Category: Book Review (Page 1 of 9)

Book Review: Slouching Towards Los Angeles: Living and Writing by Joan Didion’s Light

by Leni Leanne Phillips

Slouching Towards Los Angeles: Living and Writing by Joan Didion’s Light is a collection of twenty-five essays, edited by Steffie Nelson, exploring the myriad ways in which Joan Didion has influenced and shaped contemporary writers. What is most fascinating about this anthology is that each writer’s story is so distinctive. “Each author finds a unique entry point,” Nelson writes in her introduction. That is to be expected to some extent, of course, but I found the breadth and depth of these differences are what give the anthology its heart. Didion is famously inscrutable, yet she seems to have given each of these writers whatever they needed and were ready to receive. Nelson writes in her introduction that Didion “held California up like a diamond, revealing each facet (and flaw) ….” This anthology does the same for Didion, functioning as a pentacosagon prism through which we are invited to see Didion in all her colors.

There was a lot to love about this anthology even before I cracked its cover. The project started as a live literary event in 2015 featuring fifteen readers. The anthology expands the project to include twenty-five writers, twenty of them women, and all of them journalists or former journalists. In the anthology’s pages, I found a group of writers who honor the places from whence they came and who pay tribute to a writer who helped pave the way for them. A writer who, Tracy McMillan proclaims, “made writing look and feel like rock and roll.”

Nearly all of the writers included in this anthology came to California from elsewhere. A number of them left New York for California as a respite from the East Coast city’s perceived hardness. Some came away disappointed, the promise of California unfulfilled. In “The Opposite of Cool,” Joshua Wolf Shenk writes that he moved to Los Angeles after realizing that “less pressure came down” on his L.A. friends. Shenk “thought L.A. would be a softer way to live but [he] was surprised at its hard edges.”

Joan Didion

Others, like Ann Friedman, found their “golden rhythm” in California. In the anthology’s first piece, “Hello to All This,” Friedman writes about her relocation from Missouri to New York and then to California. Friedman’s relationship with New York wasn’t the eight-year love affair with the sad ending that Didion documents in “Goodbye to All This.” Rather, Friedman experiences a “brief New York tryst” that, in the end, she realizes was “always meant to be platonic.” Those who don’t appreciate California’s easier way of life, Friedman writes, “equate comfort with complacency, calmness with laziness. If you’re happy, you’re not working hard enough.” Didion drifted from a New York that had become tedious, a lover that hadn’t fulfilled its promises to her, a place where “the golden rhythm” had been broken. Friedman never made the same connections with New York that Didion had. Friedman didn’t reject New York; she embraced California.

Among my favorite essays in the anthology are those describing something deeper and almost spiritual that a number of the women writers gained from Didion and her work. Catherine Wagley explodes the fragility myth that follows Didion in “That Was a Very Pretty Image.” Sarah Tomlinson writes about the confidence she drew from Didion’s writing in “On Tour with a Reluctant Oracle.” In “Why I Don’t Answer the Phone: A Conversation with Joan Didion about Self-Respect,” Linda Immediato takes stock of her life by cleaning her room, mindful of Didion’s admonition to “be cautious of misplaced self-respect.”

In “A Letter to Joan on Turning Fifty-Five,” Tracy McMillan offers gratitude for the success she found once she “embraced [her] inner” Joan: “After decades of playing small, I finally stopped whining, stopped complaining, worked harder, and spent more time alone, just like you told me to.” Didion’s guidance worked out well for the thrice amicably divorced McMillan: “I got the career. I got the baby. I got allll the husbands. I even got California.”

In “Despair and Doing,” Su Wu writes about Didion’s migraine headaches and her own depression, about moving forward while incapacitated, about trusting in “the possible coexistence of doing and despair,” the thing which, Wu “suspect[s] … is what makes Didion such a beacon, for so many writers or at least the emotionally unstable.”

Didion has been accused so often of glamorizing depression, but instead what she’s glamorizing is the slim possibility of depression not hollowing one out, of despair and doing. I could still get out of bed today, and still move to Mexico with him as we did, and still hope to write a poem he would love as much as I love his work, or at least I could finish this sentence. I can still try, through the sheer plain sadness, to do the best with my life.

Most of the essays are tightly tied to Didion and her work, some more loosely, and some hilariously. In “The Last Private Man: From Howard Hughes to Jeff Goldblum,” Dan Crane compares Goldblum’s contemporary brand of approachable celebrity with the asocial celebrity of Howard Hughes, described by Didion in “7000 Romaine, Los Angeles 38”: “Unlike the Howard Hughes of Didion’s essay … Jeff Goldblum didn’t become famous in order to hide. Jeff Goldblum is everywhere, and Jeff Goldblum is accessible.” And Jeff Goldblum appeared in Crane’s band’s music video, because “Jeff Goldblum is game.”

As a native Californian, I found that some of my favorite essays in the collection are by writers like me, writers who didn’t come to California from somewhere else, but who have lived here all or nearly all their lives. Michelle Chihara grew up in Berkeley, California, eighty miles from where Didion grew up in Sacramento. In “Where I am From,” Chihara tackles her complicated relationship with Didion while attempting to pull back the curtain on the Didion family’s real estate deals, the selling off of California. Chihara notes that, in Didion’s own essay, “Where I Was From,” Didion writes about these transactions as if they are passive things that happened to her family. “I wanted Didion to cop to her role in the process,” Chihara writes. But also, Didion “belongs to California, and no one in journalism or academia has given me a better language than hers.”

Perhaps my favorite essay in the collection is “Points on a Map” by Steph Cha, a native Californian who was born in Van Nuys, grew up in Encino, and lives in Los Angeles. Cha writes about the way she connects with other writers through location: “Do you know what I see when I read Joan Didion, or for that matter, Raymond Chandler, or Walter Mosley, or Michael Connelly? I see a map overlaid on my map of Los Angeles.” Cha learns that the first apartment she shared with her husband is less than four miles from the house where Didion lived “[b]etween 1966 and 1971, during the years depicted in ‘The White Album’ ….”: “I lit up when I saw that,” Cha writes, “because when I read writers I love writing about Los Angeles, I look for our shared geographies, linking us across time; I savor these recognitions as if they might tie us together.” This is a perfect summation of what this collection of essays accomplishes. These twenty-five writers superimpose Didion’s map over their own maps, look for their connections to Didion, their “shared geographies,” the things that tie them to her. They find their ways in, and by doing so, they help us to find our own.

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

Book Review: Parakeet

by Ioannis Argiris

The opening of Parakeet by Marie-Helene Bertino starts off as a wild dream state for Luna, a young bride-to-be. Her dead grandmother manifests as a parakeet in a hallucinogenic vision and urges Luna to reconcile with her brother before her wedding day. We meet Luna at a dilapidated hotel on Long Island, trying on her wedding dress, as her grandmother inquires about family and traditions. But when Luna brushes off her grandmother’s request that she make amends with her brother, her grandmother—the parakeet—defacates on the wedding dress, forcing Luna to plunge into an unusual journey. The novel delivers an honest connection to family, through the lens of the theater, that makes for a great read.

Parakeet is Marie-Helene Bertino’s third novel and it dives into a bride’s search for identity. Luna is anxious—as one might be leading up to such an event—but also conflicted, vulnerable, and dismissive both to herself and others. She’s getting married to feel something new inside, but what ensues is a chaotic, strange, sometimes dark exploration into the self. Luna, referred to as “the Bride” throughout the novel, must ultimately acknowledge her traumatic past life to discover growth. With her grandmother’s manifestation as a parakeet, Luna’s stable life rattles with unresolved questions from her past. Why must she reconcile with her brother? Can she really accept her mother’s control? Why has her grandmother appeared the week of her wedding, and as a parakeet, no less?

Acceptance and acknowledgment of one’s identity through maternal legacy strongly surfaces as the core of the novel. From her grandmother’s appearance, to a strained relationship with her mother, to whether or not Luna wants to become a mother, she must look back in order to move forward. Her grandmother questions Luna’s independence and freedom. “Those of us with able bodies have a responsibility to use them as much as we can. Given another chance, you wouldn’t believe how I’d use it. Threesomes. Foursomes. Moresomes. Smoking is a joy of life. Good lord, why did I ever give it up? My teachers called me disruptive.” This contradicts the conservative and traditional approach to life her mother instilled in her. Luna must accept not only that her formative years were shaped by these women, but that they continue to guide her today .

Identity through trauma appears in various forms throughout the novel. At one point, we meet “other mother,” a future vision of Luna. “I become aware of a third sentience inside me, blinking behind my mother and me—what I can only call ‘other.’” This out of body moment is raw and experimental. It enables Luna, the Bride, to really get at some core questions about her life. It is a catalyst that forces Luna back to what she must accomplish—who is she? And in order to determine that, she must meet with her brother prior to her wedding day.

The bizarre expedition includes various moments that exude an offbeat tone. Managing the various wedding vendors and tying up loose ends at work enables Luna to wander from the inevitable wedding day. For example, she brushes off the florist multiple times and says she’s not getting married. And when she must close out her last case as a case worker for a law firm, she realizes how her client’s brain injury and subsequent memory loss has stifled his life. This finally nudges Luna to confront her own trauma by visiting her brother’s play, one that is based on her life. Seeing the various versions of herself acted out on stage is traumatizing for Luna. She becomes entranced by the beautiful feathered costumes that dive into her emotional wounds, which allows her to observe her flaws and growth along with the audience.

The concept of performance is an integral part of the novel—from her brother’s play to the wedding day itself. Luna must create a façade with a dress, makeup, and an attitude that emanates joy. The stage is the renovated inn that contains traps for her to confront and spaces for her to reflect in. She is a character in a play that then gets tested within a cage made up of her family, friends, and future self. Luna’s path to realization is both wonderful and dissociative. Bertino weaves the concept of identity through trauma into a raw and emotional prose that delivers.

In addition to Parakeet, Marie-Helene Bertino is the author of the novel 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas and the story collection Safe as Houses. Her fourth book, the novel Beautyland, is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux in Spring 2022.

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: Two Menus

By Andréa Ferrell Gannon

Rachel DeWoskin is a five-time novelist and memoirist. Two Menus is her debut poetry collection which, despite being billed as poetry, does not escape a certain delicious fictionness, like here: “The night Des tore her hair out, it was literal. / White sheets beneath her lit the hospital,” or here: “Today, school again in the wrong / boots, dress Kari S. writes along / my locker ‘bitch.’ She still / leaves me notes: ‘I hope you die – I will.”

These story-like poems, accessible to even the finickiest nonreaders of poetry, travel fast and span a lifetime of a woman as recounted by an accidental sex-symbol of the Chinese soap opera “Foreign Babes in Beijing,” later turned author, wife, mother, and university professor.

“Remembering is falling,” writes DeWoskin, and she brings us with her down a waterfall of words, passing through Beijing, crossing under an Ozark sun, and over Oregon mountains, navigating countries, cultures, and languages. She dives into the past and wanders into the future, wondering how and where will we be until we end. In the space between, she brings us reminders to live life full-heartedly and to jump into love full-bodily: “Let me love you without / believing as I used to that we’re safe, may last. Instead, / let’s peel, strip raw, find what matters, move against each other and whatever this is.”

For DeWoskin, love and marriage are as extreme a sport as bungee jumping, white water rafting, or rock climbing. “Let’s jump,” she writes, “a cord snaps / back, keeps us from the dirt another day. Perhaps …”

Add practical application to such wisdom, like what is needed and appreciated on a prison visit, or how to confront loss and deep sadness: “Here’s how / we stay human even torched by sorrow: / stare at my (it might be your) tomorrow,” and we have a surprising and thrilling debut collection.

As we travel from the first poem, “The Blind Massage Parlour,” to the last, “Too,” we hear a woman grow from silence into a full-throated claim to be heard. First, mute, she lies atop a healing massage table in China, listening to doctors insist that Titanic is a stupid movie and that Americans are ignorant in matters of love.

I make shy eye contact with the client

in a bed across the row. We are the only two

here today. I think she loves Titanic

from the delicate way she lifts

her neck to look at me, confused.

Yet, neither woman asserts an argument. Pages race by in a flurry of forms and we experience the author not only finding her voice, but imploring us to join her in chorus, and mean it. “Don’t pack words / in your furious marrow, shout out / what we made: language, all the babies, hell, ourselves.”

Particularly delightful is the exciting and eye-catching ways the poet masters form. In “I Was Dancing When I Heard,” the words and the world tilt at the news that a lover has moved on.

           I was dancing.

                  When I heard you’re

           getting married,

                  I was dancing. And reeling

          just a bit on impact, just

                   a little impact. Just a bit.

Likewise, the words inside the lines of “Girls at 1001 Nights” undulate and thrust, imitating the motions of the belly dancer within:

We were small-talk and falafel

      when she shimmered from the kitchen gold all

              over, tables suddenly full

                      of hungry people. A beautiful lull

                      in conversation, now she pushed her right

              side into air so thick the room bulged tight.

       A man in yellow blew fruit hookah smoke

and bellowed, singing, took a toke

The title is Two Menus, but perhaps the poem most illustrative of the power and brilliance of this poet may be “Horse Fair,” where language’s spirit and aliveness burst within constraints of form, much like a carousel horse who “raged away, / tore off his pole still twisting up and up, / no longer through his stomach out his back, no fear. Imagine: no fear! Now I’ve made it so it happened. Here.” And though a plastic horse will outlast us all, with the language that the poet harnesses, she immortalizes herself.

About that title. Bitterness and Happiness is a restaurant in Beijing that offers two menus, one with a selection of excess, the second scarcity. We find those contradictions in this collection—pain/joy; heartbreak/fusion; language/silence—all here to read in this remarkable debut, a veritable smorgasbord to appeal in equal measure to both the poetry finicky and the poem gourmand. Bon appétit.

Andréa Ferrell Gannon is currently the poetry editor at The Coachella Review and an MFA candidate at UC Riverside’s Palm Desert campus. She works as a World Languages teacher and raises two boys to men.

Book Review: Rodham

by Amy Reardon

Today in America 2020, it is four months until the next presidential election and nothing is certain except our ever-growing regret that we did not elect the most qualified person for the job when we had the chance. But why not? And would it have made a difference if Hillary Clinton were not attached to Bill?

Enter Rodham, Curtis Sittenfeld’s sixth and boldest novel yet, a fictional story of Hillary’s life trajectory had she followed her own bright star instead of her husband’s. Delicious in its fantastical rewriting of history, the book’s most irresistible pull lies in the promise of the parallel life. For don’t we all secretly fear a better life might have been just around the corner, if only we had been brave enough? But the novel’s true brilliance lies deeper, in Sittenfeld’s examination of one key question: why didn’t we elect our first woman president in 2016? Was it her … or was it us?

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Book Review: Notes on a Silencing

By Linda Romano

Lacy Crawford’s memoir Notes on a Silencing speaks to the ways gender, privilege, and power silenced Crawford twenty-five years ago. When Crawford was fifteen years old, she was lured to a boys’ dormitory one night, pulled from beneath the night shadows, and sexually assaulted.

Crawford’s story is a familiar one. When psychology professor Christine Blasey Ford disrupted her life in the summer of 2018 to testify against Brett Kavanaugh, a nominee for the United States Supreme Court, she was harassed and forced to relocate from her Palo Alto home. Thirty years earlier at a high school party, she alleged, Kavanaugh had assaulted her and put his hand over her mouth to prevent her from screaming. Ford and Kavanaugh were students at elite prep schools in Maryland: Ford attended Holton-Arms, a private all-girls school, and Kavanaugh attended Georgetown Preparatory, a Jesuit high school for boys, where alcohol and deviant sexual behavior were a common cocktail.

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Book Review: The Girl Beneath the Sea

by Daniel J. Collins

“Something else is in the water.”

Imagine you are swimming in the ocean. Something brushes against your leg while you are treading water. It is most likely a piece of seaweed, but your heart stops because you know it’s a shark and suddenly the shore seems impossibly far away. Then the moment passes, you’re not eaten, and the shark of your mind transforms back to the seaweed of reality. However, in Andrew Mayne’s latest novel, The Girl Beneath the Sea, there is something in the water.

The novel begins with Sloan McPherson underwater. An archaeology PhD student and auxiliary police diver for the Lauderdale Shore Police Department, Sloan is looking for rock and fossil fragments as a favor for her PhD advisor in a deep pool in a Florida canal. While searching through the silt and mud, Sloan hears a splash and remembers her father’s advice, advice that she chose to ignore today: Never dive alone. Sloan quickly scans the area, dive knife in hand, looking for any crocodiles or alligators, and then ascends to the surface. As she surfaces, she discovers the sound of the splash.

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Book Review: Stray

by Jackie DesForges

On the one hand, Stephanie Danler lives in the “Writer House” of our dreams: a small cottage hidden away in Laurel Canyon, with a yard for dinner parties and a mythic history that may or may not involve Fleetwood Mac. Hanging in the kitchen are her mother’s copper E. Dehillerin pots from France. She’s surrounded on all sides by the kinds of neighbors you’d expect to find in Los Angeles: rich or artsy, or both, who throw the kinds of parties that result in pool floats drifting down into Danler’s yard. I don’t know if Danler actually still lives in this house at the moment, but it’s where we find her in the opening pages of her new memoir, Stray.

On the other hand, the house is falling down. Every time it rains, there’s the potential for a landslide, and we’re not talking about the Fleetwood Mac variety. The floors are crooked, there aren’t any screens on the windows to keep out the bugs.

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Book Review: Don’t Read the Comments

by Leni Leanne Phillips

Don’t Read the Comments is Eric Smith’s fifth young adult novel. Smith heavily integrates popular culture into his fiction, and this novel is no exception. The protagonist, Divya Sharma, is an eighteen-year old celebrity gamer known as “D1V” who supports herself and her mother through corporate sponsorships, free merchandise, and subscribers to her “Glitch” channel (a live game streaming platform). Divya’s current live-stream game of choice is Reclaim the Sun, a universe exploration game the likes of which does not yet exist outside of fiction, but which is vividly described by Smith and in such detail that my kids and grandkids are ready to pre-order it.

The book’s title derives from Divya’s admonition when her mother expresses her concern about the comments posted to Divya’s Glitch channel. “‘Don’t read the comments,’” Divya tells her mother, because as a “girl gamer,” Divya is exposed to trolls who threaten, harass, and objectify her and to commenters who sexualize her and tell her to wear less clothing. Divya’s mother is understandably concerned, but eighteen-year-old Divya thinks she has it under control.

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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.

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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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