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Local Book Review: Alchemy for Cells & Other Beasts

Earlier this afternoon I had a wonderful conversation about the synthesis of science, art and literature with a quirky entrepreneur (thank you, Spaceworks Tacoma and Creative Colloquy for landing me in that exquisite moment).

Before the conversation was over, my brain started buzzing and whirring as I thought about some of my favorite, recent collaborations across media. Alchemy for Cells & Other Beasts, a collection of poetry by Maya Jewell Zeller and visual arts by Carrie DeBacker, was the very first that came to mind.

I picked up Alchemy for Cells & Other Beasts (which is a little beauty of a book) at the Cascadia Poetry Festival’s small press fair back in October, as I ambled from one publisher booth to the next. Eventually, I found my way to Entre Rios Books, where collaboration and multimedia are an integral part of the publishing company’s ethos.

I thumbed my way through of the books on the table before gravitating towards Alchemy for Cells & Other Beasts, and I was immediately struck by not only the playfulness of the content on the page, but the seeming innocence and whimsy of the visual art and poetry inside. I fell in love so, so quickly.little-spell-with-a-ship-on-its-backOver the next few weeks, I read and reread the poems in Alchemy for Cells & Other Beasts, marveling that Jewell Zeller was able to deliver earthy, intricate imagery and allude to gut-wrenching topics, all-the-while managing to keep the tone of the book light and hopeful.

The poems felt fresh and they left me full of wonder after each read: wonder at the author’s use of language rooted in biology, the natural world, science and medicine; and wonder at the illustrator’s ability to capture that same tone before instilling it with her own, quirky flavor. Much of the beauty of this book is in the synthesis of the soft edges of the art and the sharp language of the poems.little-spell-with-chest-xrayI also loved that the meat and the potatoes of the book, the poetry itself, is heartfelt and well-written. As a reader, each poem kept me on my toes with varied structure and placement on the page, use of repeated themes to evoke very different emotions in each poem, and subjects that virtually anyone can empathize with.

Overall, I’m thoroughly impressed with Alchemy for Cells & Other Beasts and I can’t wait to go down a literary rabbit hole of the author’s, illustrator’s and publisher’s other works. I highly recommend this book to anyone who appreciates the beauty of collaboration and/or the literary arts. It’s a feast for the eyes.


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Local Book Review: Tupelo by Alec Clayton

Let me start by admitting that I don’t usually read books about the American South. I find them tedious and often, as dry as a sad packet of army-issued crackers. I’m not a big fan of authobiographical-ish tales of young men fumbling through their youth, either (get out of here, The Great Gatsby and The Catcher in the Rye, scat!). So, when I started reading Tupelo by Alec Clayton, I was less than thrilled to realize I was in for both.

But like a good friend and a fellow, local writer (one who doesn’t want to avoid eye contact with an author I see at least once a month and very much enjoy chatting with), I decided to read the first quarter of Tupelo before passing judgement on it or tossing it back on the bookshelf. Plus, Clayton is a damn good author and storyteller, so his book, Tupelo, deserves a fair shake, right?

The answer is yes. And I’ll fast forward a few days and a lot of cups of coffee here to a moment when I realized I was thoroughly enjoying Tupelo, despite my early misgivings. And no, it didn’t take the first quarter of the book to get me there, either. It simply took the realization that this story, the story of a young man and his family navigating through an evolving cultural landscape, is told with a hell of a lot more honesty than usual. Oh, and the overall quality of his storytelling was on point, too.

Set in a small Mississippi town struggling to adjust to change during the mid-twentieth century, Tupelo could have been a book about a young, white and male protagonist making all the right moves during his youth and eventually, bridging the cultural and political gap between whites and African American’s during the Civil Rights Movement. It could have been a hero’s journey full of moments where the protagonist did exactly the right thing at exactly the right time and played a pivotal role in changing the world around him. But it isn’t. It’s much more honest than that.

Clayton provides a truer picture of what it was like to grow up in the confusing and racially and politically charged times of the 1950’s and 60’s. His protagonist doesn’t make all the right moves, he isn’t always at the center of the action, and he doesn’t try to cover up the unpopular or insensitive views of the people in his life. Instead, Tupelo offers readers a realistic look at a family and community who aren’t only concerned with the civil rights movement, but are entrenched in their own ups and downs, budding and failing relationships and struggles to survive. It’s about the change, and lack thereof, that a young man, his family and his community are all facing in the midst of an evolving cultural landscape.

And to be perfectly honest, I think Clayton’s focus on representing his youth honestly and without unnecessary fanfare would have been lost on readers if Clayton wasn’t such a strong storyteller. Tupelo is full of sidebar adventures and peripheral characters that eventually circle back to the main plot-line, but the digressions don’t feel unnecessary because Clayton does an excellent job weaving them into the fabric of his larger story. Tupelo’s characters have a healthy dose of positive and negative personality traits, too, which keeps readers invested in the story even when it’s taken a detour. And true to his promise, Clayton ties up any loose ends before readers reach the end of their literary journey.

I was pleasantly surprised to realize how much I was enjoying Tupelo as I turned the last few pages of the book, despite being very sure I’d dislike it in the beginning. And for all you readers out there who’re like me, who might be thinking Tupelo isn’t your cup of tea because of its genre or content, I say give it a go. The honest narrative and strength of storytelling alone will be more than enough to to get you hooked, trust me. Tupelo is a good book, by a great storyteller. Don’t pass it up.


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Local Book Review: Gone to Gold Mountain

If you’re a poet living in the Pacific Northwest, chances are you’ve read Peter Ludwin’s work, or maybe you’ve heard him read in one of the cramped, dusty bookstores of Tacoma or Olympia. Chances are you enjoy his work, too, and probably agree that his poetry might be dark in tone, but it’s filled with lovely, stark images of nature and a strong narrative. Ludwin is an award-winning poet who lives in Kent, Washington, but poetry enthusiasts and writers across the Puget Sound are familiar with his work.

Over the last few years, I’ve had the opportunity to hear Ludwin read several times, including readings at Puget Sound Poetry Connection’s gathering in Tacoma and Olympia Poetry Network in Oly. Each time, I’ve been impressed with both his poetry and skills as a reader. So when I finally heard Ludwin read from his newest poetry collection, Gone to Gold Mountain, in Olympia earlier this summer, I was immediately hooked. I grabbed a copy and devoured the poems inside, all of which center around stories of Chinese gold miners in Oregon who were massacred during the late 19th century.

In Gone to Gold Mountain, Ludwin brings 19th century Chinese gold miners’ experiences of racism, physical and mental exertion, and struggles to live with aching homesickness back to life. Ludwin does an excellent job amplifying those voices and perspectives, most of which were swept under the historical rug long ago. Chinese laborers immigrating to the U.S. during the 19th century were discriminated against and treated with shocking brutality, and only recently have those injustices begun to receive public acknowledgement. And for that, for even attempting to bring these stories back into public consciousness, I’ve got to give Ludwin serious props.

Another thing Ludwin does well in Gone to Gold Mountain is mix the format and style of his poems while maintaining a strong, cohesive theme. Several of the poems are formatted as letters, some are in traditional stanza structure and others are free-flowing, but they all maintain a connection to the overarching theme. There are not poetic “stragglers” in this book. Interestingly enough, Ludwin also styled the poem titles in this collection to match classic Chinese poetry, where literal (and often long) descriptions of the content give readers let readers know what they’re in for. A few examples include “Chea Po to Sails from China to America, Late 19th Century,” “Meditations on a Chinese Minor” and “Clerk to an Investigative Reporter, Wallowa County, Oregon.”

On the other side of the coin, one of the things I don’t like about Gone to Gold Mountain is that the level of sentimentality is much too high for my taste. It seems like the narrators’ experience in many of the poems is romanticized to the point that readers are left with a one-dimensional view of early Chinese immigrants in the U.S. Personally, I would have appreciated more variation in narrators’ personalities, intentions or viewpoints, which I think is more reflective of the diversity in any given group of people, regardless of the time period.

Overall, though, I enjoyed reading Gone to Gold Mountain and I was glad to pick up a book of poetry that reflects a chapter of local history that doesn’t get much attention otherwise AND that’s written very, very well. I’ve already recommended Gone to Gold Mountain to a few people, poetry and nonfiction buffs alike, and I’ll keep doing so as long as Ludwin keeps reading at poetry gatherings around town. It really is worth it to hear his poetry come to life through his gravelly voice and slow cadence. And! Because he’ll sign the book for you, too 🙂