Archive for April, 2018

Grandmother’s Medallion

It wasn’t my faith that
miraculously came back to me
decades after I’d
last stepped inside a church.
This was no revelation
found on a road to Damascus.
And yet it ignited
a spark from my religious past.
An unexpected treasure
rediscovered among the clutter.
No doubt, as miracles
go, this one was tiny: the gift
of finding something
that I could cradle in my palm.
Memory resurrected.
A simple medallion, depicting
the Madonna and Child,
with the inscription, Mother Of
Mothers Pray for Us.
Even if faith did not respond,
the nestled weight of
what she bestowed on me for
confirmation day is
now a talisman I carry daily,
honoring its presenter.

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared / Jonas Jonasson

Allan Karlsson is living in a nursing home as he nears his 100th birthday.  He’s recently been forced to move into the facility after he’s accidentally blown his house apart when seeking vengeance on a fox who killed his beloved cat.  But then Karlsson, a munitions expert by profession, has been blowing things apart since he was a boy.  He is not at all happy with his new living arrangements.  There are far too many rules he does not want to follow, especially in regard to his not being allowed to consume alcohol.  To his way of thinking, life is not worth living without his daily shots of vodka.  And so on the day he turns 100, he decides to skip the big celebration planned in his honor.  Instead, he climbs out the window and makes his escape.

The journey that Karlsson embarks upon after leaving the nursing home is fantastic to say the least.  Within hours he steals a suitcase in hopes that it might have shoes he can use to replace the slippers he is wearing.  Instead, he finds it stuffed with a drug dealer’s money.  And so a merry chase begins as he is pursued not only by the police concerned about his health, but also by an inept criminal gang intent on recovering the suitcase.  Along the way, he encounters and befriends a series of individuals living on the fringes of society, all willing to help him and claim a share of the loot.  This includes a four ton elephant.

But the larger-than-life backstory of Karlsson that the author provides throughout the tale is even more improbable.  It reveals that he has been involved in some fashion with all the major political leaders of the Twentieth Century.  The list includes Truman, Stalin, Franco, Mao Zedong, Lyndon Johnson, and Charles de Gaulle.  Oh yes, Karlsson also happens to be the key figure involved in helping both the United States and Russia develop a workable nuclear bomb.

In other words, this novel is quirky from beginning to end.  It is also quite hilarious.  For the reader willing and able to suspend disbelief, the history of Karlsson and his adventures following his escape from the nursing home will prove captivating.  The parade of colorful characters surrounding Karlsson are charming as well.  Despite the book’s many eye-rolling moments, Jonasson does a marvelous job of assembling the pieces of this sprawling story into a coherent whole.  Most readers will quickly find themselves rooting for Karlsson and his cohorts as they make fools of the Swedish police and the criminals chasing them.   Silly as it is, in this fantastical heist involving millions of dollars, the unlikely escape of a 100-year-old man proves to be a rewarding saga.  

The Impossible Presidency : The Rise And Fall Of America’s Highest Office / Jeremi Suri

Jeremi Suri, a professor of history at the University of Texas, contends in his 2017 book The Impossible Presidency that this office has become too huge for any individual to adequately fill the role.  To prove his point, Suri provides a select account of a number of U.S. presidents over time to show how the duties of the office have expanded.  This growth fueled the ambitions of recent presidents to promise more, but resulted in them actually accomplishing less.  This in turn created a dissatisfied electorate and led to Donald Trump’s election in 2016.

The presidents that Suri selects to portray in this book are those he feels played a large part in developing and changing the executive’s role.  He begins with George Washington, followed by Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln.  Moving into the Twentieth Century, he examines the presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama.  In each case, he shows a rapid expansion of presidential responsibilities.  According to Suri, the last president to truly master the role was Franklin Roosevelt.  After that, the office began to overwhelm the best intentions of the talented individuals who claimed its hot seat.

While the reader might take issue with his conclusions about the successes and failures he outlines in regard to these individuals, Suri does provide a convincing case that the office has become more than one person can adequately fill.  For candidates today to be elected, they must make promises that are impossible to fulfill.  This has led to voters becoming more polarized and angry.  As a result, our elected officials are now viewed by many with cynicism and scorn rather than respect.

Suri’s description of the Kennedy White House is quite damning.  He feels Kennedy merely reacted to world events rather than providing wise leadership.  In regard to Ronald Reagan, Suri praises many of his accomplishments during his first term.  And yet Reagan, too, was overwhelmed by the demands of the office in his second term.  With Clinton and Obama, the author feels that while they were able to “feminize and blacken” the presidency, most of their time in office was spent putting out fires rather than accomplishing what they had promised.

In the epilogue, the author suggests that the time has come to reimagine and recreate the role of the presidency.  He proposes limiting the responsibilities and scope of the office.  By asking the president to do less, it will allow him or her to accomplish more.  This is indeed a useful idea to consider.  But the second pathway he puts forth for reform, involving the president being the conduit of enlightened public communication as a weapon against fake news, seems unlikely of success in this era of social media, where nameless individuals and organizations can easily sow the seeds of discontent.

For those interested in understanding how Trump has become our current President, this book provides good insight.  Suri does not have a magical solution to the difficulties facing this office today.  Nonetheless, he does raise questions that all Americans should be asking themselves as we consider the changes that must be made in the Executive Branch in order for our country to continue to evolve as a democracy.

Mathematics Of Sleep

Lessened by division, where before there
was addition doubled,
age has presented me with two halves
unequal to the total
of what a full eight hours once provided.
Although it begins
as always with oblivion’s blank curtain
quickly drawn, I’m
no longer able to achieve its dark depths
or remain submerged.
Its equation fails to honor the dictum.
Caught in a no man’s
land between the bewitching hour and
dawn’s auspicious gaze,
awareness resurrects despite the silence.
I’ve had to learn,
here in my sixties, that a spooked bird
can only be coaxed
back into the nest by the practice of
patient indifference.
But still skittish even after it returns,
second sleep never seems
totally committed to the relationship.
When summoned by
the alarm, emerging from the shallows
of a dream’s drug
induced stupor, I question if I have
been asleep at all.
Those two halves not equaling a whole.


I can picture him in a bumpy pasture,
just twenty-three
that glorious spring afternoon, 1940,
about to climb down
to shake a farmer’s hand while eyeing
his blushing daughter.
Bloomer to Colfax, on to Rice Lake,
a lazy Sunday outing––
dreaming of how he will soon quit his job,
fly coast to coast and
barnstorm his way into the affections
of women everywhere.
Ambition fueled by the heavens above.

If not this year, then certainly the next,
he will be able to give up
back breaking work that barely covers
the plane’s expenses.
Unaware of the war’s rapid approach
and the truck driving job
waiting to corral him at the end of it––
his being grounded by
the demands of a wife and children,
I see Father having
descended from that clear blue sky,
still in the pilot’s seat.
Oblivious to a future’s clipped wings.


Setting out,
sight, sound and hearing on
high alert feed
a brain’s sharp awareness.

The fourth sense
awakens as I pedal into
the persistent
resistance of this headwind.

Tired legs
catalog fatigue’s encroachment
as I confront
another series of rolling hills.

Who knows
when movement blended
this uproar
into silence’s gentle drift?

Coming to,
I find, unbeknownst to me,
it has been
miles since my last thought.


Back in 2016 I read a marvelous book by Mark Vanhoenacker, a pilot who flies a Boeing 747.  The book, Skyfaring, describes the marvels he has encountered while flying.  Yesterday, I chanced upon an interview with him on NPR.  As a result, I thought I’d rerun my review of his book.  It is one sure to please many a reader…


There is certainly poetry to be found when navigating the world aloft in an airplane. However, few pilots are poets. Mark Vanhoenacker, who flies a Boeing 747, turns out to have a poet’s soul with the necessary writing chops to capture and convey the magic of soaring miles above the clouds, traversing the globe as a part of his daily routine.

His revelatory reflection on the experience of modern air travel made me appreciate all over again the wonder I felt the first time I traveled across the country on a plane. Vanhoenacker masterfully explains the business of air travel as experienced from the cockpit. While he describes the nuts and bolts issues of taking more than one hundred passengers airborne, he also addresses the psychological aspects of leaving the boundaries of earth and traveling long distances in a relatively short amount of time. In the process, he reminds us of the wide-eyed amazement of the actual experience.

The chapter titles of Skyfaring give the reader a good understanding of the scope of the book: Lift; Plane; Wayfinding; Machine; Air; Water; Encounters; Night; and Return. Taken as a whole, they depict all that really happens while passengers struggle to find a comfortable position in their cabin seats. Vanhoenacker spices his account with insights on air travel history, geography, weather, family left behind, and the science that has brought about today’s relative safety and mundaneness of defying Earth’s gravity.

Air travel has become so commonplace and regimented that, for most frequent flyers, it has been drained of its intrinsic marvel. Just one hundred years ago, the rich members of society would have paid a king’s ransom to experience what we now take for granted. Thanks to Mark Vanhoenacker, I’ve been reintroduced to the miraculous aspects of the act of boarding a plane and traversing the globe. Jaded passengers, who all too often focus on the uncomfortable aspects of air travel, should gain a renewed appreciation by reading this book. He eloquently shows that what we grudgingly “endure” come travel day is a special experience that pays dividends exceeding the ticket price.

Stolen Stardust

Each and every dusk a dragon
flies to the moon.
He has, after all, a vast treasure
trove of stars
to personally guard in the dark.
Camped in a cave,
his hot breath accounts for
this crescent’s glow.
But like the rest of us, dragons
are a bit grumpy
before their breakfast is served.
Especially if he
suspects children of sprinkling
his cache of stardust
on last night’s sweet dreams.
Which is why,
even before he brushes his teeth,
with a mighty roar,
this one fierily exhales, igniting
the sun’s glare
to find who might be the culprit.

All That Man Is / David Szalay

The publishers of All That Man Is call the book a novel. However, there seems little that links the nine stories contained within. They deal with unrelated events taking place in different countries across Europe, with no overlapping characters. But after reading this marvelous book I can understand why the publishers make the claim. Each of its separate pieces presents a man dealing with a crisis, be it spiritual, moral, or physical. They are arranged by the ages of their male protagonists, beginning with a boy of 17, on the cusp of adulthood, and ending with a man of 73, facing his own mortality. Another nice touch is that they progress in order through the calendar year, giving the stories the unity of the four completed seasons.

While the nine men featured in these stories are at different stages of life, all are away from home, and each is forced to wrestle with the emotions of desire, failure, and accepting dreams gone awry. Szalay digs deep into the psyche of these men, and while their actions are not always commendable, they are so authentically real that the reader is instantly able to identify and sympathize with them. A gifted minimalist, the author’s focused prose makes these stories intensely readable.

I find a good many of the short story collections that I read easy to digest, but once consumed, they tend to quickly fade from memory. This collection proved to be both compelling and haunting, and one that I kept thinking about even when not actively reading. It is no wonder that Szalay was named one of Granta’s “Best of Young Novelists” in 2013. All That Man Is could well be one of the best “novels” I’ll read here in 2018. It is a book that deserves a wider audience in this country.

The History Of Tom Jones, A Foundling / Henry Fielding

Published in 1749, The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling is a novel that will challenge the most avid reader. Comprised of 18 books, it totals 346,747 words in all. It tells the story of a foundling discovered on the estate of Squire Allworthy and his sister Bridget. Squire Allworthy is a devote Christian and one of the richest men in Somerset. When he tracks down the woman whom he suspects of being the child’s mother, she confesses, but refuses to reveal the name of the father. Taking pity on the young woman, Allworthy agrees to raise the child in his own household, naming him Thomas.

Concurrently, his sister Bridget marries and gives birth to a son, William Blifil. This boy too is raised on the estate following his father’s death. Over the years, Master Blifil begins to resent Tom’s easy going nature and greater charms and abilities. This leads him to conspire against Tom, hoping to poison his uncle’s mind against the foundling. The author spends a good deal of time describing Tom Jones’ childhood and a great number of characters and details are introduced. It makes for slow reading, but the payoff comes when Fielding cleverly assembles all the pieces into a seamless whole in the concluding chapters.

Tom grows to be a kind-hearted and honest young man, blessed with good looks. But he is also prone to the sins of the flesh, leading him to get the gamekeeper’s daughter pregnant. When she turns out to be promiscuous, Tom falls in love with a wealthy neighbor’s lovely daughter, Sophia Western, who returns his affection. However, Sophia’s father is intent that she marry Blifil instead. Refusing to do so, she flees her home and takes to the road, heading for London. Tom, meanwhile, has a falling out with Allworthy when Blifil tells a number of damning lies about Tom. This leads Allworthy reluctantly to banish Tom from the household, with only a small amount of cash in his pocket.

These events set up the merry chase that takes place in the second half of the story. The reader is presented with adventures and mishaps aplenty as Sophia makes her way to London, with Tom trying to overtake her. She is also being chased by her father who is still intent on forcing her to marry Blifil. Circumstances cause all three to end up in London where the author with great skill weaves together the numerous plot lines.

There were times early on when I was tempted to put the book aside, but I’m glad that I persevered. Once the characters take to the road in a game of hide and seek, the story had me in its grip. What helps to make this novel special is the voice of its nameless narrator. At the start of each book he provides a discursive chapter – humorous and insightful missives on the arts, religion, and the foibles of humankind.

In the novel’s concluding section, secrets long kept hidden are revealed, along with the truth about Tom’s true parents. Of course, it ends on a “happily ever after” note, as all the loose ends are neatly tied into a bow. While Fielding presents his characters farcically, with all their flaws exposed, he does so lovingly. By showing them at both their worst and best, he creates people who still ring true to life centuries on.

Tonight’s Audience

Nobody else is outside.
Porches are silent.
The lawn chairs vacant.
Central air’s allure
keeps neighbors inside.

Accessed remotely, their
choices of diversion
are a vast stream, free
from discomfort.
Only a fool is outdoors.

Cloying, darkness seems
the only attraction.
But not so; its audience
is what make this
night so binge-worthy.

I’m not alone after all.

Moths ping off screens.
Fireflies add a spark.
Heat lightning punctuates.
An unexpected breeze
crescendoes in applause.


Tense and upright,
in the shadows, a girl alone,
a heavy boulder
that even music cannot lift.
Inflexible, it seems,
without a single toe tapping.
But not so her eyes;
dancing, they belie posture.
Smoldering, their
intensity beckons the flame.
Lively, no longer shy,
focused, they keep the beat.
The rest of her body
is held down by folded hands,
firmly glued in place
despite a pounding heart.
In this crowded
room she embraces no one.
A restrained wall-
flower, except for those eyes.