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.    
July 2, 2018

Book review: “The Melody” by Jim Crace

The dainty Persian bells would jingle in the middle of the night when Alfred Busi’s wife Alicia would go downstairs to the larder for a snack. “What could it matter if she seemed a little plump, so long as she was well and happy with her life?” But, now, Alicia has been dead for two years, and, hearing the melody of the bells, Alfred, a 60-ish singer-songwriter near the end of his career as Mister Al, makes his unsteady way in the dark.  As the open door of the pantry, suddenly, “something fierce and dangerous,” pungent with odor, barrels out at him: “Not a bad smell, actually.  Not excrement.  Not sweat.  More a mix of earth and mold and starch.  Potato peel. The creature’s skin [feels] as smooth, as damp, as lightly pelted as potato peel.  Naked too.  Naked as potato peel.” This creature — whom Alfred comes to believe is a child, a boy, living wild in the nearby thick woods — sinks his teeth into the singer’s hand and grabs his throat, tearing at his neck. And then is gone.   Nature as a major character In The Melody (Doubleday, 225 pages, $26.95), the new novel from English […]
June 27, 2018

Book review: “Trickster: Native American Tales, a graphic collection,” edited by Matt Dembicki

Well, when you get down to it, isn’t life a trick? You’re born and spend your whole existence on Earth trying to figure out what it all means. And then you die. The Big Trick. No wonder, then, that, throughout human history, culture after culture has developed a mythology that has included at least one character who is a trickster. This is especially true among Native Americans where the multiplicity of tribes has resulted in a multiplicity of tricksters. Tricksters of all sorts, some cunning in their deviousness, others hapless when their tricks backfire. Some who are responsible for the creation of certain rock formations or the stars in the night sky, and some whose tricks are the reason certain animals look the way they do.   “The original people of this land” Trickster: Native American Tales, a graphic collection was put together by Matt Dembicki, a Washington, D.C.-based comics creator. He writes in an afterword that he got the idea for his collection when, at a local library, he came across the 1998 book American Indian Trickster Tales by Alfonso Ortiz and Richard Erdoes. He was enthralled by the variety of stories, featuring a wide range of animals. Although […]
June 25, 2018

Book review: “Time and Again” by Jack Finney

    Jack Finney’s 1970 time-travel novel Time and Again is a lot of things, including a cult favorite. It’s a science fiction novel inasmuch as it deals with time travel.  The method for making such a trip, though, doesn’t have much snap. Here’s how it works: Simon Morley, a commercial artist and the novel’s central character, steeps himself in the history and daily life of 1882, then he lives for a time in a setting that hasn’t changed since then (the Dakota Apartments in New York City) and then he self-hypnotizes himself, falls asleep and, when he awakens, he’s back there in time. So, there’s no wormhole, no elaborate machinery, just auto-suggestion.  As I said, not much snap.   Suspense It’s a suspense story, at least for the first 40 or so pages, when Morley is being recruited for what he’s told is an adventure that can’t initially be specified and then for the next 70 pages as he’s tested, accepted and trained for his journey. That suspense dissipates somewhat when Morley makes the first two of four trips across 88 years.  In part, that’s because he’s been warned not to do anything that might alter the course of […]
June 20, 2018

Poem: “Comment te dire adieu”

      Comment te dire adieu   How to say goodbye on a gray-blue morning?   In the end, turn and walk out the door, carrying the room on your back in a bag filled with camera clicks and sound grabs, looking ahead, always looking ahead, to the last closing door.   Patrick T. Reardon 6.20.18     “Comment te dire adieu” was originally published by Spank the Carp on June 1, 2017.    
June 18, 2018

Book review: “Abraham Lincoln” by Adam I.P. Smith

Abraham Lincoln by Adam I.P. Smith was published in 2014 by the Britain-based History Press as part of its Pocket Giants series of very short — 100 or so pages — biographies of great world figures. It’s a series that includes works about Jesus, Jane Austen, Napoleon, Queen Elizabeth II, John Lennon, King Arthur and Buddha, among many others. The idea, of course, is that these biographies are extremely concise, but there’s also a bit of a flair to them. They don’t read like a long encyclopedia (or Wikipedia) entry but take a point of view. For example, Nick Higham’s book on King Arthur focuses on the question of whether there was a real person at the heart of the myth and looks closely at how layers of story and anecdote were added to the legend throughout the centuries. Smith’s aim in Abraham Lincoln is to explain his subject to non-Americans who aren’t steeped in the vision of the 16th U.S. President as a civic saint, a martyr for the nation and a political and patriotic touchstone. Smith writes: Abraham Lincoln qualifies as a historical ‘giant’ not because of the ways his image and the stories about him have drawn […]
June 13, 2018

Poem: “Veronica”

Veronica   Veronica is not a name given to many baby girls today. She wiped the face of Jesus at the side of the packed- stone street the condemned man trudged with his cross rubbing his shoulder raw on his way to the hill. He left behind the image of his face on the cloth, like the Shroud of Turin but no need for x-rays. Did she hang it on the wall of her home? Store it in a drawer? It was certainly an odd miracle in which no cure was executed. Did Veronica and Simon the cross carrier meet later to trade notes or maybe just to look into each other’s stunned eyes with no words to say — then, interrupted in their silent communion by the angry cry of a hungry baby, they turn to see the mother raise to the infant mouth her breast.   Patrick T. Reardon 6.13.18   “Veronica” originally appeared in the Write City Magazine on 4.19.17.
June 11, 2018

Book review: “What If? — The World’s Foremost Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been,” edited by Robert Cowley

.There is no point to the study of history if each event, each action, each decision is seen in some mechanistic manner — as if what happened had to happen. The reality is that whatever happened might have been different. That’s why we study history.  We learn from history by looking at the results of an event, an action, a decision, and by considering how those results might have been different. What if George Washington had been shot in the fall of 1777?  What if Captain Patrick Ferguson of the British Army had chosen to pull the trigger when he had Washington in his sights?  If Ferguson had fatally shot the commander of United States forces at that particular moment, he would have changed the Revolutionary War in a drastic way. The lesson, here, is that an individual’s action (or, in this case, inaction) can have huge ramifications. Obviously, powerful people, such as queens and generals, make decisions that change the direction of the arrow of history, but, as the story of Ferguson shows, an Average Joe who is at the right spot at the right moment can also shift things.   Dozens of historical moments The Ferguson-Washington encounter is […]
June 6, 2018

Book review: “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer” by Michelle McNamara

People get obsessed.  They get obsessed with growing orchids.  With the fortunes of the Los Angeles Lakers or the Cincinnati Reds or the Cleveland Browns.  With the stock market. With mountain-climbing.  With old books.  With eating fancy meals. Michelle McNamara was obsessed with tracking down the man she named the Golden State Killer. This obsession grew out of her website True Crime Diary, launched in 2006.  In I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, she explains: When my family goes to sleep, I time travel and reframe stale evidence using twenty-first-century technology.  I start clicking, scouring the Internet for digitized clues authorities may have overlooked, combing digitized phone books, yearbooks, and Google Earth views of crime scenes: a bottomless pit of potential leads for the laptop investigator who now exists in the virtual world. I share my theories with loyal regulars who read my blog. I’ve written about hundreds of unsolved crimes, from chloroform murderers to killer priests.  The Golden State Killer, though, has consumed me the most. When the rapist-killer was active from 1976 through 1986, his crimes occurred in and around three California locations:  Sacramento, Santa Barbara and Orange County.  He was known as the East Area Rapist for […]
June 4, 2018

Finding a rich life by looking out the window: An interview with Patricia Hampl

Patricia Hampl laughs and says, “I have a list.” We’re talking over the phone about that bane of modern life, the to-do list, she in the kitchen of her St. Paul, Minnesota, home and me in Chicago in my own kitchen. I’ve just mentioned that interviewing her is on my to-do list for the day. It’s humorous because the subject of our conversation is her new book The Art of the Wasted Day (Viking, $26) which is about daydreaming, the antithesis of list-making. It’s about how rich life is when one focuses, at least part of the time, on being rather than on doing. “Pursuit” The idea of constantly doing something, of always accomplishing something, seems to be woven into the American DNA. Indeed, as Hampl, a critically hailed essayist, poet and memoir writer, notes in her book, the Declaration of Independence promises the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Which means that, while life and liberty are guaranteed, happiness isn’t, only the job of seeking it. “The essential American word isn’t happiness. It’s pursuit,” she writes. Over the phone, she expands on this: “Any form of rest in our culture is seen as sloth — […]
May 31, 2018

Book review: “The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel” by Robert Alter

It is a bit perplexing that the ancient story of David — the giant-killer, king, adulterer, father, sinner and old man — doesn’t have its own book in the Hebrew Bible. Instead, it’s spread over two full books (1 Samuel and 2 Samuel) and part of a third (1 Kings), 65 chapters in all. As a separate book, David would be the longest in the Bible with 40,000 words, much heftier than the actual leaders, Jeremiah with 33,000 and Genesis with 32,000. Yet, maybe it makes sense, given that David’s story is so sprawling and so meaty and so full of character, event and human dilemmas. A single book of David would be something akin to a single Shakespeare play that would include the plots and psychological depths of Macbeth, Hamlet and King Lear. Does that sound like an overstatement? Consider what Robert Alter writes at the start of his 1999 book The David Story, a translation of all 65 chapters with a detailed commentary: The story of David is probably the greatest single narrative representation in antiquity of a human life evolving by slow stages through time, shaped and altered by the pressures of political life, public institutions, family, the impulses […]
May 28, 2018

Poem: “The endless white around the corner”

The endless white around the corner   I know it comes, not when.   I am running to it, racing, straining, through the brittle leaves, the boggy mulch, deeply breathing in and out, alive to the breathing, to the muscles, to my sweat, to the rhythm, to the light — so much light.   I walk the cemetery.   I study the newsreel of the King’s coronation. He is gone. So are they all, gone, decayed, disappeared.   I am Lincoln in the moment of the bullet’s entry.   I am books unread. Books not written.   I am the red-brick apartment building in the rising sun, more beautiful than Solomon in all his glory. I am the deep green grass of a child’s lullaby, a dumb green field.   I am Earth from space, the stars.   I am a wildflower downtown in a concrete curb. I am a sound, echoing.   I am in the boat with others alone.     Patrick T. Reardon 5.28.18   This poem was originally published on the Silver Birch Press online journal on 1.14.15 and was included in my 2017 book Requiem for David.  
May 23, 2018

Book review: “The Patron Saint of Cauliflower” by Elizabeth Cohen

Let me make clear I’m no cook or baker. I have, I’ll admit, followed the directions to produce a Betty Crocker cake (with canned frosting) with relatively edible results. And, over the years, I’ve been able to put various food things in front of my wife and children when it was my turn in the kitchen, and there were few outright refusals. And I do like to eat. But the ingredients of meals, such as cabbage and cauliflower, pesto and olive oil, pears, asparagus, avocados, salt, apples, basil, artichokes and cream cheese, are pretty much a mystery to me. So, maybe I shouldn’t be reviewing Elizabeth Cohen’s collection of 32 seemingly kitchen-centered poems, The Patron Saint of Cauliflower, from Saint Julian Press in Houston. On the other hand, I think I have something to say. What I found particularly interesting about Cohen’s book was how I wasn’t lost in all the recipe language and garden harvests. That’s because, for all its talk about vegetables and seasonings, it’s not really about food. Or, better put, Cohen uses food as a doorway into the mystery at the center of all things.   Thoughts of future pain and incident Her opening poem is […]
May 21, 2018

Book review: “Noir” by Christopher Moore

Christopher Moore, the author of 15 wacky novels, explains in an afterword that he had planned for his latest book Noir to be about a “poor working mug” who got entangled with a “dangerous dame” in a dark and desperate story that involving a lot of fog, gunplay and danger. “What I ended up with is essentially ‘Perky Noir,’ a lot closer to Damon Runyon meets Bugs Bunny than Raymond Chandler meets Jim Thompson…But what was I going to do? ‘Noir’ was already typed at the top of every page.” The central character of a Christopher Moore novel is always a beta male, i.e., a nice guy who’s more than a little aimless, distracted and confused. In Noir, that’s Sammy Tiffin, a bartender in 1947 San Francisco who has a damaged foot and a past that he fears will catch up with him.   The Cheese Often, Moore’s guys are rather randy fellows, such as Pocket, King Lear’s jester in Fool, his 2009 adaptation of Shakespeare’s play. Moore is nothing if not gutsy when grabbing and remaking the works of great writers from the past. Indeed, he even retells — hilariously and, in an odd way, reverently — the story […]
May 16, 2018

Book review: “A Gentleman in Moscow” by Amor Towles

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, published in 2016, is a pleasant book, so playful and light that I fully expected to find, once I’d finished reading the novel, that a feel-good movie was planned starring Tom Hanks as Count Alexander Rostov. I was wrong. It’ll be a feel-good mini-series, starring Kenneth Branagh as Count Alexander Rostov. On the way to finding that out, I stumbled across a review that called the book Tolstoyan and asserted that it was a worthy update of the Great Russian Novel. I think that reviewer is wrong. True, like Anna Karenina, there is an attempted suicide in A Gentleman in Moscow. The difference is that, in Tolstoy’s masterpiece, Anna is successful, while the Count’s plan is interrupted comically at the last second by an old man obsessed with bees. True, A Gentleman in Moscow is set in Russia as are all Great Russian Novels. But where is the existential angst in the Towles book? Where is the evil? The closest thing to evil is a small-minded party member who’s nicknamed the Bishop for his overweening pomposity. But his appearance on the page never elicits dread. Instead, he’s a comic figure who sets in […]
May 14, 2018

Book review: “Zaftig: A Case for Curves” by Edward St. Paige

It’s not often that the National Catholic Reporter gets quoted in an art book. Nonetheless, the Catholic newspaper’s headline over a 1995 story by Demetria Martinez commenting on popular notions of how a woman’s body should look was incredibly apt for a book titled Zaftig: A Case for Curves. The headline read: “When it comes to women and bodies, God probably said: Let there be flesh.”     A spindly Venus Edward St. Paige who wrote the text and assembled the images in Zaftig notes on an early page: “The tendency of the female body is endomorphism (round and soft), but that has not kept humankind, at various times, from preferring one or another body shape, and using the mysterious force of fashion to promote and reward the prevailing ideal.” Of course, we’re in one of those moments now. St. Paige shows a variety of images of rail-thin women from the 1920s as well as a 16th century painting of a spindly Venus by Lucas Cranach. But he spends very little space on such thin bodies.   Attractive and desirable His purpose, rather, is to celebrate womanly fullness as expressed in art throughout the ages. The nearly 140 images in […]
May 9, 2018

Book review: “The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam” by Barbara W. Tuchman

At the end of The March of Folly, on its last page, historian Barbara W. Tuchman writes that the best way to avoid folly by government — the folly fueled by ambition, corruption, laziness, arrogance, ignorance and emotion — might be to follow the Lilliputians. Those tiny residents of the isle of Lilliput in Jonathan Swift’s 1726 satirical novel Gulliver’s Travels choose their leaders this way: “They have more regard for good morals than for great abilities, for, since government is necessary to mankind, they believe…that Providence never intended to make management of publick affairs a mystery, to be comprehended only by a few persons of sublime genius, of which there are seldom three born in any age. They suppose truth, justice, temperance and the like to be in every man’s power: the practice of which virtues, assisted by experience and a good intention, would qualify any man for service of his country, except where a course of study is required.” Pretty simple, right? A good leader is most likely one with a good character. A good leader, writes Montaigne, also quoted by Tuchman, needs to have “resolution and valor, not that which is sharpened by ambition but that which […]
May 7, 2018

Book review: “The Mysterious Affair at Styles” by Agatha Christie

When characters become the central figures in a long-running series of novels, they enter into some other dimension where they may age but essentially remain the same — where they don’t experience the passing of years in the way the reader does. For instance, in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Agatha Christie’s first published mystery, Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is already old. What “old” means isn’t specified, but it would seem not a stretch to say he’s at least 50. This book, written in 1916 and published in 1920, was Poirot’s first appearance. He was the center of 32 later books (out of Christie’s 66), and, by the final one, Curtain, he is definitely old — suffering from heart attacks and in a wheelchair because of his arthritis. Curtain, although written in the early 1940s, was published in 1975, or 55 years after The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Was Poirot 105 when he was solving his last case? Nah. He was residing in that dreamworld of long-running fictional characters.   A full-fledged Christie The Mysterious Affair at Styles, as a Christie murder mystery, is of course complicated although her plotting here seems a bit clunkier than it would be later […]
April 30, 2018

Book review: “The Call of the Wild” by Jack London

In November, 1902, Jack London wrote his non-fiction investigative book The People of the Abyss about the life of the poor of the East End of London. He’d spent seven weeks living there a few months earlier. Of the city’s 6.2 million residents, one in 14 lived in grinding oppressive poverty. Or, as the writer put it: “At this very moment, 450,000 of these creatures are dying miserably at the bottom of the social pit called ‘London.’ ” A month after writing The People of the Abyss, London was at work on the novel that made his name, The Call of the Wild. Both books were published in 1903.   A rejection of civilization? To my mind, there is a direct connection between the two books, and it has to do with a little-discussed aspect of The Call of the Wild. In his non-fiction book, London detailed the world that civilization made — a world in which nearly half a million “creatures” were left on a human trash heap, left to find their way for as long as they could struggle, left to a miserable life and an early death. In his novel, London told the story of the un-taming […]
April 23, 2018

Book review: “The Art of the Wasted Day” by Patricia Hampl

A child of her age, born in 1946, Patricia Hampl did her share of protesting in the streets as a young adult, against war, for human rights, and, through it all, she was proud of her nation’s founding document the Declaration of Independence and its words: “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” What other country, she asks in The Art of a Wasted Day, is founded on happiness? Crazy. Good crazy…. We address happiness individually, conceive of it as an intensely personal project, each of us busy about our own bliss. Loved that, love it still. And, yet — as she came to realize later in her life, the Declaration guarantees life and liberty but not happiness, only its pursuit. Happiness in the American credo is a job. No wonder that Hampl, like a lot of Americans, found herself with a to-do list that seemed a mile long. No wonder, too, that, in her fifties, she found herself the victim of panic attacks.  (See my interview with Hampl in the Chicago Tribune.)   “Taking in whatever is out there” No wonder that, in the face of such stress and distress, she decided to embrace daydreaming and redefine happiness as […]