Month: September 2020

Book Review: A Better Man: A (Mostly Serious) Letter to My Son

by Collin Mitchell

In A Better Man: A (Mostly Serious) Letter to My Son, actor and comedian Michael Ian Black explores the concept of toxic masculinity and what it’s doing to American families and society.

People are touchy (especially those who have never brushed with racist cops or a sexist boss), and even for the newly woke and well-meaning man, the question of, “what can I do to help?” is tangled up in history, falling somewhere between the great man theory and the white man’s burden. A man’s help is a wrought proposition. Because it is presumptuous for us to think, for example, that the BP’s of the world could be capable of cleaning up after themselves just to voluntarily let go of the fossil-fuel thing as soon as the last bird is spruced up and put back to sea.

But then again, why do we think this? Maybe we’ve been looking at the situation wrong, too hung up on the cynicism associated with men’s behavior. It’s perhaps not so much a matter of men getting out of the way (you may though, if you like), but rather, out of their own way, something Black explores well in this book that is part letter, part memoir.

Known for playing dry, socially removed characters for much of his TV and movie career, Michael Ian Black admits that he drew on this “stone-faced” persona until he realized there was “something fundamentally dishonest about it.” “I look more like my mom,” he writes. “But I have never felt possessed by her in the same way I do when I discover my dead father’s expression on my face.” Being a man is learned, he argues, a prescriptive measure, and it’s his ease of language and careful understanding of his own role as a father and celebrity that makes his book relatable for the reader who can chew gum and walk at the same time. Someone who can say: I am not a racist, misogynist, sex-entitled bore, but I am not immune to it either.

There is a sense throughout the book that America has walked itself into a corner, where choices on gendered behavior are either/or without much room for an alternative. This of course is changing, but certainly not overnight. Black, who is not yet fifty, reminds us that masculinity is not as fluid as so many commercials, think-pieces, and TV shows might lead us to believe. “The brain darts to ‘boy stuff’,” he writes of the unconscious impulses he had after learning he and his wife were having a son. The point he makes here, and through much of the book, isn’t that men’s train of thought is necessarily bad, but rather it’s how they act on it. Unraveling thousands of years of gender norms, often opportunistic and violent, is a lot to take on, but making oneself aware of it isn’t. “Sometimes it’s not easy to distinguish between the things that have value and the things that don’t,” Black writes of the challenge many people, especially older generations, face to understand cultural change.

At the same time, Black depends on what seems like outdated ideas about gender, writing, “[I]t wouldn’t be unusual to hear somebody say that a hard-charging stockbroker is a ‘real man’ but a stay-at-home dad is not.” For this reviewer, men as primary caregivers feels celebrated in 2020, even when stay-at-home dads don’t have a job. But Black’s experience tells me I could be wrong. Black has a large social media presence and has, over the years, opened himself up to no shortage of trolling, mostly questioning his manhood. Perhaps he is right to start the book at the collective bottom.

Black is self-effacing about sex and he writes openly about his own caution with early relationships. On splitting the dinner check, he carefully taps into a sense of remorse: “I didn’t want my dates to think that I expected anything from them in return for dinner and a movie; I was trying to protect my dates from, I guess, me.” This section is illuminating, and Black carefully prescribes his thoughts on the ambiguity of “sexual courtship,” while acknowledging that men are not all “sex-crazed goons,” though it would be nonsense to think that average young men don’t think about sex all the time. A problem (one of many) about sex between men and women is a lack of talking. This is an oversimplification of something Black does very well to write about, but in the end, good sex for men—and it was refreshing to see this in print—comes from the inside. As a letter to his son, Black is successful here in making plain what many young men don’t want to admit: that they actually care about the other person, even if it’s just for a night. “‘Can I kiss you?’ does not have to be a buzzkill,” he writes. “And if she says no, congratulations! You’ve just avoided sexual assault.”

A little self-awareness goes a long way according to Black’s account of the male psyche. And you don’t have to step on anyone’s toes in doing so. At its core, A Better Man is one white male talking to another about responsibility—a conversation for the ages. Yet it turns the highly wrought advice of, don’t be scared, you’re a man, on its head. Rather it’s, ask for help, you’re a person. The book effectively asks the question of what it means to be a man and what that inquiry of identity is doing to men and society at large. The answer is a lot. Some of it good, some of it bad, but regardless, you have to take responsibility for how you treat others. Or else no one is going to like you. That’s incredibly good advice from one dad to another. (Algonquin Books, $24.95)

Collin Mitchell is a student in the UC Riverside Low Residency MFA program and the author of The Faithful, a historical biography of the opera composer Giuseppe Verdi. He lives in Palm Desert with his wife and son.

Photo Essay: Solitude & TCR Talks with Photographer Mahayla Rheanna

PHOTOGRAPHY by Mahayla Rheanna
Model Esther Aliah
Interview by Leni Leanne Phillips

An interview with the photographer, Mahayla Rheanna, follows below, after her photo essay, “Solitude,” featuring model Esther Aliah. Jump to Interview.

Solitude: An Essay in Photographs

by Mahayla Rheanna

All images copyright © 2020 Mahayla Rheanna. All rights reserved.

TCR Talks with Mahayla Rheanna

by Leni Leanne Phillips

I recently had the opportunity to chat with emerging photographer Mahayla Rheanna about her photo essay “Solitude,” her beginnings as a photographer, and her plans for the future.

The Coachella Review:  How did you become interested in photography?

Mahayla Rheanna: It started when I received an iPhone 4s for Christmas when I was eleven years old. I tried to take artistic selfies, but I never showed my face, so I decided to take pictures of my friends at school and post them. They were not high-quality pictures, but the positive responses I got from my friends and friendly kept me motivated. For my thirteenth birthday, my mom gave me my first digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera. I picked it up and haven’t put it down since.

TCR: I’m interested in what you say about getting started with an iPhone. Today, most people have a phone or other device with which they can take photographs, and with the use of filters, even hobbyists can turn out some fantastic photographs. What do you think is the difference between someone who takes pictures as a hobby and a professional photographer?

MR: People have always said I have a unique eye when they look at my photography. This year, because of the pandemic, I started doing FaceTime photoshoots, and I came to the realization that it doesn’t matter what camera or device you use. I did two photoshoots and created two videos using my laptop, my phone, and FaceTime. Many hobby photographers can turn themselves into professional photographers if the people around them like what they see.

TCR:  What do you like most about being a photographer?

MR: The attention. As someone who struggles to approach new people, I find that with a camera in my hand people gravitate toward me whether they want to be photographed or are just curious about cameras. Being on a college campus, I took advantage of how many people love to be photographed and began making money with my photography my freshman year.

TCR: What does photography do for you?

MR: Honestly, it reminds me that I am good at something. I never thought I was good in school, and photography is one thing that I not only taught myself, but I have been successful in earning income from it. Even though I am not studying photography in school, it is much more than a hobby to me.

TCR: What is your college major and what do you hope to do with it after you graduate?

MR: I’m a neuroscience and psychology major focusing on mental health and disorders. I am not entirely sure what I want to do after I graduate, but I am interested in working with adolescents.

TCR: How has photography influenced you as a person?

MR: I have always struggled talking to people, especially those who are my age. Photography has given me the confidence to approach people and ask them if they want to create some cool work with me. Many of my friendships have begun in this way, and if I did not have photography in my life, I don’t think I would have met so many amazing people.

TCR: Is there a specific theme that flows through your work?

MR: Recently, I’ve asked myself that, because my goal is to develop a unique voice through my photography so that eventually people will see my photographs and recognize them as my work. Currently, I would say the theme I’m exploring as a photographer is juxtaposing locations that are not necessarily beautiful with beautiful people and beautiful fashion. I’ve shot in parking lots, closed ice cream shops, bathrooms, libraries. My favorite photoshoot location was an abandoned pool.

TCR: What inspires you?

MR: I have these visions in my head that are so vivid, and whether they are dreams or daydreams, I always write them down and try to recreate them and live up to them. I am constantly inspired by everything I come across, the most ordinary things, and I love to take that and create work that is uncommon. When I was in the car one day, I drove past the location I used for this particular photoshoot, and I knew that I had to shoot there. The outcome was better than the vision in my head.

TCR: Is there a story you had in mind when you took the photographs in this photo essay, “Solitude”?

MR: Well, I’m a fan of allowing viewers to use their own perspectives and imagination. But the main vibe I was going for was this discovery of beauty within emptiness. The location is near where I have been in quarantine which also happens to be my childhood home. And for twenty years I’ve driven past that location and never thought twice about it until I was stuck there. While I was out there, I realized how happy I was, not only because I was finally taking photographs after three months of not being able to, but I just enjoyed walking around and looking at something that felt so familiar to me.

TCR: Do you make prints of your photos or are they strictly digital?

MR: I’m currently working on growing my digital platform, but yes, I would love to start working with prints and plan to do so in the future.

TCR: What kind of photography do you see yourself doing in the future?

MR: Definitely fashion photography. I see fashion as a form of art, and I love taking that next step and combining fashion with other things to create a new piece of art. I especially love when I can style my own photoshoot because I feel closer to the work and can make it my own entirely, so that I am more visible and more recognizable in my work.

Mahayla Rheanna has created images inspired by music, fashion, and the world around her for more than eight years. From taking pictures on her iPhone at school to learning to shoot film and even snap FaceTime photos, she is a proud self-taught photographer sharing her craft. With every new photo shoot, she learns techniques that will perfect her art and one day enable her to reach a broader audience. While studying at Syracuse University focusing on a Neuroscience and Psychology degree, Mahayla uses her free time to meet other students through photography and to work on artistic projects for social media. She continues to grow her platform on Instagram at @mreh.00 and on her website at


Esther Aliah is a student, artist, and organizer from the Bay Area. She is a junior at Occidental College in Los Angeles, majoring in Psychology and Black Studies. She is particularly interested in the intersection between mental wellness and social justice and hopes to find ways to destigmatize neurodivergence and provide more resources in bipoc communities. In her free time, Esther practices photography, painting, and other artistic media as a means to center mental, emotional, and spiritual wellness. She shares her art pieces as well as resources for Black wellness on her social media and other platforms, including on Instagram at @estheralia.


Leni Leanne Phillips is a writer based in San Luis Obispo, California. She is pursuing her MFA at the University of California at Riverside’s Palm Desert MFA program in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Coachella Review, and elsewhere. Leanne is currently at work on her first collection of short stories and a memoir in essays based on her experiences growing up in California. You can find her at


Book Review: And Now She’s Gone

By Laurie Rockenbeck

Rachel Howzell Hall’s newest offering, And Now She’s Gone, introduces us to newbie private investigator Grayson Sykes. With her wrinkled clothes and easy distractibility, Gray comes across as a latter-day Colombo. She forgets to record interviews, can’t remember to take antibiotics on time, and finding a working pen is beyond her.  In spite of all her fumbling and absent-mindedness, Gray is able to follow individual clues and piece things together in her own, unique way­.

To prove Isabel Lincoln is alive and well, her boyfriend, Ian, has hired the investigation firm Gray works for to find her. It’s not long before we learn Ian is more interested in reclaiming the dog Isabel took with her than finding Isabel. His assertions that he’s a “nice guy” make him an obvious and fun-to-loathe character. There are plenty of possible suspects and scenarios that Gray must pick apart to get to the truth. Plenty of twists and turns drive the plot in a fast-paced, mostly thrilling journey.

Hall does a masterful job of rendering how Gray’s history coincides with the case she is working on. At times, Gray is made impotent by her fear from past trauma. It’s apparent that Gray is in emotional limbo, and she has to deal with her baggage before she can truly live in the present. Gray figuring out her own issues while delving into what is really going on with Isabel provides the opportunity for commentary on some heavy social issues—racism, domestic violence, alcoholism, abuse.

Told in a close third-person point of view, we get Gray’s acerbic thoughts rendered in a sarcastic voice. Gray is judgey and quick to point out other people’s hypocrisies. At one point, Gray finds herself in a hipster vegan restaurant after it is well-established Gray is most fond of traditional comfort food. She pushes aside the kale chips in front of her while “[p]atio diners vaped, and massive plumes of their alt-smoke billowed from mouths too sensitive for meat and peanuts.”

Hall’s dark humor prevents the book from falling into preachiness. Early in the story, Isabel sends Gray a text asking Gray to lay off, to let Isabel stay missing. Gray’s response is dark and kind of hilarious:

Not typical for a missing woman to respond with text messages. One didn’t need to be a cop to know that missing women usually communicated via left-behind femurs or ragged finger-nails crammed with the scraped skin of her murderer. Not Isabel Lincoln. She was one of a kind.

Throughout, we get snippets of what it is like to be a black woman in America blended with descriptions of Los Angeles that make us feel like we know the city.

No one ever fell in love on the 10 or said, “Ooh, let’s take the Ten––we have time.” It simply bored you to death with its meth-town Denny’s and Del Tacos, places where colored people dared not pee. Better to risk urinary tract and bladder infections than to pee beneath a Confederate flag next to someone with Aryan Brotherhood tats on his bi-ceps or her stretch-marked boobs. Gray and Nick did all their peeing at Indian Casinos.

In another passage where Ian warns Gray about being in a rough neighborhood, she looks around and sees a few dark-skinned women jogging in Lululemon along clean streets and rolls her eyes at the depiction. Ian does not know rough the way Gray knows rough.

For the most part, the various threads and plot twists are satisfactorily resolved. As in, this book meets expectations of a PI novel—we get a pretty bad-assed PI who solves the case while experiencing LA through some fresh eyes. There are a few things left hanging, one thread in particular that I hope is purposeful and will lead to a second book in a series. While this is reportedly a stand-alone novel, I see potential in Gray’s development as a PI in future works.

The fast-paced read may be too much for some people—once you get going it really is hard to put this book down–– but it makes a satisfying couple of evening’s worth of entertainment. There are a couple of similes that move into groan-worthy territory. For example, saying someone “… wore a Bluetooth earpiece like the commander of the starship Enterprise …” will make most Trekkies roll their eyes. The phrase “…like a virgin at a prison rodeo” sent me on a search for some ritualistic sex practice. But really, it’s easy to forgive these hiccups when weighed against everything else that makes this book such a fun read.

Laurie Rockenbeck was raised a Navy brat and moved around a lot as a kid. She lives near Seattle with her family, two cats, and a dwindling number of chickens. She graduated with a degree in journalism and quickly learned that writing fiction was a lot more fun. With a grandmother who started every story with: this is a true lie…, there is no doubt that story-telling and exaggeration are part of her genetic make-up. Rockenbeck has her private investigation license but prefers writing about made up cases over investigating real ones. Her mystery series features Seattle Police Department’s only trans male homicide detective and a pro dominatrix turned PI. She is pursuing her MFA in Fiction at UC Riverside’s Palm Desert Campus. Visit Laurie at

TCR Talks with Joe Meno

by Matt Ellis

It’s a presidential election year, a time when we are bombarded by political hot button issues from every social and mainstream media outlet with superficial sound bites that often offer little substance but ask us to take sides nonetheless. Immigration ranks among the top. If you want to be better informed about the immigration issue, you need look no further than bestselling author Joe Meno’s debut nonfiction book, Between Everything and Nothing: The Journey of Seidu Mohammed and Razak Iyal and the Quest for Asylum.

Meno is a fiction writer and journalist who lives in Chicago. He is the winner of the Nelson Algren Award, a Pushcart Prize, and the Great Lakes Book Award. He was a finalist for the Story Prize. The bestselling author of seven novels and two short story collections, including Marvel and a Wonder, Hairstyles of the Damned, and The Boy Detective Fails, he is a professor in the English and Creative Writing Department at Columbia College Chicago. His nonfiction book, Between Everything and Nothing, which follows the lives of two asylum seekers confronting the perils of the U.S. immigration system, was published in 2020.

Meno took a break from pandemic-driven planning for his first ever all online curriculum—he normally teaches in person at the English and Creative Writing Department at Columbia College Chicago—to FaceTime with me about what drove him to veer from his fiction roots and the challenges of tackling such a complicated topic. But as our TCR readers know, it all starts with the story—so buckle up—this is going to be one hell of a ride:

Both of them keep walking, searching for the lights of the border. The land glistens before them but the border is nowhere in sight. They glance at each other, knowing they are lost, but all they can do is put one foot in front of the other, marking their way through the deepening drifts.

Just before Christmas in 2016, Ghanaian refugees Seidu Mohammad and Razak Iyal waded out into a Minnesota snowstorm in the dark of night in search of a flashing light they were told would guide them to what they hoped would be a final safe haven—Canada. Though both men were from the same Accra neighborhood of Nima and had made similar pilgrimages from Brazil, through Central America, and into Mexico to seek asylum in the United States, they’d met only hours before, the only two black men at the last bus stop before the border. They had spent years running for their lives. In Ghana, Seidu faced prison and a lifetime of brutality or death for being gay, and Razak’s stepbrothers were waiting to kill him over the rights to a small parcel of familial land. In the United States, instead of finding protection, they were thrown into privately-owned prisons like criminals; Razak wouldn’t earn his release for over twenty months. Ultimately, their asylum petitions were denied and they were left to choose between a possible frozen grave on a trek to Canada or a one-way ticket to an assured hell back home. Their gamble on the blizzard eventually led to the protection they sought, but they both lost parts of themselves along the way.

 My first question was probably the most obvious: “How did you find this story and why haven’t I ever heard it?” Meno tells me it had been covered by the major media outlets, but only briefly. A few months later, a friend of his, an Eritrean refugee turned film and television producer, asked him to meet with the two Ghanaians, who were making a name for themselves as outspoken immigration activists in Canada. Meno agreed to interview them for an essay or an article. “When you do an interview,” he says, “you usually spend five or ten minutes feeling each other out and build rapport before you hit the record button. But even before I could throw out a softball question or establish some atmosphere, Razak just launched into telling this story about the two of them crossing on foot through the snow, losing their gloves and their hats, and about the searchlight on the US border facility. For five hours, these two men told this story in overlapping and different segments—why they left Ghana, traveling through South America, and being in detention. I almost forgot to hit record.” Razak’s narrative about his impressions of immigration while waiting at the Panamanian-Costa Rican border were particularly transfixing:

It was also infuriating that among the cacophony of so many different languages, so many different cultures, the pervading distance, the relentless uncertainty, all of it made clear that so many people from across the world were fleeing their homelands, had chosen to give everything up, under threat of life and limb. What did it say about how the world, how these distinct nations organized themselves? How could so many people be so unhappy as to risk their lives in exchange for a chance of some other way of living? Was the world really that broken? He shuddered as the answer seemed to appear in the line before him.

When Meno returned to his hotel room to comb through the recordings and his notes, he quickly realized this story needed more attention. The Ghanaians immigration experience went beyond revealing the dangers of the rain forest and roadway predators; their hardships continued long after they arrived at the U.S. border. Though the asylum system that abused Seidu and Razak preceded Trump’s inauguration, it was only getting worse. “[The Trump administration implemented] draconian immigration policies, from enabling ICE officers to go into churches and hospitals, to having Customs and Border Patrol officers misinform people who came to apply for asylum that they were no longer accepting applicants.” Meno’s tone goes from incensed to somber. “I grew up in a working-class family and went to college and was able to build a life. I felt so deeply ashamed and embarrassed by what had happened over those [first] few months.” He told me that he returned the next day for another marathon interview session and formed a partnership with the two refugees to give their voices another platform.

One of Joe Meno’s biggest successes in Between Everything and Nothing is his adaptation of fiction-inspired structure to reveal two separate but parallel journeys as a series of staggered vignettes woven into the spine of the narrative until the point where their paths converge near the end: lost in a blinding borderland snowstorm while running from where we usually expect an immigration story to end. I ask how was able to find such a creative way to organize such a complicated story. “I was trying to capture what it was like to sit with those two men on that first day,” Meno admits. “They spoke for about five hours, moving back and forth through time, and then moving back and forth between [themselves]. That experience felt so powerful.” He started by exploring a multitude of nonfiction books to find the best way to handle two complicated stories over a period of years and across several continents. His first approaches were more linear, staying with a character for fifty to seventy-five pages and then switching, but this process seemed too jarring and prone to a repetition of similar experiences along the well-worn immigrant routes.

Ultimately, he chose to focus on the bond these two men formed in that frozen crucible, caught between America and Canada, and then fanned out to explore their individual stories in short chapters. “Once I arrived at that, I was like, that’s literally how they told the story to me.” We both laugh at the irony of toiling so long over structure only to return to the most natural and original form. Through all the experiments and permutations of the book, though, Meno knew that the last leg of the journey had to be the cornerstone of the story. “How they described it is still one of the most harrowing depictions of anything I’ve ever heard someone tell me. It felt like it captured everything about the tragedy of immigration at this moment in the United States.”

As a security expert working in Guatemala, a major weigh station and starting point along the most traveled routes, I am constantly exposed to the dangerous realities of the immigrant exodus. However, it is Meno’s deep-dive exploration of the overburdened asylum system that I found most chilling, a process intended to protect the world’s most vulnerable. A system where judges are too buried to fully understand the cases, pro-bono means thousands of dollars in fees, and lengthy detentions mean high profits for the privately-owned, for-profit prisons: “Over the past two decades, the asylum process in the U.S. has slowly become its own inviolable system, an abstract nation unto itself, an invisible country nearly impossible to escape.

“I felt like, as an American, I should be better equipped,” Meno said as we were wrapping up the interview. “I should have some knowledge about what was going on in the name of the country in which I lived.” From the first day he met Razak and Seidu and heard their stories, Joe Meno felt he had to do something. He is a writer and that is where his power lies. Mission accomplished. Inside Between Everything and Nothing beats an activist’s heart seeking positive change by providing knowledge. And we should, as Americans, feel the weight of the dark realities of our immigration system, one that has been plagued with problems for decades, not just the last presidential term. To do otherwise would be a contradiction to our collective identity, something Meno sums up best with the following:

The United States has a complicated legacy when it comes to the issue of immigration. By its very nature, it was a nation conceived by people who were migrants themselves—human beings willing to risk everything they had in order to search for something better. It has always been a nation of ceaseless movement, of people pursuing that which has yet to appear.

Between Everything and Nothing will prove to be an eye opener for most and a rude awakening for some.

Matt Ellis is a retired Army officer serving as a security expert in Guatemala. Over the years, he’s been a HUMINT officer, counterintelligence agent, linguist, diplomat, musician, and Christmas tree trimmer (the machete kind). He’s a freelance reviewer for Publishers Weekly and was the staff screenwriter for Pacific Rim Media. His short fiction has been published at Thought Catalogue. He is studying Fiction at UCR Palm Desert’s Low-Residency MFA program in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts. Find him at

Book Review: The Music Book

by Jhenna Wieman

Karen Osborn’s The Music Book is a love story between two people and a love letter to music. The novel is set in 1953 and is the story of Irene Siesel, a female cellist leading the movement into the world of classical music. It follows her early career, her brief but passionate love affair, and the end of her life, as the story is told in flashbacks from the memory unit of a nursing home.

Any music lover will appreciate the way Osborn treats music in her novel. She cradles it softly with words and makes it the centerpiece of the story.

The words that make Irene fall in love with Arthur Cohen are about music. They have heated debates in which he argues that:

[A]ny piece of music has its own life …. Our work is to experience that life. Performance isn’t about making an audience happy or making them understand or appreciate anything. It isn’t about the audience or about the musician. It’s about the music itself.

As Irene listens to him speak, we feel her falling for him. Osborn writes, “She hated the sound of his voice, so passionate and certain, and yet she could have lived off that sound. It cut both ways, straight through her.” And Irene’s love for the cello is just as passionate and instant as her love for Arthur. The first time she hears the sound, she falls in love, “like a stone falling through water.” This passion is what drives the story forward.

As Irene and Arthur become closer through their music, their most intimate moments happen while they’re playing. As they rehearse for their upcoming performance it takes a few attempts to get the notes exactly right, but when she does:

It felt like she’d climbed inside him and knew how he was hearing the music, knew even how it had sounded to him in his mind when he’d first written the notes down. Between their instruments, something new was coming to life.

The fire they create as they play together is a life-giving force that neither of them can deny. The intensity of the music and the feelings that build when these two characters play are sensual on their own. Osborn writes of the moment after their performance as if the musicians are post-coital. She writes: “Her arms and ribs hurt, and her legs were trembling as she lowered her bow and straightened up in her chair. She was hot and sweating, and she’d arrived at the edge of something. Everything pulsed with it.” Irene spends her life chasing this high.

She understands love through music and she understands life through music. “There was purpose behind everything, and music made you know that, made it possible to feel the authority of that purpose. Life wasn’t orchestrating music. Instead, music was orchestrating life.” Music is Irene’s soul. Every other love in her life is an accessory that adorns that soul.

Jhenna Wieman got her BA in English Writing Practices from Humboldt State University and is currently an MFA candidate at University of California Riverside. She also teaches Freshman English and Language Development at Citrus Hill High School. She lives in Murrieta with her husband, her goofy Beagle Shih Tzu mix, and her indifferent cat.

TCR Talks with Billy Lombardo

By Collin Mitchell

I call writer Billy Lombardo at his home in Chicago to talk about his novel, Morning Will Come. “How’s the summer been?” I ask him.

“I’ve been doing some weird work,” he says, going outside to talk. His dad recently moved in due to COVID-19 and it’s a full house.  He pauses and I can hear his dog barking from inside. “Stuff I didn’t expect to do.”

Lombardo’s voice is distinctive, like listening to David Sedaris on audiobook. We talk about teaching, especially teaching fiction to teenagers online. “They’re high energy kids, self-directed and brilliant and all of a sudden whatever plans they had are cancelled,” he says about student life during a pandemic. After twenty-five years, Lombardo recently retired from his career at The Latin School of Chicago so he could put more time into Polyphony Lit, a literary magazine he founded, as well as focus on his own work. To date he’s published two novels, Morning Will Come and The Man With Two Arms, and a short story collection, The Logic of a Rose.

When I ask him about his writing process, he answers without hesitation: “Absolute discovery. I love that. I started writing something the other day and I never got to the thing I wanted to write. I had a couple thousand words before I was even coming close to this thing I sat down to do.”

“Which wasn’t even the thing you were thinking,” I say.

He laughs. “Yeah, it almost never happens that way.” The pattern of discovery is echoed by the publication history of Lombardo’s haunting novel, Morning Will Come. The book began as a loose collection of short stories before his editor, Gina Frangello, encouraged him to combine them into a single story. Personal experience, a friend’s estranged marriage, and grindstone imagination gathered the disparate threads into something self-contained. “How was that?” I ask. “Stringing them together?”

“There was a lot of styling that I had to do with the stories to get them all together. I knew what it was to raise boys and I knew what it was to raise them in a difficult marriage and that thread was my own grief that I spoke about in this other way.”

Grief in Morning Will Come pivots around the disappearance of Isabel, the teenage daughter of Alan and Audrey, the novel’s protagonists. With busy careers and two young boys to raise, their unrecognized pain turns into a weight that’s left to hang in their marriage. Lombardo’s world lingers in the strange uncertainty of living with someone you thought you knew. “We never talked,” Lombardo says about his relationship with his ex-wife. Their former marriage is the inspiration for many of the novel’s scenes. “There were weeks on end after our son was born that my wife was suffering from something that she couldn’t talk about.” It was frustrating, he tells me, not being able to help. “So, I started to imagine a narrative around it.”

Lombardo depicts the fallout between Audrey and Alan with a curiously light touch, exploring the distressing shapes resentment can take in a marriage. So much of the novel is about trying to be seen and failing, not finding the voice to make yourself heard. Lombardo excels in bittersweet reflection.

“That’s what I feel like we do as humans,” Lombardo says. “If we’re lying with every breath and we’re not able to tell the truth for whatever reason because we don’t have the capacity to do it or we don’t know it or we bought the lie about it. If my wife isn’t talking to me I have to figure it out. If she’s yelling at me because I left the door open again, what’s behind that? Or is it some other thing? And you have to imagine what it is. So that’s what these characters are doing too and I just gave them the ability to talk.”

As a teenager, Lombardo wrote poetry. Later, in his late twenties, he started reading at the Green Mill, a jazz club in Chicago. “It was highly narrative and unschooled for the way poetry goes,” he says about his work at the time. “But when you did something right on stage, the place just kind of shut down. You could hear the cigarette ash drop and it was amazing and I just wanted that to happen every minute of my life.” Later, he met Chicago writer Stuart Dybek at a literary festival. They shared many of the same memories of Bridgeport, the Chicago neighborhood where Lombardo grew up. “He said, ‘Where did you live?’ And I told him I lived in an apartment above Dressel’s Bakery,” Lombardo recalls. Dybek knew it well. “I just felt that it gave me a kind of permission to write and because my work was so highly narrative it lent itself to short stories.”

Lombardo’s poetry spoke to a memorable yet “squandered” boyhood in Bridgeport. “I was just figuring out the language to put to my life,” he says about writing and what led to his embrace of fiction. A lot of this personalization is evident in Morning Will Come, which is as much an homage to the day-to-day in Chicago as it is a love story. There’s a moment of self-discovery on the bus, twilight walks for ice cream, and the lyrical interplay between a family and their city. Many of the novel’s specific incidents—a man’s fall from a high-rise, a stolen backpack—were told to Lombardo by a friend. “I realized that I wasn’t tethered by real occasions in my life,” Lombardo says about the process of writing Morning Will Come. “I could stray from the facts, and then I started figuring out something about truth and fiction, like these are just real truths, and they wouldn’t even be things that happened to me, and I would be weeping as I was writing them because of this truth that I had gotten at somehow.”

So much of the novel is about recognition and the biting realization that a lot of it, especially for women, hinges on appearance. Lombardo tells me he challenged himself to write physicality in a way that never describes the body. I ask him about writing female characters. “It’s hard, right?” I say. “Especially when you’re writing about relationships, to avoid describing something physical.” Lombardo agrees.

“Part of me feels like I nailed it, that I got at something that’s sort of universal in everyone and then someone else will read it and say that girls don’t think that way. And I don’t know if I buy that. I just feel like if you can’t get into someone’s head that’s not you, you have no business writing fiction. So, I don’t know if I ever feel like I have to apologize for it. I do feel like I can take credit for it if it works, but I’m also okay with coming up short.”

We go back to talking about the discovery process, the strange things that come up when a writer is in the middle of it. “I think that’s why I started the magazine, to give people [the opportunity]. There’s nothing like it once you’re able to sit down and write,” he says about getting a thought on the page. “You’ve helped someone name something and I just feel like one of the greatest joys of my life is just nailing something that you feel is perfectly languaged somehow. If someone else feels it and you move them in some way, that to me is like, wow. But I’m not thinking about that when I’m sitting down. I’m my first reader right? I want to move myself.”

Lombardo has another call coming in that he needs to take. I thank him for writing the book. “It’s beautiful,” I tell him, and we hang up.

Collin Mitchell is a student in the UC Riverside Low Residency MFA program and the author of The Faithful, a historical biography of the opera composer Giuseppe Verdi. He lives in Palm Desert with his wife and son.

Book Review: Convenient Amnesia

by  Sara Grimes

The sweetness of Convenient Amnesia, Donald Vincent’s debut poetry collection, took me to new heights before unsettling me in the pit of my stomach. Vincent catches us off guard by capturing breathtaking beauty before leveling us with the realities of twisted wrongs against the Black community. The first poem, “Lucky Charm,” sets the tone: “You knew about it but forgot like last week’s newspaper / headline. / I want to whistle whimsical feelings to white women, / Emmett Till’s charm.”

Convenient Amnesia summons all the appeal and literary acumen required of it as a fierce debut book of poems. Yet it also uses that very same blend of scholastic prowess and street smarts to dismantle oppression.

It seeks to awaken us to the history of oppression in a jarring way that we cannot forget. Likewise, it emulates a history of poetry while shaking us to the core of what it means to do the work of poetry. The first poem in Part III, entitled “Trigger Warning,” asks us, “Is art not / capitalist propaganda?”

As an artist himself, it would seem that Donald Vincent holds the inherent contradictions of this statement. It seems like a question he grapples with throughout the book. In one sense, art is capitalist propaganda because it is systematized in a way to fuel complacency. In another sense, the more agency artists—particularly artists of color—have over art, the more art can use elements of creativity, beauty, and wonderment to manifest change.

The book is divided into three sections. Part I is a savage critique of complacency in the face of racism: “When I die, will I see black? Buried in a black coffin—trapped Waiting on Obama to address my situation in his fireside chats,” Vincent asks us in “Black Ink.” Is the author equating Blackness with death, or is he asserting that only once one has escaped from the racism in this life can a Black person be free? Whatever his meaning, there is no room for waffling on the issue of race in this call to arms.

Vincent opens Part II with the words: “Because some things in life are better when we can willingly forget.” This is when the title comes into the foreground. Convenient Amnesia takes hold as the author loses himself to the three distractions of white women (“Somewhere between struggle-fest and jet lag from this year’s Cannes film festival, could this be love at first swoon?” from “Poet’s Portrait of Marie C.”), the beauty of the Western world (“I want to write this poem in French because I am in France” from “La Seine”), and education (“I peek at the Boston U. biddies, who look cute in groups” from “Riding the T.”). Each of these distractions is problematized by the dual threats of racism: violence and ignorance, two sides to the same coin. Even in the throws of the type of convenient amnesia found in French splendor, Vincent takes a trip to the graveyard and is reminded, “Death makes us feel alive, an orgasmic hoax.”

In the final section, Vincent returns to chronicling a history of oppression, but this time he does so by cracking open the lens of poetry. Vincent pays tribute to a literary cannon of diverse authors from Gwendolyn Brooks to Amiri Baraka to Emily Dickinson to E.E. Cummings. His penchant for summoning charm that leaves a sinking feeling comes into play as he takes us whimsically through Desgas’s arabesques to Maya Angelou’s America as a cage “or a jukebox with no change.”

The final poem, “Waking from Sleep,” is a tribute to John Sexton, but it is also a summary of the activist nature of this book of poetry. It is a call to wake up from the complacency of wavering opposition to racism. Moreover, it is a demand to confront it as lethal with critical urgency.

Sara Grimes is a poet and writer, studying creative writing at UC Riverside. Her poetry has been published in the Dewdrop Digest and Beyond Words Magazine and featured in Kelp Journal. She is an advocate for diverse women’s rights through her work in Expat Women, is active in immigrant education through her work at Literacy Source and uses her writing to empower neurodiverse individuals. You can find her on Twitter at @UrbanLimrick.

TCR Talks with Caroline Leavitt

by Anna Reagan

Caroline Leavitt is wearing some bitchin’ earrings. Or piercings. I cannot tell. And it fits her laid-back style and her chic, unaffected black curls. Later, I ask her about them, and she tells me that she does have piercings, but what I saw were her headphones because her coma medication screwed up her hearing. Oh.

Leavitt, affable and frank, has experience with these questions. After giving birth to her son, Leavitt went into a medically induced coma for weeks and had five emergency surgeries, until a specialist finally diagnosed her with an extremely rare blood disorder. Those sacred first weeks with her newborn were stolen from Leavitt, who can still be triggered by the trauma of her coma 20 years on. With her new novel, With or Without You, she wrestles with her own experience and takes on the mystery of the human brain locked in a coma.

With or Without You opens with Stella and her—on the surface—deadbeat longtime boyfriend, Simon. Simon coaxes Stella into some, let’s say, reckless behavior so she will chill out on her usual argument about wanting a kid and get excited about the prospect of going on the road again with his band. The next day, Stella falls into a coma. The novel, like life, goes on. It follows Simon, Stella, and Libby, Stella’s stern doctor. The two women were friends and coworkers when Stella was a nurse and before Simon took her away from that independent life. The reader is surprised by the amount of action Leavitt is able to pack into a novel where the central theme and action revolve around a comatose woman. Unlike Leavitt’s own experience, Stella is able to remember everything, from her time in the coma until she comes out of it. She can hear her mother talking to her. Can sense Simon’s presence. It’s jarring at first for the reader to lose Stella at the very beginning of the book, but isn’t that just like a coma? Losing someone suddenly and spookily? Though Stella is chained to her hospital bed, “[s]he isn’t afraid anymore. That surprises her.” When Stella wakes up from her coma, she is not a totally different person, but she does wake up to a brave new world where she can shine brighter than before and the people in her life have come together in unexpected—and in some unwanted—ways.

As Stella, who is cognizant, lies in her bed while in her coma state, she thinks of love and her parents’ love and the universe—things one might contemplate while trapped. Leavitt shows the way a coma patient takes stock of her own life; it is not just the coma patient’s loved ones who reevaluate everything.

Stella keeps her memories while appearing to be gone:

‘God,’ someone says. She doesn’t recognize the voice. Stella stopped believing in God when she was twelve. It wasn’t a difficult decision. Back then, her parents worshipped only each other. They called each other five times a day. Stella couldn’t remember being taken to the zoo just by one parent, or to the beach; even when a story was read to her, it was always both of them. One night, she had heard them talking and her mother calmly said that having Stella had been a mistake, and when her father didn’t jump right in and tell her she was wrong, Stella froze. ‘I mean, I love her,’ Stella’s mother had said. ‘I am so glad she’s here, but think how much easier things might be.” Stella, terrified, wondered if any moment she might just die and go to heaven, and if so, what would that be like? The next morning, she made the mistake of asking her mother where heaven was, and her mother laughed and said, ‘Heaven is your father.’ All Stella could think was that heaven didn’t include her.

The past and present rub up against each other in disorienting and poignant ways. What would we remember if we were trying to figure out the state of our existence?

My interview with Leavitt didn’t take place at the Plaza or Barney Greengrass in Leavitt’s home base, New York City. It was a Zoom meeting because—well, you know why. But even with that remoteness, Leavitt and I have the bond of the disorienting experience of having your life ripped away from you. After suffering a near-fatal horseback riding accident, I know all about being hospitalized in a blur and out of control. I understand Leavitt’s frustration that no one was willing to talk to her about her coma after she was out of the woods. Leavitt admits writing this book was, for her, catharsis, even after having written another novel, Coming Back to Me, about a woman in a coma who, like her, did not remember any of her time when she was out of it. Her agent told her she couldn’t write a book about the same thing: “This is going to be different. This will be about a woman who remembers everything and maybe I will be able to process things through her. It was actually that catharsis.”

With or Without You is a quiet novel, and not only because its leading lady falls into a coma. It subtly asks what you owe your loved one when they are out of commission for an indefinite amount of time. Do you betray them when you live your life without them? To what extent are you allowed to go on with your life? And what happens when they return? Are you the one to blame for abandoning or growing apart from the blameless?

Longtime lovers, Stella and Simon’s competing visions for life after forty are coming to a head. Simon had wanted to leave Stella before she fell into her coma. But Leavitt is not unsympathetic to Simon. He is in an impossible position. Leavitt’s characters bloom before the reader. That is not to mean they flourish, but they become more real as they are faced with the reality that goes along with an extreme trauma. The reader can sense where the plot is going, but that is because of the inevitability Leavitt deftly sets out for her characters.

I ask Leavitt if she ever went looking for her own medical records. She must be curious? But she didn’t. Partly because of bureaucracy, she says, but also because she asked herself, “‘Do I really want to do this? What if I find stuff where they made mistakes which they could have …?’ I decided to let that lie.”

But that doesn’t mean she isn’t learning more about what happened to her. She explains: “Before COVID my husband never really talked about it, but he said to me, ‘I am feeling the same amount of dread I was feeling before, when you were in the hospital.’ My first reaction was, ‘Oh my God this is the first time you’ve talked about it, tell me more!’”

Leavitt and I talk for a few minutes about how we understand one another. I tell her I had so much bitterness and moments of self-pity after I was hospitalized. She was given memory blockers, whereas my adrenaline blocked out my memories. Leavitt lights up when talking about the brain. One of her favorite stories is of a man who woke up from a coma able to speak Mandarin fluently. She was given the green light from a friend who works in neurology, she says, to write about what happens to a coma patient who wakes up.

I ask her, at the end of the day, what she wants people to take away from With or Without You. Leavitt mulls it over. “For anyone who has had some trauma, you can create new memories that will supplant the old ones. The saying is ‘we all contain multitudes’ and from a brain-chemistry point of view it’s true. Your brain neurons are firing all of the time and you can change. And I find that really amazing and really hopeful.”

And in these times, it really is.

Anna Reagan is a born and raised Los Angelino. As a “suit,” she has worked at places such as TMZ, Chelsea Lately, the Huffington Post, ABC Family, and the United Talent Agency in their Media Rights department but now she wants to be a “creative type.” She is a Medieval England enthusiast and a Real Housewives franchise amateur historian. She is an MFA Candidate at UC Riverside’s Palm Desert Program working on a Historical Fiction novel set at the beginning of the Tudor Dynasty.

Book Review: The Duchess of Angus

by Leni Leanne Phillips

Margaret Brown Kilik wrote her coming-of-age novel, The Duchess of Angus, in the early 1950s, but the manuscript remained her secret until it was discovered by her granddaughter, Columbia University English and Comparative Literature Professor Jenny Davidson, after the author’s death in 2001. Things like this happen more often than one might imagine. My own grandmother Rubye left behind a handwritten memoir of her life growing up during the Dust Bowl era in Oklahoma. During all the years my grandmother encouraged me to write, she never once mentioned that she wrote, too, in secret. What compels a woman to hide her writing? Having read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own at least a half dozen times, I have some theories. But what I do know is this—when a manuscript such as Kilik’s is discovered and published, it is a cause for celebration. It fills in a void, it gives us something we didn’t even realize we were missing, and the world is richer for it. When such a book is also as charming, as deftly-layered, and as funny as The Duchess of Angus is, I feel duty-bound to shout it from the rooftops.

The Duchess of Angus is written in the first person and gives readers a gorgeous, highly-textured time capsule of life in San Antonio, Texas, during World War II. Jane Davis, the novel’s protagonist, is home from college and is looking forward to enjoying her summer. She finds a job at Joske’s, a department store, when “[f]or an hour or so one morning, [she] looked about for something that was not too demanding.” Jane could easily advance at Joske’s but does “not care to assert [herself] even that much.” Instead, Jane envisions a summer of leisure, spent going on dates with soldiers stationed at the nearby base, “loll[ing] the days vaguely reading or walking about … perhaps coming to life for a few hours at night.” Besides working at Joske’s, Jane “enrolled in a poetry course and drank a lot of beer.” A girl after my own heart.

As far as dating, Jane chooses to go out with men who don’t demand too much of her either, for instance, one man she doesn’t even like very much: “[I]t was relaxing. … I don’t give a damn what he thinks about me,” Jane says.

The hub of the novel’s activity is the Angus Hotel, an establishment run by Jane’s mother, Martha. The Angus is not much more than a flop house, but it is populated with a colorful cast of characters that make it Jane’s favorite place to hang out on a weekend evening, “some lonesome people who had been thrown together by the war,” with a “system of etiquette more complex than that of a royal court.”

Jane’s older stepbrother, Jess, lost his right foot in the war and now lives at the Angus, collecting disability. He has a way with the ladies, including Mira, a stray Jess brought home to the Angus one night when he found her at the bus stop, out in the rain, come to town to find her military husband. Lillie Du Lac is Jane’s mother’s best friend. She rents a room at the Angus, runs a nearby sandwich shop, and pines for her ex-husband, Colonel Rainey W. Howell, who has remarried to a wealthy society matron, Eunice Estes.

The action starts over breakfast at the Angus, when Jess sees Wade Howell’s engagement picture in the morning paper and comments on her attractiveness. Wade is Eunice’s daughter, the Colonel’s stepdaughter, and Jane brags that she knows her a little—the girls work together at the department store but are barely acquainted. Lillie urges Jane to befriend Wade, for intel purposes, and Jane obliges to garner Lillie’s favor—she seems to look up to Lillie and to admire her sharp edge.

Author Margaret Brown Kilik

Kilik’s Wade Howell is beautiful, sophisticated, and wealthy. She is reminiscent of Truman Capote’s Holly Golightly, down to the dark sunglasses—Wade is unhappily but resignedly engaged and is a beauty who does what she pleases and doesn’t care about the opinions of others. “I found Wade Howell posed before a display of antique silver,” Jane says. “Dark hair, dark glasses, white dress—the cool lady of mystery on the hot streets of a southern city. She looked satisfied.”

Jane is nothing like Wade Howell, she decides. She is merely pretty, is decidedly not sophisticated, and is poor, although she wears her poverty like a badge of honor because her family weathered the Depression.

What then did we have in common? We had the same cynical attitude, which set the tone for our entire relationship. We were not burdened with the pretense of enthusiasm. We were not taken in by the small pretension of phonies. And above all, we were not at all certain that life as it was mapped out for us was worth living.

Wade turns out to be less sophisticated than she initially appears, a woman who, “after three bites of a hot enchilada melted into a veritable puddle of amorality ….” She soon lures Jane into all manner of trouble, and the summer is no longer relaxing. Wade starts by introducing Jane to Mrs. Gordon Nickerson, who recruits young ladies to socialize with the local soldiers as an act of patriotic service. “‘You’re just what the cadets are looking for.’ I wasn’t at all convinced of this, and it occurred to me that the methods for screening young ladies to entertain our young men in uniform were sloppy.” As Jane is pulled further into Wade’s world, and Wade eventually invades Jane’s, Jane increasingly longs for her books, her naps, her “delicious privacy.” “The merry-go-round was slowing down,” Jane thought, “but the carnival would start up again tomorrow.”

Jane is a delightful protagonist on the precipice between childhood and adulthood, not quite ready to let go of one or to grasp hold of the other. Her dry humor is delicious, and her evenings spent socializing in San Antonio are magical. On the Saturday night before Easter Sunday, Wade offers a woman at the marketplace ten dollars for her entire inventory of crepe paper eggs. “[W]e were piled high with Easter eggs. We each carried two shopping bags full of them, and some were tucked in our pockets and pocketbooks. I even had two pale pink ones, Wade’s idea of course, tucked in my bra.” As the evening progresses, Jane receives a sweet kiss from a soldier:  “As he pressed against me, I felt the paper egg break in my pocket, and all the rest of the night, confetti seeped out through a tiny hole in my dress and left a crazy trail around the city.”

Kilik’s novel has been determined to be largely autobiographical, written fifteen years after the events described in the book took place. Kilik thus fills a time capsule with the life of a young woman in San Antonio during World War II and gives readers a rare glimpse inside the mind of a 20-year old living in 1943:

We were in the midst of a war. We were living as nearly as possible at a constant peak of excitement. There was a song in our hearts in those days. True, it was a melancholy song. But an affected melancholy tempered by confidence. And we enjoyed everything about it.

… I was very much aware of the time, the place, and the moment.

The book is a time capsule, too, in terms of the political and social climate of the times. The manuscript is contextualized with the inclusion of an introduction by Davidson called “The Discovery” and two essays: “Streetwise” by Char Miller and “Beyond Adobe Walls: Anglo Perceptions and the Social Realities of San Antonio’s ‘Mexican Quarter’” by Laura Hernandez-Ehrisman. Because of its value as a historical document, Davidson chose to edit the manuscript with a light hand. She explains her decision to leave the manuscript relatively untouched in her introductory piece.

Because Davidson chose not to edit her grandmother’s work developmentally, what we are getting is in essence the author’s first draft. In that sense, the work is brilliant. There are rare places where, had the author had the opportunity to work with an editor, the manuscript might have been improved. For example, in places, the transitions in time are somewhat clumsy or confusing—I am thinking in particular of the passages where Jess and Mira reminisce about their meeting. But overall, in terms of voice, story, and character, this manuscript is a miraculous example of getting it right the first time. The book is charming, funny, and an enjoyable read. It comes together well in a satisfying ending that I won’t spoil for you, except to say that it stands up next to other classic coming of age novels that I count among my favorites, like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, A Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing, and I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter.

Leni Leanne Phillips is a writer based in San Luis Obispo, California. She is pursuing her MFA at the University of California at Riverside’s Palm Desert MFA program in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Coachella Review, and elsewhere. Leanne is currently at work on her first collection of short stories and a memoir in essays based on her experiences growing up in California. You can find her at

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