May 24, 2019

Book review: “Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing” by Robert A. Caro

For more than half a century — for 52 years, to be exact — Robert A. Caro has been working full-time to research, understand and write about power in America. He has done this by looking at the lives of two men.  First, it was Robert Moses, the unelected holder of a host of appointive offices that he used to reshape the face of New York City — and the result was Caro’s 1974 book The Power Broker (1,336 pages). Then, he turned his sights on Lyndon B. Johnson, one of the greatest and worst of American presidents — and the result, so far, has been four installments of a series titled The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power (1990), The Means of Ascent (1991), Master of the Senate (2003) and The Passage of Power (2013).  A fifth and final volume is in the works, and Caro has told Time magazine that he has already written about 100,000 words.  That sounds like a lot, but, with Caro, it isn’t. When he wrote The Power Broker, Caro submitted a manuscript that was deemed to be too long, and, as he notes in his new memoir Working, he had to […]
May 22, 2019

Book review: “Night of Masks” by Andre Norton

Andre Norton’s 1964 novel Night of Masks is a claustrophobic reading experience — and not in a good way. This book followed her novel Catseye, published three years earlier, and, like that work, its central character is a resident of the Dipple, a ghetto area of the planet Korwar, a seedy slum where refugees and deportees from forty worlds have been unceremoniously dumped.  Some serve the purposes of the rulers, residents and visitors to the playground world; others simply scrape to survive. Catseye was a well-made sci-fi adventure, hinging on the ability of Troy Horan to communicate telepathically with animals.  It was his ticket out of the Dipple and into a place on the edges of the luxurious lifestyles of well-to-do Korwar people. In fact, his time in the Dipple, in terms of the book, is very short.  An opening chapter, and then he’s in the better part of town. No special skills The hero of Night of Masks, Nik Kolherne, is also from the Dipple, and, like Troy, he is finding a way out of there in the first few pages of the book.  Unlike Troy, however, Nik doesn’t have any special skills.  In fact, the bottom of his […]
May 22, 2019

Book review: “Royal Books & Holy Bones: Essays in Medieval Christianity” by Eamon Duffy

For the general public, Christianity before the Protestant Reformation is viewed as a fairly monolithic institution.  Yet, in Royal Books and Holy Bones, Eamon Duffy explains that, nowadays, historians of the medieval period think in terms of the plural “Christianities” of that era. Duffy, a professor of the history of Christianity at the University of Cambridge in England, writes that such scholars tend “to interest themselves in the rise of ‘micro-Christendoms’: the radically different and sometimes seemingly incompatible forms in which the Christian impulse, if it ever had been one impulse, metamorphosed and diversified as it adapted to changing times and new disparate cultures.”  As a result, research has moved away from looking at Popes and theological debates to an examination of these Christianities as “a set of practices, the religious strategies adopted by the people of the past to make sense of their daily existence.” Academic mumbo-jumbo? All this might seem like academic mumbo-jumbo to modern-day Catholics.  But think about it: Even without considering the Protestant-Catholic divide, there are, within Catholicism today, a wide range of approaches to the faith.  Yes, the Pope and the bishops claim the final say on theological issues (although they don’t always agree).  Still, […]
May 15, 2019

Poem: “She broke”

She broke By Patrick T. Reardon She broke my arm when I was a baby. It wasn’t my arm but call it an arm. It mended crooked, at an odd angle, thickened, clotted, stiff instead of supple, a wrinkled butterfly wing, an antelope limp. I could not swing a baseball bat or brush a lover’s hair. I still have the broken arm. My brother’s hurt was worse. He died of it. She tattooed her scripture on my spine, her gospel proclamations on the inside of my skull, her dire psalms on the bottom of my right heel, on the sweep of my right hip, black etched lines, leaking, insinuating. The tree grows out of my chest, another from my forearm, my jaw, my left shin. Syrup tapped, dripped, fermented, sold, re-sold.  A forest where Abel kills, Noah drowns, the Messiah leper never gets the ghost back. Let me open the apartment door of her limping mother in the kitchen, baking bread, breaking bread, the afternoon sun jeweling soil and backyard dung and growing things and creeping things and the newborn and the dying and the dead. Her bread was sprinkled with flour. Two candles under a throat to bless away. […]
May 13, 2019

Book review: “ ‘They Say’ : Ida B. Wells and the Reconstruction of Race” by James West Davidson

Born a slave during the Civil War, Ida B. Wells was among the first generation of African-Americans who, in the wake of emancipation, had to define themselves in a radically new way — and had to fight back attempts by the mainstream white society to impose on them a definition from the outside. As James West Davidson writes in his stellar ‘They Say’: Ida B. Wells and the Reconstruction of Race, freedom for blacks threatened to upend the white assertion that African-Americans were lesser human beings.  Race — and the separation of the races — suddenly became much more significant. The struggle arose out of the vacuum created when emancipation eliminated the legal categories of slave and free.  If the law of the land prescribed a status, slave, which could be upheld and regulated, race was a useful concept but not necessarily paramount. Once the legal props of slavery disappeared, however, it became much more difficult for one group of people to justify keeping another in an inferior position.  Race was the key.  A line was drawn — a color line, as Wells called it — that during the 1880s and 1890s was increasingly buttressed by new laws, customs, and […]
May 9, 2019

Poem: “Stone fence”

Stone fence I built me a stone fence by stacking one glass of Maker’s Mark whiskey on another, interspersed with large lumps of ice, mortared with sweet cider. I built me a stone fence in a circle and, when it was done, leaped inside the circuit and fell down the well to the center of the Earth where I met Buddha, Our Lady of Light, the Queen of Clubs and St. Augustine who wanted to get on the wagon but not just yet. I built me a stone fence across the face of northwest Ireland as if to corral the island’s saints, fairies, snakes, nuns and travelers in the backroom of a pub where the constable is writing poetry, and I long for coffee. I built me a stone fence and went out on Main Street in noonday sun where Johnny Raptor, wanted in seven states, called me out, and, as I drew, my skull was thundered with a screaming headache that no hangover remedy was ever going to calm. I built me a stone fence and then crawled under the weight of it all into my sympathetic grave. Patrick T. Reardon 5.9.19 This poem originally appeared in the anthology […]
May 8, 2019

Book review: “The Big Sleep” by Raymond Chandler

Halfway through Raymond Chandler’s 1939 hard-boiled, highly praised novel The Big Sleep, the rich and wild Vivian Regan turns Philip Marlowe in the front seat of their parked car and says: “Hold me close, you beast.” Eighty years ago, that must have had a different resonance.  It must have had an edge of shock for the reader — a married upper-class woman throwing herself sexually at a gumshoe, her father’s hireling. Today, though, it brings to mind generations of comedies and comedians who have parodied that sort of line to the point that what it raised in me wasn’t shock but a laugh. In minor ways, The Big Sleep is a victim of its own popularity and acclaim.  It spawned waves and waves of imitators, bad and good.  To read it today is to read it in the context of all those who were influenced so deeply by the book. It’s also a bit of a victim of its age.  Marlowe, the book’s narrator, is disgusted at the two gay characters in the story, and his denigrating comments make a modern reader squirm.  Because Chandler is presenting Marlowe as a rare decent person in a world of betrayal, selfishness, greed […]
May 1, 2019

Book review: “The Virgin Queen: Elizabeth I, Genius of the Golden Age” by Christopher Hibbert

Elizabeth I, especially early in her 44-year reign, had a lot of nagging health problems, but, notes Christopher Hibbert, she hated to be ill or to be thought to be ill. One time, she had an extremely painful toothache. Her doctors and members of her Privy Council — the equivalent of an American President’s Cabinet — told her the tooth had to be extracted, but she refused.  She kept saying, “no,” until “the Bishop of London allowed the surgeon to pull out one of his teeth to demonstrate the ease with which the operation could be performed.” “Highly strung” Elizabeth I dominated England as its queen for the entire second half of the 16th century, a time that came to be called the Elizabethan Age. She was intelligent, strong-willed, devious, vain, affectionate and enigmatic, holding her throne for more than four decades during an era when women weren’t supposed to wield such power. She was also a human being, and that’s the Elizabeth who is the subject of Christopher Hibbert’s luminous 1991 biography The Virgin Queen: Elizabeth I, Genius of the Golden Age. (By the way, for another look at this book, see my review in the Chicago Tribune in […]
April 24, 2019

Book review: “Witches Abroad” by Terry Pratchett

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 […]
April 21, 2019

Book review: “It Walks by Night” by John Dickson Car

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 […]
April 17, 2019

Book review: “Forty Lashes Less One” by Elmore Leonard

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 — […]
April 15, 2019

Book review: “Advice for Future Corpses (and Those Who Love Them): A Practical Perspective on Death and Dying” by Sallie Tisdale

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 […]
April 10, 2019

Poem: “vigilante”

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.
April 8, 2019

Book review: “The Book of Genesis,” illustrated by R. Crumb

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 […]
April 3, 2019

Book review: “Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland” by Patrick Radden Keefe

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 […]
April 1, 2019

Essay: My lay-off and the golden age of journalism

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 […]
March 27, 2019

Essay: Soul Seeing — At 69, I still find grace and God on the basketball court

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 […]
March 25, 2019

Poem: “Rita”

Rita Locked in her leg braces, she smiles as though the act were a somersault. Patrick T. Reardon 3.25.19 This poem originally appeared in Sparrow magazine in 1977.
March 20, 2019

Essay: Complaining about just about everything

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 […]
March 18, 2019

Book review: “Things That Go Trump in the Night: Poems of Treason and Resistance” by Paul Fericano

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 […]
March 14, 2019

Book review: “The Jazz Alphabet” by Neil Shapiro

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 […]
March 11, 2019

Book review: “Eichman in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil” by Hannah Arendt

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 […]
March 6, 2019

Book review: “Unnatural Axe” by Tom Huth

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 […]
March 4, 2019

Book review: “Fluke, Or, I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings” by Christopher Moore

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 […]
February 22, 2019

Book review: “Moby Dick” by Herman Melville

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. […]