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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: 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 🙂

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Local Book Review: Hagridden by Samuel Snoek-Brown

How often do you pick up a book from one of your favorite authors and hope and wish and pray it’s as good as the last? I do it every time, but truth be told, only about half the books I read live up to my expectations. Lucky for me, Samuel Snoek-Brown’s Hagridden did, in fact, live up to my expectations as I read it while camping in wilds of Utah.

Hagridden is a historical fiction novel and it’s set in the U.S. South as the Civil War came to a close. It follows two women who’re struggling to survive in the bayou and rebuilt their lives with the little (humanity) they’ve got left. The book reads very much like a Cormac McCarthy novel, both in tone and content, but it’s much easier to palate during the gritty moments (read: less depressing and less descriptive of gore … most of the time). I was also pleasantly surprised by the author’s dedication to staying within historical bounds. As someone who doesn’t read historical fiction very often, I’d say this is a great book to start with.

One thing that piqued my interest while reading was that Snoek-Brown doesn’t name either of his protagonists, leaving an air of mystery around the two women. Is the author saying we’re all capable of ugly, animalistic behavior under the right circumstances? Or asking readers to consider how quickly the line between being civilized and being a savage is erased when faced with the harsh realities of survival? I’ll let you read and decide for yourself, and maybe one day we’ll discuss it when we bump into each other at a coffee shop (this is inevitable, trust me).

Lastly, of my favorite aspects of Hagridden was how similarly it reads to Snoek-Brown’s short stories, which were some of the best I’ve read over the last year. Believe me when I say the short stories of Box Cutters are just as good as those of Helen Oyeyemi, author of What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours or Primo Levi, author of The Periodic Table. Snoek-Brown’s work, whether in short story or novel form, is consistently dark and eerie, and he’s managed to retain a distinctive, original voice throughout. Overall, I thoroughly enjoy his writing, Hagridden included.