Author: The Coachella Review (Page 1 of 16)

Book Review: Sing to It by Amy Hempel

By David Holloway

Sing to It: New Stories is the first new work from Amy Hempel in a decade.

The first thing to notice in this collection is the variety of story lengths and tempos. Of the fifteen stories in Sing to It, ten are less than two pages long. Modest of plot, names and setting, the title story is only one page long. But “Cloudland,” the last in the collection—more a novella than a story—runs for sixty-two pages. The reader might imagine the briefer stories to be a sign of the times, a nod to flash fiction. But it’s more likely to be a choice of substance, not form, from a genius of succinct narrative. Throughout this collection, and especially in these shortest pieces, the haiku-like prose is condensed and concentrated. Intense and sparse, there is a bleached and stripped quality to Hempel’s writing. Her narrators, reluctant to yield up their secrets, force us to read between the lines. The reader is left, generally, with a lot of work to do.

Febrile and restive, the characters in these stories seem to want to savor their emptiness. They take themselves apart and don’t always put the pieces back together. “Four Calls in the Last Half Hour,” for example, is a single paragraph running to about two pages, a wrenching stream of consciousness from another unnamed narrator, tormented by an impossible relationship:

But the one with one hundred percent won’t compromise and soon the eager apprentice just gives up, haunted by images of what could have been if the other had just been flexible. Which he can’t be, because he’s inflexible and doesn’t have to be, because he feels he has it all already and doesn’t get lonely the way we do, so why trade self-sufficiency for company. 

The stories in Sing to It are about the things we hide behind, the nuances of emotional pain. Rendered here is a disconcerting world of love, loss, longing, and regret, where there is little embellishment or flourish, and even less comfort. Thematically, the stories mainly consider the relationships of the characters to their past and the dislocations of love amongst lovers, mothers, and daughters. Several stories confront the relationship between humans and animals.

“The Quiet Car” is two pages of disconnection around the end of a relationship. “The Second Seating” is about a meal held to honour the memory of a deceased friend. “The Orphan Lamb” addresses the brutality of animal death and butchery. And “A Full-Service Animal Shelter” is a polemic against animal cruelty; an intense work, even a rant, in which each paragraph begins with a variation of the phrase “They knew us as the ones.”

As ever with Hempel, there is that narrative voice that manages, at once, to be both shredded and luscious; saying little but saying a lot. Watch it unfurl, from the first phrases of these stories:

I wasn’t the only friend Syd’s married man hit on the time he came to see her at the beach. (“I Stay with Sid”)

That reminds me of when I knew a romance was over. I had not seen this fellow in a while, but he suggested we meet up at the train station and take the Acela somewhere, so I thought we’d have several hours to catch up. And then at the station, we boarded and he led me to our seats in the Quiet Car.  (“Quiet Car”)

The three of us were taken with the vodka fizz made with elderflower and basil so we stayed on and had the raw kale salad and heirloom tomatoes with medallions of halloumi. (“The Second Seating.”)

But it has to be said that some of the stories, and the shortest ones in particular, almost implode into the void of their sparsity. They seem starved of oxygen, and thus at times are not accomplished organically. Inspired by a piece of installation art in North Carolina, “The Doll Tornado,” for example, struggles to connect its meaning to the civil-rights movement. “The Correct Grip” relates two phone calls that follow a violent attack on the narrator, then swerves onto the nature of rescue, involving dogs, and ends in a discussion of the correct grip to use when holding a leash.

Is this an example of a strength becoming a weakness? Hempel’s ability to compress meaning is plain. But it may be overdone in these vignettes, these fragments of stories in which the reader has too little to work with. It feels, in places, like a wireframe instead of a skeleton, and very little like a body.

No wonder, then, that Sing to It lights up in the longer stories. It’s not because the narrative voice changes from its usual level of brevity and concentration. It’s because there is space for a little more objective meaning to engage the reader, for the work to be more fully accomplished.

“Greed” is my favourite. It’s told from the point of view of a wife about her husband’s barely concealed affair with a glamorous older, married woman. Behold the impassive observations of the wife, who has been recording the lovers’ trysts using a camera she has hidden in the matrimonial bedroom:

Together, they lacked fear, I thought, to the extent that she told him to bring me to dinner at her house. With her husband. Really, this was the most startling thing I had heard on playback. Just before the invitation, she told him she would not go to bed with the two of us. My husband was the one to suggest it. As though the two of us had talked it over, as if this were something I wanted. I heard her say, “I have to be the queen bee.” Saw her say it. 

“The Chicane” treats a woman’s quest for closure when she meets an actor who once seduced her suicidal aunt. More elaborate of plot and location than the others, it’s another narrative that I found myself invested in, an odd late plot choice notwithstanding.

But for most readers, “Cloudland” will be the standout story. The narrative, which emerges in a fragmented, circling way, centers on a disgraced school teacher who has fled to Florida to start again as a home care worker. Alone, haunted and reflective, the woman relentlessly shreds herself about a choice she made many years ago which intrudes upon her daily routine and is then reignited by the publication of a book.

But even “Cloudland,” it has to be said, falls victim somewhat to excessive fragmentation. An array of images and snippets (which feel selectively borrowed from the author’s personal history), the story shifts back and forth with the sparsest of details to anchor our understanding. This works, in many ways, because it matches the protagonist’s wrenching point of view. But the narrative is barely sustained sometimes, a dilemma which is both emblematic of Hempel’s skill and symptomatic of the struggle that attends some of the stories in Sing to It.



David Holloway is a current student in the MFA program run by the University of California, Riverside, majoring in long form fiction and screenwriting. He is at work on a novel and a screenplay and writes reviews of literary fiction as a hobby. In past lives, David has been an attorney, a record label executive, and a band manager, and now works as a management consultant. An Australian national and an international citizen, David holds Economics and Law degrees and an MBA. He lives in Singapore with his wife and two children.

Book Review: Norco ’80 by Peter Houlahan

By David M. Olsen

We just got our asses kicked, didn’t we?” Deputy Andy Delgado says to Deputy Rolf Parkes while in the hospital after an eye surgery to remove bullet shrapnel. This exchange, found in the new book Norco 80: The True Story of the Most Spectacular Bank Robbery in American History by Peter Houlahan, captures the sentiments universally shared by the police after their forces were eviscerated by five masked and heavily armed men in the wake of a botched bank robbery in Norco, California in 1980. Norco is an expertly rendered accounting of these events that reads like a crime thriller and courtroom drama, with all the brutal gravity of a true story. This is true crime at its best.

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My new bra feels like a hug

by: Kate scholl

My new bra feels like a hug
It holds fast where I need
It embraces and invites

It also lingers too long
It digs in places
Just like a hug does

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Attending a Reading: Jamel Brinkley’s “A Lucky Man”

By AM Larks

It is almost 11:45 a.m. on a rare sunny day in Berkeley and instead of being outside, I am sitting in the basement lecture hall of Berkeley City College that smells vaguely of feet. My cell phone doesn’t get reception, so I cannot distract myself from my impatience and anxiety. I am anxious because I want to like this panel of authors, because I deeply respect the moderator, and because I need something to write about, to tie into, my review of Jamel Brinkley’s collection A Lucky Man.

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Book Review: Things You Won’t Tell Your Therapist, by Colleen Kearney Rich

By: Felicity Landa

Things You Won’t Tell Your Therapist might appear at first glance as a simple collection of flash fiction, but the breadth of emotion that Colleen Kearney Rich has achieved in her stories is something to be admired. Writers often shy from flash as one of the more difficult formats to capture depth, but Rich runs full force into the form. Rich’s language is cut to the bones, but her details are visceral and real. She steers the reader through her characters’ anxieties, while reminding us of our own. The stories in Rich’s collection are fierce in their simplicity, stolen moments of seemingly quiet lives

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A Sensible Man

By  Julia María Schiavone Camacho

Portuguese Macau, China. Fall 1937.

Fairy tales never come true. Patricia would warn her daughter, if she ever had one, not to believe in storybook endings. A girl raised sensibly, not spoiled. Her own daughter. Angélica. Perhaps she would create her own tale, featuring a sensible prince. And some practical advice. Be sure he really is sensible, Angélica. Sensible as well as trustworthy and good, before you give your heart away.

Now she lumbered down the narrow passageway above the main plaza. Her shoulders slumped, her chest ached. For once she might be able to cry.

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The White Card by Claudia Rankine – A Conversational Review

By: AM Larks & AE Santana

Claudia Rankine is the author of five collections of poetry, two plays, numerous video collaborations, and is the editor of several anthologies. Rankine has won the PEN Open Book Award and the PEN Literary Award, the NAACP Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry, and was a finalist for the National Book Award for her book Citizen. Rankine is the recipient of the Poets & Writers’ Jackson Poetry Prize and fellowships from the Lannan Foundation and the National Endowment of the Arts, in addition to other honors and awards.

The White Card by Claudia Rankine is two-scene play that features one black character, Charlotte Cummings, a Yale MFA graduate and a highly successful contemporary artist; and four white characters: Charles Hamilton Spencer, a “well-respected philanthropist” and “lover of contemporary art,” his wife Virginia Compton Spencer, the Spencers’ son Alex Compton-Spencer, an activist who is “deeply involved in current American politics,” and Eric Schmidt, the Spencers’ trusted art dealer. The Spencers invite Charlotte over to dinner in an attempt to convince her to sell her art to them.

The Coachella Review contributors A.E. Santana and A.M. Larks reviewed this play in an interview style with questions, responses, and replies in order to capture the conversation that theater, and specifically The White Card, is meant to evoke.

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by: Leila Bilick


Each April, I walked among crushed tulips
after the last snow
and headstones for fallen soldiers,
my favorite for James Miller, last of the Minutemen,
“I am too old to run,” inscribed in the stone.
I imagined him falling to his knees
delivering himself, negating himself
as the red storm blew in.  

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Then and Now: David L. Ulin, On Writing “The Bed”

Welcome to a brand new feature on TCR’s blog, Then and Now, a series in which writers reveal and dissect the early literary attempts that helped form their current work. This week, David L. Ulin takes a look back at his story, “The Bed.”


by David L. Ulin

Annie’s grandfather died on a Sunday in summer. My vacation had just begun. At work on Friday, his heart became irregular, and he was gone within forty-eight hours. I watched Annie buckle over the phone, saw her face pale and her red hair fall into disarray. She went home to San Diego that night.

And Monday was my grandfather’s birthday. I met my parents, and together we went to pay our respects.

I should say I’d been thinking about Annie since she left, but that’s not really true. More about her grandfather, and mine. In my grandparent’s apartment, he lay in another room, and we sat on a couch, listening through the wall for his snores.

My grandmother offered drinks and asked about my brother.

“He’s okay,” my father said, not looking up from a large paperback book of color photographs.

My mother smiled from her end of the sofa. “His classes just started.”

“So I heard,” her mother said.

My father coughed and lit a cigarette.

“No one comes to visit anymore,” my grandmother said. In the other room, her husband snored.

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Book Review: What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About, by Michele Filgate

By Nathania Seales Oh


What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About goes beyond the catchy title and delivers a visceral account of maternal relationships that span from childhood memory to adult reckoning. Michele Filgate curates a touching anthology with authors who are not only authentic but often unforgiving as they examine the role their mothers play or have played in their lives. They dissect the mother-and-child dynamic as it currently exists or as expired, while searching for the truth. Stories range from hysterical to heartbreaking, all the while transcending social, cultural, and economic boundaries. Each essay is both unique and universal in detailing the writers’ desire to be loved and understood, just as they also yearn to understand their mothers. They resolve to see their moms as real people—flawed and beautiful, hated and loved.

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