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.  
January 22, 2018

Book review: “The City: A Vision in Woodcuts” by Frans Masereel

Frans Masereel, a Belgian-born artist who lived most of his life in France, published The City in 1925. It is a collection of 100 woodcuts that tell a story, and it is subtitled it A Vision in Woodcuts. Over the course of half a century, he published many such works, often called novels-in-woodcuts. There was something of a subgenre of such works in that era. In the United States, between 1929 and 1938, Lynd Ward, influenced by Masereel, published seven such novels-in-woodcuts. Today, The City is marketed as a graphic novel although, unlike most modern graphic novels, Maereel’s books are completely without words. Dark, sullen and pessimistic The City is called a “vision” because it doesn’t tell the story of particular identifiable characters moving through a plot. Instead, The City is more like a poem that describes great social forces and the individuals who, in the face of intense pressure, are winners or, much more often, losers. It is a grim vision, Germanic in its absoluteness (perhaps not surprising since Masereel lived for a time in Berlin), an indictment of the then-modern world, very dark and sullen and pessimistic — and it’s a vision that was created before the Great […]
January 22, 2018

Book review: “Equal Rites” by Terry Pratchett

In Equal Rites, the third of his Discworld novels, Terry Pratchett thinks deep thoughts…and silly thoughts. Sometimes, at the same time. For instance, Esk is a girl of nearly nine who is in training with Granny Weatherwax to be a witch and maybe a wizard. And she is astonished that Granny hasn’t given her goats names. “I imagine,” Granny says, “they’ve got names in Goat….What would they want names in Human for?” Esk ruminates about this, and so does Granny: Goats did have names for themselves, she well knew: there was “goat who is my kid,” “goat who is my mother,” “goat who is herd leader,” and half a dozen other names not least of which was “goat who is this goat.” They had a complicated herd system and four stomachs and a digestive system that sounded very busy on still nights, and Granny had always felt that calling all this names like Buttercup was an insult to a noble animal.   “Cesspit cleaners” That’s pretty silly. And maybe a bit deep. Published in 1987, Equal Rites is about whether Esk — who was born at the same time a wizard was dying and inherited the wizard’s staff and, hence, […]
January 18, 2018

Book review: “Catseye” by Andre Norton

Andre Norton’s 1961 novel Catseye is what’s often called a space opera. In other words, like the old Westerns — called horse operas — it’s an adventure story, set in space, featuring good guys and bad guys. And, in the end, the white hats win. In other words, we’re not talking King Lear or Paradise Lost here. Catseye is entertainment, pure and simple. And, yet, there is something noble about a well-crafted entertainment, made with pride and integrity and intelligence and a level of creativity. A kinship Here, as in many other Norton novels, the story involves a human being — a young man from the wrong side of the tracks named Troy Horan — who is able to talk telepathically with animals. In this case, five animals from Earth — two cats, two foxes and a playful little monkey-like creature called a kinkajou. This theme was obviously important to Norton, and it’s not just a fun what-if feature to her stories. Deeper, it is a recognition of a kinship between humans and other creatures and, by extension, with all of creation — a proto-ecology idea when Norton originally used the concept sixty-five years ago in her first science-fiction novel […]
January 16, 2018

Book review: “Cover Her Face” by P.D. James

It was in 1962 that P.D. James published Cover Her Face, her first murder mystery featuring Detective Chief-Inspector Adam Dalgleish of Scotland Yard. At the time, Agatha Christie was still the dominant voice in the field, selling millions of mysteries each year and cranking out new novels at an annual pace. In the previous 41 years, she had published 59 mysteries. Her 60th The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side came in 1962. It was followed over the next 14 years by 13 more. This is worth noting because, in many ways, Cover Her Face is very much of the Christie genre. There is a hothouse quality to the novel, set as it is in the rural estate of landed gentry (albeit a little threadbare). The murder victim is found behind a locked door. And the solution is incredibly complex and far-fetched. I’ve seen reports that, later in her writing life, James said that she didn’t think much of this first effort, and there’s good reason. It’s a bit hokey in the way that most of Christie’s novels were hokey.   A novel trying to escape Even so, Cover Her Face is a pleasure to read. Throughout, there are hints […]
January 10, 2018

Book review: “Native Son” by Richard Wright

For 20-year-old Bigger Thomas, life in Chicago in early 1939 is one of fear and anger. On this day, he has just beaten up his friend Gus for no apparent reason — except that it meant that he and Gus and two of their friends would have to drop their plan to rob a white storeowner. This is early in Richard Wright’s Native Son, and Wright notes: His confused emotions had made him feel instinctively that it would be better to fight Gus and spoil the plan of the robbery than to confront a white man with a gun. But he kept this knowledge of his fear thrust firmly down in him; his courage to live depended upon how successfully his fear was hidden from his consciousness… This was the way he lived; he passed his days trying to defeat or gratify impulses in a world he feared.   “A world he feared” Bigger Thomas lives in Chicago’s South Side Black Belt, the largest of two African-American ghettos in the city. (A much smaller one is on the Near West Side.) He fears his world because, everywhere he turns, he is told in the words and actions of American society […]
January 8, 2018

Book review: “One Crazy Summer” by Rita Williams-Garcia

The cover of One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia indicates that this is a book for kids 9 to 12. And, sure, the reading level will fit that group of kids. But what makes the book so rich and courageous is that it deals with issues that kids will have to think about and deal with as adults — issues that are far from simple and aren’t likely to ever go away. Set in 1968, One Crazy Summer is about three African-American sisters from Brooklyn — Delphine, 11; Venetta, 9; and Fern, 7 — who fly across country to spend 28 days in Oakland with the mother who walked out on them when Fern was a newborn. Nearly everyone the sisters meet during their visit are black. This is a book about the black experience in 1968 and the black experience today, and its target audience are African-American kids. Even so, its secondary audience is all other kids. The questions raised in this book have to be faced most directly by black kids and adults. But non-black kids and adults have to come up with their own answers to these questions as well. For instance, the sisters spend their four […]
January 5, 2018

Book review: “Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America” by Garry Wills

Make no mistake: Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was a refounding of the United States. A redefinition of the nation — a revolution, if you will. It was the substitution of the Declaration of Independence with its clear, direct, unequivocal statement that “all men are created equal” as the country’s central document, in place of the U.S. Constitution with its acceptance of slavery and, in consequence, a lesser ideal. It was a clear commitment to the principle of equality after a half century of intellectual muddiness. And, as Garry Wills explains in his 1992 book Lincoln at Gettysburg, it was a revolution that was carried out in the space of three minutes and in the speaking of 272 words. A revolution carried out, peacefully, through logic, political genius and language that has resonated ever since through American history and culture — a revolution in thought and spirit, conveyed in what were billed simply as “remarks” at the dedication of the new cemetery for the Union dead from the Battle of Gettysburg, the turning point of a fiercely fought civil war in which body counts reached into the hundreds of thousands on both sides.   “To clear the infected atmosphere of American […]
January 3, 2018

The nine best books of 2017

In addition to the groups of books I highlighted on Tuesday, I wanted to honor the nine individual books that I read in 2017. These were books that left an impression on me because of their insights and artistry, and I would gladly recommend them to anyone. The listing of each book contains a somewhat meat excerpt from my review. If you’d like the full review, just click on the title. …   “The Wall of Respect: Public Art and Black Liberation in 1960s Chicago,” Edited by Abdul Alkalimat, Romi Crawford, and Rebecca Zorach Fifty years ago, William Walker, a veteran muralist, proposed to a group of other black artists and photographers that they collaborate to produce a mural on the side of a two-story tavern in the impoverished South Side neighborhood of Grand Crossing. After three weeks of labor at the building on the southeast corner of 43rd Street and Langley Avenue, the 20-foot-by-60-foot work of art, featuring dozens of African-American heroes, was completed on August 24, 1967. It was called the Wall of Respect, and it was dedicated several times over the next weeks. Sometime later, Walker came to the wall and saw a young man sitting on […]
January 2, 2018

The best groups of books of 2017

Looking back over the 60-plus books I read in 2017, I am struck by how many of the best — 19 to be exact — fall into groups that comprise sort of mini-seminars on a particular subject. For instance, there were six books about poverty that I reviewed, one after the other last spring. Published between 1890 and 1986, they provided a variety of views on the life of people who live in poverty, stressing their people-ness. In other words, for the most part, the writers of these books weren’t discussing these people as laboratory rats but as fellow folk. Another grouping — the books in Lives of Great Religious Books series from Princeton University Press — was one that I initially wrote about in the Chicago Tribune and then expanded for my website. This overview cites five books from the series that I have reviewed, some in 2016, some in 2017. All my life I have been fascinated by Joan of Arc, an interest that has grown in recent years. The four discussed her are among many I’ve read, and there are many more to read. Similarly, the four books about the Bible are, in general, part of a […]
December 20, 2017

Book review: “Pronto” by Elmore Leonard

There’s no indication in Elmore Leonard’s 1993 crime novel Pronto what the title is supposed to mean. In American English, “pronto” is an adverb, meaning “quickly.” It comes from Spanish in which the word means “quick.” However, Leonard’s novel is peopled with members and associates of the Italian crime mob in Miami as well as the lawmen who try to stop their scheming and skullduggery. A goodly portion of the story takes place in Italy, both in flashbacks to World War II and in present-day shenanigans. So maybe it has to do with the Italian word “pronto” which means “ready.” Which doesn’t immediately bring to mind any person or action in the story, except maybe Raylan Givens, a Deputy U.S. Marshal and former miner in Kentucky. He’s the center of this typically loose-limbed Leonard novel in the sense of the person who makes things happen. (And he’s the central character in two later books — Riding the Rap (1993) and Leonard’s final novel Raylan (2012).) And, in Pronto, Raylan does seem to be ready when he needs to be. Still, it’s kind of a stretch since the word “pronto” and its meaning “ready” don’t appear anywhere in the book.   […]
December 18, 2017

Book review: “Fashion” by Christopher Breward

Well, what is fashion? In Fashion, a carefully calibrated look at Western couture over the past 200 years, Christopher Breward notes that fashion can be viewed “as art, social process, or commercial product,” and continues: Is fashion the sketch of a designer, informed by reference to historical precedent or contemporary cultural influences and translated into surfaces and seams of a refined sculptural beauty? Is it the ritualistic adorning of the body by a subject whose sartorial actions relate to predominant aesthetic and sociological contexts?  Or is it the limp textile construction, replicated according to body size and spending power, which hangs on the rail of a boutique, given meaning and relevance for the potential consumer by its reproduction of the promotional images of a magazine? For his book, he writes, the most productive approach is to consider all three and their inter-relationships, a complicated undertaking. The three aspects of fashion To this end, Fashion is in three parts. The first examines the production of fashion, including the rise of the designer as a “name” and celebrity, the production of apparel and the processes through which styles evolve. The second has to do with the promotion of fashion through advertising, film, […]
December 13, 2017

Book review: “Fresh Verdicts on Joan of Arc,” edited by Bonnie Wheeler and Charles T. Wood

Published in 1996, Fresh Verdicts on Joan of Arc, edited by Bonnie Wheeler and Charles T. Wood, is a collection of eighteen scholarly essays looking at various aspects of the life and legacy of the woman who led French armies to victories in the early 15th century, was branded a sorcerer and executed by the enemy English and, five hundred years later, was declared a Catholic saint. The idea of “fresh verdicts” is that these essays examine aspects of Joan’s story that have been ignored or confused over the many centuries since her death at the English stake as a heretic. Not that Joan’s story itself has been ignored all that time. Indeed, in an opening essay, Kelly DeVries, a historian at Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore, asserts: No person of the Middle Ages, male or female, has been the subject of more study than Joan of Arc. She has been portrayed as saint, heretic, religious zealot, seer, demented teenager, protofeminist, aristocratic wanna-be, savior of France, “turner-of-the-tide” of the Hundred Years War, and even Marxist liberator. Similarly, in one of the concluding essays, Kevin J. Harty, an English professor at LaSalle University in Philadelphia, sees a similar pattern in the […]
December 11, 2017

Book review: “A Field Guide to Getting Lost” by Rebecca Solnit

Rebecca Solnit’s 2005 A Field Guide to Getting Lost is a celebration of much that is disdained and feared by mainstream American society:   The Unknown Loss Getting Lost Being Lost Hell Solitude Tragedy Melancholy Emptiness Ruins Death Sadness Wanting Captivity The Wild Heartbreak The Void Mortality Disappearance Darkness Does that list give you nightmares? Then, A Field Guide to Getting Lost is not for you.   Three recognitions Solnit looks deeply into how various people and peoples have faced all of these seemingly negative aspects of existence and how she has faced them in her own history. And she finds in them the deepest life. The deep place where life is richest, fullest. It has to do with a recognition that, first, none of these is avoidable, and that, second, each is the yin to a yang of some seemingly positive aspect of human existence. For instance, you can’t have heartbreak without having had love. You die because you’ve been alive. Darkness is part of the texture of light. Her third recognition is that these aren’t negative at all.   The Turtle Man Near the very end of her book, Solnit tells a story of having a dream one […]
December 6, 2017

Chicago History: The Brooklyn Bridge and Chicago’s elevated Loop

The Brooklyn Bridge and Chicago’s elevated Loop don’t seem to have much in common aside from being large transportation structures. From its completion in 1883, the 1,600-foot suspension bridge spanning the East River has been a dominant element on the New York scene. In his 1965 book Brooklyn Bridge: Fact and Symbol, Alan Trachtenberg notes that the bridge’s designer John Roebling predicted that it would be ranked as a national monument and as “a great work of art.” Roebling’s claims [writes Trachtenberg] were far from modest, but history has borne them out. There is no more famous bridge in all the world. And in 1964, almost a hundred years later, the American government proclaimed the structure an official national monument. By contrast, the 1.8-mile elevated Loop, which turned 120 in October, rises just two stories above four Chicago streets. Although it encloses 39 downtown blocks, it is lost amid the skyscrapers that loom above it. Rare is the aerial photograph that captures more than a sliver of the rectangle of tracks. Indeed, it can only be viewed in full from directly above it (such as from a space satellite) — and even then, unless the sunlight is exactly right, the […]
December 4, 2017

Book Review: “The Wall of Respect: Public Art and Black Liberation in 1960s Chicago,” edited by Abdul Alkalimat, Romi Crawford, and Rebecca Zorach

Fifty years ago, William Walker, a veteran muralist, proposed to a group of other black artists and photographers that they collaborate to produce a mural on the side of a two-story tavern in the impoverished South Side neighborhood of Grand Crossing. After three weeks of labor at the building on the southeast corner of 43rd Street and Langley Avenue, the 20-foot-by-60-foot work of art, featuring dozens of African-American heroes, was completed on August 24, 1967. It was called the Wall of Respect, and it was dedicated several times over the next weeks. Sometime later, Walker came to the wall and saw a young man sitting on the sidewalk with his back resting on the art work. “How are you doing, brother?” Walker asked. “I’m getting my strength,” the man said.   Long overdue book about long overlooked milestone This story is told twice in The Wall of Respect: Public Art and Black Liberation in 1960s Chicago, edited by Abdul Alkalimat, Romi Crawford, and Rebecca Zorach, and it provides an insight into what the outdoor mural, created with direct community input, meant to African-Americans in the neighborhood, in Chicago and across the nation. The work of art, the first of its […]
November 30, 2017

Book review: “The Hundred Years War: The English in France, 1337-1453” by Desmond Seward

Desmond Seward is adamant in The Hundred Years War: The English in France, 1337-1453: No matter what the French or several generations of modern writers, such as George Bernard Shaw, have to say, he writes: In 1428 an illiterate shepherdess of seventeen decided she had been called by God to save France and expel the English. In fact, far from driving out the English, Joan of Arc merely checked the English advance by reviving Dauphinist morale, and the [English] Regent managed to halt the counter-offensive. It was not the Maid who ended English rule in France. Seward has his own perspective as an English writer, and he does a praiseworthy job of summarizing the Hundred Years War (which lasted 116 years) in 265 brisk pages in this fine 1978 history. The English of the 15th-century saw Joan as a witch since she seemed to cause things to happen that resulted in unaccountable French victories over the long-dominant English. The French saw her as a saint.   “Failed” Yet, even as Seward is trying to set the record straight as he sees it, his telling of Joan’s story over eight pages of his text is not unsympathetic. And, good historian that […]
November 28, 2017

Book Review: “The Ninth Hour” by Alice McDermott

Sister St. Saviour, a no-nonsense Catholic nun with the networking skills of Tammany Hall, stands in the near dawn at the window of a burned-out apartment in her Brooklyn neighborhood in the early 20th century. A gas explosion it was that caused the fire. One man died, Jim “Mc-something” — as he’d wanted. An Irishman who’d lost a good job as a trainman because he didn’t like bosses controlling his time. Sister St. Saviour is doing what she can to cover up the suicide, to protect his young and pregnant wife. Looking into the garbage-strewn courtyard, she is disheartened, and, then, just for a moment, she catches sight down there of what she takes to be “a man, crawling, cowering was the word, beneath the black tangle of junk and dead leaves, the new vague light just catching the perspiration on his wide brow, his shining forehead, the gleam of a tooth or an eye.”   Ghosts of actions taken, choices made Alice McDermott’s new novel The Ninth Hour is about the ghosts that haunt lives down the decades, especially in families. Ghosts, like the one in the courtyard, that seem to appear as visions, but, even more, the ghosts […]
November 21, 2017

Essay: My brother’s suicide and my “heart’s howl”

Back in 1960, my brother David was about nine-years-old when he left the Marbro Theatre near Madison Street and Pulaski Road in the middle of whatever movie we were watching and walked home. He didn’t tell the group of us siblings he was leaving. He just went out the door and walked the two miles west to our home on Leamington. A couple years later, he was goofing around downtown with his friends, and they ditched him, as boys will do. He wasn’t worried and got on an el to return to the West Side. But he soon realized he was on the wrong train, so he got off and, having no more money, walked back downtown, and then headed west on Lake Street. It was a walk of at least seven miles. Two years ago, on November 21, 2015, a few days before Thanksgiving, David took a last journey on his own. He walked out the back door of his Oak Lawn home at 3 a.m. into a frigid snow-rain and took his life.   My own journey David was born in 1951, fourteen months after me. Following him were twelve other children, two boys and ten girls. As […]
November 17, 2017

Book review: “Riding the Rap” by Elmore Leonard

Elmore Leonard titled his 1995 novel Riding the Rap, but he might have easily called it Be Cool — a name, as it turned out, that he later gave to his 1999 sequel to Get Shorty. But it would have fit Riding the Rap well, maybe better than Riding the Rap. All through the novel, guys are saying to one another, “Be cool.” Usually because they’re not all that cool at that moment. Still, they’re guys who pride themselves on their coolness — coolness in life, and coolness in moments of stress, and coolness in the midst of violence. In the two moments of greatest violence in Leonard’s novel, there’s a character who’s been totally cool and who seems to be acting one way and then, well, goes another. This is what happens when you’re dealing with sociopaths, as colorful as they may be.   “Nothing to it” For instance, two bad guys are watching a third on a closed-circuit television screen as he walks up to a hostage they’ve taken in hopes of making a killing, financially. They think he’s going to punch the obstreperous hostage. Instead, they watch him reach under his loose shirt and pull out an […]
November 13, 2017

Meditation: Stay awake!

Most Christians know well the story of the ten virgins that Jesus told: Ten young women wait outside for the bridegroom to show up and the wedding party to start. He’s late. It’s getting dark. The women doze off. Finally, at midnight, here he is, but only five of the women have oil for their lamps to lead him to the feast. The other five had to run to get some, and, by the time they return, the door to the feast is locked. The punchline is the final sentence in which Jesus tells his disciples: “Stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”   Keeping our eyes open Don’t sleep away your life. Our job as human beings is to keep our eyes open to life and to other people. Our task is to show up, to be alert, to take in the world and the reality of existence in all its fullness — in all its pain and joy — and to be present to those around us. To see those around us, really see them. To listen to them with our full attention, to really hear them. And to share with them our own […]