Category: Blog (Page 1 of 17)

Book Review: Banshee

By Diana Love

Banshee opens with a moment of bodily violence and tragedy. Not the personal tragedy of Samantha Baxter, sitting in an oncologist’s waiting room, moments from the cancer diagnosis which will unravel her, but the tragedy of a stranger:

The flesh blew off her bones underground. That’s how the waxy anchorman put it; you could feel his lips loving to make the shape of the word blew. The reason they knew? They’d had to exhume her. He sighed, going for horror, but conveying pleasure, maybe not accidentally.

So begins Rachel DeWoskin’s delicious, dangerous swoop of a novel. Sam pushes the grisly news story off-kilter, focusing less on the dead girl specific than on the suspect perversions of dead girl media universal—a link between the suffering of dead women in television shows, and the suffering of the figure we were about to meet on the page. This would not be, I realized immediately, the fragile narrative of a meek or docile patient. This would not be the narrative of a patient person.

Set just before and in the few weeks immediately following Sam’s diagnosis of breast cancer, Banshee hurtles us forward through a tight and tense timeline. With a double mastectomy and a not small glimpse of mortality looming, Sam began taking actions which I found as strange as they were compelling. In starts and in impulsive stuttering stops, Sam begins to burn down her own life. A professor of poetry, Sam starts sleeping with one of her own graduate students — the much younger Leah — cheating on her husband Charles for the first time and breaking with the ethics of her professional position.  Less an affair of the heart than one of the flesh, Sam is casually incautious with Leah’s feelings, not thinking too hard or too carefully about how these trysts will impact her life or marriage after her scheduled mastectomy, once she is in recovery.  Indeed, Sam spends much of the novel thinking large and very universal thoughts about pretty much everything except what might happen after  this operation. If there is, indeed, to be an after. She is much more concerned with sloughing off the weight of everything that has been her life until now. Sam has outbursts at faculty meetings, calling out hypocritical behaviors she’d previously been politically savvy enough not to mention. She hides in the back of her own car in the university parking lot, unwilling to teach class. She skips office hours for secret rendezvous with Leah, goes home to watch midday television.

As readers, we stay close to Sam, privy to her true thoughts, able to see the angers and desires that drive her. Outwardly erratic, I watched her behavior crystallize around a tight inner credo: to never again do anything for the sake of others alone. When Charles confronts her about the bits of the behavior he can directly observe—and Charles seems capable of observing only the barest tip of that iceberg—he demands to know what this cancer diagnosis means. “It means fucking my student,” Sam thinks furiously.

It means fucking my student, and never being polite or apologizing again. It means shedding every rule like itchy lizard skin, suffocating all the people I love most, you included, and freeing myself. Then putting back on only the ideas and habits I believe deserve to be worn.

“It just means I need a minute to think through who I am,” she ultimately says to Charles, comparatively blandly, “in case this is the end.”

DeWoskin has been clever in her construction of Samantha Baxter and of her world. She does not give Sam a directly abusive husband, just an unimaginative one who sees Sam’s emotional unmooring in the face of her diagnosis as unreasonable—and unseemly—behavior. She does not give to Sam bowel cancer, or bone, or any of the more immediately deadly varieties, but breast. A cancer with a relatively high survival rate, especially when caught early as is the case in Banshee. She sketches for Sam a callow affair with a young student, letting us witness the full range of Sam’s irritation and impatience at Leah’s every bit of earnestness toward a love affair. DeWoskin provides Sam with a daughter, too, nearly the same age as her graduate student lover – Alexi, who Sam is convinced would be disgusted to learn about Leah. So DeWoskin does not allow too much self-righteous wind to puff up Samantha’s sails. Even Sam herself, at points, is struck with self-revulsion: Was it possible that I had never read a female character as disgusting as I was turning out to be? And if so, what did that mean for me as a human being?

Yet I couldn’t help being charmed by Sam, by her fierce and selfish desire to follow her own desires. In a world filled with unsympathetic doctors, milquetoast partners, and dead girls strung up from trees, who doesn’t want a little selfish rage now and then? Freedom to be her worst self allows us to catch glimpses of all the other milder, nicer, calmer selves Sam and scores of other women often compromise themselves to be. Might not there be a little bit of Banshee in each of us? That harbinger of death, that uniquely female form of violent rage—what might we do should the banshee come to call?


Diana Love is a poet and short story writer, somewhat working on her first novel. Her work has previously been published in Literary Mama, and she is a current MFA student in the low-residency program at UC Riverside. Diana grew up amidst the inanities, adventures, and mundanities of the greater San Fernando Valley. She is currently on the Westside, where she is a co-lead for the Westside Chapter of Women Who Submit. She is an excellent whistler.

Dark Ocean Night

By Allen M. Price

EXT: ROCKY POINT PARK – AFTER WORK – NIGHT

In view of the coastline, but a distance away. The unlit amusement park rides hug the night sky.

A SHIP HORN SOUNDS

Ezekiel and Patience and Matthew sit on the rock wall, cartons of clam chowder and clam cakes and beer are next to them. The moon and the stars reflect in the ocean. The ocean waves slap against the rock wall; it’s high tide. A light breeze blows.

Patience takes her sandals off, dips her feet into the water. Ezekiel lights a joint then passes it to Patience. Matthew’s drinking a beer and smoking a cigarette.

None of them has touched their food.

Ezekiel gazes out at the black sea that we can only hear, silently trying to free himself from his troubles when he says:

                       EZEKIEL
I wish I could swim.

                        PATIENCE
Let me teach you, Zeke. You’re not too old. I wish you’d stop saying that.

                        EZEKIEL
I’m afraid of the water.

Patience gives Ezekiel an I-don’t-believe-you look.

                        EZEKIEL
It’s true. When I was seven, just before y’all moved in, Deborah took me to the “Y” for lessons. They strapped a piece of Styrofoam to my back and put me in the deep end of the water. I was the only kid who freaked out and sank to the bottom.

Patience and Matthew start laughing.

                       EZEKIEL
(lightly laughing)
It’s not funny. I thought I was gonna die. All I remember is some woman bringing me to the top. I never went back.

                        MATTHEW
(laughing)
All I can picture is a little black boy with a big white thing of Styrofoam on his back.

                        EZEKIEL
If I weren’t so damn afraid, I’d swim right to the other shore and start a new life. Just let the water wash away my sins. I could drown them all.

                        PATIENCE
Stop that.

                        EZEKIEL
Why? If I drown then my sins’ll wash away before I die. My body’ll wash up onto the other shore and I’ll be able to start my life again.

                        MATTHEW
That’s bullshit. Nigga just be you.

                        PATIENCE
Matthew’s right. We don’t give a shit that you’re gay.

                        EZEKIEL
How you know what I am when I don’t know what the fuck I am! I just want everyone to be fuckin’ happy and back the fuck off me!

                        MATTHEW
OK, OK. Chill, nigga. Aight.

Silence engulfs them, only to be interrupted by Patience taking off her shirt, jumping off of the rocks, and into the water.

                        PATIENCE
Come on guys.

Matthew strips down to his underwear.

                        MATTHEW
Here I come!

Matthew does a cannon ball into the water splashing everyone.

                        EZEKIEL
Nice! Real nice!

                        MATTHEW
Come on STUD!

Matthew splashes Ezekiel.

                        EZEKIEL
Quit splashin’ me, nigga. And quit calling me that.

                        MATTHEW
Zeke, YOU STUD!

                        EZEKIEL
No one thinks you’re gay when you yell that shit out to me in the goddamn school corridors.

                        PATIENCE
That’s because he’s on the football team.

                        MATTHEW
It’s a joke, nigga. You need to stop letting Dante fuck with you. That motherfucker don’t fuck with me because he knows I kick his motherfuckin’ ass. Piece of shit. He’s the motherfuckin’ faggot.

                        EZEKIEL
Tell you this: if that fucker was drowning I’d let that motherfucker drown. He ain’t the only one I’d let drown either. Some motherfuckers don’t deserve to live. I’m sick of motherfuckers getting away with shit and not being held accountable for the shit they do. Put their shit on everyone else.

                        PATIENCE
I don’t think he’s talkin’ about Dante anymore.

                        EZEKIEL
You goddamn right I ain’t.

                        MATTHEW
Who ya talkin bout?

                        EZEKIEL
I don’t know why people are so fuckin’ bad to each other. It don’t make no fuckin’ sense.

                        MATTHEW
THE FUCK YOU TALKIN’ ‘BOUT!?

                        EZEKIEL
TEACHERS. PARENTS. PEERS. SOCIETY. CRAZY ASS SPECIES.

The haunting melody of a whale appears in the distance.

                        PATIENCE
GOOD LORD! WHAT IS THAT?!

                        MATTHEW
A whale.

                        PATIENCE
Sounds like it’s crying.

Patience swims to the shore, a bit freaked by the sound.

The whale cries again.

                        EZEKIEL
It sounds so peaceful.

                        PATIENCE
Peaceful!? I’m gonna go sit in the car.

                        MATTHEW
Damn, Dog, you’d never know she gets her ass kicked at home. She be hidin’ that weed real good. Like everything be all good in shit.

                        EZEKIEL
She don’t talk about it. Not even with me.

                        MATTHEW
She don’t want anyone to know.

EXT: ROCKY POINT PARK – LATER THAT NIGHT

Patience is sound asleep in the backseat of Matthew’s car. Matthew is laying passed out drunk and high on the rock wall.

We hear the sound of a loud splash; it wakes Matthew up. He peers around once he is able to focus, sees Patience in the car, but cannot find Ezekiel. In an instant, he puts it together that the splash was Ezekiel. Matthew runs to the dock where he heard the splash and jumps in and disappears under the water.

He emerges a few long minutes later with Ezekiel, helping him swim to the dock. Matthew pulls Ezekiel up onto the dock. They both catch their breaths.

                        MATTHEW
WHAT THE FUCK WERE YOU DOING!?

                        EZEKIEL
I went for a swim.

                        MATTHEW
A SWIM?!

                        EZEKIEL
You and Patience were sleeping, I didn’t wanna bother you.

                        MATTHEW
OH, AND JUMPING OFF A FUCKIN’ DOCK, NOT KNOWING HOW TO SWIM WON’T BOTHER ME!?

Ezekiel sits looking at the rippling water.

                        EZEKIEL
I can’t do it anymore, Matthew. I can’t keep fighting just to stay alive. I ache and I’m tired of trying to live a life that I don’t wanna live. Every day I go to school with the threat that someone’s gonna beat the shit outta me. And then I come home and watch Patience get the shit beat outta her. My head is barely above water. It only makes sense to let it go under. I’ll stop ruining everyone’s life.

                        MATTHEW
Killing yourself WILL ruin everyone’s life!

                        EZEKIEL
My mother won’t have to work three jobs, you won’t have to defend me, and Patience can live with my mother as her own and get away from her shithead mother.

                        MATTHEW
You ain’t thinkin’ clearly. We need you here nigga. I need you here. You’re my nigga. It’s you and me. Gay, straight, I don’t give a fuck. We’ve known each other too goddamn long to let something like that fuck up our friendship.

Ezekiel doesn’t speak. He, for the first time, wonders if Matthew might be gay. Matthew picks up the cross around Ezekiel’s neck and says:

                        MATTHEW
What you wear this for? You think He’ll save you? You haven’t even met him.

                        EZEKIEL
Not yet. Came close once before. I never told you this, but in ninth grade I slit my wrist in the back of Art class. It didn’t go deep. We were making ceramics and I took the razor across my wrist.

Matthew punches Ezekiel in the shoulder.

                        MATTHEW
The fuck’s wrong which you?! I can’t lose you, Zeke. I’m serious. Talk to me if you need to talk. Just say you won’t do that again.

Ezekiel stares up at the sky and says:

                        EZEKIEL
I just wanna be free. Like the moon and the stars and the endless sky. All good things are wild and free…like Thoreau said.

                        MATTHEW
Stop fuckin’ around. I’m serious.

                        EZEKIEL
What’re you saving me for? My mother don’t want me, my father don’t want me, the kids at school don’t want me. I’ll be better off when I’m gone. Y’all be better off when I’m gone.

                        MATTHEW
I want you. And I want you to want to be here. I don’t give a shit about what people say about us. It’s just me and you.

Ezekiel pauses, looks at Matthew perplexed.

                        EZEKIEL
Me and you?

                        MATTHEW
People talk. Say that you and me faggin’ out with each other. I don’t give a shit.

Ezekiel is taken aback, unsure what to say. He stares at Matthew’s legs.

                        MATTHEW
You’re always looking at my legs.

                        EZEKIEL
They’re jacked.

                        MATTHEW
(laughing)
And hairy as fuck.

Ezekiel gazes at them.

                        EZEKIEL
All that running…

                        MATTHEW
You used to run too. Sixth grade. Holliman. They had the running program we joined.

                        EZEKIEL
Yeah. I only did it ‘cause I didn’t wanna go home after school. You got to do 200 laps around the school to get the t-shirt.

                        MATTHEW
I got four bars on each sleeve, more than anyone else in the whole sixth grade. I feel free when I run. Can escape everything and everyone. My mind goes blank. Man I friggin’ love it.

                        EZEKIEL
Like you’re running from something.

                        MATTHEW
You’re a buzzkill, you know that?

                        EZEKIEL
Gotta have a buzzkill for the buzz, right?

Matthew grabs the back of Ezekiel’s head and kisses him. Patience watches as they kiss for long seconds. Ezekiel appears shocked when Matthew lets go. Matthew looks relieved.

                        PATIENCE
(appearing suddenly)
Well, it’s about time.

One by one they start laughing.

THE WHALE CRIES again.

Its cry silences each of them as they all stare out into the dark ocean night.

FADE TO BLACK


Allen M. Price is a writer from Rhode Island. Excerpts of the book he is writing appear in River Teeth, The Fourth River (chosen by guest editor Ira Sukrungruang) and Jellyfish Review, and The Coachella Review. His fiction and nonfiction work appears in Sou’wester, Cosmonauts Avenue, Gertrude Press, Columbia Journal, The Adirondack Review, Tulane Review, The Saturday Evening Post, and others. His chapbook ‘The Unintended Consequences of Haitian Reparation’ appears in Hawai’i Review.He has an MA in journalism from Emerson College.

 

TCR Talks with Tim Murphy

By Scott Stevenson

Tim Murphy is the author of the novel, Christodora, longlisted for the Andrew Carnegie Medal.  It was also named a Best Book of the Year by The Guardian and an Amazon Editors’ Top 100 Books of the Year.  As a journalist, he has reported on HIV/AIDS for twenty years.

Correspondents is his follow-up to Christodora and was an Amazon Best Book in May 2019.

This multi-generational novel follows the life of an American reporter of Lebanese-Irish descent, Rita Khoury, and her Iraqi interpreter, Nabil, who is gay and persecuted by his culture.

Tim described to me how he wanted to depict Rita and Nabil’s families so we could appreciate how a family in the Middle East is not so different than those in the West. They are just subjected to more extreme circumstances. This story takes us to Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. Each location suggests a different stage of civil conflict. Iraq’s conflict is in progress and Lebanon is in a stage of aftermath.  Correspondents stops before the Arab Spring begins, but the DNA of the future Syrian civil war can be detected.

The Coachella Review: How do you feel about the Iraq situation today?

Tim Murphy: I’m amazed at the extent they’ve been able to pull it back together. It is an extremely complicated place. It really reflects what Lebanon when through in the 70s and 80s. Lebanon is still an extremely fragile place. Unfortunately, Iraq has become a proxy for Iran.

TCR: Omnivoracious, the Amazon Book Review blog stated, “Correspondents is proof that the best novels are as important and insightful as nonfiction.” Since you’re a journalist, what made you decide to write fiction instead of nonfiction?

TM: My day job for 25 years has been as a freelance journalist covering HIV/AIDS and LGBTQ issues. I’ve written for The New York Times, New York Magazine, POZ and The Nation. I got into kind of a rhythm and the work kind of comes to me. Now I take assignments that allow me to make a living and give me some creative freedom. I always wanted to be a novelist. I started a neighborhood paper when I was nine, and a school paper when I was ten. I guess I always wanted to be a journalist too. I published two gay YA novels in my twenties and felt like I wasn’t done with fiction. I hadn’t written fiction in the decade before Christadora and wanted to give it another chance. No one had written a narrative version of AIDS, so that’s where Christadora came from. I kind of felt the same way about Correspondents.  There hadn’t been a real-life, journalistically-informed novel. I really like researching for novels and wanted to examine the intersection between fiction and nonfiction.

TCR: Elliot Ackerman, author of Waiting for Eden stated, “Correspondents is the novel I’ve been hoping would emerge for a long time.” Your book really takes flight in the chapter where Rita and Nabil meet.  Can you talk about that?

TM: I read endless, endless accounts of journalists covering Iraq and I wanted to show the dynamic of journalist and interpreter. The interpreter is the fixer and my reader needed to see both of them awkwardly establishing their dynamic. I had to show them jostling and developing their rapport. Also, I wanted their families to be mirror images of each other. That family could be my family. When you see the effects of the occupation (in Iraq), you feel it in a very real way.

TCR: It seems Rita and Nabil both struggle with loneliness and isolation. Can you talk about how those themes play into their stories?

TM: I never really thought of them as isolated. Nabil experiences more of that than Rita and is isolated in his sexuality. He is alone in that knowledge. I never thought of her as isolated. I don’t really see her that way. There is an event where she and her family became isolated in their grief.

TCR: Don’t you think she is isolated for being a single woman in the Lebanese culture?

TM: Not at all. Her father is very ambitious for her. The pursuit of education is a very big thing for that community. Her mother is more of a victim to that type of thinking, that a woman shouldn’t have a career.

TCR: Who is telling this story? From the very first page, I sensed a guiding voice. Why did you choose an omniscient point of view instead of writing in first person?

TM: It’s told in close third, a third that felt like a first. I really like that old-fashioned voice that can telescope into different characters’ heads. I haven’t written anything in first person since YA.

TCR: There is a chapter with a shooter and it has a very different tone than the rest of the book. Can you talk about that shift?

TM: I wanted the shooter chapter to be very strange for the reader. I wanted to capture his confusion and show him as addled and confused.

TCR: Correspondents is not set entirely in the Middle East. We do spend some time in Boston and Washington D.C., as well as El Cajon, which is Spanish for ‘drawer.’ I didn’t know about the Iraqi émigré population there. As a reporter, how do you feel about the lack of media coverage in the aftermath of the Iraq occupation? Have we put this conflict in a drawer?

TM: That’s interesting. I never thought of it that way. The Iraq debacle is a thing we walked away from, and I was aiming for the Karmic element in the book. The roots of that conflict are deeply embedded in our roots of high tech violence and the gun culture. The U.S. is so big. We’re a superpower. It’s almost like you live in the Death Star and you don’t realize it. We accept our militarism and don’t interrogate it. It’s so completely part of American life and has become this thing we accept.

TCR: Why did you need to tell this story?

TM: I’m a very political author. For a narrative to be compelling, you have to tell a good story. I wanted to write real characters.


Scott is pursuing his MFA in Nonfiction at UCR Palm Desert and spends the rest of his time steeped in the advertising world of Hollywood delivering the commercials and trailers you can’t skip on the internet or on your mobile device. He loves to explore Southern California. There is always an unchartered neighborhood with an interesting history waiting to be discovered in the City of Angels. It helps if there’s a bar or coffee shop or both located there. He was born and raised in St. Petersburg, Florida, a flyover city for helicopters smuggling cocaine from South America in the 1980s. He recommends watching “Cocaine Cowboys” to understand his native state. @scotterson on Instagram

Book Review: What A Body Remembers

By Laurie Rockenbeck

Karen Stefano’s What A Body Remembers is a timely and moving illustration of how our bodies instinctively tie our senses and memories together. It is a compelling book that reads as much like true crime as it does memoir, while delving into heady topics like trauma, PTSD, and victim blaming. Stefano manages to approach these subjects with a sensitivity that invites the reader to a deeper understanding of the after-effects of trauma while evoking empathy over pity.

Stefano weaves an interlaced narrative, incorporating aspects of her life at different times by presenting multiple versions of herself. These variants serve to inform and reflect each other, commingling into a gloriously complicated whole. The 19-year-old college student attacked while returning home from work late one night is introduced only after we meet the powerful defense attorney she eventually becomes. At the top of her game, fully able to manipulate a jury with finesse, this version of Stefano is clearly accomplished. Yet at the heart of the memoir, following a quest for  closure is an older version of Stefano twenty years after the attack who is still not yet healed. Her marriage is falling apart and her body quite literally rebels. It is this version of Stefano, looking back, who most informs the narrative.  By reflecting on the pressures placed on her younger selves she makes sense of the attack which shaped her adult life. We are immediately hooked by her story: Here is the victim of a violent crime who ends up defending violent criminals. Here is someone who has ostensibly thrived and survived, driven toward obsession.

Only after Stefano establishes herself as a tough and capable individual does she jump back to 1984 in the second chapter, describing the harrowing encounter she faced at 19:

This is the story of the night I died.

The night of the footsteps, of the harmless, pale-haired man jogging down a sidewalk; the night I walked home from work in darkness; the night he turned into my hallway; the night our eyes locked and he showed me the knife in his hand.

This is the night that still possesses my body.

It was just a small tragedy.

And yet it wasn’t.

This tension between “small” and “tragedy” builds through the first part of the memoir. Because Stefano’s physical wounds were minimal, she tells herself and those around her “I’m fine” even though she never feels safe alone in her apartment. She uses the phrase “I’m fine” as a mantra to tamp down the fear and panic that bubble close to the surface. Her assault and its aftermath, including the self-talk and reaction of others, will feel disturbingly familiar to many women. It’s as if Stefano is sending a message to others: You are not alone. We all do this.

Stefano’s logical interpretation of the events and assurances from others are set in stark contrast to the emotional ramification of the events.  Logical statements such as “I wasn’t really injured” or “it’s not going to happen again; they caught the guy” do nothing to quell her body’s visceral reactions or help her underlying emotional state. Instead, she shoves the pain and fear deeper inside until she can almost forget it.

These initial chapters also detail the trail of her assailant, which leaves Stefano without a sense of justice. The vagaries of memory and general self-doubt make her appear as an unreliable witness in front of a jury, even though she is absolutely certain that the man on trial for the attack is guilty. She is mocked because she has no physical scars. She isn’t allowed to testify to the daily terror she continues to feel. When her attacker is found not guilty, she is left feeling both furious and helpless, and we along with her. How many times have women been told it was their fault, or that they must be remembering things incorrectly?

Now twenty years after her attack, Stefano’s body forces her to re-examine her relationship with this fraught history. Newly separated from her husband, Stefano feels the added stress of her break-up release the pain she’d shoved down with her mantra, I’m fine, I’m fine. Stefano begins to suffer panic attacks while driving. What affects her most acutely, however, is the particular sound of her attacker’s footsteps. While walking somewhere in broad daylight, she hears someone jogging behind her and is transported back in time and emotion to the night of her attack.

His footsteps inhabit my body. How do I get them to stop?

From here, the memoir departs from past action, and becomes a different kind of story. As she thinks back on her own history, Stefano realizes she cannot remember the name of her assailant. She can describe him with utter certitude—his hair, his face, his eyes—but his name is gone.  She becomes obsessed with finding out what has become of him in order to heal herself of the trauma from long ago. As Stefano sets out to find this man from her past, the memoir picks up a thriller-like vibe. Who was he, really? What happened to him after the trial? It’s not entirely clear what she wants to do when she finds him, but we are right there with her as she sets about her quest.

The investigation she launches into her past is as much about healing herself as it is about finding the man who altered her life forever. The search for this man, what she learns about herself, and what she learns about him make the second half of this memoir a true page-turner.


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.

Book Review: Mostly Dead Things

by Leanne Phillips

“How we slice the skin: Carefully, that’s a given.” So opens Mostly Dead Things, Kristen Arnett’s debut novel about Jessa-Lynn Morton, a grieving taxidermist living out a less-than-satisfying life with her dysfunctional extended family in Florida. I’m a sucker for a killer opening line, a killer opening scene, and I knew right away that I was in for something special.  As the novel opens, we watch as narrator Jessa-Lynn Morton recalls her father teaching her taxidermy in his workshop. The scene is vivid and engaging. Right away, we begin to see what Jessa has been willing to do, ignore, and give up, all in an attempt to preserve or create the life she imagines for herself.

When Jessa’s father commits suicide in that same workshop, leaving a note addressed only to Jessa, she is forced to step up and take on the mess he leaves behind, both figuratively and literally. At the same time, she’s mourning her lifelong best friend Brynn, who ran off a year ago with a man she met online. Brynn was married to Jessa’s brother, Milo, at the time. She was also the only person Jessa was ever in love with. Milo’s heart is broken when Brynn leaves, to the point he’s become nearly useless, and Jessa’s mother seems to be having some sort of breakdown—since her husband’s suicide, she’s taken to creating art with the taxidermied animals, posing them in graphic sexual scenes on the front porch of the family home. Jessa seems to be the only sane person left in the family.

Arnett’s characters are vibrant, even in their despair. Jessa conjures a literary Jessica Jones, one of my favorite dark superheroes. Hardened by her past, Jessa likes beer and comfortable blue jeans, scorns dresses and shampoo. She drinks her way through the book, favoring tallboy cans of whatever happens to be on sale at Publix. Jessa is emotionally closed—she functions almost like an animal, separating emotion from sex, viewing romance as “stressful and kind of blood-soaked, a constant power struggle.” Her life is as messy as her apartment. In fact, she’s surrounded by mess—blood features prominently, and accounts of her work as a taxidermist and her modest efforts at hygiene and housekeeping provide visceral images of an ordinary life that is falling apart. Readers will love and sympathize with Jessa but will also have the urge to throw her into the shower, wash her sheets, and go around her apartment picking up empty beer cans.

Arnett weaves the present day with Jessa’s increasingly clear memories of the past. She masterfully juxtaposes mismatched things throughout the novel, eliciting both their similarities and their differences. Jessa attempts to piece her dismal life together in much the same way she pieces dead animals together from leftover scraps of bone and fur. Even Jessa’s family is pieced together from scraps—the mother and brother her father left behind, and Brynn’s two children.

In the midst of the family’s chaos, Jessa prides herself on being stoic and responsible, like her dad. She has a natural talent for taxidermy and follows in her dad’s footsteps, while Milo casts about unmoored. At the same time, Jessa ignores the things she doesn’t want to accept about her dad, like the fact that he left his family. The woman Jessa loves has also left behind a mess and a congregation of people whose lives she’s broken. Brynn is like something out of East of Eden, a selfish and sensual woman who takes whatever anyone is willing to give her and who Jessa found “beautiful, even when she was terrible.”

Throughout the novel, Jessa opts to live in the pain of the past. It’s something she’s comfortable with, and it seems preferable to risking the uncertainty of the future. But, as with those who live in nostalgia for an idealistic America that never truly existed, the past and the people Jessa long for never really existed. Jessa knows animals, their bodies, how to piece them together from scraps, how to pose them so that, in death, they appear contented, more powerful versions of what they were in life. She thinks she knows people, too, but human beings prove to be more than the sum of their body parts.

Arnett writes about a landscape and people she clearly knows and loves. She gives readers the gift of letting us see them too. Mostly Dead Things is insightful and is full of the beauty of the commonplace, even the ugly. The ending is hopeful, but not overly so. It doesn’t give away the realism that Arnett successfully worked so hard at crafting throughout the book, and it leaves room for the reader to imagine what comes next, which is something I always appreciate in a story.


Leanne Phillips is a contributor, reader, and copy editor for The Coachella Review. She is a student 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.

 

Book Review: Three Women

By Jackie Desforges

Three WomenSince the publication and instant success of her debut nonfiction book, Three Women, Lisa Taddeo has stated that she set out to tell a story about human desire. She spent eight years researching and writing the book, and as the years progressed, the story narrowed: she went from writing about human desire to writing about female desire. She went from writing about hundreds of women to writing about dozens, and then less than a handful, and then, finally, three. She went from denying any requests for anonymity to shielding the identities of most people featured in the final book. The resulting story feels, at first glance, too specific to be universal: three women, living in small American towns and entangled in various phases of heterosexual relationships.

But as one reads, it becomes clear that the “who” is less important here than the “what.” The book is called Three Women, but really, these women are just the proxies for the true subject of this investigative piece: female desire. Though I can’t personally relate to many of the things these women experienced, I feel that Taddeo is able to present something universal—or, more often, something that strikes a nerve—in each story.

She starts with Maggie. This first chapter of the book is the only time that Taddeo uses the second person narration, and the effect is immediate: we are there in the room with Maggie, seventeen years old, putting on our make-up as we prepare to go on a date. “You get ready that morning like someone preparing for war. Your war paint is make-up. A neutral, smoky eye” (11). We are invited into the story. We read the details of her relationship with her married teacher, we get a glimpse of the court proceedings, and while these are the meat of Maggie’s story, they aren’t the things I was thinking about long after I put the book down. Instead, I was fascinated by the texting. There were allegedly thousands of text messages exchanged during the course of the relationship. Maggie describes the anxiety of waiting for a message, the thrill of seeing his name appear on her phone, the way she learned to interpret his tones and moods and the jokes they made, even from something as small as a strategically placed punctuation mark. I know I’m not alone in my fascination and empathy; in December 2017, the New Yorker story Cat Person went viral, largely because of the shockingly apt and blunt descriptions of the modern texting and dating culture depicted in the story. There is a line in one of Maggie’s chapters that describes it well, this feeling of waiting for that person you like to text you back, to show you that something made them think about you enough that they had to pick up their phone and tell you: “Sometimes there’s nothing better on earth than someone asking you a question” (21).

After Maggie, we meet Lina. Most of the time we spend with her in the book is during her early thirties, married with children, and about to start an affair with her high school sweetheart, Aidan. Lina’s scenes in the book are the most sexually explicit. Most of her chapters include a play-by-play of the sex that Lina and Aiden have in a hotel room, in his car, by the river, back in the hotel room. Taddeo includes a passage from Lina’s Facebook messages, completely unedited, in which Lina describes exactly what she wants Aidan to do to her:

Staring into my eyes you enter me and repeat that wonderful rhythm you did the first night: three shallow and then thrust deep, three shallow and then thrust deep, I gasp each time you come deeper into me, I whisper in your ear not to stop, you wrap your arms around me and draw me closer to you, while going faster and faster. I take my leg and arms and flip you over all while you stay deep inside me during this move. Now I am on top of you, you still hold me close to your body, kissing me passionately w/ that glorious mouth of yours 😉 (147)

Of the three women, I found Lina to be the most naked. Beyond the physicality of her sex scenes, there is a constant nakedness in the way she expresses her emotions. This is the only time in the book that we get to read something that was written by one of the women: her voice laid out on the page for us, unedited, none of her desires or typos or personality hidden. Everything that Lina feels is laid bare; nothing is too ugly or shameful to admit.  Reading her chapters, I found myself alternating between cringing that someone could be so openly desperate about a person who clearly doesn’t love her back, and then relief at the realization that I’m not the only person this has ever happened to.

And then there is Sloane. Taddeo sets her up to be the type of woman that other women are supposed to envy, or even hate: she is beautiful, thin, successful, wealthy, and most importantly, she is cool. She’s cool with the fact that her husband picks men for her to have sex with while he watches. She’s cool about her husband inviting other women into the bedroom with them. Nothing seems to ruffle Sloane. Unlike Lina, Sloane’s desire is measured, controlled, and put to strategic use. Sloane seems to understand something that Lina does not: sometimes the way to get who you want is to lean away from them, to look in the opposite direction, to create some space for them to lean in towards you.

If Maggie’s story is about the build-up to desire, the flirting and texting and side glances, and Lina’s story is about the physicality of desire, the way that a touch from the right person can almost turn into an addiction, then Sloane’s story is about the mental or intellectual aspect of desire: the calculations, aftereffects, rules and bargaining that run through our heads when we let someone else into our bodies. We live most of Sloane’s story in her head:

There were two truths. The first was that she didn’t think she’d had to consider Jenny, that Wes would be making the right decisions for his partner. The second truth, perhaps truer than the first, was that two men don’t think about things as much as a woman does. Perhaps Sloane was being sexist, in a way, but she knew men could be selfish. As long as certain needs of theirs were being met, they didn’t consider the cost. (221)

Though each story is distinct, there are common threads. We see the effect that the media has on all three women: books for Maggie and Sloane, romantic comedies for Lina. The women consume this media almost obsessively, and it colors their ideas about what relationships and desire should look like. Texting and social media play a massive role as well—texting for Maggie, Facebook for Lina. The saturation of media in our everyday lives has altered what we desire from relationships, from vacations, from dinners, from our friendships—this could be an entirely different essay in itself, but Taddeo touches on it beautifully in each woman’s story.

We see the aftermath of sexual trauma in each story, though it isn’t a focus, not even in the most brutal case: Lina was gang-raped when she was in high school, but Taddeo spends only a few pages on it and then it’s never really mentioned again, which is almost more shocking than the revelation of the assault itself. Taddeo also carries the theme of motherhood throughout the book—even in the prologue and afterword—which raises several inevitable questions: do some of our desires stem from the things we saw our mothers go through, or tolerate, or yearn for? Is there any part of our desire that stems from something our mothers refused to give to us? Two of the women in these stories are mothers; what effects will their desires have on their children? How much of what we are absorbing as readers are these children absorbing in real life?

This book is about female desire in that it is about the things that three specific women want from three specific men; but it is also a book about the things that women desire from each other: approval, envy, validation. We can read each of these three stories as a set of litmus tests: our reaction to Maggie’s affair shows us how we feel about consent and placing blame. Our reaction to Lina is possibly the realest and harshest: it forces us to consider what we look like, and more importantly how we act, when our physical needs are not met and our romantic ideals are proven unattainable. Our reaction to Sloane shows us how we feel about monogamy, and more specifically, what we think a happy marriage should look like in the long run. It is clear Taddeo knows all of this, and that she knew it would be effective to present to us these three cases that are specific in their details but universal in their emotional resonance. She writes:

It’s the nuances of desire that hold the truth of who we are at our rawest moments. I set out to register the heat and sting of female want so that men and other women might more easily comprehend before they condemn. Because it’s the quotidian moments of our lives that will go on forever, that will tell us who we were, who our neighbors and our mothers were, when we were too diligent in thinking they were nothing like us.

 


Jackie DesForges is based in Los Angeles and currently working on her first novel. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter at @jackie__writes.

Book Review: Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino

By Rachel Zarrow

Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion is the debut essay collection from The New Yorker staff writer, Jia Tolentino. In each essay she examines the ever-growing quagmire of self-delusion that faces us, humans living in the age of the internet.

The book opens with the essay “The I in the Internet,” and the author’s assertion that, “In the beginning the internet seemed good” (3). Tolentino quotes her ten-year-old self who, on an Angelfire subpage wrote, “I was in love with the internet the first time I used it at my dad’s office and thought it was the ULTIMATE COOL” (3).  Tolentino understands the age of the internet more deeply than most. Her relationship with the internet has metamorphosed over two decades.

Of the social internet, Web 2.0, she writes:

As a medium, the Internet is defined by a built-in performance incentive. In real life, you can walk around living life and be visible to other people. But you can’t just walk around and be visible on the internet—for anyone to see you, you have to act. You have to communicate in order to maintain an internet presence. And, because the internet’s central platforms are built around personal profiles, it can seem…like the main purpose of this communication is to make you look good. Online reward mechanisms beg to substitute for offline ones, and then overtake them. (8)

In other words, engaging in the social internet as it’s designed means stepping into a trap, one that encourages us to waste time, and one that tracks our every move, selling us out to the highest bidder. The most dangerous trap of all is the self-delusion underlying it. Tolentino explains:

The everyday madness perpetuated by the internet is the madness of this architecture, which positions personal identity as the centre of the universe. It’s as if we’ve been placed on a lookout that oversees the entire world and given a pair of binoculars that makes everything look like our own reflection. (14)

This essay (as well as the entire collection) is dark, but so is the reality  of the internet. Tolentino concludes:

The internet is still so young that it’s easy to retain some subconscious hope that it all might still add up to something. We remember… [when it] felt like butterflies and puddles and blossoms, and we sit patiently in our festering inferno, waiting for the internet to turn around and surprise us and get good again. But it won’t. (32)

Tolentino has revealed the trick mirror for what it is. Not only does this love story lack a happily-ever-after, but it turns out that it’s not even a love story after all.

In “Always Be Optimizing,” Tolentino examines the evolution of the marketing around women’s beauty, exercise, and diet plans, which sell a female ideal. She writes:

Today’s ideal woman is a type that coexists easily with feminism in its current market-friendly and mainstream form. This sort of feminism has organized itself around being as visible and appealing to as many people as possible; it has greatly over-valorized women’s individual success. Feminism has not eradicated the tyranny of the ideal woman but, rather, has entrenched it and made it trickier. These days, it is perhaps even more psychologically seamless than ever for an ordinary woman to spend her life walking toward the idealized mirage of her own self-image. (65)

Once proffered to women by mid-century magazines in service of our husbands, this ideal has been rebranded as a gift “for ourselves” (81, author’s emphasis), part of a “lifestyle myth” (81). Tolentino explores the small but concrete ways that this myth has become deeply engrained into the daily choices of many female earners. Tolentino examines barre classes, spandex (in the forms of shapewear and athleisure), and chopped salads, and states that, “Women are genuinely trapped at the intersection of capitalism and patriarchy—two systems that, at their extremes, ensure that individual success comes at the expense of collective morality.” (91).

Tolentino states: “Shapewear, essentially twenty-first century corseting, controls the body under clothing; athleisure broadcasts your commitment to controlling your body through working out. And to even get into a pair of Lululemons you have to have a disciplined-looking body” (83-4). And the cycle of self-delusion continues: “[T]he real trick of athlesiure,” Tolentino writes, “is the way that it can physically suggest that you were made to do this” (84).

Tolentino writes with an enviable authority, one that comes with having lived and breathed the very subjects about which she writes (she’s been an internet user for most of her life) and an authority built upon a long-held awareness of her writerly self. The latter appears in the form of snippets from various journals she’s filled and blogs posts she’s written since she was an adolescent. The mere fact that she still has these journals reflects her foresight. In the essay “Pure Heroines,” Tolentino, who holds an MFA in fiction from the University of Michigan, examines the stark contrast between the portrayals of female protagonists in children’s literature and those found in adult literature. She analyzes the protagonists she’s encountered in a lifetime of reading (This is a diverse list that includes Claudia from Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Jo from Alcott’s Little Women, Esther from Plath’s The Bell Jar, Anna from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and Katniss from Collins’s The Hunger Games, among many others). Tolentino notices that the young protagonists “are all so brave, where adult heroines are all so bitter” (97) and posits:

If the childhood heroine accepts the future from a comfortable distance, and if the adolescent is blindly thrust toward it by forces beyond her control, the adult heroine lives within this long-anticipated future and finds it dismal, bitter, and disappointing. Her situation is generally one of premature and artificial finality, in which getting married and having children has prevented her from living the life she wants. (112)

Another dead-end, and certainly not a happy ending.

“The Story of a Generation in Seven Scams” is the essay I would present to a family of extraterrestrials if they invaded and requested one seminal document explaining life in today’s capitalist American  . Tolentino actually examines eight scams—perhaps this is a scam of arithmetic in and of itself? And these are: Fyre Fest, the financial crisis of 2008, the student debt crisis, the advent of social media (namely Facebook), the concept of the #girlboss, Theranos, the venture capital funding of tech giants (particularly Amazon), and the 2016 presidential election. It’s a concise examination that could inform extraterrestrials and remind us mere terrestrial beings of the myriad madnesses we take for granted.

Throughout the book, the symbolic trick mirror and the theme of refraction appear beautifully and thoughtfully in Tolentino’s clear—and often skeptical—voice. She presents the traps of the world as she sees them and rarely attempts to provide solutions because there aren’t any. As we, the readers, participants in this crazy world, feed ourselves a steady diet of self-delusion, we grow and grow like the snake from the Snake game until we are trapped with just  two options: crash into ourselves or crash into our surroundings. Either way, we lose.


Rachel Zarrow writes fiction and nonfiction. Her work has appeared in various outlets including The Atlantic, BUST, and the San Francisco Chronicle.She is working on her first novel and screenplay. She lives in San Francisco. Find her on Instagram and Twitter @rachroobear and at www.rachelzarrow.com

Lake Sagatagan Summer

By Denton Loving

After evensong at the abbey, we walk circles
in the woods, weaving through deerflies

in kamikaze flights. The cerulean warbler
mates among these trees, we’re told,

so we keep vigil for blue flickers in leaves.
So far, nothing. On half-submerged logs,

turtles perch like hard-shelled gods—
We canoe to the deepest part of the lake

before we can talk about who we were
before the other existed as witness.

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Then and Now: John Schimmel

Welcome to the second installment of our new series on TCR’s blog, Then and Now, a column in which writers reveal and dissect earlier literary attempts which have helped form their current work. This week, John Schimmel takes a look back at an unfinished screenplay from 2006:

By John Schimmel

EXT. STANFORD UNIVERSITY – LATE AFTERNOON 

ESTABLISHING – The glorious campus of one of the more interesting, forward-thinking institutions on the planet. Sprinklers water the ample lawns. 

EXT. STANFORD PHYSICS BUILDING – LATE AFTERNOON 

White, three stories, topped with Spanish tiles, wrapped in semi-Spanish arches. 

INT. PHYSICS BUILDING – JANE GLEIZE’S OFFICE – LATE AFTERNOON 

JANE GLEIZE (35), fit, focused, Stephen Hawking brain in a healthy female body, stands at her whiteboard. Clutches a black marker as she stares at neatly written if indecipherable equations. 

A knock on her door. No reaction. 

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Summer Blockbusters of Yore: The Twentieth Anniversary of an Overshadowed Trilogy

By Pallavi Yetur

Early this year, New York magazine published a feature entitled “We Are Living in the Matrix.” The February 4, 2019 issue included several pieces about the lasting impressions left by The Matrix on everything from the way we think about and engage with the internet, to how it inspired fashion houses to send tiny-lensed sunglasses and billowing leather coats down the runways, to the film’s role in the propulsion of Keanu Reeves to the top of the A-list. The whole editorial undertaking was meant to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the launch of the iconic sci-fi trilogy. But there was another iconic trilogy that launched just three months after The Matrix and has not received the same level of attention. On May 4, 1999, Universal Pictures gave us The Mummy.

The Mummy was conceived by writer and director Stephen Sommers as a remake of the 1932 Karl Freund film starring the OG king of horror, Boris Karloff. In keeping with the original, Sommers sets his film in 1920s Egypt. Where Sommers begins to depart from the earlier film is in choosing a female protagonist. Rachel Weisz plays Evie, a librarian desperate to be taken seriously in male-dominated academia. Her awkward Egyptology geek is a charming foil and unlikely love interest for the muscly and sarcastic gunslinger-for-hire Rick O’Connell, played by the beefy Brendan Fraser. In their search for the lost city of Hamunaptra, Rick and Evie become entangled in the vengeance quest of an ancient Egyptian priest, Imhotep, who had been cursed to mummyhood after having an illicit affair with the queen and murdering the pharaoh.

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