The Winners: A Novel for the Stanley Cup!



By Fredrik Backman

Atria Books, 688 pages.





I nearly skipped The Winners because I felt that three books about ice hockey in two Swedish towns was one too many. Send me to the penalty box for tripping. I should have known that Fredrik Backman would deke when I thought he was grinding. The Winners is a must read during the Stanley Cup playoffs, but you don’t need to know a Zamboni from tagliatelle to appreciate all three Beartown novels.


The Winners returns us to an isolated forested section of Sweden where the residents of Beartown and Hed simply hate each other. Though their economic survivals are inextricably linked, there’s little they won’t do to express their mutual disgust–rumbles between rival gangs, workplace antagonism, political machination–but the hockey rink is where the rivalry becomes the Crusades on skates.   


Backman picks up the narrative two years from where he left off in Book # 2, Us Against You. That book involved an assault that ripped apart Beartown, but it also paved the way for its reversal of fortune. Hed had always been the more prosperous town and usually prevailed on ice, but the pendulum has swung to Beartown, with its new businesses, expensive new homes, a star player (Amat), and a newly refurbished rink, whereas the roof of Hed’s rink has collapsed, a symbol of its overall decline.


Backman readers have previously met the Andersson family, former NHL player-turned-Beartown-general manager Peter, his lawyer wife Kira, and offspring Maya and Leo. Maya is now studying music in Stockholm, Peter is at sea after giving up the GM job, and Leo is AWOL in video game stocked room. Other Beartown fixtures have their own concerns. Amat is overweight from an injury, drink, and ennui; Benji left town to escape the homophobes; former golden boy Kevin has departed to parts unknown; Tails is engaged in all manner of dodgy schemes; Ramona is running out of steam; Ekisabeth Zackell remains a brilliant hockey coach with the personality of particle board; and Ana, Maya’s BFF, is mired in sadness and anger. Oddly, Peter and local thug Teemu have grown friendly, but the only happy campers in Beartown are Bobo, now an assistant coach; former coach Sune; and young Alicia, who might be the future face of Beartown hockey.


Backman introduces new characters, including junkyard mogul Lev, who is either a gangster or just a terrible agent. Backman parallels the Anderrssons with a Hed family—firefighter Johnny, his midwife spouse Hannah, and their four children (Tess, Toby, Ted, and Ture). Ted, though still in juniors, could be Hed’s equivalent of Amat. There is also a new editor in Hed who is being fed information by her furtive father that threatens Beartown hockey; Theo, a local politician even sleazier than Tails; a silent goalie plucked from Hed nicknamed Mumble; Aleksandr, a Bears recruit of unspecified ethnicity; a dog named Bang!; and Matteo, a poor kid from Beartown who grew up in a fundamentalist family and missing his sister Ruth, whose fate provides the novel’s crisis point.


You might think that a devastating windstorm would bring Beartown and Hed together, but hatred is so intense that even junior hockey is pretext for violence, and neither can desist from all manner of underhanded plots. Mostly, both towns adhere to the same standard they hold for killing wolves: “Shoot. Dig. Silence.” The novel’s’ most profound moments come when fate does bring them together. One involves social class realities. In Beartown it’s the impoverished Hollow versus the new-money Heights; in Hed, it’s the schemers versus the working-class.


My initial thought was that The Winners took too long to get serious. I still think that, but the last third of the book is deeply moving. Backman takes us into living rooms, bars, workplaces, campgrounds, and frozen sheets where unbridled play prevails. It’s also where a lot of Backman’s foreshadowing comes into the light, including the famed Chekov’s gun literary device. Backman’s technique reminds me of the late John Prine’s musical repertoire: he makes us laugh one moment, shake our heads at absurdity the next, but moves us to tears when we least expect it.


The wrap-up coda went by too fast and was (often) too neat. Yet when Backman writes, “Maya’s story could easily have ended the same ways as Ruth’s story,” we know what he means. If you can avoid a lump in your throat upon discovery, you’re made of sterner stuff than I. Would it have been a stronger 400-page book? Probably, but it’s a bloody good one at 688.


Rob Weir




60 Years of Collecting at UMass


University Museum of Contemporary Art

University of Massachusetts Amherst

Through May 14, 2023

[Click on Image for full size] 


The Morrill Act of 1862 is one of the lesser known pieces of legislation to bear President Abraham Lincoln’s signature. It–and a second Morrill Act in 1890–set up “land grant” colleges. They were supposed to offer “practical” degrees in four fields: science, military science, engineering, and agriculture. The first three bear little resemblance to the fields of study those terms conjure today and the fourth, agriculture, was the true centerpiece for most land grant colleges. In 1862, farming was still the largest occupation in the United States and so it remained until the 1920s.


Amherst, Massachusetts received a land grant college, one affectionately nicknamed “Mass Aggie.” As late as 1941, what was then called Massachusetts College had just over 1,000 students–a far cry from the more than today’s 31,000 students. UMass Amherst did not become a university until 1947.


What this means insofar as this post is concerned is that UMass and most other land grant schools haven’t been around long enough to accumulate the huge endowments and gifts of Ivy League schools or elite private colleges. Nor did they have the resources of museums such as the Metropolitan in New York or the MFA in Boston. Want to buy a Van Gogh? It could cost over $80 million and not even a school whose current budget is $3.4 billion can afford to allocate that much of its operating costs for one work of art. So how does a relatively new university acquire collections befitting what they have become? Collect contemporary art, especially that of yet-unknown, up-and-coming, or generous visiting artists.


Collecting contemporary art is a crap shoot though. How valuable is it? In many cases no one knows until years later. After all, who was Andy Warhol when he was just another kid from Pittsburgh who moved to New York to try to establish himself as an artist? You know, like untold hundreds of others! What the UMass Museum of Contemporary Art did was simply collect–photographs, prints, graphics, lesser known paintings, architectural mockups–and hope for the best. The last of those is particularly risky, as many interesting designs never get built.


UMass is now at a place where it can mount an exhibit of what it has acquired since the early 1960s when it grew like topsy. Photographs dominate Sixty Years of Collecting but you will recognize the shutterbugs and perhaps a few artists from other mediums. When you do, it means the staff chose well and that’s true as well of names that perhaps don’t ring a bell. 


Below is a sampling from the exhibit. Hurry to see it though, as it closes about the time of 2023’s commencement. 



Andy Warhol
Eliott Erwitt


Robert Mapplethorpe                                                                       












                                        Ralph Meatyard


 Imo Nse Imel     

                                                            Roy Lichtenstein

Sheron Rupp

                                                                    Stephen Petegorsky

Tauba Auerbach


We Are the Light a Dud



By Matthew Quick

Avid reader Press, 246 pages.



 Sometimes minimalism is efficient and appropriate. Sometimes it’s just minimal. We Are the Light falls into the second category. Perhaps I should have known better. Matthew Quick also wrote Silver Lining Playbook, which was made into a movie that I found schmaltzy. Like it, Lucas Goodgame, the central character of We Are the Light, is a damaged man.


Goodgame is part of a survivors’ group from a mass shooting at the Majestic Theater in Somewhere or Other, Pennsylvania, that left his wife Darcy and 16 others dead. Lucas isn’t too sad, though, because he believes that Darcy is an angel who visits him regularly. He even collects feathers that he says are from her wings and claims to have seen the souls of all the dead rise.


But when he writes to Karl, his Jungian therapist, and asks to see him to talk about all of this, Karl ghosts him. He writes letter after letter–often dropping them off at his door–until a restraining order makes him stop. Is Lucas so delusional that he has scared off his therapist? Lucas also angers Sandra Coyle from the group when he rebuffs her effort to enlist him in a gun control movement because he says he needs to focus on his grief before getting involved in politics.


The entire story is told through letters to Karl, which are loaded with Lucas’ take on Jungian theory in which he tries to apprise him of how he’s trying to heal himself. He tells of how his African-American friends Isiah and Bess are praying for him, of how Jill from the Cup of Spoons Diner has been cooking for him, and  how he has allowed young Eli Hansen to camp out in his backyard. That’s surprising because Eli has become the town pariah as it was his older brother Jacob who was responsible for the mass murder.


An old adage holds that a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing and this holds true for Lucas’ various “insights” into Jungian psychology. Even if you have only passing familiarity with such concepts, you can tell that Lucas understands some of its form, but not much about its function.


The plot takes other odd twists. Jill, who was Darcy’s best friend, seems to have moved in with Lucas almost immediately after Jacob shot up the town. Is she a grief maven or a grifter? That’s not nearly as weird as a subplot involving a way to help Eli to graduate from high school via a credited post-drop out project. The grand idea is to make a monster movie starring Eli and other locals that will debut at (gulp!) the Majestic Theater. This, somehow, is supposed to help the community heal. This really angers Sandra, who is convinced that Eli is as psychotic as his sanguinary brother. Lucas tells of his battles with Sandra, how the movie is proceeding, and his sadness that Eli has grown closer to two others and has moved out. All of this is detailed in, yep, letters to Karl–17 in all, one for each victim. Karl remains silent.


The last part of the book takes place nearly four years later and updates us on Lucas, his new Jungian therapist, his relationship with Jill, how Eli has fared, and Karl’s fate. If you sense you’ve been setup for a cheap plot ploy, who am I to dissuade you? You might like the resolution and manipulative sentimentality better than I did, but everything is pretty much what I expected from a novel that’s a classic one-trick pony.


About the best I can say for We Are the Light is that it didn’t turn into an evangelical Christian novel filled with miracles. Still, if this book is optioned, you’d do well to read reviews from respected film critics before viewing it. By all means avoid  trade magazine hacks and anyone who calls it “timely” because of it deals with the national plague of mass shootings. Let me be clear; those people insult Aurora, Buffalo, El Paso, Nashville, Sandy Hook, Uvalde, Virginia Beach, and all the other places where real people suffering from real anguish continue to grieve.


Rob Weir

Alice Howe: Artist of the Month


April’s Artist of the Month is a no-brainer. On Circumstance, Alice Howe shows how to make a folk/soul/country album that sounds like something special. “No histrionics” is a tag often applied to Howe and it’s apt. Unlike the oh-too-young singers who land in LA, Nashville, and Austin and think that drama is produced by volume alone, Howe understands that the key is to sing a song from the inside out. Her articulation is superb, a small detail that allows the deeper edges of her voice to shine and burnish her compositions.


On Circumstance, two other things stand out. First of all, she recorded it at the FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and makes no bones about chasing the ghosts of Aretha Franklin and Etta James around the sound stage. Second, she collaborated with Freebo, the professional handle of David Friedberg, who has recorded and toured with a veritable who’s who of the music world: Ringo Starr, Bonnie Raitt, the McGarrigles, John Mayall, Crosby, Stills, and Nash… the list goes on. How many musicians do you know who drag out a tuba to go with their bass and guitar?


These days Los Angeles tries to claim Howe, but she’s from Newton, Massachusetts, grew up summering in Vermont, and graduated from Smith College so sorry, California, she’s a New Englander! You might know Howe from her 2017 EP You’ve Been Away So Long, the title track of which she reworks on Circumstance. (She also recorded two previous LPs.)  Check out how she mixes the lyrics-forward style of folk music with a bluesy country feel. Then watch her turn an NPR studio into a socks-on-the-sofa blues joint in “Travelin’ Soul.” Observe how she turns it up a notch higher still when she steps inside Muscle Shoals to take advantage of a studio band on “Somebody’s New Lover Now.” Somehow, she doesn’t sound totally devastated by her change of fortune! To circle back to the no-histrionics comment, notice how she airs it out without resorting to the vocal equivalent of playing air guitar. It’s a formula she repeats to great effect on “Love Has No Rules.”


If you prefer a more acoustic touch, “Let Go” will answer. As you watch this clip, ask yourself how many people sound this strong and clear when singing outside on a breezy day. “Things I’m Not Saying” is another keep-things-simple gem. Alice Howe wears a metaphorical Real Deal full body tattoo.


If you want to explore even more, you’ll find some clips of Howe performing amazing Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan covers. My only regret is that I had to be out of town when she played at the Parlor Room in Northampton last weekend.


Rob Weir