Sunday, April 20, 2014

Giveaway -- Bunker Hill by Nathaniel Philbrick -- Ends April 28, 2014

Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution

I have thought of this book so many times since I read it last year in May. I am happy to host a giveaway of this title on the occasion of its publication in paperback at the end of April 2014.

My earlier review talks of the story Philbrick wove, but misses some of the telling detail that has stayed with me over the past year, beginning with the ethos in New England: how, for instance, young, male New Hampshire residents were willing to answer the call of Bostonians and Massachusetts residents for militia help, but were unwilling to be managed by them and insisted on their own leadership. How, when hostilities began between the British troops in Boston and colonial militias, residents found it necessary to flee, not really sure which direction to go. Their way was blocked in several directions so many ended up going west, passing Lexington, where a skirmish began which would stay in the history books forever.

After I read this title, I was fortunate to come across Jill Lepore's magnificent history of Jane Franklin, sister to Benjamin, called Book of Ages, which recounts the same period from a personal perspective. These two books made the experience come to life for me in a remarkable way.

The bloody and doomed fighting on Breed's Hill was painful to read about. Thousands of British troops with less interest in the outcome than a small band of dug-in colonialists determined to hold the hill could not easily rout those same patriots. The British came in wave after wave, by boat across the Mill Pond, suffering more losses than they had been expecting and the memory of that battle led more than one leader to ask to be transferred away from the colonies. The Americans suffered horrible, crippling losses, and discovering who lay among the dead took days.

The queer thing is that the Americans lost that battle, but their determination made their case. It was one of the first, and bloodiest battles of the war for independence, a commencement of hostilities, as it were. Philbrick does an excellent job of introducing us to several folks I had not heard of before, one of whom died in the fighting there: the physician James Warren. The spirit of the resistance at Bunker Hill was fair warning to the British about what they were up against. The British and the Americans both upped their game after Bunker Hill and sent a new bunch of generals as a result. The Americans got George Washington.

This giveaway ended April 28, 2014 and a winner has been chosen. Thanks, everyone, for participating.



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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Lazy Days by Erlend Loe

Lazy Days I need a new shelf called "Silly." Loe is talented, no doubt about it. A few times laughs escaped me in a surprise assault. But he indulges himself this time. I suspect he didn't have a subject but needed to publish, so he just picked something--anything--so he could make a few bucks. Such is his reputation in Europe and Norway that he could pull that off.

A playwright and his family vacation in Germany. The playwright, obsessed with Nigella Lawson since his wife gave him one of her cookbooks for Christmas, does not like Germany and pretends to be working while his family tours. In fact, he daydreams about Nigella in her "thin blue sweater" making him taste her concoctions. He's got the whole ridiculous obsession thing down, humiliatingly familiar to us all as it is. He makes it funny, because his wife seems to divine what he's up to and doesn't seem to mind awfully much. We can hear her sigh. She's just as happy to have him out of her hair, what with his comments about Germany getting very annoying and sometimes embarrassing.

For those brain-dead from a fast-paced working life who none-the-less feel guilty on vacation without having a book on their chaise as they sit in the sun, this nothing-really-happens ridiculous train-of-thought by a Norwegian nutcase is a good companion. It's funny enough to pick up and put down for a week without ever being really challenged.

Loe's Doppler was a runaway bestseller in Norway and Europe. It established his reputation and is also small, funny, and great vacation material. It might be a classic of existential angst in our time of plenty-for-some. It is perfect for that overworked executive beginning to wonder if life in the fast lane is worth the effort.

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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Isa Does it by Isa Chandra Moskowitz

Isa Does It: Amazingly Easy, Wildly Delicious Vegan Recipes for Every Day of the Week
Isa does it again, the title should read. This is simply delicious, filling vegan fare and Isa’s intent was to make the recipes quick enough to make on a weeknight. I have some favorites from this book that will go in my long-term memory.

The ingredients of the Puréed Split Pea Rutabaga Soup are unusual enough that one is glad Isa told us to add star anise. This is memorable, and hearty, and smells so good cooking. Everybody passes up their noses at those big, waxy rutabagas at the grocery, but when they come to my house, they invariably ask what the “secret ingredient” is in my vegetable soups. Sweet potato? Squash? No. That would be the fragrant and sweet rutabaga, slightly orange-fleshed when cooked.

The Briny Caesar Dressing needs to be tasted to be believed. It is laugh-out-loud and talk-loudly-at-a-high-register garlicky goodness. I insisted on salad for days, turning into a minor Caesar myself.

Regarding the Everyday Pad Thai, I’m kind of mad Isa told us about this. She admits she would make it for every meal if she could. That is a little like passing on an addiction, what? It’s is so good, I hid the leftovers and ate them myself after making something fishy or meaty for the others. Even the leftovers are great.

The Sticky Orange Chicky Stir Fry made with her very own Chickpea Cutlets I made with a small can of pineapple juice rather than oranges. It was lovely looking, and the Steamed Chicky Seitan need to be tasted to be believed. This is the creative mind at work, and Isa does it like no one else.

When I first saw this book, I will admit I was underwhelmed. I thought, okay, this looks like homemade family-style vegan creativity. But Isa has something special in her make-up and her food always is surprising, delicious, inventive, assertive, and somehow new. The splendid 2007 Veganomicon by Isa and Terri Hope Romero had been my go-to book for years, until overtaken by Terri Hope Romero's Vegan Eats World (2012). But Isa is an wunderkind in the kitchen and this new offering adds diversity, simplicity, and depth to one's repertoire. I am finding I need this book as well, to keep me healthy, wealthy, and wise.

Not everyday can be a big tangle in the kitchen. This food is simple(r), but fine enough to serve anyone and have everyone go to bed full and happy. My Island Black Bean Burgers with Jamaican Curry looked positively Photoshopped, so beautiful it was. And the Jamaican Jerk Sloppy Joes were divine. This collection is another great success for Isa. I admit to fantasizing about going to an Isa restaurant. Rumor has it she is opening a restaurant in Omaha this spring. A pilgrimage would have been necessary without this book.

P.S. I rarely follow recipes anymore for things like cookies. I note that she riffs, like I do, on the basic formats. When I am in the mood, I add oatmeal and peanuts and chocolate bits…and she has a recipe Kitchen Sink Chocolate Cookies. Try it. I guarantee it will be a favorite. And if you have never added rosemary to chocolate chip cookies, trust her. Her Rosemary Chocolate Chip Cookies have to be tasted. Or substitute raisins. I did that with bread recently and thought I’d died and gone to heaven.


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Monday, April 14, 2014

The Other Language by Francesca Marciano

Marciano writes with such naturalness and lack of artifice in each of these carefully composed and engrossing stories of women on the cusp that the reader is convinced the stories are about the author herself. By the fourth intimate portrait we bow to the skill and craft that brought these stories to life. We are privy to an entrancing fragility surrounding each central character as she faces choices and events that will shape her future. Her confusion and uncertainty is something we know very well indeed.

This sophisticated, sexy, adult collection about women not quite at ease in the world brings us to Italy, Africa, New York, and India. We feel no dislocation because we are privy to the intimate thoughts of our protagonist who carries her sensibility with her. The characters range from city to country and beyond but we never lose our vision of the internal.

Marciano’s characters are friends, charming friends, beautiful friends, who have our sympathy. They are vulnerable, capable, and sexual in ways we recognize. And perhaps they are a little deluded. In “An Indian Soirée,‎” “his wife” and “her husband” shrugged off their old lives as easily as old clothes only to discover they’d been together and away from the world too long. Moments of revelation are peeled so carefully, they are manifest in a look, or in a comment exchanged.

In “In the Presence of Men,” the richest and widest of the offerings, we see truths about a youngish divorcée, a small-town matron harboring an undervalued and unmatched skill, and an American filmmaker seemingly so sure of his attractiveness he disregards those that prop him up. When Lara’s high-profile guests leave her new house in the country, we see Lara standing at the kitchen counter eating a non-fat yogurt for dinner as she contemplates a full refrigerator, vegetables neatly stacked by color. The sadness, despair, even desolation that creeps over her afflicts us as well.

Stella and Andrea lie to one another, just a little, when they meet after many years in “Big Island, Small Island.” And Elsa lies to herself, just a little, in “Roman Romance.” But these lies are necessary. These infidelities we recognize but ordinarily cannot articulate, and we forgive them. We would do the same.

A favorite among these bittersweet stories is “Chanel,” in which Caterina and Pascal try on designer clothes in fancy boutiques as a spirit-lifter and self-actualizing experience. Years pass, but the friendship, experience, and the dress (!) linger.

Best of all, in “Quantum Theory,” a man and a woman acknowledge a strong bond between them and do not act on it. The memorable visual in that story, the two reclining on parallel benches but holding hands, will stay with me a very long time.

This magnificent collection is a map to the hidden treasure of the female mind, each story adding to our delight and understanding and wonder. Marciano charts the inner landscape as intimately as a close friend fingering our sore spots, and we accept, rejoice, despair with her discoveries. I know now the tiny but scarring humiliations left from relationships are not mine alone to bear. We made a mess; Marciano made art. Even the cover rocks!


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Friday, April 11, 2014

This is Water by David Foster Wallace

This Is WaterIt is mid-April and traditionally this is the time we look forward to graduations, weddings, taking a new step in our lives. David Foster Wallace gave only one commencement address in his foreshortened life. I say only one, but I was surprised to learn he gave one at all. It was to Kenyon University, a small private liberal arts college in Ohio, in 2005. He died in 2008.

Who among us believes we become adults or fully-realized humans the day we receive our diploma? So the commencement speech given by DFW is entirely appropriate to point us toward the new goals we have in our future. Not just how to think, but what to think about.

DFW tells us tiny parables that highlight his message. The first one, about the fish in the water, I will ever associate with him. Two fish swimming together one day encounter an older fish swimming in the opposite direction. “How’s the water?” the older fish asks. DFW suggests we do not become unconscious to what is all around us. One needs to keep one’s awareness close and one’s judgments at a distance. So simple, so thought-provoking.

It’s a short book, probably the shortest ever with his name on the cover. But it gives us a sense of the man and his prescription for living a fulfilling life. One only wishes he could have been able to do that, too.

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Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Buck: a Memoir by M.K. Asante

Buck: A Memoir
buck (n): a fashionable and typically hell-raising young man. 2 racial slur--used to described black men. 3 a young black man: what's up young buck? 4 the act of becoming wild and uncontrollable: he went buck wild. 5 a dollar. 6 to fire gunshots: buckshots in the air. 7 to go against, rebel: buck the system.
"Everybody calls me 'young buck' when they see me."
Asante’s journey from inner city street punk in Killadelphia to college professor is a wild ride. Knowing the outcome doesn’t dull the description of his path: sexy, wild, ugly, and redemptive. There is a kind of love shown between family members in this ghetto life that may be greater than all other loves because it flows despite real failures by real people. A little light, and a little faith in a kid backed into a corner seems to have made a difference. Not every intervention can be as timely, but the results are unequivocal.

This book was assembled from fragments in a teen’s life in the late nineteen nineties. My copy of this title was published in 2013; the paperback will be released in May 2014. The language and sensibility wears a noticeable twelve-year lag, it seems to me, but it is instructive none-the-less. How far we seem to have come in ten years, all of us. I wonder if Asante would agree, or if he would say that “nothing has changed.” Perhaps nothing substantive in the lives of Killadelphians has changed, or changed enough.

The main thrust of the narrative, however, is perennial. A young boy discovers the voices of all who have come before him and realizes that the paths ahead are many and varied and bear no resemblance to the one he walks daily in his neighborhood. “I spit lyrics to songs under my breath--all day, every day…It’s like hip-hop Tourette’s.” The book is punctuated with stanzas that suit the action, his own and those of others, suitably referenced. One can tell words, descriptive words, are his passion.

The story introduces street life through street slang. I particularly liked the device of reading Malo’s mother’s diary to learn what she was thinking as she lay torpid and drugged through Malo’s teen years. His father quit town to save himself, and his brother got himself locked up. All in all a harrowing upbringing, but kids still learn without being in school. It’s what they learn that is at issue. Asante still has a ways to go to break into Literature but his path is true and his talent real. He is a good mirror. I note he is a filmmaker.

Asante has a right to be proud. And whoever gave him the chance to get out of the hood has a right to be proud.

I learned of this title from a NoViolet Bulawayo’s B&N interview, and have thought of that recommendation several times since.


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Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

The Yellow Birds One knows one has a classic when time starts to slow and nothing is more important than reading this book at this time. Powers set himself apart with this debut. From whence did such a reserve of talent spring? One cannot credit the "shitty little war": "I don’t want to be tight with anyone because of this. Being here can’t be the reason we’re tight. I won’t let it be." Murph says this in the turning point of the book. All hinges on Bartle’s response: "Naw, man," I said. "You and me, we’re tight just ‘cause. We’d be tight anywhere. It isn’t about this."

Powers’ talent is something that the experience of war distilled to poetry, forcing the mind into remaking an observation finer, smaller, clearer until it fit into one line, one paragraph. "…ducking under the netting stretched from bunker to bunker…I used my hands to keep the sagging fabric from falling over me like a shroud. Thin light rippled down through the voids and fell onto my hands and my body…" I can see those zebra-lines of bright light strobing as Bartle walked.
"half of memory is imagination anyway."

We think sometimes that sending boys to war will make men of them, but instead it makes them a wreck more often than not. Those that survive the experience often just want a peaceful, simple life that they have "maybe not control over, but some agency in. [A veteran] wants to have a life that’s manageable, that he doesn’t feel overwhelmed by." That quote, from a Parade Magazine interview, continues
"…the entirety of the experience is overwhelming, the fighting, the coming home, the readjusting. So, I think, in [Bartle’s] case, he has a desire to live simply, to just be ordinary."
And
"I think a lot of the guys I know and a lot of people I’ve talked to, what they want is very often what most people want, a kind of simple life, a livelihood, a family, people who care about them, people they can care about."

At first it seemed Powers had created a series of linked stories, each chapter complete enough to stand on its own. But then I got into the rhythm of his tale and could see his underlying structure. I loved the way he handled us. We were told how but not why, and gradually we came to understand. The C.I.D. investigator changed “incident” to “accident” in the course of their conversation, did you notice? I knew then that Bartle was going to survive the war.
“Then it was spring again in all the spoiled cities of America.”

What a shock it must be to return home where one does not feel responsible for saving anything.
"I know there are exceptions, but in my experience, to a man, every person that I served with wanted to contribute to our country, felt that it was something that they could do on behalf of their fellow citizens."
And
"It’s more a realization that life is precious and fragile, and taking it for granted just seems kind of baffling." [Parade interview]

"I was the curator of a small unvisited museum."

One walks away from the story, the language, wondering about the man. Powers began with poetry, with "Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting," in fact. This poem, in his Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting: Poems debut collection of poetry by the same name, names Private Bartle:
"I tell her I love her like not killing
or ten minutes of sleep
beneath the low rooftop wall
on which my rifle rests.

I tell her in a letter that will stink,
when she opens it,
of bolt oil and burned powder
and the things it says.

I tell her how Private Bartle says, offhand,
that war is just us
making little pieces of metal
pass through each other."

This novel exposes the great emotions to which we are subject. It has economy, focus, lyricism, and a unique style. It looks very much to me as though Powers has a great gift, and we have been given one, too.


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Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting by Kevin Powers

Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting: Poems What strikes a newcomer to Powers is his restraint. He is the matte black of soundless, reflection-less pitch in which a cry does not resonate. His screams are visual things, and we readers have had our eardrums burst.
"The truth has no spare mercy, see."
-–from "Death, Mother and Child"

I read Powers’ debut book of poetry first and then by Section Three, read his poetry concurrently with The Yellow Birds, Powers’ classic story of wartime Iraq. I found that although up to now I do not commonly read poetry, Letter… nods to prose in a way that seems reassuringly familiar. And when I began his National Book Award winning novel The Yellow Birds, I saw a poetic sensibility in his prose. Perhaps the best writers of war fiction have poetry in their literary makeup, like Remarque, and Graves. (Some argue that sections of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is like a list poem.)

Poems are a sort of shorthand: an efficient economy of words. Much can be said but whatever is meant must be pared to its essence, carved close. It suits war…as a subject and as a propellant. Sometimes shorthand is all you can manage. Poetry can act as a grounding tool, rolling the words in the mind and the mouth until they come out making some kind of sense. It helps one to see, to really notice, and to organize one’s thoughts coherently.

In an interview with the magazine of the same name, Powers tells us:
"Poetry was the beginning of my thinking, a way of asking, Is this even an answerable question? How do I approach it? I wanted to be honest about both the experience and the difficulty of talking about it."
He wrote the title poem before the novel and many of the ones in this book were begun during his writing The Yellow Birds. Poetry, the process of writing it, concentrates the mind, and forces one to choose words, and to picture the literary landscape.
"This idea of this particular soldier [Bartle] with these particular concerns had occurred to me before I realized I wanted to write a novel. In fact it was seeing that these same thematic elements, these same questions kept appearing – essentially I was writing different versions of the same poem over and over again. I just needed a larger canvas." From June 2013 Guardian interview


Letter…, then, is one kind of art in the service of another. Powers mentions the work of printmaker and sculptor Käthe Kollwitz in "Death, Mother and Child", whose art is also used in the service of another: "Kollwitz was right. Death is an etching." Art doesn’t change the truth, but only gives it voice.
"You came home
with nothing, and you still
have most of it left."
--from "Leaving McGuire Veteran’s Hospital for the Last Time"
In this collection I felt a building of understanding. Whether that was Powers' skill or my own development, I cannot say, but somewhere shortly after halfway I was hammered by the experience of reading these deceptively simple poems. The accretion of awareness made me reach for his earlier novel, which I hadn't yet read, to see what I missed.

NPR’s Abigail Deutsch, in her review of Letters…, says that the collection is good, but uneven. She names one poem, “Improvised Explosive Device,” as having corny effects. I happened to like that one, which begins:
If this poem had wires
coming out of it,
you would not read it.
…If this poem had wires coming out of it,
you would call the words devices…

In the recent award ceremony for the PEN Hemingway Awards at the JFK Library in Boston, the author Geraldine Brooks mentioned that Ernest Hemingway once said that “War is the only subject there is, and those who don’t agree haven’t had a chance to experience it.” I guess perhaps that’s so, but war comes in many forms and Powers seems to understand that. “I wonder how do we justify the things that we do, because it always seems like we are doing terrible things.” [Powers in the Guardian interview]

Powers is writing a new novel, about the murder of a former plantation owner just after the American civil war has ended. The story involves the consequences of this murder and how it affects the community he lorded over.


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Saturday, April 5, 2014

Flash Boys by Michael Lewis

Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt Michael Lewis has given us another great read, leaving us pondering big issues about the nature of man and the point of society. In today’s world, the information he shares about high-frequency trading (HFT) on Wall Street, feels dated before it arrives on the page…before we read it…before we can act on it. At first I was aghast that information about the, in effect, skimming or taxing of trades on the [any] stock market was old—this stuff was recognized in 2010! Why are we just learning about it?!

But of course now I realize that the folks that knew about it weren’t talking—why would they? And the market was going up, so taxes on increases wasn’t as onerous to investors as it would have been had they been losing their shirts. But also, Brad Katsuyama was setting up his own exchange, IEX, to do something to counter the activity. It would not have made as good a story to discover the problem without a solution being presented.

Katsuyama gathered a collection of folks no one could make up in their wildest dreams and sought ways to hamper the effects of high-frequency trades on investors. Lewis calls Katsuyama "an American hero" in his April 1 interview with Charlie Rose. Katsuyama was Canadian-born and came to Wall Street for the Royal Bank of Canada. He was successful as a trader, making about two million dollars a year in salary and bonuses, but noticed odd things happening to his trades about 2007. Lewis shares what happened to Katsuyama's thinking as he explored the reasons for the artifacts he was noticing on his screen as he traded.

This is an interesting story, but the most interesting part of the story is undoubtedly what comes next. Three days after the publication of Lewis’ book, Attorney General Holder announced the DOJ has an on-going investigation into high-frequency trading on stock exchanges. While the activities of high-frequency traders may or may not be strictly illegal, there is no doubt about its corrosive and costly effects.

Traders knowledgeable about the scandal acknowledge that something much like this skimming has been going on since the market began over a century ago, and will probably go on again in another form if this instance is regulated out of existence. Many of the traders introduced in this book are filled with awe at the perspicacity and persistence of HFT traders and wonder if the incentives were changed if the activities would modulate.

As it happens, this fishtails nicely into Jaron Lanier’s discussion about the internet in general, in Who Owns the Future? In that book Lanier suggests that modifying incentives (he gives possible ways to do that) would make a different landscape for those eager to participate in the economy. Financial remuneration is not the only incentive attractive to human beings. After all, how much can one person spend? On the other hand, the accumulation of vast sums of money in the hands of a few can cause major societal disruption. This is not simply a case of ill-gotten funds as in days of old. Computers have changed a lot of things, and the changes are exponential.

It’s a new world, and Lewis excavates a small corner to reveal talented folks beavering away at the underpinnings of our, and the world’s, financial pillars. This was one heck of a fascinating wake-up call.


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Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Redeployment by Phil Klay

Redeployment Maybe the best way to get at the truth about war is to read fiction. Klay’s collection of stories shows us just how that might be true, for he comes at aspects of the Iraq war from unique angles: PsyOps, Chaplain, corpse corps, infantry, artillery. He must fuse the experience of many into these snapshots, giving us both an unreal picture, but one that is strangely more real than any other. What cannot be clearer is that we have to be very sure of our motives when we place men and women in harm’s way. Otherwise the bargain—one life for the many—is off.

Klay has a remarkable gift. I felt completely in his hands and he turned me this way and that, one moment laughing, the next cringing. My bullshit radar seemed disabled.

I don’t really know why I read so much about war. Perhaps because it is the thing that tears away all coverings and reveals us as we really are. Lots of people experience war but not that many can convey that moment when it changes one. Klay is able to capture those moments. Those moments are mined, for they are deeply stored and not often held to the light. Most folks can’t even find those moments, let alone articulate them. So Klay’s got a bit of PsyOps happening there. I’m not sure I envy him that skill, that knowledge.

It is difficult to pick a favorite story but the relief I got from the funny one in the middle, “Money As a Weapons System,” makes me choose that one. In it, our narrator is a Foreign Service officer in charge of reconstruction. He confronts the absurd both in the abstract and in the flesh: a strange collection of folks have been assembled to fulfill head office policy directives and they are doing it…to the letter. The policies sounded good, but when confronted with the realities on the ground, they maybe don’t work so well.

In “OIF,” the economy of abbreviations gives a racing, manic, juddering feel to the story…and we are running headlong off a cliff. For a mere seven pages we are not just reading, but immersed in the hyper atmosphere and not-completely-clear thinking of folks who get shot at every day.

In the very first story, "Redeployment," is a quote that had me gulping in recognition: "And glad as I was to be in the States, and even though I hated the past seven months and the only thing that kept me going was the Marines I served with and the thought of coming come, I started feeling like I wanted to go back. Because fuck all this." To tell the truth, this isn't war-talk. This is leaving-home-talk. It's real and it cinches our connection with the author. He's got the goods, tells the truth, and we understand that.

In “Bodies,” Klay writes “there are two ways to tell the story. Funny or sad. Guys like it funny, with lots of gore and a grin on your face when you get to the end. Girls like it sad, with a thousand-yard stare out to the distance as you gaze upon the horrors of war they can’t quite see. Either way, it’s the same story.” Klay gives us both in this collection, sometimes both in the same story. Our nineteen-year-old narrator comes home and visits his former high-school girlfriend still living in her parent’s basement. The inchoate longing for connection is physically painful.

Klay has the talent to write about anything at all. In “Unless It’s a Sucking Chest Wound” he writes about school and banking and law in NYC. We believe him. We believe in him. I am curious what he will do next.


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