Tuesday, July 17, 2018

INVITATION TO A BONFIRE :: Adrienne Celt

This review previously ran in Shelf Awareness and appears here with permission.

Adrienne Celt, novelist, cartoonist and delightfully self-described "friend to imaginary people and animals," proves an equally good friend to the living with Invitation to a Bonfire. An intimate character study and twisted psychological saga, Bonfire is wrapped in the distinctive atmosphere of 1930s Russia and the East Coast American upper class.

An opening note identifies the work as the project of an elite New Jersey all-girl boarding school, told through a compilation of documents posthumously donated by a benefactor--diary entries of a young Russian refugee and letters from an infamous Soviet author to his wife. The note cleverly teases the death and deception to follow as the paths of the two cross with fatal consequences.

Zoya is a war orphan smuggled into the United States and dropped at the Donne School with threadbare clothing and $10 to her name. Zoya's 1931 diary exquisitely recounts her difficulties fitting in while surrounded by cruel girls from wealthy families. Leo Orlov is steered to literary success by his calculating wife, Vera ("[s]harp as a tack...[c]old as a Frigidaire"), ultimately landing at Donne as a visiting professor and seducing Zoya. When Leo temporarily returns to Russia, his wife and mistress undertake a manipulative friendship, partially at his behest.

Celt (The Daughters) writes in beautiful detail, particularly within Zoya's diaries, which exhibit a detached coolness that renders her captivatingly enigmatic. Leo's letters to Vera are adoring, yet cunning in their own right. Filled with characters of unreliable passion and motive, Bonfire smolders with intrigue through the final reveal.

STREET SENSE:  This is a twisted love triangle involving a young Russian woman, her famous author lover and his calculating wife that plays out to a tragic end in 1930s New Jersey. If smoldering character studies are your thing, this will be a good pick.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  Those girls, they liked me so easily and so much the second they saw me as one of their own...A girl from their same world, where houses got drafty from size instead of poor craftsmanship, and your uncle came by just to take you and your girlfriends out for chocolate milkshakes, which you sucked up through colored straws. Where you slept in on Saturdays, and could accomplish anything you set your mind to, and where you were given a bright red bicycle with streamers on the handlebars, which whistled as you rode. They'd never known how to make do, to sew the covers back on old schoolbooks. To sneak into the cloakroom at restaurants and gather tobacco from men's coat pockets in order to make a cigarette with which to bribe the greengrocer. To watch their parents turn into strangers before their eyes, and then be told by those strangers that they didn't deserve any more than what others had, because why would they? The girls didn't want to know those things. And they were equally afraid of the fact that I did, and that I could shed the appearance of knowledge so quickly. Like slipping out of a skin.

COVER NERD SAYS:  The best selling point of this cover is really the title, which I find intriguing enough in its own right to make me pick this up off a shelf/display table. There are also several design aspects to the cover I like, but it doesn't knock my socks off. The image of the envelope adds to the intrigue and shows up much better on the final copy than my version. I also appreciate the blue v. red imagery of the title font, but I think I would have preferred something more aligned with the envelope and title. The elements are good, I'm just not sure they fit together perfectly to suit the atmosphere of this novel.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

THE ADDICTION SOLUTION :: LLOYD I. SEDERER, M.D.

A version of this review was previously published in Shelf Awareness and appears here with permission.

"Drug taking is a highly complex and variable human and social phenomenon...[that] is not going away." Material on addiction is seemingly limitless, and choosing who and what to believe can be treacherous territory when lives are at risk. Lloyd Sederer, M.D., chief mental health officer of the New York State Office of Mental Health, brings a prestigious pedigree to his perspective, The Addiction Solution.

Sederer engenders confidence on numerous fronts, particularly in acknowledging that drugs are winning the "War on Drugs" by a landslide; that current drug policies are actually institutionalized racism; and that there is no "one-size-fits-all" answer to a very individualized epidemic. Confining his discussion to illegal drugs and the abuse of legal drugs, Sederer presents a straightforward, plain-language overview of available options and best-care treatment scenarios.

He advocates the use of social values and family influence over "control and consequences," which he considers a "puritan approach" akin to tilting at windmills. Moreover, a community methodology emphasizes identification of risk and the importance of eliminating adverse childhood experiences. As Frederick Douglass said, "It is easier to build strong children than repair broken men."

Summarizing available methods and treatments, Sederer believes single-method recovery (i.e., 12-step) is not the road to maximum success. He recommends a multifaceted plan attacking addiction on multiple fronts that enhance one another. The Addiction Solution offers guidance; it is not a textbook or exhaustive treatise. It proposes tools to fight the disease and plainly, though not overly simplistically, suggests the best means to implement them.

STREET SENSE: A common sense overview of the various means and methods to fight addiction based on a community and multi-treatment methodology.

COVER NERD SAYS: This cover didn't really float my boat and, frankly, didn't fill me with confidence. When I read the author's credentials I felt much better and the theories presented were actually quite valuable and well-presented. I wish the cover weren't so elementary, although I can see how a more "intense" or "serious" cover could lead one to think this was a treatise-type work and fail to attract the target audience. Tough call, but I would have liked to see something a bit more formal.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

THE LONELY WITNESS :: William Boyle

A version of this review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness and is reprinted here with permission.

William Boyle's The Lonely Witness is a knockout combination of in-depth character work, Brooklyn atmosphere and straight-up gritty noir. The devotion Boyle (Gravesend) demonstrates for character, story and place is perhaps the one unadulterated emotion on display in a story imbued with ambiguous morality and loyalty.

When Amy Falconetti's girlfriend Alessandra leaves her to pursue a career in Hollywood, she rebounds by quitting her bar job, ditching her semi-goth style, moving into a basement apartment and returning to church. Wanting to be of service, Amy volunteers as a Eucharistic minister, providing communion to house-bound parishioners. When elderly Mrs. Epifanio expresses concern that her caregiver's son Victor has been coming in her stead and shutting himself in Mrs. E's bedroom, Amy takes it upon herself to investigate.

Surreptitiously trailing Victor stirs up Amy's childhood recollections of repeatedly following a neighbor she witnessed committing an act of violence. Tracking Victor provides a sense of control over her present turmoil and traumatic memories, but Amy is soon caught up in a risky game she can't, and might not want to, escape.

Boyle beautifully uses the first half of the narrative to set the stage for a volatile, fast-moving back end. The potential cost of Amy continuing her behavior is ramped up by the sudden return of Alessandra and the appearance of Amy's long-thought-dead father, who is willing to do anything to earn her favor.

STREET SENSE:  The Lonely Witness is a fabulous character piece wrapped in layers of intrigue and subterfuge.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  I'm hard to please when it comes to writing about atmosphere and sense of place, and since Boyle kicked atmosphere's ass (it became one of my favorite facets of the book), I thought that's what I would share:

The avenue is crowded and alive, but it seems to be dying at the same time. Closed riot gates full of rust and graffiti. Battered El columns in the street spidering along endlessly. People tossing away their garbage as they walk--abandoned scratch-offs, beer cans in brown paper bags, pages from a child's coloring book. Half-hearted new construction projects all around, paired with a roof caving in here, a broken window there. Graffiti over a beautiful half-hidden old shoe store sign. Everything feeling partly poisonous. Or poisoned. Here are men with decaying teeth, with decaying smiles, and women trudging along with their shoulders hunched. A bike without wheels is chained to a lamppost.

COVER NERD SAYS: I dig it. Love the moodiness of the image, which is perfect for the content. The typeface size, font and palette all meld with and stand out from (without distracting from, a very fine edge to walk) the image. And the lonely "O." This is great cover work that seems to have been well thought out, and I'm sure there are aspects of it I'm missing.

Friday, June 1, 2018

COVE :: Cynan Jones

A version of this review was previously published in Shelf Awareness and appears here with permission.

With his fifth short novel, Cynan Jones (Everything I Found on the Beach) further establishes himself as a master of the power of less. Cove consists of spare, verse-like prose, a sentence or two of thought or observation not always in direct correlation to the preceding or subsequent passages, yet all part of a poignant whole. A deceptively simple story of man against nature, Cove's coolness sits on currents of underlying complexity that amplify the tumult. Although the writing is quiet and polished, the terror is real. "No paddle. No flashlight. One dead phone."

A kayaker leaves a simple note, "Pick salad x," and heads to the sea to fish. Caught in a storm--"One repeated word now. No, no, no."--he is struck by lightning. On regaining consciousness, his body is damaged, his memory horrifyingly blank. He can't recall his name, but he knows he's in trouble and must find a way back to a life that flickers like static electricity at the back of his mind.

Jones writes with an attention to detail that dazzles in its ability to capture the beauty of nature ("a flock of jellyfish, like negligees") and its supreme power ("A metallic sheen comes to the water, like cutlery") with sure-handed brevity. At just over 100 pages, Jones's minimalist style has maximum effect, creating empathy for a mystery protagonist, warmth for his past and hope for his future as he struggles against the odds to be the legend who returns rather than the myth who disappeared.

STREET SENSE: A kayaker loses his memory following a lightning strike and must fight for his life on the open sea in this minimalist glimpse into his jumbled mind. Perfect for those who like their writing down and dirty yet lyrical.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE: There was a ringing in his ears, a high, insecty whine. He felt drunk. His head pumped full with something. He let the light in bit by bit, as if sipping it with his eye, raised his head and saw the water. For a moment he thought he was in some way blind; but then he understood: there was just the water, there was nothing else to see.

COVER NERD SAYS: A bird, the open ocean, sold. I love the minimalist nature of this cover, which fits well with the innards. Would pick up from any book store table.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

AMATEUR HOUR :: Kimberly Harrington

A version of this review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness and is reprinted here with permission. This book was also one of my Nerdy Special List picks for May. Go see all of the May recommendations here.

You don't need to be a mother (or foulmouthed) to enjoy Amateur Hour: Motherhood in Essays and Swear Words. A self-described "Real Piece of Work," freelance creative director Kimberly Harrington lets her yearning, indignation, exhaustion and attitude fly in pieces that span far beyond motherhood.

Harrington has a caustic, intelligent wit, and her humor pieces, generally laced with biting sarcasm or satire, are exceedingly entertaining. Yet her talent shines most when that wit merely eases the sting of deeper candor about challenging subjects--grief, divorce, the desire to be seen--particularly when jarringly juxtaposed with a comic listicle.

Harrington evokes a swaggering Hell yes! vibe with her take on "If Mama Ain't Happy, Ain't Nobody Happy" ("If Mama ain't yelling and instead is very, very singsongy, ain't nobody getting out of this one alive"), then pulls the emotional rug out with the devastation of a first-pregnancy miscarriage in "Tiny Losses." "What we finally saw, as she held the wand still, was a small gray jelly bean resting on its side at the bottom of my uterus, like a stone in an empty bucket."

The collection varies widely in form and substance, grounded by Harrington's insight and sincerity. Pinpoint observations communicate an intimacy that compels appreciation regardless of personal experience with the subject matter. One does not have to be a mother to enjoy Harrington's work. If the promise of swear words isn't enough, come for the humanity.

STREET SENSE:  I was so happy Shelf Awareness starred this review to hopefully give Ms. Harrington's work a little extra notice. Her essays are hilarious and often touching, hitting such a variety of subjects (motherhood, marriage, parenting, bodies, bake sales, grief, careers and other perils of adulthood) there really is something for everyone and even those about a subject far from one's own experience is read-worthy. In fact, those were often the ones that grabbed me the most.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  Actually, a few one-liners(ish) I loved and portions from a piece on the invisibility of women:

From Your Participation Trophies are Bullshit:  "We are good-jobbing kids right into incompetency."

From If You Love Your Grandparents, Go Visit Them: "The powerless and the vulnerable, forever the canaries of our own morality."

From Dear Stay-at-Home Moms and Working Moms, You're Both Right:  "Of course reducing all of mothering to two opposing sides is such an American thing to do, isn't it? To make it a catfight wrapped in apple pie."

From Ashes to Ashes: "The surgery scars sprinkled across her body marked every time age or disaster tried to take a swipe at her. They did not mark her deficits; they were a tally of her triumphs."

From Hot-Ass Chicks:  Because no one really sees middle-aged women, do they?..So. Pardon me if by the time we are middle-aged and it seems we are not making enough of an effort to be on proper display while not grossing men out with our very existence and teaching our daughters how not to be assaulted and arranging the magazines on our coffee tables just so, pardon me if I don't get a bit down about how it'd be great to just have a tighter neck or a thinner waist. Because I feel like I'm owed something for having juggled all these chain saws for so long, that all that balancing and "on the other hand"-ing should've resulted in some killer core strength right now. That I should be rewarded with just the right amount of visibility.

COVER NERD SAYS: I admit it, I picked this one for the subtitle. Promise me swearing and I'll follow you just about anywhere. There is an art to doing it well, however, and Harrington nails it. This cover is not directly in my wheelhouse, but I recognize it's super well done. The grenade with lethal heart fragments is spot-on. I get the target audience might be primarily women and mothers, but I think that doesn't do the book justice. I wonder if having the grenade a color other than pink might draw more varied sets of eyes. But that's likely just my anti-pink self and overall this cover is a winner.


Tuesday, May 22, 2018

THE MAN WHO CAUGHT THE STORM :: Brantley Hargrove

A version of this review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness and is reprinted here with permission.

Tim Samaras was one of those uncommon individuals who turned his childhood obsession into a lifelong passion that he used to change the world. Captivated by The Wizard of Oz and a PBS storm-chasers special as a boy, Samaras evolved into the greatest tornado researcher of our time. The Man Who Caught the Storm is journalist Brantley Hargrove's intimate portrait of the soul and intellect of a fascinating man whose life goal was to do the undoable--map ground-level data from the heart of a supercell twister.

Samaras, a self-taught weather forecaster and electrical engineer, made his living testing weapon systems at the Denver Research Institute, a job he obtained with no experience and a resume hand-written on a lined sheet of paper. The fervor and fortitude that jump from Hargrove's well-researched profile evidence Samaras as a person who simply would not be denied his legacy. During tornado season, Samaras lived and breathed storms, chasing weather fronts along with funding to continue his research. Finding greater renown on Discovery Channel's reality series Storm Chasers, Samaras's level-headed yet persistent boundary pushing made him a legend in the weather community.

Writing about weather is difficult at best, but Hargrove does a marvelous job mixing heady science with an engrossing and personal narrative. Nirvana for weather fanatics, the storytelling remains appealing to a broad audience, infused with the soul of a loving family man on a mission to reach his dreams and dance with nature's devil while trying to make the world a safer place.

STREET SENSE: I can't tell you how much I hate tornados. Having been born and raised in the fair climes of Northern California, anything much different than 70-degrees and sunny is foreign (P.S. earthquakes, but eh)(P.P.S. Not counting the short time I spent white-knuckling it while living in "Tornado Alley," never to be repeated). Scary weather, the type of weather that brings (seemingly) 8,000 days of anticipation angst, I hate it. I wouldn't be caught dead watching an episode of Storm Chasers. But Brantley Hargrove did such a great job with this book that I loved the hell out of it despite my anti-tornado sentiments. It is scientifically detailed yet heartwarming, and made me wish I had been able to meet the man it profiled.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE: Until the early 1950s, official policy forbade even the utterance of the word tornado in weather forecasts. The government was convinced that citizens were no more sensible than stampeding cattle, that entire cities would descend into hysteria upon hearing the dread word, resulting in far more fatalities than the thing itself. Tornado was a word of power: deadly if spoken; deadly if left unspoken. Better to leave it unsaid, decided the U.S. Army Signal Services, and later the U.S. Weather Bureau, since few within their ranks believed tornadoes were actually predictable. The forces causing the winds to coalesce were shrugged off as the acts of a jealous God. All that meteorologists could do was catalog their epidemiological particulars: deaths, injuries, property damaged.

COVER NERD SAYS: Hatred of extreme weather be damned, photographs of extreme weather are some of the most beautiful you'll ever see and this cover is a perfect example. I believe it's an actual photograph of Tim Samaras, which makes it all the better. The beauty along with proximity to danger make this a dead bang winner.





Thursday, May 17, 2018

THE LITERARY STRIKEOUT

Sometimes, as much as you might think a book is smack in the middle of your wheelhouse, straight hard cheese down the middle of the plate, you swing and miss. The titles below are three I recently whiffed on, sending me back to the dugout with my head hung and bat dragging behind me, alone in the reading minority. (Warning: The baseball metaphors don't end in the introduction.)

H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald


In hindsight, I probably should have known better about this one. While I was all in for the forging of a connection between the author and her goshawk, I blinded myself to the downside: Mabel was bred in captivity to kill for a master. I finished, but the upside of being able to dispatch an injured rabbit because of the need for the skill (so Mabel didn't eat her quarry alive) kind of took the glow off. I found parts of the book fascinating and educational, just not for me. Strike one. (Even though, very little known fact, I dated a guy in college who was a falconer. Super cute and funny=I overlooked the dead chicks in the freezer for as long as I could. Spoiler alert - not long.)



The Hearts of Men, by Nickolas Butler


Since I loved Shotgun Lovesongs and Beneath the Bonfire with the heat of 1,000 suns, Butler became an author I would read without knowing anything about his latest work. That just bit me in the ass, though I would have picked up Hearts even after reading the summary. It *sounded* great, but the execution didn't work for me. I loved (yet hated, because mean kids suck) the first section and was engrossed in the premise of seeing how Nelson would respond, what his life would become, after camp. But then I got a looping curveball that took me off to visit other characters I really didn't enjoy reading about. It all came back around, but by that time I was just going through the motions and the ultimate shocking event seemed contrived and more than a bit eye-rolling. I'll still go back for Butler's next offering, but right now I'm sitting on an 0-2 count.


Our Kind of Cruelty, by Araminta Hall


I was so in for this one. I admit it, the Gillian Flynn blurb got me. I'm not even sure where/when I saw it, because I am not a blurb-reader. Weird as it may seem, I love spending time in the mind of a well-written narcissistic sociopath. [Deleted great line about the biggest one in my life]. I found Mike Hayes fascinating and was impressed with the job Hall did writing from his head. Here's the gist: Mike and his ex-girlfriend V played a game called Crave. They would go out, super attractive V would sit by herself until someone hit on her, at which time Mike would intercede and they would go off to have hot sex somewhere nearby. When V breaks up with Mike and becomes engaged to another man, he is certain she has just taken the game to the next level and he continues to play. It's a fantastic concept and for the first half of the book I was transfixed. But by 3/4 of the way through it felt a bit old and the twist I was hoping for never really twisted. The ultimate question of "Was she playing or wasn't she?" aside, it felt like it went off into a statement on victim-shaming that didn't really fit for me. Strike three, I'm out.

About Malcolm Avenue Review

I was lucky enough to be born and raised in a nifty, oak-shaded ranch house on Malcolm Avenue, a wide-laned residential street with little through traffic, located amid the foothills of Northern California. It was on that street and in that house I learned most of my adolescent life lessons, and many grown-up ones to boot. Malcolm Avenue was "home" for more than thirty years.

It was on Malcolm Avenue, through and with my family and the other families that made up our neighborhood of characters, that I first learned about and gained an appreciation for the things I continue to love the most to this day: music, animals, photography, sports, television/movies and, of course, books.

I owe a debt of gratitude to that life on Malcolm Avenue. It gave me a sense of community and friendship, support and adventure. For better and worse, life on that street likely had the biggest impact on the person I've become. So this blog, and the things I write here, are all, at their base level, a little bit of a love letter to Malcolm Avenue.

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