WWJD by Savannah Sipple

Disclosure: Savannah has taught as guest faculty in my MFA program and I have met her personally.


I loved these poems, the irreverence with the reverence, the frank talk about bodies, the attention to detail. They make sense to me in a way that poetry rarely does. Sipple’s poems are about people and relationships, violence, place, queerness, sex and love, fatness and body shaming, and religion. The title really comes into play in the third of three sections, and I read those three sections as being about three eras in the speaker’s life, in which she is (first and foremost at least for this reader) coming to terms with her sexuality. In the third section we get the WWJD poems, and the speaker claims her lesbian identity and continues to work on making peace with her body. The earliest two sections held perhaps more trauma and violence, where the third approaches a safer place. It’s also (perhaps logically) got more humor in it, as when “Jesus and I Went to the Walmart” and bought lady plugs and helped a young man pick out condoms.

                                              …Jesus found him, took him by the
shoulder and starting talking about how to please his girl. Jesus
held the ultra-ribbed and had just said something about clitoral
stimulation & remembering this wasn’t a 50-yard dash when I
said Jesus, what are you doing? and snapped the condoms out of his
hand.

There is some outstanding sensual work, as in “WWJD / about letting go.” I loved the writing about fat as in “And the Word Was God.” From “Jesus shouts, Amen!” I loved this final line: “My body is a holler I’ve tried to escape / time and again, but now, with this woman, I am home.” And the closing poem of the collection, “[Jesus rides shotgun]” was the perfect finish.

I’ve encountered a few poems this week (and not for the first time) in a form that I think is the cleave poem. (From Cleave Poetry: “In its most basic form the cleave poem is a vertical stanza on the left hand side, a vertical stanza on the right hand side, and a third horizontal poem which is read straight across from left to right, as though there is no gap between the left and right vertical stanzas.”) Sipple has one called “Rain, Love” that intrigues me greatly; I’ve been reading it over in the two ways, in two columns and then as a single right-to-left piece. But a friend of mine then suggested reading it in sort of a U-shape, down the left column and then back up the right from top to bottom, and it is a whole, third, outstanding piece in that way, too. How exciting and mind-expanding! (Thanks, D.) This has me thinking as well about the poems that can be read from top to bottom or from bottom to top, with two different meanings. (Sometimes you see them printed twice, in the two orders. I’ve seen these called palindromic, although I think that only works in the literal sense when it’s printed twice.) If anybody has a great example of that other form – or favorites of the cleave poem – I’d love to see them.

This collection excites me. Thank you, Savannah.


Rating: 8 times.

Starlight & Error by Remica Bingham-Risher

Disclosure: Remica has taught as guest faculty in my MFA program and I have met her personally.


This is a lovely collection of poems about family, love, different configurations of relationships, forgiveness… partings and comings back together, and always music. There are many mentions of music throughout, as an important thread in the speaker’s homes (young home with family and adult home with family of her own) and in her life; this adds up to the braided thread of music through the poems themselves. I love her writing about children and family, the ways in which people can be family without necessarily sharing the biological ties we (culturally) expect. “Son·sor·éa (\sahn-soar-ray\)” and “Mother Necessity” both comment on being a mother to a child not one’s own, and “Ways to Please a Five-year-old Superhero” is first a list poem (which you know I love) and then as well a pretty straightforward and I think helpful guide, as its title promises. These poems delighted me, as do the love poems (always, and coming off of Mary Carroll-Hackett’s collection that I reviewed the other day… I can still remember Mary telling us, at residency, that “it gets better” as you get older, and I love how both these women’s poetry reflects that, that love and, yes, sex can be messy and filled with contradictions but also deepening and enriching as they age and complicate). “Training or a Weapon” is about trauma and different ways of teaching, and I think I can remember Remica reading this at residency and I loved it then too. And there is a poem titled: “A student writes the thesis: If you never find your soulmate, this is when one must face the harsh reality of making major decisions alone and, though the grammar is incorrect, I give him credit,” and it is going to stick with me.

I still find poetry hard, but also rewarding. Thanks, Remica.


Rating: 7 days like this.

The Night I Heard Everything by Mary Carroll-Hackett

Disclosure: Mary has taught as guest faculty in my MFA program and I have met her personally.


This collection opens with the title poem “The Night I Heard Everything,” in which the speaker recalls a time when an unnamed person made an explanation that opened up the world. Its sets the tone for the rest of the book, with topics from the personal (love and lovemaking, family) to the external (science, history, nature) and a tone of wondering, admiring awe and hope. There are also repeating images and themes of women’s experiences and intergenerational ties, and connection to place, which of course speaks to me. The speaker’s loved ones are in several cases gone, but also everpresent, because (in the final line of “Someday the Woman You Will Be”) “there are, in fact, no endings, no endings after all.” There is mourning but there is continuation; these poems are concerned with ancestry, inheritance and what is passed on. They are mystical but also embodied – I love how Mary writes about love, as in “Here, Touch Here” and “Dark Brown Is My Favorite Shape.” This is a neat, brief poetry collection, easy to read at least in terms of its length, but also lots to linger in.


Rating: 7 glasses of tea.

Lungfish by Meghan Gilliss

A woman wrestles practical and existential questions of family and survival on an abandoned Maine island in this contemplative debut novel.

“Agnes–the first Agnes, who was my father’s mother, not long dead, on whose island I find myself now, and whom I named my daughter after (if only to try to solve a mystery)–had always protected her love for her only child.” Meghan Gilliss’s contemplative first novel Lungfish examines such mysteries of family in an austere setting.

Her protagonist takes refuge from unnamed problems on an island off the coast of Maine, in her late grandmother’s cabin, scraping a meager living from the rocks and the sea. In her fractured first-person narration, Tuck slowly releases information. She has brought along her young daughter, Agnes, named for the beloved grandmother. She is also accompanied by her husband, Paul, who is unwell. She has the field guides and religious texts her grandmother left behind, and little else. Paul’s trouble and the issues they have fled on the mainland only gradually become clear, to Tuck as well as to readers.

Some chapters offer consecutive pages of narrative storytelling; some are very brief and take a more gestural or lyric approach, revealing Tuck’s fragile grasp on her own story and history. The chronology shifts from present to past. Tuck’s father, who is legally heir to the cabin where she squats with her family, is missing, and has always lived an unconventional life. “He looks off the rails because we cannot see his rails.” Paul offers a new and different challenge. Tuck fearfully watches the calendar, knowing that when Maine’s fall turns to winter, her family will no longer be safe on this island; just as fearfully, she watches for the executor of her grandmother’s will. She scrambles the rocky beaches foraging for bladderwrack, rosehips, mussels and crabs, her toddler daughter in tow and knowing only this life. Tuck hides the key to the dory from her troubled husband between trips to the mainland for the most basic of provisions. It is a precarious system; mother and daughter flirt with starvation. A lone boat at sea allows Tuck to dream and hope.

Lungfish is a novel steeped in the harshness and beauty of the natural world, in which islands may be both real and metaphorical, where a woman may be accompanied by child and husband but also alone in navigating grief and responsibility. Tuck considers her relationships to her own father, mother, brother, her troubled husband and the growing Agnes, who “comes from different stock.” Although this novel’s setting is particular, its themes are universal. Atmospheric, haunted, but struck through with beauty and love, Lungfish is one to remember.


This review originally ran in the July 8, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 packets.

The Marsh Queen by Virginia Hartman

Mystery, romance, conspiracy, family drama, natural history and art combine in this excursion into a decades-old suspicious death in the swamplands of northern Florida.

Loni was 12 years old when her beloved father headed into the northern Florida marsh in his johnboat and did not return. At 36, she is working her dream job as a natural history artist at the Smithsonian, ignoring her past and her remaining family as hard as she can, until her younger brother calls to insist she come home to help care for their mother. The Marsh Queen, Virginia Hartman’s fast-paced, compelling first novel, sees the prodigal daughter return to the swamps, the family she left behind, the mystery of her father’s death and the possibility of a fresh start.

“Daddy wasn’t just a visitor to the swamp, he was a part of the place.” Loni’s father, Boyd, was a Fish & Game officer, a fisherman, a devoted husband and father and a most unlikely suicide, although that was the rumored–and covered up–cause of his death. Loni was his usual companion in the swamps, uninterested in fishing but a passionate and talented illustrator of the birds they watched together. As an adult, she’s kept that passion, but grown distant from her brother and especially from her always-prickly mother, Ruth, now suffering from dementia. A serious gardener and herbalist, Ruth struggles with painful secrets long kept from her daughter. Loni’s leave of absence from the Smithsonian comes at an especially stressful time at work, and returning home is always painful; nothing about this trip feels right. But Loni canoes the swamps, discovers family secrets, investigates her father’s death, finds herself involved in fresh intrigues and dangers–and meets a handsome stranger. The Smithsonian, and leaving Florida behind, have always been central to Loni’s life plan, but as she sinks back into the quirks of family and home, she may just find a new way.

Hartman’s descriptive writing and clear passion for her subject are on best display when Loni immerses herself in the natural environment, in her art and in her memories of Boyd. In her contemporary relationships, Loni can be frustratingly obtuse and lacking in self-awareness. As the enigma around Boyd’s suspicious death gets more complex, the plotting can feel a little unwieldy. But the subversion of Loni’s expectations is frequently refreshing; a few secondary characters offer intriguing perspectives, and the novel’s framing details of Florida marshland, ornithology, museum work and fine art are expertly and beautifully drawn. The Marsh Queen is unwavering in its lush, finely detailed, appreciative portrayal of a distinctive natural setting, and ends on a redemptive, even inspirational note.


This review originally ran in the July 1, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 5 herons.

A Mirror Mended by Alix E. Harrow

My *only* complaint about these gems is their brevity. I could sink into Harrow’s retold fairy tales for much longer than ~120 pages. Can’t wait for the next installment.

Following the action of A Spindle Splintered, Zinnia Gray’s exciting life traveling through the fairy tale multiverse, saving princesses and sending them off into their happily-ever-afters is getting a little tiresome. “I’ve rescued princesses from space colonies and castles and caves; I’ve burned spindles and blessed babies; I’ve gotten drunk with at least twenty good fairies and made out with every member of the royal family. I’ve seen my story in the past and the future and the never-was-or-will-be; I’ve seen it gender-flipped, modern, comedic, childish, whimsical, tragic, terrifying, as allegory and fable; I’ve seen it played out with talking woodland creatures, in rhyming meter, and more than once, God help me, with choreography.” Zinnia’s story, as we know from book one, is Sleeping Beauty. But things are about to get weird again.

Looking in the mirror (hung over after another happy wedding), our heroine is surprised to see a very different face: not her own, and not that of a princess. This one is a haughty, threatening queen, holding a mirror in her hand, demanding a way out of her own story. Zinnia recognizes that she is the villain – but not of Sleeping Beauty’s story. She has somehow jumped not just from one world into another, but into another fairy tale entirely. And this time she doesn’t have her awesome best friend Charm to help her out, because of a mysterious estrangement that the reader doesn’t puzzle out til near the end of the book.

A Mirror Mended is again a delight, an irreverent, queer, cynical-but-sweet reimagining of Snow White that questions narrative truths about protagonists, villains, agency, resonance and cohesion. Zinnia knows there must be a back way into a castle because it’s a known plot device. She expects a certain evil queen to be ugly, “which is pretty fucked up of me, but in my defense, Western folklore persistently and falsely equates a character’s physical appearance with their inner morality.” [In case you forgot, Zinnia has a degree in folklore.] When yet another stranger doesn’t meet expectations, Zinnia assumes, because “I know a protagonist when I see one.” But as the walls between fairy tales thin, Zinnia will learn to question her assumptions.

I love the rethinking of gender expectations and of narrative tropes, and the examination of agency, the power we all might have to rewrite our own stories. It’s empowering and awesome and feel-good without ever being saccharine, although it can be awfully, wonderfully sweet. Zinnia learns some important lessons in this story, finds a little romance for herself this time around, and leaves us with the perfect setup for book three in the Fractured Fables series. I can’t wait, and I hope it goes well past a trilogy. Highly recommend.


Rating: 8 bodice laces.

Maximum Shelf: Ithaca by Claire North

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on June 22, 2022.


Claire North (The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August; The Pursuit of William Abbey) offers a new take on a familiar tale with Ithaca, a richly imagined, thought-provoking novel of Penelope’s trials during the Trojan War and its aftermath. The forgotten or misrepresented women and goddesses of ancient Greece bring joy, sorrow, humor and wit.

A lengthy space of time falls between The Iliad‘s story of the Trojan War’s conclusion and The Odyssey‘s story of Odysseus’s protracted homecoming. On the island of Ithaca while its king, Odysseus, is absent, Penelope, his queen, rules uncertainly, beset by unruly suitors wishing to become king, and the hopes and ambitions of her son, Telemachus, an infant when his father went to war and a young adult by the time he returns. Into this gap comes Ithaca, which follows the challenges faced by Penelope and the other women–queens, wives, mothers, goddesses, slaves–who surround her and fight their own often overlooked battles.

The Homeric myths are well-known and familiar territories for many readers and indeed many writers, who have reimagined and retold these stories in abundance. But despite the richness of such retellings, Penelope remains an enigma, and North’s contribution to the genre is unique and welcome. While the Ithacan queen is in some respects its protagonist, Ithaca is narrated by the goddess Hera, wife (and sister) to Zeus, and frequently represented as bitter, jealous and vengeful. Hera’s interest in Penelope is self-serving: as the goddess of women, wives, queens and motherhood, she resents the ways in which Penelope is disregarded by her male counselors, her absent husband, her suitors and her son. While Hera’s stepdaughter, Athena, is chiefly concerned with the hero Odysseus, Hera is entirely here for the women. In fact, it is not Penelope whose fate concerns her first: “No one ever said the gods did not have favourites, and it is Clytemnestra I love best, my queen above all, the one who would be free.”

Clytemnestra’s crime of husband-murder is reframed by the recounted sins of Agamemnon, and when the murderess-queen hides on Ithaca, readers are reminded that she and Penelope are cousins. Next arrive Orestes and Elektra, who seek to avenge their father’s death; Orestes is near-mute and disengaged, while his sister is a magnetic, powerful force, barely remembering that she must at least seem to defer to the will of a man: “aware that she has been perhaps a little too forceful… [she] adds, ‘My brother will issue his commands shortly.’ ” Clever Penelope is more practiced at the trick of subtly sliding her wise points into conversations while seeming to demur. Telemachus is a bit silly, a boy hoping to be a man. Odysseus is entirely off-screen, “groan[ing] in the nymph’s pearly bed.” Both Artemis and Athena make appearances, annoying their stepmother with their own agendas.

Penelope is of course harassed by the unwelcome suitors who place the queen in a sort of stalemate, as she can neither accept their offers of marriage (both because Odysseus may still be living, and because to accept one would be to provoke the others quite possibly to war) nor send them away (because of the culturally sacred host’s obligation). In this version, Penelope is additionally beset by pirates attacking her island nation–pirates dressed as Illyrians but wielding the short swords of Greeks. There seems to be intrigue afoot, offering a whodunit mystery subplot for Penelope and her subtle female counselors (in contrast to her blustering male ones) to investigate. Women warriors lurk in the shadows of this Ithaca. And North does not forget the maids, who are also slaves, and also in some cases Trojans: “Death to all the Greeks,” one of them repeatedly mutters under her breath. The maids are frequently bedmates of the suitors; but to what end, and with what choice in the matter?

Thus is Ithaca the story not only of Penelope, Hera and other queens and goddesses, but of less famed women as well, down to the teenaged village huntress who opens these pages. Hera is quick to remind her audience that the stories that get passed down are written by poets, whose narratives may be purchased, and who rarely notice the contributions of women: “That girl is not remembered now”; “No poet will ever do her homage.” “Freedom only increased the efficacy of her work, though there is not a single poet in all of Greece who would dare breathe of such an outcome.” Hera’s voice is humorous, whimsical, imperious, frequently scornful. But she is also surprisingly easily cowed by the other Olympians, knowing that Zeus holds power over her. “I was a queen of women once, before my husband bound me with chains and made me a queen of wives.” While this story is on its face about Penelope, Clytemnestra, Elektra and the rest, Hera is an engrossing and masterful character in her narration.

North’s prose is clever, funny and as wise as Penelope herself, with an eye for pleasing images as well as deeper meanings. In her capable hands, this ancient landscape is both fresh and timely. Ithaca is the first in a trilogy, and having come to know this three-dimensional Penelope, North’s readers will eagerly await the next two installments.


Rating: 8 dreams.

Come back Monday for my interview with North.

Adulthood Rites by Octavia Butler

Book two in the Lilith’s Brood series (following Dawn) is Adulthood Rites. We get a new protagonist and first-person narrator, although Lilith is still an important figure. The worldbuilding remains thorough and engrossing, and I’m still all in for book three to come.

In this novel, we are back on Earth, which the Oankali have worked to make safe for human occupation. Humans live there in two kinds of communities: either side-by-side with the Oankali or without; the latter group are known as resisters. The Oankali have engineered it so that Humans (I capitalize as Butler does) cannot reproduce without their intervention, so the resister communities are childless (although very longlived, also through Oankali intervention; this allows the narrative to work for decades, with Humans who remember life “before” but remain childless). Their inability to reproduce defines and obsesses the Human resister communities. The hybrid communities have children, known as ‘constructs,’ blends of Human and Oankali, born to both Human and Oankali mothers. The narrator is Akin, the first male construct born to a Human mother: Lilith. This first male-construct-born-to-Human is an important and risky step. The Oankali are nervous that he will carry too much of the Human Contradiction: intelligence and hierarchical thinking.

The baby-obsessed resisters are inclined to steal construct children. They are also inclined to hate them, because they don’t look Human enough. (This feels like plenty of metaphor to start with, but it goes on.) Akin is kidnapped very young by Human resisters who both crave him (baby!) and revile him (for his Oankali characteristics). This book is primarily the story of his own conflicted relationships with the two parts of himself. And, of course, we get to see Human survivors of an apocalypse do what we more or less expect them to do. They weaponize, rape, kidnap, and kill each other. It’s sobering (although I don’t find it the least bit surprising). Akin will wind up with a unique perspective on humanity, both as the first of his kind and because of his lived experience, and in the end he may hold some power over the future of humanity.

Post-apocalyptic narratives like this have become commonplace since this series (Adulthood Rites was originally published in 1988), but even in a now-crowded field, Butler stands out. The different traits of the Oankali, and their earnest failure to understand humanity’s protests against them, offer plenty to think about. To have a child who is a mix of both types is (again) ripe metaphor, and a fascinating opportunity to think about blended identities. Lilith tells Akin,

Human beings fear difference… Oankali crave difference. Humans persecute their different ones, yet they need to give them to give themselves definition and status. Oankali seek different and collect it. They need it to keep themselves from stagnation and overspecialization. If you don’t understand this, you will. You’ll probably find both tendencies surfacing in your own behavior… When you feel a conflict, try to go the Oankali way. Embrace difference.

Which of course is commentary on xenophobia, but also on that sense of having opposing types in one person (which I think we can all empathize with, one way or another).

There is also plenty to consider about family and social structures. Construct children have five parents (at least until something happens to them): male and female Human and Oankali parents, respectively, and an ooloi, the genderless Oankali who makes fertility possible, who ‘mixes’ the baby. “All interconnected, all united–a network of family into which each child should fall.” And Lilith’s Brood is centrally concerned with ideas of agency, consent, free will, and personal choice. It’s an enormous amount of philosophy to take on, for a book billed as science fiction… or perhaps (as next week’s author interview will point out!) it’s a falsehood and a shame that we expect less from sci fi.

Killer reading. Butler’s a master.


Rating: 8 guns.

Stories from the Tenants Downstairs by Sidik Fofana

This linked collection portrays the human condition by way of the struggle to make rent in a Harlem high-rise, with a cast of memorable characters.

Stories from the Tenants Downstairs, Sidik Fofana’s electric debut, consists of eight stories featuring eight residents of a low-income apartment building in Harlem where rents are rising and eviction notices are being posted by the score. These men and women struggle at the edge of making ends meet and cope by various means, including hard work, stiff upper lips, bluffing, bluster and despair.

Mimi runs a hair salon out of apartment 14D, spends beyond her means and dreams of a house in the suburbs with her son’s father, Swan. Swan (6B) lives eight floors below, with his mother, marveling at the country’s first Black president and wishing he could find his own way out of the hustle. Swan’s mother, Ms. Dallas (6B), wrestles with her day job as a paraprofessional at the local public school, bemoaning the students’ behavior, scorning the young do-gooder teachers and awaiting the school’s looming closure. Two students from Ms. Dallas’s school each feature in stories of their own. Kandese (3A) suffers losses upon losses, while her boyfriend, perennial follower Najee (24M), dreams of stardom but finds tragedy. Mimi’s erstwhile assistant, Dary (12H), flirts with a darker line of work. Neisha (21J), a former aspiring Olympic gymnast, has quit college and returned home to the building, where she has to face a trauma that still haunts her. Old Mr. Murray (2E) just wants to play sidewalk chess in peace, but the old ladies of the Banneker Terrace Committee of Concern want to make him their cause.

These protagonists are all interconnected, whether they like it or not, by more than their address. Many have been lifelong residents of Banneker Terrace, and while some have fantasized about moving on, others wish only to stay in the home they know. Their stories take various points of view (first, second and third), mostly running to heavy vernacular and each brimming with voice, from Mimi’s bravado to Najee’s fumbled but earnest reporting: the seats on the 2 train are “faded… the scrapes on them wuz also scrapes on my heart.” Fofana shows an ear for pacing and for evocative, frequently musical language. He expertly handles the structure of each story and of the collection as a whole, whose easy readability advances serious themes, including the challenges of poverty in its many iterations, gentrification, humor and hope and anguish.

This quickly shifting narrative introduces vibrant, appealing characters in brief but three-dimensional sketches, and paints a larger picture of existential efforts and persistence. Fofana’s is a striking voice, and his protagonists will linger in readers’ imaginations.


This review originally ran in the June 9, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 skins.

Watercolor in Nature: Paint Woodland Wildlife and Botanicals with 20 Beginner-Friendly Projects by Rosalie Haizlett

This book was a perfect birthday gift. Rosalie Haizlett is a local/regional artist from West Virginia whose work I’m familiar with (it’s in local coffee shops and gift shops, and I’ve got some of her stickers) and and admire. I’ve done a little painting with acrylics over the last decade or so, but no watercolors since kindergarten. And this instructional book is positively wonderful.

Things I love about Watercolor in Nature: clarity and ease of use. Haizlett opens with very brief (one page) sections on how she became an artist and how to use this book (slow down, breathe, take breaks! and, take it in order: each project builds on the one before). She goes over materials, colors, and basic techniques. And then there are the projects, 20 of them in two groups: ten use pencil and ink and ten are watercolor-only. Each adds a new skill to the painter’s toolbox, so it does make sense to take them in order. And the way she walks you through each is perfect – even the most intimidated learner can do this, because she breaks it into intuitive steps, always with images. If you just follow the directions you end up with more or less the intended outcome – that easy. (I say more or less because these are paintings of nature, which is asymmetrical and changeable, and each individual painting is a little different, as it should be.) I was a little intimidated by Haizlett’s lovely art – and another benefit to this book is that it’s filled with her art! – but she made it super easy and friendly; I was never confused. I am a little tempted to cut out some of these pages and put them on my walls. But I’m making my own art, too.

Totally, 100% recommend this to anyone interested in learning watercolor with natural subjects. I’m extremely pleased. After playing around in this book, I trust and like its narrator completely; I feel like she’s a friend. Delightful.


Rating: 9 wild blueberries.
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