Month: May 2020

A Visit

by Jed Myers

This other light she’s wrapped in
lifts the furrows life left in her
skin. All her ages now,

or none—no shadow where
she leans at something like a desk.
Her dark pen streams an ink-

black shine along the vein-blue
lines down one white page
then the next. The letters weave

like seaweed in a tide-swept river
mouth. Silent lips move
with her hand—a kind of speech.

I start to wake, to drift
between two lands. She couldn’t
see me, and I couldn’t read.


Jed Myers is author of Watching the Perseids (Sacramento Poetry Center Book Award), The Marriage of Space and Time (MoonPath Press), and four chapbooks, including Dark’s Channels (Iron Horse Literary Review Chapbook Award) and Love’s Test (winner, Grayson Books Chapbook Contest). Among recent recognitions, his poems have won The Briar Cliff Review’s Annual Poetry Contest, the Prime Number Magazine Award, The Southeast Review’s Gearhart Prize, and The Tishman Review’s Edna St. Vincent Millay Prize. Recent work appears in Rattle, Poetry Northwest, The American Journal of Poetry, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, Southern Poetry Review, Ruminate, and elsewhere. He edits poetry for Bracken.

Book Review: Don’t Read the Comments

by Leni Leanne Phillips

Don’t Read the Comments is Eric Smith’s fifth young adult novel. Smith heavily integrates popular culture into his fiction, and this novel is no exception. The protagonist, Divya Sharma, is an eighteen-year old celebrity gamer known as “D1V” who supports herself and her mother through corporate sponsorships, free merchandise, and subscribers to her “Glitch” channel (a live game streaming platform). Divya’s current live-stream game of choice is Reclaim the Sun, a universe exploration game the likes of which does not yet exist outside of fiction, but which is vividly described by Smith and in such detail that my kids and grandkids are ready to pre-order it.

The book’s title derives from Divya’s admonition when her mother expresses her concern about the comments posted to Divya’s Glitch channel. “‘Don’t read the comments,’” Divya tells her mother, because as a “girl gamer,” Divya is exposed to trolls who threaten, harass, and objectify her and to commenters who sexualize her and tell her to wear less clothing. Divya’s mother is understandably concerned, but eighteen-year-old Divya thinks she has it under control.

Divya has the moral support of her best friend, Rebekah, who has a secret that makes her more comfortable working behind the scenes editing and uploading videos to D1V’s Glitch channel. Divya and Rebekah are “awesome gamers for girls” (not Smith’s words, the words of some of the more dense commenters). Divya also has the support of the “Angst Armada,” her fans and allies in Reclaim the Sun, so named because in their chats on Divya’s Glitch channel, they vent about school, breakups, and parents.

Enter the Vox Populi, a group of white male gamers who don’t think Divya has earned her place and set out to destroy D1V. Their harassment is initially confined to the game, but it gradually leaks into Divya’s real life, threatening her livelihood and sense of security. While the Vox Populi deny it, their escalating harassment focuses on gender and race. The gaming community’s comments about the Vox Populi’s all-out war against D1V and her Angst Armada run the gamut from supportive to victim blaming, with some saying she deserves what’s happening to her because she put herself out there. Notably, the “[v]ideo game companies stay silent” and reap the benefits of the free publicity.

Aaron, a seventeen-year-old gamer who dreams of a career writing video games, “meets” celebrity gamer D1V on an unclaimed planet in the Reclaim the Sun game when Divya is at her lowest point and trying to rebuild, not only in the game, but in real life. An interesting detail in the novel is that, although Divya’s family is poor, she has a first-class gaming rig and all the best accessories because of her corporate sponsorships. Aaron, though, has had to build his less-than-satisfactory “Frankensteined” gaming rig from parts he finds in the dumpsters at a nearby university, not because his family can’t afford one, but because his mother wants him to become a doctor and doesn’t support his gaming dreams. Divya and Aaron begin to form a friendship, but can Divya trust him? With the anonymity of the internet, Divya can’t be sure that Aaron isn’t one of the Vox Populi.

The tension in the novel mounts as D1V plans to make an appearance as the only woman on an upcoming Gamescon panel: “Harassment in Video Game Culture and Women: A Conversation.” Divya is being pressured by friends and family to cancel her appearance amidst increasingly scary internet threats that she doesn’t belong there. The plot turns on whether D1V will dare show her face at Gamescon, and if she does, how will she deal with the threats of the Vox Populi?

Rebekah is my favorite character in this novel. She’s the epitome of the best friend character, but unlike many one-dimensional best friends who are only there to act as a foil for the protagonist, Rebekah is her own woman with her own backstory. Despite her fears, she faces the world with hair dyed blood orange, a fierce sense of loyalty, and a sassy, take-no-guff demeanor. My favorite experience of the novel was watching Rebekah face her fears and come into her own. She could definitely carry her own story (hint: I’d buy a sequel).

Smith peoples his novel with diverse characters and successfully broaches topics outside his lane with knowledge, insight, and sensitivity, including sexism, misogyny, and gender-based violence. You can tell Smith put the work in to try to get it right. I think an opportunity was missed, though, to give us more about the characters’ cultures and home lives. I imagine there are differences in the way the members of Divya’s Indian household or Aaron’s mixed Honduran and Pakistani family live from the way my white family lives. I would have liked to have seen some of these differences depicted.

Don’t Read the Comments is a good story with a compelling, contemporary plot that urges the reader forward. This is a novel with heart and intelligent things to say about some very real concerns in the gaming world, a world which is in some small or big way a part of the lives of most of us. The book is recommended for ages approximately 13-18, but I think readers of all ages will enjoy it. After reading the book myself, I bought four copies as gifts for “kids” in my life, ages 12 through 43, who I thought would enjoy it. I liked the book immensely and appreciated the shoutout to Firefly. (Watch for it.)


Leni Leanne Phillips is an MFA candidate in U.C. Riverside’s Palm Desert Low-Residency MFA program in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts. Leanne earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in English with a minor in history from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and is a former fiction and poetry editor of Byzantium, Cal Poly’s literary journal. Leanne’s writing has appeared or will appear in The New Times, Tolosa Press, WordFest Anthology, and elsewhere. You can find her at lenileanne.com.

 

Sweet Shade

by Roger Real Drouin

For Sandy Hound (2000 – 2015)

I remember the sweet shade.

Sandy hound scoops the bit of bark and tosses it, catching it in her paws as she did as a pup. Except now, the dirt’s on the blaze of her muzzle that’s showing more white than fawn. She gnaws the bark, cabbage palm worn smooth and the size of a small sea shell, then cradles it in her paws.

The breeze comes across. It’s warm, draped in humidity already, but it feels good. I put my pack down beside the cabbage palm and get out the Dukjug with the small glacier of ice clinking inside and Sandy hound’s bowl, and I rest my hat atop the pack. My eyes adjust to the shade.

I remember the sounds.

Out on the other side of the preserve’s half-rusted chain link, a trash truck makes its way along one of the residential streets. The banging and clanging grows more faint, though, and Sandy hound listens, with one ear straight up, to a much-closer, yet softer sound. She listens and stretches her front paws amid the fallen fronds and the finer-grained, gray soil.

The tiny warbler, perched just above, sings sweet and clear.

Swee Swee Swee Chiip. 

The cabbage palm looks half dead, but it’s just shedding. Its tattered shade isn’t like the heavy shade of the thick-branched gumbo limbo on the edge of the preserve, but here, amid the mostly-open rosemary scrub, it’s a respite. And we’re on the sweet side of its shade.

The warbler calls softly from her frond blade.

Sandy hound laps up some water from the bowl—a good amount more than she usually does. She’s laying like a pharaoh hound now, sniffing the breeze.

We watch the funny flight of the warbler, an American redstart. He’s hunting the tiny insects gathered in the shade.

I take a long sip of the coffee from the thermos. I may be delinquent on my taxes; I don’t know how I’ll finish grading essays by Friday. And what I have gotten accomplished has seemed rushed lately, including my writing.

But I got this right. El Vergel from a local roaster, brewed French press strong, dumped over ice.

Out to the east, the power line transformers of old Dixie highway are glinting in the sun—to the southwest it pours over the silkgrass and patches of staggerbush and wild rosemary, over this patch of sand scrub. But here we’re in our little castle of shade.

We’re good, girl.

Sandy hound grins.

We stay here, watching the warbler. The redstart’s songless now, and it’s quiet. He sure likes it here.

After a little time, Sandy begins to close her eyes. Well, they’re almost closed, before she starts back awake—watching the warbler for a second—shutters closing again, drifting closer to sleep, then eyes half open, closing again—breeze coming through, again. She drifts off, but I’ve got my last few sips of coffee.

The redstart—according to my birding book, Florida’s Birds, a slim guide that travels with us in the pack—is a migrant in Florida in the fall and spring. The warblers make a habit of fanning their tails, the males showing their bright orange patches, and they “actively hawk” for flying insects, catching their prey on the wing.

Nickname: “flamebird.”

Most of these warblers winter in Mexico, Central America, parts of South America, and the Caribbean. This guy, heading back home to deep northern woodlands, has found his early spring respite here at Leon Weekes Environmental Preserve, a slice of scrub and sand pine amid the burbs.

It was only early April, early in the morning still, but the sun was intense. I remember it hit us.

There are no clouds in the blue sky, except the low patches like fog on the horizon.

Sandy hound’s tongue is lolling just slightly, as she tip paw trots beside me. The sun’s strong on my neck and arms, shining bright on the white and fawn of her scruff. The breeze comes across, again, warmer, and tinged in humidity.

That’s alright though girl, I say. After all, we’re just two Florida hounds—well you are, and I’m becoming one. 

Sandy looks over, tail wagging now, before she resumes her tip paw trot.

I pull my hat low. We head onto the second trail loop, silkgrass and coontie lime green in the bright light, trekking past a scrub lizard, long-stripped and long-footed, bobbing his head at us.

Clink clink clink, the Dukjug with the smaller, remnant glacier of ice clinks in my pack.

We meander on.


Roger Real Drouin is a writer. His essays have appeared or are forthcoming in the journals Border Crossing, Whole Terrain: Journal of Reflective Environmental PracticeEntropy, and the Concho River Review. His short stories have appeared in the Potomac ReviewThe Doctor T.J. Eckleburg ReviewGrey Sparrow Journal, Pif Magazine, Pindelyboz, and elsewhere. He was named the 2018 John Ringling Towers literary arts grant fellow. He is also the founder and executive editor of Little Curlew Press. You can find him at rogerdrouin.com and rogersoutdoorblog.com.

Book Review: Cancer, I’ll Give You One Year

by Briana Weeger

Only a few hours after Jennifer Spiegel is diagnosed with breast cancer, she is immediately on the page, sorting her thoughts and emotions through writing. “At this point, I have no clue what stage it is, if I’m going to die, if I’ll have one or both breasts cut off, or if nothing will be removed at all. I will tell you this: I instantly feel that my body is the enemy.” The result is a candid and compelling debut memoir by novelist Jennifer Spiegel, Cancer, I’ll Give You One Year: A Non-Informative Guide To Breast Cancer, A Writer’s Memoir In Almost Real Time.

Spiegel’s memoir in “almost real time” reminds me of a story I once heard about a man suffering from Alzheimer’s. The man was due to give a presentation to a large gathering of people and had only recently been diagnosed. Right as he walked on stage, he forgot why he was there and what he was presenting. Looking out to a silent crowd, and not knowing what to do, he started to name out loud the emotions he was feeling. Frustrated, confused, frightened, alone. It was a method his psychiatrist had recommended that could help him to calm down when he had a memory lapse and began to feel anxious. Standing on that stage, it helped. He started to relax and remembered why he was there. After the event, many of the audience members approached him and told him that was the most powerful part of his presentation. Spiegel’s memoir has a similarly powerful effect.

Spiegel makes it clear throughout that this is not one of those cancer books you’ll find on the self-help shelf at your local bookstore. Nowhere in the text does she use “absurd rhetoric and call it ‘battling’ cancer and ‘surviving.’” Spiegel writes: “My book will clearly not help you. But what I seem to do—or be willing to do—is expose myself for the sake of the narrative.” Like the man with Alzheimer’s, Spiegel stands in front of her readers and names, questions, and curses all of the things that happen to her, unflinchingly and unapologetically.

From the start, Spiegel speeds ahead in her sense making. With the limit of “I’ll give you one year” in mind, and time marching through each chapter, Spiegel’s narration races forward down a path that avoids nothing. She doesn’t shy away from big life questions, like how much to allow cancer to shape her identity. Instead, she interrogates with sardonic humor. “Who am I, after all? A woman? A wife? A mother? Am I too old for this shit? Should I just succumb to the newness, be like liquid that takes on the shape of its container, change color to suit my surroundings? Is this then my new identity: cancerous, stricken, dying?”

She confronts how a mastectomy and baldness bring into question ideas of femininity and sexuality, goes on a family Disney adventure with tissue expanders, comes to terms with accepting help, reflects on marital shifts as her husband, Tim, becomes the caretaker, explains mortality and life lessons to her children, and leads us through the many appointments, surgeries, transformations, hopes, and disappointments. Her candor burns as dangerously hot as her “prematurely launched into menopause” hot flashes. Spiegel writes the ultimate “unguarded cancer story.” She bares her insecurities, jealousies, flaws, and anger in the midst of carrying “the fuck on.”

In one of multiple sections where Spiegel documents the funny things her daughters have said and done while growing up, she explains, “After a bath, Wendy was stark naked and doing ballet stretches in our room. Tim came in to get her dressed, and she said to him, ‘I’m like this because I’m doing this!’” It is clear that Wendy takes after her mother. Spiegel is like this because she’s doing this. She is like this, a writer who is blatantly honest, because she is doing this, removing buffers and scorning self-protection.

“That is my redemptive end: I affirm, completely, my willingness to use my own life as a palette, pens instead of paint, the canvas of my body, to tell you this story about what it’s like.”

With a raw openness and biting humor, Spiegel navigates through the way breast cancer ravages her relationship with her body, her family, and her identity. Like the man with Alzheimer’s, facing the anxiety that comes with illness, she puts words to her experience, and she looks to writing to find a way through it all. It is a fierce and fevered journey she allows us to bear witness to.


Briana Weeger is a native of Southern California and is currently an MFA student in the low-residency program at UC Riverside. An alumna of UCLA and Brooklyn College, Briana works with underserved and immigrant youth using story crafting and storytelling as a means of self-discovery and empowerment. In her own writing practice, she is exploring the impact of often overlooked social customs with a mix of both fiction and non-fiction.

1840

by Sarine Balian

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TCR Talks with Maggie Downs About Her New Memoir, Braver Than You Think

By Pallavi Yetur

When we first meet Maggie Downs in her debut memoir Braver Than You Think: Around the World on the Trip of My (Mother’s) Lifetime, her mental state is immediately established from the image of her shuffling through the Cairo airport in flip flops, her sweatshirt hood pulled over her head, and her body hovering between sleeping and waking because, “Sorrow does that.” Incidentally, travel can do that too, and Downs’s memoir tells a story of both.

Ten years ago, Maggie Downs quit her newspaper job and set off on a yearlong trip around the world. As she traveled from Peru to Bolivia to Uganda to Thailand, her mother’s mind and body were succumbing to Alzheimer’s disease back in the US. The trip is initiated when Downs, underwhelmed and disengaged with her job and life, decides that she must live because her mother can’t; because her mother gave up dreams of seeing the world to tend to her parental and familial duties. Downs asks herself: “By confining myself to this cubicle, wasn’t I making the same mistake my mother made?” In this state of suspension between doubt about her future and certainty of her mother’s, she found the reasons to travel: “to see what I was made of, to discover how strong I could really be, to live out the dreams of my mother.”

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TCR Talks with Lexa Hillyer

By Lindsay Jamieson

Lexa Hillyer is not only the author of the poetry collection, Acquainted with the Cold, and four Harper Collins YA novels: Proof of Forever, Spindle Fire, Winter Glass, and, her most recent, Frozen Beauty, but she’s also the co-founder of Glasstown Entertainment. While pursuing her own writing career, Hillyer and her partner, The New York Times bestselling author, Lauren Oliver, transformed their original publishing collaboration, Paper Lantern Lit and e-book publishing imprint, The Studio, into Glasstown; Hillyer remains at the helm. As their mission statement reads, “Glasstown Entertainment is an all-women, 360-degree media and content company based in New York and Los Angeles, dedicated to powerful, relevant, voice-driven story-telling across multiple platforms including book, film, and television.”

The Coachella Review recently sat down with Hillyer to discuss her fifteen-year career in publishing, the evolution of Glasstown Entertainment, and her latest novel, Frozen Beauty, which was released in March of this year.

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Book Review: Berkeley Noir

By Jenny Hayes

Berkeley Noir collects tales from my California hometown, a place where, the anthology’s editors write, “even outcasts can feel at home.” Editors Jerry Thompson and Owen Hill introduce the collection: “The search through darkness for an authentic, eclectic voice is the most important ingredient in the rich stew that is Berkeley, California.” Akashic Books’ Noir series launched in 2004 and now has well over 100 titles collecting sinister stories from locations around the world. The books are a great way to get a glimpse of unfamiliar cities or to relive places you know well—a perfect escape for this time of sheltering in place.

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Gravity

BY KATE SCHOLL

When I sit up to get out of bed in the morning,
suddenly my breasts feel the weight of gravity
New soft tissue pulled down towards the center of the earth
Suddenly having to deal with the day
and the responsibility of wakefulness and work
And so for just a moment there is such pain.
And yet the world is saying hey, you have those new things, wake up girl
The earth is reminding me of who I am every day, promptly
My own personal planetary wake up call,
pick me up,
pull me down,
embrace me.

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