The title captures the essence of this collection perfectly. Beauty juxtaposed with violence. The beauty of nature and of love, and in particular, of the love between men. The love between a father and a son, and the love between two men. Both beautiful and both sometimes violent in emotion, if not action. And the Vietnam War, always and irrevocably, lingers in the background. From “Into the Breach”  —

                                          It’s simple. I don’t know

how to love a man

gently. Tenderness

a thing to be beaten


It’s tough to pick a favorite. “Trojan,” “In Newport I Watch My Father Lay his Cheek to a Beached Dolphin’s Wet Back,” and “Anaphora as a Coping Mechanism” are all outstanding. So are “Torso of Air,” “Logophobia” and “Devotion.” See, it is hard to choose.

“Devotion,” like others in this collection, is inspired by Greek mythology. Here are the closing lines from the closing poem of this essential collection (I may not be able to capture the proper spacing):

&so what – if my feathers /

are burning. I

never asked for flight.


Only to feel

this fully, this

entire, the way snow

touches bare skin – & is,

suddenly, snow

no longer. – Vuong

Poetry Foundation – Vuong

Buy it!

I first heard about this story on one of my favorite podcasts, 99% Invisible with Roman Mars (99% Invisible: The Landlord’s Game). It intrigued me. A game that was originally designed by a woman to be anti-capitalist had been claimed by a man and become all about capitalism. Could there be a more American story? It reminded me of the depiction of McDonald’s in Fast Food Nation. Once a Mom ‘n Pop, a pull yourself up by your own bootstraps success story, well, now look at it now.

Pilon’s research and storytelling are great. Though she self-consciously struggles to explain elements of copyright and trademark law, in the end, it doesn’t really matter. This, too, is an American story, and one I recommend.

Anti-Monopoly – the game

I am a big fan of Mankell’s work, not just his Wallender books, but all of it. I know he tried to step away from the Wallender books at times. There’s a part of The Shadow Girls that seems to be him castigating himself for not writing something more meaningful than crime novels. Yet, I think it was the seriousness of the issues Mankell raised – such as the fear of immigrants – that elevates them above most of the rest of the flock. In The Shadow Girls, Mankell again has immigrants on his mind as his protagonist (alter ego?) gets pressured into conducting a writing seminar for three shadow girls. Much of the novel is taken up with these women telling their stories. This brings the plot, such as it is, full circle. Jesper Humlin, a consistent but seemingly unremarkable poet, is being pressured by his publisher to write a crime novel. Everyone around him, including his mother, is writing one. (Was this really the perception Mankell thought people had of his work? That anyone could do it?) But he holds out. He wants to write a book about immigrants. The Shadow Girls turns out to be that book. Here’s a remarkable excerpt from one of the stories, told to Jesper by Tea-Bag, who has re-christened herself, for a new life requires a new name and, more practically, any use of her real name can jeopardize her status:

I know that the bridge we all thought we saw as we stood on the beach in the northernmost part of Africa, that continent we were fleeing and already mourning, that bridge will one day be built. It will be built, if only because the mountains of corpses pressed together on the bottom of the ocean will one day rise above the sea like a new country and a bridge of skulls and bones will form the bridge that no one, no guards, dogs, drunk sailors, or smugglers will be able to topple. Only then will this cruel insanity come to a stop, these anxious flocks of people who are driven on in desperation only to end up living their lives in the underworld, becoming the cavemen of modern times.

Published 30+ years after The Magic Mountain, A.E. Ellis’ The Rack has some similarities with Mann’s novel, though, thankfully, it’s several hundred pages shorter. It’s been a while since I’ve read the Mann, but Ellis’ book came across to me as more thoughtfully constructed. Ellis is asking a lot of questions here – about the relationship between science and God, about the power relationship between doctors and patients, about the role of technology and medicine, about the rich and poor, about resilience and, indeed, about the purpose and meaning of life.

Paul is stuck in a sanitorium – one that’s running out of money, serving lousy food, and seemingly doing little good for its patients. Just when something positive finally happens for Paul (he falls in love), it becomes genuinely unclear whether he really wants to leave. Is there something reassuring? addictive? about being a permanent patient? Is the medical industry holding on to him in order to feed itself?

Though the characters here are often archetypes, Ellis puts them together like a playwright. The scenes, particularly one in Part II in which Paul and Michele stumble into a cemetery, are greater than their individual pieces.

On the front of the print-on-demand edition I ordered, there is a quotation from Graham Greene –

There are certain books we call great for want of a better term, that rise like monuments above the cemeteries of literature: Clarissa Harlowe, Great Expectations, Ulysses. The Rack to my mind is one of this company.

I am a fairly well-read person. Why had I never heard of The Rack before it became my book club’s selection? Why has it become a print-on-demand book? I’ve read every word of Ulysses -once with the notes and then later, without. Guess how that second attempt went? I’ve read and taught Great Expectations.  I’ve never known anyone to read Clarissa, except for my very first Principal who seemed intent on conquering it? I’m not sure why he’d chosen that title, and I am not sure if he ever finished it. Why do some books stay and others fade?

I showed up at a flea market, and I was told I had just missed Eva Barrett reading, so I bought this collection. Having read it, I am truly sorry I missed her live and in person. As written, these poems pop off the page. I can only imagine what her voice would add. The collection comes off as a kind of declaration of independence, albeit one that does not come easily. In “Tiny,” Barrett writes:

in five years,

all i want

is to feel safe

in my own skin.


By the end, in “Anatomy of a Question Mark, Part 2,” the tone is more assertive. Here’s a piece —

i’m sorry i never let you love yourself. you carried

the weight of so many with only half of a heart, you

hid your face, not because your body was a wrong answer,

but because so much of you was missing. if nobody else

tells you today, you deserve to be all of yourself. woman

and man. she and them. the love you make is real and

dangerous and i’ll be damned if you ever forget that again.



Although it has some predictable elements – the lovable rogue cop, the clueless (almost unbelievably so) rookie, the unnecessary and unrealistically violent ending – this is an outstanding first Chief Gamache mystery. It took me some time, but I think I figured out what makes it so different and so good. It’s the minor characters. Instead of just focusing on the cop and his (of course, his) team as well as the antagonist, Penny develops a wide range of supporting characters. It is impressive that she took the time to do so because I don’t think she can return to them for the next installment, can she? I will miss them.

Penny creates one of the most memorable images I’ve ever encountered. I don’t want to spoil anything, but it will stay with me in the same way as the image Myla Goldberg creates in the storage area in Bee Season.

The title is perfect. The characters – almost all of them – are incredibly human. A Fatal Grace will be next.

Though it was originally published in 1935, this novel  is (cliche alert!) ripped from today’s headlines. This is a story of fear. Lewis, writing prior to WW2, speculates about what it would take for a dictator to rise to power and presents a scenario – akin to the campaign of one of our current candidates – that makes it all seem to happen quite easily.

Lewis’ writing (and this is the third novel of his that I’ve read) requires a certain kind of patience. His characters really do say things like, “Golly.” And they also give a lot of speeches, especially here. Finally, in this one, I think the balance between scene and summary is off. There’s much too much summary. Maybe that’s to suggest how easily and quickly the dictator takes over, but it could also indicate why 1984, with its largely more character-driven approach (except for a few long sections), is the one that more people know today. Lewis also puts his faith in a journalist. Do we still have the same regard for journalism today? Are there journalists that still deserve it?

Berkeley Rep’s stage version of this novel