Tag: Leni Leanne Phillips (Page 1 of 2)

TCR Talks With Ephraim Scott Sommers

by Leni Leanne Phillips

My friend Linnette and I stopped in at a local brewing company for lunch a while back. While we waited to be seated, we perused a wall of live music posters from the venue’s earlier days. One of the posters was from Siko’s Paint the Town tour a dozen years ago—the first and last national tour of a popular local band featuring frontman Ephraim Scott Sommers.

“Whatever happened to them?” Linnette asked me. “They were really good. I always thought they’d make it big.”

“The lead singer got a Ph.D. in English,” I told her. “He’s a writer and a professor at a university.”

“Hunh,” Linnette said. “I guess that’s another way to go.”

Ephraim Scott Sommers, author of Someone You Love is Still Alive

Today, Ephraim Scott Sommers is not only a creative writing professor, but a poet, a singer-songwriter, and the author of two books of poetry, The Night We Set the Dead Kid on Fire (Tebot Bach Press 2017)[1], winner of the Patricia Bibby First Book Award, and Someone You Love is Still Alive (Jacar Press 2019)[2], winner of the 2019 Jacar Press Full-Length Poetry Book Contest. He’s also written a memoir, We Kneel at the Church of Each Other, which he is currently submitting for publication.

I recently had the opportunity to catch up with Ephraim Scott Sommers and to get his thoughts about life after Siko, the differences between writing poetry and writing music, and creating a life in the arts.

The Coachella Review: You have a new book of poetry out, Someone You Love is Still Alive. Your first book, The Night We Set the Dead Kid on Fire, has strong themes of growing up, the places we grow up, the disillusionment of growing up. How is this new book the same or different?

Ephraim Scott Sommers: In the first book, the poem “Shotgun Christmas” begins with the line, “If you don’t believe in heaven, / what then is holy?” I think that first book felt almost like a catalogue of damages that I’d been through growing up in a small, violent farm town in California. And many of those poems are trying to search for something to hold onto and make meaning out of despite all of that wreckage. The first book explores the meaning of that question but never really answers it definitively. The second book, in my opinion, is more hopeful because I land on this ultimate discovery: no matter how shitty the world is or has been or will be, someone you love is still alive (your lover), and you better lean into that love because that’s the ultimate source of meaning and joy in your life. I also like to think of the first book as looking at the past and the second book as looking at the present.

TCR: Describe a typical day for you. Do you have a daily or regular writing practice?

ESS: I’m currently teaching fully online at my university, so this means that I work from home all day, and though I’m grateful for the opportunity to remain out of the reach of COVID-19, this does present challenges. Most of those challenges, for me, are mental, so I have to get out of the house and exercise (biking or jogging) for at least ninety minutes every day, or I’ll go insane. I wake fairly early, work on grading/teaching until about 2 p.m. Then I try to play guitar and write for about two hours. Then I get my exercise, come home, cook dinner, and try to turn off my mind. I consider myself lucky in that my occupation feeds into my art. The students in my classes influence me with new ideas all of the time.

TCR: That segues into my next question. How do the people you surround yourself with make you a better writer?

ESS: As a musician and a writer, it’s always helped me to try and get in a room with people who are vastly better than me, because they can teach me so much more than I’m capable of teaching myself. That’s why a writing workshop and an MFA program is such a hot commodity, because you get a professional writer facilitating the group, and you get to bounce your work off of several other sets of eyes and ears. During my own education, I usually found one or two people in every workshop that I felt were really good critically. And that is something that is so hard to find. In a classroom full of opinions, I’d always try to pay attention to those few people who I could tell weren’t trying to make the poem I’d given them into their own but were instead trying to help me achieve my own vision.

TCR: Now that you’re no longer a student, how do you replicate that?

 ESS: Obviously, after graduation, you can’t always take those people with you because life happens. The place I tried to get to is where the voices of your best editors are having a workshop in your head when you set out to edit. You can hear them making those critiques. You might have one focused more on the level of line and language. You might have another who is really great with narrative. The more experts you can work with, the more you can kind of eat their critical style and use it for your own. Now, though, in 2020, the thing is, I don’t really hang out with other writers, and I’ve always felt a bit ambivalent about that. Of course, it helps to be able to talk with other people about writing, but I’m also a rugged individual when it comes to art making. I don’t want to do what everyone else is doing. I don’t want ever to be in a place where I feel like I’m falling prey to any kind of group think or writing about some subject in a certain way because it’s in fashion or being published. I grew up around musicians and blue-collar people, so I’ve always felt a bit like a fish out of water in academia. No artist gets to decide where they come from, but I’m grateful for all of the people who aren’t artists that are my friends, because each of them has an interesting story to tell and each of them can make me laugh. I’m grateful for academia, but it can get insular and snobby when it’s at its worst, and that’s always made me uncomfortable. I say I don’t hang out with other writers, but the thing is, I hang out with writers all the time through their work, and at the end of the day, what you need is a really good library, time to write, and the drive to continue to make art even if you know it’s not going to make you a bunch of money. Community is great and much needed, but you also have to get your ass in the chair and write and write and write. That’s the hardest part.

TCR: What kind of advice would you give to someone who wants to live a life in the arts?

ESS: The best advice I can give is to treat every single other artist (in every single genre and medium) in the world as a part of your community. Find something to learn about every single piece of art you come into contact with, every performance. Support other artists. If you love their work, praise them. Build a community of artists in your hometown and cultivate it. It’s much more fun to celebrate the successes of your contemporaries than it is to get angry. I like to view art as a party where everyone is invited. It’s a waste of time to get jealous or to covet someone else’s artistic achievements. The true artist is only ever in competition with themself.

TCR: You’re a musician, too, and a singer-songwriter. How is writing a poem different from writing a song, and how is it the same?

ESS: The major difference between songwriting and poem writing is that there are many more aspects at play in a song than there are in a poem. I have to think about feel, rhythm, chord changes, and structure before I ever even think about lyrics. Then I have to think about the vocal melody over the basic song structure I’ve begun to whittle out, and it’s then that I begin to think about the lyrics. If it were a poem, I could just sit down and begin to write, but a song requires me to navigate much more information at the same time. There are just more balls in the air by nature of that medium.

TCR: When you get an idea, how do you know whether it will be a poem or a song?

ESS: I’m a writer of momentum, so I like to give myself absolutely day after day to whatever larger project I’m working on. Any stray ideas, any stray thoughts, any reading, any craft books or interviews or videos, all of my creative thinking on my long walks and bike rides is working toward the completion of this larger project. I’m currently working on my second solo album, so that means I’m working at the craft of songwriting five days a week. This is a monumentally difficult process, but what I love about throwing yourself absolutely and totally toward a larger project is that you start to butt up against your own limitations, your own tendencies, and it can allow you to take corrective measures to begin to fix your weaknesses (as a writer we might call these tics), because when you’re at it day after day, you become better able to recognize them.

TCR: Favorite dead poet?

ESS: It would be a tossup between Whitman, Larry Levis, and Philip Levine.

TCR: I’ve wanted to ask a songwriter this question for a long time, and to be able to ask a songwriter who is also a poet and a literature professor is even better. In 2016, Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for his songwriting, “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” Some writers, like Joyce Carol Oates, thought it was appropriate. Oates said Dylan was an “inspired [and] original choice. [H]is haunting music [and] lyrics have always seemed, in the deepest sense, ‘literary.’” Others weren’t feeling it. Novelist Jodi Picoult asked whether this meant she could win a Grammy now. Do you have any thoughts about this?

ESS: To those who were upset with Dylan as the choice for the Nobel, I would say this: I dare you to find a living contemporary writer whose influence is more wide-reaching than Dylan’s on American and International Culture. I love literature, and I love to protect good art, but people getting upset about Dylan sounded kind of petty and jealous to me. Dylan is such a titan and so inculcated into our everyday lives that it would be nearly impossible for you to be an adult and to never have heard one of his songs or his lyrics (even if covered or recited by someone else). His work in traditional forms is astounding. His ability to change stylistically over decades is never before seen. His complete body of work is voluminous. His understanding of how literature and music have intertwined historically is brilliant. And he is still making new music! I think Dylan knows, too, that as creators, we should always be leery of awards and prizes anyway. Instead, we should all just keep throwing ourselves more deeply into art making. Again, in my opinion, getting upset or jealous about prizes and awards is a waste of time and effort that could be better spent making better art.

TCR: You were the lead singer for Siko, one of the most popular bands on California’s Central Coast, when you were still in high school and throughout your undergraduate years. You’re a talented musician and singer. Your band toured nationally. What was that like creatively?

ESS: Thanks so much for your kind words about Siko! Playing original music in a band is one of the most unique creative experiences I’ve ever been a part of. As a writer, imagine how hard it is to just to finish a story you’re working on, or a poem, or an essay all by yourself. Then imagine that you’re writing that story or poem or essay with three other people collaboratively, each with equal say but with a little bit different taste and tendency. It’s difficult, of course, but it’s also much more rewarding to create something new with your friends, to see people dancing and having a good time to that new thing, and then to take that on the road to new places and new cities. We were together for eight years, and to see that thing we’d built grow over time, to watch it improve each of us as musicians and as recording artists, was awesome. I learned so much about art-making, about the value of community in artistic communities, and about the business side of art-making from that experience.

TCR: You could have gone a different way, a way that some might consider more tempting insofar as fame and fortune. But at some point, although music is still a huge part of your life, you decided to pursue an education and a career focused on writing. How did you come to the decision to pursue writing as a career versus pursuing music as a career?

ESS: I’ve noticed that, sooner or later, if you’re trying to make art into a living or into a business, you will run up against what I call “the gap.” In music, there is this absolutely gigantic gap between the types of bands who play regionally and who might do some occasional touring and the bands who are actually making a living out of playing music (and do not have to work other jobs). You might also call it a recording contract or major label support, but that gap in music for me seemed insurmountable at the time, in 2008, and I realized that I needed a backup plan. I’d always loved writing, and I thought that if I got my MFA degree in poetry at San Diego State University, it would allow me the ability to teach when I got out, and it would also help me get better at songwriting. While at grad school, I continued to play shows with Siko, I recorded a solo album, and I moved back to San Luis Obispo in 2011 after graduation, but for all sorts of life reasons, the band didn’t play much after that. I felt that I could work hard enough to be successful in the field of poetry if I was willing to sacrifice comfort, so I moved to Kalamazoo in 2012 to get my Ph.D., not knowing a single person in all of Michigan. At the end of the day, I don’t think fame and fortune in music was ever on the table for me, and when I thought about it realistically, I wanted to find a career that would allow me some financial security while still allowing me the time and space and support to pursue my creative interests. Being a creative writing professor offered me that opportunity, and it’s only now, after all this time, after having published two books of poems and gotten a job that I love doing, that I’m trying to put enough songs together for another solo album and starting to put together a band. I’m excited to begin that process again. I like the process. I like throwing myself into the work.

TCR: What are you listening to these days?

ESS: I’ll list a few musicians who’ve had a really profound influence on me recently: Tyler Childers, Lake Street Dive, Morgan Wade, the Marcus King Band, Phoebe Bridgers, Jason Isbell, and Sturgill Simpson.

TCR: What are you working on now?

ESS: I finished a memoir (We Kneel at the Church of Each Other) and have been submitting that for publication to presses and prizes with no word back yet. Also, I hope to have a new album written and hopefully recorded by next summer.

TCR: Any last words you’d like to share with our readers?

ESS: I’ve gone the last four weeks without social media of any kind (other than Facebook Messenger for music booking), and I recommend a social media cleanse, especially if you’re into making art. I’m surprised at the way [social media] had kind of altered my thinking about things, how it found its way into my dreams, and the ways in which it could deeply affect my personal emotional life. I feel much better so far without it. I hope you will too! Other than that, thanks so much for reading!

You can keep up with Ephraim Scott Sommers at his website: ephraimscottsommers.com.


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.

Photo Essay: Solitude & TCR Talks with Photographer Mahayla Rheanna

PHOTOGRAPHY by Mahayla Rheanna
Model Esther Aliah
Interview by Leni Leanne Phillips

An interview with the photographer, Mahayla Rheanna, follows below, after her photo essay, “Solitude,” featuring model Esther Aliah. Jump to Interview.


Solitude: An Essay in Photographs

by Mahayla Rheanna

All images copyright © 2020 Mahayla Rheanna. All rights reserved.


TCR Talks with Mahayla Rheanna

by Leni Leanne Phillips

I recently had the opportunity to chat with emerging photographer Mahayla Rheanna about her photo essay “Solitude,” her beginnings as a photographer, and her plans for the future.

The Coachella Review:  How did you become interested in photography?

Mahayla Rheanna: It started when I received an iPhone 4s for Christmas when I was eleven years old. I tried to take artistic selfies, but I never showed my face, so I decided to take pictures of my friends at school and post them. They were not high-quality pictures, but the positive responses I got from my friends and friendly kept me motivated. For my thirteenth birthday, my mom gave me my first digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera. I picked it up and haven’t put it down since.

TCR: I’m interested in what you say about getting started with an iPhone. Today, most people have a phone or other device with which they can take photographs, and with the use of filters, even hobbyists can turn out some fantastic photographs. What do you think is the difference between someone who takes pictures as a hobby and a professional photographer?

MR: People have always said I have a unique eye when they look at my photography. This year, because of the pandemic, I started doing FaceTime photoshoots, and I came to the realization that it doesn’t matter what camera or device you use. I did two photoshoots and created two videos using my laptop, my phone, and FaceTime. Many hobby photographers can turn themselves into professional photographers if the people around them like what they see.

TCR:  What do you like most about being a photographer?

MR: The attention. As someone who struggles to approach new people, I find that with a camera in my hand people gravitate toward me whether they want to be photographed or are just curious about cameras. Being on a college campus, I took advantage of how many people love to be photographed and began making money with my photography my freshman year.

TCR: What does photography do for you?

MR: Honestly, it reminds me that I am good at something. I never thought I was good in school, and photography is one thing that I not only taught myself, but I have been successful in earning income from it. Even though I am not studying photography in school, it is much more than a hobby to me.

TCR: What is your college major and what do you hope to do with it after you graduate?

MR: I’m a neuroscience and psychology major focusing on mental health and disorders. I am not entirely sure what I want to do after I graduate, but I am interested in working with adolescents.

TCR: How has photography influenced you as a person?

MR: I have always struggled talking to people, especially those who are my age. Photography has given me the confidence to approach people and ask them if they want to create some cool work with me. Many of my friendships have begun in this way, and if I did not have photography in my life, I don’t think I would have met so many amazing people.

TCR: Is there a specific theme that flows through your work?

MR: Recently, I’ve asked myself that, because my goal is to develop a unique voice through my photography so that eventually people will see my photographs and recognize them as my work. Currently, I would say the theme I’m exploring as a photographer is juxtaposing locations that are not necessarily beautiful with beautiful people and beautiful fashion. I’ve shot in parking lots, closed ice cream shops, bathrooms, libraries. My favorite photoshoot location was an abandoned pool.

TCR: What inspires you?

MR: I have these visions in my head that are so vivid, and whether they are dreams or daydreams, I always write them down and try to recreate them and live up to them. I am constantly inspired by everything I come across, the most ordinary things, and I love to take that and create work that is uncommon. When I was in the car one day, I drove past the location I used for this particular photoshoot, and I knew that I had to shoot there. The outcome was better than the vision in my head.

TCR: Is there a story you had in mind when you took the photographs in this photo essay, “Solitude”?

MR: Well, I’m a fan of allowing viewers to use their own perspectives and imagination. But the main vibe I was going for was this discovery of beauty within emptiness. The location is near where I have been in quarantine which also happens to be my childhood home. And for twenty years I’ve driven past that location and never thought twice about it until I was stuck there. While I was out there, I realized how happy I was, not only because I was finally taking photographs after three months of not being able to, but I just enjoyed walking around and looking at something that felt so familiar to me.

TCR: Do you make prints of your photos or are they strictly digital?

MR: I’m currently working on growing my digital platform, but yes, I would love to start working with prints and plan to do so in the future.

TCR: What kind of photography do you see yourself doing in the future?

MR: Definitely fashion photography. I see fashion as a form of art, and I love taking that next step and combining fashion with other things to create a new piece of art. I especially love when I can style my own photoshoot because I feel closer to the work and can make it my own entirely, so that I am more visible and more recognizable in my work.


Mahayla Rheanna has created images inspired by music, fashion, and the world around her for more than eight years. From taking pictures on her iPhone at school to learning to shoot film and even snap FaceTime photos, she is a proud self-taught photographer sharing her craft. With every new photo shoot, she learns techniques that will perfect her art and one day enable her to reach a broader audience. While studying at Syracuse University focusing on a Neuroscience and Psychology degree, Mahayla uses her free time to meet other students through photography and to work on artistic projects for social media. She continues to grow her platform on Instagram at @mreh.00 and on her website at mreh-photography.com.

 

Esther Aliah is a student, artist, and organizer from the Bay Area. She is a junior at Occidental College in Los Angeles, majoring in Psychology and Black Studies. She is particularly interested in the intersection between mental wellness and social justice and hopes to find ways to destigmatize neurodivergence and provide more resources in bipoc communities. In her free time, Esther practices photography, painting, and other artistic media as a means to center mental, emotional, and spiritual wellness. She shares her art pieces as well as resources for Black wellness on her social media and other platforms, including on Instagram at @estheralia.

 

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: 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: 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.

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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: The Witches Are Coming

by Leni Leanne Phillips

The Witches Are Coming is a collection of essays by Lindy West, some brand new, and some previously published in various online and print magazines and updated for the book. West has been around for a long time. Her work has been featured in publications like The New York Times, The Guardian, and Jezebel. As I read The Witches Are Coming, I recognized a couple of the essays, having read them when they were originally published, but I’ll admit West’s name didn’t become familiar to me until I binge-watched Season One of Shrill, a Hulu original television series starring SNL’s Aidy Bryant. I was impressed and intrigued enough to look up Shrill’s writers, including West, the author of the memoir which inspired the television show. When I read that West had a new collection of essays, The Witches Are Coming, I got my hands on a copy as quickly as I could.

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Book Review: Olive, Again

by Leni Leanne Phillips

Elizabeth Strout’s third novel, Olive Kitteridge[1], was published in 2008 and won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2009. In 2015, the book was adapted into an award-winning miniseries with Frances McDormand playing the title role of Olive, a character who seems to have been written with McDormand in mind. Readers and viewers alike were delighted by the character of Olive. Now, Olive Kitteridge returns in Strout’s seventh and most recent novel, Olive, Again[2]. Imagine my delight to find that this new book is an even more engaging, moving, and meaningful read than the original.

Strout had no trouble letting go of Olive after Olive Kitteridge. In fact, in the ten years since she wrote Olive Kitteridge, Strout had moved on to other things, including writing three more novels. She had no plans to write about Olive again. In a recent interview with Maris Kreizman for The Wall Street Journal Magazine, Strout said: “I never intended to write a sequel, but she just showed up again. She’s Olive and she has to be contended with. A few years ago I had the weekend to myself, and I went to a cafe to sit. All of a sudden I just saw Olive driving into the marina as an older woman, and I thought, ‘Uh oh. Here we go.’”

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TCR Talks With Catherine Ryan Hyde

by Leni Leanne Phillips

Twenty years ago, Catherine Ryan Hyde’s novel Pay it Forward became an international best seller. [1] The following year, the film adaptation debuted at number four at the box office its opening weekend. The book also spawned a social movement promoting kindness, optimism, and faith in humankind. Hyde has since published thirty-six books, including a young readers’ edition of Pay it Forward, two dozen novels, and a book of travel photography based on gratitude. Her most recent novel, Have You Seen Luis Velez?, was published in May of this year.[2] A new novel, Stay, will be released on December 3, 2019.[3]

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Book Review: Very Nice

by Leni Leanne Phillips

Marcy Dermansky’s new novel, Very Nice, starts out with a simple enough premise. Nineteen-year-old Rachel has a crush on her creative writing professor, Zahid Azzam, a one-hit wonder of a novelist who has been skating on the success of his only book for years. When Zahid impulsively confides to Rachel that he’s had a bad day, she impulsively kisses him. But the plot gains in complexity from there. Anyone who’s seen The Wife knows that crushes on creative writing professors don’t end well, and there are red flags that Rachel chooses to ignore. Rachel’s passion for Zahid seems lukewarm at best, and Rachel is a bit taken aback when he calls their kiss “very nice”—during the semester, he had crossed out all of the verys in her short story.

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