Wednesday, December 4, 2019

THE SEINE :: Elaine Sciolino

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

Elaine Sciolino was seduced by the Seine at age 28. Sent to Paris in 1978 as a foreign correspondent for Newsweek, she arrived with no friends or contacts. She was alone and ill-prepared, yet found two sources of sustenance: an elderly tutor and the river Seine.

The Seine flows through almost 500 miles of France, bubbling to the surface at Source-Seine and carrying the country's ancient history through Burgundy and cities such as Paris and Rouen (symbolized by Joan of Arc) before emptying into the English Channel and onto the beaches of Normandy. Its path is lined with such famous sights as Notre-Dame, the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre. "The most romantic river in the world" has inspired artists of every medium to create countless popular works. The Seine also floods regularly, almost as if it cannot hold so much rich history within its banks and surges as a reminder of its power over France. In The Seine, Sciolino details the enthralling life and times of the river.

Sciolino, Paris bureau chief for the New York Times and one of the only American members of Femmes Forum, a private club of the leading women of France, writes about the Seine passionately yet with a reporter's eye. She brings the waterway to vivid life through surrounding sights and sounds (church bells and multilingual commentaries), yet facts are paramount. In ways big and small--the history of commerce, contamination and cleanups, lighting, origination of the daguerreotype, the officers of the River Brigade and the fascinating role of the "Unknown Woman"--she makes the stories of The Seine undeniably captivating.

STREET SENSE: Elaine Sciolino turns her reporter's eye on the force of nature that is the river Seine, bringing it to life. Fun for historians, Francophiles, and the world-curious.

COVER NERD SAYS:  This cover didn't do much for me. The font feels too casual for the subject matter, though I did appreciate the use of the French flag palette. The photo sneaks some well known structures in, but really fails to highlight the river itself. I have to think there were more iconic photos of the Seine, but perhaps there's a story behind this one I don't know. It simply didn't lure me to the cover, regardless.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019


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

Music fans may not realize they know Jim Marshall's photographs, but odds are they have been wowed by his iconic work. From his legendary shot of Johnny Cash "giving one" (i.e., the finger) to the warden before his 1969 concert at San Quentin Prison (purportedly the most bootlegged photograph ever) to a portrait of Miles Davis hanging in Obama's White House, Marshall is known as "the chronicler of rock royalty."

Jim Marshall: Show Me the Picture: Images and Stories from a Photography Legend is a beautifully bound and slip-covered volume of almost 300 glossy pages showcasing hundreds of Marshall's images, marked-up contact sheets, short essays and a brief story of his colorful and tragic life. Marshall respected his subjects--gaining him unparalleled insight and access--whom he captured, almost impossibly, without cropping or added lighting. The power leaps from Marshall's photographs like Peter Frampton in flight.

STREET SENSE: Music and photography fans will love this collection. Essays by those who knew rock 'n' roll, jazz and civil rights photographer Jim Marshall are woven throughout glossy pages displaying his celebrated images. Great holiday gift.

COVER NERD SAYS: A beautiful hard binding in a slipcover makes this book extra classy. The circle is a cut-out that allows the Frampton jump photo of the actual cover to take center stage. The balance and placement of the title and artist's name are bold and legible and yet the photo is still the eye-catcher. Well done and fitting to Marshall's work.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

OUT LOUD :: Mark Morris

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

Mark Morris's Out Loud is a "memoir not a cookbook." He "can't tell you the recipe exactly," but is masterful at describing the ingredients that influence his career as one of the world's foremost choreographers. Morris's influences are many and complex. He asked to flamenco at nine and at 10 won a guest role with Bolshoi Ballet. He loves The Lawrence Welk Show, opera, country music and the traditions and religious mythologies of cultures worldwide. His talent took root at a young age--he improvised shows in his Seattle living room and listened to musical pieces over and over again to decode them.

Inspiration intertwined with Morris's humor (battle-strengthened by the "queer humiliation" of junior high), style ("old men's overcoats and a different rhinestone brooch" every day), brash defiance and sense of self to form the foundation of his multi-faceted style. He beautifully exhibits these traits in Out Loud, which feels like a Morris composition--movements within movements, fits and flows, taken together to form an entrancing and hilarious whole.

Unsurprisingly, Morris is a superb storyteller. In addition to his many professional accomplishments (Mark Morris Dance Group, White Oak Dance Project, numerous awards and honorary doctorates) and high-profile collaborators (Mikhail Baryshnikov, Yo-Yo Ma), Morris shares his private life, friendships, delightful family lore and laugh-out-loud asides (how a bidet formed "the fountainhead of [a] lifelong obsession with water features"). One need not comprehend dance to appreciate Morris's impact or be a devotee to give this work a standing ovation.

STREET SENSE: As someone who has never "gotten" dance, I was "subjected" to subscription tickets to Berkeley Repertory's dance performances for several years. There were actually plenty of performances I enjoyed, none more than Mark Morris's productions. His humor always came through and while I might not get dance, I get humor. I've always appreciated him and his take on things and this memoir was a joy to read.

COVER NERD SAYS: This cover is simply glorious and one of my favorites of the year.

Monday, November 4, 2019


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

"Deep down, I have always believed that I'm a bad person and that the world we live in is an awful place." The essays and poems in Kai Cheng Thom's I Hope We Choose Love forge a fiery path through the violence and negative messages the trans community simmers in. She seeks to find love--a lofty goal considering queer people, particularly queer women of color, are being murdered, dictated against and most often excluded by social norms, even within "Queerlandia." Thom's voice is one of power, her strength and ultimate hope punching through the tragedy, anger and crises of faith infusing these pieces.   

Thom became "queer famous" in 2016 at age 25, when she published several works and entered the fray of social justice. She was stalked and threatened, and ultimately lost faith in her community and herself. In three parts, "Let Us Live," "Let Us Love" and "Let Us Believe," Thom calls out the fragmentation of identity politics and the "Oppression Olympics" (harsh competition for resources), asks her community to acknowledge its own culpability, and highlights the importance of family (noting, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, how babies are ruining everything).

Thom yearns for "gender euphoria," the state of finding joy rather than hatred in one's own gender presentation. The revolution starts at home and inside each of us. "What's an overachieving yet politically disenchanted, attachment-traumatized East Asian tranny who wants to survive and also be a decent person in the world supposed to do?" Thom writes unflinchingly, a marginalized voice of laudable might.

Thursday, October 31, 2019


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

Billed as "the greatest Canada-based literary thrill ride of your lifetime," comedian and radio host Dave Hill's Parking the Moose does not disappoint. Hill, from Cleveland, Ohio, was convinced early on by his Ontario-born grandfather that Canada was a far superior country. Tossing aside the ingrained ideology of the U.S. as the "greatest nation on Earth," Hill became obsessed with Canada. Hockey was his only sport, he eschewed bacon for the "far more delicious" Canadian variety and "whenever the subject of health care was brought up, [he] was more vocal about the vast merits of the Canadian system than perhaps any other nine-year-old you'd ever want to meet."

His passion for our northern neighbor waned following his grandfather's death, but as Hill (Dave Hill Doesn't Live Here Anymore) barreled into middle age, he felt a yearning to learn more about the man and his national pride. Over the next year and a half, Hill and various pals (some he met via social media or podcasts and was mostly convinced were not serial killers) visited cities from coast to coast to determine just what was so special about Canada.

Hill constructs his work as a loose travelogue, a tongue-in-cheek narrative steeped in humor. In this love story to his Canadian weaknesses--poutine, heavy metal and knickknacks--Hill seeks genuine connection and understanding. The result is a laugh-out-loud view of the differences between neighbors and the obvious merits of people who are kind, gentle and still imperfect. Though Canadian multitudes cannot be contained in a "mere book," readers will fall for the country that Hill's grandfather "simply wouldn't shut up about."

Tuesday, October 29, 2019


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

John Freeman grew up in the "multiverse" of California, experiencing reality as "a series of stacked versions of itself," where layers of diverse and simultaneous happenings surround its inhabitants. Freeman's: California is part of a theme-shifting anthology series Freeman edits twice yearly, and it captures the western state's complex history through the eyes of both new writers and established names.

Each piece in California provides a window into a state-shaped microcosm marked by homelessness, calamitous climate change, displacement and mental illness, while also illuminated by community, friendship, acceptance, precious avocados and glorious sunsets. In "Boxes," Matt Sumell ponders fine lines that separate people as he finds commonality with the homeless man living in a coffin-shaped structure outside his studio, their minds filled with similarly antagonistic voices.

Rabih Alameddine contributes a sublime piece on living in San Francisco during the AIDS epidemic. After he tests positive for HIV, he goes on a shopping spree, then becomes perhaps the greatest surly bartender ever to sit on a stool reading and watching soccer while resenting any patron who makes him work. Bursting with caustic humor and grace, "How to Bartend" reflects the best of California when the hard-drinking Irish regulars discover Alameddine is gay.

From every facet of the literary world, this cacophony of fresh and well-known writers (Jennifer Egan, Tommy Orange, Anthony Marra) with every award under their collective belts (Lambda, National Book, Walt Whitman, O. Henry, Pulitzer) movingly interprets struggles and dreams in the Sunshine State.

Thursday, October 24, 2019


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

Robert Waters was part of the 1950s surfing crew on the Southern California coastline that spurred the sport after its arrival from Hawaii. Don Waters (Desert Gothic) learned this from belongings his father left behind when Robert abandoned him. In 2010, Waters wrote about surfing history for Outside magazine, hoping to confront his feelings about his father. Armed with "a paper-clipped copy of his [father's] unpublished autobiography, as well as a small plastic baggie of his ashes," Waters headed for Manhattan Beach, California, and his father's past.

These Boys and Their Fathers is a son's lyrical and sorrowful memoir of lifelong efforts to deal with the emptiness and fury connected to his father. When building a custom surfboard with legend Greg Noll (who made Robert's first board) didn't create the expected touchstone, Waters's quest took a fascinating turn--he discovered another writer who shared his name. The other Don Waters, a prolific pulp author starting in the 1920s, lived aboard a sailboat with his family, doting on his daughter, and became yet another older man Waters collected as a father figure to emulate and admire.

His decades of researching the lives of Robert and the other Don Waters provided the basis the author needed to complete the memoir he'd given up on three times. After 20 years seeking clarity by writing stories about faulty fictional men, Waters found it in complicated real men, his very human father and his historically tight-lipped mother. These Boys is a powerfully candid story of discovering "closure" through accepting and living alongside the pain and truth.

STREET SENSE: Surfing fans will love the board-building details and surf history Waters recounts. His father and the other Don Waters are fascinating and flawed men, and the author's road to peace is an interesting and curious one, impacted by his own impending fatherhood.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE: This same photo was part of my childhood landscape, only I remember it differently because my father was scissored out. There were other photographs like this one, each visited by scissors, each bearing a ghostly, uneven outline. In Mom's photo albums my father was gone, cut out, vanished. Everything was gone but his hand. Mom would have had to cut part of my tiny body from the picture to remove his hand. So there was his hand. The only image I had of him him was a hand. For seventeen years, a hand.

COVER NERD SAYS: Surfing and waves, I dig it. I like the colors and the images. It doesn't tell me a lot about what's inside, but the title helps a little (though I also admittedly find it a tad confusing, since the other Don Waters, who is such a big part of the memoir, was focused on his daughter). But I would, no doubt, pick this up from a book store table or shelf, so it's a win. 

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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