Friday, September 25, 2020

MARLENE :: Philippe Djian

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

Philippe Djian's Marlene begins ambiguously with a man named Dan breaking down a door behind which Mona has locked herself. The initial section, entitled "Girl," is but a few short paragraphs long, beginning a crisp yet dreamlike trip through five lives torn apart by war, secrets and betrayal. It is eventually revealed that Mona is the angst-ridden 18-year-old daughter of Richard and Nath, and is staying with Dan due to trouble at home. Dan and Richard are bonded combat veterans, serving and saving each other's lives in Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen, each struggling to return to "normal" life.

The difficulties faced by veterans is a theme grimly underlying the whole of Marlene. Dan lives with an "indispensable vigilance" and dedication to structure that keep him contained but still can't tamp his night terrors. Richard exists at the other end of the spectrum--drinking, driving and spending to excess, seeking thrills in schemes fraught with danger. Mona returns home from Dan's just as Richard is released from a stint in jail. Then Nath's estranged sister, Marlene, comes to town looking for a fresh start, lighting the fuse on a powder keg yearning for ignition.

Djian (Oh…, winner of the Prix Interallié) writes in a lean style that is both smooth and abrupt, almost as if the translation is off, even as it understands how every word and short section is intentional and effective. A slim volume, Marlene begs to be read in one tense sitting.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

SKUNK AND BADGER :: Amy Timberlake

With adorable illustrations by Jon Klasson, Amy Timberlake's Skunk and Badger is a lovely story of friendship, sharing and compromise. I was drawn in by a connection with Badger, a curmudgeonly rock scientist living in his Aunt Lula's den surrounded by geodes and a rock tumbler, doing very important rock work (sounds pretty awesome). Badger doesn't have much besides rocks and his work, but he doesn't realize life has more to offer until Skunk comes knocking on his door, suitcase in hand.

Seems Aunt Lula has also offered Skunk a room in her brownstone, though Badger has been too busy doing his important rock work to read her last several letters. Badger is put out by Skunk's presence, initially trying to pass off a closet as the luxury guest quarters. He soon finds life with Skunk isn't all bad, particularly at mealtimes (breakfast hot chocolate!).

Of course not all goes smoothly and soon Badger is surrounded not only by Skunk, but hundreds of chickens  (because that's what happens when you blow the chicken whistle), a treacherous stoat and some odors that are not as wonderful as breakfast hot chocolate.

I adored the drawings interspersed throughout the book, particularly Skunk reading under the covers of his room in the moonlight. Although there are certain conflicts between species (stoats and chickens apparently can't bridge the gap, for instance), there is never any discussion about inter-species relationships. Aunt Lula, for instance, is a pine marten. There is just family and friends and roommates and some natural enemies, language barriers be damned. Also, CHICKENS IN BELL-BOTTOMS.

Geared for grades 2-5, which I am decidedly not, Skunk and Badger is a worthy tale for all ages. Timberlake is a Newbery Honor recipient and Klassen a Caldecott Medalist, coming together to show how we can all be better together.

Friday, September 18, 2020


As I continue my quest to read more poetry, I really have nothing to go on but my gut. In this case, what better to take a chance on than this kickass cover referencing two of my favorite things? I had not heard of Cyrus Parker before picking up Coffee Days Whiskey Nights, but if I knew he describes himself as a non-binary storyteller and wrestler-turned-poet I would have been all-in from the get-go.

Turns out Parker's poetry really speaks to me. I have no idea what that means as far as style or subgenre. Poetry for me is like the most art-like of literary categories, I have no idea how poetry is subjectively judged, I can't write it, and I just know in my innards when I like it. This is such a collection.

Parker himself bills the collection in the best way, as "a collection of poetry, prose, and aphorisms that juxtaposes the hopefulness a brand new day can bring with the lingering thoughts that often keep us up into the late-night hours. A lot can happen between the first sip of coffee and the last taste of whiskey, and this book takes a look at the way a single day can change our outlook on everything from relationships with others, to our relationships with ourselves, and everything in between. Ultimately, coffee days whiskey nights illustrates that no matter how hopeless we may feel at the end of the day, a new one is only a few hours away."

The pieces speak on a variety of personal subjects--friendship, fitting in, control, eating disorders, gender dysphoria and the like. I enjoyed the clear precision of Parker's prose. I didn't have to guess or struggle to find meaning in his phrasing, it was all right there smacking me in the face. Maybe it's recognition that brings clarity from poetry, I don't know, but it's one of the reasons I love searching for a new collection that resonates. I'm not sure if connecting with this set means I do find hope at the beginning of the day or am used to feeling the lack of it at the end, but I always find hope in words strung together the way Parker lays them down. I highly recommend this collection and to give you a brief taste I've cited to some of my favorite lines below.

i’ve let some into my life, my home, whose words taste of cotton candy in the daylight, but drip like venom under cover of night.

my entire existence is a contradiction of itself. i hate leaving the house but i love to travel. i spend my day counting calories to counteract my need to consume until there’s nothing left. i was born into skin that i want nothing more than to tear off and reshape into something new. i crave companionship but never feel compelled to reach out to those i care about. i am a hopeless romantic but i have an inability to express love in a way that makes people feel loved. i make jokes about dying, when all i want to do is feel alive.

i think about all the parts of me i changed for others and wonder just who it is i’d be if i had just stayed true to myself.

no matter the size of my clothes, no matter how well they fit, my body is the most uncomfortable thing i wear.

i try to make myself as small as possible, to leave a footprint that is faint, to become invisible without actually disappearing. this body has never really felt like it belonged, so i won’t let it take up any more space than it already does.
This is a nifty and thoughtful collection that I highly recommend and I'll no doubt be on the lookout for more of Parker's work. This is one for the expanding poetry portion of the physical shelf.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

WHITE HOT LIGHT :: Frank Huyler

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

"When they brought him in, he was almost alive.... He tried to save the boy.... So he acted, right then, without waiting for anything or anyone.... There was beauty in his ruthlessness.... Flesh parts to a scalpel effortlessly, like the wave of a hand." Frank Huyler has practiced emergency medicine in Albuquerque, N.Mex., for more than two decades (The Blood of Strangers). As he shows in White Hot Light, Huyler is also a poet, his prose as smooth and cutting as the aforementioned scalpel.

A selection of 30 essays, White Hot Light begins mercilessly with "The Boy," as the trauma team tries to save a teen gunshot victim. Huyler then pointedly flips his perspective to the other side of the lights in "Hail," contemplating the fetal heart monitor tracking the health of his wife and yet-to-be-firstborn child. Huyler's insightfulness paints his pieces, particularly as he ages, as a new generation joins the trauma unit and technology advances. In "The Machine," Huyler eschews the use of a chest compression machine that brutally breaks ribs in its mechanical attempt to restart a heart. In the end, he's wrong, but never shies from self-scrutiny, for better or worse.

Whether in a standalone piece or one of a theme--violence ("The Gun Show"), opioid abuse ("The Motorcycle"), nurses and other staff ("The Sunflower")--Huyler brings a beauty and thoughtfulness to crucial issues affecting medicine and society at large. Within the visceral brutality, the writing is thoughtful and self-reflective, the collection a study of caring.

Friday, September 11, 2020

LIKE CRAZY :: Dan Mathews

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

"As an atheist in southern Virginia...I do not believe in gods above and devils below, [but] I do honor the instinct inside that tells you the right thing to do. That's why I decided to buy a house and move in my ill, unhinged mother." Dan Mathews, a senior v-p at PETA and the unattached "happy-go-lucky homosexual" in his family, felt it his duty to take in his 78-year-old mother, Perry. The "deviant son was stuck with the crazy mother," like Norman Bates in Psycho, and Perry's final years would test their limits and cement their bond.

Perry had always been different. Her children previously chalked up her paranoid or delusional conduct to the tormented childhood she rarely talked about. Living together, Mathews senses things are seriously amiss. Their hilarious but often fraught-with-danger existence shatters when Perry seems to break, and Mathews frantically tries to get her help in a system not known for its user-friendliness or navigational ease.

In Like Crazy, Mathews (Committed) memorializes his mother's life with the bawdy and raucous tale of their relationship and the merry band of misfits they attract. Side-splitting laughter turns deadly serious as things take a horrific turn, but Mathews is a force to be reckoned with and the final descent is endearingly lovely. Mathews is so funny (lamenting he can't set his mother adrift on an ice floe, "another tradition ruined by global warming") it's easy to overlook his storytelling talents until things get gritty and humor is stripped away. Like Crazy is an utter gem.

I have not laughed this hard in...I can't remember when. This was definitely the book I needed in times of little to laugh about.

Thursday, September 10, 2020


Holy cats, what a corker. I went into This Little Family semi-blind, knowing the basic premise. No real spoiler here, since it hits you on the side of the head in the opening. Marie and her family sit around the breakfast table, dead, Marie having poisoned her husband Laurent and their young son Thomas.

Little Thomas didn't have time to finish his stewed apple. His mother hadn't given him the slightest chance...Few people stumbling across these three ashen bodies could have imagined the warm laughter filling the room just moments before the tragedy occurred.
Of course the mind jumps immediately to the question of what could push a mother to murder her own baby. Marie must have been temporarily insane. Nope. Ines Bayard states up front that Marie had "contemplated killing her son before, several times and in different ways. She was very determined." So Marie must simply be a monster. But after setting the gruesome scene, Bayard expressly warns against stepping too quickly in the sinking sand of  judgment:

Before any revelations that might invite the first verdicts, let's take a moment to appreciate the figure of this dead woman surrounded by her loved ones, the only one of the three to have remained upright.

After this passage, Bayard jumps back in time to when and how Marie and Laurent met, their lives together and their decision to have a child. What I will not spoil is the catastrophic event that sets Marie on the course that will end up where we started. Some may be averse to a story that begins with the end, but I rather like it and Bayard did a fantastic job of it. So good a job it was infinitely difficult to read yet impossible to set aside.

Watching Marie spiral as those around her are by turns concerned, clueless and lied to is fascinating and maddening. Marie's state can be summed up thusly: "Surrounded and alone, supported and abandoned by everyone." By the end, even as we know horror is coming, we can't help but feel for Marie, despite the hand she has in her own demise.

This debut really knocked my socks off, especially with a difficult premise to pull off. Bayard's next outing will definitely be on my list.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

MS-13 :: Steven Dudley

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

Steven Dudley's MS-13: The Making of America's Most Notorious Gang comes when an educated voice is needed on the subject of the gang's impact on world violence and, equally importantly, political maneuvering. Dudley is abundantly qualified to write on the subject as the co-director of InSight Crime, a foundation dedicated to studying organized crime. Dudley works with numerous investigators and contributors to offer a more complete and accurate view of how organized crime works and its impact on public policy.

MS-13 is specifically about the Mara Salvatrucha, the ruthless street gang that has spread across countries and continents. Dudley details the origins of MS-13 and its operations, both generally and through specific experiences of a few individuals. "These stories allow us to trace the history of the gang from its beginnings in Los Angeles to its export to El Salvador and other Central American nations, and back again." The sections of the book (origins, maturation, efforts to extricate) mirror life faced by members who are enveloped, become serious, then try to leave.

Dudley addresses the Trump administration's comparison of the gang to Al-Qaeda as a means to rid the U.S. of "criminal aliens." While MS-13 is a threat that trades on its reputation for brutal murders, it is also greatly misunderstood, its power erroneously likened to much more sophisticated groups. Dudley's reporting is unsurprisingly complex, with extraordinary sections on methodology and notes, bibiography and index following the main text. A deep dive written in plain prose backed by years of research, MS-13 is a remarkable resource for thorough understanding.

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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