Made to Explode by Sandra Beasley

Source: Purchased
Hardcover, 88 pgs.
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Made to Explode by Sandra Beasley begins its exploration of American life with the poem, “Heirloom,” which conjures all kinds of sentiments in American thinking. It sets the stage for Beasley’s unraveling of culture taken for granted — the past passed down from one generation to the next (sometimes, it is scrubbed a little cleaner and the dark truth of it requires some digging). In these early poems, Beasley is uncovering the roots of her heritage, a father who was deployed and tries to connect with her but fails to see how she’s grown into a young woman in “Elephant.” He collects things from American icons in places of war, like Hard Rock t-shirts, while she strives to connect with him buying things at a Ranger Surplus store. Despite being family, there is a disconnect between them, they are blindly bumbling through the motions of connection. Isn’t this how many of us feel about our parents — those who have lived longer, different lives from us but have not spoken candidly of that life? A mystery to solve?

"The Conversation" (pg.10-2)

is how history claims us:
not in the gesture of one but
in the conversation of many,
the talk that gets the job done.

Without these interactions between ourselves and others that lead to action, aren’t we all forgotten as the present moves on without us? Our moments are so fleeting in the grander scheme of time and history. Beasley is picking through history and uncovering things she didn’t know, like a band in “Nostalgia” that had a name to honor Emmett Till, but spelled the name wrong. In her memory, she recalls the joy of their music, but they kept spelling the boy’s name wrong — this does not sit well.

Beasley’s examination of the past and culture expands to include monuments and figures from history, including Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. She speaks to his “benevolence” regarding his slaves but it is clear that “kindness” extended only so far. Each poem in the collection builds onto the next in a crescendo of unraveling histories, culture lost to a country burying it’s own truth, until a reckoning is all that can be left. She reminds us in “Einstein, Midnight” that “Anything, in the right hands, can be made to explode.”

The final poem echoes C.P. Cavafy’s “Ithaka,” in that Beasley’s journey will be and has been taken through the past, into the present but this journey is not over. Like life and its various moments, we are Made to Explode. Poke into the past and what you thought you knew about yourself and others will definitely be altered, but to blithely live one’s life without examining actions, reactions, past, and present is to have lived a hollow existence without growth, love, loss, and understanding. We cannot build conversation and change without it.

RATING: Cinquain

Check out her panel discussion with Kim Addonizio, Katherine E. Young, and moderator Reuben Jackson at the virtual Gaithersburg Book Festival 2021:

Mailbox Monday #631

Mailbox Monday has become a tradition in the blogging world, and many of us thank Marcia of The Printed Page for creating it.

It now has it’s own blog where book bloggers can link up their own mailbox posts and share which books they bought or which they received for review from publishers, authors, and more.

Leslie, Martha, and I also will share our picks from everyone’s links in the new feature Books that Caught Our Eye. We hope you’ll join us.

ALERT: We’re looking for a new host to help us with MM — if you have experience with WordPress or Mr. Linky, feel free to apply.

Here’s what we received:

These are the books I won on Instagram from Capitol Hill Books and The Literary Hill BookFest:

Blue Laws edited by Kevin Young

Blue Laws gathers poems written over the past two decades, drawing from all nine of Kevin Young’s previously published books of poetry and including a number of uncollected, often unpublished, poems. From his stunning lyric debut (Most Way Home, 1995) and the amazing “double album” life of Jean-Michel Basquiat (2001;”remixed” for Knopf in 2005), through his brokenhearted Jelly Roll: A Blues (2003) and his recent forays into adult grief and the joys of birth in Dear Darkness (2008) and Book of Hours (2014), this collection provides a grand tour of a poet whose personal poems and political poems are equally riveting. Together with wonderful outtakes and previously unseen blues, the profoundly felt poems here of family, Southern food, and loss are of a piece with the depth of personal sensibility and humanity found in his Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels or bold sequences such as “The Ballad of Jim Crow” and a new “Homage to Phillis Wheatley.”

How We Became Human by Joy Harjo

Over a quarter-century’s work from the 2003 winner of the Arrell Gibson Award for Lifetime Achievement.

This collection gathers poems from throughout Joy Harjo’s twenty-eight-year career, beginning in 1973 in the age marked by the takeover at Wounded Knee and the rejuvenation of indigenous cultures in the world through poetry and music. How We Became Human explores its title question in poems of sustaining grace.

Renascence & Other Poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay

This work has been selected by scholars as being culturally important, and is part of the knowledge base of civilization as we know it. This work was reproduced from the original artifact, and remains as true to the original work as possible. Therefore, you will see the original copyright references, library stamps (as most of these works have been housed in our most important libraries around the world), and other notations in the work.

This work is in the public domain in the United States of America, and possibly other nations. Within the United States, you may freely copy and distribute this work, as no entity (individual or corporate) has a copyright on the body of the work.

As a reproduction of a historical artifact, this work may contain missing or blurred pages, poor pictures, errant marks, etc. Scholars believe, and we concur, that this work is important enough to be preserved, reproduced, and made generally available to the public. We appreciate your support of the preservation process, and thank you for being an important part of keeping this knowledge alive and relevant.

The Break-Up Book Club by Wendy Wax for review.

On paper, Jazmine, Judith, Erin and Sara have little in common – they’re very different people leading very different lives. And yet at book club meetings in an historic carriage house turned bookstore, they bond over a shared love of reading (and more than a little wine) as well as the growing realization that their lives are not turning out like they expected.

Former tennis star Jazmine is a top sports agent balancing a career and single motherhood. Judith is an empty nester questioning her marriage and the supporting role she chose. Erin’s high school sweetheart and fiancé develops a bad case of cold feet, and Sara’s husband takes a job out of town saddling Sara with a difficult mother-in-law who believes her son could have done better – not exactly the roommate most women dream of.

With the help of books, laughter, and the joy of ever evolving friendships, Jazmine, Judith, Erin and Sara find the courage to navigate new and surprising chapters of their lives as they seek their own versions of happily-ever-after.

What did you receive?

Now We’re Getting Somewhere by Kim Addonizio

Source: GBF
Paperback, 96 pgs.
I am an Amazon Affiliate

Now We’re Getting Somewhere by Kim Addonizio is a collection that you can hold close in your shelter-in-place during the pandemic and know that anything that happens behind closed doors is just kalsarikdnnit, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t shut the world out and ignore our problems. Opening with “Night in the Castle,” the narrator has already given up on mercy long ago. The poet infuses this poem with injustice, privilege, and anger, recalling the clashing armies of history and the bleakness of regicide.

The poet is calling our attention to the darkness of humanity, from our clashes among ourselves and the destruction that results to the changing climate we’ve had a hand in expediting. “The earth is about used up/like a sodden tampon & no place to throw it away/” (pg. 14) and “Even the ocean is gasping for air/” (pg. 15), but these are things we already know, yet we are too complacent, too privileged to see that action is required. However, many of us feel as the narrator does in “In bed” that it is all to enormous to tackle head on or deal with daily, we’d rather just put our heads under the covers and ignore it all. We want a hibernation from the ugliness of the world.

But don’t assume that the collection is all doom and gloom, though the humor is a bit dark. My father would definitely appreciate her humor in Résumé:


Families shame you;
Rehab's a scam;
Lovers drain you
And don't give a damn.
Friends are distracted;
Aging stinks;
You'll soon be subtracted;
You might as well drink.

As a writer, I absolutely appreciated the third section of this collection – “Confessional Poetry” — in which writing is compared to “firing a nail gun into the center of a vanity mirror” (pg. 41) or “like sewing rhinestones on your traumas” and “wearing them” at a “pain festival” (pg. 42)

I really like feeling something when I stagger into a poem
& having a place to lie down & cry

Now We’re Getting Somewhere by Kim Addonizio is as much of an introspective emotional and existential journey as it is a confession that we are no where near perfect human beings. We all have a lot of work to do emotionally, spiritually, and philosophically, but as we struggle with these internal paradigms, we’re also watching the world suffer around us and degrade. How do we break through the malaise and paralysis to make progress with ourselves and the world? Perhaps by being less serious about everything, allowing ourselves to fall apart, and taking action that makes actual progress as opposed to the actions that people deem as “making progress.”

RATING: Cinquain

Check out her panel discussion with Sandra Beasley, Katherine E. Young, and moderator Reuben Jackson at the 2021 Gaithersburg Book Festival:

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 320 pgs.
I am an Amazon Affiliate

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach, the May book club selection, is not for the faint of heart, as Roach discusses some of the most gruesome experiments and studies in science that involve cadavers.  However, she does pepper her examination of these curious lives with humor that helps to break up the grosser aspects of the book.

“The way I see it, being dead is not terribly far off from being on a cruise ship.  Most of your time is spent lying on your back.  The brain has shut down.  The flesh begins to soften.  Nothing much new happens, and nothing is expected of you.”  (pg. 9)

Through her — what some would call — irreverent humor, Roach explores the role that cadavers have played not only in scientific and medicinal research, but also in auto safety and military ballistics.  Readers may find they need to take breaks from reading as Roach gets very detailed, but others may find that reading straight through is made easier by her asides and funny anecdotes.  Even the people she talks to have to have a sense of humor so they can disconnect from the sadness of lost life, like one surgical student who said she didn’t have a problem working on heads, but she did find it uncomfortable to work on hands because they hold you back.

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach is a sensational look at the role of cadavers in modern society and in our past, and is often the case, cadavers are not given their due.  These cadavers, which were mostly donated, have given us insight into the human systems, the impacts the body can sustain before dying, and some of the wacky theories that scientists and doctors had about severed head reanimation and more.

RATING: Quatrain

About the Author:

Mary Roach is the author of the New York Times bestsellers STIFF: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers; GULP: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, PACKING FOR MARS: The Curious Science of Life in the Void; and BONK: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex.

Her most recent book, GRUNT: The Curious Science of Humans at War, is out in June 2016.

Mary has written for National Geographic, Wired, Discover, New Scientist, the Journal of Clinical Anatomy, and Outside, among others. She serves as a member of the Mars Institute’s Advisory Board and the Usage Panel of American Heritage Dictionary. Her 2009 TED talk made the organization’s 2011 Twenty Most-Watched To Date list. She was the guest editor of the 2011 Best American Science and Nature Writing, a finalist for the 2014 Royal Society Winton Prize, and a winner of the American Engineering Societies’ Engineering Journalism Award, in a category for which, let’s be honest, she was the sole entrant.

What the Book Club Thought:

Most of us enjoyed the book and its curiosities.  I have no idea why this book sat so long on my bookshelf unread.  A couple others were a bit put off by the author’s tangents, but they also read the book in a once-through fashion.  As I read it in spurts, I didn’t find the tangents to be that off-putting.  One member expressed that the book could have been improved by some editing to make it less wordy and more like the author’s published newspaper/magazine articles.  Mostly, the members found the subject matter fascinating, though one member did mention that the part about animals seemed a little out of place.  Overall, it seemed as though everyone enjoyed this book club selection.

Diving Into the Wreck by Adrienne Rich

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 72 pages
I’m an Amazon Affiliate

Diving Into the Wreck by Adrienne Rich rocks readers with each wave of verse, undulating in the depths of darkness to rise up into the air gasping for breath.  Rich explores human nature, relationships between lovers, sisters, and more, but some of the most visceral poems are about self-reflection and even self-repair.  Beyond the verse and the poet’s exploration of self and humanity, these poems force readers into their own self-examinations, looking at their pasts, the current relationships, and where they wish to be in the future.  The hardest part about these kinds of poems is the internal digging that readers must do.

From "After Twenty Years" (page 13)

It is strange to be so many women,
eating and drinking at the same table,
those who bathed their children in the same basin
who kept their secrets from each other
walked the floors of their lives in separate rooms

How many different selves do we each have? If you’re a mother, there could be the professional self, the mother, and the individual without all the responsibilities and obligations, but Rich explores what all of those selves mean overall and that we must grab on to possibility, learning not to limit ourselves by adopting those labels.  In “When We Dead Awaken,” she explores the toll that the world can take on us, branding us with memories — both good and bad — but also how these experiences inform and shape us.  We have a duty to look out at our world, take in what we enjoy and reject what we do not — strive not only to change ourselves, but also our environment, which she achieves with phenomenal imagery of scarred landscapes by mining and more.

Diving Into the Wreck by Adrienne Rich works on several planes of existence at once — the surface self-examination of the poet, then of the reader, but more so of humanity and its impact on the environment and each individual.  At times, these poems will feel like drifting on the current, and at others, readers’ ships will be overrun with waves as Rich bombards them with images and twists in her verse.  There is a distinctly feminist and political bent to some of these poems, particularly those focused on the Vietnam War.  A phenomenal collection worth discussing with book clubs, but also something for quieter reflection.

About the Author:

Poet and essayist Adrienne Rich was one of America’s foremost public intellectuals. Widely read and hugely influential, Rich’s career spanned seven decades and has hewed closely to the story of post-war American poetry itself. Her earliest work, including A Change of World (1951) which won the prestigious Yale Younger Poets Award, was formally exact and decorous, while her work of the late 1960s and 70s became increasingly radical in both its free-verse form and feminist and political content.

Book 16 for the Dive Into Poetry Reading Challenge 2014.




29th book for 2014 New Author Challenge.

Walking Home: A Poet’s Journey by Simon Armitage

Source: Liveright, W.W. Norton
Paperback, 285 pages
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Walking Home: A Poet’s Journey by Simon Armitage is part memoir and part travelogue, and the path he chooses to walk — while contrary to what is outlined in the guidebooks for the Pennine Way in England and part of Scotland — is literally a walk home for him.  He begins in Kirk Yethom, Scotland, and ends more or less in Edale, England, which is in the Peak District.  As a poet, readers may expect a deeper analysis of the journey or the travails he experiences, but as Armitage is nearly constantly accompanied by strangers, friends, fellow poets, and even his family, he has little time to contemplate more than the scant passerby or the physical obstacles in his path.  Much of the travelogue is focused on Armitage re-orienting himself by map or landscape or simply following someone who has offered to guide him over a particular leg of the 267 miles.  The first poem included in the book doesn’t come until he has pass nearly a third of the way through the trail — whether that is when inspiration hit him to write a poem during the journey or whether it was written afterward about that section of the trail is unclear.

“Prose fills a space, like a liquid poured in from the top, but poetry occupies it, arrays itself in formation, sets up camp and refuses to budge.  It is a dissenting and willful art form, and most of its practitioners are signed-up members of the awkward squad.” (page 5)

Armitage has help in coordinating his journey, which includes readings held at the end of each leg either in an inn, a home, a bar, or other venues, and he passes a sock about the room for collections, which he uses to fund his continued journey along the way.  He says that he sets out on the journey to get “out there,” rather than write about far-off places from his desk chair.  In a way, he sees it as a way to “clear his head.”  The path does not seem to clear his head so much as clutter it with more concerns and worries about himself and the physical health of others.

There is a point early on in which he gains a “regular” pace of walking and he feels as though he’s reached his stride, but he’s clearly not reached the most arduous parts of the journey.  Those parts of the journey clearly weigh on his psyche, as does his part of the journey when he is lost in the mist.  He nearly loses his sense of identity, but he continues onward.  Perhaps this is the crux of the prose, that poets lose themselves in the journey and that loss of self can be frightening unless the poet can plod forward.

Walking Home: A Poet’s Journey by Simon Armitage is a journey at the arm of a poet who does not find himself all that interesting and cannot seem to understand the reason why anyone would volunteer to go on the journey with him or even come to listen to him read his poems.  The one interesting moment in the memoir where he talks of spare rooms as the keepers of “family lore” and “memory vaults,” is grossly under-explored, as he seems to want to keep out of the private moments of the people who open their homes to him.  While the landscape is varied and the hardships he faces could be a cautionary tale against these kinds of treks, the journey does not live up to reader’s expectations about what a poet would write about, experience, or explore.

About the Poet:

Simon Armitage was born in 1963 in the village of Marsden and lives in West Yorkshire. He is a graduate of Portsmouth University, where he studied Geography. As a post-graduate student at Manchester University his MA thesis concerned the effects of television violence on young offenders. Until 1994 he worked as Probation Officer in Greater Manchester.

His first full-length collection of poems, Zoom!, was published in 1989 by Bloodaxe Books. Further collections are Xanadu (1992, Bloodaxe Books), Kid (1992, Faber & Faber), Book of Matches (1993, Faber & Faber), The Dead Sea Poems (1995, Faber & Faber), Moon Country (with Glyn Maxwell, 1996, Faber & Faber), CloudCuckooLand (1997 Faber and Faber), Killing Time (1999 Faber & Faber), Selected Poems (2001, Faber & Faber), Travelling Songs (2002, Faber & Faber), The Universal Home Doctor (2002, Faber & Faber), Tyrannosaurus Rex Versus the Corduroy Kid (2006, Faber & Faber, Knopf 2008), and Seeing Stars (2010, Faber & Faber, Knopf 2011).

Armitage’s 2012 nonfiction book Walking Home, an account of his troubadour journey along the Pennine Way, was a Sunday Times best-seller for over a month and is shortlisted for the 2012 Portico Prize.

Book 12 for the Dive Into Poetry Reading Challenge 2014.



6th book for 2014 European Reading Challenge; this memoir/travelogue takes place in England and Scotland.



18th book for 2014 New Author Challenge.





For today’s 2014 National Poetry Month: Reach for the Horizon tour stop, click the image below:

The Late Parade by Adam Fitzgerald

Source: Liveright, W.W. Norton
Hardcover, 112 pages
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The Late Parade by Adam Fitzgerald strikes a confusing pose upon first glance with its oftentimes odd image pairings and obscured references, but at its heart, there is a deep melancholy and longing in these poems.  There are moments that slip through the reader’s fingers as they slip through the narrator’s fingers, leaving both with a sense of loss.  We’ve come late to the parade and are sad for it.

From "Mid-Harbor" (page 66)

"All such gestures may be inventions of nostalgia,
ways of edging a tea-saucer future forward,
poised perilously on a gilded table's brink.

We glance at ourselves with plaster cables strung
over cheeks, snoozing the forest's alarm, turning
to a charmed gouache with oblivious sentiment."

Fitzgerald deftly melds pop culture with classic reading, cuing it up with a fantastic and unbelievable world of clouds, “buttered air,” and “dental waters.”  Like the poem “Two Worlds at Once” suggests, Fitzgerald is asking the reader to straddle reality and fantasy to enjoy the happiness of moments in love even if they have already passed us by or never came about in the first place — it is their existence and possibility that are the most poignant.

Filled with lush imagery that confuses and contradicts, readers minds will become full, at times overtaxed, but poems that force readers to expand their minds and contemplate every chosen word are those that engage us the most.  The Late Parade by Adam Fitzgerald is a debut collection not soon forgotten.

17th book for 2014 New Author Challenge.





Book 11 for the Dive Into Poetry Reading Challenge 2014.

For today’s 2014 National Poetry Month: Reach for the Horizon tour stop, click the image below:

Nefertiti in the Flak Tower by Clive James

Source: Liveright
Hardcover, 96 pages
I am an Amazon Affiliate

Nefertiti in the Flak Tower by Clive James is a collection of rhyming and metered poems that relies heavily on history, particularly that of WWII, to make connections about the resiliency of human kind in the face of horrifying adversity.  The title poem, Nefertiti in the Flak Tower, does use the history of the Nefertiti bust as a German treasure that was moved and protected in a Flak Tower during WWII, towers that were built to protect cities like Berlin from air raids with guns and shelter citizens.  Beyond the historically based poems, there are poems about the life of a writer and his friends and how even these glamorous lives of signing books can become mundane, but there are those moments that make even the most thankless jobs worthwhile.

From "Grief Has Its Time" (page 81)

"Free of such burdens, I pursue my course
Supposing myself blessed with the light touch,
A blithesome ease my principal resource.
Sometimes on stage I even say as much,

Or did, till one night in the signing queue
An ancient lady touched my wrist and said
I'd made her smile the way he used to do
When hearts were won by how a young man read

Aloud, and decent girls were led astray
By sweet speech. "Can you put his name with mine?
Before the war, before he went away,
We used to read together." Last in line

She had all my attention, so I wrote"

James comes across as both romantic and removed.  The rhyming poems can linger in the mind when the emotion is clear and connects with the reader, but there are other occasions when the rhymes seem forced and throw off the rhythm of the poem, creating a disconnect between the reader and the subject.  Nefertiti in the Flak Tower by Clive James is a mix of some really great poems that will leave a lasting impression and those that fall a little flat on first and second reading.

Book 10 for the Dive Into Poetry Reading Challenge 2014.




16th book for 2014 New Author Challenge.




For today’s 2014 National Poetry Month: Reach for the Horizon tour stop, click the image below:

Still Love in Strange Places by Beth Kephart

Source: Gift from LibraryThing SantaThing
Paperback, 240 pages
I am an Amazon Affiliate

Still Love in Strange Places by Beth Kephart is part travel, cultural immersion, and marital memoir.  El Salvador, the country of her husband’s birth, is seismologically and politically volatile, much like a marriage can be as we seek similarities and rarely understand the differences between us when we first begin a life together.  Kephart speaks of her husband’s country as someone who has never traveled to Central America before and only knows about the country from the horrific political turmoil and devastating earthquakes she has seen on the news.  She begins the novel very much on the outside of her husband’s life before he went to the United States for college and married her, living a suburban, quiet, American life.

“When I married my husband, I married into all of this.  I married a legacy, traditions, danger.  I married a man who is not at home unless he’s standing in the shadows of his grandfather’s land or asserting the privileges of a jeep on jungle roads.  My husband isn’t home here, where we together live, and yet years would go by before I could begin to understand, before my imagination would let me close to where he’d come from.”  (page 10-11)

For a woman that has lived a very privileged American life — for that’s what she says — her experiences traveling were limited to very advanced economies, rather than the more emerging markets in Central America, which have had a harder time coming together and staying together socially and politically.  Speaking only English, as many Americans do, arriving in a country where Spanish is spoken in rapid, unending bursts with little time to pause and translate, Kephart illustrates her loneliness and her separateness when she perches in a tree and merely watches from afar as her husband reconnects with his home and his family.  This separateness is partly her own making because of her almost desperate need to be part of his family in all ways, but also her desire to pull him back into the world of their American life so that she can be more comfortable.

However, this is not just a memoir about a marriage; it is also a memoir about coming to love a country and a culture that at first seems so foreign and incomprehensible to her.  As she sets out to tell her son about his father’s life before America and his heritage, Kephart learns that there is love in the strangest of places — places that were once alien, places that made her feel separate and foreign herself.

What’s beautiful about the memoir is that it doesn’t focus on the rifts or the arguments or the silences these differences between her and her husband may have caused, it is focused on a woman immersing herself in the culture, a history, a people and its coffee.  Through its history — political and otherwise — Kephart paints a picture of a country that struggles with its own land and its own people to find itself.  El Salvador comes alive in her hands, becomes a living, breathing being with its beauty and darkness, and while there are frightening times of civil unrest and bandits, Kephart is huddled in the family bubble — cradled in their acceptance of her.

“It was an accident, Bill’s falling in love with me.  It was a risk, binding himself up in a marriage to an American girl, a suburban girl so entirely naive that she thought she’d be somehow big enough to hold him.”  (page 127)

Still Love in Strange Places by Beth Kephart is about love and learning to love even the strangest parts of ourselves and our spouses, it’s a love that embraces everything despite our initial fears and misgivings and misunderstandings.  Love should be big enough not only to conquer all, but also to breed acceptance for what we do not understand or know about ourselves and those we love.  Love is an expansion of who and what we are; it is the exploration and embracing of what is outside of us and bringing that into ourselves.

About the Author:

Beth Kephart is the author of 10 books, including the National Book Award finalist A Slant of Sun; the Book Sense pick Ghosts in the Garden; the autobiography of Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River, Flow; the acclaimed business fable Zenobia; and the critically acclaimed novels for young adults, Undercover and House of Dance. A third YA novel, Nothing but Ghosts, published in June 2009, and a fourth young adult novel, The Heart Is Not a Size, released in March 2010.

Kephart is a winner of the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts fiction grant, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, a Leeway grant, a Pew Fellowships in the Arts grant, and the Speakeasy Poetry Prize, among other honors. Kephart’s essays are frequently anthologized, she has judged numerous competitions, and she has taught workshops at many institutions, to all ages. She teaches the advanced nonfiction workshop at the University of Pennsylvania.

The Gods of Heavenly Punishment by Jennifer Cody Epstein

The Gods of Heavenly Punishment by Jennifer Cody Epstein chronicles Yoshi Kobayashi’s life before, during, and after WWII, with a particular emphasis on the Tokyo fire bombings that preceded the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Billy Reynolds, whose family lives in Tokyo before the war, is a sensitive young boy who loves his new camera, and adores taking photos of Yoshi, family, friends, and more.  Cam Richards and Lacy Robertson are American college students who meet and quickly fall in love just as war is about to break out between America and Japan after Pearl Harbor, and their lives are torn apart by the war.  But ultimately, Epstein’s novel is about Yoshi and how the war tore apart a flourishing culture that once embraced American capitalism.

Not only will readers get an in-depth look at Tokyo before, during, and after the war, but they also see how war impacts not only Americans who once lived in Japan, but also those who were married to those who flew to avenge the deaths of so many in Hawaii.  Initially, readers will be duped into thinking Cam Richards and Lacy Robertson are the main protagonists — a testament to her ability to get readers to care even about secondary characters — but Yoshi is the heroine here, though there are big gaps in time that are not explored, which can leave a reader wanting more.  There is a moment near the end in particular when readers will wonder how Yoshi ends up playing piano at The American Club after the war when they last left her getting into a boat with an older man after the fire bombings, heading away from Tokyo.

“Almost by reflex Cam released the brakes and started to roll.  And then they were racing down that slippery white line, his heart pounding with the rhythmic throbbing of the twin Cyclones.  The dungaree blue of the sailors’ uniforms and the dirty gray of the ship’s island bled together as the Blonde Bombshell picked up speed.  As they passed by the signal officer (now safely flattened against the deck), Cam pulled on the yoke so hard that he felt his elbows crack, and saw the sky lunge towards him like a wet concrete wall.  They hit the ship’s edge in the after-trough of another white-topped crest, and as his plane’s nose plunged towards the water Cam’s gut plunged right along with it.”  (page 79)

Epstein is a phenomenal writer.  She captures intense moments so well, that it places the reader there with the characters.  Yoshi is a precocious young girl learning three languages thanks to her continental mother, but unfortunately, she’s held a little back by her attachment to her mother and her father’s old world conceptions of women in society.  She sees her father’s love of the new paradise, Manchuria, as a possible solution to her escape, until she learns the truth about her father’s work there.  When she heads back home, she throws herself into the national effort for the war, hoping that she can escape the disintegrating world around her in which her mother slips more and more each day.  The Gods of Heavenly Punishment by Jennifer Cody Epstein is about the outside forces that shape who we are depending on how strong we are on the inside and our ability to make our way out of the darkness into the light.

About the Author:

Jennifer Cody Epstein is the author of The Gods of Heavenly Punishment and the international bestseller The Painter from Shanghai. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, The Asian Wall Street Journal, Self, Mademoiselle and NBC, and has worked in Hong Kong, Japan and Bangkok, Thailand. Jennifer lives in Brooklyn, NY with her husband, two daughters and especially needy Springer Spaniel. To connect with Jennifer, “like” her on Facebook.