Review: Between Heaven and Hell by David Talbot

talbotBetween Heaven and Hell: The Story of My Stroke (Chronicle Prism, 176 pp, $22.95, January 2020)

David Talbot—journalist, popular historian, longtime San Francisco resident, and author of Season of the Witch—has written a surprisingly vulnerable, intimate, often funny and engaging memoir which chronicles the November 2017 stroke that has left him physically devastated yet feeling, at times, oddly peaceful and carefree. As he writes at the end of the book with a nod to the cover art by William Blake, the ordeal left him “ravaged and reborn, all at once.”

For most of his life, Talbot was an S.F. insider and Type-A striver, who founded the online news and culture magazine in 1995 and served as editor-in-chief for ten years despite intense financial pressures. (A quick check of the Salon site now is uninspiring, sadly.) His books have covered dangerous political terrain with elegant depth: Robert Kennedy obsesses about the truth behind his brother’s assassination in Brothers (2007); The Devil’s Chessboard (2015) took on the frightening abuses of power of the C.I.A. during the Cold War. His most popular book, Season of the Witch (2012), grappled with the dark, violent side of San Francisco in the late 1960s through the early 1980s, as well as the sexy, progressive cultural movements that flourished here.

Talbot has a gift for capturing the zeitgeist. And so, in this memoir, he somehow pulls his experience outside of himself. While keeping his feet on the earth, as in the cover art, he reaches for meaning. The first part of the book is full of medical details: what happened on the day of the stroke; how he eventually got to the E.R. at a local hospital, St. Luke’s (walking in, a mistake); how he missed the critical three-hour window to recover quickly; how he was transferred to Davies Medical Center’s stroke ward and began a long process of rehabilitation. What could be indulgent and deeply depressing, a plodding chronicle of loss, becomes something else.

He has had two career identities, and both nearly killed him. He writes amusingly and harrowingly of an apparent heart attack at Salon in 1998, which turned out to be a panic attack that struck, perhaps not coincidentally, when the co-founder of Adobe, John Warnock, was visiting the building for an important meeting and had reached the lobby. Anxious about his main investor seeing him being taken out of the office on a stretcher, he insisted on staggering down the back stairs before being bundled into an ambulance. The money came through; the site was saved, and Talbot, whose mother died of a stroke at sixty, was told he should take it easy. But of course, he didn’t.

And then there was Hollywood. The son of actor Lyle Talbot, he writes about attending a series of ultimately frustrating meetings in a fruitless quest to get his book on Allen Dulles and the CIA turned into a TV drama. There was a long meeting shortly before his stroke where he felt his head was going to explode from the pressure of trying to “sell” his story. He writes honestly of wanting to be financially saved by Hollywood. It’s a common fantasy, and Hollywood seems to thrive on bringing people close and dashing the cup from their lips. “Of course, Hollywood mythology and reality are two different things,” Talbot concludes darkly. “The business behind the screen can be the most sleazy and brutal that American has to offer. Words don’t mean anything—the more praise I would hear about my books, the more I knew they didn’t have a chance.”

Word, as they say. But Talbot’s stroke effectively ended his Hollywood aspirations. He had to learn to live again, in a more introspective fashion, aided by his wife and two grown sons, and initially helped by a GoFundMe page started by a family friend. With a wonky left eye, dark glasses, a cane, and a staggering gait, Talbot doesn’t feel like his old self and understands he will never regain that self. But there is something more, and this is what I loved most about the book. Talbot’s brave self-awareness about his twilight existence in the sterile, noisy S.F. of today helped me take stock of my own life:

I now live in a ghost world, and not everyone who was once close to me wants to venture into this shadowy place to hang out with me. Some people are clearly spooked. I remind them of their own frailty and mortality. I get it; it’s understandable. But it confirms my spectral status to me.

…The truth is, I want to keep living at half-speed, in my secure, bubble world, with those to whom I can feel effortlessly close. No, I don’t just want to—I need to.

But there’s joy here. More sensitive to musical beats, Talbot breaks out into impromptu dances while clothes-shopping with his wife and sister (he shares a playlist at the end of the book, charmingly). A year after the stroke he and wife Camille take off to Carmel to escape the terribly polluted air during the wildfires with their dog, Brando. Talbot writes amusingly of this surreal episode, where they, along with a bunch of other exhausted refugees from the city, stay in Doris Day’s pet-friendly inn and watch the dogs caper on the beach. A woman with a blind dog chats with them. “The woman told Camille that her small dog was blind but she liked to bring him to dog-friendly beaches so he could smell and hear his fellow canines as they barked and splashed in the surf. She said it made him happy. I could relate—I’m now nearly half blind too, and crazy canine carnivals like the one spinning out of control on the beach made me laugh out loud like a kid.”

When they return to the city “the air still smelled like a dying campfire,” but soon there is rain. And so it goes in this book and in life, where the good is juxtaposed with the bad, and the painful with the happy. Talbot’s sons are now doing well (his son Joe directed a movie and you can feel his pride in that); ultimately, he has decided to stay in San Francisco, which takes a special kind of courage and commitment. For a city that gives a lot, it also takes a lot, and you can feel a conversation going on throughout the book between Talbot and the place he once felt so comfortable. Out walking, he now feels like roadkill, he admits. Coming home from the hospital, he is alienated: “The city was shrill and mechanical; a flock of construction cranes hovered monstrously in the skyline. I couldn’t make sense of all the loud disorder. There was no warm embrace from me from the city that still had my heart.”

But then he is asked to speak at a Jane Kim rally as she runs for mayor in 2018. Plucking up his courage, he addresses a crowd of young people from a seated position in a rowdy space South of Market, begging their patience because talking is still a work in progress. The young techies quieten down, and “San Francisco inspired a passionate eloquence in me.” There is still something to fight for here, in his view. And I can attest that on Facebook (where the early draft of this book started, ironically), Talbot is a charming, open presence, willing to share his historical knowledge.

As I read Between Heaven and Hell, I reflected to my astonishment that I am only fifteen years younger than Talbot, born the year his family moved to San Francisco. I see him now as something of a peer, though that seems presumptuous. But we are all searching for meaning and purpose in this life, going through many of the same things in our different circumstances. The memoir made me feel more connected and, perhaps, more hopeful. I hope Between Heaven and Hell won’t be Talbot’s last book, but if so, it is a beautiful and generous swan song.




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A Knight’s Tale: Montargis Gets a BookBub Promo, Starting Today!

helmet and ruined abbey

‘Montargis’ is Book 2 of a planned trilogy.

The follow-up to A Knight’s Tale: Kenilworth is now featured on BookBub and available for 99 cents at all the major ebook retailers (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple, Kobo, Google Play)!

Writing the book in the winter of 2017 through early spring 2018 was a magical and sometimes startling experience, where it felt like the characters and their relationships were channeled to me straight from the 13th century. I believe Montargis is my best novel, though it’s one that has not garnered many reviews, so it has been hard to tell how it resonated with readers.

Up until now. Yet a recent in-depth review on Amazon captures the heart and soul of the book beautifully:

“It was snowing, light flakes tumbling down. The night was quiet, the moon up overhead, and it seemed strange and incredible that terrible things could happen in the world.”

-Will, in “A Knight’s Tale: Montargis”

Gabriella West has written another powerful, thoughtful, and at times heart-breaking novel that delivers a deeply moving, beautiful portrait of love between two young men. The story provides moments to cherish that are buoyant, quiet, poetic, full of grace, and some that are erotic, yet others that are raw and disturbing. A Knight’s Tale: Montargis is a compelling, tightly rendered sequel that continues the story of Will Talbot, a 13th-century English knight loyal to the Montfort family, and his lover Stephen, a ward of the Montfort’s who was saved as a boy from the slaughter of his family. Having escaped the rout of the Second Barons’ War and the death of Earl Simon and his eldest son, Will, Stephen and the surviving members of the Montfort household escape to France. 

But Will and Stephen quickly find out that there is no escaping the political and psychological damage of the war, nor of the machinations of the Earl’s second son, also named Simon. In the first book, a romantic triangle formed as Will found himself attracted to both the older, stronger and socially superior Simon and the slightly-built, abused Stephen. West has a keen eye for historical detail and her research into this period, and the real-life Montfort family’s political downfall, provides a convincing backdrop for her insightful, absorbing depictions of behavior, psychology, and the dynamics between these three men and those who care for them.

Will is a bit of a magpie, someone who is susceptible to the charms of certain people even though he has substantial backbone to resist others. Even so, his ongoing attraction to Simon, whose darker and more sociopathic tendencies become clear, is disturbing, especially when Will can no longer deny the harm Simon has inflicted. It’s a rollercoaster ride to try to continue believing in Will as he repeatedly falls under the sway of Simon —and a couple of other people, too — wondering what it will mean for his future with Stephen.

None of this would work as a story, though, if we didn’t feel the bond between Will and Stephen as deeply as we do. The intense intimacy, tender caring, and soul-deep affection between the two young men is conveyed in everyday imagery, from feeding each other honey on finger tips or entwined limbs as they drift off to sleep to secretly clasping hands on a night time stroll, and in the ways the couple find each other again and again as they navigate their own individual inner struggles. Especially in the first third of the book, I found that these displays of love, honest affection and overarching devotion — a devotion unique to Will and Stephen, having nothing to do with the expectations of church or aristocracy or neighbors — was so satisfying that I was hoping it might continue for the entire novel, as a kind of quiet meditation on the quality of lives shared to the fullest. But Simon always lurks somewhere in the background, and we know this isn’t going to happen.

Despite the horror and tragedy that engulfs them, and the sadness they endure, West has given us a couple who discover the courage to reveal themselves to each other, to endure life’s dark side, and still find that they want to hold each other at night. It’s a portrait of tenderness and caring that I find uniquely beautiful.

The dialogue is beautifully written. It’s crisp and clear, terse, tense or tender by turns. Sometime it sparkles, sometimes it ignites, and sometimes it is the gaps – what the characters don’t say – that is most riveting. West has a talent for making the silences between characters apparent but not obvious. She invites the reader to fill in what is not being said, drawing the characters closer to the reader and making them more of a living presence as the story unfolds.

It is also in the dialogues that we find the characters meditating on the nature of desire, on its opportunistic and unconstrained nature, and also on closer, more permanent bonds of affection. West interweaves these reflective passages into the story’s action, so that we come back to them time after time. They remind me of similar dialogues that can be found in the ancient world, and in China, Japan, India and even medieval Europe over the last two millennia. In Montargis, they are occasioned by the old Montfort family messenger, Wilecok, whose grumbling, vaguely sinister presence in the first book takes center stage in Montargis. Hedonistic, direct, funny and wise, one wonders just how literally the author intended for us to understand Wilecok’s name as he becomes a lovable, trusted guide for Will and Stephen.

I am grateful for these exceptional books, which reflect the best of our aspirations concerning affection, love and devotion to one another. (Amazon reviewer RV on 1/10/2020)

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A Challenging New Year: Downbeat Trends for Indie Publishing


Rosehips on tea rose bushes in Newfoundland (courtesy Stan Collins). Feels like we’re at the point in indie publishing where we are, like birds, eating rosehips to survive the winter.

And so, 2020 starts out intense right out of the gate!

But although our attention is drawn to a possible war brewing with Iran due to an impulsive act of political assassination by the hapless idiot acting as our president, and also to the terrifying Australian wildfires, life goes on in the indie publishing trenches.

I wanted to share Smashwords CEO Mark Coker’s frank and downbeat assessment of the state of indie publishing, 2020 Publishing Predictions, which he puts out on New Year’s Eve every year. The first few years I read them, starting in 2012, these long reads were quite gushing and optimistic. No longer! Since Mark is in a position where he can actually observe the flow of money coming in ebook-wise, I’ve always taken his prognostications seriously.

This jumped out at me: “To my eyes and ears, indies are experiencing increased pain, anxiety, desperation and depression.”

He even thinks that the audiobook market is too difficult to get traction in for indie writers now because of expense. Ironically, I’ve just released my second audiobook via royalty share and have been pleased with the response, but admittedly it will be a while before I can do another.

Mark Coker touches on the Romance Writers of America debacle as well and questions their ability to survive as an organization. They have just cancelled their 2020 RITA contest!

“Due to recent events in RWA, many in the romance community have lost faith in RWA’s ability to administer the 2020 RITA contest fairly, causing numerous judges and entrants to cancel their participation,” the organization said in a statement Monday. “The contest will not reflect the breadth and diversity of 2019 romance novels/novellas and thus will not be able to fulfill its purpose of recognizing excellence in the genre. For this reason, the Board has voted to cancel the contest for the current year. The plan is for next year’s contest to celebrate 2019 and 2020 romances.”

Tough times! But perhaps better times lie ahead.

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Happy Holidays…

waxwingsSomehow, it’s mid-December. This year does feel especially Christmas-y, if only because the weather is decidedly wintry… and the sister of a school friend, whom I have not seen since I was twelve, volunteered to send me a Christmas pudding in the mail from Boston! I will have to steam it for another two hours on the day, she tells me, something I am quite happy to do.

It’s been a busy year for editing. I realize that I have copyedited or proofread at least 35 books, as well as my work for a bi-monthly local magazine, which continues. It hasn’t been a great year for my own writing, but that’s OK. Last year was. We can all use a break.

On the subject of breaks, I won’t be taking any more manuscripts till January. I hope to use the time off to clean and organize my home office, listen to scads of old voicemails, and think about the year ahead! 2020 is the Year of the Rat in Chinese astrology, not traditionally an auspicious one for me. But who knows, right?

Before I forget: The traditional annual Smashwords End of Year Sale starts on Christmas Day and continues through New Year’s Day. I’m proud to say that this time I’ll have ALL my novels for sale, along with ADHD memoir Connecting the Dots, at either 50% or 75% off. It’s a good opportunity to check out my backlist!

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Time of Grace Released in Audio Format!

I finished writing my lesbian historical novel Time of Grace 20 years ago, which is astonishing to me. Set at the time of the Easter Rising of 1916, it was published by a small press in Ireland, and subsequently released in the US in paperback format. In 2013, I brought out an ebook edition. Now it’s on Audible for your listening pleasure, narrated by P. J. Morgan.

Morgan’s stirring delivery brings alive the forbidden romance of idealistic young Londoner Caroline Singleton, working outside the home for the first time as a governess and mourning the loss of her brother in battle, and street-smart Dublin girl Grace Sheridan, away from home too, working as a housemaid in a big country house. The story takes place against the backdrop of World War 1 and a restless Ireland poised to break away from English rule and create its own destiny. Will the lovers triumph or will convention, and their own striking differences, defeat them?

Red City Review called Time of Grace “An exquisite and heart-wrenching tale. …full of tantalizing plot lines and moments that will stay with the reader for a long time to come.”

Check out this audio clip of Time of Grace.

Find it on Audible here.

Find it on Apple here.

A limited number of promo codes are available in exchange for an honest review. Write to me to request one!


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Beto and Pete: A Tale of Two Articles

As Beto O’Rourke’s candidacy has just abruptly ended, I decided to reblog my post from April 2019.

Gabriella West

In this election season, good journalism is important. But what happens when “good journalism” comes up against people’s uncritical adoration of a candidate?

7446 Janet Malcolm around the time the book came out.

We all know the stereotype of the “hit piece.” In Janet Malcolm‘s 1990 book The Journalist and the Murderer, she writes this about the professional journalist:

He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. Like the credulous widow who wakes up one day to find the charming young man and all her savings gone, so the consenting subject of a piece of nonfiction learns—when the article or book appears—his hard lesson. Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments. The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and “the public’s right to know”; the least talented talk about Art; the…

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Loma Prieta Memory: Reading Pinter by Candlelight

(Note: I lived through Loma Prieta in 1989, which is now, incredibly, 30 years ago. The first section of this essay was written in 1999, on the 10th anniversary of the earthquake.)

old white apartment building collapsed

Big old apartment buildings collapsed in the Marina District, San Francisco, in 1989.

I’d been in San Francisco for a little over a year, having moved here from Ireland in July of 1988 right after college. At 22, I was a grad student in Creative Writing at SFSU, shy and isolated. I was living alone in an old four-story apartment building on Scott Street between Fell and Oak, illegally subletting an apartment from an eccentric writer who had left for pastures new in Washington, D.C. (A few months later I would be thrown out of this apartment by the yuppie landlord who’d purchased the building.) Most of the things in the apartment were his—the dusty books, the big leafy plants perched on shelves, the bed—even the phone and the answering machine. None of my friends lived in the un-hip Western Addition and my neighbors were older, antisocial types who seemed to be retired, nursing various sorts of addictions, or on disability.

So there I was, sitting on the bed at around 5 pm that Wednesday afternoon in October. I had decided, luckily as it turned out, not to go to my lesbian and gay film class at City College. Taking the K streetcar would be too much of a drag this evening, I mused, especially when I would have to wait for it in the dark and fog after class got out. I was just resting, then, or more accurately moping, as I often did in those rootless first years in the City. Suddenly the building began to shake. Even worse, it began to groan and creak. The creaking sound as it rocked from side to side was indescribable. “Oh God!” I remember saying, rooted to the bed in panic. Should I run for the doorway? It seemed to last forever. I was sure in that moment that the house was going to go down, that I was going to die. My mother, who’d lived in Southern California as a teen and young woman, had always told me to run for the doorway in an earthquake. So I stumbled belatedly to the doorway. Around the time I got there the shaking stopped.

I had no idea how serious it was, of course. Nor had anybody else in the building. My phone was dead, the electricity down. As I wandered around the darkening living room, I noted that plants and books had fallen off the shelves, a few cracked plates in the kitchen. I was still stunned—but at least it was over.

One of the downstairs neighbors, a gay man, came up to turn off my gas. Even a natural disaster didn’t bring my oddball neighbors together, though. We all drifted back gloomily to our silent, dark apartments. I lit a candle and lay on the bed. I was reading everything I could by the English playwright Harold Pinter at the time, so I picked up a collection of his grim plays to read as I waited, in limbo. I felt terribly vulnerable—afraid to go out, cut off from the world. When my phone did come back on I called my friend Elgy, a flamboyant Irish journalist in her forties who lived in the Mission. Sounding almost defiantly exhilarated, she described what a fun time she, her boyfriend, and their roommates were having, the party atmosphere in their house. “I didn’t mind it a bit!” she said.

This seemed to be true of every couple I spoke to about their experience of the quake. It made me even sadder in the days ahead, that no one admitted to any feelings of fear, like the terror I’d felt of dying alone in a creaky old apartment building in a new city, far from family and loved ones. I seemed to be the only one among my acquaintance who had experienced anything negative. My friend Denise, another journalist, had sped off to the Marina to document the burning houses. She had seen a writer friend of ours riding by on her motorcycle; apparently, they’d shouted gleeful hellos to each other. Another writer friend described cuddling with his girlfriend in the aftermath of the quake. If I’d had a lover, I thought, it would have been so different.

But all I had was the strangeness of being woken up at 5 am the next morning by my stepfather, Nathaniel, calling from Ireland. I didn’t, of course, know yet about the Bay Bridge collapse and the seriousness of the Marina destruction, nor could I see the gruesome images of the Cypress Freeway that people around the world were viewing on television.

“Are you all right?” my stepfather demanded.

“Yes… why are you calling me so early?” I replied groggily.

“To see whether you’re OK, you eejit!” he snapped. Like most of the few expressions of love in our family, this one went unappreciated by me at the time. It’s only now, 10 years later, and years since we’ve been in contact, that I’m touched that he rang.


And in another sort of earthquake, the family that I left behind in Ireland in 1988 has splintered and disintegrated. My stepfather dumped my mother in 1994 for a younger woman; she moved to another Irish town and died suddenly in 2002, of the breast cancer that she’d remained silent about—at least to me—for years. Although I was with her at the end, I never understood why she didn’t call me after the earthquake, or after the equally shattering experience of 9/11. The world has upended twice since I’ve been in Northern California; now with this global recession we appear to be facing an even more insidious and inevitable societal collapse and implosion. It requires great strength and resilience to keep moving forward. Even more so in the age of Trump.

I don’t know if the experience of these life-changing events toughens us or weakens us. Perhaps the people I knew back then who reacted to the earthquake with bravado carried their own scars, too. Now I’m old enough to know that they must have, because we all do.

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A Short Month, but an Exhausting One!

September was pretty exhausting! Due to a reshuffle at a magazine I work for, I was unexpectedly placed in a different role: copyediting rather than proofing. When I used to work for the Pacific Sun in San Rafael, I envied the copy editor’s position and wondered if I could do her job. Well, I can now see why she was so incredibly focused and absorbed in her work! I love learning new things: there are always one or two things that jump out at me in every issue, and I’m like, “Wow!” But the workflow moves so fast that my memory tends to be wiped after each issue is put to bed.

Talking about events moving fast, impeachment is now on the horizon! Thank God we’re getting somewhere. At the same time, there is a gravity to the situation that can’t be denied. This was a strange week of ultra-fast breaking news: reading the Whistleblower Complaint while simultaneously watching Acting DNI Maguire testify in front of Congress and then going downstairs to work on deadlines… I can no longer remember what exactly happened when, just that the president’s “men” are unraveling (Giuliani’s mental state is frightful to behold), and the whistleblower will soon be testifying in private session to the Intel Committee.


Image by Chris Britt.

I signed up for a year of digital access to the Washington Post in a sort of angry reaction to the New York Times‘s blunder in revealing that the whistleblower is a C.I.A. officer, among other missteps. They have lost their way, but the huge amount of cancellations they apparently got this week should have sent them a sharp message. We’ll see. I like the idea of reading the paper of Woodward & Bernstein when this president’s time is finally up. Hillary Clinton this week pointedly called him “a corrupt human tornado.”

These are incredibly stressful times. Buckle up!


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Summer Has Started

It would have been Anthony Bourdain’s 63rd birthday today. Enjoy a listen to his inimitable voice. He manages to bring out the poetry in Waffle House. Today is a day to remember him with love.

In book promotion news, I’m participating in the upcoming Smashwords Summer/Winter sale (July 1-31). This monthlong event always livens up the summer gloom (because summer in San Francisco really is a kind of winter!). I will have one standalone book free (my first novel, The Leaving), and the two books in my LGBT historical fiction series will both be 50% off. I’ll pop back with links and things closer to the time. In the meantime, my Elsie Street Trilogy is heavily discounted for Pride Month on Smashwords, and this continues in July as well.

Politics: I’ll be avidly watching the two Democratic debates this week!

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