Category: Book Review (Page 1 of 10)

Book Review: Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man

by Rachel Zarrow

According to psychologist and author Mary L. Trump, child abuse is “the experience of ‘too much’ or ‘not enough’.” In her recent memoir of a similar name, Too Much and Never Enough, Mary Trump, the president’s niece, describes the multi-generational cycle of emotional abuse in the Trump family that contributed to the development of Donald Trump’s persona. In the prologue, she writes, “I have no problem calling Donald a narcissist—he meets all of the nine criteria as outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5)—but the label only gets us so far.” She speculates that he likely meets criteria for dependent personality disorder and a caffeine-induced sleep disorder as well. Mary Trump paints a portrait of Donald as a narcissist whose disordered personality is a byproduct of the abuse of his parents—a chronically ill, subservient mother, and an emotionally withholding and financially enabling father. 

The book is as much an indictment of the entire Trump family as it is of Donald, and it focuses on the influence of Fred Trump senior, Donald’s father and Mary’s grandfather. Fred wanted his oldest son, Freddy (the author’s father) “to be a “killer”  which “was really code for being invulnerable.” According to the author, her grandfather Fred, who amassed a fortune developing real estate in Brooklyn and Queens, “had a propensity for showmanship, and he often trafficked in hyperbole—everything was ‘great,’ ‘fantastic,’ and ‘perfect.’” If this language sounds familiar, perhaps it’s because Donald has parroted the same language throughout his presidency, especially regarding America’s response to COVID-19. She writes:

Donald didn’t drag his feet in December 2019, in January, in February, in March because of narcissism; he did it because of his fear of appearing weak or failing to project the message that everything was ‘great,’ ‘beautiful,’ and ‘perfect.’

Mary Trump describes her grandparents’ house—the House as she calls it—as a place in which societal standards of fairness and justice did not exist.

Ideally, the rules at home reflect the rules of society, so when children go out into the world, they generally know how to behave. When kids go to school, they’re supposed to know that they shouldn’t take other children’s toys and they’re not supposed to hit or tease other children. Donald didn’t understand any of that because the rules in the House, at least as they applied to the boys—be tough at all costs, lying is okay, admitting you’re wrong or apologizing is weakness—clashed with the rules he encountered at school. Fred’s fundamental beliefs about how the world worked—in life, there can only be one winner and everybody else is a loser…and kindness is weakness—were clear.

Not only were the House rules twisted, but they were also unfair, bent to accommodate Donald, who Fred homed in on as his successor.

Mary Trump carefully selects family anecdotes to demonstrate the dynamics that led to both Donald’s inflated sense of self-importance as well as the ultimate downfall of her father, Freddy. Of one of Fred’s real estate controversies, the author writes: “It soon became clear that [Fred] wasn’t going to get the rezoning he needed. Nevertheless, he made Freddy responsible for the near impossible: making Steeplechase a success.” Ultimately, the deal fell apart, and Fred blamed his twenty-eight-year-old son Freddy for its failure. Though this particular anecdote doesn’t revolve around Donald, it demonstrates Fred’s tactics for manipulating his children, a cruelty and absence of emotional intelligence that led Freddy to alcoholism and an untimely death and Donald to an inflated sense of self-worth.

Spanning more than a century of family history in just over two hundred pages, Too Much and Never Enough moves at a fast pace. The challenge I faced, when reading and reviewing it, was the impossibility of compartmentalizing, of disentangling my preconceptions of Donald Trump—one of the most divisive figures on the planet—from the character of “Uncle Donald” as he’s presented in the book. Skeptical readers might dismiss the author as someone motivated by a thirst for revenge, and in the prologue, the author addresses this attack. Mary Trump explains how she’d realized, years earlier after she and her brother were almost entirely written out of their grandfather’s will, “that if [she] spoke publicly about [her] uncle, [she] would be painted as a disgruntled, disinherited niece looking to cash in or settle a score.” Yet she describes how finally, with the “out-of-control COVID-19 pandemic, the possibility of an economic depression, deepening social divides,” as well as the “events of the last three years,” she “can no longer remain silent,” This sense of urgency resounds throughout the memoir.

Toward the end of the book, Mary Trump describes her decision to provide documents to New York Times reporters working on an extensive article examining the Trump family’s business dealings and tax evasion tactics. Though the article details the financials, it doesn’t explore the personal reasons behind Fred’s favoritism and loyalty to Donald, and this personal side—the family dynamics—is what appears in this book and keeps the reader engaged. “Everyone in my family experienced a strange combination of privilege and neglect,” the author writes. Despite the family’s enormous wealth, most of Fred’s children (except Donald) were “trapped in their financial circumstances.” Mary’s aunt Maryanne could only afford to feed her family because she received furtive gifts from her grandmother, “Crisco cans filled with dimes and quarters” from the laundry machines in their various rental units. By most standards, the amount of wealth in the Trump family was abundant, but Fred created an environment in which it never felt like enough. “Of course wills are about money,” Mary Trump writes, “but in a family that has only one currency, wills are also about love.”

Among a number of other recent tell-alls about Donald Trump, Too Much and Never Enough stands out as the only book written by a member of the Trump family, and Mary Trump’s background in psychology positions her uniquely as family historian. With the 2020 election less than two weeks away, there’s no better time to share this book with the undecided voters in your life.

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

Book Review: The Blue Ticket

by Ioannis Argiris

Blue Ticket by Sophie Mackintosh is set in an alternate reality where teenage girls are sent to a lottery building to receive a white or a blue ticket. If the ticket is white, the girl is destined to marry and have babies. If the ticket is blue, the girl has an IUD installed, and she is not allowed to have babies. Instead, blue ticket women are free to live their lives, becoming independent.

We lined up, waiting to pull our tickets from the machine, the way you would take your number at the butcher’s counter. The music popular that year played from speakers on the ceiling. Just gravity enough. Just ceremony enough. Not necessarily such an important thing, after all.

Blue Ticket is about free will versus societal control. The idea of tradition versus progress in ideals and values is at the heart of the story, and at times it will have you rooting for and against the protagonist.

We meet Calla, a blue ticket woman who can work whatever job she wants, be with whomever she pleases, and is free to live whatever lifestyle she chooses. But Calla is curious about and wants something she cannot have—a baby. We see her struggle to grasp her identity as a blue ticket woman, yet we hope that she can break through at times to grow.

I saw this sort of woman everywhere once I started to look. I had counted myself among their number, and then one day they seemed like secret agents out to seed the word of independence, of pleasure-seeking and fulfilment. Isn’t this good, they said from beneath the canopies of nightclub smoking areas, from tables where they sat alone, from cars and train carriages and beds, some in elegant suits or other uniforms to show their importance. They made impressive things and spent their time on worthwhile pursuits and I had been one of them, and the togetherness had sometimes felt like being one of a flock of lovely birds pushing through the hot space of the sky, and it was good, that was the thing, it was really so good, but now there was something happening to me, and I found I had little control over it.

Doctors are assigned to neighborhoods to ensure that both white and blue ticket women are staying on course per society’s rules. Calla confesses to Doctor A that she is restless and that nothing and no one seems to fulfill her in the life she’s been given. She later meets R at a bar, a man who takes interest in her, but who also sleeps with other blue ticket women. Calla dreams of settling down with R and being his white ticket woman, having a baby, and seeing him push a pram with their newborn. Calla removes her IUD, continues to sleep with R, and eventually gets pregnant. Calla asks R if he ever wants to be a father, and he dodges the question. She confesses to Doctor A that babies have a power over her. That the first time she saw a baby, she had to run to the nearest private space and hold in a howl until it subsided. She questions: What makes a mother? A father? What was she lacking? She compares herself to a baby—“all sensation, no discipline. A broken engine thrumming with need.”

After she breaks the news to R, he accuses her of scheming and asks why? Calla says he wouldn’t understand, but R counters with, “‘[Y]ou have an emotional disease.’” Devastated by R’s reaction, Calla seeks help from Doctor A to discuss what’s happened. The idea of having a want that goes against society’s structure can be hard to process, but we all face similar decisions in life—whether you want to marry outside of your religion, or fall in love with someone of the same gender, or leave family to travel across many lands to pursue a career. What Sophie Mackintosh shows us in Blue Ticket is the strength of someone who is willing to die to fight for what they really believe in—a commitment tied to values that don’t align with everyone else around Calla.

Doctor A performs an ultrasound and informs Calla that she’ll be reported. It’s unclear what happens to blue ticket women who do get pregnant. Calla is on edge, all alone in her house waiting for the worst to happen. And this mystery creates a tension throughout the novel—on every next page you fear Calla might get caught. The next morning, an emissary drops by Calla’s house to provide her with gear—a tent, a gun, and a map—a signal that she must leave society.

Alone on the road, we see Calla balance survival between two worlds. Her old life draws her into bars only to be found out as pregnant and stigmatized for it. She runs into a young teen who just received her blue ticket and who asks Calla for help. Calla, seeing her younger self, gives the teen her car and sets off on foot into the forest. Calla’s journey continues on the road, along the coast, and finally at a border crossing—as reflected in the book’s sections. Calla is in full blown survivalist mode up against the raw terrains Mackintosh dreams up and continues to be tested for the fate she’s chosen. The tension rises when we learn that Calla has been given no prior knowledge about the transformation the body undergoes during pregnancy and finds both comfort and disdain as it happens. At the border, she’s visited by people from her past and has to make hard decisions to live. The novel’s tone can be lonely and cold, primarily because it’s about enduring in a society structured against the protagonist. However, what the author delivers is the hard reality of what it feels like for women to be given predetermined roles they must play in society. The author challenges us to think about whether we really are in control of our lives.

Sophie Mackintosh’s first novel, The Water Cure, was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2018.

Ioannis Argiris is based in Oakland, California, and is pursuing his MFA in Creative Writing through the Low Residency program at UC Riverside. He is currently working on his first novel and also his first graphic novel. You can find him online on both Twitter and Instagram.

Book Review: Daughters of Smoke and Fire

by L.A. Hunt

Author and activist Ava Homa sets out in her powerful debut novel Daughters of Smoke and Fire to describe for the reader what statelessness feels like. She does so with visceral prose and a narrative that never flinches from the harsh reality of living in a country that does not recognize one’s ethnicity, and in fact punishes an ethnic minority for their native regional roots. Homa writes in her Afterword,

Kurds are often the majority among political prisoners and suffer the most vicious torture. Kurdish regions have been intentionally kept underdeveloped, resulting in entrenched poverty and all the trauma and trouble that follow the plague of poverty.

Homa’s work of fiction, an homage to Farzad Kamangar, a Kurdish elementary school teacher, is also a literary event. It is the first novel to be published in English by a female Kurdish writer. The story, set in Iran, depicts how oppression, political persecution, and racism work to destroy one Kurdish family. The narrative focuses on Leila, who dreams of being a filmmaker and giving voice to the story of her people, and her younger brother Chia, a teacher who aspires to a becoming a human rights lawyer and delivering his community from cruel anonymity to an acknowledged existence.

Leila struggles with her university entrance exam scores but is desperate for filmmaking classes, so she makes monthly installment payments on a camcorder. She feels a need to become film-literate: “I had a strong urge to document my little joys, partly because I had an irksome fear that they would be short-lived and partly because I wanted to be able to replay beautiful moments over and over again.” The camcorder also serves to remind her that her dreams are allowed, even when the actions of those around her crush them regularly. Chia, always the supportive and encouraging little brother, tells her, “Dreams matter, Leila gian. Desires matter. Take them seriously.”

When Chia goes missing, Leila fears the worst and sets out to find him. When she discovers he has been arrested and sentenced to death for documenting the government’s crimes against humanity, she sets in motion a series of events that may have a catastrophic outcome. In the middle of the journey however, Leila finds a sense of camaraderie from families of other political prisoners and thus discovers a purpose for her films that she could never have predicted. She is determined to tell Chia’s story, to create a legacy not only for him but for her people.

Homa is a talented storyteller, and her characters are vibrant and complex. Leila’s mother and father are bruised, damaged individuals and imperfect parents, which illuminates Homa’s dexterity for creating characters that are authentic and genuine. In addition, she uses shifting point of view to tell the story of the Kurdish people. While the subject matter is vast and multifaceted, she deftly creates dialogue that is precise without seeming expositional and that always rings true as a reflection of her characters.

Homa doesn’t mince words when it comes to the way Kurdish women are treated. She confronts cultural misogyny head-on by placing Leila in situations where she must suffer the brutality of a society where women have no rights, voice, or power. Leila describes the weight on her shoulders as “heavy beneath the daily cruelties of living as a woman.” Kurdish women must always defer to men and are constantly subjected to a double standard. “Women came in only two types: whores or dutiful slaves to their families.”

Homa also dissects the cultural phenomenon of Kurdish women setting themselves on fire as an act of both bravery and rebellion. That these women have no other recourse but to leave this world to end their suffering is a haunting image that persists long after the last page has been read. Chia explains the self-immolation to one of his students: “Women who lost all reason to live wanted their internalized burning rage to manifest on the outside too. A dramatic death testified to an agonizing life.”

An interesting point about the shifting point of view and the focus on women in the novel: Homa chooses to examine only the men in her story, not the women. Leila is the vehicle through which much of the narrative is developed, but the choice to give Leila’s father and brother a voice with their own first-person point of view chapters feels incomplete. While the chapters shed light on their experiences and offer insight into their characters, not examining Leila’s complicated mother is a lost opportunity for the reader to understand what drives her character to make the interesting choices she makes in the novel.

Ultimately, Daughters of Smoke and Fire transcends Kurdish oppression, and Homa knows there is a sense of belonging and universality for all oppressed people:

The rain splattered down after a loud thunderclap. I lifted my face and palms to the sky. I wasn’t alone, I saw then. People in Rwanda, Bosnia, plantations, and indigenous residential schools in North America were standing shoulder to shoulder with the Kurds.

Ava Homa’s voice is necessary in a world that lately seeks to divide instead of unite.

L.A. Hunt resides in Los Angeles where she spends her time studying the craft of writing, working on a YA novel, and creating/pitching TV pilots and screenplays. She has worked in education for twenty years as both a teacher and administrator and hopes for a future where her students will forge their own paths and right the wrongs history has inflicted upon them. She is a current MFA in Creative Writing fiction major and screenwriting minor in the UC Riverside Palm Desert Low Residency program.

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.

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.

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.

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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