often called a space opera. In other words, like the old Westerns — called horse operas — it’s an adventure story, set in space, featuring good guys and bad guys. And, in the end, the white hats win. In other words, we’re not talking King Lear or Paradise Lost here. Catseye is entertainment, pure and simple. And, yet, there is something noble about a well-crafted entertainment, made with pride and integrity and intelligence and a level of creativity.   A kinship Here, as in many other Norton novels, the story involves a human being — a young man from the wrong side of the tracks named Troy Horan — who is able to talk telepathically with animals. In this case, five animals from Earth — two cats, two foxes and a playful little monkey-like creature called a kinkajou. This theme was obviously important to Norton, and it’s not just a fun what-if feature to her stories. Deeper, it is a recognition of a kinship between humans and other creatures and, by extension, with all of creation — a proto-ecology idea when Norton originally used the concept sixty-five years ago in her first science-fiction […]
January 16, 2018

Book review: “Cover Her Face” by P.D. James

It was in 1962 that P.D. James published Cover Her Face, her first murder mystery featuring Detective Chief-Inspector Adam Dalgleish of Scotland Yard. At the time, Agatha Christie was still the dominant voice in the field, selling millions of mysteries each year and cranking out new novels at an annual pace. In the previous 41 years, she had published 59 mysteries. Her 60th The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side came in 1962. It was followed over the next 14 years by 13 more. This is worth noting because, in many ways, Cover Her Face is very much of the Christie genre. There is a hothouse quality to the novel, set as it is in the rural estate of landed gentry (albeit a little threadbare). The murder victim is found behind a locked door. And the solution is incredibly complex and far-fetched. I’ve seen reports that, later in her writing life, James said that she didn’t think much of this first effort, and there’s good reason. It’s a bit hokey in the way that most of Christie’s novels were hokey.   A novel trying to escape Even so, Cover Her Face is a pleasure to read. Throughout, there are hints […]
January 10, 2018

Book review: “Native Son” by Richard Wright

For 20-year-old Bigger Thomas, life in Chicago in early 1939 is one of fear and anger. On this day, he has just beaten up his friend Gus for no apparent reason — except that it meant that he and Gus and two of their friends would have to drop their plan to rob a white storeowner. This is early in Richard Wright’s Native Son, and Wright notes: His confused emotions had made him feel instinctively that it would be better to fight Gus and spoil the plan of the robbery than to confront a white man with a gun. But he kept this knowledge of his fear thrust firmly down in him; his courage to live depended upon how successfully his fear was hidden from his consciousness… This was the way he lived; he passed his days trying to defeat or gratify impulses in a world he feared.   “A world he feared” Bigger Thomas lives in Chicago’s South Side Black Belt, the largest of two African-American ghettos in the city. (A much smaller one is on the Near West Side.) He fears his world because, everywhere he turns, he is told in the words and actions of American society […]
January 8, 2018

Book review: “One Crazy Summer” by Rita Williams-Garcia

The cover of One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia indicates that this is a book for kids 9 to 12. And, sure, the reading level will fit that group of kids. But what makes the book so rich and courageous is that it deals with issues that kids will have to think about and deal with as adults — issues that are far from simple and aren’t likely to ever go away. Set in 1968, One Crazy Summer is about three African-American sisters from Brooklyn — Delphine, 11; Venetta, 9; and Fern, 7 — who fly across country to spend 28 days in Oakland with the mother who walked out on them when Fern was a newborn. Nearly everyone the sisters meet during their visit are black. This is a book about the black experience in 1968 and the black experience today, and its target audience are African-American kids. Even so, its secondary audience is all other kids. The questions raised in this book have to be faced most directly by black kids and adults. But non-black kids and adults have to come up with their own answers to these questions as well. For instance, the sisters spend their four […]