Category: Book Review (Page 1 of 8)

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

by Briana Weeger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

By Pallavi Yetur

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

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

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Book Review: Berkeley Noir

By Jenny Hayes

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

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Book Review: Barn 8

BY MATT ELLIS

Deb Olin Unferth

Guggenheim Fellow and three-time Pushcart Prize winner Deb Olin Unferth knows that humans are a mess. Somewhere between visions of the ideal world and taking action, even the best-intentioned among us has the capacity to blow it completely. That’s probably why the clear underdog in her ambitious satirical political drama Barn 8 is a chicken named Bwwaauk.

Like with all great hen heist epics, this one starts with a late-night bus ride from New York to Iowa. Fifteen-year-old Janey Flores flies her mother’s coop to meet a father she didn’t know existed and to punish them both for the paternal omission. “She was going to make this man know her, or at least pay for not knowing her.” Her temporary act of teenage angst becomes permanent when tragedy strikes, stranding her in the Midwest, mourning the life she should have had.

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Book Review: Optic Nerve

By Jackie DesForges

Several years ago I visited the Picasso Museum in Malaga, Spain. At the time, each gallery was arranged by theme rather than chronology, so that as you made your way through, you weren’t seeing Picasso’s works in the order they were —created—you would see a ceramic he created in the 1930s next to a drawing created at the end of his life next to a painting he made in the 1920s, all seemingly random until you realized that they focused on the same theme or subject. María Gainza’s debut novel Optic Nerve reminded me of this museum from the very first page. The story doesn’t proceed chronologically through the narrator’s life, but rather thematically. Beginning each chapter feels like stepping into a new gallery, perhaps especially because the book deals directly with the history of visual art.

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Book Review: Rust Belt Femme

By Briana Weeger

The brain often holds onto distinct and unexpected images and memories at the time of traumatic events. These memories may not make sense on their own, and they may seem disconnected from what actually happened.

For Raechel Anne Jolie, in her coming-of-age memoir Rust Belt Femme, the unlikely memory is of lightning bugs. During summertime in a rural working-class Ohio village called Valley View, neighborhood children ran barefoot through unmown front lawns to catch fireflies. It is the fireflies Jolie recalls first when she thinks about her father’s accident.

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Book Review: Please See Us

BY LAURIE ROCKENBECK

Caitlin Mullen’s debut novel Please See Us takes genre norms, chews them up, and spits them out into a gripping literary thriller. This ambitious work delves into a myriad of societal issues—trafficking, bullying, motherhood, drug abuse, mental health, inadequate foster systems, and misogyny.

In the prologue, we are introduced to two nameless women lying together as described by a distant omniscient narrator. If this were a movie, it would begin with a long shot of an airplane flying an advertising banner low over a decrepit Atlantic City. The camera would leave the plane as it swoops around to the back of a grungy pay-by-the-hour hotel and focus on the two women who are “laid out like tallies in the stretch of marsh just behind the Sunset Motel.”

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Book Review: Strung Out: One Last Hit and Other Lies That Nearly Killed Me

BY COLLIN MITCHELL

Like so many of the recent stories about opiate addiction in the United States, Erin Khar’s journey toward heroin started with a pill. “I pulled The World According to Garp out from underneath my pillow and read,” she writes, remembering the first time she raided her mother’s medicine cabinet. She was eight. “After a little while, the heat in my body was replaced by the lightness of little bubbles . . . . It was the exit I desperately wanted.”

Khar’s experience as an advice columnist for Ravishly is well-suited to turn Strung Out: One Last Hit and Other Lies That Nearly Killed Me from what might otherwise be a distressing year-by-year account of addiction into a story that develops context and empathy toward mental illness and drug abuse. Khar is forthright in her opinion about our inability to understand addiction: “The stigma associated with opioids, with heroin, with “being a junkie,” prevents people from reaching out. And that stigma is killing us. Americans are stuck in a spiral of shame, and that shame drives the vicious cycle of relapse that many drug users get caught in.” In a culture that tends to conflate pity and prejudice toward adversity, this could be a helpful guide for the uninitiated in understanding the causes of drug and alcohol dependence.

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Book Review: Untamed Shore

BY MATT ELLIS

In a genre stuffed to the gills with hard-boiled gumshoes and gangsters, serial killers and behavioral shrinks, narcos and narcs, Silvia Moreno-Garcia has cast aside her acclaimed fantasy bona fides to challenge reader expectations by delivering a crime thriller with literary undercurrents.

In her crime thriller debut, Moreno has taken calculated risks in delivering a literary leaning story with a slow crescendo in a genre crowded by over-the-top chases and traumatic brutality.

Untamed Shore is a coming of age story about an eighteen-year-old underemployed guide named Viridiana, who has managed to learn several foreign languages but is uncapable of escaping her isolated Baja California fishing village of Desengaño, a town literally called disillusionment. Rudderless, she feels the growing pressure to follow the Desengañera –tradition—marry young and become the subservient wife.

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Book Review: Verge

BY DIANA LOVE

Verge, Lidia Yuknavitch’s aptly-named new collection of short stories, is an exhilarating and disquieting experience. Like the verging border of its title, the collection is peopled by characters who live on the edges—of society, of safety, of sanity. The interests and subject matter of this collection upend normal boundaries and expectations. Outcasts and voiceless figures are placed center-stage. We are able to be a part of their experience, their pain, their rage, and their beauty.

Though Yuknavitch has been writing short stories for most of her literary career, this is her first published book curating a collection of such stories. And they are wonderful stories, clearly in conversation with one another, including that handful which have been published previously. Indeed, readers familiar with Yuknavitch’s other work will recognize themes and topics in this collection which mirror those in her novels and nonfiction—the idea of giving voices to voiceless figures, a concern with war and its collateral damage, a concern with damage and with survival in all forms. Her widely-viewed 2016 TED Talk, On The Beauty of Being a Misfit, and her follow-up book The Misfit’s Manifesto, are celebrations of other voices. She has a vested and specific interest in the people and the places who do not sit at the center of the mainstream in any sense of that term, who live in the borders of things.

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