Tag: Leni Leanne Phillips

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 lenileanne.com.

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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TCR Talks With Lyz Lenz

by Leni Leanne Phillips

Author Lyz Lenz’s marriage ended after the 2016 presidential election. Lenz voted for Hillary Clinton, and her husband voted for Donald Trump, and although this wasn’t the reason for the divorce, it was a catalyst after years of signs that Lenz and her husband were different people.

Lenz’s first book, God Land,[1] is part investigative journalism and part memoir. A resident of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Lenz writes about Middle America and how it is changing, particularly with respect to faith and church. At the same time, the book tells the story of Lenz’s life after divorce and her own journey as a feminist and a woman of faith.

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Book Review: Mostly Dead Things

by Leni Leanne Phillips

“How we slice the skin: Carefully, that’s a given.” So opens Mostly Dead Things, Kristen Arnett’s debut novel about Jessa-Lynn Morton, a grieving taxidermist living out a less-than-satisfying life with her dysfunctional extended family in Florida. I’m a sucker for a killer opening line, a killer opening scene, and I knew right away that I was in for something special.  As the novel opens, we watch as narrator Jessa-Lynn Morton recalls her father teaching her taxidermy in his workshop. The scene is vivid and engaging. Right away, we begin to see what Jessa has been willing to do, ignore, and give up, all in an attempt to preserve or create the life she imagines for herself.

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