August 21, 2017

Book review: “Fast Falls the Night” by Julia Keller

Fast Falls the Night, the sixth of Julia Keller’s series of novels set in fictional Acker’s Gap, West Virginia, is, like the others, a mystery. Its puzzle is solved in a sharp and scary twist in its final three pages. In fact, there are several abrupt and unsettling turns in the last chapter or so. But, as with the other books, the plot here is secondary to larger concerns that Keller has — questions of hope and despair, and of right and wrong.   “That kind of day” Consider this scene early in the book. Shirley Dolan has come to an unfamiliar minister to talk about two secrets she is holding close to her heart. When she tries to light a cigarette in the careworn study, the pastor tells her that smoking isn’t permitted. The pack went back into her purse. She dropped the purse on the floor, using her heel to wedge it under her chair. To keep it out of the way. Out of her reach. So that she didn’t forget and go for a cigarette all over again. It had been that kind of day. That kind of week. The kind when you forget things. Screw up. […]
August 17, 2017

Essay: A Time to Die

It may seem odd today, but, at one point, a half century ago, the top-selling popular song in America was made up of lyrics from the Bible — specifically, from the third chapter of the Book of Ecclesiastes. The song, written in the late 1950s by the great folk-singer Pete Seeger, was “Turn, Turn, Turn.” It wasn’t his version that reached number-one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart on December 4, 1965. It was the rock version by the Byrds, and it began: To everything (turn, turn, turn) there is a season (turn, turn, turn), and a time to every purpose under the heaven, a time to be born, a time to die, a time to plant, a time to reap…. You might think that all the teenagers like me who were grooving to the song back then would have taken in the import of those words, particularly “A time to be born, a time to die.” But we were young and felt immortal.   A finality that slapped us I think back on that song today, a year and a half after my brother David, suffering great pain and fearing to lose control of his life, killed himself during a […]
August 15, 2017

Book review: “The Great Time Machine Hoax” by Keith Laumer

Well, Keith Laumer is trying to be wacky here in The Great Time Machine Hoax, but the laughs are pretty tepid. So’s the imagination. Oh, the 1964 novel is interesting enough as a cultural artifact since it deals with speculations from that time in a story about a huge, self-aware computer (embodied in a beautiful [and naked] “girl”) and glitches relating to time travel and a future culture of mind over matter and a past culture under the sway of a circus operator and an all-male community of back-to-nature men who, as portrayed in the book, don’t appear to be gay but also don’t seem to miss the presence of women. That’s a lot of storylines for a 210-page novel, and Laumer doesn’t seem to know what to do with them.   “The shrill cries of social injustice” The “hoax” of the title, for instance, isn’t really a hoax, but more of a miscommunication. The time machine aspect of the story permits Laumer to send his main character Chester W. Chester here and there through history and the future and alternatives thereof.  Each landing place has its own story, but none of the stories is that compelling, and they bear […]
August 9, 2017

Lives of Great Religious Books: Princeton University Press

For outsiders, religions are often mysterious. Yet, down the centuries, the great books of faith have played major roles in shaping the world of believers and non-believers alike, influencing politics, art, philosophy, literature, language and culture. It’s with that in mind that, since 2011, Princeton University Press has been publishing a series of lively and energetic “biographies” of these important works, titled Lives of Great Religious Books. “The series may strike some people as odd, but I find it tremendously fun to publish,” says executive editor Fred Appel who came up with the idea during a conversation with an Israeli philosopher.   Light touch by experts What makes these “biographies,” each about 250 pages long, so readable is that they’re written with a light touch by experts who are excited about the stories they have to tell and who understand that they are writing for non-experts. Many of them, says Appel, also teach college courses “where they have to make great books interesting to 19-year-olds who may not know anything about them. Consider some examples:   From “The Koran” in English: A Biography by Bruce B. Lawrence: “To move from Latin to Arabic is to move from a language with […]
August 7, 2017

Book review: “ ‘The Koran’ in English: A Biography” by Bruce B. Lawrence

For Muslims, the Qur’an is the Word of God, given directly to Muhammad at the start of the 7th century AD by the Archangel Michael in oral messages in Arabic that the prophet — the last prophet — would repeat for his followers. Only later were these words written down in 6,236 verses in 114 suras, also called chapters or signs. For Islam, the Qur’an is untranslatable. This, writes Bruce B. Lawrence, is why so many translations of the sacred book include, often in the title or in a subtitle, such words as “the meaning of…” or “an interpretation of…” or “an explanation of…” Lawrence, a religion professor at Duke University, notes in his new book “ ‘The Koran’ in English: A Biography” that all translations are something other than the original work, an effort to communicate and approximate the source. “Translation is hard work, never more so than when translating a scripture from its original language into another,” he writes. “To ponder the meaning of esoteric words is to explore the signs of other realities and then render them into their lyrical equivalents.” Citified life and desert life An Englishman, Robert of Kenton, created in 1143 a Latin translation […]
August 4, 2017

Book review: “Botticelli — Images of Love and Spring” by Frank Zollner

It’s difficult to know how 15th century Italians experienced the paintings of Sandro Botticelli. What did they see, for instance, when they looked at La Primavera, the artist’s giant 70-square-foot canvas with a bunch of male and female figures, one of which has a vine coming out of her mouth? What was the message or messages that Botticelli was sending? What was the message or messages that his patrons were paying him to convey? Those are the sort of questions that German art historian Frank Zollner sets out to answer in the 1998 book Botticelli: Images of Love and Spring. (This is one of nearly 50 titles in the Pegasus Series of sumptuously illustrated volumes issued between 1994 and 2007 by Prestel. Others include Arabian Nights: Four Tales from A Thousand and One Nights, art by Marc Chagall, text by Richard Francis Burton, and Titian: Nymph and Shepherd by John Berger and Katya Berger Andreadakis.) Zollner parses La Primavera as well as The Birth of Venus, Mars and Venus, Minerva and the Centaur and two of the Villa Lemmi frescoes: Lorenzo Tornabuoni Presented to the Liberal Arts and Giovanna Albizzi, Venus and the Three Graces. And it’s hard to imagine […]
August 1, 2017

Book review: “The Defiant Agents” by Andre Norton

What’s striking about Andre Norton’s 1962 novel The Defiant Agents is how political and moral it is. Norton was a writer of adventure novels, cranking out an average of about three a year during her 70-year career as a novelist for a total of more than 200.  (She died at the age of 93 in 2005.) She specialized in science fiction and, to a lesser extent, fantasy.  Her usual goal wasn’t to make political commentary the way, say, George Orwell did in 1984. The Defiant Agents is the third book in what came to be called the Time Traders series which began in 1958 with The Time Traders and continued in 1959 with Galactic Derelict.  Although both books pitted American agents against the menacing Reds of the Soviet Union, it was just the usual white hat/black hat dichotomy.     Political and moral reasons Here, though, in the midst of the adventure in The Defiant Agents, Norton is making clear and direct commentary on the daily headlines of her era — the headlines dealing with the threat, seemingly unavoidable, of nuclear weapons. The title is a hint.  The agents in the book are defiant for political and moral reasons. Perhaps […]
July 24, 2017

Book review: “Bite Me: A Love Story” by Christopher Moore

If you’ve read the first two books in Christopher Moore’s (so far) trilogy of comic novels about vampires — Bloodsucking Fiends: A Love Story (1995) and You Suck: A Love Story (2007) — you may be tempted to skip the first chapter of Bite Me: A Love Story (2010). Those initial 18 pages recap, for anyone just coming in from the cold, what happened during the two-month period covered in the first two books. So, yeah, life is short, and you may say to yourself, “I don’t need no recap.” You’re wrong. Well, you may not need a recap, but you really, really want to read this one because it’s spectacularly hilarious, coming, as it does, from the mind and journal of 16-year-old Abby Normal (real name: Allison Green}, that Goth girl from the earlier two books, the self-proclaimed Emergency Backup Mistress of the Greater Bay Area Night and a tortured soul in constant denial about her deep-seated perkiness.   Her churning brain In her own inimitably brash and, in its way, innocent style, Abby recounts the complicated doings in the earlier books and makes constant asides about whatever enters her ever-churning brain. For instance, (in the first book [parenthetical […]
July 19, 2017

Book review: “Joan of Arc: A Self-Portrait,” compiled by Willard Trask

As Willard Trask notes in the Foreword to his 1936 book Joan of Arc: A Self-Portrait, we know the Catholic saint and liberator of France today — 600 years after she was burned at the stake — in a deep and telling and very unusual way. That’s because her actual words and phrases were captured by clerks in two voluminous court records. The first was from her rigged heresy trial. The second was from her nullification trial, held a quarter of a century after her martyrdom at the hands of the English and their allies. The record of the trail contains Joan’s responses to the prosecutors and judges, and the two records hold the recollections of her contemporaries regarding what she said to them or in their hearing during her short 19-year-long life. Trask writes: The possession of these documents places us in an unique position with respect to Joan: we can hear her speak. We have not only what she would tell us, but her very words, in a way that we cannot be sure we have the words even of those who live for us chiefly in what they have spoken — Socrates, say, or Saint Francis. The […]
July 17, 2017

Book review: “The “Dead Sea Scrolls”: A Biography” by John J. Collins

The discovery of 2,000-year-old Biblical and other religious scrolls in a cave near Jericho, just west of the Dead Sea, in 1947, caused a sensation. The excitement only grew as other caves with other ancient writings were found over the next decade. By 1956, some nine hundred documents — some full manuscripts, many only fragments — had been located. Together, they were called the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Dead Sea Scrolls may seem to be an unlikely candidate for inclusion in a series on “biographies” of books. The Scrolls are not in fact one book, but a miscellaneous collection of writings…written mostly in Hebrew, with some in Aramaic and a small number in Greek. They date from the last two centuries [BC} and the first century [AD]. So writes John J. Collins, a Yale University expert on the Scrolls, in the preface to The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Biography, one of 15 books published so far in the delightful Princeton University Press series called Lives of Great Religious Books. Among the spiritual classics that have already been examined in the series are The Tibetan Book of the Dead and The Bhagavad Gita, as well as Mere Christianity by C. S. […]
July 14, 2017

Book preview: Pat Reardon reading his work-in-progress about the Loop on July 21 in Forest Park

Happy 120th birthday to Chicago’s Elevated Loop — the city’s savior! Savior? Yeah, really. The Elevated Loop is a big reason why, during the great social and demographic changes of the last hundred years, Chicago didn’t go the way of Cleveland and Detroit. The unrecognized importance of the Elevated Loop, which turns 120 in October, is the subject of Patrick T. Reardon’s work-in-progress: THE LOOP How the “golden circle” of elevated tracks gave shape and power to Chicago’s downtown, united Chicagoans and saved the city. Reardon will be reading from his manuscript during an appearance on Friday, July 21, from 7 pm to 9 pm at Centuries and Sleuths bookstore at 7419 Madison St, Forest Park, IL 60130. For info, call (708) 771-7243. The reading will be part of a series of programs that the store will produce that weekend during the annual Forest Park Music Festival, July 21-23, on Madison Street between Des Plaines Avenue and Circle Avenue. Here’s how it’s described: “The three-day fest boasts an amazing line-up, two beer gardens, food, fun, and yes…lots of music!”
July 13, 2017

Book review: “Che — A Revolutionary Life” by Jon Lee Anderson

Nikolai Metutsov was an important guy in the Kremlin. He was an aide to Party Secretary Yuri Adropov (who later ruled the Soviet Union as General Secretary), and he was responsible for overseeing relations with non-European socialist nations. In early 1964, Metutsov was in Cuba to figure out just whose side Ernesto “Che” Guevara was on. At the time, there was a savage tug-of-war between the Soviets and the Chinese over who would have priority in international Communism. Metutsov’s job was to get Che, one of the three top Cuban leaders, to toe Moscow’s line. The problem, though, as the Russian explained decades later to Jon Lee Anderson, was that he was “falling in love” with Che. Make no mistake, this was no gay flirtation. Metutsov was falling in love with the man who was seen by Socialists around the world, including those in the Soviet Union, as the perfect image, the personification, of a revolutionary. “He had very beautiful eyes. Magnificent eyes, so deep, so generous, so honest, a stare that was so honest that somehow, one could not help but feel it…and he spoke very well; he became inwardly excited, and his speech was like that, with all […]
July 11, 2017

The Loop: How the “golden circle” of elevated tracks gave shape and power to Chicago’s downtown, united Chicagoans and saved the city.

Happy 120th birthday to Chicago’s Elevated Loop — the city’s savior! Savior? Yeah, really. The Elevated Loop is a big reason why, during the great social and demographic changes of the last hundred years, Chicago didn’t go the way of Cleveland and Detroit. The unrecognized importance of the Elevated Loop, which turns 120 in October, is the subject of Patrick T. Reardon’s work-in-progress: THE LOOP How the “golden circle” of elevated tracks gave shape and power to Chicago’s downtown, united Chicagoans and saved the city.   Reardon will be reading from his manuscript during an appearance on Friday, July 21, from 7 pm to 9 pm at Centuries and Sleuths bookstore at 7419 Madison St, Forest Park, IL 60130. For info, call (708) 771-7243. The reading will be part of a series of programs that the store will produce that weekend during the annual Forest Park Music Festival, July 21-23, on Madison Street between Des Plaines Avenue and Circle Avenue. Here’s how it’s described: “The three-day fest boasts an amazing line-up, two beer gardens, food, fun, and yes…lots of music!”
July 9, 2017

Poem: “Present Tense”

(I) He plots movement, holds forces, makes strategy, wants high ground when the time comes.   (II) You make a date.  You place an order.  You sit.  You wait for the heavens to open, the bricks to crack.  You climb. You avoid the rabid dog.  You take your pulse.  You open your eyes underwater. You find a coin in the dirt by the tree.  You cut your hand on the edge of the box.  You sleep late.  You look for something to do.   (III) My bones fill with smoke. It is night along the edge. There is no way to know.   Patrick T. Reardon 7.9.17   Written 8.11.81
July 8, 2017

Poem: “Theodore Roosevelt”

    I smell the dust of the ranch and the smoke of the hill still as I sit here and listen to congressmen.   I feel the bruise of the bullet, the slam of it, into the folded speech.   I see her sometimes in the corners of mirrors. I see her dead and smell the room.   Part of me is watery and dark and filled with tinny echoes.     Patrick T. Reardon 7.8.17   Written @ 1980.
July 6, 2017

Book review: “Children of Saigo” by Glenn Jeffers

The term “graphic novel” calls forth comparisons with novels in general. The two forms, after all, are about stories told on paper between covers of some sort. A better description, though, would be “movie book.” Think about it. Most of the story in a graphic novel is told through the colorful images that accompany a fairly small amount of text. It’s a lot like a movie in which the visuals usually are paramount, with dialogue and narration secondary. This is especially true for action movies, and many, if not most, graphic novels are action movies on paper. Consider Children of Saigo, written by my former Chicago Tribune colleague Glenn Jeffers with Jethro Morales as the artist/inker, Andy Dodd as colorist, Kel Nuttall as letterer/editor and Bill Farmer as the one responsible for the front cover colors.   Rollicking story It’s a quick-step, rollicking story about the four adult children of Masaki “Mike” Iwanaga, a Chicago cop dying of cancer and the descendant of the last samurai. Mike’s ancestor was the only survivor of the 1877 battle in Kagoshima, Japan, that wiped out the last remnants of the samurais under the leadership of Saigo Takamori. He was ordered by Saigo to […]
July 5, 2017

Book review: “Junk Type: Typography, Lettering, Badges, Logos” by Bill Rose

Junk Type: Typography, Lettering, Badges, Logos is an odd book that’s oddly compelling. True, you might look at it and think that it is of absolutely no interest for you, and you’d be wrong. Pick it up, and I’ll bet you can’t stop paging through its 300 images of what might be called industrial typography. There, that’s a term that’s likely to drive you away from the book, but it simply means the company logos and other identifications of one sort or another that are printed on or stamped on or bolted into the sides, tops or bottoms of products ranging from oil cans to fuses, from chewing tobacco to typewriters, from radio tubes to needles to nails to shoe polish to car polish to fans to ball bearings to, well, on and on and on.     A low-key visual epic poem What makes Junk Type enchanting and delightful is that it is a collection of images that comprise in their humble yet colorful way a low-key visual epic poem about America of the 20th century. That’s not how Rose, a professional photographer, describes his book in his very short foreword. For him, it’s “striking typography” that he began […]
June 30, 2017

Poem: “July 10, 1981”

    July 10, 1981   On this porch, on this cool summer day, when the moon is benign in afternoon sky, when birds sing from wire to wire, I have no argument. This may be the milk-and -honey time, the fulcrum, the equator. I may be on my way down or past or into. This will change, and I will change, and the wood of this porch will rot. The birds will die, and I will die, and new leaves will grow under other summer suns. I have no argument.   Patrick T. Reardon 6.30.17   This poem appeared in Requiem for David, published in February, 2017, by Silver Birch Press.
June 28, 2017

Book review: “Lincoln’s Lieutenants: The High Command of the Army of the Potomac” by Stephen W. Sears

In May, 1864, during the Battle of the Wilderness, when Ulysses S. Grant was new  in command of the Northern troops facing the Rebels of Robert E. Lee, an irate General Charles Griffin stormed into Union headquarters. Griffin complained loudly that he’d pushed back the Confederates but, getting no support, had had to retreat. Condemning by name several officers including his immediate superior, he then stomped away again. Grant, sitting nearby, whittling and smoking, growled to General George Meade, his top aide, “Who is this Gen. Gregg? You ought to arrest him.” Meade came over, and, noticing that Grant’s uniform coat was unbuttoned, began buttoning it up “as if he were a little boy,” an aide remembered, while also saying calmly, “It’s Griffin, not Gregg, and it’s only his way of talking.” Homey and human There is something so homey and so human about this scene which says so much about Grant and Meade and their close working relationship, focused entirely on beating the Rebels. Meade, the victor at Gettysburg, was the commander of the Army of the Potomac, and he could have sulked and moaned when, just a short time earlier, he’d been superseded by Grant. Instead, for the […]
June 19, 2017

Book review: “Architecture by Birds and Insects: A Natural Act” by Peggy Macnamara

Some birds and bugs construct nests by sewing or weaving strands of material together. And some fashion nests out of various kinds of paper-like stuff that they create using their saliva. And some form nests out of mud. And in depressions they make or find. And in mounds they raise. And some carve nests out of wood. Sometimes, nests — at times, many by the same individual — are constructed as part of a mating ceremony, but, much more often, they’re created to be the home of incubating young and to serve as their birthing room and as their childhood playhouse. But not always. The uglynest caterpillar builds a nest for its eggs in rose bushes or in cherry or hawthorn trees. But, then, when the eggs hatch, the larvae themselves build a web nest, also called a tent nest (often seen by humans as unattractive, hence, the insect’s name), in which they go through various stages until they come out as moths.   “Homes and safe places” Nests are little works of art, built with care and precision, confident and complete. They work!…Best of all, they are of use, providing a service. They are natural materials recycled to create […]
June 14, 2017

Book review: “You Suck: A Love Story” by Christopher Moore

You Suck: A Love Story, published in 2007, is a sequel to Christopher Moore’s 1995 novel Bloodsucking Fiends: A Love Story. It was then followed, in 2010, by Bite Me: A Love Story. You may notice a pattern here. The temptation with sequels — it’s something that’s good and bad — is to regurgitate the plot and characters of the first book in a slightly different (but pretty much the same) way. It worked the first time, right? The good part is that fans of the first book tend to lap up (if you’ll excuse the image) the slightly different (but pretty much the same) sequel. It was, after all, fun the first time. The bad part is that, well, it can come across as stale. For Christopher Moore, though, “stale” is a word that hasn’t been invented. His comic sense transcends triteness because I’m not sure he knows the meaning of “boring.” (I mean, I’m sure he knows the meaning of the word “boring,” but I don’t think that he’s able to write a boring page if he tried. [Well, maybe if he tried, all in the service of a higher comic purpose. So, in that case, he would […]
June 12, 2017

Book review: “Galactic Derelict” by Andre Norton

Galactic Derelict, published in 1959, is the second in a series of Andre Norton novels that began a year earlier with Time Traders. After stumbling onto a long-lost alien technology that permits time travel, two groups of humans — the Reds (i.e., the Soviet Union), originally, and then the United States, trying to catch up — endeavor to go into the past in a search for other scientific miracles. In order to fit in, the Americans masquerade as traders. It’s not clear how the Reds present themselves, and, by the end of the first novel, it doesn’t matter since they’ve gotten their comeuppance from a group of aliens that are discovered lurking thousands of years ago.   Runaway space ship Galactic Derelict, set in the late 1970s, starts off immediately after the first book and centers on a large ball-like space ship that’s found 12,000 years back in time in what is now the arid stretches of the American Southwest. All those thousands of years ago, however, the land is a lush green place where sabretooth tigers and huge mammoths are threats, as are some primitive humans. The plan is to set up machinery to send the entire ship back […]
June 8, 2017

Signing (and selling) books on Sunday morning at the Printers Row Lit Fest

I nabbed the coveted 10 am-noon slot on Sunday, June 11, at the Printers Row Lit Fest in the South Loop, and I’ll be signing and selling copies of the Pulitzer Prize-nominated poetry collection Requiem for David in tent RR, three tents west of State Street on Polk Street. I’m sure there will be billboards pointing to the place. Come on down and say hi!  
June 7, 2017

Like politics, all faith is local

There is a common phrase in American democracy asserting that “All politics is local.” It’s most often attributed to Thomas “Tip” O’Neill, the masterful Massachusetts Democratic Congressman who, from 1977 to 1987, was Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. Those four words are a cautionary tale to any politician who, caught up in high-flown ideals or the high status of office, forgets to take care of his or her constituents. In 1979, Chicago Mayor Michael Bilandic learned this to his chagrin. After a January blizzard dumped 35 inches of snow in a two-day period, he failed to clear the city’s streets and keep the elevated trains operating in all neighborhoods. The result: Bilandic was voted out of office a month later.   All faith The same is true for belief: “All faith is local.” As with politics, the believer has to have ideals. That means working — on a citywide and statewide and national and international level — for moral policies and programs that benefit everyone, particularly those on the margins of society. It’s important to be an activist for peace and justice by voting in a sober, thoughtful way and by taking part in the political dialogue by […]
June 5, 2017

Book review: “The Book of Joan” by Lidia Yuknavitch

In her new novel The Book of Joan, Lidia Yuknavitch creates a central character Joan of Dirt who shares some parallels with the fifteenth-century French heroine and Roman Catholic saint Joan of Arc. Both are named Joan and grow up in Domrémy, France. Yuknavitch calls it by its modern-day name, Domrémy-la-Pucelle, which means Domremy of the Maid, a reference to Joan of Arc. This, though, goes unremarked by Yuknavitch. Indeed, despite the parallels between Joan of Dirt and Joan of Arc, there is no mention in the novel about the historic figure. Joan of Dirt’s story is told by Christine Pizan, a contemporary, while one of the chroniclers of the life of Joan of Arc was her own contemporary, Christine de Pizan. Both Joans, as young girls, begin to hear otherworldly sounds that give direction and meaning to their lives. For Joan of Arc, the sounds were the voices of saints, angels and God. For Joan of Dirt, they were a song — “a hum, like a thousand children hitting the same low note.” Both, as teenage girls, lead armies and win battles, are captured, labeled by the authorities as heretics and burned at the stake.   Killing and dying […]