Sundress Reads: Review of An Accidental American Odyssey

In western Russia, a young Catherine Morland-esque woman mingles with “American princes” in exchange for a ticket west. Meanwhile, across the Bering Sea, a refugee couple and their neighbors desperately shuffle into a claustrophobic white van to escape America’s untimely end. 

Mark Budman, in his latest short story collection, An Accidental American Odyssey (Livingston Press, 2021), weaves unique voices together to create an immigrant hero’s journey. Budman’s collection exposes the inescapability of the immigrant identity and the perpetual longing for something more secure than that which we already have—a feeling that migrants often carry overseas. 

Born in the former Soviet Russia, and currently living in America, Mark Budman is no stranger to the immigrant experience. His first semi-autobiographical novel, My Life at First Try (Counterpoint, 2008), follows Alex and his family as they move from Siberia to America. Similarly, An Accidental American Odyssey further explores themes of migration and the meaning of the homeland by introducing a diverse array of characters. Out of chronological order, each short story details a different phase in a character’s immigration journey. Budman describes the moment Vera Sirotina attempts to make her dreams of leaving Russia come true, as well as the grueling reality of American capitalism that the Titan is subject to at his office job in “The Titan. An Office Romance.” Budman’s collection creates a new hero archetype that centers on the immigrant’s journey while emphasizing the obstacles one endures while immigrating from one’s homeland. 

Budman’s witty narrative focus offers a unique perspective on the conflicting emotions that his characters feel when they uproot their lives. His narrative style frequently toes the lines of absurdity—In “Influencer, C’est Moi,” Ivan Ivanovich Ivanov is a minuscule personal advisor who lives behind the ears of kings. He exchanges his advice to Napoleon for the promise of French citizenship. The active choice to retell this story from the perspective of a political advisor who subjects can neither see nor hear hints at the futility that citizens often feel under certain forms of government. Ivan complains that the French rulers ignore his suggestions and fail miserably in their campaigns. He says, “I moved to the US. Everyone listens to you there, if you belong to the same political party, and if you say that the other party’s leader is an asshole” (41). Ivan notes the hypocrisy of American politics, but still prefers the ease with which one can assimilate into the masses. He acknowledges that conformity, as a migrant, allows Americans to take you seriously. Within the collection, Ivan’s story functions as an unfortunate reality check regarding the fact that, although the countries that many of Budman’s characters hail from have corrupt governments, America’s democracy is far from perfect. 

In fact, we find his characters in all sorts of strange circumstances. Vera signs up for a Tinder-like dating service, dreaming of being a mail-order bride. In “Scarabaeus Simplex,” Greg Sampson’s dreams turn him into a Volkswagen New Beetle. Absurdist story-telling functions to make abstract concepts like consumerism more accessible to readers. For Sampson, an American who hopes to vacation in Russia while so many Russians must leave, becoming an old German car symbolizes the limitations of American capitalism. 

Sampson, like so many Americans, dreams of the material—once he realizes he’s a car, he immediately hopes he is a Mercedes or Rolls Royce. Essentially, his family’s upward mobility is halted because he’s now stuck as a Volkswagen. A recently immigrated couple who “won the visa lottery” purchase him from a car dealership, ecstatic over their brand-new Volkswagen. Budman’s absurdity functions to simplify the actual absurdity of the American dream. 

Likewise, many of the collection’s female characters are passive subjects against the overarching “American dream” myth, which subtly flattens them into tropes. We perceive characters like Vera and the waitress through the male gaze—though Budman seems to do this purposefully, exposing the limiting scope of American faux diversification. In “A Perfect Rhyme Translated from Scratch,” the protagonist imagines the waitress “sitting in the lotus position,” questioning if he’s perhaps mistaken about which nation the imagery is from. The narrator admits, “[the restauranteur] forgot if haiku is Chinese or Vietnamese? He has to look it up” (10). The narrator exposes the protagonist as an ignorant authority figure whose “compassion” for a Chinese waitress is entrenched in orientalism, both exoticizing and othering the migrant.  

An Accidental American Odyssey recreates foundational myths by centering migrants as new Odysseus and Aeneas-types. When the getaway driver in “The Selfless Quarantine” asks the protagonist where they’re from, the protagonist replies, “our countries ceased to exist”—Budman’s collection implies that, when we leave our countries, we are perpetually in search of a homeland that ceases to exist. An American odyssey goes beyond an immigrant’s arrival to their destination. Like Aeneas, whose founding of Rome is undermined by the empire’s untimely end, Budman’s protagonists discover that their longing for a homeland is made insistent by America’s instability. 

An Accidental American Odyssey is available at Small Press Distribution.


Crysta Montiel is an undergraduate student at the University of Toronto in Canada, where she studies English Literature and Philosophy. She previously worked as an editorial intern at Ayesha Pande Literary Agency. When Crysta’s not digging through treasure troves of queries, she’s completing her Criterion Collection bucket list and playing with her cat.

Sundress Reads: Review of Luz at Midnight

Somewhere in the night, a dog wanders. Somewhere in South Texas during a blackout, the dog gives birth. Somewhere in America during a global climate crisis, a man finds the dog and brings her home.

In her genre-hopping novel Luz at Midnight (FlowerSong Press, 2020), Marisol Cortez tells a story of the passionate, exhausting search for hope and perseverance against desperation, frustration, injustice, and hopelessness. In this striking climate fiction book with a love story, idealistic and thoughtful Citlali “Lali” Sanchez-O’Connor falls fervently—and in her mind, unfortunately—in love with journalist Joel Champlain, who uncovers the slow-acting political and economic leaders in a fast-moving climate crisis affecting the inhabitants of San Antonio. Lali has a husband, a child, and a job lined up across the country, and she grapples with the badly-timed discovery of a passion she had never felt before. Both Lali and Joel are navigating their dissatisfaction with unfulfilled promises—within their lives and from the people who have the power to stop the climate crisis they are both fighting in personal and professional capacities.

Lali’s confessional opening hints at the passion, reflection, and uncertainty to come. Her discovery of love dawns with the realization that it is “something that in its very inexplicability could not be controlled or reckoned with or understood.” Joel’s introduction is striking, too, presented in second-person point of view with vivid details. We learn about his struggles with mental health and the cognitive dissonance between his ideals and the reality of his work. He questions himself, and his ennui permeates his narrative, speaking to those who have ever questioned their impact, especially those who work against injustice. He struggles to belong and find connection with like-minded people, asking “How can I be part of something but not of something?”

Weaving masterfully between numerous narrative styles and genres—including poetic prose, contemporary storytelling, poetry, theatrical script, musings on physics and human interconnection, research notes, and even news articles—Cortez takes us through multiple perspectives, seeing romance and climate change through various lenses. Lali’s growing understanding of “the complex political interweaving of oil and water and money and color” tie the book’s many elements together. Stylistic choices also treat the text like artwork; dialogue isn’t set off by quotation marks, and the characters’ speech blends into the narrative. The text invites readers to place themselves into the story, using focus and context to derive its meaning. It shifts between past and present tense, showing time’s many links to itself. Every new section begins with another Chapter One—a resetting of time, an acknowledgement of a new beginning amidst many beginnings and endings.

The many characters of Luz at Midnight are well fleshed-out, both memorable and familiar. With stories told with nuance and empathy, these characters comprise people from all backgrounds, from activists to those simply doing their jobs and hoping they do them well. For a brief time, we walk with each character, seeing the world through their eyes and understanding how their experiences have shaped their views and dreams. We see how these characters interact with each other and how their stories intertwine, always drawing back to the idea of connection. The story highlights connections between people, between history and the future, between nature and humanity, and between legacy and damage. Human thought and relationships are explored with artistic, whimsical writing that is at times thoughtful, solemn, or humorous. The characters lean on humor in some of their darkest moments, especially when they feel they have nothing else—yet instances of this humor, like those in the narrative, are weighed down by more sobering realities:         
                                                                                        
“He laughs and waves back. Alto a los rate hikes!
But it really wasn’t funny.”

The characters fight for and live in a San Antonio that is both realistic and fictionalized. Multiple references are made that show the author’s familiarity with the city, and the setting imagines what might happen as the city’s political and economic leaders and citizens respond to issues brought about by climate change—and ultimately by the people themselves. As they delve into the issues plaguing the city, Joel, Lali, and their colleagues grapple with the knowledge that “whoever decided what happened to the land decided the future.” The story’s timeliness and relevance are uncanny; just months before a snowstorm and Texas’ electrical system would lead to prolonged blackouts in multiple areas, disproportionately affecting poorer and more marginalized communities, Cortez warns of those very risks in Texas’ electrical grid plans. These incidents are described in compelling language that personifies nature with “her” instead of “it,” and the narrative frequently ponders nature’s overarching power, extending into every life and permeating the landscape.

Ultimately, Luz at Midnight is thought-provoking, and its many twists and forays into multiple narrative styles ensured my constant reflection and focus. The characters are raw and genuine, and I deeply felt their passion and exhaustion as I followed their stories. The story lovingly and thoughtfully explores human relationships, how they impact and are in turn impacted by the earth, and imagines a near future dealing with climate issues, but ultimately, it is a book about desire and love, whether those are between characters, between people and their city, between animals and humans, or between humans and our world. “When we’re held like that, unconditionally—that’s when our pain becomes endurance, courage. That’s what allows us to survive in the face of violence and to do this work year after year, decade after decade.”

Luz at Midnight is available at FlowerSong Press


Stephi Cham is a freelance editor and author. She received her BM in Music Therapy and Minor in Psychology from Southern Methodist University and is pursuing her MA in Publishing at Rosemont College, where she is the Fiction Editor of Rathalla Review. She wrote the Great Asian-Americans series, published in 2018 by Capstone Press, and her writing has been featured in Strange Horizons.

Sundress Reads: Review of Wanting Radiance

“I had to say goodbye to who I’d always been. I drove faster, rolled the window down and hung my head out and yelled it as loud as I could. ‘Miracelle Loving!’ I felt my name arc in the wind and slam back against the windshield, breaking into pieces as I drove on.”

Passages like this frame the way Miracelle Loving reaches out into the world in the novel Wanting Radiance by Karen Salyer McElmurray (South Limestone, 2020). Sinking deep into asphalt roads and long-forgotten, liminal spaces, Wanting Radiance presents the identities and secrets of its characters not as permanent fixtures, but as hollow spaces always wanting something more—a want that is tied to the past perhaps more than it rests in the future.

In introducing main character Miracelle, McElmurray constructs a woman with confidence in her own transience. A tarot reader’s daughter, Miracelle parks her life near weekly rented motels and neon-lighted bars, using a card deck to read off futures that suit the wishes of lonely women and hungry men.

Haunted by the mystery of her mother’s death in Dauncy, Kentucky, unaware of her own father’s name, displaced from her birthplace, and desperately trying to grasp the concept of love, Miracelle is a wanderer who finds permanence only in her ability to drift. However, when the voice of her deceased mother, Ruby Loving, suddenly wedges its way into Miracelle’s mind, it encourages Miracelle to find the past she has never known. Following news clippings from an odd wonders museum known as Willy’s Wonderama, Miracelle decides she cannot possibly know who she is meant to be—or who and how she is supposed to love—until she discovers everything her mother used to be.

Alongside the present, first-person perspective of Miracelle Loving, McElmurray intricately interweaves the histories of Miracelle’s mother Ruby, her father Russell Wallen, and Russell’s wife Della Branham through a third-person perspective. As the truth of Miracelle’s birth in the small town of Radiance comes to light, so too do different textures of wanting—deep, emotional desires for pre-envisioned futures—haunt each character Miracelle meets.

 While describing Miracelle’s migratory movements through “smaller and smaller towns” filled with “Fresh Eggs, Jesus, One Way or No Way” signs and gravel roads eaten by dirt, McElmurray showcases the wants of each character as synonymous to the folds of mountainside towns that have decomposed under capitalist pressure, or fleeted into the skittishness of rear-view mirrors. While Miracelle’s mother wants Russell’s love, a love she finds as “water draining between my fingers”, Russell transforms love into a thing that owns and excavates, until his form of want becomes a thing which “reached inside the mountains and pulled out their hearts.”

McElmurray transforms the ideas of want and love within the character of Della Wallen, who wants a marriage with Russell in the way she can fix a car with warm, slick oil between her fingers, a love that is “the making and doing and seeing it come alive, the work of their hands.” While their definitions of love and want clash inside a depleted mountainside, Russell, Della, and Ruby lend Miracelle Loving the challenging task of finding a name for herself, rather than one that she can weld together from her past.

While realizing the truth behind her mother’s death—and all the desires which lead up to it—Miracelle speaks throughout the novel of “would” and “could.” Many sentences transition into the conditional tense throughout the novel, speaking to the way Miracelle continually works to foretell her future in a way that aligns with the lines of her past—lines which seem to rigidly anchor her body to her family history and the contours of the earth she travels through. Many times, Miracelle revises the trajectory of her future when reading her palms, falling on statements like, “By autumn, I could be standing in a doorway at night watching lightning bugs with a person I had yet to meet” or “Russell Wallen took hold of my hands, and we swung each other round and round. It could have been,” or, “I’d like to say I found just the right potion made of lavender and thyme and mystery, one to make all the world right.” However, only after finding the past, only after listening to the last echoes of her mother’s voice—“you know what to do”— does Miracelle find a new history for her name Miracelle Loving—an acceptance not based on her past, but based on something Wanting Radiance finds at its end: a feeling of present, steady reconciliation that, while not entirely full, still leaves enough space to pull one’s soul into something present and new.

While Miracelle succeeds in discovering her family history, she also realizes that it is not this history which affects the way which she now pursues her own life— her own form of loving. She concludes herself, “Miracelle Loving. My whole history was in that name. Loving I’d never wanted, but searched for like it was the last thing I’d ever find. And here I was, back from searching for the Holy Grail of family and I’d filled in a blank or two or three inside myself, all right, but a hundred more seemed to follow.” In this statement, Miracelle recognizes a new form of journey, one only she can follow; she finds freedom in traversing bravely through blank spaces that have never been defined by her past—spaces available for Miracelle to sculpt herself. Wanting Radiance illustrates a love in Miracelle Loving that arises not from grappling for a specific future, or returning to an unclear past, but instead from simply letting her soul step outside all of the seamed lines (the lines of family history and roadmaps and skin) to become something she can look at deep inside, and define as her own.

Wanting Radiance is available at South Limestone, an imprint of The University Press of Kentucky


Hannah Olsson holds a double BA in Cinema and Creative Writing English from the University of Iowa. During her time in Iowa, Hannah was the president of The Translate Iowa Project and its publication boundless, a magazine devoted to publishing translated poetry, drama, and prose. Her work, both in English and Swedish, has been featured in boundless, earthwords magazine, InkLit Mag, and the University of Iowa’s Ten-Minute Play Festival, among others.

Sundress Reads: Review of Pittsburgh and the Urban League Movement: A Century of Social Service and Activism

Pittsburgh and the Urban League Movement: A Century of Social Service and Activism by Joe William Trotter, Jr. (The University Press of Kentucky, 2020) details the history of the Urban League of Pittsburgh, an organization with over a century of social service and activism in the Greater Pittsburgh Metropolitan Area. The Urban League of Pittsburgh is a branch of the National Urban League, and this book breaks down 100 years of its goals, actions, how they were perceived, and the sometimes controversial approach they took to alleviate racial and class inequality. It also contextualizes and provides insight into the various events, biases, and ongoing, concurrent social struggles that factored into and influenced the Urban League Movement, giving readers an in-depth look at the often untold side of the history of Pittsburgh—and of the United States.

The book is divided into a prologue, three sections, and an epilogue. The three sections move in chronological order, from the Pittsburgh Urban League’s establishment, to changes brought about by the New Deal and the Black Freedom Movement. The epilogue concludes with the author’s thoughts on the Urban League Movement’s overall positive effects in connecting its social justice movements with social science research and social services. The book draws deeply from both primary and secondary sources, working across the Urban League’s files, newspapers, and oral histories, and is supplemented by relevant charts, clippings, and images from sources that include the census and the 1923 Pittsburgh Courier, though the book is almost entirely text.

The prologue provides both a helpful introduction to and a succinct summary of the book’s contents. Together with Part I—which details the beginnings of the ULP—we learn many of the themes and overall advocacy focuses that will be expanded on throughout the book, such as the push against racism in employment and housing and the ULP’s collaboration with other organizations, including those of the state government. By detailing the Urban League of Pittsburgh’s early practices and changing focuses, the author expands on the factors that led to these decisions: the workforce was volatile, influenced not just by wartime practices, but also rampant racism and sexism from employers and non-Black employees, who fought for lower wages and decreased opportunities for Black people. The percentage of Black people in the area also changed significantly, impacted by anti-enticement laws, labor shortages, discriminatory housing and employment practices, and living conditions.

The narrative delves into the interrelated nature of housing, employment, and community, and how they influence one another. For instance, better housing conditions led to better job performances and increased job stability. The ULP’s extensive research helped its staff pinpoint need areas and make crucial decisions on where to divert its resources, and Trotter concisely describes the results of these studies and consequences of its initiatives. Of the ULP’s research on the steel industry’s labor process, Trotter writes, “According to one branch research report, the so-called unskilled worker displayed considerable technical knowledge in the ‘conserving of his health and strength, personally avoiding burns or other accidents and protecting his fellow workman from same.’” These early chapters, which, on the surface, give a detailed history of the Urban League of Pittsburgh in its early years, describe the intersection of capital, labor, racial, gender, and class relations that continues throughout the history detailed in the book and persists today.

As the ULP evolved in the early 20s, it developed more of a focus on disparities in medical treatment of Black people and education. The first part of the book deals with post–World War I upheaval and its lingering effects, while the second describes the struggle of Pittsburgh’s Black community during the Great Depression and the continued turbulence brought about by World War II. Here, the pace picks up, with several years of struggle often condensed into single sentences and paragraphs. However, the narrative remains firmly dedicated to highlighting the most significant or representative events within the timeframe. The third section moves into post-WWII struggles and victories, including the Cold War’s influence on Black employment opportunities, the ULP’s role in the expansion of the African American middle class and the fall of Jim Crow, and the branch’s involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. Crucially, as the ULP shifted its philosophy from using social services exclusively to using the principles of social services, the book shifts into a broader overview of the ULP’s actions, following its larger-scale efforts and activity. However, Trotter’s attention to details brings the narrative to more personal levels, pinpointing actions and policy decisions to specific people. The final chapter moves through the postindustrial era and late twentieth century into the present. As policies enacted in the earlier decades fell apart, the fight for equality continued to shift, with many struggles still ongoing. The epilogue reflects on the changes and steps made toward justice and the ULP’s impact on and connection with racial relations and social service work while pointing out the unequal treatment that remains.

Though the author’s descriptions of the Urban League of Pittsburgh’s actions and responses reveal his overall positive view of the branch, they highlight some of its potential controversies, such as the end of John T. Clark’s ULP tenure and mishandled or misguided policies. The book does not shy away from describing the biases that plagued the ULP itself, such as its classism, sexism, and even racism toward the very people it claimed to support. The effects of the ULP’s actions, both positive and negative, are made clear—the upticks in employment as a result of direct recommendations and advocacy, and the periods of stagnancy when even the ULP’s strongest advocates could not sway the racism of employers.

One of the points that makes this book stand out is its specificity: whenever possible, names, dates, direct quotes, and detailed summaries are provided, even with the source going as far back as 100 years. The details are balanced, though, with small time jumps and concise summaries—never too loaded or distracting. While reading this book, it was easy to imagine some of the events unfolding before me, especially the exchanges between Urban League staff and the people to whom they made recommendations (and arguments).

Overall, the book was a fascinating, insightful case study into the history of not just the Urban League in Pittsburgh, but the area’s changing Black communities, landscape, and society. I found the summaries at the beginning of each chapter helpful in understanding key takeaways and priming myself for the upcoming sections. These sections are divided by common themes while the chronological order of events is mostly preserved, leading to easy organization and fluency.

After reading this, I now feel it is impossible to truly learn about Pittsburgh’s history and governmental and societal treatment of Black people without an understanding of the role of the Urban League Movement in the area. Like the book’s inability to speak of one without the other, racial relations and general community disparity and controversy are deeply entangled with the organization’s actions, connections, and advocacy. This book is a crucial read for understanding not only history, but also the present.

Pittsburgh and the Urban League Movement: A Century of Social Service and Activism is available at The University Press of Kentucky


Stephi Cham holds a BM in Music Therapy with a Minor in Psychology from Southern Methodist University. She is currently working toward her MA in Publishing at Rosemont College, where she manages the publishing program’s communications as a graduate assistant. She is a freelance editor and the author of the Great Asian-Americans series published by Capstone Press, and her work has appeared in Strange Horizons.

Sundress Reads: Review of Grieving for Guava

In her collection of short stories Grieving for Guava (The University Press of Kentucky, 2020), Cecilia M. Fernandez captures the grief, longing, and hope of Cuban immigrants and diaspora in 10 poignant vignettes. These stories, though different in length, style, and perspective, are connected by lingering yearning and loss. The title Grieving for Guava hints at the evocative imagery that highlights the vivid, small details that the characters long for—that sweet scent of guava in their homes.

Home. The word, though often unspoken, permeates these stories, which span the divide between two countries, offering glimpses into the lives of those who are leaving, have left, or are returning to Cuba. The nostalgia-tinged prose of each narrative allows readers to experience the sense of both community and isolation felt by immigrants old and young and in between. 

In her foreword, Fernandez speaks about capturing the stories of the past before it is “utterly lost.” Although fictional stories, the truth of each family’s struggle comes through; so much so that one feels as if they are reading real-life accounts of various lives. Fernandez’s love—for her family, for these first waves of Cuban people coming to America, for these lives—is evident in her thoughtful, earnest prose and detailed characterization. 

Grieving for Guava opens with the story of the three Marusas in “Marusa’s Beach.” Both memories and yearning span their generations, where Cuban immigrants find community with each other amidst their own dashed hopes, struggles, and dreams. Multiple families are broken—both during and after the move to Cuba—and many are separated by distance, time, or beliefs. The story ends with a sense of irrevocable change, grief, and regret that carries through the rest of the stories.

The next stories, “Mad Magi” and “The Last Girl,” surprised me. They move from the powerful first story’s thoughtful, reflective grief into an ever-present sense of restlessness and dissatisfaction. These stories detail the stagnancy and confusion of trying to adapt to lives different than what one may have hoped for and expected. As the book moves forward, so do the characters, and watching them realize that what has changed is not only their circumstances but also themselves is striking.

“Summer of My Father’s Gun” focuses on another young girl trying desperately to regain stability, safety, and belonging. She lives in a neighborhood of many Cubans, and Fernandez briefly but effectively tells stories within this story, detailing the backgrounds of each family in the community. Though the story is from one person’s perspective, it showcases an experience shared by many. I felt the communion of shared past and present similarities, and the division that even those can cause.

“Button Box” shows the trailing sense of loss and confusion upheavals leave behind. The story gives us our first real-time glimpse within the book at Cuba, which has changed significantly since Castro’s takeover. Details and plot unfold to reveal the loss felt by both those who left and those left behind, along with the solace of memories and loved ones as we watch someone visit the island and reunite with family. The character’s hope kept me hooked. Seeing her revisit previously familiar places and people reminded me of my own trips to my mother’s home country where I grew up—that fear that everything will have changed, combined with the knowledge that some things inevitably have already, is one I imagine is familiar to many immigrant families.

“Where Do You Go, My Lovely?” veers back to younger diaspora, this time painting the differences between generations of immigrants. Whereas the Marusas are connected by their longing for home, Susana and her parents and grandparents grapple with their contrasting backgrounds and goals. Fernandez shows how the struggles and stories of first-generation immigrants sometimes get lost down the road, harkening back to the foreword’s statement that the past must be written before it is lost. Susana’s story itself seemed symbolic of this, a way to preserve the past while moving forward.

In two former lovers’ dual perspectives, “Flags and Rafts” crosses back and forth between the port of Cojímar and the shores of Miami. One left for America near the beginning of Castro’s takeover, while the other stayed, yet both hoped for a better future. The story is a tribute to the hopes maintained and thwarted over time, uniting Cuban people on and off the island even while separating them, and the endurance of hope sustained through love. :Flags and Rafts” delves into old loves, while “Rocking Chair Love” explores the discovery of new love after loss, painting a picture of renewal found even through grief.

“Dime-Store Date” reveals the trickling effect of an older generation’s struggles and trauma. Amid the disappointment and isolation of a broken family is a younger teenager driven by the same desire for love and belonging and wounded by its loss. The glimpse into young Mari’s world traces a day that Mari will not remember but that I and other readers certainly will. With subtle heartbreak and narrative, Fernandez implores readers not to forget.

The stories come full circle with “Here in Havana.” Decades after the events of “Marusa’s Beach,” Iraidita continues to hold close her memories of the day, her longing for home, and her hope for a better life. As we make the journey with her back to Havana, seeing Cuba and the world change through her eyes, we learn what it means to rediscover home.

Overall, the collection is full of gripping, moving vignettes that tugged at my heartstrings. I felt deeply invested in many of the characters, feeling as if I were hoping, grieving, and wondering with them. Fernandez painted a vivid picture of that unsettling restlessness that comes with the yearning for something we can’t have; in the characters’ case, it’s their old lives. Whenever I’ve missed the smell of Taiwanese pork chop or the sweetness of aiyu, what I’ve really missed is home. This collection took me through every step of that vivid nostalgia. In Grieving for Guava, all the details—the smells of local guava, the sounds of family members in casual conversation, the sights of the ocean from a Cuban coast—captured the pervasiveness of the constant longing that stays forever, and the comfort of all that’s left.

Grieving for Guava is available at The University Press of Kentucky


Stephi Cham holds a BM in Music Therapy with a Minor in Psychology from Southern Methodist University. She is currently working toward her MA in Publishing at Rosemont College, where she manages the publishing program’s communications as a graduate assistant. She is a freelance editor and the author of the Great Asian-American series published by Capstone Press, and her work has appeared in Strange Horizons.

Sundress Reads: A Review of Escape of Light

In Escape of Light, Deborah Kahan Kolb merges modern contemplations with grounding visuals to persuade the reader into a state of ever-present attention. While Kobe’s collection collides concepts such as identity, personal exploration, social issues, and inherent connection, she allows for intermittent moments of air between her stanzas: a place for careful breaths of introspection as her speaker explores the depth of the world surrounding them.

Carefully and with genuine precision, Kolb’s Escape of Light unearths a world forged from moments of unraveling. A world of striving to find answers within its own questioning: what is emergence? Where are the limitations of exploration, of breaking open? And are we allowed inside them? Grief and contemplation, rage and loss, are all balanced to form a staple connection between each poem, linking the thesis of exploration on each page. Escape of Light is a collection of revealing consequences just as it is one of action; each of Kolb’s poems are movement, action backed by vivid scenery that beckons their reader closer to ask: what, in all of this, is coming through? Questions of what remains are molded within the perspective of the speaker’s strength, positing that, in wake of the violence done, there is still connection: there is still hope.

Kolb’s collection opens with an emergence, an action of revealing a personhood apart from a sense of finality. Emergence, Kolb argues, is a process of creation: collected moments of driven action that do not end in a simply packaged result. Escape of Lights first poem begins the collection with a center of continuous evolution, allowing the reader to take a breath just as strong as the speaker themself: “What must the torpid caterpillar do to emerge / from its glistening chrysalis a laurel-crowned monarch?” Here, the speaker directs the reader’s attention to the pained practice of emergence. Again, the process of becoming is presented as a pathway to creation. Emergence becomes not a pathway to an end result but rather a focus on the continuous process and its varying details: “Self-immolation, it seems, is a requirement / for emerging.”

Awareness of the self, of gaining a self, is also something Kolb’s collection manifests well. The “bleeding knuckles” and “tamped / down spirit” become noted costs of this self-actualization within the process of “emerging.” What then, Kolb’s speaker poses, makes the process worth it? Well, in a collection that thrives from its ability to find an answer already in its question, the next stanza presents the daunting answer: “be prepared to extinguish / yourself in a phoenix fire before you can emerge. / Established.” The cost, Kolb’s speaker states, is a heavy burden, but one that the speaker strives to redefine and exhibit in all its trials. “Emerging, Art of,” is a poem that not only succeeds in setting a tone for the collection but one that captures the hefty process of unearthing. This process of becoming allows for a connection to be made between speaker and reader; a tether spanning the gap between desire and action, with the speaker beckoning from the other side.

There were multiple instances where Kolb’s collection left me speechless. Witnessing her ability to evoke carefully crafted images, ones that welcomed as well as educated the reader, was an enthralling experience. Kolb does not shy away from difficult concepts or experiences; rather, she faces them in ways that allow her speaker spaces for grief and reclamation. Poems like “Psalm for a Son’s Burial” and “Showering at the Swiss Hotel” address difficult concepts in the form of complex poetics. They allow the speaker to emerge from the confines enforced on them and to speak and feel the injustices and horrific experiences imposed upon them: “You understand, dear guest, neutral is no more. / We are obliged to prevent / your / stain / from / spreading.”

Kolb’s ability to condense these moments of horrific injustice into potent stanzas enthralled me as I read along. I was heartsick; I was furious. Escape of Light’s speaker embraced humanity in its full view, revealing its naked face and offering its readers the opportunity to behold it. Kolb’s speaker seems to tell us: Look. What I have seen, you must also face. And who are we to look away? See what I have seen, Kolb’s speaker argues, and be aware. It is, after all, the least we can pay as readers: to both engage and learn from the consumed work. In this way, Escape of Light is both a warning and a revelation of emergence; perhaps what strengthens the collection further is the blend of these aspects. As readers, we are left to wonder whether the speaker is sharing these moments of introspection to warn of these great griefs or to welcome the potential of a changed, more humane future. Kolb ensures this everlasting presence of thought in her linkage between poems, between the personal and the collective. Whatever the “correct” answer may be is relative in comparison to the collection’s lasting image, arguing that, regardless of this answer, one aspect of Escape of Light is for certain: no one who enters the collection is left untouched. 

Escape of Light is available at Finishing Line Press


Mary Sims is an undergraduate senior at Kennesaw State University working towards her BA in English. She is a poetry editor at Waymark Literary Magazine and has been published in Josephine Quarterly, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, The Poetry Annals, and more. Currently, she splits her time between working as a student editor, piling her shelves with poetry collections, and laughing over raspberry cappuccinos with friends.

Sundress Reads: A Review of How The Water Holds Me

Growing up Iranian-American, there was this sense of division within the diaspora community I grew up in: of what came before and what came after the traumatic conflicts that led us to the United States. In Tariq Luthun’s collection How the Water Holds Me, his poetry delves into similar ideologies that I had noticed in my community, but from the unique experience of the Palestinian diaspora. Published by Bull City Press and selected for publication in the 2019 Frost Place Chapbook Competition, Luthun’s poems explore the devastation that Palestinians and Palestinian-Americans have faced, giving life, memories, and meaning to a group of people that are often reduced to and judged by the conflict they are trapped within, even when they are displaced far away from their original homeland. 

The very first poem in the chapbook immediately sets the tone for what’s to come. Titled “The Summer My Cousin Went Missing,” the Luthun uses language like “buried” to describe how busy their khalto (which is Arabic for the aunt on your mother’s side) was. The lines “Child upon child goes, and someone’s mother / is no longer a mother.” The pivot from the speaker’s aunt to a generalization encompasses universal grief, one felt among an entire community. It is here where we, as readers, come to realize that this isn’t an isolated incident. As the poem continues onwards, it shifts again. The focus is no longer on their aunt’s suffering, shifting from “she” to “we.” The speaker asks “how will we ever stay fed” and “how ever / will we live long enough to grieve,” leaving a sense of lingering for both the reader and the speaker. 

Throughout the collection, something that caught my eye was how Luthun weaved together his personal experiences, one as a Palestinian-American coming of age, to touch upon universal themes. In the poem “Al-Bahr,” he says “but I saw / a boy that could have become / me wash up on a shore.” A common story among refugees, particularly Palestinian ones, is drowning in the act of seeking a new home. This is a stark juxtaposition to the poem “Upon Leaving the Diamond to Catch 14 Stitches in My Brow,” where Luthun describes how when struck with a bat, how their “off-white noise” showed division between “us” and “them.” Their accented English, their darker skin, makes the neighbors “see us / bleed and think: / prey.” Comparing “Al-Bahr” to “Upon Leaving the Diamond to Catch 14 Stitches in My Brow,” Luthun navigates between the personal and the political. While the conflict in youth may have been the fourteen stitches, it evolves into something more, something so much more sinister, by seeing boys like him drowning and leaving their community behind to seek out a new community that might not ever even accept them.

There are moments in the book that act as cultural preservation as well. Even long after Luthun is gone, his poems have preserved mundane practices and rituals, such as going out to pick mint leaves for his mother, or, how he says in the poem “We Already Know This”: “I want to be sure / everyone knows where my parents / hail from.” This is particularly evident in the poem “After Spending an Evening in November Trying to Convince My Mother That We’ll Be Fine,” where the poet describes how “it isn’t easy / to accept that the coverage of / the world outside can be spun so much.” The final lines of that poem are “a country that cannot have him–/ a country that does not want him.” “Him,” in this line, refers to Luthun’s father. Palestine is the country that cannot have him, while America is the country that didn’t want him. For marginalized communities like Palestinian-Americans, it is brave to speak out like this, to say that this isn’t what they experienced. This their truth and reality, not what is on television.

In Tariq Luthun’s collection How the Water Holds Me, while it explores the tragedy of the Palestinian diaspora, it offers hope and preservation to their unique experience. In the actual formatting of the book, next to the page numbers, there is a little key. This represents the Palestinian right of return; keys have become a symbol for Palestinians, as many kept the keys to their original home, to represent how one day they will be able to return to their ancestral home. While many Palestinians cannot go home, Luthun offers a metaphorical home in his work, one that comes from a place of both loss and understanding. In the poem “People, Drunk at Parties, Tell Me Love” he says it’s difficult for him to say “I love you.” The poems in How the Water Holds Me show this devotion, this unspoken love. 

Tariq Luthun’s How the Water Holds Me can be purchased here.


Ashley Hajimirsadeghi is an undergraduate at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Her work has appeared in/forthcoming from Rust+MothInto the Void, Corvid Queen, and cahoodaloodaling, among others. She attended the International Writing Program’s Summer Institute and was a Brooklyn Poets Fellow. Currently, she is trying to figure out a happy intersection between her writing, film, and photography endeavors.

Sundress Reads: A Review of Every Possible Thing

Every Possible Thing - Kindle edition by Poppy, Karen. Literature & Fiction  Kindle eBooks @ Amazon.com.

Karen Poppy’s stunning collection Every Possible Thing begins with an opening of offerings. Proposed by imagery dominated exchanges, her use of themes such as sacrifice, transformation, and renewal offer her readers an immediate sense of connection to her work. Her collection’s first poem “Every Possible Thing” begins with this same sense of sacrifice and renewal by immersing her audience in the imaginative and hypnotic exchange between the speaker and their subject.

The collection’s opening line sets a tone of intention throughout, displaying a sense of coated devotion unique to the poem’s own movement: “What I promised, I gave you: / Silver-skinned gloves, my hands / Loosened from life became twin fish.” From there, the speaker catalogues devotion through their physical actions and movements. Throughout her collection, Poppy continues to employ this same precise movement to embrace the action within each of her poems. No poem, Poppy assures us early-on, is ever stagnant. 

Every Possible Thing is never still. The collection begins in motion and continues to guide its reader by cataloging the duality of action and movement. This use of movement throughout her work offers insight into the depth of implication. Poppy’s poem “Your Words” is an opening to the collection’s themes, but it is also a record of just how carefully emotion channels through action.

When communicating with the reader, the speaker offers more than physical objects or images to converse. In fact, the speaker’s sense of dedication is painted behind the physical action of each offering, a new unique twist behind every new image displayed: “I want you / To speak to me, / In fact, / As you would speak / To your animals.” “Your Words” is a poem of communication as much as it is of desire. There is a need to be seen, to be regarded as gravely as can be allowed. The speaker directs us to see her, and who are we to turn away?

As I read Poppy’s collection, I found myself immersed in her use of mythology. Even more so in her use of it in creating reclamation narratives. Her poem “Badass Mermaid” explores the complexities and empowerment of transformation through the lens of a mythological mermaid within Odysseus’s tale. The speaker reclaims her narrative outside of Odysseus’s story and establishes the idea that her agency does not stem from being an ‘accessory’ to a hero’s quest but rather her own power outside of it: “Homer’s / Odysseus / Told it wrong, / Or his men / Told it, / Innocent.” It is here that we see the speaker reclaim her own identity within Odysseus’ story after being alienated from the tale. 

The speaker retells her story by crafting her own narrative in wake of the chaos left by Odysseus, thus attaching a sense of authority to her own lost story. Agency, Poppy tells her audience, is more than a necessity; rather, it is a value that cannot afford to be overlooked. The speaker’s narrative is one of power, of danger, and more than ready to peel out of the confines of her established erasure. 

Poppy’s use of line breaks within the poem further add to these implications of power. Every moment is calculated; every space, line break, and punctuation are brimming with not only intention but with assurance that truth is lurking around the corner, waiting for an opening to break into.

In addition to mythology and reclamation narratives, connection is a vital theme within Every Possible Thing. The ability to join together, to meld ideas and images, is not only a powerful device Poppy employs. Rather, it is also the basis of understanding in a place where the mere idea seems impossible. Her poem “What We Find” exemplifies this concept openly: “Our own voice, / Each other. / To sing uniquely, but not alone. / Eerie electricity. Connection. / Through the song: / Everything is the right choice.” The poem, like her collection, becomes a moment of connection, reaching out to include the reader in this narrative of understanding. 

Through her collection, Karen Poppy draws in her audience by the speaker’s ability to not only connect but their desire to understand. Searches for understanding, the power of reclamation, and the concept of connection litter the pages, leaving the reader haunted even after the collection has been finished. There is something warm and vulnerable within Poppy’s use of connection. Her poem “I Like When You Speak” perhaps displays this best as the speaker weaves a moment of pure humanity: “I like when you speak / When you are here / Saying all that you want to say, and nothing more.” There is an ever-present ache buried between the lines, a moment so openly human we cannot turn ourselves away from the carefulness of the moment. 

Where Every Possible Thing is a collection of connection and understanding, it is also a journey of being human. Reclamation narratives, paths of renewal, and movements shaped in the form of devotion collide to create a bond so intricate it becomes innate. All of these multitudes and more, Every Possible Thing is a conversation between speaker and reader– an opening made just small enough for the reader to want to join, without having to be invited directly. Poppy’s collection is a meticulous warmth. More than anything, it is an invitation into the experiences of humanity and an exploration to all of the crushing and beautiful depth they offer.

Karen Poppy’s Every Possible Thing can be found for purchase here.


Mary Sims is an undergraduate senior at Kennesaw State University working towards her BA in English. She is a poetry editor at Waymark Literary Magazine and has been published in Glass: A Journal of Poetry, The Poetry Annals, Peach Mag, Kingdoms of the Wild, Rising Phoenix Review, and more. Currently, she splits her time between working as a student editor, piling her shelves with poetry collections, and laughing over raspberry cappuccinos with friends.

Sundress Reads: A Review of Across From Now

Andy Fogle’s book, Across From Now begs us to listen and to listen with our whole selves. Apart from its daring reflections on familial elements and the lives that are often lived as we sift through the marrows of life, this collection of introspective poetry spans the question of what happens to us in the in-between spaces?

This collection covers time to the various environments and lands that occupy that time. Fogle takes us on a ride that fills our head-spaces and heart-middles. From speaking about beaches to discussing mornings to speaking about what makes us alive in living, Fogle allows us access into an authentic world where the minutia of space and feeling intertwine, and where readers can lean into spaces that challenge and inspire them to think about interpersonal dynamics, connectivity, and what it means to be part of a family, as well as to have a family.

In one of his beginning poems, “One Ring,” Fogle drops readers into the symbolism between what once was, and emotionality—how even the positionality of a telephone was something that impacted emotional access, depth, and understanding. Fogle asserts, “Back when phones still had bells inside them / and plugged into walls / back when we were tethered to the box.” Fogle helps readers explore the ways in which history has transformed our relationship to items, the tangible, and the emotional resonance of that tangible.

Each of Fogle’s poems explores a motif of noticing and remembering. Whether Fogle is exploring the way things feel within a family context, how things resonate in the world, or simply how things create themselves in the world, the writing hums and throbs within our bodies, and challenges the way we perceive the world around us.

Fogle invites us to think about how we participate in our humanity alongside other living and breathing entities. Each poem occupies a body of its own and traverses the poem’s corresponding breath, parts, and emotional vibrations. Fogle illustrates the extent of what lies behind the quiet, the everyday, and often reveals common environments to describe things and what is happening inside of them. Fogle is bold in the way he marries the minutia of humanity with its simultaneous thrumming aliveness, in how he conjures a sense of things that happens outside of the page completely.

Fogle’s writing encourages readers to lean into their own minds, to melt into their bodies, as the words are being read. Fogle challenges readers to sit with what is, to stay still with what is and forces us to bend as the poetry too bends, as he implores us to continue looking further. The beauty of this writing is that it keeps us thinking about what is happening between the lines—it keeps us balancing reality and the space we go right before we fall asleep.

The hallmark of Fogle’s poetry is centered around the use of the everyday riddled with emotions behind the banal, the commonplace, the pedestrian. This work takes us to places where the poems begin and end inside themselves. Fogle challenges us to think about ourselves as we are contained within ourselves. We are forced to consider things outside of ourselves, to truly sink into what makes us feel, what makes us yearn, what makes us access our full spectrum of emotions.

Fogle begs us all to occupy a different perspective, to see things through a new lens. Fogle invites us into worlds completely new and fascinating and allows us to move through its time at our own pace. This collection cuts deeply. These poems force us to consider the monotony present in our lives, present in our bodies. These collections are not here to make us comfortable, but rather to help us confront the reality of ourselves. Fogle supports readers in rending a new version of the mundane, in seeing something we might not have considered before in what we see continually.

The best part of this book is how Fogle cradles us in the reverie of quiet language with sharp and loud meaning. There is no shortage of critical thought and intentional feeling throughout this collection. Readers are hooked onto every line and are immersed in the world of being. There is interesting play and daring narrative language used in this work—it never fails to put things for us right in our bodies, or in our experiences. These poems require our attention; they exist on the page and beg us to exist alongside them.

Across From Now is available at Grayson Books


Sabrina Sarro is a social worker in the state of NY. They hold an LMSW from Columbia University and are currently pursuing an MFA from the City College of New York—CUNY. As a queer non-binary writer of color, they are most interested in investigating the intersectionalities of life and engaging in self-reflection and introspection. They are an alumnus of the LAMBDA Literary Emerging Voices for LGBTQIA* Writers Retreat, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Yale Writers’ Workshop, and many others. They have received scholarships from The Martha’s Vineyard Institute for Creative Writing and the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley.

Sundress Reads: A Review of Ghost Dogs

Dion O’Reilly’s debut collection of poetry, Ghost Dogs, is a fascinating portrayal of growth and perspective. The collection is separated into five sections and primarily follows the same nameless narrator. We follow this narrator’s life from childhood to old age and witness their growth as the poetry itself becomes more mature. While early poems are full of pain, regret, and anger, the later poems possess a wry wit and a sense of optimism.

The first two sections primarily regard the narrator’s childhood and teenage years, in which they suffered physical abuse at the hands of both her parents. She calls out her father’s hypocrisy in the poem “Liberal Father,” in which we meet a father who works tirelessly to promote social and political justice while beating his children.

The early poems are teeming with pain and the confusion that comes to a child who does not understand why the one who should love them continues to hurt them. “Ode to High Tea” wonderfully juxtaposes, “Apricot pie, lemon bars, scones, water biscuits…” and an overall idyllic California afternoon with their mother slapping the back of her head with a wet flannel dishcloth before yanking a fine-toothed comb through her matted hair. Suddenly, the rest of the family has joined them in the kitchen and she is left contemplating the origin of her tea.

O’Reilly does an incredible job of portraying the irrationality of young minds; one moment experiencing trauma, the next daydreaming about tea, “…carried on the heads of porters / a hundred miles across mud valleys.”

As the narrator grows, the poems begin to change. The narrator shifts from suffering at the hands of her parents, to suffering at the hands of men. Some are stories of bad relationships and some are of violence. The memories our narrator accounts are still portrayed as things she does not fully understand. There is still confusion in her voice and anger at her misfortune.

By part three, our narrator starts to look outward—Daydreaming about prehistoric man and a man who steals a plane. She begins to speak with more agency than in earlier poems. In the poem “Ex” she sees her ex-boyfriend exit a Trader Joes and unpack his groceries into his car. As she watches, she recounts their sex life and does so without shame or embarrassment but also without any remorse for the relationship being finished, illustrating the narrator’s growth from dwelling on the negative to embracing the positive.

In parts four and five our narrator finds her voice. These poems are more concerned with the present, rather than lost in the past and when they do go back in time, they do so with the wisdom and perspective of old age.

In the early poems you get a sense of the narrator feeling sorry for herself but in the later poems the narrator is poised and in control. She’s learned not to take life too seriously and to live in the moment. In the poem, “At 62” our narrator describes a visit to the doctor where she is told she has the body of an 80-year-old woman but her response to this troubling news is lighthearted, wishing for a physician who would, “list her body’s features / like a used-car-pitch.” Our narrator is no longer interested in victimhood or understanding the irrationality of abuse; she’s past that. She’s looking outside of herself with bravery and honesty. In “Birdman” she admits that her parrot probably doesn’t want to live in a cage in her house and in “Another Happiness” she humorously speaks of her struggle as a poet, “You can’t write like that. / You don’t read enough Virgil and Milton, don’t start”…

It’s almost as if our narrator comes to life in these last two sections, shedding the ghosts of her past and refusing to let them continue to haunt her. Because much like dogs, memories treat us the way we treat them. If you stick your memories in a cage, beat them and starve them, they will be sure to bite. But when we embrace our memories and take ownership of them, however bad their origins have been—when we rescue them and show them kindness, they will not hurt us. Instead, they show us all the good we have inside us; they show us how to be better people. Ghost Dogs shows us how this process unravels and I, as a reader, can’t help but take delight in the bumpy, violent, and beautiful journey.

Ghost Dogs is available at Terrapin Books


In addition to being an Editorial Intern at Sundress Publications, Ada Wofford is a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison studying Library and Information Science and was recently accepted to the University of Rochester to earn an MA in English. They graduated Summa Cum Laude from Fairleigh Dickinson University with a BA in English Literature and have been featured in a number of publications including McSweeney’s and Literary Heist. They are also a Contributing Editor for The Blue Nib and the founding editor of My Little Underground, a music review site written exclusively by musicians. You can follow them on twitter @AdaWofford.