In Terry Pratchett’s 1991 Discworld novel Witches Abroad, Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg and Magrat Garlick have an adventure in “foreign places,” in particular, Genua, a New Orleans-ish place that a witch named Lilith with a fondness for mirrors wants to change into a kind of Disneyland on steroids. You can tell while reading this that Pratchett had recently gone to New Orleans and fallen in love with the tastily weird food of that one-of-a-kind city. You can also tell that he had a bee in his bonnet about the sickly saccharine fairy tale stories that the Walt Disney studios specialized in — the sort in which everything happens just so, the bad queen/witch/mother gets her due, and the heroine and her savior (a girl, after all, needs a savior) live happily ever after. Or else Lilith is trying to inflict stories on Genua in the same way that Vladimir Lenin, Joe Stalin and their crew inflicted totalitarianism on Russia and its satellites. You will be happy — or else! There’s also a swamp woman named Mrs. Gogol and a zombie named Saturday who are trying to inflict their own idea of a story on Genua. And there’s a young girl […]
On the second page of John Dickson Carr’s first murder mystery It Walks by Night, the book’s narrator, a young American named Jeff Marle, tells the reader that, on that first night, “I knew that there would be ugly things in the future.” Carr, an American himself, was at the start of a writing career that would span four decades and see him acclaimed as one of the greatest writers in the heyday of the sort of mysteries that were written with complex, plot-oriented stories centered on one or more puzzles that the reader was expected to be trying to solve as the pages were turned. Indeed, he was a callow 24 when It Walks by Night was published in 1930, and that’s clear in the book. He’s trying too hard. At this point, Agatha Christie had already published nearly a dozen mysteries, and Carr, along with a great many other writers, was trying to find his own spot at the bestseller table. While Christie could be, at times, macabre, her books tended to be somewhat demur, featuring murders that, if not quite bloodless, were low on gore and high on brain work. “A slow and lifelike sway” In this […]
Halfway through Elmore Leonard’s 1972 novel Forty Lashes Less One, Everett Manly, the fill-in warden at Yuma Territorial Prison in Arizona is trying to get two convicts to find some purpose in life. One is Harold Jackson, a black former Marine who, during the Spanish-American War, walked away from his unit in Cuba and was locked up for desertion. Later, he was convicted of murder. The other is Raymond San Carlos, an Indian-Mexican whose father fought with Geronimo and who is imprisoned for killing a cowboy who, once too often, called him a “red greaser.” “In labor and hardships” Mr. Manly, a longtime Protestant preacher, is explaining to the two men that St. Paul — “a Jew-boy” — was able to put up with great hardships because he had found a purpose in life, serving God. “You boys think you’ve experienced hardships, listen, I’m going to read you something. From two Corinthians, ‘Brethren, gladly you put up with fools, because you are wise…’ Let me skip down. “But whereas any man is bold…Are they ministers of Christ?’ Here it is ‘…in many more labors, in lashes above measure, often exposed to death. From the Jews’ — listen to this — […]
Back in high school, two years in a row, we had a retreat master who relished the session he did on death. “You will die,” he’d intone in a very theatrical way that was meant to scare the bejesus out of us, teens that we were. It was part and parcel with a pre-Vatican II theology that saw death as a hammer hanging over the sinner: Don’t make a misstep. At any moment, you….could….be….dead! Sallie Tisdale’s “Advice for Future Corpses” presents a much more balanced view of the end of life and, as the title indicates, contains more than a bit of humor. While not religious in an institutional sense, her book contains the spiritual message that life is richer when you recognize that death is coming. That death is a part of living — indeed, a key component of living — and, as such, part of God’s creation. Tisdale notes that modern Americans, particularly Baby Boomers like her, “choose not to notice” the reality of death. “We pretend that what we absolutely know to be true somehow isn’t true. But the nasty surprises can’t really be avoided.” Not an “if” That’s for sure. As the retreat master said, “You […]
vigilante big flake snow covered the grave and the body they had left in their haste and the strawberry vine grew up from his heart over his neck and into his eyes entwining his ankles and forearms and winter sparrows flew down to wonder at the stain upon the sacred snow. Patrick T. Reardon 4.10.19 This poem originally appeared in Aardwolf magazine in February, 1970.
It’s not for nothing that the front cover of The Book of Genesis, illustrated by R. Crumb carries this warning: ADULT SUPERVISION RECOMMENDED FOR MINORS And this note: THE FIRST BOOK OF THE BIBLE GRAPHICALLY DEPICTED! NOTHING LEFT OUT! The illustrator of this 2009 book, after all, is R. Crumb, he of Fritz the Cat and a host of other scandalously in-your-face underground comix of the 1960s and later, adopted and promoted by the counterculture and still strenuously abhorred by various segments of American society, including feminists. That warning on the cover is needed because Crumb doesn’t pull any punches as he draws the entire book of Genesis, using for the most part the highly praised translation by Robert Alter and a bit of the King James Version. On the other hand, he does so respectfully. He didn’t do this book as an exercise in campiness or as a way of making fun of religious faith. Indeed, in his way, Crumb has striven to be true to the text, more than other drawn versions have been. “A powerful text” As he explains in an introduction: Every other comic book version of the Bible that I’ve seen contains passages of completely […]
I’m at a loss about the newly published Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe. As a reader, I find that, sometimes, books just hit me the wrong way. I think everyone who reads has this experience. When it occurs, I’m often not sure if I’m the problem or the book is the problem. So, it might be that I’ve got a blind-spot here or just wasn’t in the mood to read Say Nothing. So, take what I write with a grain of salt. On the plus side, this work by Keefe, a New Yorker staff writer, is a real page-turner. He knows how to pull the reader through his story, and I found that, even as I started to have qualms about Say Nothing, I kept ripping along as if this were almost a thriller. My qualms My qualms began maybe 100 pages into the 348 pages of text, and they had to do with questions about what kind of a story I was reading. If you pay attention to the subtitle, this book is A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland. Its first chapter tells the […]
By Patrick T. Reardon This essay was originally posted on the 5th anniversary of my lay-off, April 23, 2014. Aside from adjusting the first sentence, I haven't changed it. Ten years ago this month, I was laid off by the Chicago Tribune. I had company. More than 50 other editorial employees were let go the same week I was shown the door. And another 70 or so had been sent packing during the previous nine months. For me, the lay-off didn’t come as a shock. Earlier in the week, I’d had lunch with a colleague who’d asked me if I was worried about the announcement about staff cuts that we knew was imminent. “Anyone who doesn’t realize that he’s walking around with a big target on his back isn’t paying attention,” I said. The next day — my day off — I was proved right. As if shattered by a laser beam I spent the rest of that day and most of the next in the office, packing up my files and books and tying up loose ends. And it was then that I realized one jarring result of the cutback — a kind of atomization of those of us […]
The video of me playing basketball didn’t exactly go viral, but it did cause a bit of a stir among my Facebook friends. And, later, it got me wondering about basketball and spirituality. It was during our usual Sunday afternoon pick-up game at St. Gertrude Catholic Church on Chicago’s Far North Side. This game that’s been going on in one form or another since, at least, 1995, is for guys 40 and older although, on any given Sunday, one or more of the men will bring a son or daughter. We like to see the kids because they run the fast break for us. Often, I’m the oldest guy on the court, and it was the week of my 69th birthday when my son took the video. In it, this tall old, overweight guy — me — takes a pass from the corner, turns to his right, dribbles under the basket and, without looking, flips the ball up over his shoulder, past the outstretched arms of another tall guy, to bounce off the backboard and into the basket. Then, the old guy lumbers — and, I mean, lumbers — up the court to play defense. It’s a shot I’ve taken […]
I want to complain about complaining. Wait, let me rephrase that. I’d like to make some observations about the tendency of modern Americans to find fault with just about anything. First things first, I’m not lobbying for a Pollyanna-ish approach to life. Lord knows that there is enough pain, corruption, wrong-headedness, wickedness, oppression, lying and sheer stupidity in the world. We all have to take up our cudgels against such evils with righteous anger and complaint — and action. Knee-jerk moaning What I’m looking at, however, is the epidemic of grumbling in American life, the way we’ve gotten into the knee-jerk habit of moaning and denouncing and criticizing. I do it. You do it. We all do it. Many on the right contend that liberals are always getting offended and stamping around in high dungeon, but I’d suggest conservatives are very good at that as well. Besides, this isn’t something restricted to politics. Think about it: You’re standing in line at the grocery behind a family with two shopping carts full of stuff. If the guy behind you strikes up a conversation, how likely is it that he’s going to comment on how pretty the song now playing on the […]
The final poem in Paul Fericano’s new biting, silly and fittingly sophomoric poetry collection Things That Go Trump in the Night: Poems of Treason and Resistance (Poems-For-All Press, 90 pages, $7), is titled “TRUMP CHANGE,” and it has a single line: what’s in your wallet? This is a play on Samuel L. Jackson’s ubiquitous commercials for a bankcard company with that punchline — a Jacksonesque-thundering assertion that, if you have the card of another company, you are guilty of financial stupidity and of being a seabottom-scouring loser. When it come to the application of this line with its subtext to an American electorate that, two years ago, voted in as President of the United States Donald J. Trump, well, if the shoe fits…. “Moochies and huckabees” For his 42 poems here, Fericano has mined the full range of culture, from pop to historic, as in his use of the traditional Scottish prayer that is likely to resonate with most readers, even if those not experts on Scottish theology. The original reads: From ghoulies and ghosties And long-leggedy beasties And things that go bump in the night, Good Lord, deliver us! Kinda cute if you don’t believe in any of that […]
There are many pleasures in Neil Shapiro’s newly published The Jazz Alphabet — and you don’t have to be a jazz aficionado to enjoy them. This book by Neil — a friend — draws readers, whatever their musical allegiance, into the jazz world in vibrant and savory ways. From the images he crafted and the words he put on display, I could almost taste the tang and sugar of this great music. “Brought it” As the title suggests, Neil builds his book, available for $35 at https://www.cognitoforms.com/SunriseHitekGroupLLC/thejazzalphabet, around the 26 letters of the alphabet, offering a two-page spread for a single music-maker for each letter. Thus, “R” is for Django Reinhardt (illustrated invitingly with smoke curling from the cigarette in his lips beneath a pencil-thin moustache as he plays his guitar), and “G” is for Dexter Gordon (a straight-head presence on the page, either just getting ready to play or just finishing). On the lefthand page of each spread are a few sentences from Neil, such as his comment on Billie Holiday: The tremulous vulnerability in Billie Holiday’s voice is unique. Even while she balances on the edge of seeming despair, there’s a sly promise of pleasure in there. How […]
Early in Eichmann in Jerusalem, her insightful, sober and controversial 1964 book, Hannah Arendt notes that Adolf Eichmann — tried, convicted and executed in Jerusalem for war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity during the Holocaust — was a joiner. As a result, she writes that “May 8, 1945, the official date of Germany’s defeat, was significant for him mainly because it then dawned upon him that thenceforward he would have to live without being a member of something or other.” Indeed, as Eichmann said: “I sensed I would have to live a leaderless and difficult individual life, I would receive no directives from anybody, no orders and commands would any longer be issued to me, no pertinent ordinances would be there to consult – in brief, a life never known before lay before me.” A leaderless life This, to me, seems to be at the heart of Arendt’s analysis of Eichmann and his import for anyone seeking to understand those who carried out the Nazi-ordered killing of six million Jews and millions of others leading up to and during World War II. And not just who, but also how and why. When, on May 11, 1960, Eichmann was kidnapped […]
Published in 1969, Tom Huth’s Unnatural Axe is a time capsule from a moment — a very short blip — in American time. The innocence of the 1960’s idealism and freedom was beginning to sour, but no one could quite figure out what was going on. Huth’s novel tells the story of the swaggering, hyper-cool winners in Ute City (a stand-in for Aspen, Colorado) and the footloose but not exactly fancy-free hippies of the nearby rural slum town of Puckersville. These characters find themselves trying to maneuver in a startlingly new way of living the American dream that, unbeknownst to them, would turn out to be as wispy as the powder of a dandelion puff. Baffling uncertainty A half century after its publication, Unnatural Axe seems quaint. Yet, anyone who lived through those times recognizes the baffling uncertainty these characters feel in the face of so much that is strange and unprecedented. Huth makes fun of the Ute City movers and shakers and finds kinship with the more anarchic freedom of Puckersville. But his characters are very serious in trying to blaze new trails to happiness and fulfillment — to meaning. In an odd way, this underlying search for meaning […]
In his 2003 novel Fluke, Or, I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings, Christopher Moore gets all science-y on us. And more than a little science fiction-y (but without all those nasty aliens). And even a bit religious-y, what with the characters talking a lot about prayer and God and you know. But not like Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, Moore’s 2002 novel about, well, Jesus — but it wasn’t preachy, just kind of sad, but it was funny and raunchy a bit (but not Jesus being raunchy, although he is more than a bit confused about a lot of stuff [until the end when, oh — I said it was kind of sad, didn’t I?]). The Zodiac story There’s more than a bit of raunchiness in Fluke involving people in some cases and creatures in others — such as whales (including two big whale guys [whom, Moore informs us, are endowed with testes weighing about a ton each and a 10-foot penis] who mistakenly think a Zodiac inflatable boat containing two female (human) scientists is the object of their common affection and, well, act upon that assumption, if you get my drift. The two female […]
Moby Dick is an epic piece of literature on a par with Homer’s Iliad and Shakespeare’s King Lear and the Bible’s Job. It is densely rich in language and structure, in character and story. Its account of a man against a whale is a story that had never been told before with such grandeur. Yet, it parallels other efforts by master storytellers down the centuries to portray humans confronting the unanswerable questions of existence. Like Job grappling with the question of why bad things happen to good people — indeed, why suffering is in the world. Like Lear raging against the deterioration of the body, the betrayal of others and, even more, his own betrayals of himself. Achilles, the unconquerable, fights and dies because of a fatal flaw. Oedipus unknowingly kills his father and has sex with his mother because of the blindness that every human being is born with, the inability to know everything, to understand the consequences of actions. To fully understand Moby Dick would require months, probably years. And I read it just once. I know how weak my understanding of the novel is. Still, I was able to spot certain aspects that I found deeply enrichening. […]
One of the great pleasures of reading Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is his wondrously muscular prose. So thick with meaning and image, so meaty with psychological insight, so dense and meaty. Often, reading one of his paragraphs — even one of his sentences — I was struck by the poetry of his prose. It is a prose-poetry of rhythm and sound, of deep echoes (of Shakespeare, of the Bible, or the vast store of literature), of hard edges and the softness-hardness of the ocean water. Here are ten examples: The Pacific When gliding by the Bashee isles we emerged at last upon the great South Sea; were it not for other things, I could have greeted my dear Pacific with uncounted thanks, for now the long supplication of my youth was answered; that serene ocean rolled eastwards from me a thousand leagues of blue. There is, one knows not what sweet mystery about this sea, whose gently awful stirrings seem to speak of some hidden soul beneath; like those fabled undulations of the Ephesian sod over the buried Evangelist St. John. And meet it is, that over these sea-pastures, wide-rolling watery prairies and Potters’ Fields of all four continents, the […]
Out of the blue By Patrick T. Reardon Sure, paint the door with blood and get a pass. But, tomorrow, Death’s angel will again be on the lookout. Sure, read the litany of vitamins and sugars. But, out of the blue, the heart strangles itself. Sure, crouch away from the stranger here. But, listen, aren’t we all? Sure, stay between the white lines. But, you know, a steering wheel slip has no conscience. Sure, the best is yet to come. Sure, lover come back. Sure, someone to watch over me. Sure, all of me. Sure, it was a very good year. Sure, that old black magic. But, amen, amen, the numb mystery at the center of things is a kernel that can’t be digested. Patrick T. Reardon 2.20.19 This poem was original published in Spank the Carp 39 in 2018. It also appears in the Spank the Carp 2018 Anthology.
The United States is an exceptional country, and it stands as a shining city upon a hill as a model of freedom to the rest of the world. That’s the message that American politicians and history books have preached over the past six decades, using, as illustration and proof, what they and scholars have called one of the founding documents of the nation. The document, “A Model of Christian Charity,” was written, the story goes, as a lay sermon delivered by John Winthrop, the elected governor of a community of Puritans, to his followers in 1630 on a small wooden ship in the mid-Atlantic as they headed into the unknown of the New World. Its key sentences come near the end: “For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill; the eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword through the world.” “At least half wrong” In As a City on a Hill, Princeton University scholar Daniel T. Rodgers, an […]
Photograph: Bullet Through Apple By Patrick T. Reardon The dark fashioned metal beyond impact, its line still true. The fruit drawn to the left as if it would follow. The shards of pulp — so many zygotes suddenly granted life. Patrick T. Reardon 2.13.19 Originally published in Seems #17, 1983
Terry Pratchett, whose life was cut short in 2015 by Alzheimer’s disease, thought much about death during his 66 years. And, in his 41 hilarious, witty and silly Discworld fantasy novels, he wrote a lot about death, especially Death, a tall, skeletal guy who was one of his main characters. Perhaps that’s why the books are so full of life. And perhaps why they’re so funny. In the face of the downright, absolute unreasonableness of human existence — you and I were born to die — what’s a better response than to laugh and live fully? “Really good there” In Pratchett’s 1991 novel Reaper Man, Death, the character, is front and center, and the story revolves around the effort of some higher-ups (even Death has bosses) to, well, not exactly ease him out of his job. To put it bluntly, they set it up so that Death himself will die. Early on, right after Death has gotten this news, Pratchett writes: The shortest-lived creatures on the Disc were mayflies, which barely make it through twenty-four hours. Two of the oldest zigzagged aimlessly over the waters of a trout stream, discussing history with some younger members of the evening hatching. “You […]
Unlearning with Hannah Arendt by Marie Luise Knott is a sparse, poetic examination of a profound and humane 20th century thinker who was deeply learned, richly insightful and, above all, intellectually courageous. Never more courageous than in her realization that, in the aftermath of World War II, she needed to, as Knott puts it, “unlearn” all that she knew — her entire frame of reference and body of knowledge — in order to incorporate in her understanding of human existence the reality of the Nazis and the Holocaust. In other words, to take all the psychological and scholarly framework that she had worked all her life to develop and throw it on the garbage heap. And, then, to build a new framework. Arendt did this several times in her life, reframing for herself her understanding of evil and its presence in the lives of human beings. “Allows them to go missing” Knott, a German journalist and literary critic, delves into the heart of Arendt’s thinking and its evolution in this thin volume of 113 pages, about 30,000 words, published in 2011. It is divided into four sections, one each for four important “pathways of thought” that the philosopher-political theorist employed. […]
No Clouds The moon is a silver weight. A man walks his dog and smokes. Tides pull. The trees are saints: the old, the tested, those at peace. Patrick T. Reardon 2.4.19 Originally published in Lucky Star, 1986.
The title of Elmore Leonard’s 1979 western Gunsights is a play on words although the reader doesn’t find that out until the plot twist on the novel’s final page. The pun has to do with a Wild West show in the 1890s. For most of the story, though, “gunsights” seems to be about an expected shoot-out between Dana Moon and Brendan Early, two friends with a cross-hatched history who find themselves, sort of, on two sides of a land war in Arizona. Certainly, as the novel opens, reporters from big-city newspapers, camping out at the Gold Dollar in Sweetmary, are expecting this brother-in-arms-against-brother-in-arms battle, even to the point of toying with the idea of naming the violent real estate fight after the two — the Early-Moon Feud. As things turn out, however, there’s not really a feud, just a couple of guys who have worked closely together — such as the two tracking an Apache band who kidnapped a young woman (who, later, becomes Moon’s wife) and the one (Early) helping the other (Moon) break out of jail — while, now and again, getting a bit irritated with each other, as guys do. “I can go home…” I.e., during the […]