Tag: book review (Page 1 of 3)

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 www.letswriting.com.

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 lenileanne.com.

Book Review: Blacktop Wasteland

By Laurie Rockenbeck

S.A. Cosby’s Blacktop Wasteland is a fast-paced story that throws us against the seat and makes us grab for the “oh-shit-bar” from start to finish. It would be easy to dismiss this as a summer read, a fun heist story with exciting chase scenes that compels the reader to keep turning those pages with one satisfying twist after another. That would be a mistake. While Blacktop Wasteland is all of that, it is also an indictment against classism and racism written with a subtlety that eschews preachiness. Instead, Cosby gives us poverty-stricken Virginia with its closed strip malls, trailer parks, and white supremacists drawn with a voice so southern you can hear the twang as you read.

Beauregard “Bug” Montage is short on rent, and he turns to the one thing he knows will grow the thousand bucks in his pocket into two—drag racing. The old Duster he’s driving is a lot like Bug; what’s under the hood is much more complex than the exterior. The Duster isn’t just any car; it’s a proxy for Bug’s father, a man who disappeared years ago and whom he continues to idolize, worship, and revere with the pain of a child who’s never dealt with the grief. That he’s seen death early and often permeates the story and Bug’s interior thoughts:

The Grim Reaper sneaks up behind you and squeezes you until shit fills your adult diaper and an artery bursts in your chest. He works his bony fingers in your guts and makes your own cells eat you alive from the inside. He skull fucks you until your brain retreats inside itself and you forget how to even breathe. He guides the hands of a man you’ve wronged and aims his gun at your face. There is no dignity in death. Beauregard had seen enough people die to realize that. There’s only fear and confusion and pain.

Without Bug’s deep connection to the Duster, it would be difficult to suspend our disbelief as Bug makes one awful decision after another. Fortunately, Cosby gives us plenty with which to empathize with Bug’s plight. Nothing goes as Bug plans, and his financial burdens mount to the point where he is absolutely desperate. When Kia, his wife, reminds Bug he could sell the Duster for twenty-five grand and solve much of their financial woes, we are poised to buy into Bug’s unwillingness to sell this stand-in for his father.

Instead of selling the Duster (or doing any of the other reasonable things most people would do in real life), Bug chooses to return to his criminal past. He’s the best wheel-man in Virginia, and he has old connections he can draw upon to find his way back in for one last job to pay off his debts.

Bug goes against his gut feelings and agrees to do one big job with people he knows he shouldn’t trust, Ronnie and Reggie Sessions. The brothers describe themselves as ‘white trash,’ but Cosby brings complexity to these characters by reminding us even the nastiest people have emotions and people they love. The brothers will do anything for each other. Ronnie spent three years in jail for something Reggie did because he knew Reggie is too soft to handle jail time. This bond proves disastrous for Bug who refuses to acknowledge a myriad of warning signals flashing in bright neon off these men. The Sessions are only interested in blow and booty, a hungry greed with little regard for anything beyond their own interests. Bug is driven by the need to provide security for himself and his family in a world that keeps pushing him down. The unifying force behind all of them is abject poverty brought on by decades of systemic classism.

We read with hands over our faces and peeking out through our fingers at disastrous turn after disastrous turn wondering if Bug is going to survive, let alone how. Blacktop Wasteland is Southern Noir in every best way possible.


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 LaurieRockenbeck.com.

Book Review: Out of the Pantry

by Linda Romano

In her memoir, Out of the Pantry[1], Ronni Robinson confronts how a childhood eating pleasure turned into a full out “compulsive eating disorder.”  As a latch-key child, Robinson found solace in biking home hurriedly from school to indulge in whatever variety of cookies her mother had tucked away in the kitchen drawer with a tall glass of cold milk. With an older brother at home, who mostly ignored her, she sat alone at the table, dipping cookie after cookie, “like a robot, losing all sense of what was going on around me … the shimmer of happiness seemed to float down.” Robinson’s willingness to share her journey from bingeing to recovery is inspirational and shows it is possible.

Different from anorexia or bulimia, compulsive overeating is similar to binge eating or emotional eating. Robinson writes, “It includes eating faster than usual, eating past the point of fullness, eating alone or in secret, and feeling guilty or upset after overeating, and/or feeling ‘taken over’ or ‘driven’ in respect to eating.” Robinson resonated with all of these traits when she heard it discussed on television, a few months shy of turning forty and with two young children. By then sneaking food, mostly sweets like cookies and pastries, had become an engrained, lifelong habit. But with a loving husband, Efrem, in her life, the habit was becoming exhausting to maintain without being caught or questioned.

She tried to avoid her husband at a work Christmas party, but he found her, for the second time, hovering around the cookie trays:

My compulsion was unmanageable. I can’t explain why, despite being full, I still wanted more. I was stuffed, and they didn’t taste as good, but I was driven to find that perfect bite, that perfect taste again. That perfect combination of chocolate and dough that tasted as good as those first few bites eluded me, but I kept trying. These cookies were like oxygen for anyone else. I literally didn’t think I could live without them.

While eating one, I heard Efrem’s voice from behind. ‘What are you doing?’ He’d caught me. Again. Startled me.

‘I was just having one more,’ I lied.

Robinson’s obsession with cookies began when she was a child. One day, when Robinson was in the seventh grade, she came home from school and the cookies were no longer in the drawer even though she knew her mother had bought them. Robinson alludes to the emotional distance that was building up between her and her mother; she envied her best friend Jen who lived down the street with a stay-at-home mom. “I could picture Jen and her mom making dinner together, standing shoulder to shoulder, wearing matching aprons.” Robinson does this well throughout the memoir—recalling glimpses of childhood scenes to connect the emotions that led to her eating disorder, how she longed for a happier family life. With the cookies subversively taken away, Robinson recognized her mother’s silent disapproval, not the overt anger, she observed, of her mother scolding her father when, just like her, he sat at the table and devoured “a whole bunch” of cookies. To avoid further conflict with her mother, Robinson used babysitting money to buy her own cookies and developed tactics to avoid being discovered. “I had to figure out how to hide the empty carton, I crumpled it up and back into the grocery bag … crumpled that up too … and buried it deep into the kitchen trash can.” Characteristics of her parents could have been further developed throughout these scenes since they are clearly the impetus to Robinson’s food addiction. They are almost as invisible to us in the writing as they were to Robinson in her life.

Robinson provides involved and detailed descriptions of her cookie fantasies and the elaborate strategies she uses to keep them hidden but hesitates to elaborate on her emotions. The only focus was “not to get caught.” We can all relate to the childhood pleasure of a Chips Ahoy, like Robinson describes, “I carefully ate the little chips out” and dipped them into milk “until the cookie got soggy and dissolved in my mouth.” And the Oreos, “fun because there was so much you could do with them … twisting one open and licking out the sweet white filling.” And who hasn’t snuck a cookie or two before dinner without their parents knowing? For Robinson though, it never stopped. Because her weight stayed relatively stable after college, bingeing privately could be compensated for by taking long runs and exercise. For her, eating was a pleasure and keeping it hidden was no different than possibly any other woman trying to maintain the public image of a perfect body. We develop compassion for Robinson from our own experiences, but it is difficult to connect with the shame or loneliness she felt. She acknowledges later, once she accepted the addiction, how she missed out on developing deeper friendships while being so “laser-focused on food.”

Robinson suggests the distant relationship with her mother led to her food addiction, although she admits, she never realized it at the time. “I was trained to just let things happen to me, to accept situations with little or no challenge.” She refers to the tension in her parents’ marriage, the arguments at dinner, and how her mother embodied a “don’t make waves behavior.” In her first marriage, before meeting Efrem, she realized the emotional abuse of her ex-husband was similar to her parents’ behavior. Many of her feelings are expressed through her food habits. After a fight with her first husband, she omits details about her anger and, instead, describes the trip to the market and the spoonsful of chocolate marshmallow ice cream in the parking lot. We can only imagine her loneliness.

With individual therapy and supportive groups like Overeaters Anonymous (OA), Robinson discovered that overeating created a sense of fullness in order to “numb out” uncomfortable feelings. Like other addiction programs, like the Twelve Steps used in Alcoholics Anonymous , the important first step is to “admit the powerlessness over food and that life has become unmanageable.” It is important to get past “the pink cloud of abstinence,” Robinson warns. This is the vague term used in the OA community of having the mental willpower to no longer food binge, but without confronting the root cause of the behavior. For some people, mental willpower is enough to quit, but for most, it is easy to slip back into temptation. Robinson stresses the importance of being honest about past behaviors and sharing the truth with others. Her memoir is personal and provides a guide to resist the physical and mental control of an overeating disorder without obsessive calorie counting.

Robinson currently speaks publicly about eating disorders and emotionally abusive relationships and serves as an administrator on the Facebook page Overcoming Food Nonsense.


Linda Romano grew up on the south side of Chicago and currently lives in California’s Silicon Valley working as an engineer. She received a PhD in Materials Science at the University of Illinois and is presently pursuing an MFA in Nonfiction at the UC Riverside Palm Desert Program. She is working on a memoir about her upbringing and life as an engineer while raising two children. Her favorite pastime is enjoying the outdoors, especially on a bicycle.

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.”

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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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