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Book Review :: Boopable! By Mary Ann Redmond

Review by Eleanor J. Bader

Mary Ann Redmond’s Boopable! is a beautifully illustrated and fanciful book for toddlers and pre-schoolers that is meant to introduce kids to the joyous bonds that can develop between animals and humans. By zeroing in on the irrepressible urge to snuggle and boop the nose of a cherished furry family member or four-legged friend – or even a creature seen only in the zoo, in stories or poems, or on TV – Boopable! makes clear that even when love is wordless, it is deeply felt.

“Would you be shocked if you booped a fox?” it asks. “Would you laugh if you booped a giraffe?…Would you be smitten if you booped a kitten?… Would you swoon if you booped a raccoon?”

Forget logic or the practical implications of such encounters; neither is on display here. Instead, Boopable! utilizes humorous rhymes to evoke affection for nine distinct members of the animal kingdom. And while most of the critters are unlikely to be within booping range of the book’s audience, this does not matter. Thanks to Kathy Moore Wilson’s exceptionally soulful watercolors, the book is a sweet tribute to love, whimsy, and imagination. It is sure to win cheers from both kids and adults.


Boopable! by Mary Ann Redmond with illustrations by Kathy Moore Wilson. Author Published, January 2024.

Reviewer bio: Eleanor J. Bader is a Brooklyn, NY-based journalist who writes about books and domestic social issues for Truthout, Rain Taxi, The Progressive, Ms. Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and The Indypendent.

Book Review :: Help Wanted by Adelle Waldman

Review by Kevin Brown

It’s clear from Adelle Waldman’s second novel, Help Wanted, that she has worked in retail before, specifically in the warehouse section. Her story follows a small group of workers who arrive before the big-box store, Town Square, opens, so they can unload the truck, break down the boxes, and stock the shelves. While the plot focuses on the question of who will become the new general manager and, thus, which of the main cast of characters would take over as the manager of Movement—the business-speak title for the warehouse team—the real heart of the novel are the characters and their struggles.

They struggled in school, whether because they were uninterested, had undiagnosed learning disabilities, or encountered financial or family hardships, leading their lives to end up in the warehouse. Some of them are divorced and juggle childcare obligations; some are single and trying to figure out how to create a life; all of them have dreams, even if that’s nothing more than to move up one rung in the Town Square corporate ladder.

The backdrop for the novel heightens their concerns even more, as Potterstown, where the store is located, has never recovered from the 2008 financial crash and companies’ decisions to move to other countries, where labor costs are cheaper. And, of course, there’s the competition with the online retailer, whom the characters never name.

The team does find moments of joy and companionship, especially when they are all working toward a common goal that they, not management, define, but the book is not ultimately hopeful. Instead, Waldman creates real characters with real struggles that will persist for most, if not all, of their lives. She bears witness to the realities of those who work in the warehouse of the world, where most of us never think to look.


Help Wanted by Adelle Waldman. W.W. Norton, March 2024.

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 :: Anita de Monte Laughs Last by Xochitl Gonzalez

Review by Kevin Brown

Xochitl Gonzalez’s second novel, Anita de Monte Laughs Last, tells two parallel stories about women in the art world. The titular Anita de Monte is a Latina artist on the rise in the middle of the 1980s, but she’s married to Jack Martin, a well-established, minimalist artist known as much for his affairs as his art. Raquel Toro is a college student at Brown University in the late 1990s, just beginning work on her undergraduate thesis, which will focus on Jack Martin. Her experience as a Latina in a white-dominated university and department has led to her alienation, both from those around her and from her culture and background.

Anita disappears from art history after her death until Raquel, with guidance from Belinda—the director of the Rhode Island School of Design’s gallery, as well as another woman of color—rediscovers Anita’s work, as well as more details about her death. Raquel’s life had already begun to mirror Anita’s, as she begins dating Nick, a graduating senior with a promising art career before him, though it’s driven more by connections than talent. Though Nick is not a mirror for Jack, he is an echo, a reminder of the men who have tried to control female artists and the narrative of art history.

Raquel’s discovery of Anita de Monte not only resurrects Anita’s reputation, but also helps Raquel begin to discover who she is and who she can be. Through her two main characters, Gonzalez crafts realistic portrayals of the challenges women have and continue to face, along with the importance of role models as one means of pushing through those struggles.


Anita de Monte Laughs Last by Xochitl Gonzalez. Flatiron Books, March 2024.

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 :: The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store by James McBride

Review by Kevin Brown

The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store, James McBride’s latest novel, centers around a small community in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, in the early and middle twentieth century. The neighborhood of Chicken Hill is changing, first from a largely Jewish area to a primarily African American one, but then even that dichotomy breaks down with a significant influx of Eastern European Jews who don’t always see the world the same way the older immigrant community does.

Moshe bridges the original divide, as he owns a theatre that once hosted vaudeville acts, but then transitioned to Black bands as demand grew. His primary employee is Nate, a Black man, who helps Moshe work across the racial divide. However, the main impetus for Moshe’s doing so is his wife, Chona, who runs the titular grocery store. She encourages (forces, really) Moshe to leave the grocery store in the neighborhood even as its demographics change, and she becomes the face of welcome to anyone who walks in.

She even makes Moshe hide Dodo, Nate and Addie’s deaf nephew, when the state comes to take him away, a decision that will lead to much of the conflict in the novel. However, Chona stands for the heaven and earth of the store, as she attempts to live out the love of God, the will of God, on earth, as it is in heaven, a message of inclusivity needed now as much as ever.


The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store by James McBride. Riverhead Books, August 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 :: Goyhood by Reuven Fenton

Review by Kevin Brown

Goyhood, Reuven Fenton’s debut novel, mixes a road trip with a twist on a coming-of-age story to develop Mayer (née Marty) Belkin’s existential crisis. Mayer grew up with his twin brother David in Georgia until one day when they were both twelve, and a rabbi came to town. When they discover they’re Jewish, Mayer goes to New York to study, marrying the daughter of a famous rabbi, while David explores a more hedonistic life. They reunite when their mother dies, leaving them with information that will change their lives, especially Mayer’s. David takes Mayer on a road trip during the week he’s away from his wife, exposing him to ideas and experiences that broaden his view of the world and himself.

Fenton slips into some writerly tics that can sometimes crop up in first novels: his narrator often comments that characters see something at their one o’clock (or some different time/location marker); he feels compelled to tell every city or town where they stop, even when nothing happens there, as if proving he knows the area; Mayer’s wife seems more like a plot point than an actual person; and he sometimes overwrites—“masticated” for “chewed” for one example.

However, the relationship between David and Mayer in Goyhood rings true, as does what Mayer needs to learn on his spiritual and emotional journey, as well as the physical one. One could do worse than spend time in a car with them and the people they meet along the way.


Goyhood by Reuven Fenton. Central Avenue Publishing, May 2024.

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 :: Personal Score by Ellen van Neerven

Review by Eleanor J. Bader

Personal Score: Sport, Culture, Identity, a stunning collection of 47 essays and poems by award-winning Brisbane, Australia, based Aboriginal-Dutch writer Ellen van Neerven, straddles the line between personal reflection and political polemic. The nonbinary author’s reach is broad and the diverse pieces in the anthology touch on the importance of athletics in the social and physical development of girls; the sexual harassment and abuse that often derail the participation of female players; the massive fires, brutal storms, and dislocation that have been caused by ever-worsening climate change; and the persistence of racism against indigenous and other people of color.

The anthology also includes a searing indictment of anti-trans bigotry and zeroes in on the sidelining of Native knowledge about plants, animals, and land management by so-called scientific “experts.” In addition, colonialism is effectively denounced. Lastly, the book offers a moving analysis of illness and addresses the ways disability impacts their ability to write, participate in social justice movements, and socialize with family, friends, and colleagues.

By turns angry, mournful, moving, and persuasive, Personal Score reminds us of a foundational First Nation belief: “Only two relationships matter in the world, relationship with land and relationship with people.” van Neerven beautifully honors both.


Personal Score: Sport, Culture, Identity by Ellen van Neerven. Two Dollar Radio, April 2024.

Reviewer bio: Eleanor J. Bader is a Brooklyn, NY-based journalist who writes about books and domestic social issues for Truthout, Rain Taxi, The Progressive, Ms. Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and The Indypendent.

Book Review :: The Other Side of Nothing by Anastasia Zadeik

Review by Eleanor J. Bader

The Other Side of Nothing, Anastasia Zadeik’s second novel, is an emotionally resonant exploration of what it means to love someone with a life-threatening mental illness. The story centers around Julia, a suicidal soon-to-be-18-year-old who believes that she hastened her father’s death from cancer. After signing herself into a psychiatric hospital, she begins to stabilize. That is, until she meets 23-year-old Sam in group therapy. Sam, an up-and-coming artist, is everything Julia admires and they immediately become a couple. But things unravel almost as quickly as they began.

As Sam’s release date approaches, he convinces Julia to bolt the facility and join him on a cross-country road trip to Yosemite National Park. Once there, he intends to replicate Ansel Adams’ photo of Half Dome. From the start troubles lurk: Sam discards his medication, takes Julia’s cell phone, and becomes increasingly manic and controlling. Julia is terrified.

The hospital, meanwhile, has no clue about Julia’s whereabouts, and although staff have suspicions, they also know that they have to do something–and fast. Despite hesitation, they notify Sam and Julia’s mothers about the disappearance, prompting the pair to take a harrowing road trip of their own.

The Other Side of Nothing addresses heavy themes–bipolar disorder, depression, suicide–with sensitivity and grace, making the book both illuminating and unforgettable.


The Other Side of Nothing by Anastasia Zadeik. She Writes Press, May 2024.

Reviewer bio: Eleanor J. Bader is a Brooklyn, NY-based journalist who writes about books and domestic social issues for Truthout, Rain Taxi, The Progressive, Ms. Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and The Indypendent.

Book Review :: Knife by Salman Rushdie

Review by Kevin Brown

Most people know Salman Rushdie only for the publication of The Satanic Verses and the fatwa issued against his life, much to his regret. He and others thought he had moved on from that time in his life. However, on August 12, 2022, a man attacked him when he was on stage to speak at the Chautauqua Institution, leading Rushdie to lose sight in one eye and much of the mobility in one hand in addition to wounds in his neck and stomach. Medical specialists and his family thought he would die.

This memoir is the account of the attack, as Rushdie recounts that day, but it is much more about the power of love and art. Through his long recovery, Rushdie repeatedly returns to those two aspects of his life to help him through the roughest periods. As he has done his entire career, he celebrates freedom of speech that he believes all writers and individuals possess, but he also speaks much more openly of the love of his wife, Eliza, and his family, as well as the writers and broader literary community that rallied to his support.

In a time where extremism continues to be on the rise, this memoir celebrates that which we need most to combat it: the love of those around us and the art we all can create and celebrate.


Knife: Meditations After an Attempted Murder by Salman Rushdie. Random House, 2024.

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 :: Poèmes deep/Gravitas by Amy Berkowitz

Review by Jami Macarty

“Poetry was a place to play / with language” for Amy Berkowitz: “There were no rules.” That is until she went to “grad school” and “learned” “that she had nothing to say” from professors in a creative writing program who “refused” to protect women students from the “serial abuser who’s been molesting / and harassing them for decades.” She had “been accepted to the program on the merit of a writing sample,” yet in response to what she was writing while a student there she was told her “poems lack gravitas.”

In a particularly adroit maneuver, Berkowitz claims the word used to undermine her artistic confidence. She titles each poem in a series of thirteen “Gravitas” followed by a numeral and a colon, e.g. “Gravitas Ten: The Size of the Problem.” In each poem, she describes an aspect of the gendered power struggles, violence, and abuse, and how sexism impacts expression within academia. Though the oppressive experiences at the academic institution Berkowitz attended are foregrounded, “the shit” she shares with readers “happens fucking everywhere” where there is “a guy like that” and “the lives of women…aren’t taken seriously.”

“It’s incredible how an institution
can make it impossible for students to have certain thoughts.
So much violence in that, so much power and control,
so sinister, so invisible.”

Continue reading “Book Review :: Poèmes deep/Gravitas by Amy Berkowitz”

Book Review :: School Communities of Strength by Peter W. Cookson, Jr.

Review by Eleanor J. Bader

School Communities of Strength: Strategies for Education Children Living in Deep Poverty, long-time teacher-researcher Peter W. Cookson’s latest book, is a forthright call to political leaders to end the continued scourge of American poverty. He defines this as having an annual income of $15,000 or less for a household of four, a condition that typically catapults whole families into homelessness and hunger.

Predictably, poverty and want cause children’s schooling to suffer, making the promise of an equal education little more than a pipedream. But poverty is not inevitable, and Cookson offers strategies not only for eradicating it but for meeting the needs of “the whole child.” This, he writes, starts with the belief that every student can learn and then zeroes in on the material resources that support their abilities, from free school meals to computer access, from safe, secure, and habitable school buildings to onsite medical and psychological care for kids and the adults they live with.

In addition, Cookson argues that ending poverty requires an understanding that penury is a policy choice. “Giving people crumbs that fall off the table of influence is not the same as empowering people with real education, real jobs, and real dignity,” he concludes.

School Communities of Strength is a potent directive for policymakers, educators, and those who care about children and families.


School Communities of Strength: Strategies for Education Children Living in Deep Poverty, Peter W. Cookson, Jr. Foreword by David C. Berliner. Harvard Education Press, April 2024.

Reviewer bio: Eleanor J. Bader is a Brooklyn, NY-based journalist who writes about books and domestic social issues for Truthout, Rain Taxi, The Progressive, Ms. Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and The Indypendent.

Book Review :: The Race to be Myself by Caster Semenya

Guest Post by Kevin Brown

Anybody who pays attention to the news, especially sports news, probably thinks they know Semenya’s story, even if they don’t know her name. She’s a two-time Olympic medalist in the 800 meters from South Africa, but she was banned from running because her testosterone levels were too high, according to World Athletics, the governing board for track and field. They and some of her competitors argued that she had an unfair advantage.

This memoir is Semenya’s taking control of her own narrative, as she tells the story of how she fell in love with running, the acceptance she felt in her family and village, the success she had on the track, and her fight against World Athletics. Despite doctors’ classifying her as intersex, Semenya says she has never seen herself as anything other than female. She also argues that World Athletics never presented any scientific evidence that her testosterone levels gave her any advantage, and her racing times were well in line with other women she raced against.

For those who know Semenya’s story, The Race to be Myself by Caster Semenya will only deepen their knowledge, as she presents what she was thinking during her career. For those who think they know what happened during those years, her memoir presents a different view than the dominant narrative. For those who think they have no interest in a memoir about a runner, Semenya’s book reminds us that, when we talk about gender and access, we’re not talking about an issue; we’re talking about people.


The Race to be Myself by Caster Semenya. W.W. Norton, 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 :: If This Isn’t Love by Susana H. Case

Guest Post by Jami Macarty

“Love is on the line” in Susana H. Case’s If This Isn’t Love. With her characteristic assured and unapologetic voice, Case “organizes / … [the] pens and pages” of her ninth poetry collection around “[u]nrequited love, rapes, / tumors, mental hospitals, and secret / adoptions,” among other open narratives in “romance comics,” “telenovelas,” and her own real-life, “sad increments” having to do with “broken family,” “abusive men,” “my abortion,” and “female cancers.”

In her “spill / of words,” Case cautions: “Forget the fairy gold we’re sold / in the media.” Then asks: “How else will girls learn what it takes” to survive in a world “scheming / against” them? Case brings readers to the “wall between” the “bloodthirsty” and the “beautiful,” and by doing so, she asks us to confront life’s game of “chess” in which “there are only / squares and pieces to lose.”

Who does not “wish” she “were a better player”? But who can maintain “thinking about moves” when “distracted by… / all the ways” to “choose our sides” “between loss of control” and the humiliation that comes from “love’s inevitable losses.” In “reality” there may be “no true protection” from “[w]ar and eros,” but by taking on the ménage à trois between romance, reason, and imagination, Case holds media’s purveying of “human cruelty” and “life’s atrocities” to account.


If This Isn’t Love by Susana H. Case. Broadstone Books, August 2023.

Reviewer bio: Jami Macarty is the author of The Long Now Conditions Permit, winner of the 2023 Test Site Poetry Series Prize, forthcoming fall 2024, and The Minuses (Center for Literary Publishing, 2020), winner of the 2020 New Mexico/Arizona Book Award – Poetry Arizona. Jami’s four chapbooks include The Whole Catastrophe, forthcoming summer 2024 from the Vallum Chapbook Series, and Mind of Spring (Vallum, 2017), winner of the 2017 Vallum Chapbook Award. To learn more about Jami’s writing, editing, and teaching practices visit her author website.

Book Review :: Thine by Kate Partridge

Guest Post by Jami Macarty

In Thine, Kate Partridge’s meditative lyrics generously allow poetic perspectives physical and cognitive, situated in landscape and observation, located in “the city, the body” and “the peopled land the landed people.” Whether “the burn crouching through the valley” or “a gauntlet of yellow flowers” the poet “let[s] things gather around” her.

Simultaneously the poet reckons with her positionality; “one’s position is fault.” Whether “at the precipice,” “on a dock,” “above the playa,” or “standing on the bike path,” the poet wishes for the “presence / / and vision” of others—intimates, artists, and writers. The writers range from Jorie Graham to Marianne Moore to C. D. Wright; six poems “erase… one reserved letter from Willa Cather to her partner Edith.” Joining epistles, homages, and erasures, ekphrastic poems engage Dorothea “Lange’s photos of women in deserts,” Agnes Martin’s grid paintings, and Walter de Maria’s land art, among others.

The poet’s multiple poetic perspectives, conversations, and forms offer readers an artist’s “many ways to give, / thought to the other.” For the poet, engagement with artists, art, land, and self seems to offer her heart means to “expanding in all / sorts of ways” and to “gird” for the necessary wait for the “pockmarked future.”

Dear Reader, “if at any time / you have need of a beginning, look” to Kate Partridge’s “evident truths.” There among “the rising proof of grass” she will meet thee and these poems will be Thine.


Thine by Kate Partridge. Tupelo Press, September 2023.

Reviewer bio: Jami Macarty is the author of The Long Now Conditions Permit, winner of the 2023 Test Site Poetry Series Prize, forthcoming fall 2024, and The Minuses (Center for Literary Publishing, 2020), winner of the 2020 New Mexico/Arizona Book Award – Poetry Arizona. Jami’s four chapbooks include The Whole Catastrophe, forthcoming summer 2024 from the Vallum Chapbook Series, and Mind of Spring (Vallum, 2017), winner of the 2017 Vallum Chapbook Award. To learn more about Jami’s writing, editing, and teaching practices visit her author website.

Review :: Splinters by Leslie Jamison

Guest Post by Kevin Brown

In her latest memoir, Splinters: Another Kind of Love Story, Leslie Jamison tells the story of the dissolution of her marriage, a splintering that happened roughly a year after the birth of her daughter. That tension is the driving force in her work, as she tries to navigate being a single mother and a writer, while also dating.

Each of these aspects of who she is pulls on the other. She feels guilty when she undertakes part of a book tour without her daughter or even when she has left her daughter with a babysitter, so she can write. Her frustrations with her ex-husband often prevent her from seeing that he’s an important part of her (their, she reminds herself) daughter’s life. She dates men she knows aren’t a good fit, one of whom (she refers to him only as tumbleweed, an apt description) repeatedly tells her that he doesn’t want children, or even monogamy.

She never truly answers the questions she asks about how to manage her newly-fractured life, as she’s having to, as Rilke writes, live into those questions. However, she is asking the key question so many of us have, regardless of our parental or relationship status: how do I manage all that I love in my life?


Splinters: Another Kind of Love Story by Leslie Jamison. Little, Brown and Company, February 2024.

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 :: There’s Always This Year by Hanif Abdurraqib

Guest Post by Kevin Brown

Hanif Abdurraqib is a poet as well as an essayist, and he brings a lyrical style to his latest book, There’s Always This Year: On Basketball and Ascension. While the subtitle might discourage non-basketball fans from cracking the cover, this work is more of a meditation on the narrative of uplift than anything else.

Abdurraqib does write about basketball—whether that’s players from his neighborhood whom the reader has never heard of or LeBron James—but he does so in service of the idea of ascension. He’s questioning the narrative that white people want to tell about African Americans—and other minorities, but primarily Black people—overcoming difficult odds to succeed, whatever they need that success to look like at that moment. Thus, he celebrates the people from his neighborhood, city, and even state, who were great, if only for a moment, some of whom never went any further.

In fact, he not only celebrates individuals, but the place he is from. Abdurraqib loves his neighborhood, and he loves Columbus (and Cleveland, as well, when it comes to basketball), and Ohio. That love shines through in every section of the book—he’s structured it like a basketball game, complete with the clock counting down—and it’s difficult for the reader not to share that love by the end.

The people and places Abdurraqib loves don’t have to be anything other than what they are; by implication, neither does the reader and the places they love.


There’s Always This Year: On Basketball and Ascension by Hanif Abdurraqib. Random House, March 2024.

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 :: Teach for Climate Justice by Tom Roderick

Guest Post by Eleanor J. Bader

In Teach for Climate Justice: A Vision for Transforming Education, longtime education activist and teacher Tom Roderick argues that the primary role of schools today is to create ecologically-conscious students who are “courageous, intelligent, and wise fighters for social justice.” Indeed, as environmental degradation becomes more-and-more apparent, Roderick writes that the need to protect the earth should be woven into every academic discipline, pre-K through high school.

Thanks to numerous school-based examples and interviews, Teach for Climate Justice merges concrete scientific information about the crisis with a how-to on community organizing that zeroes in on the power of collective action to build momentum for change. The result is inspiring.

It’s also intersectional, linking efforts to win human and civil rights with campaigns for environmental justice. Throughout, the text highlights pollution’s disproportionate impact on communities of color. Moreover, it names the culprits–corporations that promote endless economic growth and lawmakers who do their bidding.

But how to force a reckoning with them?

Roderick argues that this existential question is foundational, if still unanswered. Nonetheless, he remains optimistic: Since 90 percent of US children attend public schools, he believes that students can learn to push back against climate deniers, develop personal agency, and foster respect between people and Mother earth. A compendium of resources is included to aid teachers in these efforts.


Teach for Climate Justice: A Vision for Transforming Education by Tom Roderick. Harvard Education Press, June 2023.

Reviewer bio: Eleanor J. Bader is a Brooklyn, NY-based journalist who writes about books and domestic social issues for Truthout, Rain Taxi, The Progressive, Ms. Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and The Indypendent.

Book Review :: the verdant by Linda Russo

Guest Post by Susan Kay Anderson

Linda Russo’s The Verdant, 2023 Halcyon Poetry Award Winner, goes beyond usual eco-poetics to explore what it means to utter human sounds in wild places. In this case, the green world, the world away from plastics and electricity, becomes the focus, becomes the world.

The section called ‘Emergence’ is a long poem/poem series that makes up the book. Under the title/heading, “wild plum, western blue flax, wooly sunflower, come in,” Russo gives us what is essential about communing with wild places:

[. . . ] with rubbly tongue caressing grasses
dropping live seeds caught in songs

We are whisked away to a landscape which does not seem like this planet at all because it is so much the planet that we forget where we are. Russo speaks from the land and all its inhabitants as a being moving through the landscape in a unique way.

Inventive open form poems with lots of white space, careful construction of headings/titles at the top of each page, and a meditative feature at the end do not let us off the hook; we must participate in this world.

the verdant is what happens after spending time out-of-doors. The doorway of the mind is propped open, left open to possibility.


the verdant by Linda Russo. Middle Creek Publishing & Audio, March 2024.

Reviewer bio: Susan Kay Anderson lives in southwestern Oregon’s Umpqua River Basin. Her long poem “Man’s West Once” was selected for Barrow Street Journal’s “4 X 2 Project” and is included in Mezzanine (2019). Anderson also published Virginia Brautigan Aste’s memoir, Please Plant This Book Coast To Coast (2021).

Book Review :: Grief is for People by Sloane Crosley

Guest Post by Kevin Brown

The title of Sloane Crosley’s book, Grief is for People, makes the subject of her writing quite clear, as she is delving into grief; however, her focus is on her grief for the loss of one person. While Crosley uses other losses—especially jewelry stolen from her apartment and the Covid pandemic—she is mainly concerned with processing the death of Russell, her best friend and former boss. As with the theft and pandemic, Russell’s death is unexpected, so Crosley writes this book largely as a way to process and understand his absence.

She divides the book into five sections to mirror the stages of grief; however, the final section is subtitled “Afterward,” not “Acceptance,” as it is clear she has not come to an acceptance of his death, even by the end of the book. In fact, that final section is addressed to Russell, as if she still wants to talk to him, even about his own death.

This description makes the book sound depressing and heavy, and it certainly is, but Crosley brings her typical humor to the subject, as well, though much of it is gallows humor. What shines through more than anything, though, is her love for Russell, despite all of his failings, which helps the reader understand why this loss matters so much for Crosley, which reminds us of why our losses continue to matter, as well.


Grief is for People by Sloane Crosley. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2024.

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 :: Outlive by Peter Attia

Guest Post by Kevin Brown

In Outlive: The Science & Art of Longevity, unlike many books about longevity, Peter Attia’s goal isn’t to provide the reader with life hacks or technology that will help readers live until they’re one hundred and fifty. Instead, he lays out what he calls the Four Horsemen—“cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and related neurodegenerative conditions, and type 2 diabetes and related metabolic dysfunction”—with a clear-eyed approach of just how awful they are, as well as what causes them, as far as we know.

He then explores tactics that can help readers try to stave off those Horsemen, though he argues that we should start decades, not just years, earlier to do so (Medicine 3.0, as opposed to the current healthcare system, which he calls Medicine 2.0). He delves into the research on exercise, nutrition, stability, and emotional health to show how they can all work to help prevent suffering and decline.

In fact, the most important part of his book is that he wants people to have a longer healthspan (the amount of time we’re healthy and functional), not just lifespan. He wants people to be able to live full lives in their seventies and eighties, not just live longer
Readers looking for a how-to manual might be disappointed, but Attia clearly explains the realities facing people as they age and gives them strategies and tactics for how to live a long and functional life.


Outlive: The Science & Art of Longevity by Peter Attia with Bill Gifford. Harmony Books, 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 :: Wandering Stars by Tommy Orange

Guest Post by Kevin Brown

Tommy Orange’s second novel, Wandering Stars, builds on characters from his first novel, There There, as he continues to portray the struggles of a Native American family in and around Oakland. Readers don’t need to have read the first novel to understand this one, though it certainly helps.

He uses the first third of this most recent work to explore the family’s lineage, going back to the Sand Creek Massacre in 1864. On the one hand, Orange’s novel shows the long-lasting effects of trauma, especially the various ways the family members self-medicate with (and become addicted to) alcohol and/or drugs. In each case, especially in this historical section of the novel, people end up losing their lives or those they love due to these addictions.

That trend seems to continue into the present, but there’s also a counter-narrative of survival. Despite all this family has endured and the ways in which it doesn’t match up to a “traditional” family (whatever that means in 2024), they still exist. One of the main ways they continue to live in a society designed to take everything from them is through the power of story and culture. There is a manuscript that celebrates their ancestors, passed down over several generations and surviving into the present, which gives the characters some bit of hope.

Orange’s characters, though, ultimately want to go beyond surviving. While it’s not clear what will happen to their family by the end of the novel, they clearly want to live and love one another; they want a life and a culture where they can be who they are, something so many in the U.S. take for granted.


Wandering Stars by Tommy Orange. Alfred A. Knopf, 2024.

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 :: A Ten Peso Burial for Which Truth I Sign by Gabriel Palacios

Guest Post by Susan Kay Anderson

Wow, what AM I READING?

A Ten Peso Burial for Which Truth I Sign, debut poetry by Gabriel Palacios, is a book in four parts. The poems in part three, titled “Television Theater,” are “Spanish Trail Motel” encounters, hard-hitting and jagged, as they weave tales in and out of a journey. I find myself traveling along by horseback to stations on that fantastic journey across American desert country into a past/present that takes prisoners into its own chambers of cactus and canyons.

The vibe is Hotel California, but Palacios delves into an obsession with the Spanish Trail, the dignified name for what it really was and is: a trail of slaughter in the name of colonialism and conquest. Take “The Spanish Trail Motel /The Friar’s Daughter’s Mother”:

“My child’s eyeball strobic in the wide-brimmed hatted
death’s head given placard”

and:

“In exterminating
thinking I feel eyeless toward the proof
I trust computer ghosts to translate”

Palacios describes this world from inside the people who live and die in desolate circumstances. These are depictions of life in the contemporary Southwest few have written about. From “The Spanish Trail Motel”:

“If I’m to live here as a pit bull smiling out of its
Impound yard
If I have to I will”


A Ten Peso Burial for Which Truth I Sign by Gabriel Palacios. Fonograf Editions, March 2024.

Reviewer bio: Susan Kay Anderson lives in southwestern Oregon’s Umpqua River Basin. Her long poem “Man’s West Once” was selected for Barrow Street Journal’s “4 X 2 Project” and is included in Mezzanine (2019). Anderson also published Virginia Brautigan Aste’s memoir, Please Plant This Book Coast To Coast (2021).

Book Review :: All for You by Dena Rueb Romero

Dena Rueb Romero’s memoir, All for You, tells an incredible story about a love affair between the author’s German Lutheran mother, Deta, and German Jewish father, Emil, a relationship that began in pre-Nazi Germany and lasted until Emil’s death in 1980. As Romero recounts in her intro, she learned details about her parents’ liaison when she was house-sitting for her mom and discovered letters that documented their seven-year wartime separation.

The book, part political and part social history, covers the growth of Nazism in Europe. But this is also a highly personal story: Deta’s 1937 emigration to England and her subsequent work as a nanny were acts of anti-Hitler resistance. Nonetheless, as a German citizen, her loyalties were questioned and she was imprisoned as an “enemy alien.”

Emil’s story – his emigration to the US and his work as a photographer in Hanover, New Hampshire – both lucky breaks, offers additional insights into who got out of Germany and why. Still, there is tragedy here; although Emil and Deta reunited in 1946, he was unable to get his parents, sister, or brother-in-law out of Germany, a reality that cast an ever-present pall on his relationships and business dealings.

All told, All for You not only documents an enduring, if troubled, love, but offers insights into trauma and survival.


All for You by Dena Rueb Romero. She Writes Press, May 2024.

Reviewer bio: Eleanor J. Bader is a Brooklyn, NY-based journalist who writes about books and domestic social issues for Truthout, Rain Taxi, The Progressive, Ms. Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and The Indypendent.

Book Review :: Romance Language by Amy Glynn

In Romance Language, Amy Glynn seeks to “understand these undercurrents” that are “wrung from every one of us, in vast polyphonies / and syncopations, in desuetudes / and gasps of speechless praise.” The “truths of natural law” that govern worldly, bodily, and material things, which “crumble, and breakdown, / and are reconstituted,” catalyzes “a metaphor / that operates in every” poem. To “contemplate [this] dynamic tension,” Glynn uses “semantic fancy,” received forms, such as the ghazal and sonnet, and subject- and occasion-driven free verse.

Where language and romance are concerned “nothing’s truly off the table.” The things we tell ourselves and the advice we are given, the language used to romance “intensity / of feeling” or that contributes to “strained / relations,” and “how we conjure meaning from those chance / / alignments, accidents of circumstance” are the “tide, chaos, and rhythm” in Glynn’s poems.

Throughout the collection, chance’s “surge / of myth and implication” conjoins the “transitory and unstable.” For instance, the poems “Entre-Deux-Mers, June” and “Ruin” refute the advice to “turn” neglect “to your advantage” and to “not to let your damage / define you.” Glynn “think[s] that’s a mistake.” Then what are the implications of grieving the neglect you survived and allowing “your damage” to “define you”? A possible answer arrives in “Field Guide to the Birds of Ogygia”: The “gods send misery because they want / to hear more songs.”

Glynn’s songs contend with Keats’s declaration in “Ode on a Grecian Urn”: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” As a survivor of life’s damage, the poet knows that is not “all”; she adds that “truth is complicated” and “overrated.” However, “beautiful is still a mandate.” With truth in perspective, the “primary phenomenon” the poet seeks “is clarity”; that which “is literal enough, the rising tide” while simultaneously acknowledging “the littoral / state, borderless as it is.” Everyone “leaves a record,” and Romance Language is Amy Glynn’s “adamant oratory / / on permanence.”


Romance Language by Amy Glynn. Able Muse Press, January 2024.

Reviewer bio: Jami Macarty is the author of The Long Now Conditions Permit, winner of the 2023 Test Site Poetry Series Prize, forthcoming fall 2024, and The Minuses (Center for Literary Publishing, 2020), winner of the 2020 New Mexico/Arizona Book Award – Poetry Arizona. Jami’s four chapbooks include The Whole Catastrophe, forthcoming summer 2024 from the Vallum Chapbook Series, and Mind of Spring (Vallum, 2017), winner of the 2017 Vallum Chapbook Award. To learn more about Jami’s writing, editing, and teaching practices visit her author website.

Book Review :: The Heart in Winter by Kevin Barry

Guest Post by Eleanor J. Bader

When Irish immigrant Tom Rourke lays eyes on Polly Gillespie, sparks begin to fly. Sure, she’s the newly-arrived mail-order bride of Captain Anthony Harrington, boss of Butte, Montana’s, Anaconda mine, and he’s a poverty-stricken, drink-and-drug-loving dreamer who pens letters for the illiterate, writes ditties for the town’s many bars, and periodically assists a local photographer, but no matter. Dire circumstances–and Polly’s matrimony–aside, the two determine that destiny has brought them together in a rare love-at-first-sighting, and has left them unwilling, or perhaps unable, to question its logic.

In short order, the pair concoct a plan to head to San Francisco, a journey that requires a bit of thievery and includes both idyllic moments and horrific violence. As bounty hunters set out to return Polly to her spouse, the pair have to duck and dodge to evade capture. The result is ribald, profane, and immensely entertaining. It’s also emotionally affecting.

Although I wanted more of Polly’s pre-Montana back story, The Heart in Winter merges comedy and tragedy effectively. Moreover, while the novel is set in the late 19th century, the tale is timeless, a deeply-felt look at the mysteries of attraction and the wildly unpredictable rumblings of heart and mind.


The Heart in Winter by Kevin Barry. Doubleday, July 2024.

Reviewer bio: Eleanor J. Bader is a Brooklyn, NY-based journalist who writes about books and domestic social issues for Truthout, Rain Taxi, The Progressive, Ms. Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and The Indypendent.

Book Review :: A Rupture in the Interiors by Valerie Witte

Guest Post by Jami Macarty

In A Rupture in the Interiors, Valerie Witte casts the “fugitive / dye” of her artistic attention on the manufacture of silk and the ruptures of skin, weaving an intricate and polyphonic textual fabric by blending the “intermittent hues” of her voice with the vocal registers and narrative threads from reference sources, such as the dictionary, a manual for growing silk, and a natural history of skin.

The multihued and multisensory poems bring to the fore the connections between the “fabrication” of silk and the “stratification” of skin and how each implies gender. For instance, marketing and advertising would have women desire silk clothing for its qualities of being like a second skin and would have them buy skincare products that promise skin like silk. As weavers “transfer the silk / to bobbins from skeins,” they tell the secret history of women’s work and high-risk labor in clothing manufacture. At the level of diction, the two monosyllabic words “silk” and “skin” share three of the same letters and a slant rhyme. These resonating qualities between the two words suggest the relationship between the skin-deep exterior and the penetrating interior central to the nine sequences that Witte has woven in her lyric, associative, innovative, and feminist second full-length collection.

As the title suggests, what makes itself felt and seen from the inside out, particularly as it pertains to the skin, forms the interior inquiry of the collection. The poems contemplate the phenomenon and vulnerabilities of skin, skin sensitivities and permeabilities, and how skin protects and maps a life, particularly that of a woman in a society that prizes female perfection. Such a beauty standard denies the systemic eventuality that “what lies dormant for years | suddenly reappears.” In the end, skin’s hair, “redness,” “capillaries,” “bumps,” “wrinkles” and other “impressions” form “bodies of evidence,” “tissue of stories unfolding.”

Witte’s poems, “assembled / [by] a recruitment of parts,” turn as “a woman’s wheel turned… / never failing,” “treating the wounded” in “a bewilderment / process / called / reckoning,” making A Rupture in the Interiors a moving and permeating read.


A Rupture in the Interiors by Valerie Witte. Airlie Press, October 2023.

Reviewer bio: Jami Macarty is the author of The Long Now Conditions Permit, winner of the 2023 Test Site Poetry Series Prize, forthcoming fall 2024, and The Minuses (Center for Literary Publishing, 2020), winner of the 2020 New Mexico/Arizona Book Award – Poetry Arizona. Jami’s four chapbooks include The Whole Catastrophe, forthcoming summer 2024 from the Vallum Chapbook Series, and Mind of Spring (Vallum, 2017), winner of the 2017 Vallum Chapbook Award. To learn more about Jami’s writing, editing, and teaching practices visit her author website.

Book Review :: Why We Remember by Charan Ranganath

Guest Post by Kevin Brown

The full title of Charan Ranganath’s work, Why We Remember: Unlocking Memory’s Power to Hold on to What Matters, implicitly lays out his goal, as he wants to talk about how and why our brains work, not those times when we believe they don’t. It’s that belief most of us have that Ranganath wants to disprove, as he argues that our brains are designed to forget almost everything we learn or experience; they couldn’t function otherwise.

Instead, he wants readers to see that our brains work quite well when it comes to memory, once we understand why we remember what we do and, thus, how we can retain more of what we want to remember. Part of the problem, he points out, isn’t memory; it’s our lack of attention and intention. We are easily distracted, and we don’t work to remember what we say we want to recall.

He delves into how our feelings do and don’t affect our memories, and he explores how and when our memories change, but also how reliable they often are. Ranganath draws on his experience with teaching to talk about how frequently testing oneself is more beneficial than the studying (i.e., cramming) that most students (and most adults) do.

I found the chapter on openness to novelty and “the strange” to be the most interesting, as we almost always talk about memory’s effects on our past, but, throughout the book, Ranganath also makes the case that our memory shapes who we are today and who we believe we can be tomorrow. His book looks forward as much as it looks back.


Why We Remember by Charan Ranganath. Doubleday, February 2024

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 of James by Percival Everett

Guest Post by Kevin Brown

The first half of the novel James by Percival Everett follows the plot of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn fairly closely, even taking parts of scenes almost word for word. And it seems as if Everett isn’t going to go beyond a few, superficial changes: when Jim is with other enslaved people, for example, they drop their dialect, and Jim can read and write. However, when Jim and Huck encounter the Duke and King, the novel takes a different, much darker and more realistic turn.

Unlike in Twain’s novel, Jim truly suffers, both physically—as several people whip and beat him—and emotionally, such as when he sees people he cares about die. Everett doesn’t only riff on Twain’s novel, though; he also pulls from writers ranging from Ralph Ellison to a variety of slave narratives, and Jim has imaginary conversations with some Enlightenment thinkers, questioning people like John Locke and Voltaire about their hypocrisy concerning slavery.

Writing is at the center of this novel, as Jim (and Everett) is the one telling this story, not a white man through the lens of a white boy from Missouri. Everett uses the change in narration to give Jim a voice, but also a name, as he uses writing to transform himself from a sidekick into a hero, to move from being an enslaved person without agency and choice to become James, a man who makes his own decisions and lives with the consequences. Everett knows this novel is only one more story, but he also knows that the stories we tell matter.


James by Percival Everett. Doubleday, March 2024.

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 :: Cheap Motels of My Youth by George Bilgere

The poems in George Bilgere’s new chapbook, Cheap Motels of My Youth, are reminiscent of Billy Collins’s writing: imaginative, charming, and wryly humorous. Accessible upon first read, they deepen with subsequent perusal.

Bilgere is a master of shifts in perspective and time. For example, the poem “Nine,” opens in a child’s voice: “I am standing by the pop machine / at the gas station, drinking a root beer… Then, it leaps forward: “How am I supposed to know / that an old, white-haired guy, / a grown-up, is watching me / from his desk in the future, / writing down every move I make.”

The chapbook’s speaker is a son, father, husband, and teacher. He contemplates concerns ranging from grocery shopping and desire to bicycling and mortality. In “Where Will You Go When You Die?” he imagines himself as ashes in a garden watching his children play and his wife grills chicken:

“…not with the same skill, clearly,
as her late husband, although
she does seem to be improving,
as I can see from my vantage point
….next to the hydrangeas,
which I so often failed to fertilize,
or weed, or even water
back when I was alive.
Make yourself useful,
she used to say, and here I am
doing exactly that.”


Cheap Motels of My Youth by George Bilgere. Rattle, 2024.

Reviewer Bio: Mary Beth Hines writes poetry, short fiction, and non-fiction from her home in Massachusetts. Her work appears in Cider Press Review, Tar River Poetry, Valparaiso, and elsewhere. Kelsay Books published her poetry collection Winter at a Summer House in 2021.

Book Review :: Mister, Mister by Guy Gunaratne

Guest Post by Kevin Brown

The text of Mister, Mister, Guy Gunaratne’s second novel, is a letter written by the main character, Yahya Bas, to the Mister of the title, a shadowy figure whom the reader never sees or knows, but who seems to work for an intelligence/military arm of the British government. Yahya is writing his account because he has cut his tongue out and, thus, is unable to answer Mister’s questions.

It’s clear Mister believes Yahya is a terrorist, largely based on Yahya’s time spent in Iraq (it’s never clear) several years after the NATO invasion of that country and incendiary poems Yahya published before leaving Britain, writing under the name Al-Bayn, a pun on Albion. Yahya was inspired to write those poems after the pictures from Abu Ghraib became known, but he was already moving in that direction.

Yahya’s father, from all he can tell, left Britain (and Yahya’s mother) to fight in Iraq in the early 1990s, where he also recorded music and poetry, a further inspiration for Yahya’s verses. Yahya’s mother suffers from some sort of depression or anxiety, so she barely speaks, leaving Yahya to be raised by a range of women he calls Mother and his uncle in the house for widows where his mother lives.

Though Yahya’s interrogator is not interested in all of this backstory, Gunaratne is, and the backstory is part of the point. The British intelligence agent only sees Yahya as a terrorist, while he is a son, a nephew, a friend, a lover, a person, in addition to his ethnic heritage and his poems. Gunaratne wants to remind readers of the power of taking back one’s story, even if one has to stop talking to do so.


Mister, Mister by Guy Gunaratne. Pantheon Books, 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 :: The Vaster Wilds by Lauren Groff

Guest Post by Kevin Brown

The premise of Lauren Groff’s latest novel, The Vaster Wilds, is simple: a girl runs away from a settlement in Colonial America for reasons the reader will discover later in the book. The storyline moves between her attempts to stay alive in an unwelcoming environment and her past life as a servant. Those two situations are not as different from one another as they initially seem.

While Groff tells a believable story about a girl several hundred years ago, she is just as interested in talking about what it means to be a female in the twenty-first century. One of the few times the girl encounters anybody outside the settlement, she sees two Indigenous men. When Groff writes, “And she was chilled to her soul, for it was reflexive, for she feared the fate of women anywhere, women caught alone on a dark street in a city, in a country lane far from human ears, in any place where there were no other people nearby to witness,” she could be describing everyday life for women.

Groff also reminds readers of men’s insatiable need to own and dominate, whether that’s women or land. Near the end of the novel, the narrator reflects, “The men of her own country had always felt this nothing deep within them; . . . it gave them a need to set their boots upon everything they saw.”

Groff is writing about what it means to be a woman in America today, living in fear of what men might do to them while watching what men do to the world around them.


The Vaster Wilds by Lauren Groff. Riverhead Books, 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 :: The English Understand Wool by Helen DeWitt

Guest Post by Kevin Brown

While The English Understand Wool by Helen DeWitt book is a couple of years old now, Ann Patchett recently revived interest in it during one of her weekly videos for Parnassus Books. New Directions publishes these storybooks, as they call them, that look like Little Golden Books from childhood and are short enough for readers to finish them in one sitting. This format reinforces the seemingly simplistic story DeWitt has crafted.

The main character—whom some call Marguerite—has been raised to appreciate luxury and valuable belongings. The title refers to the idea that only certain craftspeople or artisans can use raw materials well to create beautiful clothing and belongings. However, readers find out that Marguerite’s story is more complicated than first appears, and that she’s writing a memoir about that complicated past, one her publisher wants her to write differently.

Marguerite seems to understand little about the broader world, only aware of the sheltered life of luxury her mother exposed her to. There is little more to the plot than that, but there is much more to the book than that. Saying more would spoil the final third of this brief novel, but readers should know by now they can’t judge a book by its cover.


The English Understand Wool by Helen DeWitt. One of the Storybooks 2023 Bundle available from New Directions.

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 :: Modern Poetry by Diane Seuss

Guest Post by Aiden Hunt

Acclaimed poet Diane Seuss continues her trend of publishing a new collection every three years with her sixth full-length, Modern Poetry. The title comes from the first textbook she encountered as a child and the first poetry course she took in college. Many of the poem titles are simple, using terminology from that book, like “Ballad,” “Allegory,” “An Aria,” and “Coda.”

As in her collection, frank:sonnets (2021), winner of numerous awards, Seuss plays with form here. A poem called “Villanelle” isn’t one, but begins, “I dreamed I was reading a villanelle / in front of a crowd.” The next poem, however, is titled, “Folk Song,” and it tells a more modern sort of villanelle, or peasant song, “Of selfhood I worked so hard to earn. Of work I worked so hard / to avoid. Of the working class. My class. Its itches and psychological riches.”

Seuss engages the imagination with straight talk about modern life as a working-class woman and relates both her lived experience and her complex relationship with her art in poems like “Ballad That Ends with Bitch,” with her Speaker relating, “At age ten, I turned away from tenderness. / I remember the moment. A flipping of a switch. / My house is a cold mess except for that thing in the corner. / Poetry, that snarling, flaming bitch.”


Modern Poetry by Diane Seuss. Graywolf Press, March 2024.

Reviewer bio: Aiden Hunt is a poet, editor, and critic, writing freelance book reviews and critical essays for literary publications. He is the creator and editor of Philly Poetry Chapbook Review, an online literary journal concerned with poetry chapbooks, their authors, and their publishers.

Book Review :: Martyr! by Kaveh Akbar

Guest Post by Kevin Brown

Martyr!, Akbar’s debut novel tells the story of Cyrus Shams, the only son of his mother Roya—who was killed when the United States shot down an Iranian passagener plane in 1988—and his father Ali, who dies shortly after Cyrus leaves for college, as if he has completed his job of raising his son. Cyrus is an alcoholic and an addict; he’s considering killing himself; but he’s also looking for a sign from God, as he is considering being a martyr, whatever that might mean for somebody who doesn’t have faith in anyone or anything beyond him.

The narrative focuses on Cyrus, but Akbar intersperses shorter chapters that follow Roya and Ali when they are younger, helping the reader understand who they were outside of Cyrus’s limited view. There are even a couple of chapters that focus on Arash, Cyrus’s uncle, whose role in the Iran-Iraq war was to ride around at night on horseback, wearing a black robe, portraying the angel Gabriel to convince the dying soldiers that their sacrifice was worthwhile.

Cyrus has a few brief conversations with Orkideh, a performance artist in New York City who is dying of breast cancer, as she sits in the museum, talking with anybody who sits down with her. Cyrus has begun writing a collection of poems about martrys in an attempt to understand them and himself, and he believes Orkideh might be one.

While the story itself is compelling, Akbar draws on his skills as a poet to create images and sentences that will resonate long after readers have finished the novel. While watching Cyrus struggle to find who he is is painful, Akbar’s writing makes the journey well worth the effort.


Martyr! by Kaveh Akbar. Alfred A. Knopf, January 2024.

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 :: Come & Get It by Kiley Reid

Guest Post by Kevin Brown

Kiley Reid has said that her second novel, Come & Get It, centers around money; that assertion is undoubtedly true—the novel even ends with a stop at Target. However, like all good novels, this one is about much more than the purported subject.

The reader follows three characters throughout the novel: Agatha, a visiting professor at the University of Arkansas who has also written a book about grief; Kennedy, a transfer student who has come to the university in the hopes of studying with Agatha; and Millie, the Resident Assistant for the dorm where Kennedy is staying.

Every relationship in the novel has the undercurrent of money’s influence, whether that’s Kennedy’s relationship with her suitemates Peyton and Tyler, both of whom believe Kennedy has way too much stuff for a dorm room; or Agatha’s romantic relationship with Robin, a dancer who earns little money; or Agatha’s paying Millie—who hopes to save enough money for a house—to help set up interviews with college students for her research. Class and race also complicate these relationships, not surprisingly when money is involved.

Reid interviewed thirty college students to help create her characters, and her research shows. She’s not condescending toward them, though, no matter how many poor decisions they might make. As in life, the adults are just as likely to make equally bad decisions. Though not a polemic, this novel seems designed to disprove the theory of the rational actor in any situation, economic or otherwise.


Come & Get It by Kiley Reid. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, January 2024.

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 :: Absolution by Alice McDermott

Guest Post by Kevin Brown

Absolution, Alice McDermott’s latest novel, is technically an epistolary novel, though it doesn’t read like one. It’s an exchange of only three, long letters between Tricia and Rainey, mainly focusing on Charlene, Rainey’s mother. Tricia and Charlene met in Vietnam as the war was beginning there, both married to men who worked for the American government, but who were not actually part of it or the military. Rainey was a young girl then, but she remembers Tricia and reaches out to her to inform her of the death of a common acquaintance.

Charlene is, as almost everybody describes her, a “dynamo,” always working to try to do good, whether that’s raising money for toys and candy for children in the hospital or visiting a leper colony to provide them with nice clothing. Tricia is much more passive, but Charlene is able to use her shyness as a way to get other women to invest in her ideas, passing them off as Tricia’s.

The novel portrays the women, even Charlene, as hemmed in by their gender, exploring their role in a place where they have no choice but to be, much like the soldiers, but for a very different reason. The main question of the novel, though, is who needs absolution and why: while the obvious answer is the U.S. government and those associated with the horrors of the war, there’s enough unspoken guilt in this world to go around.


Absolution by Alice McDermott. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 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 :: In a Body by Emily Hockaday

Guest Post by Jami Macarty

In a Body, Emily Hockaday’s second poetry collection considers a body that “feels / less and less like mine,” and what it might be like to be “outside / of time.” The movement from corporeal to incorporeal suggests trauma and an “interconnected web of pain.” The poems, offered to readers by a mother of a daughter located at the crossroads of a “diagnosis” and “the other side of us,” allude to substance abuse, mental health, chronic pain, breast cancer, and a father’s death.

Given that, it is no wonder that the narrator declares: “I want to be like the Earth, / but I want to be treated better.” Seen via the “micro and macro,” the body of these poems is “compartmentalized” and “becoming”; the body is seen in relation or comparison; the body is seen “after,” “in,” “as,” “at,” “of,” “above,” “before,” “from,” and “through” “momentum” and “metamorphosis.”Poem titles offer the body “Becoming the Owl,” the “Body in the Spring”; “Body Above Water” or “Body as Wood,” etc.

The poet returns to the “Body as Tree” idea several times. When the body is seen as a tree, the mycelia connecting it to other trees is analogous to the “power” that neural pain “wields,” and the network of shared grief over personal and communal loss. Both the narrator’s diagnoses and the death of her father tell us the “body / is ephemeral.”

These poems remind us that we live precariously with “how many batteries / lie below the surface” and our “humanity’s failures.” Survival and recovery depend on “the knowledge that / anything can happen.”

Hockaday’s In a Body “understand[s] what it means / to be” in a “future … never / imagined.”


In a Body by Emily Hockaday. Small Harbor Publishing, October 2023.

Reviewer bio: Jami Macarty is the author of The Minuses (Center for Literary Publishing, 2020), winner of the 2020 New Mexico/Arizona Book Award – Poetry Arizona, and three chapbooks, including Mind of Spring (Vallum, 2017), winner of the 2017 Vallum Chapbook Award. Jami’s writing has been honored by financial support from Arizona Commission on the Arts, British Columbia Arts Council, and by editors at magazines such as The Capilano Review, Concision Poetry Journal, Interim, Redivider, Vallum, and Volt, where Jami’s poems appear.

Book Review :: Layers by Pénélope Bagieu

Pénélope Bagieu’s newest memoir collection of comics, Layers, seems to follow the standard course of symbolism in deconstructing a past through layers of memories, some connected experiences, and some seemingly random recalls. However, by the close of the book, I felt more like I had been layered in warm comforting blankets of someone’s past, perhaps with a few snags and worn patches along the way.

Bagieu’s style is disarming in its simplicity. This black-and-white collection focuses each frame on a particular character or character object with very little if any scenery and minimal props. The focus is on narrative details, some of which follow a particular arc, such as the life of a family cat whose bad behaviors the family puts up with like saints, Bagieu’s recounting her involvement with physical activities that stem from a misunderstanding in her youth, and a lifelong battle with heat – as in the utility.

Other stories in the collection center on Bagieu’s experiences with sexual harassment, abuse, and just general crappy behavior, whether directed at her or others. The collection was built upon journal pages from Bagieu’s youth, now rendered in hindsight as an adult, but Bagieu retains the sense of being merely an observer and reporter here for the reader to make their own decisions in response to the image sequences.

Adding to the layering effect of the reading is the fact that each segment is followed by a blank page. Somewhat luxurious, but essential to the reading, as with the closing of each piece, that blank page allows the reader to rest a beat and let the story and its meaning settle in before just plowing ahead to the next. This is especially critical to pieces like the harrowing “Florence,” which are so fast-paced, that an extra page of rest is needed for the reader to allow the weight of the narrative to settle.

The closing stories are of strength and gumption, ending the collection with an adult Bagieu wrapping her youthful self in a blanket in one and meeting up with her grandmother in the afterlife in another. These provide closure to the stories collected here, and upend the trope of dismantling the layers of one’s life, as here, the reader feels more layered into the stories and the experiences they provided.

Wrapped in these memories, the reader’s own now entwined with the author’s, Layers feels as comforting as a life well lived.


Layers: A Memoir by Pénélope Bagieu. First Second :01, October 2023.

Reviewer bio: NewPages.com Editor Denise Hill reviews books based on personal interest.

Book Review :: A Guide to Tongue Tie Surgery by Tina Carlson

Guest Post by Jami Macarty

The verse and prose poems of Tina Carlson’s third collection, A Guide to Tongue Tie Surgery, give tender attention to the lives of girls and women in history, our communities, in legend, myth, literature, and the poet’s life. Our narrator is a daughter who reckons with her life as a child caught between an agoraphobic father and an irresponsible mother who requires “mother me.” Around the family table, “she is they,” burdened by “the weight of words caught in her parents’ throats.”

The poems center on trauma related to intergenerational abuse along matrilineal lines and what follows “after generations of war” along patrilineal lines, but everyone within these poems has their personal, societal, and existential “battles.” Throughout this collection, the poet endeavors to give voice to the oppressed and that which is “made of scars,” to figure out “what to give up and what to throw away,” and how to “untether the tongue.”

Though tongue tie surgery is performed to improve breastfeeding, it has lasting implications for the children and adults who undergo the quick, effective surgery. Results such as these poems, speaking from their wish “to be unarmored.”

In these poems, there is an alternative to sorrow; there is perseverance.


A Guide to Tongue Tie Surgery by Tina Carlson. University of New Mexico Press, August 2023.

Reviewer bio: Jami Macarty is the author of The Minuses (Center for Literary Publishing, 2020), winner of the 2020 New Mexico/Arizona Book Award – Poetry Arizona, and three chapbooks, including Mind of Spring (Vallum, 2017), winner of the 2017 Vallum Chapbook Award. Jami’s writing has been honored by financial support from Arizona Commission on the Arts, British Columbia Arts Council, and by editors at magazines such as The Capilano Review, Concision Poetry Journal, Interim, Redivider, Vallum, and Volt, where Jami’s poems appear.

Book Review :: Life Cycle of the Mayfly by Maya Clubine

Guest Post by Jami Macarty

Steeped in the tannins of Heraclitus’s philosophy and the ecology of the Credit River in Ontario, Canada, Maya Clubine offers readers her chapbook Life Cycle of the Mayfly, a series of poems memorializing her relationship with her grandfather and father through the sport of fly fishing.

The “river bugs” in Clubine’s poems are the mayfly, the poet, and the men in her family from whom she learned how to tie flies and inherited flyfishing accouterments such as the waders both her grandfather and father wore. Via declarative and descriptive sentences, the movement of the poems is “catch” and “release”; their form is a memoir-epistolary hybrid.

As the poet writes her letter to her dying father, “mayflies lead the way like lanterns rising / into the air.” The precarious lifecycles of the people and insects point to Heraclitus’s philosophical declaration that there is nothing permanent except change.

Life Cycle of the Mayfly offers readers a family story; the poet’s and the mayfly’s families are “interwoven webs /.. rivers make.” The movement of the river’s waters, of the people fishing those waters, and of “mayfly wings” are the “fragile movements” of Clubine’s poems, movements that will “leave” their “traces” on your earthly heart, dear reader.


Life Cycle of the Mayfly by Maya Clubine. Vallum Chapbook Series, No. 36, 2023.

Reviewer bio: Jami Macarty is the author of The Minuses (Center for Literary Publishing, 2020), winner of the 2020 New Mexico/Arizona Book Award – Poetry Arizona, and three chapbooks, including Mind of Spring (Vallum, 2017), winner of the 2017 Vallum Chapbook Award. Jami’s writing has been honored by financial support from Arizona Commission on the Arts, British Columbia Arts Council, and by editors at magazines such as The Capilano Review, Concision Poetry Journal, Interim, Redivider, Vallum, and Volt, where Jami’s poems appear.

Book Review :: The Last Day Before Exile by Selin Bucak

Guest Post by Eleanor J. Bader

By mid-2023, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, 110 million people worldwide had been displaced by political turmoil, war, economic instability, or ethnic or gender-based discrimination. But the numbers tell just part of this harrowing story.

Journalist Selin Bucak’s first book, The Last Day Before Exile: Stories of Resistance, Displacement and Finding Home, zeroes in on the social trauma that typically ensues for asylum-seekers and refugees and makes clear that it is not only adults who suffer. As the World Health Organization confirms, migrant children often experience poverty, disturbed schooling, and racism in their new homelands, experiences that can lead to lifelong emotional difficulties.

“There are a lot of statistics about asylum seekers and refugees and it is depressingly easy to ignore the individuals behind the numbers,” Bucak writes. By introducing eight people who fled Afghanistan, Gaza, Iran, Morocco, Pakistan, Turkey, Russia, and Ukraine, she hopes to change that.

While their stories are not representative–all of her interviewees were granted asylum–they nonetheless provide a nuanced introduction to the dangers facing political activists, LGBTQIA+ people, feminists, and select ethnic groups by anti-democratic governments. Lastly, although the book sidesteps the issues facing migrants at the US-Mexico border, perhaps this will be fodder for a future volume.

The book is now available in the United States with free shipping through April 12 of this year.


The Last Day Before Exile: Stories of Resistance, Displacement and Finding Home by Selin Bucak. 404 Ink, November 2023.

Reviewer bio: Eleanor J. Bader is a Brooklyn, NY-based journalist who writes about books and domestic social issues for Truthout, Rain Taxi, The Progressive, Ms. Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and The Indypendent.

Book Review :: We Could Hang a Radical Panel of Light by Sarah Rosenthal

Guest Post by Jami Macarty

In Sarah Rosenthal’s chapbook, We Could Hang a Radical Panel of Light, the reader is offered the opportunity to view the manual labor behind making cut-up and collaged poems from a dream journal. Black text on a white background affixed to a gray page creates little rectangular light boxes, illuminating the poet’s tactile and associative compositional process.

The composition itself is lyric and elegiac. At its center is a “self / positioning,” figuring out “how to / squeeze into language.” This “implies trauma.” The reader is addressed directly by “Estelle meaning star,” though others or other aspects of Estelle— “I” and “she”— contribute to the conversation from “broken down / years.”

Foremost here seems to be a “child… / en route to woman,” experiencing “a pain that stretches the length of a body” or “one hundred fifty / … years.” The spare, pressured composition matches well with concerns about female identity and pain.

The composition emits a quality of the embodied and disembodied; though words have been affixed to pages and fixed in space, meaning and definitions are in transit. For Estelle, “who dots the sky,” we are her observers. We witness how “night’s / middle daughter / disperses” and is given “a new name.”

To read Rosenthal’s chapbook-length poem is to remind us that “the / dreams we have / [are] divining rods.”


We Could Hang a Radical Panel of Light by Sarah Rosenthal. Drop Leaf Press, 2022.

Reviewer bio: Jami Macarty is the author of The Minuses (Center for Literary Publishing, 2020), winner of the 2020 New Mexico/Arizona Book Award – Poetry Arizona, and three chapbooks, including Mind of Spring (Vallum, 2017), winner of the 2017 Vallum Chapbook Award. Jami’s writing has been honored by financial support from Arizona Commission on the Arts, British Columbia Arts Council, and by editors at magazines such as The Capilano Review, Concision Poetry Journal, Interim, Redivider, Vallum, and Volt, where Jami’s poems appear.

Book Review :: A House for Alice by Diana Evans

Guest Post by Kevin Brown

The title of Evans’ most recent novel seemingly relates to the house that Alice—the mother to the three daughters whose lives make up most of the novel—wants to build in Benin so she can live out her remaining days in her home country. Then there’s the pun on house, as in the word for a family line. Given the focus on Alice’s daughters, especially Carol and Melissa, that title would also make sense.

However, Evans wants readers to think of house even more broadly, as most of the characters are searching for a home of some sort, whether that’s in their marriage or within themselves or in their country, especially given the UK’s colonial past. That past comes to the forefront early in the novel, as Alice’s estranged husband Cornelius dies in a fire at his house on the same day of the Grenfell Tower fire.

The Pitt family’s mourning of their father and husband is complicated by the abusive relationship he had with all of them—emotional, physical, or sexual, depending on the wife or daughter. Similarly, the Grenfell Tower reveals how the UK has treated those who seek a better life there, whether the working class, the poor, or immigrants, serving as a metaphor for a country who says they care for such people, but then abuse and exploit them.

As with those who suffered from the Grenfell Tower tragedy, the members of the Pitt family have only each other to rely on to create a home.


A House for Alice by Diana Evans. Pantheon Books, 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 :: Yellowface by R.F. Kuang

Guest Post by Kevin Brown

June and Athena both attended Yale and majored in writing; they even both began publishing short stories, then a novel for each of them. At that point, though, their careers took decidedly different paths. June’s novel ended up with a small press that folded, while Athena’s novel was the first step in a literary career that led to a deal with Netflix. Unfortunately, on the night when she and June are celebrating that deal, Athena dies.

The bulk of Yellowface proceeds from that point, as June steals a typed manuscript Athena has written and passes it off as her own, even going by her full first and middle name—Juniper Song—to make it less clear that she has no Asian heritage. Kuang’s novel raises questions about cancel culture, social media, the publishing world, and who gets to tell which stories (who controls narratives, in general).

While June is not a likable narrator, Kuang works hard not to stereotype her, especially when talking about June’s experiences in the publishing industry. June is not treated all that well when she’s a no-name novelist, and Kuang doesn’t hold back from criticizing the insularity of the industry.

However, what drives the novel is the sharp-edged satire of June’s belief that she’s entitled to publish this novel and deserves all the celebration that comes with it. Readers should see June’s obliviousness to her privilege; what matters, though, is if they can see their own in her.


Yellowface by R.F. Kuang. William Morrow, May 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 :: 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 :: Ritual by Dimitris Xygalatas

Guest Post by Kevin Brown

In Ritual: How Seemingly Senseless Acts Make Life Worth Living, Dimitris Xygalatas brings a wealth of research about rituals, both from the laboratory and the field, but also a depth of passion and interest in a subject that doesn’t get as much study as it does reflection. He is honestly looking for an answer to the question his subtitle implies, as he understands that rituals don’t provide any practical meaning to our lives, but we seem unable to live without them.

Xygalatas delves into how rituals provide order to people’s lives and how they help people bond. He explores how non-religious rituals help people connect with something beyond themselves and why people are willing to sacrifice their time, their money, and even their bodies for such acts. He illustrates how rituals help one’s mental and physical well-being, even when there’s intense suffering involved.

Near the end of the book, which he wrote during the beginning of the Covid pandemic, he shows how even minor rituals are important enough for people to try to recreate, such as drive-by birthday parties and graduations, and how rituals must be flexible to continue providing meaning as our world changes. He differentiates between ritual and habit, revealing how we all need a source of purpose in our lives, whether religious or secular, and how rituals that don’t make much sense to those outside of a tradition help us find that purpose that encourages us to keep living and growing.


Ritual: How Seemingly Senseless Acts Make Life Worth Living by Dimitris Xygalatas
Little, Brown Spark, September 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

Book Review :: All the Little Bird-Hearts by Viktoria Lloyd-Barlow

Guest Post by Kevin Brown

Sunday Forrester, the narrator of Lloyd-Barlow’s Booker-longlisted novel All the Little Bird-Hearts, is different than her family and friends. She prefers to eat white food only; she isn’t concerned about how she dresses; and her internal monologue makes it clear that she struggles in social situations. Though she never explicitly says she’s autistic, Lloyd-Barlow’s biography explains that she has “extensive personal, professional, and academic experience relating to autism,” and the publisher’s page pronounces the book to be “a remarkable debut by an author who is herself autistic.”

Despite her struggles, though, Sunday is quite happy with her life, both with her work at her ex-husband’s family’s greenhouse and her life with her daughter from that marriage, Dolly. Her life, in fact, seems to get better when Vita and Rollo move into the house beside hers, renting it for at least the summer, perhaps longer. Vita, especially, brings excitement and color to Sunday’s life, as Vita seems the opposite of Sunday in every aspect, yet she seems enamored by her new neighbor.

Vita and Rollo begin taking Sunday, then Dolly, into their life on a more regular basis. However, Vita and Rollo bring a wider world into Dolly’s small-town life, often taking her to London and showing her what a life away from her mother could look like. They use Sunday’s differences to create conflict, heightened by the difference in wealth and class, leading to a difficult ending for all involved.


All the Little Bird-Hearts by Viktoria Lloyd-Barlow. Algonquin Books, December 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 :: The Parrot and the Igloo by David Lipsky

Guest Post by Nick Agelis

David Lipsky’s 2023 summer release, The Parrot and the Igloo, is a non-fiction work that focuses on climate change, but even more provocatively, the growing denial of its existence and the mammoth topic of potential human extinction.

Lipsky explains why climate change is so contentious using trendy narrative non-fiction techniques (think Capote or Mailer) to give insight into not only Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and Nikola Tesla’s scientific minds, but their personal idiosyncrasies as well. These insights allow casual readers to digest a convoluted and complicated topic: climate change and the subsequent denial of it.

Lipsky’s portrayal of a doom and gloom scenario reads like a comic entertainment of a who’s who in the field of science. Rife with current pop culture references from Disney’s Frozen to equating the severity of an ozone hole to a Christopher Nolan special effect, Lipsky makes reading about a potentially pending apocalypse fun. Wait… Is that possible? Unequivocally, yes.

Lipsky garnered much of his fame writing about the much more famous David Foster Wallace in his quasi memoir, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself. But with the emergence of this Pynchonesque tragicomedy of world population proportions, Lipsky firmly stands on his own.


The Parrot and the Igloo by David Lipsky. W.W. Norton & Co., July 2023.

Reviewer Bio: Nicholas Agelis is an unpublished high school English teacher and basketball coach in North Jersey, and is currently an MFA student at William Paterson University.

Book Review :: How to Become the God of Small Things by Fiona Lu

Guest Post by Debbie Pierre

Winner of the 2023 The Rachel Wetzsteon Chapbook Award, Fiona Lu’s debut chapbook, How to Become the God of Small Things, is a layered introspection on survival and mourning.Lu offers a glimpse into the irreplaceable and delicate nature of life on a personal level, as discussed in “Elegy” and “Misstep.” On the other hand, she plays devil’s advocate by painting the insignificance of one’s life in the grander schemes of the world in poems such as “Loneliness” and “Poem Made Entirely of Gardens.”

In addition, Lu’s poetry collection displays a great deal of hand imagery to convey the God-like power and control that lie in one’s hands, “he / stuck his hand into a fishtank and squeezed,” as well as the kindness and humanity capable from the same hands, “the way he always claps his hands in apology / before he feasts,” as demonstrated in “Hunting.”

Lu’s quiet resilience commands each page or world of hers, unafraid of experimenting with different forms and rhythms. Evidently, she has given much thought to the artistic composition of her pieces, since many are worthy of the cork/bulletin board treatment.

Overall, How to Become the God of Small Things delivers startling reality checks on mortality, leaving readers to ponder its visceral imagery in moments of stillness.


How to Become the God of Small Things by Fiona Lu. October 2023

Reviewer Bio: Debbie Pierre is working towards an MFA in Creative & Professional Writing from William Paterson University. She is the recipient of Bloomfield College’s Joyce Carol Oates Award in Creative Writing in 2022. As an up-and-coming poet, her poems have appeared in BC Underground. She loves the macabre, the arts, and cheesy jokes.

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 :: How to Read Now by Elaine Castillo

Guest Post by Kevin Brown

How to Read Now, Elaine Castillo’s collection of essays comes from the lineage of Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark, a work Castillo references several times. She wants to show readers the assumed whiteness of their reading and writing, the assumed whiteness of their world, essentially.

Castillo analyzes a wide range of writing (and texts in a wider sense), from the controversial Nobel-prize-winning Peter Handke to Jane Austen to the Cinderella story to Homer’s Odyssey, with many stops in between.

Like Morrison, Castillo points out numerous places where writers assume characters are white without any description of their being so and the effects that has on readers and how they see the world. She reminds readers to look for the gaps in texts, the places where authors are silent about the reality of the world in which they write, such as Austen’s father’s involvement in the buying and selling of those who were enslaved.

Her main point, which underlies all others, is that white writers/readers get the benefit of seeing their work as universal, while writers of color are educational material, something one reads to learn about a particular culture, not work that conveys any ideas about simply being human. After reading Castillo’s collection, a reader can’t help but look at the world and their reading differently, high praise for any book.


How to Read Now by Elaine Castillo. Viking, July 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