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Book Review :: The Unsettled by Ayana Mathis

Guest Post by Kevin Brown

In this second novel by Mathis, the three main characters — Dutchess, Ava, and Toussaint — are each unsettled in some significant way. Dutchess spends her nights wandering through the woods of Bonaparte, Alabama, a fictional town created by African Americans after the end of slavery, where she often encounters the ghosts of those who have come before, another group of unsettled people.

Ava left that town and hasn’t returned, moving around the country before settling into an unhappy marriage in New Jersey that she leaves at the beginning of the novel, ending up in Philadelphia. She begins by having to move into a homeless shelter, then into 248 Ephraim Avenue, a house for the Ark, a place reminiscent of the homes the Black Panthers created in the 1960s. (One should also note that 248 is twice 124, the house in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and Mathis explores trauma in her own way.) Ava’s son Toussaint has had to follow her, but, once they land in the shelter, he begins skipping school and roaming around Philadelphia.

While the bulk of the plot focuses on Ava and Toussaint’s attempts to find some sort of stability and meaning, with forays into Dutchess’s attempts to keep the town of Bonaparte from completely disappearing, what undergirds the novel are the systems that have oppressed and continue to oppress African Americans, especially relating to land and property. In the same way that the characters struggle to find a place that is truly their own, Mathis shows how systemic racism and white supremacy have denied African Americans a home in this country.


The Unsettled by Ayana Mathis. Alfred A. Knopf, September 2023.

Reviewer bio: Kevin Brown has published three books of poetry: Liturgical Calendar: Poems (Wipf and Stock); A Lexicon of Lost Words (winner of the Violet Reed Haas Prize for Poetry, Snake Nation Press); and Exit Lines (Plain View Press). He also has a memoir, Another Way: Finding Faith, Then Finding It Again, and a book of scholarship, They Love to Tell the Stories: Five Contemporary Novelists Take on the Gospels. Twitter @kevinbrownwrite

Book Review :: Roman Stories by Jhumpa Lahiri

Guest Post by Kevin Brown

On one level, the title of Lahiri’s story collection, Roman Stories, is an obvious description of the work, given that all of the stories take place in Rome. However, in many of the stories, the characters are not actually Roman, or at least not by birth and, sometimes, citizenship.

Instead, they have often come to Rome later in life, and, thus, the retain that outsider status, even if they end up staying in Rome for the remainder of their days. By taking such an approach, Lahiri gives voice to a wide variety of characters, pointing out the multitude of stories found in a city like Rome.

The best example of this approach is the longest story in the collection, and the only one in Part II: “Steps.” The story shifts through six different sections, each focused on a different person/group of people: The Mother, The Widow, The Expat Wife, The Girl, Two Brothers, The Screenwriter. Each character or group has a connection to the same set of steps, a connection that reveals something important about each character or group. Though they come from a variety of backgrounds and experiences, this place in Rome binds them all together, at least on some level.

That serves as a metaphor for the collection itself, as the characters are diverse, but their connection to Rome binds them all together, whether they want to be or not.


Roman Stories by Jhumpa Lahiri. Alfred A. Knopf, October 2023.

Reviewer bio: Kevin Brown has published three books of poetry: Liturgical Calendar: Poems (Wipf and Stock); A Lexicon of Lost Words (winner of the Violet Reed Haas Prize for Poetry, Snake Nation Press); and Exit Lines (Plain View Press). He also has a memoir, Another Way: Finding Faith, Then Finding It Again, and a book of scholarship, They Love to Tell the Stories: Five Contemporary Novelists Take on the Gospels. Twitter @kevinbrownwrite  

Book Review :: To Free the Captives by Tracy K. Smith

Guest Post by Kevin Brown

In To Free the Captives, poet Tracy K. Smith brings her lyrical writing style to the essay form, as she explores what it means to be Black in America today. Rather than straightforward essays laying out an argument, though, Smith uses parts of her life—her marriage and motherhood, for example—as entry points into meditations on the world as she experiences it.

She ruminates on the difference between being Free (white) and Freed (Black) throughout the collection, as she reminds readers that the past is as present as ever, for good and ill. She draws on the lineage she knows and delves into her family history, but she also looks to the broader Black culture for ancestors who can support her and the other Freed, as they continue to shape lives of meaning and beauty.

This approach isn’t metaphorical for Smith, as she feels those who have come before her speaking to her and guiding her in who she should be and who she could yet become. Her subtitle of “A Plea for the American Soul” reminds readers that both the Free and Freed must live in and through this past, as we all seek to create a present and future together; ignoring the past will only deepen the divide that has always existed in the American soul.


To Free the Captives by Tracy K. Smith. Alfred A. Knopf, 2023.

Reviewer bio: Kevin Brown has published three books of poetry: Liturgical Calendar: Poems (Wipf and Stock); A Lexicon of Lost Words (winner of the Violet Reed Haas Prize for Poetry, Snake Nation Press); and Exit Lines (Plain View Press). He also has a memoir, Another Way: Finding Faith, Then Finding It Again, and a book of scholarship, They Love to Tell the Stories: Five Contemporary Novelists Take on the Gospels.

Book Review :: Wellness by Nathan Hill

Wellness by Nathan Hill book cover image

Guest Post by Kevin Brown

In Wellness, Nathan Hill has written a novel that is of its time, while still being timeless. In exploring the particularly American obsession with wellness and improvement, what he is really excavating is the power and peril of stories. His second novel follows Jack and Elizabeth, a couple who fell in love at first sight in 1993, and who are negotiating their marriage after just over two decades of being together. They tell themselves stories about their marriage, as well as their childhoods, hoping to make sense of their lives. Hill weaves minor characters’ stories in, as well: Jack’s father becomes obsessed with conspiracy theories; Elizabeth’s friend Brandie hosts a group that believes one can manifest happiness by speaking it into the universe; and Kate and Kyle, a couple who find meaning through polyamory and a critique of monogamy. While Hill satirizes each of these characters—and more, especially the postmodern cultural conversation in academia in the 1990s, one of the most humorous sections of the novel—he also understands why they (and we) need stories at all. When Elizabeth seems ready to turn to nihilism, wondering if anything is real, her mentor tells her, “Believe what you believe, my dear, but believe gently. Believe compassionately. Believe with curiosity. Believe with humility. And don’t trust the arrogance of certainty.” That’s good advice for our divided country and world, now and anytime anyone might pick up this novel.


Wellness by Nathan Hill. Alfred A. Knopf, September 2023.

Reviewer bio: Kevin Brown has published three books of poetry: Liturgical Calendar: Poems (Wipf and Stock); A Lexicon of Lost Words (winner of the Violet Reed Haas Prize for Poetry, Snake Nation Press); and Exit Lines (Plain View Press). He also has a memoir, Another Way: Finding Faith, Then Finding It Again, and a book of scholarship, They Love to Tell the Stories: Five Contemporary Novelists Take on the Gospels. Twitter @kevinbrownwrite or kevinbrownwrites.weebly.com/.

Book Review :: The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka

The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka book cover image

Guest Post by Kevin Brown

Julie Otsuka uses shifting points of view to make her books both universal and specific. In her novel, The Swimmers, she begins with the first person plural point of view to give voice to the titular swimmers, exploring the diversity of their reactions when the pool develops a crack, a metaphor for the loss to come in the second half of the novel. Otsuka sets up the idea of memory, collective and individual, she will explore through Alice, one of the swimmers. The reader learns little about Alice in the second half, though Otsuka shifts to the second person point of view to put the reader in the position of Alice’s daughter (who sounds quite similar to Otsuka, from the few hints the reader receives, including her mother’s interment in camps during World War II, one of the memories her mother holds onto throughout much of her deterioration). The reader sees Alice from a distance as one of the swimmers and up close as a mother who is becoming a different person than the daughter remembers. The reader empathizes with the mother and daughter, but knows, as the doctors make clear, there is nothing to do, but to endure the inevitable loss and rebuild a life after that loss.


The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka. Knopf, February 2022.

Reviewer bio: Kevin Brown has published three books of poetry: Liturgical Calendar: Poems (Wipf and Stock); A Lexicon of Lost Words (winner of the Violet Reed Haas Prize for Poetry, Snake Nation Press); and Exit Lines (Plain View Press). He also has a memoir, Another Way: Finding Faith, Then Finding It Again, and a book of scholarship, They Love to Tell the Stories: Five Contemporary Novelists Take on the Gospels. Twitter @kevinbrownwrite or kevinbrownwrites.weebly.com/.

Book Review :: Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel

Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel book cover image

Guest Post by Kevin Brown

Emily St. John Mandel takes the reader through locations that range from the woods of British Columbia to colonies on the moon and through times that move from 1912 to 2401. Her story follows several characters: Edwin, the youngest child in a British family who will inherit almost nothing and who is exiled to Canada after he questions England’s role in India; Gaspery Roberts, a hotel detective who takes on a case with implications he could never imagine; and Olive Llewellyn, a novelist on a book tour for her work about a pandemic in a world where such tragedies happen more and more frequently. Mandel draws on her experience for the last character, as readers and critics have seen her Station Eleven as prescient in its portrayal of a much worse pandemic than our current one. She draws on questions and comments from her book tours for some of the more humorous parts of the novel. Overall, however, she’s interested in larger questions of time and reality, even exploring whether or not the characters’ world — and, thus, our own — is nothing more than a simulation. If so, though, she seems to say that doesn’t make it any less meaningful.


Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel. Alfred A. Knopf, April 2022.

Reviewer bio: Kevin Brown has published three books of poetry: Liturgical Calendar: Poems (Wipf and Stock); A Lexicon of Lost Words (winner of the Violet Reed Haas Prize for Poetry, Snake Nation Press); and Exit Lines (Plain View Press). He also has a memoir, Another Way: Finding Faith, Then Finding It Again, and a book of scholarship, They Love to Tell the Stories: Five Contemporary Novelists Take on the Gospels. You can find out more about him and his work on Twitter at @kevinbrownwrite or at http://kevinbrownwrites.weebly.com/.