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.
July 24, 2019

Poem: “Towers loom”

Towers loom By Patrick T. Reardon Loop towers loom behind their gleam, and I can take you to the parking lot just off Dearborn Street where the Mayor and reporters went down into unflooded freight tunnels (although that lot is likely gone now, 26 years later). Alex and I drove south to north from city border to city border through alleys of Chicago, world  alley capital. I saw a garage sale chair and came back later to buy. If you walk under the Loop and follow the tracks west down Lake Street — the soldierly tromp of steel frames to oblivion — you follow my brother’s walk as a twelve-year-old through a Sunday summer afternoon (through black  hot neighborhoods where young men and old, grandmothers and skip-ropers saw him as a gray -dungareed shaman, magic blond boy), up back stairs, to the Leamington second floor, 52 years before self-murder. Younger, he and I crawled around the new-poured  foundation of a Washington  Boulevard building, so muddy and our bikes, we had to walk  them home to the double- spanking for the double of us by Dad, on the porch, then after the bath in bed. Up Western from 79th Street, I drove to Chicago (800 north) and turned left, out to the reporter job in Austin.  A right turn, and, in a mile, Ashland, where, thirty  years later, I walked with Sandra the grit Chicago that […]
July 22, 2019

Essay: Soul Seeing: “The holiness of beauty is a glimpse into the heart of God”

The other day, I was at the First Communion of my great niece Maeve, and I was again struck, as I often am, by the holiness of beauty. Maeve is a beautiful eight-year-old — of course, aren’t all eight-year-olds beautiful? and holy? — and she was one of nearly sixty kids who were receiving the sacrament of the Eucharist in her parish church, St. Mary of the Woods, in Chicago. It’s a low-slung worship space, built in the 1950s when Catholic church-building in the newly settled suburbs and on the edges of the city eschewed traditional architecture.  In an effort to keep costs down and experiment with new ways of raising the human spirit to God and toward community, the designers of St. Mary of the Woods put the altar along one very long western wall, facing some two dozen rows of pews under a ceiling that was only 20-25 feet above the floor.  It is a space that would have flirted with the sterility of a conference center meeting room except for one thing. Along the western and northern walls are eighteen floor-to-ceiling stained-glass windows filled with abstract colors in and around myriad leaf shapes — the “woods” of […]
July 17, 2019

Book review: “The Book of ‘Exodus’: A Biography” by Joel S. Baden

In 1955, early in his struggle for civil rights, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. likened the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision to the destruction of the Egyptian army in the biblical book of Exodus: “The Red Sea opened, and freedom and justice marched through to the other side.  As we look back we see segregation and discrimination caught in the mighty rushing waters of historical fate.” Three decades later, the Exodus story — God leading the Israelites from slavery and oppression in Egypt through many years of wandering in the desert to the Promised Land — was a foundation stone of an entirely new reading of the Bible, called liberation theology.  The Latin American theologians and activists who developed this then-radical Catholic approach argued that Exodus shows a God who is always on the side of the poor and who wants everyone to live free from all kinds of slavery.  In this context, sin is whatever people do to keep themselves or others enslaved.  Although the Vatican initially condemned this thinking, which implicitly put the church hierarchy with the “Egyptians,” liberation theology has come to permeate much Catholic thinking, particularly that of Pope Francis. Addictively readable and […]
July 15, 2019

Book Review: “The Art of Bible Translation” by Robert Alter

Many readers are likely to dismiss Robert Alter’s The Art of Bible Translation as inside-baseball for Bible scholars.  After all, the Bible is the Bible, right? Well, not really.  The Bible means different things to different faiths.  For Jews, it’s the Hebrew Bible. This, with some adjustments, is included in the Christian Bible as the Old Testament along with the Gospels and other books of the New Testament. Over the past two centuries, Bible experts from both religions, operating separately and together, have worked to better understand the language, culture and times of the writers who produced these works.  The goal: create translations that get closer to what those writers were saying — to the meaning of their words.  For both faiths, the books of the Bible were divinely or spiritually inspired, and it’s extremely important to get right the lessons they transmit about God and humanity. A proliferation of Bible translations There has been a proliferation in Bible translations since the middle of the 20th century, each striving to be as accurate as possible in taking the words from the ancient languages and putting them into English.  Of course, scholars being scholars, there are endless debates on the best […]
July 10, 2019

Book review: “Emmeline Pankhurst: A Biography” by June Purvis

Emmeline Pankhurst was a prim, proper, middle-class Victorian Englishwoman who, on a day in early July, 1914, a few days before her 56th birthday, was rearrested by authorities for her work promoting the campaign to bring the vote to British women. She was rearrested under what was called the Cat and Mouse Act, a government effort to solve the knotty political problem of what to do when Pankhurst and her followers were arrested and then refused to eat or drink. These women, the government felt, couldn’t be permitted to go on such hunger strikes (although men were) because think of the bad publicity if a women died this way.  To say nothing about the creation of a martyr. Violent force-feeding was employed, but that left the women nearly as physically debilitated as the hunger strikes themselves.  In at least one case, an emetic was smuggled into prison in the hopes of causing the force-fed food to be regurgitated. So, a year earlier, the Cat and Mouse Act had been approved by the House of Commons, the House of Lords and King George V.  Under it, writes June Purvis in Emmeline Pankhurst: A Biography, “suffragettes or ‘mice’ in a state of […]
July 8, 2019

Book review: “Christian Flesh” by Paul J. Griffiths

The cover of Christian Flesh by Paul J. Griffiths is a warning that this book of moral theology is not for the faint of heart. It is a detail from Caravaggio’s 1601-1602 painting The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, and it shows the heads of the resurrected Jesus and the doubting apostle nearly touching and the Savior with a grip around Thomas’s hand.  Jesus has pulled the hand to the wound in his side, just below his left nipple, so that the disciple’s extended forefinger has entered the wound up to the first knuckle. (In John’s gospel, this is what Jesus tells Thomas to do although there is no indication he actually does it.  Caravaggio, as usual, amps up the drama.) The painting is visceral, raw and, some would likely say, crude.  So, too, is Griffith’s book. “Sweat, blood, spittle” The beliefs of Christianity, particularly Catholicism, are rooted in the dual nature of Jesus as God, part of the Trinity, and as a real, flesh-and-blood human.  Yet, that flesh-and-bloodness is often given short shrift, except for the passion and crucifixion. There is a kind of daintiness with which the physicality of Jesus is approached.  Yes, we can imagine him talking to […]
July 3, 2019

Book review: “Unnatural Causes” by P.D. James

Sylvia Kedge, the young physically impaired woman who was the secretary of murder victim Maurice Seton, has just had an emotional melt-down, and one of the policemen is pushing her wheelchair down a path as detective Adam Dalgliesh of Scotland Yard watches. He had discovered that he did not like her and was the more ashamed of the emotion because he knew that its roots were unreasonable and ignoble.  He found her physically repellent… He wished he could feel more sorry for her, but it was difficult to watch, with a kind of contempt, the way in which she made use of her disability. This scene is from the 1967 crime novel Unnatural Causes by P.D. James, and it contains more psychological nuance and insight that all of the pages of all 70-plus books by Agatha Christie. The forumla I mention Christie because, in the 1960s, when James began writing mysteries, she was the gold standard.  She and other mega-seller authors, such as John Dickson Carr, had developed a highly popular and highly entertaining formula which emphasized the puzzle aspects of the crime.  They were, in essence, daring their readers to solve the mystery before the all-knowing detective made his […]
July 1, 2019

Book review: “Medieval Children” by Nicholas Orme

About midway through Nicholas Orme’s fascinating Medieval Children — a history of what it was like to be a child in Europe in medieval times leading up to the Enlightenment — he notes that an engraving from 1659 shows a boy playing with small balls, called bowling-stones. We would call them marbles, but that word, he points out, didn’t come into use until later in the 17th century. It got me thinking about marbles which had a short moment of interest for me in my childhood — round and hard, made of glass (I guess), and used for games.  I don’t think I played many games with them.  In my recollection, they were just fun to roll around in my hand or in a bowl or a cloth bag.  They clicked together nicely.  I admired them as objects. Marbles That got me wondering if kids today play with marbles.  I’m sure they’re being sold somewhere to someone, but how widespread are they as a child’s toy in this era of digital entertainment?  And in this era of heavy parental protection against all dangerous things, such as swallowing small round objects? (As a young boy, my brother Tim once swallowed a […]