April 16, 2018

Book review: “The Madonna” by Jean Guitton

On the opening page of his text for The Madonna, Jean Guitton, a French philosopher and theologian, notes that, in the Gospels, Mary doesn’t say much. That got me thinking, and, after a little Internet searching, I came across an article that listed the four times when an evangelist quotes the mother of Jesus — twice before his birth and twice after. Guitton’s essay in The Madonna, published in 1963, is interesting but seems theologically dated to me. Instead, I like the idea of considering the many beautiful images of Mary in this book next to the words that Mary says in the Gospels. In presenting them here, I’m not making a direct correlation between image and word. I’m looking at how the two methods of getting to know Mary interact. “I am the handmaid of the Lord” The first instance in which Mary is quoted is the Annunciation (Luke 1: 26-38) when the angel Gabriel comes to her, and this conversation takes place: “Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you. Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him […]
April 9, 2018

Book review: “Chicago and Downstate: Illinois as Seen by the Farm Security Administration Photographers 1936-1943,” edited by Robert L. Reid and Larry A. Viskochil

During a seven-year period, starting the Great Depression and extending into World War II, sixteen talented photographers from the Farm Security Administration (FSA) recorded more than 270,000 images of daily life in America. Often, these photographers would be asked by their subjects why they wanted to take their picture. “For history,” some of them replied. Larry A. Viskochil mentions this in his opening remarks for Chicago and Downstate: Illinois as Seen by the Farm Security Administration Photographers 1936-1943, which he co-edited with Robert L. Reid. It’s an answer that goes to the core of the FSA effort. The subjects of the FSA photographs tended to be those hardest hit by the harsh economic times and least likely to make a record of their own of what they were going through. They were, in other words, the sort of people who are easily lost to history.   The lives of the common people Consider simply the question of clothing: It’s easy enough to know what King Henry VIII and other royals of his era wore. They posed for many paintings that have survived. But what did the common people put on in the morning or, for that matter, upon going to […]
April 2, 2018

Essay: In praise of yet more biographies of Lincoln

The other day, in passing, a friend of mine asked me, “Why would someone write yet another biography of Abraham Lincoln? Aren’t there enough already?” I was dumbfounded and mumbled some half-answer. It seemed akin to asking me why people breathe. Throughout my life, I’ve read dozens of biographies of Lincoln and scores of books about the Civil War and his role in the conflict. I’ve reviewed Lincoln books and written essays on the 16th U.S. President, and, for several years, I served on the advisory board of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield For me, the study of Lincoln is fascinating and never-ending. Yet, my friend, a well-read guy, was really confused.   One life story? At the root of his question was the thought that each of us has one life story. So, once it’s told, there’s no need for it to be told again, right? I suspect he’s not alone in such thinking. He’s right, sort of, if the life story is in the form of a resume. The bullet points about schooling and jobs that were on my resume in 1981 were still true a few years ago when I put together a […]
March 29, 2018

Poem: “Gethsemane”

Forget the cross. I’m already crying like a baby. Why must I drink this fatal medicine? Why endure and then give up the ghost? Why, then, the scholars in the Temple? Why those fishes and loaves? Why Elijah and Moses on the mountain? Why all that light? That flood of light? Light is God, and God is the True Light. Why not a woman and children? Why not long years to breathe this air and see each morning the fill of light? Why put one step in front of the other? Why am I alone, now and always, even when those guys are awake? Why does the grass here smell of goat shit? Why choose? Why do it? Who will wipe these tears?     Patrick T. Reardon 3.29.18
March 28, 2018

Book review: “The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics” by Daniel James Brown

Daniel James Brown tells an exciting and engrossing tale in The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. It’s a page-turner, and that’s quite an accomplishment, given that most readers know little or nothing about rowing when they pick up the book and given that, when all is said and done, the eight-oar crew of students from the University of Washington essentially went undefeated during their four years on the water. (Actually, because of changing boat assignments, it was three of the crew members who were undefeated. But even the other five lost very few races while on other crews.) Brown does a good job of explaining how a crew does its job, from the use of the oars to the strategy of the coxswain, from the different responsibilities of each of the nine seats to the grueling physical workout that a race entails. In this and many other ways, he brings the reader deep enough into the world of rowing to know what’s at stake in a race and to feel the yearning and commitment of the rowers to triumph. To humanize his story, he focuses on Joe Rantz, […]
March 26, 2018

Essay: “This is the night”

Hosannas ring on Palm Sunday, and then comes the Passion. We look closely this week at the sufferings, torture and death of Jesus. And, then, his resurrection. On Holy Saturday, after the lighting of the pascal candle, this joyful news is told in a beautiful, solemn, mystical song called the Exsultet, or the Proclamation of Easter. It begins: Exult, let them exult, the hosts of heaven, exult, let Angel ministers of God exult, let the trumpet of salvation/sound aloud our mighty King’s triumph! Be glad, let earth be glad, as glory floods her, ablaze with light from her eternal King, let all corners of the earth be glad, knowing an end to gloom and darkness. “O happy fault” This song, usually sung alone by a cantor, goes back at least 1,500 years. It is filled with wonder and awe, repeating the phrase “This is the night,” including the lines: This is the night of which it is written: The night shall be as bright as day, dazzling is the night for me, and full of gladness. It is a song that confronts the pain of life, our own weakness and the might of God — and God’s impossible-to-fully-understand willingness to […]
March 21, 2018

Book review: “Curtain” by Agatha Christie

Throughout my 20s, I read a lot of Agatha Christie mysteries, nearly all of them, I suspect. So I’m sure I read Curtain, published in 1975 when I was in the midst of all that reading. It was the last novel published by Christie during her long life, but it had been written in the early 1940s during World War II when she, like many Britons, wasn’t sure she’d survive. Subtitled Poirot’s Last Case, the novel ends with the curtain coming down on the little Belgian detective. Yet, even in death, he solves the mystery, with a particularly unexpected turn. Back at the beginning Curtain was published four months before Christie’s death. It was followed a year later by Sleeping Murder: Miss Marple’s Last Case, also written in the early 1940s — but, by contrast, not involving Miss Marple’s death. In drafting Curtain, Christie playfully locates Poirot’s last case in the same setting as her first Poirot novel — her first published mystery — The Mysterious Affair at Styles, written in 1916 and published in 1920. In that first book, the matriarch of Styles, a country manor in Essex, was murdered with strychnine. In Curtain, set many years later, Styles […]
March 14, 2018

Book review: “Sourcery” by Terry Pratchett

Rincewind — the cowardly and inept wizard whose main skill is his ability to fear so well that he is able to escape from and survive great threats — is the main character in three of Terry Pratchett’s first five Discworld novels, and he makes a cameo in a fourth. He’s far from my favorite character in the Discworld series, and I’ve seen quotes that indicate Pratchett, at least later in his career, wasn’t all that enamored of him either. He’s a one-note Johnny. That, it would seem, was helpful to Pratchett at the beginning when Rincewind served as a kind of Everyman with whom readers could relate. He would move through the novel — like a lot of the central characters in novels by Charles Dickens — and meet a bunch of much more interesting people. Like Conina, the female assassin here in Sourcery, the fifth Discworld novel, the daughter of Cohen the Barbarian, who wants to be a hairdresser but is doomed by hereditary to seek adventure, danger and triumph. And the Librarian, an orangutan who used to be human and has a lot more on the ball than a lot of humans.   Ipslore the Red Actually, in […]
March 12, 2018

Essay: Forget the bucket list, and embrace the mystery of a new year

That transition from the end of one year to the start of the next always reminds me why I dislike the whole notion of having a bucket list. I hear people all the time saying, “Now that I’ve been to Disney World, I can check it off my bucket list,” or “Now that I have a grandchild…,” or “Now that I’ve eaten whale…” The idea is that a person is supposed to develop a list of things to accomplish, achieve or experience before death, i.e., kicking the bucket — and then do those things. This seems, to me, to be a weird way of viewing life — as if being alive means taking on the job of checking things off of some list. It presupposes that, at any given time in my life, I know exactly what I want, exactly what will make me feel happy and satisfied. What sort of list might I have made at the age of 28? It certainly would have been different from the list I’d have made at 48, right? And that would be different from the one I’d make now at 68.   Keeping an open mind and remaining nimble But I’m not […]
March 7, 2018

Book review: “The Griff: A Graphic Novel” by Christopher Moore and Ian Corson with Jennyson Rosero

The Griff, published in 2011, is like many another graphic novel, which is to say that it’s like many a megaplex blockbuster. Tell me if this sounds familiar: Invaders from outer space (in this case, big flying, fire-breathing dragons) attack the Earth and kill off just about everyone. The only people left are a bunch of misfits (in this case, a game developer, a guy who worked the makeup counter at Macy’s, a dolphin trainer, a guy dressed in a squirrel outfit, a private first class, and a skateboarder) who set out to save the world. And do.   Along for the ride What sets The Griff apart is that one of its co-authors is Christopher Moore, the writer of a string of very, very funny novels. The other is Ian Corson, a filmmaker. The guy who did all the drawings is Jennyson Rosero, and he should probably get more credit than a “with.” In any case, Moore is a very funny guy, but The Griff isn’t all that funny. It appears from Moore’s foreword and Corson’s afterword that the two had a lot of fun writing the text — essentially, a script for a movie that they don’t expect […]
March 5, 2018

Book review: Three books from the University of Nebraska’s Discovering the Great Plains series — “Great Plains Bison,” “Great Plains Indians” and “Great Plains Geology”

For most Americans, the Great Plains, covering a million or so square miles in the center of the continent, are a place to fly over or, maybe, drive through. This makes sense since much of the area was once known as the Great American Desert. The average person has a fairly vague idea of what the Great Plains are and what’s happened there. Even experts can’t seem to agree on its boundaries, producing, as R. F. Diffendal Jr. notes in “Great Plains Geology,” more than 50 maps with great variations. There’s general agreement that the area’s western border is roughly the Rocky Mountains. On the south, it’s seen as covering all or much of Texas, and, on the north, it goes up about halfway through the Canadian provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. But, on the east, some maps stretch as far as Illinois, or even Indiana. But most stop somewhere near the eastern boundaries of Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, and North Dakota.   A variety of perspectives Diffendal’s book is one of three published so far in the University of Nebraska’s Discovering the Great Plains series, and, in a way, those three, plus the three more in the pipeline, […]
February 28, 2018

Book review: “Golden Hill: A Novel of Old New York” by Francis Spufford

There are many pleasures to Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill: A Novel of Old New York, and the greatest is its sheer unexpectedness. It is fresh in startling ways. It is idiosyncratic storytelling that’s robustly accessible, a literary experiment that melds a variety of novel-writing approaches ranging from the early 1700s up to our present minute — and, yet, always clear and present and eye-opening. And, from start to finish, it has its own language and voice, a vibrantly individual work of fiction. I describe Golden Hill, published in 2016, as an experiment because Spufford had never written a novel before and because it is one of a kind.   Historical fiction, love story, mystery? You could call it historical fiction since it does cover a 45-day period at the end of 1746 in New York City, but this is no fancy-dress tale. It has no hackneyed plot, nor is it an effort to explain what happened behind the scenes of some major event. You could call it a love story since it does involve a very awkward but ardent courtship — as if involving two porcupines — between Richard Smith, a surprise visitor from London, and Tabitha Lovell, the shrewishly […]
February 25, 2018

Book review: “Richard Nixon: The Life” by John A. Farrell

The most striking thing about John A. Farrell’s Richard Nixon: The Life is how evenhanded a biography it is. Picture yourself nearly half a century in the future — in 2061 — and imagine you are reading an even-handed biography of Donald Trump. It’s startling to conceive of such a thing, given the intensely high emotions that the 45th President of the United States elicits from his supporters and opponents. In 43 years, could emotions cool enough that a biographer could write about Trump and his presidency with dispassion? That’s what Farrell has done with Nixon in a book published last year, 43 years after Nixon resigned the presidency in disgrace for the Watergate break-in of the Democratic National Committee and a host of other dirty tricks and, most of all, for the democracy-threatening attempt to cover-up all those democracy-threatening shenanigans. Farrell was a college student in 1974 when Nixon left office, and it would be impossible for a reader of this book to have much of a sense of where Farrell stood in that very divisive moment in American history.   Shakespearean Perhaps the question is whether any biography of Nixon should be even-handed. But, before I get into […]
February 22, 2018

Book review: “Glory Days” by Melissa Fraterrigo

Glory Days by Melissa Fraterrigo is a raw piece of fiction about the scarred and wounded lives of people lost in the dying small town of Ingleside, Nebraska. It is sort of a novel inasmuch as it could be described as a novel told in stories or as a collection of related stories. And it has some of the usual imperfections of such variations on the usual form. There are a variety of tones among the fourteen stories (chapters) that, at times, collide somewhat awkwardly with each other. There are confusing time gaps and plot details that would probably be clearer in the context of a straight-ahead novel. Part of the problem may be that Glory Days is Fraterrigo’s first book-length work of fiction, and she’s still finding her voice.   Tormented spirits Even so, “Glory Days” is a brutally beautiful tale about tortured souls in a Midwestern Inferno of lost jobs, lost hopes, lost connections. Everyone in this book is damaged goods — from Luann, the adopted girl whose mother is newly dead in the opening story, to Teensy, her fire-scarred father, to Footer, an orphan who came into the world when a crazy woman sliced his mother open […]
February 21, 2018

Essay: Fast Food Community

A couple years ago, I met my friend Thomas at the McDonald’s on Broadway, near Loyola University’s lakefront campus on the Far North Side. As we sat down, Thomas said it was just like being in the McDonald’s back home in Iowa. That’s the impression a lot of people have — that all McDonald’s restaurants are the same. Same menus, same lighting, same trays, napkins, etc. All that is true, but what I’ve found is that the uniformity of a McDonald’s — or any major fast food chain, for that matter — is like the setting of a fine jewel. The sameness of the décor and the food means that what I notice when I’m eating at a McDonald’s are the people.   A community of people And here’s the thing: At each McDonald’s, there is a unique community of people. Some, like me, go there for the anonymity. It’s a good place to read and write without having to concern myself with a server who wants to tell me his name is Christopher. (Full disclosure: My daughter-in-law just started working for an ad agency whose only client is McDonald’s. But that’s not why I eat there.) Other people go […]
February 13, 2018

Book review: “Death in Chicago: Winter” by Dominic J. Grassi

Cosmo Grande moves awkwardly, humanly, through Chicago, looking for clues and epiphany. Grande, a fiftyish private investigator who drinks too much and smokes too much weed, is the central character created by my friend Dom Grassi for his first novel Death in Chicago: Winter. It’s a murder mystery and is planned to be the first of four, the others taking Cosmo and the sort of skullduggery one enjoys in mysteries through spring, summer and fall. You know, like Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, only in this case the Italian isn’t writing music but trying to find his way around Chicago while endeavoring to figure out what’s going on — and avoid getting blown up or otherwise iced. In Death in Chicago: Winter, Cosmo is trying to get to the bottom of a whole lot of messiness, including three suicides that might be murder, a dirty cop, a murdered tow-truck driver, a rogue bishop, a “retired” mob boss and a clandestine group of deacons trying to save the Catholic Church from its bad apples.   A rollicking tale It’s a rollicking tale that pulls the reader along as Cosmo, a former seminarian, maneuvers through a hidden church scandal of wide-ranging financial sins while […]
February 12, 2018

Essay: Ben the barber’s light touch of love

We live in a corrosive age, characterized by bitterness, rancor and fury. Loud voices of rage drown out the quiet virtues of calm and broad-mindedness. My friend Ben wasn’t rageful, and he wasn’t bitter. If anyone had the right to be angry, it was Ben. But he took life as it came, with equanimity and a kind of joy. Ben was my barber for more than 30 years. He cut the hair of my son David from when he was a toddler to when he went off to college. His barbershop on California Avenue, just north of Touhy Avenue, was a frequent Saturday stop for me and David and his younger sister Sarah. They grew knowing Ben as a kind grandfatherly presence in their lives. And they grew up knowing the blue numbers tattooed on his arm.   Surviving Auschwitz as a barber Ben, as he told me and the kids, had spent two years in the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz. He and his brother survived because they could cut hair. They were assigned to cut the hair of fellow Jews and other people who were put to killing labor or sent directly to the crematoria. All other members […]
February 7, 2018

Book review: “The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve” by Stephen Greenblatt

At the end of the 19th century, Mark Twain had fun with the story of Adam and Eve, writing in “Adam’s Diary” about the first man’s confusion over the sudden appearance of the first woman: “This new creature with the long hair is a good deal in the way. It is always hanging around and following me about. I don’t like this; I am not used to company. I wish it would stay with the other animals….Cloudy today, wind in the east; think we shall have rain….WE? Where did I get that word — the new creature uses it.” Such playfulness, though, gives no hint of the two and a half millenniums during which the Bible account of the first people in the Garden Eden was taken very seriously, even to the point of life and death, as Stephen Greenblatt shows in The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve.   “A breath” Greenblatt, a Pulitzer Prize winner and the general editor of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, has written a book that is thoughtfully readable and deeply erudite, a book steeped in humanity and in the unending efforts of humans to figure out who they are and why […]
February 5, 2018

Book review: “Mort” by Terry Pratchett

There is an awkward disconnect toward the end of Mort, Terry Pratchett’s 1987 Discworld novel, the fourth of 41 in the series. It has to do with Albert, Death’s manservant and cook. OK, if you haven’t read any Discworld novels, that job description may sound odd. As Pratchett’s regular Discworld readers know, Death is the guy in the long black robe with the ever-so-sharp scythe — oh, and he’s a skeleton— who appears in just about every one of these books. You know he’s there, even if he isn’t immediately identified, because of his distinctive way of speaking — in “a voice like lead slabs being dropped on granite,” all in small caps. For instance, when he hires the 16-year-old Mort as his apprentice, Death asks his name: “Mortimer…sir. They call me Mort.” “WHAT A COINCIDENCE.” (“Mort” being the root word in Latin for “death,” and, by way of Middle French and Middle English, the root of such English words as “moral.” But you knew that.)   Stood-still-time Death’s job is to head out each day to be present at the death of, generally but not always, important people. The causes of such deaths can be any of the usual […]
February 2, 2018

Essay: Van Gogh’s “Self-Portrait” (1887) at the Art Institute of Chicago

It was one of those joyous moments in life when, at my home computer with its large, wide screen, I was able to look at a photo that I had taken on Tuesday of Van Gogh’s 1887 “Self-Portrait” at the Art Institute of Chicago.     According to the museum, this oil painting is just a little over 16 inches high and just under 12 inches wide.  So I was able to get close and still get the whole image in a photo.  Then, I got a bit closer and got a center section of the painting in another photo.     What took my breath away was how detailed my photo was — and, even more, how I could see each of Van Gogh’s individual brushstrokes. And my amazement and delight grew, the closer I looked.   And, again, when I focused solely on the eye.   First, look at the colors Van Gogh uses that, as a non-painter, I wouldn’t expect to see in a portrait.  Look at all that dark green.  And those three little yellow lines. And then there are the reds.  That dark red outlining the top of the eye lid.  And then a more […]
February 1, 2018

Book review: “The Art of Biblical Narrative” by Robert Alter

The writers of the Hebrew Bible, when they’re telling a story, they’re like Homer with the Iliad — they’re omniscient. They know the story as if they’ve watched it unfold from some vantage point above and around and inside the action. However, unlike Homer, the biblical storyteller doesn’t make the characters and their motives clear to the reader. Instead, the storyteller is selective, as Robert Alter explains in his groundbreaking 1981 study The Art of the Biblical Narrative: He may on occasion choose to privilege us with the knowledge of what God thinks of a particular character or action — omniscient narration can go no higher — but as a rule, because of his understanding of the nature of his human subjects, he leads us through varying darknesses which are lit up by intense but narrow beams, phantasmal glimmerings, sudden strobic flashes. We are compelled to get at character and motive, as in impressionistic writers like Conrad and Ford Madox Ford, through a process of inference from fragmentary data, often with crucial pieces of narrative exposition strategically withheld, and this leads to multiple and sometimes even wavering perspectives on characters. There is, in other words, an abiding mystery in character […]
January 30, 2018

Book review: “The Power and the Glory” by Graham Greene

He is a priest who has been on the run for eight years in a state in Mexico where authorities have leveled all churches in an effort to root out Catholicism. Religious books are banned, and even well-to-do women find themselves in jail if they’re found with one. It is the middle of the 20th century, and the new Socialist government wants to stamp out superstition. Some priests have fled. Some have stayed and, under duress, have gotten married. Others, like this one, have gone into hiding. When caught, a fugitive priest is shot for treason. As Graham Greene’s 1940 novel The Power and the Glory, opens, this priest is the last one at large, offering the sacraments — baptism, confession, the Mass — to believers where he can find them and when they feel it’s safe to be with him. Most of the time, it’s not safe. Over the past year, he has celebrated Mass just four times and had heard maybe a hundred confessions. No hero Now, a fervently anticlerical Army lieutenant is on his trail, and, when the officer finds that a village has been visited by the priest, he takes a hostage. He holds the hostages […]
January 29, 2018

Poem: “Four percent pantomime

Beethoven’s Symphony #7 In A, Opus 92, Allegretto, is dread and endurance, deepening in intensity with each new phrase. down into the core. And, for just a few beats, somewhere near the end, I see a ballerina, not leaping, but, with her shoulders wide, striding, step by measured step, as all of us must, to the executioner.   At the Museum of Fine Art, the glazed terra cotta della Robbia Mary holds her baby son with one large hand around his waist and the other over the top of his skull, gripping, with a raw ache, his hair through her fingers, holding for dear life, and, for a glimmer, I see the boy’s head move just slightly as if fussed by a bad dream and her lips bend to touch his forehead, as if to kiss away what is to come for her and for him after they return to their pose.   Over my head, the electricity of eight younger bodies cracks from one side of the back yard to the other as the sharp-moved mother arranges the line of food and dishes and utensils on the table and the dutied father is firing the hot dogs, and I […]
January 26, 2018

Poem: “Goddess boulder”

In Boston, at the MFA, the faith, love and hope of the Della Robbia family art, glazed terra cotta, one hundred and fifty years of saints and Madonnas with their Baby Jesus, the colors, five centuries old, glow like the warmth of living skin.   Then, with directions, I to the basement gallery of Olmec art to confront the huge squat crushing ugly boulder goddess that is shown in the museum guide and know it is the weight and threat of my mother   and find, instead, a life-size jade priest mask, turned by fire from green to gray, delicate, deadly attractive but not looming. Not huge. Only maybe pained. Seeming as much victim as butcher, except, of course, to the one to be sacrificed.   In the kitchen, she sang with Frank Sinatra about a surrey with fringe, and, in that moment, she was the most beautiful girl in the world.     Patrick T. Reardon 1.26.18   This poem was originally published in Requiem for David from Silver Birch Press in February, 2017.  
January 25, 2018

Poem: “Standing before Turner’s ‘Fall of the Rhine at Schaffhausen’ in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts”

The pounding crush of the falling Rhine waters has no end unlike these tiny foreground figures who reach and stretch to accomplish their small tasks, muscles straining, reaching, stretching, yearning.   A few feet from this Turner is one of Manet’s oils of the shooting squad execution of fake Mexican Emperor Maximilian, a fool if there ever was one, but aren’t we all fools who end in the vague smoke awaiting the coup de grace?   What, though, is the alternative? The urgency, as Brooks says, is in the blooming amid the noise and power of the flood.   We are all, victims and butchers, crushed by the same cataract, slain by the same bullet. You and me and David.   Patrick T. Reardon 1.25.18   This poem was originally published in Requiem for David from Silver Birch Press in February, 2017.