September 28, 2018

Book review: “Island of the Sequined Love Nun” by Christopher Moore

  As usual, Christopher Moore is goofy and silly in Island of the Sequined Love Nun, his fourth novel, published in 1997. Consider the back story of his central character Tucker Case who, Moore tells us, grew up in Elsinore, California, the only son of the owner of the Denmark Silverware Corporation.  Tuck’s girlfriend was Zoophilia Gold, the daughter of his father’s lawyer, “a lovely girl made shy by a cruel first name.” Tuck was away at college in Texas when he got the call from his mother: “Come home.  Your father’s dead.”  He drove home in two days and called Zoophilia who “informed him that his mother had married his father’s brother and his uncle had taken over Denmark Silverware.” If this is sounding at all familiar, it’s supposed to.   Twisting to his own purposes This, I think, was Moore’s first foray into paying homage to — well, let’s be honest, absconding with, beating over the head and twisting to his own purposes — some of the greatest stories in Western civilization. He followed these Hamlet references here with an entire book of his wacky version of King Lear (Fool), a mash-up of the Merchant of Venice and […]
September 26, 2018

Book review: “Barchester Towers” by Anthony Trollope

  Barchester Towers, like the other five novels in Anthony Trollope’s Chronicles of Barset, is characterized by psychological nuance and an affection for humanity in all its waywardness. There are novels written by authors who don’t like their characters — not a one of them.  Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom comes to mind.  Most writers like at least some of the people who populate their stories. Trollope likes all of his characters, even the bossy bully Mrs. Proudie who takes up a lot of pages of Barchester Towers, and Mr. Slope, the oily, conniving liar who takes up even more. When I say “likes,” I mean “understands.”  Trollope understands the weak bishop’s wife and the weak bishop’s chaplain as fully rounded, many-layered human beings.  They do a lot of bad and mean things, but none of Trollope’s characters is all bad.   Curious and lovable It’s a measure of the author’s affection for the human race that he can tell of the depredations of these two with more of a touch of humane forbearance, as if to say, “Aren’t people just so curious? And, at the same time, lovable?” Mean-spirited or gentle-minded, Trollope’s people can’t help but get themselves into trouble, can’t […]
September 24, 2018

Book review: “Pyramids” by Terry Pratchett

    So, it’s nearly the final page of Terry Pratchett’s 1989 Discworld novel Pyramids, and his recurring character, called Death (because he is), suddenly finds himself with a problem: THIS IS MOST IRREGULAR. We’re sorry.  It’s not our fault. HOW MANY OF YOU ARE THERE? More than 1,300, I’m afraid. VERY WELL, THEN.  PLEASE FORM AN ORDERLY QUEUE.   Small and dark and boring There is Pyramids in a nutshell.  For thousands of years, the kings and queens of Djelibeybi, the Discworld version of Egypt, have, upon death, had to put up with their bodies being locked up within pyramids. Each found himself or herself in a space that was small and dark and, worst of all, boring, dead but never freed by Death — that rather bony character with the hood and scythe — to go do whatever a spirit does after its body is finished. All this begins to come to an end when 19-year-old Teppic, having just won a degree from the Assassin’s Guild in Anhk-Morpork (which means he survived his final exam), learns that his father has died, and he must come home to be king.  Home to a nation that Pratchett describes in this […]
September 12, 2018

Book review: “Brunelleschi’s Dome: The Story of the Great Cathedral in Florence” by Ross King

    Okay, I recognize that — as Ross King writes in Brunelleschi’s Dome: The Story of the Great Cathedral in Florence — building the dome over the long-undomed Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral had become, by the early 15th century, “the greatest architectural puzzle of the age.” And I see that, in solving that puzzle, Filippo Brunelleschi not only fashioned a great work of art — the dome remains the tallest and widest ever created without modern materials — but also raised the status of architect above the level of manual worker to that of the artist.  King writes: Largely through his looming reputation, the profession was transformed during the Renaissance from a mechanical into a liberal art, from an art that was viewed as “common and low” to one that could be regarded as a noble occupation at the heart of the cultural endeavor. Even more, Brunelleschi’s feat gave new meaning to the word “genius.”  King writes: Before Filippo’s time the faculty of genius was never attributed to architects (or to sculptors and painters, either, for that matter).  But Marsuppini’s epitaph refers to Filippo as possessing divino ingenio, “divine genius,” marking the first recorded instance of an architect […]
September 10, 2018

Book review: “Michelangelo & the Pope’s Ceiling” by Ross King

It’s a daunting task to write the story of the creation of a work of art and, even more, for one that comprises a multiplicity of art works. After all, the work — Shakespeare’s King Lear or Emily Dickinson’s “I taste a liquor never brewed” or Joyce’s Ulysses or Piano Sonata No. 11 by Mozart — speaks for itself. To know about Lear, you watch Lear.  Any prose written as a commentary runs the risk of sounding like so much wasted breath. How much more intimidating is it, then, to write a book about how Michelangelo’s masterpiece, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, came to be? A masterpiece with 150-plus pictorial units, including more than 300 individual figures, many of which are considered masterpieces in their own right? Masterpieces that are among the most popular and ubiquitous of art images in the Western culture?   Delightfully interesting In Michelangelo & the Pope’s Ceiling, Ross King faces these many challenges, and he triumphs.  His 2003 book is delightfully interesting, informative, inspiring and thought-provoking. King’s book explains without being boring.  It gets into nitty-gritty details without bogging down.  It gives the larger-than-life personalities of its three main characters, Michelangelo, Raphael and Pope […]
September 5, 2018

Book review: “Northern Armageddon: The Battle of the Plains of Abraham and the Making of the American Revolution” by D. Peter MacLeod

  Most accounts of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, also called the Battle of Quebec — a turning point in the history of North America, when Canada became British — focus on the two commanders, both of whom died in the fighting. However, in his 2016 book Northern Armageddon: The Battle of the Plains of Abraham and the Making of the American Revolution, D. Peter MacLeod takes a different tack. In the early morning hours of September 13, 1759, General James Wolfe sent his British soldiers climbing the face of the nearly 200-foot-tall cliff of the Quebec Promontory, a cliff that, to the French, had seemed unclimbable, especially with regular patrols along the cliff-edge. Nonetheless, through luck and energy, the British force got to the top and set up a battle line on the west side of the plateau, with some 2,100 troops. The French, once they realized that the British had snuck behind them, established their own battle line on the eastern edge of the plains, on and in front of the Buttes-a-Neveu. This was a raised mound that, MacLeod points out, would have provided the 2,000 French and Canadian militia troops with an advantageous higher-ground position […]
September 5, 2018

Book review: “Quebec: Historic Seaport” by Mazo de la Roche

  I was flabbergasted by Quebec: Historic Seaport, ostensibly a history of the Canadian city, published in 1944 by novelist Mazo de la Roche.  And my flabbergastation only grew greater the more I read the book until it evolved, near the end, into out-and-out disgust. Of course, I knew going into the book that it might be a challenge.  Novelists use different intellectual and artistic muscles than historians do, but, sometimes, this can result in a wonderful work, such as Son of the Morning Star, Evan Connell’s history of Gen. George Armstrong Custer at Little Bighorn. Not here. De la Roche writes her book as if it were a historical romance with manly men and daintily beautiful women.  And it isn’t really about Quebec.  It’s more a history of Canada in which Quebec plays an important-ish role.   “Their own doom” That’s not the real problem, though.  Ultimately, de la Roche’s effort is completely undercut by her deep and sharp prejudices. This reaches its nadir when de la Roche is discussing the Treaty of Versailles which ended the American Revolution, giving the colonies their independence.  She writes: In that treaty the New Englanders wrote their own doom, for in their […]
September 3, 2018

Essay: “God is the ocean in which we all swim

Patrick T. Reardon 9.4.18
August 27, 2018

Essay: Pope Francis teaches how to love those we see as sinners

  The death penalty is wrong in all cases.  That’s what Pope Francis proclaimed in early August, and that’s what the Church’s Catechism will be revised to say. It’s an important statement about faith and human rights.  And its impact extends beyond those convicted of serious crimes and threatened with execution. The Pope’s order, culminating of an evolution in church teaching that goes back to St. John Paul II, is a lesson to you and me about how to treat those we see as sinners. Under the revision, the Catechism will say, “The Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,’ and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.” In 1992, John Paul II began to take strong stands against the death penalty.  There was one exception as he saw it — “cases of absolute necessity” when the death penalty was needed to protect other lives. The announcement from Pope Francis closes that “last remaining loophole” in Church’s stand against executions, writes Sister Helen Prejean, a longtime opponent of the death penalty.   “The dignity of the person” The Church […]
August 26, 2018

Chicago History: Haki Madhubuti, the most influential African-American leader you’ve probably never heard of

This is an expanded version of an article that appeared 8.29.18 in the Chicago Reader.   Don L. Lee was ten years old when his mother Maxine took him and his younger sister to visit the minister of one of the largest black churches in Detroit. It was mid-20th century America, and, abandoned years before by her husband, Maxine, a beautiful, vivacious woman, had been trying to keep the family afloat with the odds stacked against her. Suddenly, with the minister, she was in luck.  A man in his fifties, with a kindly demeanor, he offered her a job as a janitor at the four-story, twelve-unit building he owned next to his church — and free housing in a basement apartment.  During the week, she’d be responsible for cleaning and dusting the public areas and hauling the garbage cans down the backstairs. Oh, and one other thing — as the interview came to an end, the minister leaned over and whispered something to Maxine.  “I knew what was going on,” her son tells me. Thereafter, come Monday and Thursday afternoons, the minister would visit the family’s apartment “and she would service him.”  She was what was known at the time […]
August 21, 2018

Book review: “Bone on Bone” by Julia Keller

  Julia Keller’s latest novel Bone on Bone is a story of misery and love. It is the story of people whose lives are full of misery.  Sometimes, for them, love ameliorates the pain.  At other times, it feeds the pain. Like Keller’s six previous books in this series focused on the fictional town of Acker’s Gap in West Virginia, there is a murder and mysteries in Bone on Bone.  There is a search for truth amid the chaos and confusion of existence. Yet, this isn’t a whodunit.  This is a literary work grappling with the existential pain of breathing, pain we all suffer.   The misery in Acker’s Gap The misery in Acker’s Gap has to do with the loss of jobs and potential and with the increasing use of illegal drugs by young people who don’t see a future, even young people with advantages. Not only are the teens and young adults in this novel eaten up by their drug addiction, but the lives of their parents are grotesquely twisted by the suffering of watching their children suffer. So grotesquely twisted that one mother seeks release in the bed of a pick-up lover as her husband, out of […]
August 20, 2018

Essay: The death penalty and the evolution of faith

    The Church’s understanding of what it means to live a Christian life has been evolving for 2,000 years and will continue to do so. For instance, the early Church accepted slavery as a permissible aspect of human society but later came to see bondage as immoral. Earlier this month, another step in the evolution of the Church’s teaching took place when Pope Francis announced that the death penalty is wrong in all cases.   “Inadmissible” At the Pope’s order, the Catechism will be revised to say: “The Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,’ and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.” This shift in doctrine began in 1992 with St. John Paul II who took strong stands against the death penalty “except in cases of absolute necessity” to protect other lives. The announcement from Pope Francis closes “the last remaining loophole” in Church’s stand against executions, writes Sister Helen Prejean, a longtime opponent of the death penalty.   “The dignity of the person” While the new step has many ramifications, the important lesson for most of […]
August 15, 2018

Book review: “Wyrd Sisters” by Terry Pratchett

  That great and silly American writer Christopher Moore, in recent years, has mined the Shakespeare canon for sources for his comic novels. You could call this thievery.  Or you could call it homage.  Either way, the results are hilarious — Fool (a rip-off, excuse me, homage to King Lear) and The Serpent of Venice (Merchant of Venice and Othello). (And, after all, the great Will stole all his plots from earlier writers, right?) Two decades earlier, that great and silly English writer Terry Pratchett did the same thing in Wyrd Sisters.  This 1988 novel borrows a lot of the plot of MacBeth.  It’s got an evil Duchess to play the Queen part, and a Duke who takes the hand-washing bit way too far.  There’s a forest that moves, and a murdered king, and an unexpected heir. And, like many a Shakespearian effort, there are characters who are masquerading as other people. Quite a lot, actually. There’s a play within a play. And ghosts and “divers alarums” and witches. Ah, yes, Pratchett’s witches — the two old standbys, Granny Weatherwax, the crotchety uber-witch, and Nanny Ogg, an earth-motherish sort, as well as Magrat Garlick, the junior witch who’s still a […]
August 13, 2018

Book review: “Building A Revolutionary State: The Legal Transformation of New York, 1776-1783” by Howard Pashman

      For Great Britain, the late 18th-century conflict with its North American colonies was a civil war.  The colonists were in rebellion and needed to be policed. For the newly minted United States of America, the Revolution was a war for independence.  The colonists wanted to control their lives and fortunes. Either way you looked at it, however, the armies, officials and common people opposing the mighty British forces were insurgents.  They were the same sort of insurgents who, over the next 200-plus years, would rebel in France, Russia and Cuba, and in dozens of successful and unsuccessful attempts at achieving self-government. And, either way you looked at it, the time of the revolt, particularly in the early years, was a time of great chaos for new Americans. The history of the American Revolution, most frequently, has been portrayed as a story of great men who thought great ideas and brought about independence by the sheer weight of the righteousness of their creation — an early sort of manifest destiny. It was as if the new nation, as designed and proclaimed, made so much sense, how could anyone, except those dense Brits, ever think to question it?   […]
August 8, 2018

Book review: “A Book of Silence” by Sara Maitland

    Since 2000, British writer Sara Maitland has been investigating, searching for, reaching for silence.  Eight years through the still-ongoing process, she wrote about her endeavor in A Book of Silence. As part of this journey, Maitland has done 40 days and 40 nights of something approaching complete silence in a remote, isolated house in the far north of England.  She has looked at the stories of people who have experienced many versions of silence down through history. She has recognized two very different groupings of silence — one in which silence is a way to wall off the self from distractions in order to do creative work, and one in which silence is an openness to all of existence, a kind of praying. This is a complex book that will perplex many who are steeped in Western civilization’s values.  Maitland herself is complex, a self-described Roman Catholic socialist feminist writer of fiction and non-fiction.  Such a counter-cultural combination of beliefs and enthusiasms will also perplex many.   Unless you’re searching You don’t want to read this book unless you’re searching.  This isn’t the sort of book with warm and cuddly and/or humorous and/or entertaining anecdotes about some subject […]
August 6, 2018

Poem: “The lost tribes”

  The lost tribes   for Haki Madhubuti     I found the lost tribes in America, eating fries with city workers at the McDonald’s on Western Avenue.   I found them sport-shopping at Gurnee Mills.   I found them in the bleak hours on Ecclesiastes Road, in the cathedral’s unused confessionals, in the self-help section at the public library, after the wait, under the weight, over the rainbow, up the street, dedicated to the proposition, under the gun during the workshop on neighborhood crime.   I found them with Colonel Mustard in the library with the rope.   I found the lost tribes in that river bend where garbage collects, amid the splayed newspapers and dead fish and truck tires and basketballs and plastic bags and condom snakeskins and lost souls and bitter winners and empty milk cartons and broken rosaries and gasoline sheen and abandoned virgins and abandoned promises and a single shopping cart loaded with rusted chicken wire, sodden stuffed animals and my sins.   I found them hiding behind the talking heads with the sound off.   I found them in the purple noise of the laugh track, hellbent for distraction.   I found them staring […]
August 1, 2018

Essay: “My soul magnifies the Lord”

For 2000 years, Mary the mother of Jesus has been a major figure in Christian theology, liturgy and art and a major inspiration to believers working to live their faith in daily life. Yet, in the Gospels, Mary doesn’t have many lines. In fact, she only speaks on four occasions: when Gabriel appears to her, when she visits her cousin Elizabeth, when the 12-year-old Jesus stays behind in the Temple and when she’s at the wedding feast of Cana with her son. The Feast of the Visitation, celebrated at the end of May, commemorates the event when, for me, Mary shines the brightest, singing the Magnificat, perhaps the greatest song in the Bible. It starts: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…” Many modern translations begin, “My soul proclaims…” or “My soul praises…” But I like the earlier word “magnifies” because it’s kind of odd and mysterious. What Mary is saying is that she is like a magnifying glass. By looking at her — by looking through her — other people see God better. Isn’t this what we’re called to do as Christians? To be a magnifying glass — to help others see, through our actions, […]
July 30, 2018

Book review: “War and Our World: The Reith Lectures 1998” by John Keegan

    War is violent, chaotic, destructive, deadly and, for the aggressor nowadays, morally wrong.  Yet, how to fight war except with war? Two decades ago, in a series of radio addresses, John Keegan, the noted war historian, mentioned one weapon against war that many people would overlook — aid to needy nations in the form of anti-poverty and economic development measures. Since we know that poor states which have a fragile cultural identity are far more likely to engage in war-mongering or to experience inter-ethnic conflict as a by-product of insecurity, what then can be done to secure their identity and economic well-being? Can we somehow help those fledgling states to reach a more mature and stable condition of political security and economic autonomy? An essential weapon in our war against conflict must, therefore, be progress in aid and development programs allied to strong alliances with other nations which strengthen the economic structures of such states and help to neutralize the political insecurities against which their governments constantly battle. Only then can we help them also to reject, as we have done, Heraclitus’s belief that strife is the only just and corrective force.   “Must be realistic” War and […]
July 25, 2018

Poem: “Blood and flesh”

Blood and flesh   You tell me to crawl into the ragged slash in your side and pull the raw edges of flesh together to enclose me in the gory warmth of your heartbeat, like a babe at the breast, like a love flesh to flesh on damp sheets, like reentering the womb, like surrendering to the formless white at the heart of water, air, ore, sky, plant, sun, star, cloud, moon, blood and flesh.   Patrick T. Reardon 7.25.18   “Blood and Flesh” was originally published by Ground Fresh Thursday 9.23.17.
July 23, 2018

Book review: “The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography” by Alan Jacobs

  The Book of Common Prayer was created in the 16th century as the prayer book of the Church of England. Originally, that institution had been part of the Roman Catholic Church, but it was separated from Rome by King Henry VIII and became a national church, constitutionally established by the state with the monarch as its supreme governor. Thus, The Book of Common Prayer, created to replace the Catholic prayers in religious services, was, in effect, a government publication. This led to complexities for the prayer book in England that it wouldn’t have in other nations, such as the United States, where the Episcopal Church, part of the Anglican Communion, is just one of many organized religions rather than under the sponsorship of the state.   “Eternal Rest” For instance, as Alan Jacobs writes in his energetic look at creation and history of the prayer book The “Book of Common Prayer”:  A Biography, there have been times over the past five hundred years when the book was seen not just as an expression of religious faith but also as a stand-in for the nation in some way. World War I was one such time.  Indeed, Jacobs writes: One of […]
July 19, 2018

Book review: “The Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Biography” by Donald S. Lopez Jr.

  In 2005, Penguin Books published a new translation of Bardo Todol, the collection Buddhist texts that, in the West, has been known as The Tibetan Book of the Dead for three-quarters of a century, and touted it as “First Complete Translation” of a work dealing with life between a person’s death and reincarnation. Actually, as Donald S. Lopez Jr. points out in his 2011 book The Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Biography, “complete” here is somewhat inexact since Bardo Todol is a cycle of texts of which many versions exist.  Even so, the Penguin book, Lopez writes, is an improvement over the original English edition, put forth by American Theosophist Walter Evans-Wentz. Many more texts of the cycle are translated [in the Penguin edition] for the first time, the translation is made from a better manuscript, and the translation is more accurate than that first published in 1927. Lopez, an American expert on Buddhism and Tibet who has edited books by the Dalai Lama, notes that the publicity for the Penguin book is overblown, asserting that the book “embraces the concept of enlightened living and the importance of being open to the wonders of the human experience while, […]
July 17, 2018

Book review: “Absences: A Sequence” by John A. Griffin

    The 21 poems in John A. Griffin’s chapbook Absences: A Sequence appear very orderly. Each is 20 lines long.  Within each poem, the number of syllables per line is roughly the same. So, even though some have longer lines than others, the appearance of these handsomely printed poems is very similar, like nearly rectangular blocks of type, sort of brick-like, building blocks, if you will. Yet, that appearance deceives.  These are mournful — mourn-filled — poems, fevered with grief.  Grief for the death of a father and grief for the death that is coming for each of us.  Grief for absences. Indeed, the first poem in this collection, just published by The Esthetic Apostle and available at amazon.com, is titled “Caoineadh,” the Irish word for keening. More visually expressive of what’s in the poems are the four illustrations by Dutch collage artist Martine Mooijenkind.  Her illustration for the cover is titled “Lost,” while the three that accompany the poems are “Water on the moon,” “Gentle,” and “Angst.” They are jagged, harsh and deliberately crude.   “What ebbs withdraws” And, once you get into the poems themselves, you won’t be confused. In fact, it seems that Griffin, an Irish-born […]
July 12, 2018

Book review: “Aura: Last Essays” by Gustaf Sobin

One of the seven short essays in Gustaf Sobin’s final book Aura, published in 2009, is about the deep, unremitting darkness of medieval times. And about light, then and now. We can’t imagine how dark it was. We, with our street lights and electric light switches and automobile headlights and cellphone screens and television screens and flood lights and lighted sports stadiums. Not without Sobin’s help. The medieval night was very dark for anyone inside a home or castle or building of any sort. The only illumination  was from one or more candles. The churches and the rich had wax candles, but not the rural French, as Sobin explains: In such humble surroundings, it was more likely that tallow candles were burnt, the tallow itself drawn from the fat of goats, sheep and bovines…. Even if such candles could be considered a marked improvement over oil lamps with papyrus wicks like those employed during the Merovingian [reign, roughly 450-750 A.D.], or the torches and firebrands of pine and birch bark during the Carolingian [751-814], the little rings of light that they shed remained, nonetheless, minimal.   “Those wobbling, incandescent rings” So minimal were those “little rings of light” that they might, […]
July 10, 2018

Book review: “The Burren Wall” by Gordon D’Arcy

I’ve never been to the Burren in western Ireland or, for that matter, to Ireland at all.  But my curiosity was piqued when I heard about Gordon D’Arcy’s 2006 book The Burren Wall. It’s about the thousands of miles of stone walls that criss-cross the stark obdurate Burren landscape of grasslands and heath — human-made lines fashioned with unmortared rocks piled atop one another. When D’Arcy writes of the Burren wall, he’s referring to a general type of wall that’s found in the region, a very simple construction, built from human sweat and muscle, dating from just the other day to more than 5,000 years ago. As the photographs in his book show, these walls give the land a strikingly distinctive look.  They also provide a home for a rich array of flora and fauna.   No knowing Much about these walls is mysterious.  There is, for instance, no knowing who put up what wall.  Nor, aside from classifying a particular wall in a general era of hundreds or thousands of years, knowing when that wall was created. As D’Arcy notes, you might describe any of these walls as a land boundary, but there’s more to it than that.  He […]
July 8, 2018

Poem: “At the hill tomb”

    At the hill tomb   At the hill tomb, she finds nothing. She tells the guys, and they run to find folded blooded linen. She sits on the grass of the garden, and the gnarled gardener is there, his sweat rich with grit- clumped dirt, his hair thisway andthat. She sees him take the innocent seed and thumb it into the maternal loam, and the bread is broken.   Patrick T. Reardon 7.8.18     This poem originally appeared in Time of Singing, Spring, 2018.