Bliss and Tragedy (ed. by Corts)

I am kind of a sucker for those newspaper accounts that mark the XX(x)th anniversary of some local event. I’m not sure why – perhaps because there seemed to be so many unanswered questions – I followed up on a story about The Ashtabula Railway-Bridge Accident of 1876 by ordering this collection of articles. And the event, though not charming as the last writer claims, continues to raise questions, not only about why the train crashed, but about decisions made and not made as well as the impact of the tragedy on the community today. The risk, I suppose (I’m not too experienced with local histories), is that not all of the writing will be good. The only essay that is really a bust here is the last one, full of platitudes, an inappropriate tone, and, because of its placement in the collection, little new information. I look forward to a road trip to Ashtabula in order to see things for myself.

image from train crash


The Association of Small Bombs (Mahajan)

This Anisfield-Wolf award winner is absolutely stunning. From its riveting opening pages until the truth of its conclusion, Mahajan takes us through a stunning story of small bombs, both the ones used by terrorists and the ones encountered in everyday life. I think what’s new here is that Mahajan, as the perfectly designed cover demonstrates, connects the bombs in ways we rarely get access to, let alone appreciate. What’s also new and both bold and necessary is that Mahajan takes us inside the lives of these terrorists. He accomplishes the seemingly impossible task of making us, if not like them, then at least understand them, both on a personal and political level. It is in these sections that he asks the most difficult and urgent questions, and I hope Anisfield-Wolf plans to host some conversations about this book even before the author arrives. (You must know that sensation of having finished a book and looking around immediately thinking, “Who else has finished it? I must talk to someone about this book. Now!) And please don’t think that Mahajan lets anyone in this story elude his hard questions. There are no angels in India, either.

In my enthusiasm for the content of the book, I don’t want to neglect Mahajan’s writing. He has passages, some as short as a phrase and others as long as several pages, that are just breathtaking in their precision and use of language. Unless I am teaching a novel, I rarely read with a pencil in hand. This time I did and my annotations and exclamation points fill this book.

The only fault with this book is mine. I know so little about India. It is not necessary to have much background knowledge to immerse yourself in this book, but I would love a suggestion of something to read to give me that background knowledge so I can appreciate it on another level when I return to it.

the cover

Second reading:

I just read this again in preparation for my book club meeting. It holds up. If anything, it was better. I can’t even begin to imagine how Mahajan put this together. The web that is this book was even more remarkable this time. I hope to teach this one someday.

Between Riverside and Crazy (Guirgis)

This is a tremendous and timely play. Though some may see it as a response to current events regarding the police, I think that would be missing the point. It is not only more complicated than that about the police, it is much more nuanced play in general. There are elements on the surface and those underneath.  Rent control, the (mis)use of the ‘n’ word (I don’t want to spoil anything here), the power of belief, race and racism, etc..  And there’s a multi-layered issue about Jewish stereotypes that angered and entangled me. There are also classical elements here – fathers and their children. It comes as no surprise to me that it won the Pulitzer. But when I saw it at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago (check out this pretty cool preview), the last two scenes drove me crazy. Again, I don’t want to spoil anything, but I don’t know how you direct these two scenes without revealing a key stage direction. But maybe Guirgis doesn’t want it revealed? At Steppenwolf, the ending came off as kind of dream-like. Is that the goal? If so, then the previous scene seems not to work. We’ll see what happens Cleveland Playhouse’s upcoming production.


Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin (D’Emilio)

I knew very little about Rustin going into this biography other than a decision had been made to not have him as the face of the March on Washington because he was gay. But there was so much more for me to learn. It was really interesting to discover the evolution of Rustin’s thinking, from his early days as a pacifist to his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement to his recognition of what I think we’d call intersectionality today – the recognition that racial justice and economic justice (for example) are linked. Near the end of his life, he even became involved in the gay rights movement.

Though D’Emilio is clear that some of Rustin’s behavior was reckless, it was also enlightening to see how others (and by others, I mean the likes of Martin Luther King and A. Philip Randolph) reacted to his homosexuality and to his evolving thoughts, interests and passions. King, Randolph and Roy Wilkins do not always come off well here; they do come off as human, which is good.

This is a good, informative book – well-researched (without being overt about it) and illuminating. It just lacked a kind of narrative drive. Rustin was at the center of some tense and exciting moments of history, and D’Emilio is never really able to get the reader to feel the urgency of those times.

I’m glad I read it. I knew, as I said, very little about Rustin (perhaps that’s what D’Emilio means by using ‘Lost’ in the title), and I certainly know more now. It was just a bit harder to get through than I wanted it to be.

Uncle Vanya (Chekhov, trans. by Schmidt)

I have often wondered about what makes something a classic. Such a label, I think, must have something to do with the passage of time. But the persistent admiration of two playwrights in particular – Chekhov and Noel Coward – just mystifies me. Do they matter anymore? Although I’ve seen it many times, I finally read Vanya. Say what you will about the influence Chekhov has as a writer, I just don’t get the resilient appeal of this play. What’s new here? What still resonates? How is this play different from all of his other plays?

The only thing I learned this time is that Vanya is the same age as me, which is kind of depressing.

If you are going to see it, I recommend this version. You should also pay attention to the great soundtrack that Joshua Redman provides.

Our Lands are Not So Different (Bazzett)

I always enjoy finding a writer I like at or near the beginning of her or his career. It was my good fortune to work with Mike Bazzett as his poetry began to take the leap from having poems featured in a wide variety of impressive publications to having his own chapbooks and books. I can’t find the original source for it, but it is often said that one should try to say the most in the fewest words, and Bazzett does this in this new collection, nicely put together by Horsethief Books. There is not a single bit of fat to be found anywhere.

The poems seem to center around the idea of boundaries, or, more to the point, the dissolving of boundaries, as in “Report from Beyond” and the gently potent “The Date.” There are also more than a few stunning pieces here, such as “Thought Grenade,” “Coming Home,” and the absolutely paralyzing, “Afterward.” (Do NOT read “Afterward” before bed; I kid you not.)

Bazzett has received a 2017 NEA fellowship in Poetry. I can’t wait to read the results.

Bazzett’s website

North of Portsmouth (Megenhardt)

“From small things,” Bruce Springsteen sings, “big things one day come.” Such is the case for Paul Newcombe, Cleveland housing inspector, when he sees a childhood friend on TV. The friend, the deputy of a small-town police force, is receiving his 15 minutes of fame because a skull has been found.

This is enough for Paul, already stifled by his cubicle-d existence, to set off on a vacation for reasons he can’t always articulate. In Portsmouth, he not only runs into his friend, but the annual Roy Rogers Festival.

From there, he (and we) are entangled in the adventure and comedy of modern existence. And Megenhardt’s prose absolutely shines. Though Newcombe, after a visit to the memorable Cactus Jack, from Megenhardt’s first excellent novel, Dogs in the Cathedral, is not always on the road, Megenhardt’s language never stops moving. Whether he’s writing about a search for a map (in a passage that will make you laugh in recognition) or a search for a person, the narration will leave you breathless. When you read this book, and you should, you will get the same feeling you get riding the best roller coaster at a county fair. It’s incredibly exhilarating, but also occasionally dangerous. And the momentum does not stop until the final, remarkable (and surprising) conclusion.

Don’t believe me? Come meet the man himself.

David Megenhardt at Happy Dog