Category Archives: Book Reviews

Book Review: Sheila Hamilton’s All the Things We Never Knew


$13.99; 312 pages
Seal Press
ISBN: 978-58005-584-0




Weaving a Narrative Case for Early Detection: Sheila Hamilton’s All the Things We Never Knew: Chasing the Chaos of Mental Illness 
by Lisa Peterson

“It is my hope that my experience might serve as a cautionary tale for other people who are concerned about a loved one’s mental health.” – Sheila Hamilton

Radio and TV producer, reporter, anchor, and host, Sheila Hamilton, brings her probing investigative skills as a journalist as well as her own personal insights and vulnerabilities to her debut memoir, All the Things We Never Knew: Chasing the Chaos of Mental Illness. Hamilton immediately alerts readers to the territory she intends to explore by opening her introductory chapter with a summary of the storyline:

I missed much of the unfolding of my husband’s mental illness. By the time I’d pieced together the puzzle of who David actually was, he was falling apart. My once brilliant, intense, and passionate partner was dead within six weeks of a formal diagnosis of bipolar disorder, leaving my nine-year-old daughter and me without so much as a note to understand his decision.

Hamilton goes on to present grim statistics linking risk factors for suicide with the presence of mental disorders. Outcomes might improve, Hamilton postulates, if people were better informed about the signs of mental illness and treatments for brain disorders. She ends the introduction with the hope that her story, “will be a catalyst for positive change in the ways we approach, regard, and respond to the social fallout of mental illness.”

The narrative itself begins in medias res. Estranged from her husband, David, Sheila has already filed for divorce and is on a date when she receives an ominous phone call from the sheriff’s office. Instead of resting at home under his own mother’s watchful eye, David snuck out, drove to Larch Mountain, broke into a woman’s house, and stole her gun. Sheila is stunned. She knows his mental state is tenuous and now the police are considering him “armed and dangerous.”

With the stakes established and the tension raised, Hamilton drops us onto a page, set in different typeset, with the word STIGMA underlined at the top. Underneath, the text begins with: “According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services administration, nearly one in five American adults (18.5 percent), or 43.8 million adults, had a mental illness in 2013.” The rest of the page emphasizes the persistent stigma surrounding mental illness as well as how David’s “sense of shame” exacerbated his particular case. These mental health informational interstices, inserted at the end of each chapter, can be a bit jarring. Yet we are also primed for them by our exposure to elements of mental dysfunction within the narrative. Often, the formality of these pages is mitigated by explicit links to David (as a person with mental illness), to Sheila (as the spouse and caregiver to a person with mental illness), and to their daughter, Sophie (as a child who has both witnessed her father’s illness and survived his suicide). These side-bar-like panels are clearly intended to be educational, providing facts, definitions, treatments, and resources regarding mental illness, but they also provide a break in the midst of a narrative that can feel heavy at times.

The next chapter returns readers to the beginning of Sheila and David’s story, describing the day they met in a coffee shop, with David “juggling construction plans and a pager while he ordered a double-shot cappuccino.” While at the time Hamilton was “immediately drawn to his erratic, discombobulated energy,” she briefly steps out of the narrative to tell us that, with the wisdom of hindsight, she interprets this behavior differently: “disorganization and anxiety are two of the early warning signs of bipolar disorder.”

As their relationship becomes more serious, David takes Sheila to meet his parents. He warns her that his father is “moody, charming, and complicated.” Sheila witnesses the manifestation of these varying moods within the first twenty minutes of meeting David’s father and we see hints of the genetic source of David’s illness. Here again Hamilton steps away from the narrative to make a retrospective comment: “Denial and mental illness are easy bedfellows, and in that first meeting and many others, David’s family gave no indication of a family history of mental illness. I would eventually learn David’s family history through his sister, a psychologist, and his medical documents, crucial pieces to a puzzle I’d tried to fit together for more than a decade.”

After meeting his family, Sheila and David enjoy some happy times together as they marry and have a daughter, Sophie. But their bliss is short-lived. Even while Sophie is still a baby, Sheila discovers David’s infidelity, leading Hamilton to comment, “Nothing would ever be the same again.” Indeed, the affair is just the beginning of a downward spiral of disorganization, deceit, and denial that grows as David’s illness continues to progress undiagnosed and untreated. By weaving together the narrative of what she experienced in the moment with reflective insights about David’s mental illness, Hamilton reinforces her thesis that if she’d been better informed, she might have pursued a formal diagnosis and treatment of David’s bipolar disorder before his life spiraled out of control.

Knowing what’s coming and armed with the information about mental health that Hamilton has provided us between chapters, we are able to see the signs that she herself, in the moment, cannot recognize. And even though we, as readers, know David will eventually commit suicide following his diagnosis of bipolar disorder, we keep hoping for an intervention that will save him. But as David’s behavior becomes more erratic and we watch the tragic cascade of his decline, we also begin to question ourselves—would I recognize the early warning signs if someone I knew was suffering from mental illness? And if I did, would I have the courage to act—even if that person was resistant?

Given Hamilton’s intention to not only share her story but also increase awareness and spur social change, her choice to weave personal narrative with educational panels proves effective. While primarily a work of literary nonfiction, the short interstices provide a guide of sorts—supplying readers with well-researched information about mental health and suicide. In addition, Hamilton includes a five-page listing of “Resource Organizations” as well as fourteen pages of “Notes” with citations from each chapter—clearly she has done her homework.

By delineating the narrative from the side bars through page breaks and typeset, the book can be approached in several different ways. For example, readers can progress sequentially, allowing the supplemental information to complement the narrative. Alternately, those who are most interested in Hamilton’s personal story can skip over the informational interstices. For people hoping to learn more about mental health issues, they can dive deeper into specific topics of interest using the resources at the back of the book. With all that said, it is important to remember that Hamilton’s story is but one case study—each individual’s experience will vary—and as with all health matters, it is important for readers to be their own health advocates: to explore their options, be informed consumers, consult with knowledgeable professionals, get second opinions, and participate in conversations with others facing similar challenges.

All the Things We Never Knew is a compelling personal narrative supplemented with informational panels on mental health issues, crafted by Hamilton via the lens of retrospection and the investigative skills of a reporter. Well-written, with both clarity and urgency, this book would appeal to anyone interested in or affected by mental illness or suicide—whether as a caretaker, family member, friend, or as someone who is living with a mental illness themselves.


Lisa Peterson is a serial career changer with titles that include professional ice skater, teacher, entrepreneur, researcher, game designer, and most recently, writer. Lisa has jumped from a plane, climbed Mount Fuji, and traveled to every continent except Antarctica. She holds two degrees from Stanford and is currently pursuing her MFA at Sierra Nevada College.

Book Review: Jill Talbot’s The Way We Weren’t


$15.95; 304 pages
Soft Skull Press
ISBN: 978-1593766153




Competing Histories of Shame: Jill Talbot on Family and Loss in The Way We Weren’t
by Michael Fischer

The mother stands at a window, staring out at the rehab center parking lot like a lonely, cooped up pet, waiting for her daughter. The daughter thinks she’s visiting her mother at “special school,” one where even the teachers don’t get to go home at night. She’s too young to know the truth. Besides, it’s Christmas.

Finally, a car pulls up and the daughter tumbles out wearing her holiday best, flying toward the front door of the rehab with a gift in her hand. Even years later, the mother can hardly bear this image of her daughter, “running for the mother who is locked up and not allowed to leave.” The daughter’s gift is a framed piece of paper with three words on it: “Please come home.”

It’s upon stark, poetic scenes such as this that Jill Talbot builds The Way We Weren’t, a first- and third-person memoir-in-essays that pries open motherhood, addiction, obsession, place, and memory. Having been abandoned (or maybe Talbot does the leaving, she admits, depending on where you start, on who’s keeping score) by her lover Kenny when their daughter Indie was only four months old, Talbot fights to be a good parent and professor while trying to beat back alcoholism, financial ruin, and the dislocation brought on by constant moves.

Using everything from court documents to a wine menu to a mock course syllabus, Talbot paints a portrait of a woman chased by her regrets. She zigzags across the country with her daughter in search of home, sobriety, and a steady teaching gig, fixated on a man she remains desperate to reconnect with (“There had been too many years of silence… I had to say something. Anything.”) Looking back, she tries to figure out which memories actually happened, and which ones she has invented over time. “Years from now,” Talbot admits, during a third-person recounting of a conversation with Kenny, “she will not be able to recall if there ever was such a morning conversation over coffee or it was just something she wrote.”

As a child, it’s easy to believe that family traumas like the ones Talbot describes affect you and you alone. I remember visiting a parent in rehab when I was young, staring at the drooping Christmas tree set up in the entryway, and wondering why this was happening to me. Adults seem—if only by virtue of age, height, seeming omnipotence—eminently capable and emotionally solid, able to prevent all hardship if they only cared enough. Indeed, the misery memoir subgenre is full of adults who still believe this, angry at their parents for not raising them well enough.

Talbot, who with her four college degrees would seem on paper to be the epitome of stability and control, exemplifies the fact that it’s never quite that simple. She illustrates the searing reality of what it’s like to be a parent in crisis, doing her best but still falling badly behind. She diagrams the pain of watching oneself fail, in slow motion, the people one loves most: town after town, job after job, bottle after bottle.

Given the obsessive spotlight Talbot trains on her own pain and relationship (or lack thereof) with Kenny, it’s ironic that some of the most thought-provoking and insightful moments in her book are the ones that pass with no comment at all. I found it sadly telling that Talbot makes more money working waitress jobs than she does during her posts as a college professor, a PhD and boundless passion for her subject worth next to nothing on the job market. The ominous, unspoken truth is that if a woman as driven, intelligent, and educated as Talbot can find herself sleeping on an air mattress as a broke single mother, any of us can.

Even more troubling is the fact that, over the course of more than a decade, only one county court manages to wring a single child support payment from Kenny. The system lets the absentee father off the hook, betraying Indie and leaving Talbot to fend for herself. The reader learns this in an italicized epilogue to a court transcript (“No payments have been received since, and his whereabouts remain unknown”); the courts’ culpability goes unmentioned, hanging in the air like stale smoke.

Talbot does have a tendency to soak too long in the waters of her own hurt, often framing her story as a solitary—as opposed to shared—struggle. This seems unfair to Indie, whose suffering is often relegated to the background. At one point Talbot writes of how she feels most at home near borders and in undefined spaces. “I suspect Indie feels a bit of that, too,” she muses, seemingly as an afterthought. When Indie almost dies after a bout of carbon monoxide poisoning, Talbot quickly moves past scolding herself for missing the obvious signs that her furnace was killing her daughter. Instead, she focuses on the fact that if either Talbot or Indie had died, “Kenny wouldn’t know it”—a far less important train of thought, I would think, than the effect of this experience on Indie.

But while the narrative sometimes veers into self-pity and rumination, it is Talbot’s overarching interrogation of memory and her own faults that holds the work together. “Fiction and history,” she writes, “are neighbors.” Even when a history is shared, “we tell competing versions of it.” Did Kenny leave, or did she? Which of them is the bad parent, which the lost soul?

It would have been easy for Talbot to paint Kenny as a one-dimensional villain and herself as the hero of her own story: the parent who stayed and did the right thing, the long-suffering single mother with a heart of gold. Instead she catalogs her every parenting mistake and gallon of wine, bares all her flaws without mitigation—an unflinching honesty to counterbalance the book’s more solipsistic moments. No one here is a victim, Talbot seems to say. And everyone is. Whose version, whose memory, whose truth can be trusted? Who can be sure?



Michael Fischer is a managing editor of Sierra Nevada Review, a Moth Chicago StorySlam winner, and a Luminarts Foundation Fellow in Creative Writing. His essays appear or are forthcoming in The Sun, Brevity, Hotel Amerika, The Rumpus and elsewhere.

Book Review: Kevin Hazzard’s A Thousand Naked Strangers


$16; 261 pages
ISBN: 978-1-5011-1086-3




Ten years on an ambulance in Kevin Hazzard’s A Thousand Naked Strangers
by Clare Frank

The blood-red cartoon ambulance catches my eye. As do the words NAKED and PARAMEDIC. This looks like my kind of book. I was a firefighter for nearly thirty years before I began writing. One of my challenges is finding balance—conveying witnessed trauma with enough grit to honor reality, but not so gratuitously that readers put the book down. Stateside, no one sees more trauma than ambulance paramedics, so I’m curious if this author achieves that balance.

In A Thousand Naked Strangers, author Kevin Hazzard recounts ten years of his life serving as a medic on the streets of Atlanta. He takes us from his early days in medic school to the shady world of code-two ambulance companies (outfits making their money on non-emergency transports), to the real deal—the busiest rig in the seediest parts of Atlanta. This is what he wanted. And this is what will break him.

With a mordant manner, he makes grisly ambulance calls and his path to burnout edgy and enjoyable. His writing background (as a freelance journalist and television writer) is apparent. With exacting word choices, spot-on metaphors, and an eye for dark humor, he creates a distinctive and credible voice. He observes small, absurd details, which makes the otherwise gory moments palatable for those who haven’t chosen a life requiring latex gloves and eye protection. One of his boots makes an irritating scratching sound after a vehicle accident: it’s a piece of skull he can’t dislodge from the lugs. A gunshot wound causes a man’s face to “flop down like congealed cheese off lukewarm pizza.” And when Hazzard gets stuck with a possibly contaminated needle, his boss reaches out, “If you bang your wife tonight? Make sure you double-bag it.” The irreverence is what makes the book funny and keeps the morbidity in check.

But Hazzard delivers more than a collection of adrenaline-fueled tales. He illustrates how his line of work affects those who crave it. It jades. On slow days, he bets on calls and plays “Which car would you want to be hit by in an accident?” And it immortalizes. He and his partner get so good at defeating death, they stop seeing danger. They don’t wait for cops and have to be saved from a riotous crowd. “This is our scariest day on the ambulance. It ends our brief stint as para-gods.” Hazzard owns the truth looming in a joke everyone in the business knows: What’s the difference between God and a paramedic? God doesn’t think he’s a Paramedic. Hazzard is brave enough to take this book in an introspective direction, showing readers casualties on both sides of the rubber gloves.

As memoir should, Hazzard’s story includes personal transformation. But it’s the weakest part of his book. The journey is predictable—from bright-eyed rookie to cynical veteran. Hazzard gives us no peek into his childhood, military school background, or journalism work— no hints about how nature or nurture formed a personality driven towards blood. The last sentence in the book attempts to answer the question, but it feels unsatisfying and perfunctory.

Still, he offers plenty of growth opportunity for readers. In addition to immersing us into a world most see only through Hollywood’s eyes, he has a refreshing subtext. Despite his irreverence, he manages compassion for those in circumstances they can’t get out of. The people he loads on his gurney come in all shapes, sizes, and conditions. A patient tired of cancer treatments leaves the hospital and lands on a park bench where maggots feast on a face sore. A grandma is dying from a broccoli floret no one can dislodge from her throat. Drug dens produce “frequent flyers.” A man nails himself to the wall with a nail gun, so his girlfriend can’t throw him out. A disordered person attempts suicide to flee an alien attack. But to Hazzard, they all bleed red, are having the worst day of their lives, and need someone to care about them in that moment.

This is a fast-paced, compelling story—a book worth reading if for no other reason than it’s an honest account of a world easy to look past, even though chances are everyone will ride in an ambulance at least once. Granted, I’m partial to true stories about emergency services. But well-told ones are a rarity. They tend towards self-congratulation or humorless reportage. Hazzard’s is neither. His book will make you laugh and cringe as you learn about what life looks like from the back of an ambulance. This is the balance I seek.


Clare Frank started firefighting at seventeen and ended up the highest ranking female chief for the State of California. Along the way, she became an arson investigator and attorney. She received an MFA in Creative Writing from Sierra Nevada College, and her memoir is in progress. She lives near Tahoe with her husband and two big dogs.

Book Review: Catherine Meng’s The Longest Total Solar Eclipse of the Century

$12; 128 pages
SplitLevel Texts
ISBN:  978-0985811136




The Sun Has Gone Out: Catherine Meng’s The Longest Total Solar Eclipse of the Century
by Bryce Bullins

There is an infestation of spiders in Catherine Meng’s The Longest Total Solar Eclipse of the Century. No less than a dozen references to spiders or spiderlike qualities exist in Meng’s text and it’s wholly fitting: what better creature best embodies the complexity of time than one who spins webs as intricate and unfathomably raw as the spider? There is great concern for time in Solar Eclipse and Meng’s attentiveness to its passage is humbling while simultaneously sprawling.

Meng asserts that “We could all benefit / from risking temporality / more often” and her verse echoes this sentiment. Solar Eclipse navigates the course and events of a year from the day of the eclipse (22 July, 2009) to the following year but in such a way that it feels as though time is seemingly lost in the process of recollection. Experiments in space, form, and language create a hazy, though still discernible, presence of grounding in some form of the present.

Interspersed within the collection are several diary entries that serve as poetic-prose sections that seek, whether intentionally or otherwise, to stabilize us in the temporality of the year. These diary entries are the most vulnerable pieces in Solar Eclipse because of their earnest honesty. In “M, Tu, W, Th, F” Meng asserts that “learning to want impossible things is a sort of freedom worms & crocodiles don’t know.” In this oddly humorous musing, Meng is subtly pointing out the flaws in our own ability to yearn for impossibility. The virtue of it being impossible makes us want it that much more and makes the lack of it that much stronger. In so many words, it is the drive that keeps us pressing onward.

The most striking aspect of Solar Eclipse is how it deftly rests on a blade’s edge of the necropastoral[1]. While never overtly approaching the bleakness of ecocatastrophe, Meng’s allusions are grounded heavily in the present moment that creates the conditions possible for ecocatastrophe: her verse occupies a space where blog entries coexist with goat farmers in Uruguay and “whatever nascent understanding we’d had about empathy / had its limbs hacked off / right from the start.” This is to say nothing of the countless other pastoral tropes Meng conjures up, but her verse often subverts them as in “Game Reserve”:

Just because there is no eagle
doesn’t mean the eagle isn’t here.
Or maybe ‘eagle’ is really the name for ‘crow’;
And the group of them
above me is saying so.

If the eagle represents the majesty of the world before ecocatastrophe takes its toll, then the crows are what remains after. There is no more deft an analogy than a murder of crows circling above us, occupying the space of the beautiful world we have destroyed.

It is in this world that Meng seeks to illustrate individual flairs of hopelessness, anxiety, optimism, and banality. By doing so, Meng captures a climatology all her own of a life lived now. Whether we are present for it as well (read: aware) is a separate matter entirely.

[1] See Joyelle McSweeny’s essay on the necropastoral, in which she probes the political-aesthetic paradigm and its inability to be separated from nature

Book Review: Amaranth Borsuk’s and Andy Fitch’s As We Know

$18; 144 pages
Subito Press
ISBN: 978-0990661214



Something Like That: Amaranth Borsuk’s and Andy Fitch’s As We Know
by Bryce Bullins

Erasures, when done exceptionally, can create a landscape wholly unique. Paradoxically, the willful redaction of text can enhance, if not make better, a narrative. For example, Yedda Morrison’s Darkness erases, or more accurately whites-out, large portions of the first chapter of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. In doing so, Morrison doesn’t so much rewrite Conrad’s narrative but rather enhances it by bringing the natural world to the forefront. Similarly, through this same process of careful and willful redaction, Amaranth Borsuk and Andy Fitch have made something quite unique with their work As We Know.

Written in diary entries from April 30th to July 1st, As We Know seeks to abolish identity and embrace banality. Days pass with vignettes of stoops and flowers in the park, internalization of anxieties and ponderousness, and musings on the nature of umbrellas. Most striking is the lack of gender identifiers of the writer and no hints to let us peel away whatever may be there. It’s a brilliant and bold move. By removing gender identifiers, arguably the identity of a narrator is dismantled, at which point we are able to become more invested in the language on the page as we now have a blank space with which to connect with work in myriad ways. In essence, our own biases, whatever they may be, are dismantled via the absence of identity, leaving us with an unfiltered dialogue with the text itself.

As We Know has a meta-sensibility to its willful destruction of identity. Within the first four pages a quote from Georges Bataille appears in which we are given firm notice that As We Know is taking on the job of the formless and is attempting to “(1) [debase] objects by stripping them of pretensions—in the case of words, pretensions to meaning—and (2) [attack] the very condition on which meaning depends, the structural opposition between definite terms.” We are immediately told what’s at stake by taking away all that is usually at stake. This is to say nothing of the underlying conceptual aspects of As We Know. To quote from the artist’s statement, “As We Know attempts to intervene into the gendered history of editorial intervention as it has played out in the famous cases of figures such as Dorothy Wordsworth and Emily Dickinson.” By not concerning itself with identity from the outset, the tension that generally exists between ownership and authorship dissipates. Though it is clear that there is still some consternation in the text as at times: entries often flow together seamlessly, almost as if one day bleeds into the next with little to separate the preceding day(s), and yet there are times when there are clearly conflicted voices, one of which is giving what is tantamount to stage directions: “(figure out how to organize those better)” and “(figure out where to make these past or present tense)”. This struggle never quite manifests into open aggression but instead subtly stews beneath the work, begging questions as we move forward in time. There is no resolution by the end, only hints at a partial and tenuous closure when we reach the acknowledgements and are given a simple dedication: “this book is for Emily and Dorothy.”

As We Know deftly uses the art of strike-through to cultivate its attentiveness to banality and temporality. The grounding for this banality comes from a quote from Roland Barthes, which serves as an epigraph (as presented in the format of As We Know):

; whatever he writes
, it will always be a vested discourse, in which the body
will make its appearance (banality is discourse without body).
In other words, what he writes proceeds from a corrected banality.

As We Know isn’t merely “corrected banality” but perfected banality: each entry is clearly marked with a day, sections marked with timestamps, and the erased structure of the work makes it feel as though these were a series of never-ending connections due in large part to the repetitious banality that makes up our own days. As mentioned, days bleed together as simply as turning the page, so much so to that when we were cognizant of being on May 5th it is suddenly May 20th.  Strikingly, this preponderance of time dilation is one of As We Know‘s greatest strengths.

When taken out of the context of the work at large, the entries still work exceedingly well as standalone pieces. Take for example the excerpt the Sierra Nevada Review published in volume 25 from May 22:

As We Know 1

No knowledge of the preceding days is necessary to feel the weight of this entry, allowing it to work and flex its integrity entirely on its own as a self-contained micro narrative. Placed into the context of the full body of work, its weight is certainly enhanced, but because of the way in which As We Know is constructed, it lends itself naturally to vignettes rather than predicating itself on needing the entire body to function. Apropos, considering the dynamics of authorship and voice within.

When not tarrying with bringing the past to the present and grounding the timeline of As We Know somewhere within the confines of an abstract present, the struck-through text, by and large, tends to remove what would otherwise be superfluous details and descriptions. It is ironic then, that these superfluous details and descriptions are what enhance the banality of our lives. More correctly, these superfluous things merely give us the illusion of enhancement. What is banal is always banal, no matter how one dresses it.

As We Know is an experiment in language and presentation devoid of all frivolity and pretension as established by Bataille. It is direct, bare, and nearly holistic in its austerity. Its complexities are vast and often times lend to the meta-narrative of our own lives in that As We Know, intentionally or otherwise, winds up confronting us with our own subjectivity to both content and form.


Book Review: The Glass Castle




January 17, 2005

ISBN: 074324754X

Scribner, New York






It was the sort of knowledge that kept you on your toes:

Jeannette Walls The Glass Castle: A Memoir

by Rebecca Victoria Ramirez

“What I did know was that I lived in a world that at any moment could erupt into fire. It was the sort of knowledge that kept you on your toes,” writes Walls in the first few pages of her memoir. Some of Walls’ earliest memories are of a fire that engulfed her, running up the tutu-like skirt of her pretty pink dress, as she stood on a stool, hovering over her family’s stove, boiling hot dogs. She was only three years old. Her mother, Rose Mary, a self-proclaimed artist, sat just a room away, painting. “Why spend the afternoon making a meal that will be gone in an hour,” she’d often ask her children “when in the same amount of time, I can do a painting that will last forever?” Walls’ childhood was one ruled by an emotionally-absent mother and an alcoholic father, who instead of parenting their four children, more often than not ignored and neglected them.

If ever they did provide for their children it was by virtue of some sort of thievery. And often their crimes included the children’s participation. “Mom’s plan was for her and Maureen to go into the dressing room . . . with an armful of new clothes for Maureen to try on,” Walls writes. “When they came out . . . Lori, Brian, and I would create a ruckus to distract the clerk while Mom hid a dress under a raincoat she would be carrying on her arm.”

Consistently creditors caught up with the Walls family, and the children, acclimated to this lifestyle, were always on point when their father announced it was “time to skeedaddle.” They gathered the few belongings they could carry escaping into the dark of night. After years of dead-end jobs and countless “skeedaddles” from one town after another, Rex Walls, wife and kids in tow, returned to his hometown of Welch, Virginia. Rather than the contentment one might expect to find in their father’s hometown, what followed were more years of discontent. Rex and Rose Mary purchased a dilapidated house lacking electricity and running water. The children, consequently, were reared in a home abundant in filth, deprived of food, warmth, and sanity.

Despite the volatile childhood that unfolds within the pages of her memoir, Walls’ does not portray her parents as monsters. Rather, she describes them as she saw them, through the eyes of a child. The portraits Walls paints of each member of her family are vivid: each with their own voice, demeanor, and personality. Readers will come away from this memoir feeling as if they’ve come to know Rex, Rose Mary, Lori, Brian, Maureen, and Jeanette herself. There is nothing refined about the words that fall from the lips of innocence onto the page of Walls’ memoir. And so as readers we find that what remains is a story of unadulterated love within a family.




Rebecca Victoria Ramirez resides in Northern California with her partner, children, and an assortment of pets. She earned her BA in English May 2013 and will earn her MFA in Creative Writing January 2016.




Book Review: Tender at the Bone

Tender at the Bone


May 25, 2010

Random House, New York

ISBN: 978-0812981117





“Food could be a way of making sense of the world”:

Ruth Reichl’s Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table

by Rebecca Victoria Ramirez

Reichl’s parents were big entertainers. Reichl’s mother, endearingly nicknamed “the queen of mold,” bragged that she could “make a meal out of anything” and tested this claim on the many occasions when the Reichls hosted events in their home. At a young age Reichl designated herself the buffet table monitor, standing guard over the guests and shooing them away from the most hazardous of the dishes. When her older brother announced his engagement Reichl’s mother insisted on hosting the engagement party leading to over 26 of the guests taking trips to the hospital to have their stomachs pumped. When the calls started coming in asking if it could have been the food, Reichl’s mother responded “Nonsense. We all feel fine. And we ate everything.”

Reichl’s mother is bi-polar and because her sickness consumed both parents Reichl learned early on how to care for herself. When her parents abandoned her to take a trip to Europe Reichl was left with her maternal grandmother who then pawned her off on Aunt Birdie, the mother of her father’s first wife and her cook, Alice. Reichl’s time with them is one of her most cherished memories, in the kitchen learning to cook dumplings and chicken croquette.

Reichl grew up in the kitchen, listening to and relating stories while preparing ingredients for simple or extravagant dishes, fostered by those who shared her love of food. Included in this memoir is a collection of treasured recipes that are representative of significant moments in Reichl’s life. Rather than a simple narrative of a woman’s coming of age, these recipes enrich and add flavor to Reichl’s story.

Time after time Reichl faced abandonment by her parents. This continually led her to the kitchen, where in her youth, she found nurturing from her adopted grandmother and the family’s hired cook. In her young adulthood she found comfort in preparing her own dishes for friends and lovers. Despite the constant absence of her parents, Reichl’s readers are sure to find that her childhood and adolescence were brimming with love because her kitchen was always full with devoted and affectionate characters who aided her in “making sense of the world.”





Rebecca Victoria Ramirez resides in Northern California with her partner, children, and an assortment of pets. She earned her BA in English May 2013 and will earn her MFA in Creative Writing January 2016.


Book Review: Paul Killebrew’s Ethical Consciousness

$14; 120 pages
Canarium Books
ISBN: 9780984947126





“I am in the human world and not in the human world.”
Paul Killebrew’s Ethical Consciousness
By Bryce Bullins

Paul Killebrew’s latest collection of poetry, Ethical Consciousness, is statement of experience and of uncertainty, of anxiety and surefootedness, and of the ability of the human mind to process everything and nothing simultaneously. Killebrew’s verse is terse beyond measure yet reads in a flowing, precise manner. We become lost, overwhelmed even (in the best senses of the word) in the menagerie of language Killebrew has collected. Its construction is deliberately deliberate with single lines like “dark compromises” (“Exclamations in Earnest”) or “meticulous pagination” (“Muted Flags”) carrying their own gravity within the gravity of the poem at large. On their own, complexities are ripe within the tangible worlds Killebrew creates via the explorations of the metaphysical and subconscious desire of not only himself as a poet but the narrators of each poem (arguably the same but room for interpretation is vast). With the addition of the reader, invariably involved in the progression of the poem, these connections become immediate and resonant.

Killebrew has the ability to produce devastating lines of poetry that come unexpectedly but are immediately welcome and pummel a reader with deft weightiness. For example, in the title poem:

It’s as if the self
were a series of
occasionally arranged
in dizzying
complexity but
mostly repeating
ten or eleven sentences
from the brief oeuvre
of a personality
that grows only
like a balloon—

The meta presence of this particular excerpt is overwhelming: Killebrew is using a blanketing statement to make reference to the very thing we are doing at the moment of discovery in the reading and what Killebrew has already put on the page here and the preceding 22 pages: a series of mostly the same thoughts, despite variations, repeating again and again, and yet are still utterly engaging and relevant precisely because of their repetition. This is brilliant verse.

There is a tremendous strength in the language of Ethical Consciousness. It’s common language but not in a risible sense. The language presented here has a color palette all its own, unique to the worlds Killebrew is painting via his fast firing neuron verse. Despite these previously unknown shades, his verse is cogent and striking.

With its fast paced, line of flight construction, attention to emotive details while navigating away from sentimentality, and its ability to pull one into the world of forms it creates, Ethical Consciousness sits in an ether all its own. This is poetry that speaks best when it speaks for itself. To superimpose meaning or theory on to it outside of the personal experience of reading it for oneself would do disservice to it. This is intimate poetry that demands attention and rightfully deserves it.

Book Review: Partyknife by Dan Magers

$15 Print; $5 PDF; 92 pages
Birds, LLC
ISBN: 9780982617779




Shut Up and Play the Hits1: Dan Magers’ Partyknife
Bryce Bullins

“Tamaki asks me to talk dirty to her without being degrading, / but I don’t know the difference.”
“Love is a prelude to an afterthought.”
“I had an anxiety attack during the three-way. / I see through all appearance and know abundance.”

These are opening lines to poems in Dan Magers’ collection Partyknife, the collective sigh of palpable dread of being an up-and-coming adult in a world none of us will ever be able to get in touch with again while simultaneously bursting at the seams with the joy of being alive in such an insane moment.

Partyknife is nuanced poetry in readers digest post-ironic form. Magers’ verse is melodramatic, angry, and hopeful in the most modern sense of the word. It is filled with the directness of language we only fantasize of using out loud because we are too aloof in our own shoes at the byzantine carnival of the 21st century. The brusqueness of his content and its blasé approach to more or less everything captivates a reader in such a way that we both marvel and make faces of disgust at the seemingly cavalier attitude of Magers’ narrator. Scathing but poignant remarks such as “we were not fuck buddies. / We were not even buddies. / We were just fucks.” leaves a reader slack jawed with its audaciousness to simply say it as it is. At a deeper level, Magers mines into the vein of language most of us could only hope to use to express our inner turmoil. Magers has managed to acquire the gall we lack and in taking such a risk, his verse pays dividends in its delivery and resonance both on and off the page. These are poems catchy enough to remember for weeks after reading.

Fitting then that Partyknife is designed as a 7’’ vinyl and presents itself as an EP for a band that ought to exist but never will. The poems even have track lengths. It’s a playful anachronism in that despite the common conception of vinyl being an archaic form in the age of digital formats (primarily MP3), analog recordings and pressings remain of a higher fidelity.

For the uninitiated, MP3s are subpar to vinyl, or any analog based recording for that matter, because MP3s are compressed audio while analog recordings are not. In being compressed, the vibrancy and dynamism that can be heard in analog recordings is lost (this assumes you have the proper equipment to get the most out of that analog, however). CNET contributor Steve Guttenberg sums it up nicely: “An analog recording corresponds the variations in air pressure of the original sound. A digital recording is a series of numbers that correspond to the sound’s continuous variations, but the numbers have to be reconverted to analog signals before they can be listened to. Listening to a well-recorded LP, you hear humans making music; with digital it’s more about sound for sound’s sake.”2

Naturally then, the only viable form for Partyknife is that of the 7’’ vinyl. Partyknife would never be found on the iTunes store because its quality would be diminished in that garbage compression. The ability for abrasiveness is lost in digital formats. The language of humans is lost in compression and tiptoeing niceties. Partyknife is essential reading/listening because it’s the best kind of dangerous: it captures an emotional zeitgeist and it doesn’t care what anyone else thinks of it. It exists for itself and on its own, within and without the temporality it defines.

1 Also the name of a documentary about the final show of the seminal NYC band, LCD Soundsystem and there are arguably parallels to their music/lyrics and Partyknife.


Book Review: The Goldfinch

“We are so accustomed to disguise ourselves to others,

 that in the end, we become diguised to ourlves.”

-Francois De La Rochefoucauld

the goldfinch

Review by Courtney Berti

Donna Tartt

The Goldfinch

Little Brown

ISBN 978-0-316-05543-7


Why would anyone want to read a novel about the typical American teenager: after his mother dies, a promising thirteen-year-old moves in with his gambling drug-addict father, falls in with the wrong kids at school, does drugs, becomes an alcoholic, grows up, repeats father’s mistakes…It sounds like the plotline for a dramatic television series for teenagers. But the truth is that Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch is less for an uninformed teenaged audience, and more for a jaded and cynical adult audience. How does one figure?

Written from the first person perspective, readers are plunged inside the head of thirteen-year-old Theodore Decker at the moment when his upright, stable, fairly happy world is turned upside down forever. Initially, we see Theo making his first bad decision with his friend Tom, leading him to be suspended. His mother is escorting him to school to address the suspension and his behavior with his teachers when they are caught by a rainstorm. The two of them duck into The Hague to take shelter, browse for a bit, and in the moment we are introduced to the subject in the title (The Goldfinch, a painting by Carel Fabritius 1654) an explosion occurs that kills Theo’s mom and brings him face to face with fate in the form of an older gentleman by the name of Welty. Welty, in his last moments, gives Theo a ring that later leads him to an antique shop where he meets a lifelong friend by the name of Hobie who remains for Theo, and readers, a stable moral compass throughout the rest of the novel—a necessary character for a novel that tries to tackle questions such as: What is good or evil? Does fate exist? Is there a god? Does any of it mean anything?

It is in the stating of these questions, and in the stylistic choices that Tartt makes, that a number of risks are taken in the realm of what constitutes literature. For example, the twists of fate and the surprisingly happy ending are what have led more than one reviewer to identify (and criticize) The Goldfinch as Dickensian, in nature. Stephen King goes so far as to call Theo a “21st century Oliver Twist…” The criticism is that all of the loose ends of the novel are tied in a nice neat bow in a manner typical of Dickens as well as pop fiction and genre writers—pleasing to the unlearned reader of fiction but infuriatingly predictable to the student and writer of literature. In her essay, “The Breakout Element: Unpredictability and the Novel,” writer Lan Samantha Chang calls this neat wrap-up, “resolution of plot, at the expense of characters.”

Because of this tendency to break away from character for the sake of resolution, the end of The Goldfinch is, perhaps, the most notable risk taken by Tartt. The narrative style of the last chapter of the book changes drastically so that the main character, Theo, and his friends are indirectly addressing the reader while the characters are basking in the reverie of disasters righted and lessons learned, very much like the end of A Christmas Carol. In some cases Theo actually does address the reader (who he, ironically, suspects does not exist) but a good example of the tone near the end is when his best friend Boris says, “And I know how you think, or how you like to think, but maybe this is one instance where you can’t boil down to pure ‘good’ or pure ‘bad’ like you always want to do—? Like, your two different piles? Bad over here, good over here? Maybe not quite so simple” (745).

It may be that Boris is challenging Theo (and readers) a little too bluntly to abandon strictly black-and-white thinking (along with all the other little things the reader is asked to think about), as if the lesson of the book was not already learned by readers in the telling of it. Perhaps this is why some critics will call it a masterpiece like the artwork upon which the story is based, and why other’s will call it a children’s book for adults. Only in children’s books is the underlying lesson so tediously re-stated, but I think that Tartt pulls it off. The happy note on which the book ends is exactly what is needed as the reward for the reader who has experienced so much misery along with Theo for ten years of his life and at least a couple weeks of our own.

Not to say that the book is a miserable read, by any means. Tartt manages to draw readers so completely into the psyche of Theo via long, meandering, almost stream of consciousness paragraphs that we are sympathetic with his cause and feel as tortured as he throughout the novel. While this doesn’t sound particularly fun, I would argue that Tartt takes a risk by daring readers to explore the uncomfortable places of one’s own consciousness by writing in the first person, but also by creating a highly introspective, philosophical character who feels separated from the goings on of his everyday reality.

For starters, the book is divided into separate sections with their own labels, indicative of Theo’s emotional climate contained therein, (i.e. “Morphine Lollipop,” or “Wind, Sand and Stars,”), and Tartt manages, through her writing, to help us make sense of why each section is labelled as it is. For example, in the chapter entitled, “The Idiot,” we see Theo talking to himself: “…I hated being around people, couldn’t pay attention to what anyone was saying, couldn’t talk to clients, couldn’t tag my pieces, couldn’t ride the subway, all human activity seemed pointless, incomprehensible, some blackly swarming ant hill in the wilderness, there was not a squeak of light anywhere I looked, the antidepressants I’d been dutifully swallowing for eight weeks hadn’t helped a bit, nor…” etc.

Upon further examination, one sees that the title of this chapter (and its contents) is a criticism of modern American culture, which Tartt shows us throughout the novel—from New York to Las Vegas she uses pop-culture, art, film, and literature references to show their impact on Theo’s psyche. His choices and responses to this culture are demonstrated through his highly-conscious, deeply poetic, and philosophical persona.

Like this passage in which Theo is harried in the thrum of typical, every-day life for possibly the first time since he was thirteen, we see that it is not only the chapter headings, but the style of these long and winding passages, which are carefully crafted to reflect Theo’s state of mind. I believe that this is why, initially, the book feels slow and drawn out—reflecting a young boy’s half-stunned half-dead state of grieving almost too closely without giving any sense of a way out. But, once the story gets rolling and the reader is allowed to feel some relief along with Theo when he meets his friend Boris, these passages start to feel more natural, and then, dare I say, more like the stream of one’s own thoughts. Such is Tartt’s ability to display the vast emotional landscape of her main character.

As I said, I think that The Goldfinch is geared towards an audience of cynical and jaded adults. Not only does Tartt show readers how very little Theo is helped in tending to his emotional stability as a child, but also how this emotional state is carried on through adulthood. Tartt shows us the fast pace of the world and a man so caught up in it since he was thirteen that he must keep going or be overcome entirely, but by what? Theo acquired a painting, The Goldfinch, from The Hague on a day it was blown up. The explosion killed his mother and the painting serves as a metaphor for his emotions concerning her death—wrapped up tight in duct tape, a secret, hidden forever from himself and the world. The turnaround of the novel comes when Theo discovers that his friend Boris switched the painting for a magazine when they were kids and it has been sold to a person in Amsterdam. This metaphorically puts Theo in a place so distant from his feelings that he doesn’t even recognize them anymore—they are so far away that they are foreign.

Perhaps the ultimate criticism of American culture, therefore, is in the neat and risky resolution. Perhaps Tartt decides to “spell it out” for her readers because the point of the novel is to show how people have lost the emotional understanding to intuitively garner the meaning of the novel for themselves due to constant exposure to a culture that is too fast-paced, too dependent on drugs to drown out emotional problems, too distracted to feel—just like Theo. If this is the case, then the neat ending is the perfect ending to wrap it all up.

What makes The Goldfinch so brilliant, apart from the beauty in the writing itself, the complexity (and simplicity) of language, the depth of thought and emotion, is that by the end of an otherwise harrying tale, the reader feels relief, a sense of freedom from his or her own thoughts and the anxieties surrounding the belief that, “We don’t get to choose the people we are. Because—isn’t it drilled into us constantly, from childhood on, an unquestioned platitude in the culture—?”(761). And here, in this sense of relief, we understand why the book is named after and centered around a painting of a finch that is shackled to a perch by a chain drilled into a piece of wood by the culture of the man who maintained it.



Courtney BertiCourtney Berti lives in South Lake Tahoe with her dog and her boyfriend, Kelley. She will receive her MFA in Creative Writing from Sierra Nevada College by January 2015.