Tag What I’m Reading

Book Review :: Letters to Gwen John by Celia Paul

Letters to Gwen John by Celia Paul book cover image

Guest Post by MG Noles

Have you ever had an imaginary friend? Someone with whom you could confide anything? A soulmate who loved you no matter what you said or did? Celia Paul’s extraordinary new book, Letters to Gwen John, adopts Gwen as just such an “imaginary” friend/soulmate and listener as she writes all her thoughts and feelings to the long-dead post-impressionist painter who lived in the latter 18th and early 19th centuries. Using a series of letters, Paul reveals her inner thoughts about life, art, men, freedom, and beauty. The book is part memoir and part art history, and it makes a beautiful read. Filled with imagination and insight, Paul examines the meaning of art and life. She shares her vision and makes you believe that communication is possible across space and time. As she puts it, “time is a strange substance.” And somehow, as you read this amazing book, you see Gwen John seated in a cozy room somewhere, like the one she paints in Corner of the Artist’s Room in Paris, reading Celia Paul’s letters with a faint smile.


Letters to Gwen John by Celia Paul. New York Review Books, April 2022.

Reviewer bio: MG Noles is a sometime essayist, reviewer, history buff.

Book Review :: Spit by Daniel Lassell

Spit poetry by Daniel Lassell book cover image

Guest Post by Catherine Hayes

Daniel Lassell’s Spit harnesses the power of language to contemplate whether to embrace one’s own roots or to cast them off in favor of creating a new identity for a new life, and as such influences our sense of belonging. This conflict is one that Lassell grapples with for many years of his life, blending these two identities of past and future together to become “a city boy inside / the body of a country.” Part one recounts “sopping, hazy Kentucky” and when “a chicken costs 35 cents.” The natural world reigns supreme in this setting. The old barn on the land which “season by season… / have held their angle, onto the metal gate / leaned against a post pile for storage, / some form of pillar” soon gives way as “the field outside waits, / watching the barn’s leaning face / disappear” and nature has won against that which man has made. Yet the supremacy of nature does not last for long, nor does Lassell’s life in the country. The second and third parts make the progressive transition from “a hundred acres / into one” and by the final section, Lassell has completely immersed himself in the “concrete slabs” and “crumbling sidewalk squares” of the city. Yet his years on the farm never leave Lassell, for even in the city he recalls “hoisting bales up to a hay wagon” and “not waking during night / to car lights, sirens, hunger” and how, despite having “climbed from being / of dirt, rough fingernails,” his past will always be with him, no matter the distance or passage of time. Lassell’s poignant yet heart-warming story about what defines “home” presents a new meaning to the influence of upbringing and how sometimes home is not a physical place we return to but the memories we cherish that help guide us into the uncertainty of adulthood.


Spit by Daniel Lassell. Michigan State University Press, July 2021.

Reviewer bio: Catherine Hayes is a graduate student in English at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts and resides in the Boston area. She has previously published a nonfiction essay in an anthology with Wising Up Press. When she is not reading, writing, or reviewing she can be found exploring Boston, spending time with family and friends and looking for inspiration for her next story in the world around her. 

Magazine Review :: “The Memory of Clay” by Bruce Ballenger

The Sun May 2022 literary magazine cover image

Guest Post by Kevin Brown

The May 2022 issue of The Sun is loosely tied together by a focus on food or nourishment, so Bruce Ballenger’s essay, “The Memory of Clay,” initially looks like an outlier, as he focuses on his relationship with his father. He uses the metaphor of clay to guide his essay, as Ballenger’s daughter Julia explains why she works with clay, despite its unwillingness to easily follow the form she sets for it. Ballenger struggles to shape his memories of his father, an alcoholic journalist who was abusive toward their family, into something that helps him understand his father. Ballenger works to mold the story he tells about his father, ranging from the narrative of the wronged son to learning why his father never published the book he had a contract for. The essay ends largely unresolved, as Ballenger isn’t sure what to do with the complicated memories he has, but he returns to something else his daughter has taught him about clay. There are times when it resists taking any shape at all, and so there is nothing to do with it but start again. Ballenger leaves the reader and himself there, knowing that that is what we all have to do.


The Memory of Clay” by Bruce Bellenger. The Sun, May 2022.

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

Book Review :: Bloodwarm by Taylor Byas

Bloodwarm poetry by Taylor Byas book cover image

Guest Post by Catherine Hayes 

Taylor Byas’s poetry collection Bloodwarm is an inspiring and modern commentary on what it means to be a Black woman living in a society where “I’m/seen as a threat” simply because of the color of her skin and sheds new light on the strong presence of racism within a variety of situations. The book opens with the inundation of Tweets surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement, capturing “rubber bullets / pinging a reporter and her crew as they run for cover” and “a police car plowing into a peaceful crowd” all while “white friends” will promise to “do better” before they “bullet into our inboxes and ask us to hand them the answers” about what they should do or say. From there, Byas examines other aspects of racism and the lack of representation of the Black community in the media by putting into perspective the archetype of the damsel in distress of a superhero film. Byas describes how the women who “look like Kirsten Dunst or Emma Stone” are “dainty enough to be rescued by a white hero” and any type of confrontation between the speaker and a white woman would lead to “there is an African-American woman threatening me” and “call the police.” Byas does not shy away from reflecting the struggles that the Black community faces, and what it means to “have to stand / between / invisible” simply to avoid unjust persecution based on skin color. Yet peace in the racial conflict is difficult to achieve because “this is / the standard / this denial / the / rebellion against / negotiations”. Byas does not shirk from the ugly truth of the impact racism has had on the Black community, and her openness in discussing these topics allows for the possibility to have more honest and fruitful conversations about how to create lasting and truly impactful change in society.


Bloodwarm by Taylor Byas. Variant Literature, July 2021.

Reviewer bio: Catherine Hayes is a graduate student in English at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts and resides in the Boston area. She has previously published a nonfiction essay in an anthology with Wising Up Press. When she is not reading, writing, or reviewing she can be found exploring Boston, spending time with family and friends and looking for inspiration for her next story in the world around her.

Book Review :: The Ache and The Wing by Sunni Brown Wilkinson

The Ache and the Wing by Sunni Brown Wilkinson book cover image

Guest Post by Jami Macarty

In the chapbook The Ache and The Wing by Sunni Brown Wilkinson, the poet wonders “just what I can seize” while a “homeless shelter bearing some saint’s name / fills up every night.” Welcome to the rodeo of life: a “father plays evangelical AM in the garden… to keep the deer away,” a friend pours gasoline on a “noisy cricket… outside her window” and “the baby arrives but he is dead already.” Humans and animals are “desperate / for life” in towns named “Why” where “none of my questions / were answered: Why / did our son (apple-cheeked, blue-eyed, / four days shy / of due) / have to die?” Wilkinson’s poems explore “hidden bonds” and how not to lose one’s mind when the world is burning. These are poems with “the end of the world” in them. With “much sad truth to say” about “bodies that break, that bear each other, / that hold one another in dark places.” [Readers can download this e-book for free from the publisher’s website link below.]


The Ache and The Wing by Sunni Brown Wilkinson. Sundress Publications, 2021.

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 are forthcoming.

Book Review :: April at the Ruins by Lawrence Raab

April at the Ruins poetry by Lawrence Raab book cover image

Guest Post by James Scruton

Depending on the reader, the title of Lawrence Raab’s tenth poetry collection, April at the Ruins, might evoke “the cruelest month” of Eliot’s The Waste Land or a postcard from a Henry James character on The Grand Tour. There are glimmers of each here — mixtures of memory and desire as well as travels both real and metaphorical. But more often we find Raab meditating on love and loss (and much besides) with his characteristic sense of gratitude, entire lives suggested by a precise detail or turn of phrase:

… and as they crossed
the street she took his hand,
just as if everything
they hadn’t told each other
had never happened.
(“One of the Ways We Talk to Each Other”)

In “Little Ritual,” stones collected and then forgotten beside a lake become metaphysical emblems, the “zigzags of blue” in a “shiver of quartz” reminding the speaker “that some day everything / I love must be set aside, / or given away, or lost.” Amid the ruin we’ve made or witnessed of this world, Raab nonetheless celebrates an April of the spirit. “Nothing is beyond repair,” he writes. “How can there be a beautiful ending / without many beautiful mistakes?”


April at the Ruins by Lawrence Raab. Tupelo Press, 2022.

Reviewre bio: James Scruton is the author of two full collections and five chapbooks of poetry, most recently The Rules (Green Linden Press, 2019). He has received the Frederick Bock Prize from Poetry magazine, among other honors.

Book Review :: On the Verge of Something Bright and Good by Derek Pollard

On the Verge of Something Bright and Good by Derek Pollard book cover image

Guest Post by Jami Macarty

On the Verge of Something Bright and Good by Derek Pollard is a collection of poems “not elegiac” but of “another kind of seeing that involves letting go.” That requires “a dream we hold to,” where “orange and quick” fish are held as “dear / … as headstones,” and a guiding question is: “How to love in the midst of tumult?” These poems are too humble and intelligent to answer conclusively. But slant. From a squad car that runs over a squirrel to a child whacked for dropping ice cream, these poems acknowledge the range of “advent, accident, / celebration” in our lives together where either “we take up arms” — “The war / Is a war we all fight, and is near” — or we open our arms to “our / Life together / Quiet / Aimless / And full.” There is love in these poems. Love of life and others. And, love of language: a “ricocheting” “hallelujah” “Heaven” of sound and meaning unabashedly riots throughout — “What care for shame? In any of this?” Lovingly the poems share with the tender reader “the holy / Moment this moment.” Reading this book, “To be sitting / Here, the two of us”: “It felt good. And sad, of course. But mostly just good.”


On the Verge of Something Bright and Good by Derek Pollard. Barrow Street Press, 2021.

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 are forthcoming.

Book Review :: How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu

How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu book cover image

Guest Post by Kevin Brown

Sequoia Nagamatsu’s novel, How High We Go in the Dark, doesn’t have a plot per se, as it reads more like an interconnected collection of short stories than it does a novel. A character’s wife from one chapter will show up in a later chapter as a friend to the girlfriend of another character, a minor characters in one chapter becomes the focus of a later chapter or vice versa. What the characters do have in common is a tenuous existence, as Earth has become less and less habitable. Throughout much of the book, a pandemic is ravaging the world, killing people by mutating their organ cells, causing hearts to behave like livers or brains to change into lungs. Even after that tragedy becomes more controllable, there is still environmental disaster, as wildfires rage constantly, the Arctic is quickly melting, and sea levels rise by feet, not by inches. What Nagamatsu is most interested in exploring, however, is how people avoid one another, even in the midst of suffering, and how they might still be able to connect to one another. Though technology — perhaps even space travel — could save people’s lives, only true connection has a chance of healing their souls.


How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu. William Morrow, 2022,

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

Book Review :: You’re Not Listening by Kate Murphy

You're Not Listening by Kate Murphy book cover image

Guest Post by Kevin Brown

New York Times journalist Kate Murphy explores the many facets of listening: the physical, mental, and, most importantly, emotional. As her title implies, she points out the ways people have stopped listening to one another and the effects of that lack in our lives. She uses neuroscience to talk about how we sync with one another when we truly listen, as well as what we can learn from improvisational comedy about how to fully engage in a conversation. Murphy explores the loneliness that has crept into our lives due to a lack of feeling heard. That deficit can come from the assumptions one makes, the technology that distracts us, or the difference in how quickly our mind thinks of what to say and how slowly it processes what we hear. Thankfully, she also explores ways we don’t listen to ourselves, choosing the negative voices that override what we most need to hear, as well as times when we should stop listening to others who wish us nothing good. As we move into more face-to-face contact after the past two years, Murphy reminds us we should all work to be better listeners, so all of our lives will be richer.


You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters by Kate Murphy. Celadon Books, 2020.

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

Book Review :: The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton

The Final Revival of Opal and Nev by Dawnie Walton book cover image

Guest Post by Kevin Brown

Dawnie Walton’s debut novel is a book by the main character Sunny Curtis, the first African-American female editor of a mythical, music magazine. Sunny seeks to discover the details surrounding the death of her father, who was killed at the final concert of Opal and Nev, a fictional duo from the early 1970s. Everybody knows what happened to him, but nobody knows exactly how and why he died in a riot near the end of that performance. Making matters more complicated, Opal was having an affair with Sunny’s father. The book is a series of interviews with those surrounding the event, plus Sunny’s editor’s notes.

Walton uses this setup to raise questions about privilege surrounding race and gender. While Nev, a White British man, goes on to have a successful career after the event, Opal, a Black woman, never has a chance to do so. Others define Opal in ways that limit her, even while she tries to challenge a variety of establishments. Nev plays music that makes people comfortable, so he succeeds. Opal’s struggles are mirrored in Sunny’s work and the events that surround one final revival show for Opal and Nev, revealing that not much has changed in fifty years.


The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton. 37 Ink, March 2022.

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