fire this time. (Washington)

Washington calls this an extended essay. I’m not so sure. I think it defies genre. It’s an essay, a poem, a novel, a play. There are even some autobiographical elements. And philosophy. I was energized its hybrid nature. It’s challenging.

The only thing I can say about all of it – even the parts I am not sure I understood – is that it burns. The intensity is relentless. Inspired, I think, by the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, Washington is not angry. “I AM,” the prologue opens, “Rage.” And this book (I think it’s safe to call it that) which was written over two days takes us on the jagged rivers of this rage. It’s a book that deserves to be held close, re-visited. It’s a reminder, a reckoning. Open it at any point. The words will fly off the page. Pay attention.


The Theater of War: What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us Today (Doerries)

I am not sure where I first heard of the theatre company Outside the Wire (, but when I learned that its founder had written a book, I was eager to read it. I am a huge theatre fan, and while I see the point in producing the likes of Noel Coward once in a while, I’ve always thought that theatre could do more than that. I grew to love 10,000 Things Theatre in Minnesota, not only because of their great performances, but also because of their mission (

Doerries has written an eloquent, powerful and necessary book – a manifesto not only for those whom he and his company have served (the armed forces, the terminally ill and those who care for them, those who work in prisons, etc.), but also for those who make theatre. It’s long past time to restore the urgency and power of theatre to a new generation and a new audience. Chekhov can still have a seat at the table; the table just needs to be so much bigger now. So does the audience.

I hadn’t known of the autobiographical motives for Doerries’ work, so that part caught me off-guard at first, but Doerries quickly makes clear that his life in the theatre is not just a career, but, well, a life.

I hope, one day, to see a performance. In the mean time, I can spread the word about this book. Read it!

And if you know of other theater companies that do this kind of work, please put a link in the comments.

Heaven (Phillips)

This collection is not nearly as ambitious as its title suggests. These poems are well-crafted – sometimes they come across as wisps of poems – but that signal would always turn me back for a second, far richer reading, of the poem. The poems are sometimes about language, as in “To an Old Friend in Paris” –

The poem opening like an ear pressed

Against the cold clicking door of a safe.

Day comes to dark caves but darkness remains.

And the only way then to know a truth

Is to squint in its direction and poke.

Or in “Never Again Would Birds’ Song be the Same” –

We’d slept like the lines of a villanelle:

Apart, together, woven into one.

“The Menace,” though, is probably my favorite –

This Anisfield-Wolf award winner ( has created a book to be treasured.

Miles (Davis w/ Troupe)

In today’s New York Times, Roxane Gay says she cannot separate the artist from his or her art, so she is therefore not going to see Nate Parker’s Birth of a Nation. Now I haven’t been following this story too closely, but the challenge is familiar. Can an artist be separated from his art? Would  I still watch The Cosby Show? Do we, in fact, give artists more license to behave in certain ways because they are artists? Is there some kind of science to it – the “artists need to be crazy to be artists” argument?

But what artists, or even who among us, could stand up to such scrutiny? Could this be a both / and situation? I can, I think, still like some Woody Allen movies and find what I know of his personal life to be despicable.

All of this came to mind as I read Miles Davis’ autobiography. His language about women and his descriptions of how he treated them are just appalling. Can I still like his music if I don’t like the person?

I’m not sure of the process or the nature of the collaboration, but neither Davis nor Troupe are great writers. There’s a lot of listing – who was in the band, what happened at that recording session, etc.. There are some interesting elements, like how Davis tried to evolve rather than become a museum piece. He speaks a great deal about the racism he encountered in the music business, but is short on specifics and shallow when it comes to analysis, except when it comes to money. Without any context, it’s hard to get a grasp of the strength of his complaints when he says he was not paid as much as white musicians.

Shortly before he died, I had an opportunity to see Davis in Chicago. He didn’t say a word. When someone in the band soloed, he held up a large pre-printed card with his name on it. He does tell us about his reasoning behind that, how he hated to see how certain performers had to put on another kind of show (he mentions Louis Armstrong a great deal to make this point) to become popular. He wanted no part of that.

And there are a lot of drugs and Davis’ stubborn refusal / inability to get them out of his life. He does offer some explanations – the pace musicians were expected to keep, for example and / or his addictive personality – but his struggles and the struggles of some of his contemporaries (Charlie Parker, for example) are intense and, in the end, sad.

So, yes, I will still listen to Miles Davis. In fact, I added more of his music to my playlists as I read. But now I will have a more complete story of the man. And his flaws.

All American Boys (Reynolds & Kiely)

I have this ‘first wave’ theory of literature. The author who does something first is going to receive great acclaim for it, regardless of whether the work merits it. Case in point: The Kite Runner. We’d all been hearing the word ‘Afghanistan,’ and were desperate for some understanding of the place. And along came this movie-of-the-week excuse for a book, and people fell all over themselves to praise it. Read it again; it’s not a good book.

And so it does with All American Boys. As far as I know, it’s the first young adult novel to address the issues of police brutality against black men, and the co-authors – Jason Reynolds (black) and Brendan Kiely (white) – are nothing, if not earnest.

In fact, they are so earnest at the beginning that the book reads like it has footnotes to explain the behavior of Rashad, the African-American teen who is the victim of police brutality. And from there, the characters and actions are of the paint-by-numbers sort. There’s not a single surprise, not a single nuance. And though some will claim that both of the boys had a difficult choice to make, far more weight is given to the choice that Quinn, the main white teen protagonist, has to make. Oh, and guess what? Both boys are on the basketball team.

There’s the nurse with the heart of gold. There’s the rigid father who has a story to tell. There’s the wise old black woman who volunteers at the hospital gift shop. No one is a character. Everyone is a mouthpiece.

Incredibly disappointing.

Middlemarch (Eliot)

It is not George Eliot’s fault that it became a book club selection for me shortly after I dove into Vanity Fair, but Middlemarch definitely suffered because of it. There is only so much social satire I can take in a year. He is in debt. She shouldn’t marry him. He’s not as wonderful as she thinks. Him, over there, he – despite his background – really is. A few people are redeemed. Women don’t do much. The end.

Eliot’s observations – about class, city vs. country, men and women – they are all sharp and play out in meaningful ways in her 794-page novel. A few characters – Dorothea, Rosamond, Laidslaw, Lydgate – will be memorable. In the end, though, I am left with. . . so what?

If the major significance of this novel is that it’s a kind of an historical document, that its central meaning is that it is a great reflection of the role of women in Eliot’s time, then it’s just that – an important historical document, not a great novel. I mean, it does what it does very well. It’s funny, sharp and insightful. And long. And so was Vanity Fair. And yes, I know a man wrote Vanity Fair, but if that’s the only claim to the greatness of Middlemarch, then again, it belongs in a history museum, not on a bookshelf.

Because I had to read it in time for my book club meeting, I bought a Barnes & Noble Classics edition, something I swore I’d never do. And I now re-commit to that vow. The proofreading of this edition is just horrible, embarrassing even.

Ozone Journal (Balakian)

Since I am currently mired in the muck that is Middlemarch, I wanted to finish something to get going on a review. I found Balakian’s Black Dog of Fate incredible – vivid, personal, informative, engaging. It turns out he’s known more as a poet. In fact, this collection won the Pulitzer Prize. I didn’t really get into it. The title poem is a long one, and I don’t know, but I have a hard time sustaining my focus when I read long poems. I can read pages and pages of prose at a time. So broke up the long one, “Ozone Journal.” Consequently, while I enjoyed certain sections, I could never really capture the momentum of the whole piece.

A quick scan down the table of contents will reveal why this book comes off as kind of a travelogue, a catalogue of name and place-dropping. I liked “Joe Louis’s Fist,” but I also have a connection to Detroit. Balakian certainly has a way with a line (“The blue knifes the canyon”), but overall these poems left me a little empty.