February 22, 2019

Book review: The poetry of “Moby Dick” by Herman Melville

One of the great pleasures of reading Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is his wondrously muscular prose.  So thick with meaning and image, so meaty with psychological insight, so dense and meaty. Often, reading one of his paragraphs — even one of his sentences — I was struck by the poetry of his prose.  It is a prose-poetry of rhythm and sound, of deep echoes (of Shakespeare, of the Bible, or the vast store of literature), of hard edges and the softness-hardness of the ocean water. Here are ten examples: The Pacific When gliding by the Bashee isles we emerged at last upon the great South Sea; were it not for other things, I could have greeted my dear Pacific with uncounted thanks, for now the long supplication of my youth was answered; that serene ocean rolled eastwards from me a thousand leagues of blue. There is, one knows not what sweet mystery about this sea, whose gently awful stirrings seem to speak of some hidden soul beneath; like those fabled undulations of the Ephesian sod over the buried Evangelist St. John. And meet it is, that over these sea-pastures, wide-rolling watery prairies and Potters’ Fields of all four continents, the […]
February 20, 2019

Poem: “Out of the blue”

Out of the blue By Patrick T. Reardon Sure, paint the door with blood and get a pass. But, tomorrow, Death’s angel will again be on the lookout. Sure, read the litany of vitamins and sugars. But, out of the blue, the heart strangles itself. Sure, crouch away from the stranger here. But, listen, aren’t we all? Sure, stay between the white lines. But, you know, a steering wheel slip has no conscience. Sure, the best is yet to come. Sure, lover come back. Sure, someone to watch over me. Sure, all of me. Sure, it was a very good year. Sure, that old black magic. But, amen, amen, the numb mystery at the center of things is a kernel that can’t be digested. Patrick T. Reardon 2.20.19 This poem was original published in Spank the Carp 39 in 2018.  It also appears in the Spank the Carp 2018 Anthology.
February 18, 2019

Book review: “As a City on a Hill” by Daniel T. Rodgers

The United States is an exceptional country, and it stands as a shining city upon a hill as a model of freedom to the rest of the world. That’s the message that American politicians and history books have preached over the past six decades, using, as illustration and proof, what they and scholars have called one of the founding documents of the nation. The document, “A Model of Christian Charity,” was written, the story goes, as a lay sermon delivered by John Winthrop, the elected governor of a community of Puritans, to his followers in 1630 on a small wooden ship in the mid-Atlantic as they headed into the unknown of the New World.  Its key sentences come near the end: “For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill; the eyes of all people are upon us.  So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword through the world.” “At least half wrong” In As a City on a Hill, Princeton University scholar Daniel T. Rodgers, an […]
February 13, 2019

Poem: Photograph: Bullet Through Apple

Photograph:  Bullet Through Apple By Patrick T. Reardon The dark fashioned metal beyond impact, its line still true. The fruit drawn to the left as if it would follow. The shards of pulp — so many zygotes suddenly granted life. Patrick T. Reardon 2.13.19 Originally published in Seems #17, 1983
February 11, 2019

Book review: “Reaper Man” by Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett, whose life was cut short in 2015 by Alzheimer’s disease, thought much about death during his 66 years. And, in his 41 hilarious, witty and silly Discworld fantasy novels, he wrote a lot about death, especially Death, a tall, skeletal guy who was one of his main characters. Perhaps that’s why the books are so full of life. And perhaps why they’re so funny. In the face of the downright, absolute unreasonableness of human existence — you and I were born to die — what’s a better response than to laugh and live fully? “Really good there” In Pratchett’s 1991 novel Reaper Man, Death, the character, is front and center, and the story revolves around the effort of some higher-ups (even Death has bosses) to, well, not exactly ease him out of his job.  To put it bluntly, they set it up so that Death himself will die. Early on, right after Death has gotten this news, Pratchett writes: The shortest-lived creatures on the Disc were mayflies, which barely make it through twenty-four hours.  Two of the oldest zigzagged aimlessly over the waters of a trout stream, discussing history with some younger members of the evening hatching. “You […]
February 6, 2019

Book review: “Unlearning with Hannah Arendt” by Marie Luise Knott

Unlearning with Hannah Arendt by Marie Luise Knott is a sparse, poetic examination of a profound and humane 20th century thinker who was deeply learned, richly insightful and, above all, intellectually courageous. Never more courageous than in her realization that, in the aftermath of World War II, she needed to, as Knott puts it, “unlearn” all that she knew — her entire frame of reference and body of knowledge — in order to incorporate in her understanding of human existence the reality of the Nazis and the Holocaust. In other words, to take all the psychological and scholarly framework that she had worked all her life to develop and throw it on the garbage heap. And, then, to build a new framework. Arendt did this several times in her life, reframing for herself her understanding of evil and its presence in the lives of human beings. “Allows them to go missing” Knott, a German journalist and literary critic, delves into the heart of Arendt’s thinking and its evolution in this thin volume of 113 pages, about 30,000 words, published in 2011.  It is divided into four sections, one each for four important “pathways of thought” that the philosopher-political theorist employed. […]
February 4, 2019

Poem: No Clouds

No Clouds The moon is a silver weight. A man walks his dog and smokes. Tides pull. The trees are saints: the old, the tested, those at peace. Patrick T. Reardon 2.4.19 Originally published in Lucky Star, 1986.
January 30, 2019

Book review: “Gunsights” by Elmore Leonard

The title of Elmore Leonard’s 1979 western Gunsights is a play on words although the reader doesn’t find that out until the plot twist on the novel’s final page. The pun has to do with a Wild West show in the 1890s.  For most of the story, though, “gunsights” seems to be about an expected shoot-out between Dana Moon and Brendan Early, two friends with a cross-hatched history who find themselves, sort of, on two sides of a land war in Arizona. Certainly, as the novel opens, reporters from big-city newspapers, camping out at the Gold Dollar in Sweetmary, are expecting this brother-in-arms-against-brother-in-arms battle, even to the point of toying with the idea of naming the violent real estate fight after the two — the Early-Moon Feud. As things turn out, however, there’s not really a feud, just a couple of guys who have worked closely together — such as the two tracking an Apache band who kidnapped a young woman (who, later, becomes Moon’s wife) and the one (Early) helping the other (Moon) break out of jail — while, now and again, getting a bit irritated with each other, as guys do. “I can go home…” I.e., during the […]
January 28, 2019

Book review: “The Moonshine War” by Elmore Leonard

Elmore Leonard writes amiable novels that tend to meander along until one of his dopey characters — all of his characters are, like humans, pretty dopey — breaks into violence that is shocking because of its casualness. That happens in The Moonshine War when 25-year-old gunman Dual Meaders — in addition to being dopey, most of Leonard’s characters have wonderfully odd names — anyway, Dual Meaders takes a cotton to a city dude’s  suit. It’s lunchtime at a café in rural Kentucky, and Dual is eating with his employer Dr. Emmett Taulbee and Taulbee’s female companion Miley Mitchell. At another table in the otherwise empty restaurant is a couple, both of them in their mid- or late-twenties with city written all over them.  They were trying to appear at ease, but the [waitress] could tell they were self-conscious… The new gabardine suit Dual keeps eying the man’s obviously new gabardine suit and, finally, gets up, goes over to their table and offers to buy it from him — not another of his suits, this one, right here, now. “What am I supposed to do, take it off right here and give it to you?” “That’s right.” The young city man […]
January 23, 2019

Book review: The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt: A Tyranny of Truth

Ken Krimstein’s 2018 graphic biography of Jewish-German-French-American philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt is titled The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt: A Tyranny of Truth. The cover with its three cartoon-character images of Arendt as a child, as a young woman and as an older woman signals that here is a book that doesn’t take itself too seriously.  Krimstein has fun, and so does the reader. Still, when it comes to Arendt, Krimstein is very, very serious.  Behind his jokey manner and often playful illustrations, he wants the reader to come away with the sense of Arendt as one of the most important 20th century intellectual figures. He convinced me — to the point that I rounded up and have started to read several of Arendt’s books: The Origins of Totalitarianism and The Human Condition and Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, as well as the lively, evocative odd-angle view of her method of rethinking the core ideas of humanity Unlearning with Hannah Arendt by Marie Luise Knott. Thank you, Ken Krimstein. Searching for her books Three Escapes is a sprightly, superficial retelling of the life and ideas of Arendt with an equal emphasis on her […]
January 21, 2019

Book review: “A Mind to Murder” by P.D. James

. A Mind to Murder, published in 1963, was the second mystery novel by P.D. James to center on British police detective Adam Dalgliesh, and it shows James as a still-developing writer. The plot is more than a bit complicated, having to do with the murder of the office manager of a psychiatric clinic, and the relationships among the suspects are intertwined in an awkwardly proliferation.  What I mean is that, in three cases, two suspects are having or have had affairs with one another — a total of six people in all, or nearly the entire suspect pool. Yet, those inelegances are rather minor inasmuch as, already, James is showing herself to be a serious writer, more interested in personality and character than in “characters” and plot.  This is evidenced in her evocations of the various personalities in the clinic, but, most, in her descriptions of Dalgliesh, a minor poet and major crime-solver. He feels a great deal For one thing, Dalgliesh is very much unlike the cold, calculating detectives of many other authors.  Indeed, he feels a great deal, such as when he considers that the slaying could as easily been the work of a woman as a […]
January 16, 2019

Poem: To Help Her Move

    To Help Her Move   She is told I’m like an elephant and calls on me to help her move, to burden her dressers and boxes to the truck and out of the truck to her new locked door.   She is separating from the bearded happy farmboy of her wedding.   I am alone.  My back is strong. I look for weight.   I take the box springs and carry it over my head, my arms extended as if it had a message for someone to read.   At the truck, I slide it on its side into the crevice in the furniture and return upstairs to dismantle more.     Patrick T. Reardon 1.16.19     Originally published in What It Can’t Save (Pudding Magazine), 1986
January 14, 2019

Essay: The home we own that doesn’t belong to us

    My wife Cathy and I have been in our two-flat on Paulina Street since 1984, and, even though the bank has always had its portion, we think of ourselves as the owners of this 108-year-old home. Yet, more and more, I’ve come to realize that this handsome, red-brick building with its large side yard and large backyard, with its beautiful summer garden, planted and tended by Cathy, and with its front, side and back sidewalks, shoveled by me in winter — this spot on earth that we think of as ours — doesn’t belong to us. Not really. A long time ago, I looked up the history of our property which is in the Edgewater neighborhood on Chicago’s Far North Side.  From the best I can remember, the house was built around 1910 and was the home of a German family for a long time.  By the time we bought it, it was on its third owner and was filled with three branches of an extended Japanese family. Each of these owners, each child who grew up in the house, each person who looked out mornings through its windows had his or her own experience of the place.  […]
January 9, 2019

Book review: “Grant” by Ron Chernow

      Ron Chernow’s 2017 biography of Ulysses S. Grant, military victor of the Civil War and a middling American president, contains much of value but is ultimately disappointing in capturing Grant as a person and public figure. His 959-page Grant is over-written and unfocused.  It is repetitive, making the same point — often in very similar words — over and over again, and rarely uses one quotation on an aspect of Grant’s life without following it with several more, frequently saying essentially the same thing. One very positive aspect of Grant is its clear-eyed look at its subject’s alcoholism.  Chernow writes in his introduction that a key aim for him in writing the book was to deal with the question of drinking, not as a moral failing (as earlier biographers had) but with the modern understanding of alcoholism as a disease.  He writes: The drinking issue, both real and imaginary, so permeated Grant’s career that a thoroughgoing account is needed to settle the matter.  This biography will contend that Grant was an alcoholic with an astonishingly consistent pattern of drinking, recognized by friend and foe alike: a solitary binge drinker who would not touch a drop of alcohol, […]
January 7, 2019

Book review: “The Reptile Room: A Series of Unfortunate Events” by Lemony Snicket

    The Baudelaire orphans find themselves yet again in an unfortunate event — in the clutches of Count Olaf. Midway through The Reptile Room, they are discussing the sad fact that the nefarious count wants to get ahold of their family’s fortune. “And,” Klaus continued, “once he gets his hands on it, he plans to kill us.” “Tadu,” Sunny murmured solemnly, which probably meant something along the lines of “It’s a loathsome situation in which we find ourselves.”   Tadu = “A loathsome situation” That’s funny. It’s always funny when Sunny has something to say.  As an infant with only four very sharp teeth, she says what seem like nonsense syllables, and author Lemony Snicket (Daniel Handler, in real life) explains what she means, usually a fairly long, complex statement, serious and sober. The sheer ridiculousness of it all — that Sunny could actually mean all that Lemony Snicket says she means, in this case, about “a loathsome situation” — is what makes this repeated trope in the Lemony Snicket books funny. Such humor is easy to understand.  What I’m more interested here, though, is why Lemony Snicket’s 13 books about the ever-so-many Unfortunate Events that befall the Baudelaire […]
January 1, 2019

Essay: The twelve best books of 2018

    Here are the twelve best books that I read in 2018: “Advice for Future Corpses (And Those Who Love Them): A Practical Perspective on Death and Dying” by Sallie Tisdale “Barchester Towers” by Anthony Trollope “David Copperfield“ by Charles Dickens “Golden Hill” by Francis Spufford “Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America” by Garry Wills “Native Son” by Richard Wright “The Art of Biblical Narrative” by Robert Alter “The Art of the Wasted Day” by Patricia Hampl “The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography” by Alan Jacobs “The Christ of the Miracle Stories: Portrait through Encounter” by Wendy Cotter CSJ “The Path to Power” by Robert A. Caro “The Power and the Glory” by Graham Greene These aren’t the best books published in 2018.  In fact, only two of the books hit bookshelves during the year.  The rest are older, in some cases, a lot older. I find it interesting that two of the book titles have to do with “The Art of…”  Two, with power, from different yet, perhaps, complementary perspectives.  Five are novels.  Two are book-long meditations on subjects that are far from run-of-the-mill.  Five have to do with religion in some way.  There’s a […]
January 1, 2019

Book review: “Being Dead” by Jim Crace (2019)

      Just before the first page of Jim Crace’s 1999 novel Being Dead, Joseph and Celice, zoologists married to each other, have been murdered in a clumsy, random robbery. They were the oddest pair, these dead, spread-eagled lovers on the coast:  Joseph and Celice. Both had been teachers…Hardly any of their colleagues had ever seen them together, or visited them at home, let alone witnessed them touch.  How unexpected, then, that these two, of all couples, should be found like this, without their underclothes, their heads caved in, unlikely victims of unlikely passions.  Who would have thought that unattractive people of that age and learning would encounter sex and murder in the open air! For a novel of only 196 pages, Being Dead has a great deal going on.  It is, in a minor way, a mystery, first, about how these two met their deaths, and, second, about whether the much-delayed search for them would ever find them. It is also a literary tour-de-force in which Crace dazzles the reader with his clear-eyed description of such aspects of human life as the inner workings of a daughter’s thoughts and emotions, the mastications of the insect and mammal world […]
January 1, 2019

Book Review: “Being Dead” by Jim Crace (2012 review)

  When she and her husband Joseph were murdered on an isolated stretch of beach, Celice’s body fell onto the sand, upending a dune beetle and trapping him in the folds of her black wool jacket. As the beetle worked his way out from under the fabric, English novelist Jim Crace writes: He didn’t carry with him any of that burden which makes the human animal so cumbersome, the certainty that death was fast approaching and could arrive at any time, with its plunging snout, blindly to break the surface of the pool….It’s only those who glimpse the awful, endless corridor of death, too gross to contemplate, that need to lose themselves in love or art. His species had no poets….He had not spent, like us, his lifetime concocting systems to deny mortality.  Nor had he passed his days in melancholic fear of death, the hollow and the avalanche.  Nor was he burdened with the compensating marvels of human, mortal life.  He had no schemes, no memories, no guilt or aspirations, no appetite for love, and no delusions.    “Feast on the blood” On the opening page of Being Dead, Joseph and Celice are already dead, their bodies just starting […]
December 26, 2018

Book review: “Moving Pictures” by Terry Pratchett

  As Terry Pratchett created his series of 41 Discworld novels, he took his world from a fairly medieval place into modernity through his introduction of a variety of civilization’s great innovative technologies. These included a form of telegraph, the clacks (The Fifth Element, 1999), the news media (The Truth, 2000), a postal system (Going Postal, 2004), coinage (Making Money, 2007) and railroads (Raising Steam, 2013). My suspicion is that, in some vague way, Pratchett had plans for bringing still more innovations to Discworld, as, maybe, the telephone, computers and supermarkets.  Alas, he didn’t get the chance, cut down as he was at age 66 in 2015 by Alzheimer’s disease. In the books he did write about innovations in Discworld, Pratchett brought his usual skeptical eye to the great dreams and pitfalls of such changes to the everyday world.  The introduction of a new contraption often resulted in a crisis of some sort, but, by and large, when the novel was finished, the contraption with all its warts had become part of life for the Discworldians.  (Discworldites?) Except the innovation that was introduced in Pratchett’s 10th Discworld book, Moving Pictures, published in 1990.   Not benign As the title suggests, […]
December 19, 2018

Book review: “Eric” by Terry Pratchett

  Thirteen-year-old Eric Thursley conjures up demons.  Except, in this case, his first successful conjuration, he gets the hapless wizard Rincewind. The result — detailed in Terry Pratchett’s ninth Discworld novel, titled, appropriately, Eric — is a trip through time and space to such locales as: the Tezuman Empire (the Discworld equivalent of the human-sacrificing Aztec Empire), Tsort (the Discworld equivalent of Troy with its own version of Helen, a lady called Elenor who isn’t quite the looker she once was), an immense blackness where “a little rat-faced man” identifies himself as a creator (the Discworld equivalent of the Big Bang) and Hell (the Discworld equivalent of Hell).   Rincewind’s talent Rincewind, being Rincewind, much of this novel has to do with him doing what he does best, i.e., running away, and dragging Eric along with him.  As Pratchett explains: Pre-eminent amongst Rincewind’s talents was his skill in running away, which over the years he had elevated to the status of a genuinely pure science; it didn’t matter if you were fleeing from or to, so long as you were fleeing.  It was flight alone that counted.  I run, therefore, I am; more correctly, I run, therefore with any luck, […]
December 17, 2018

Six Feminist Books

    When I use the term “feminist book” here, I’m referring to strong, muscular books written by strong, muscular writers who happen to be women.  To me, these books are part of what feminism is all about — the creation of great art. I greatly admire the six writers in this list.  The book I highlight for each writer is an example of her skill and insight.  I would recommend reading any of the works by these six.  Of course, there are many other women writers whom I could have included in this list. Here’s the list: All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West If you’re not familiar with Vita Sackville-West and her writing, you’re missing out on a lot [I wrote in the Chicago Tribune in an essay, “Deriving pleasure from books read, and unread,” published December 9, 2007]. Born into British aristocracy — she grew up in a stately 15th Century mansion that had been a gift to her family from Queen Elizabeth I — Sackville-West was deeply in love with her husband, Sir Harold Nicolson, a prominent British politician. Which might not sound like much, except that, throughout her life, she took a series of lesbian lovers, […]
December 12, 2018

Book review: “Plague Ship” by Andre Norton

  Andre Norton’s 1956 Plague Ship is a rip-snortingly inventive yarn that’s one of her better novels, a combination of medical mystery, anthropological adventure and space gallop.  And it features a rare guest appearance by the Earth, or Terra as Norton, like most sci-fic writers, calls it. Indeed — in one of those science fiction moments that, for the character, represents a look at an horrific past while, for readers, especially those in the 1950s, it calls to mind a possibly horrific future — the Solar Queen trading ship lands on Earth in the Big Burn. The Big Burn was the horrible scar left by the last of the Atomic Wars — a section of radiation poisoned land comprising hundreds of square miles — land which generations had never dared to penetrate. Originally the survivors of that war had shunned the whole continent which it disfigured. It had been close to two centuries before men had gone into the still wholesome land laying to the far west and the south. And through the years, the avoidance of the Big Burn had become part of their racial instinct as they shrank from it. It was a symbol of something no Terran […]
December 10, 2018

Book review: “Sargasso of Space” by Andre Norton

  The traders of the Solar Queen have set a trap for some hardened criminals who are hiding on the planet Limbo.  One of the bad guys gets out of his crawler, a Jeep-like vehicle, to investigate something, and, then,…. A stone thudded against the helmet of the would-be investigator, sending him off balance to clutch at the tread of the crawler for support.  Dane slammed another in his direction and then aimed for the driver of the machine. The bad guys don’t use their deadly blasters but, apparently stunned by this rock-throwing attack, flee out instead into the distance. Limbo is a world where the remains of a great many space ships have been found, including remnants of the mysterious, little-understood Forerunners race that had populated the cosmos eons ago.  The world is filled with a multitude of machines able to do amazing things. Yet, I can’t help but smile to see that Andre Norton, writing initially as Alex North, has this key episode in her 1955 Sargasso of Space turn on the ability of her hero Dane Thorson and his fellows to throw rocks — like any Neanderthal of the distant past.   “Those angles are wrong” Another […]
December 5, 2018

Essay: God Is the Ocean in Which We All Swim

  I have gotten to a point that I can’t go along any more with Michelangelo’s God on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  Great art, but, gee, God as an old guy with a long gray beard?  No thanks. For a long time, my wife Cathy has had her own spin on this.  At Mass, when the celebrants starts, “Our Father…,” Cathy adds in a loud voice, “…and Mother.” That makes more sense to me — God as a Father and as a Mother — but it still doesn’t do the job for me.  I am able to think of God as, like a parent, loving me and wanting what’s best for me and providing me with what I need to live a full life and, again like a good parent, giving me the space I need to fail and learn from my failures.   What doesn’t work for me What doesn’t work for me is the idea that, if something good happens, it’s God up in heaven pulling the strings. Say I’m running to the airport, late for a flight, and, against all odds, I get on the flight.  I can’t think that God made that happen.  And […]
December 3, 2018

Book review: “Soul Seeing: Light, Love, Forgiveness” by Michael Leach and Friends

  Brian Doyle’s essay “The Day I Stood Shimmering in Shame” begins this way: Committed a sin yesterday, in the hallway, at noon. I roared at my son, I grabbed him by the shirt collar, I frightened him so badly that he cowered and wept, and then he turned to run, I grabbed him by the arm so roughly that he flinched, and it was that flicker of fear and pain across his face, the bright eager holy riveting face I have loved for ten years, that stopped me then and haunts me this morning; for I am the father of his fear, I sent it snarling into his heart, and I can never get it out now, which torments me. Here’s the start of Ginny Kubitz Moyer’s essay “The Hands We Hold Are Gifts”: I was sitting at my prayer desk the other night, two flickering candles in front of me, letting my mind wander as I looked at the small framed icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help that once belonged to my grandmother.  It’s an inexpensive framed image, that she must have had since the 1960s at least, but in the candlelight it shone like pure gold.  […]