Finally! A beach read for women who love women

Cantoras (Knopf, 2020) is Carolina De Robertis’s fifth novel and swept me away by page ten. I was expecting a cheesy romance novel about women who just wanted to have a little fun with each other behind their husbands’ backs; what I got instead was a raw, powerful novel with gorgeous prose and salty scenes that examines sexuality, attraction, and political governing of women’s bodies in a late-twentieth century Uruguyan landscape.

Set during a period of terrifying political oversight and tyranny, the story follows five women (Flaca, La Venus, Malena, Paz, and Romina) as they leave their city for the privacy and sanctuary of a secluded beach, where they can be free to express their not-so-straight sexualities and talk about the regime without fear of being overheard and turned into the military. The historical significance of this book created a deep admiration and gratitude in me for what so many folks in other countries endure in order to love who they want to love; I’ve never had to experience real persecution for being queer, and I became acutely aware of that privilege while reading this book.

I loved the characters, even in the midst of flawed decisions and drama. Their allegiance to each other and the ways they continue to care for each other throughout the years, even after messy break-ups, even through secrets and childhood traumas, is incredible and a rare occurence in most of the novels I’ve read. De Robertis is a profound thinker and a skilled writer whose sentences pile into a rush of moment and emotion:

What was she doing. What had she been thinking, what— and then the woman appeared in the small bathroom and without a word turned off the light and locked the door. Dark. Limbs. Heat, body. She so close, waiting, and Paz for a single instant terrified that she would lose this chance because she was too awed to move, but then she did move and the woman’s mouth was everything, was joy in her mouth, her skin a balm to fingertips, her breathing sharp as they kept on in absolute silence, there could be no sound, no words, only touch and rhythm…

I highly recommend this book to anyone wanting a new perspective or craving realistic, high-quality queer lit. You’ll find friends in this story and feel their pain and celebrate their joy. You’ll long for a beach hut of your own, where you can swim in the ocean away from the stress-inducing political nightmare we’re living in today. And most importantly, you’ll respect the hell out of folks who live their true selves despite overwhelmingly animosity and the threat of oppression.

Cantoras is available from your local bookseller for $26.95 or from your local library for free.

Moving, important, & gently radical: Review of “Dispatch”

Dispatch by Cameron Awkward-Rich | 75 pages | Persea Books

by Kelsey May

I first fell in love with Cameron Awkward-Rich’s poems when I read Transit, a 2015 chapbook published by Button Poetry. Awkward-Rich’s newest collection, Dispatch, was published in December by Persea Books and grapples with distraught familial relationships, the persecution of those whose gender identities fall outside cultural expectations, and the national crisis of violence against Black and brown folks. The poeticism of these pieces is moving and often adds a tenderness to circumstances that are anything but.

One of the most moving pieces was “Everywhere We Look, There We Are,” which is part-erasure, part-rearrangement, part-commentary of a 1903 New Orleans newspaper article.

[In the next room, wailing.
Man woman can’t tell.
Any human specificity obliterated
by pain. Someone walks
into the room where I am
pinned. Looks at me, my paperwork.
Backs away shaking his head]

The poem is spacious, sprawling across eight pages, an occupancy honoring the life of Dora Trimble, undoing the cramped brashness of the newspaper article.

In “It’s Important to Know What a ‘Man’ ‘Is’”, Awkward-Rich writes:

There’s a version of the story
in which the sweet girl

never makes it home,
her lungs, unbraided

by salt. But because I did,
because I learned

the lesson, next time I slid
down the throat of a man,

I knew, kick
or not, what I was—

driftwood, kelp, glass
bottle. Moved through.”

These poems ache with the pain of being discarded, the bite of persecution paid for in breath and body. And they aren’t always certain of how to fix the problems they dredge up:

“[T]his is what I tell my friend whose eye
has been twitching since last Tuesday, what I

tell my student who can’t seem to focus
her arguments, who believes, still

that it’s possible to save the world
in 10-12 pages double-spaced, & without irony

I’m asking Have you tried going for a run?

In fact, one poem, “Meditations in an Emergency,” meets the reader in that place of global grief:

“I wake up & it breaks my heart. I draw the blinds
& the thrill of rain breaks my heart. I go outside…
walk among the buildings, men in
Monday suits. The flight of doves the city of tents
beneath the underpass, the huddled mass, old
women hawking roses, & children all of them,
break my heart. There’s a dream I have in which I
love the world… There are no borders, only wind.”

One glory of Dispatch is that it doesn’t examine gender identity as a science experiment or a psychological disorder; it proudly cherishes the existence of gender as a spectrum and triumphs: “I draw a frame around the frame, /…the body not a question.” These poems ground in the everyday normalcy of life despite the challenges that accompany marginalization:

“Sometimes, before light breaks
I lace my shoes & race outside.
I try to touch everything—
my neighbor’s rusty wind
chime, the fallen trees. My soles
drum the concrete, hands strum
each metal fence…”

And they leave the reader with such hope:

“But she looked at me
like a child. She spun
her head. She laughed
& laughed at my awful music
& I thought Oh. Yes.
This is the world
with me in it. It is
beautiful. It is.”

Awkward-Rich, in his poetic and research-thorough genius, has created a compelling collection that transfixes and soothes. Dispatch (Persea Books) is available from your local independent bookseller for $15.95.

Thank you to the publisher for a review copy!

 

 

Label Me This: Review of “Interior Chinatown”

Label Me This: Interior Chinatown tackles stereotypes, racial typecasting, & what it means to be American

Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu
Pantheon Books, January 2020 | $25.95 | 4 stars
Review by Kelsey May

Compelling, bold, and cleverly written, Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown reads as a novelized television show script. The plot? Willis Wu’s life as an actor being offered parts as “Generic Asian Man” in the same old Golden Palace restaurant. His dream of becoming Hollywood’s go-to “Kung Fu Guy.” His life in the Chinatown SRO. His complicated relationships with his parents and neighbors and the dreams his parents had before they found out what America really had in store for folks who looked like them:

“[His mother had] once dreamed of being more. When she first started out, as Young Asian Woman. She imagined a life for herself, full of romance, glamour. One of the few American stories that had made its way to the silver screen of Taipei in the ‘50s, an afternoon at the cinema with her father and nine sisters and brothers, sharing one Coke. Being the eighth of ten, she might get one good sip before it got taken back by siblings further up the chain, but that one sip was enough to savor, sitting up on her heels to get a better view, holding her father’s hand, and watching the perfect faces, Grace Kelly, Kim Novak, Natalie Wood, their luminous whiteness shimmering in the cool, darkened theater.”

Then he falls in love with Karen, another actress on set, and things start to change. They both have dreams of stardom, but hers are more attainable. Her ambiguous ethnicity makes her more castable, and she rises through the ranks quicker than Willis. When she gets pregnant, Willis must make some tough decisions: what kind of life does he want to give his child? Is a room in the Chinatown SRO gonna cut it? What’s more important: his dream career as Kung Fu Guy or his family?

Interior Chinatown is action-packed, dialogue-heavy, and above all, honest about how Asian Americans are treated as other and how, all too often, Asian Americans (in showbiz and elsewhere) internalize this otherness and toe the line between reinforcing the stereotype or rejecting the outdated, racially-problematic “one-size-fits-all” identities. Interior Chinatown stands out for its unique genre-bending style and stuck with me long after reading for its cultural relevance, set of characters, and satisfying, powerful ending. (Yu literally puts racism and the American Dream on trial. Brilliant!) Four stars and a wholehearted recommendation to voracious and curious readers and progressive thinkers everywhere.

Interior Chinatown (Pantheon Books) is available for $26 in hardcover from your local independent bookstore or from your local library for free.

Thank you to the publishers at Pantheon for the review copy!

P.S. My grandma made that coaster in the photo. ❤

 

“Look”, an examination of what war really costs

Look by Solmaz Sharif
Graywolf Press, 2016 | $16 | 4 stars
Review by Kelsey May


I read Solmaz Sharif’s Look in a grocery store while waiting for someone to finish shopping, and I was hard-pressed to put it down afterward, wanting instead to reread sections and spend more time absorbing Sharif’s powerful observations. This collection focuses on war, violence, and sacrifice, offering an emotional, personal critique of freedom, “self-defense”, and weaponry.

Sharif’s poems hone in on safety, home, and who has access to the privilege of being protected. The poems examine these topics from a variety of perspectives: soldiers, land, civilians, children, refugees. In one, she writes:

A body falls
and you learn to step over

a loosened head. You begin to appreciate
the heft of your boot soles,
how they propel you,

how they kick in
a face…

You tighten your laces

until they hold together
a capable man…

So the hands
that said they never would
begin finding

grenade pins around their fingers…

In another piece, the speaker confides:

According to most
definitions, I have never
been at war.

According to mine,
most of my life
spent there…

The war in Iraq, I read,
is over now…

In 2003, a man held a fistful
of blood and brains to a PBS camera
and yelled

is this the freedom
they want for us? 
It was from his friend’s
head…

We say the war is over, but still
the woman leans across
the passenger seat

my son, my son. 
I wasn’t there
so I can’t know, can I?

The desperation and anguish of loss is clear in these poems. War is not glorious. War is not a game. War is grief and crime and death and too great a price to pay. I highly recommend this collection to readers who care about justice and activism. The fight against violence continues.


Look is available from Graywolf Press for $16. Thank you to Graywolf for the review copy!

Carried away by Ada Limón’s newest collection

I finally finished Ada Limón’s INCREDIBLE poetry collection “The Carrying“! It took me far too long to read these gorgeous prose poems because as soon as I started, I wanted to delay finishing it so I could really take my time reading each piece. I spread out the progress over a year and a half and can honestly say I’ve already started re-reading the collection. Ada is a wildly compassionate, gentle poet, and these poems span an array of topics, including loss, birds, road trips, and relationships. And most importantly to me at least, her poems soothe that place that is always aching in our tumultuous, violent world.

Many of my favorite pieces incorporate nature as part of day-to-day life.

“So / much of America belongs to the trees…” she writes. In “Dead Stars”: “I am a hearth of spiders these days: a nest of trying.” What is life if not a constant re-weaving? Stitching ourselves back together after every bloody headline, every oppressive piece of legislation.

“Reader, I want to
say: Don’t die. Even when silvery fish after fish
comes back belly up, and the country plummets
into a crepitating crater of hatred, isn’t there still
something singing?”

These poems also offer hope, even in the darkest depths of loss, infertility, and mourning. “Just this morning, I saw seven cardinals brash and bold / as sin in a leafless tree.”

I love that Ada feels like a friend at all times, someone who is telling you these poems because she knows you need to hear them. And then, after she’s reveled in vulnerability and covered everything from bombings to beetles, she reminds you what it’s all for:

“I can’t help it. I will
never get over making everything
such a big deal.”

“[Y]our bones are my bones, / and isn’t that enough?”

If you like poems of wisdom, poems of nature, and poems of life, snag a copy of “The Carrying” (Milkweed Editions, 2018).

Many, many thanks to Jordan at Milkweed Books for the review copy.

Patsy: a lively, heartwarming winter read

It took me two months to start, love, and finish Patsy (Liveright Publishing, 2019), Nicole Dennis-Benn’s second novel. When I finish a book, I often complain about how it wasn’t long enough or how I miss spending time with the characters. Patsy is 423 pages long and takes place over more than a decade, following the journeys of Patsy, a mother who immigrates to the U.S., and Tru, the child she left behind in Jamaica.

I don’t often review fiction, but I’m so glad I heard about this novel. Patsy is a love story, a bildungsroman, and a story about creating home with those you love rather than those you idolize. It grapples with the gender binary, queer romance, and the religious disapproval so many LGBTQ+ people face, whether from relatives or their spiritual communities. It took me several weeks to get wrapped up in the story because I was really frustrated with Patsy at the beginning of the novel — parents who are willing to abandon their kids in search of a better life are tough protagonists — but my discomfort was part of the reason Dennis-Benn chose the characters she did. Even with every ounce of feminism I profess to have, I still readily fall into mom-shaming habits. (Yikes!)

Dennis-Benn’s prose is luscious, painting rich landscapes in Jamaica, stark scenes of poverty in Brooklyn and Pennyfield, and describing the grand, clean houses of the wealthy people Patsy works for with details so well-written that even those who live in such splendor would recognize their luxury. The emotional arena of Patsy is vast, covering conflict from affairs to political corruption to gentrification to school bullying. Dennis-Benn is an expert at weaving political and social commentary into the scenes and lives of her characters so you feel more like a driveby observer than a student, yet her characters’ decisions and resolutions leave you feeling soft and passionate about inequality and immigration.

I wholeheartedly give Patsy five stars and am grateful for such a colorful, lively read during the cold, drab months of winter in Michigan. I can’t wait to read whatever Nicole Dennis-Benn publishes next!

Wide-ranging, knowledge-packed: “Life Finds a Way”

Life Finds a Way: What Evolution Teaches Us About Creativity by Andreas Wagner
Basic Books, 2019 | $25.98 | 5 stars
Review by Kelsey May


This year, I’ve been diving into nonfiction and science books more than ever, thanks, in part, to my husband’s interest in reading about animals and trees, which hooked me. So when I walked past a display of science books at Grand Rapids Public Library, I couldn’t help but snag one. Dr. Andreas Wagner’s Life Finds a Way: What Evolution Teaches Us About Creativity has a stunning cover — a mosaic of brilliantly-colored moths. I sat down in a chair and was engulfed in the profound insights Dr. Wagner offers. If you don’t get any farther than this first paragraph, let me say that I highly recommend reading this book.

At first, I thought this book was a “how-to” book — how to be creative, how to tap into creativity, how to use ideas from evolution to be more creatively productive. Instead, this book delves into how everything living has evolved in a time-old ballet of creativity, innovation, and trial-and-error. I learned so much about biology, genetics, atoms, and how our minds work, and I finished the entire book (over 200 pages of heavily scientific text) in five days.

“On the tiny Galápagos Islands, a single founding colony of finches diversified into fourteen different species, some of which Charles Darwin discovered when he visited on the HMS Beagle in 1835. On Hawaii, at least thirty species of nectar-feeding dn26954-1_800honeycreepers evolved, and on the Canary Islands off the African west coast, twenty-three new plant species appeared in the genus Echium — relatives of the blueweed, a modest flowering plant with an eye-catching blue inflorescence. More than 90 percent of one thousand species of flowering plants and more than 98 percent of five thousand species of insects found today on Hawaii have emerged there.

Even more remarkable than these numbers is the explosive speed at which evolution created them. The oldest islands in both the Galápagos and Hawaii have been around for barely five million years, about the same time that separates humans from chimpanzees — a brief moment in evolutionary time that sufficed to create thousands of new island species. But nature’s creativity is not just about speed and the number of species. Many new island species also have new lifestyles. The first finches on Galápagos fed on soft insects, but some of today’s species have evolved oversized nutcracker-like beaks to crush the hardest seeds to be found. On the Canary Islands, some relatives of the modest blueweed have evolved into eighteen-foot-high wooden giants supported by a drought-resistant root system and crowned by a gaudy cylindrical infloresence beloved by gardeners.”

Woodpecker-finch-Heikki-Kainulainen

Dr. Wagner does a fantastic job of explaining complicated scholarly ideas, and in the last section, he applies the principles and thinking he’s detailed to education, immigration, technological advancement, and play, asserting that, more or less, we’re doing it all wrong. Rather than rewarding competition, conformity, and practicality, Dr. Wagner insists that we’ll be a more innovative, kinder world by encouraging mistakes, collaboration, and geographic mobility. His well-argued ideas remind me of Ms. Frizzle’s wise adage: “Take chances, make mistakes, and get messy!”

Life Finds a Way has not gotten entirely positive reviews, and I suspect it’s because it’s an intellectually-challenging book and might be off-putting to those who lack scientific experience. I frequently found myself re-reading sections on mutations of ACGTs or atomic bonding forming bucky-balls, trying to reach back across the years to my high school science classes. Even though my efforts were not always successful and I sometimes missed nuggets of information, my overall takeaways from this book were powerful, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in physics, biology, scientific discovery, and history.


Thank you to Tia and Liz at Basic Books for the review copy! Images courtesy of the Galápagos Conservation Trust.

Graceful & gripping: “Fieldnotes on Ordinary Love”

Fieldnotes on Ordinary Love (Copper Canyon Press, 2019) is, in my opinion, very underappreciated. It’s two months old and I’ve not seen a single gushing post, share, or write-up on it, which is a damn shame, as it’s easily in my poetry top five for 2019. Keith S. Wilson’s debut is graceful and gripping, descending into territory of Greek myths, racial tumult, and birds. The highest praise I can offer for Fieldnotes is that I want to write like Keith after reading it.

I finished this collection at the beginning of last week and have been revisiting a few specific images from these pages, including this powerful observation in “Augury“: “I remember being told I should never touch / a baby bird in its nest. That afterward, // the mother would rather let her children starve. / It isn’t true. But how many eggs // has the fantasy kept safe, / how many feathers made elegant, my hands clean and far away / to fold snowflakes or cranes?” Keith’s poems unearth small, succulent truths and set them rolling inside my heart.

This collection hovers over big questions like “what is the rest of me but a daydream / of angles?” and “how can black be // the absence / of all color?” In “God Particle,” Keith examines the molecular importance of everything, how we’re all “built [on] a hearth”, whether we’re rabbits or galaxies. In the spiritually-moving “Undine by the Drowned Cross,” he writes of the want that an outside observer might feel when thinking of the Bible or Christianity: “I try / to catch meaning in my mouth…” Yet the piece doesn’t travel the familar path of ‘finding Jesus’:

Rise. Please.
I cannot read your Word, I’ve only in passing
heard of
salvation…
Don’t give me that. Instead, I beg:
please. Please.
Let my soul be.

Goddamn. What a poem.

In “I Find Myself Defending Pigeons,” Keith pens a love letter to these oft-dismissed friends: “How all the / world is here with them in hate, since they are rats / adorned with angel wings, and the children down / the street are free to chase their drag… / I love the pigeons’ / shoulders, tongues, and wedding nights… / I love the pigeons, the revolution of wheel to sky.” It takes a special person to write actually poetic nature poems, and Keith does it with joy and excellence; pigeons return in other poems to add emotion, advice, and warning. A pigeon-lover myself, I thrill to see Keith handling the overlooked birds with a tenderness and reverence often withheld from animals, plants, and even other people. keith s wilson

I often can’t choose a single favorite poem in five-star collections, but “Mob” stands out for its absolute mastery of content and lyric and “Heliocentric” made me cry. “Mob” is a praise song for folks of color, weaving the longing for a different reality where fear of violence is nonexistent into a retelling of the Icarus legend, replacing the hero with a flock, a congregation, of people of color, of crows, of canaries. “I want to widen the eyes of God… // Icarus leapt. We will fly, be black together in the sun.”

Heliocentric” is a glowing love and love-lost poem, the final piece in the book. Without ruining the magic of the piece because really, everyone should read this fucking book, I’d like to highlight Keith’s linguistic prowess: “Who could love you / like this? Who else will sew you in the stars? // Who better knows your gravity and goes / otherwise, to catastrophe? // I’ve schemed and promised / to bring you back a ring // from Saturn.”

I wholeheartedly recommend picking up this collection. You’ll smile and ache and admire Keith’s creative use of language. You’ll want to write, and you’ll want to reread it. Fieldnotes on Ordinary Love is available from Copper Canyon Press or your local (indie first!) bookseller for $16 or from your local library for free.


A special thank you to Laura at Copper Canyon Press for the review copy. My apologies to Keith for the formatting not carrying over for the excerpt from “Undine by the Drowned Cross.”

A must-add for your bookshelf: “Library of Small Catastrophes”

The poems in Alison C. Rollins’ Library of Small Catastrophes (Copper Canyon Press, 2019) are vast and precise, covering topics from grief and personal loss to generational abuse and systemic discrimination. I read this collection in one sitting, so compelling was Alison’s incredible attention to detail and lyricism. Take these lines from “The Librarian”:

She thinks linguists build houses they can’t afford
to finish… //
She believes every throat is a call number.

Much as librarians can be trusted to assist with problems in any category, the reader can turn to these poems for wisdom in any of life’s difficulties. In these pages, the definition of “American” is broken down. The word mercy is given no mercy in dissection. A “dead mother’s house” is catalogued according to each item it contains. Rape and violation are placed in plain text and lamented.

One of my favorite moments in this collection is this small section from “Object Permanence”:

Only a god can take and give
time, but the one in front of
the gun lasts forever
.

How poetic, and how sad; how ending another’s life reshapes reality, ending another’s existence forever.

Another powerful piece is “Oral Fixation”, a poem that unfurls a very personal history fraught with familial dysfunction and the troubled relationship the speaker has with their father, who is not faithful: “He washed his dirty work down with / nice cologne. All husbands acquire / expensive taste.” The remaining stanzas muse at the ways we’re shaped by what we don’t or can’t have.

To summarize my praise of Library of Small Catastrophes, I’ll use a line from another of my favorite poems, “All the World Began with a Yes”: “truth sets out to penetrate mysteries…” Alison’s work penetrates mysteries, unveiling understanding, experience, and advice for readers of all backgrounds and cultural identities. This collection demonstrates her mastery of content, creativity, and purpose; I highly and wholeheartedly recommend it.


Library of Small Catastrophes is available for $16 from Copper Canyon Press or your local bookseller or for free from your local library.