Thursday, May 16, 2019

FOLDED WISDOM :: Joanna Guest

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

Every morning for 14 years, Bob Guest--artist, husband, father and man of routine who was "ahead of his time"--sat down to write notes to his children on a 6x9 pad of paper. Often folded like little footballs, the notes were tucked into lunchboxes or waiting on the kitchen counter. His daughter, first-time author Joanna Guest, was seven when they began. As an adult looking back at the more than 3,500 notes (out of roughly 4,775) that survived time and the family washing machine since 1995, Guest found wisdom and meaning in them that she couldn't fully appreciate as a child.

In Folded Wisdom, Guest shares the inception of the notes and how they progressed as she and her younger brother, Theo, grew older and their life problems became more complex. Bob was sparked by a desire to encourage Theo to read, and was dedicated to connecting with his kids. One of eight children of a rear admiral in the navy, Bob had a "minimal" personal relationship with his absentee father.

The notes, which often included puzzles and drawings, ranged from snippets of love and encouragement to pages of thoughts on what it means to be part of a family, deal with life and say "I'm sorry." As insightful and charming as the notes themselves, Guest's narration winds between photographs of the real deal. Folded Wisdom is a wonderful testament to love and to Bob's success in perpetuating thoughtfulness and value in expressing ourselves to others.

STREET SENSE: Charming as hell. The advanced copy did not include color illustrations, but a few of the pages can be found with a Google search. They make me want to go track down a finished copy. Who wouldn't love to wake up to something like these notes each morning? This book made me want to meet Bob. What a beautiful testament to fatherhood he, and thus this book, is.


A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  The unsung hero of Folded Wisdom is Guest's mom, who never read the notes (until now, I presume) unless she was rescuing one from the wash, saying "They weren't addressed to me." Thus my favorite passage is actually from the Acknowledgments:

To my mom, Gloria--I know you think you had nothing to do with all of this, but the truth is you had everything to do with it. You found every note you could. You stored them in a safe place. You moved them all from our tiny two-bedroom apartment into a big old house. Then, when asked if you knew where they were, you said yes.

COVER NERD SAYS: Probably because I am a person who relates to order and organization, this cover is a bit jarring to me. As I look closer I can see that it's a bunch of folded football notes, but until you read the book that might not be particularly clear. I think fewer notes on a background would have been more appealing to me, but it's not all about me (despite everything you just read). I also would have thought this book to "cutesy" for me, but it's not (whether because it's less cutesy inside or I'm more cutesy inside, who knows? (But you can guess).

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

TEN INNINGS AT WRIGLEY :: Kevin Cook

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

When Kevin Cook launches into the sagas of the Chicago Cubs and Philadelphia Phillies, fan partisanship gives way to the lore of two of the league's oldest teams. In Ten Innings at Wrigley, Cook delves into the culture of baseball at a tipping point through a May 17, 1979, rubber match that turned into "the wildest ballgame ever."

Cook admirably winnows remarkable team histories to set the table. The Cubs, "born to lose" and cursed by a goat, were not a big market team in 1979, with Wrigley (a character in its own right) used for other events (e.g., ski-jumping contests) to make money. The Phillies were also "lovable losers," the last original franchise yet to win a World Series. But they were on the rise with something to prove, winning three straight division titles.

The game supports an inning-by-inning and pitch-by-pitch written recounting. With winds gusting to 30 mph, six runs in the first 10 minutes, 97 total bases and a run total of 45 that stands as the second highest of all time, the garbage truck fire beyond the bleachers is a mere afterthought. Many of the game's legendary and most colorful characters were playing (Rose, Bowa, Buckner, Kingman, Maddox) on the brink of epic cultural and league changes--cable television, the high-five, facial hair, computers, labor strikes and modern metrics, to name a few. Cook seamlessly blends these issues into this reconstruction of the game and its aftermath, a slice of history fans of any team will relish.

STREET SENSE: It may be because I'm old and nostalgic, but this book reminded me how great baseball was in the 70s. So many characters that I just don't feel in today's game. Maybe it's free agency, maybe, perhaps more likely, it's just that I'm old. But this book was a fun trip down memory lane.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE: In a book reciting balls and strikes, this was more replete with funny one-liners than notable passages. I did laugh often, and whether talking about a player getting "the fondue treatment "(gas, heat and cheese) or an individual's weaknesses (sliders low and away and cocaine) Cook really took me back to the feeling of that era of play.

COVER NERD SAYS: I get the old-timey baseball feel to this font, but I'll admit it was the subject matter rather than this cover that attracted me. I would have picked it up from a bookstore shelf or table display just because the red jumps out and there's a ballplayer on the front, but the cover as a whole didn't light my socks on fire.

Monday, May 6, 2019

I'M LATE FOR POETRY MONTH

Spoiler alert: I am a horrible poetry reader. Often it feels like improvisational jazz - for some reason (perhaps my need for order?) I have a hard time connecting. I keep trying and may be getting a tad better at it. The best part of poetry (so many forms and formats) makes selection difficult. I can look at non-poem genres and covers and have a gut reaction to what's inside and whether it's for me. That ability has been ground into my bones by decades of experience with hits and misses. Poetry not so much, and the exact thing I love about it (the lack of "rules," or at least rules I understand) makes it hard to pick out what I might relate to. So I swing semi-blindly and hope to connect. Even when I don't, I learn something. Win-win.

There was simply no way for me to resist Claire Kelly's collection, One Thing - Then Another. Everything about this cover makes me want to figure out what the hell is going on inside.

I liked the collection very much. It's broken into sections--"East, "Then," and "West," and begins with a line from a Karen Solie poem, Bitumen: "The west stands for relocation, the east for lost causes." The bridge of "Then" is a move from Eastern to Western Canada with both ends a series of contrasts. See below for a description of the book from the book itself.

There are nifty cultural references (film titles, music, even a poke at Americans--rightfully so--about the Fox channel's use of a glowing puck during hockey games so we could follow the game) which I'm always a sucker for, but it still all comes down to language. Kelly has some fantastic lines, including: "Persistent as a raccoon drawn on by the perfume of antifreeze" and "ah blessed midnight organizer of books and records by alphabet, by genre, by country of publication, by size and year, by mood." She kept me engaged even when I was hesitant.

The collection starts with a lovely piece that highlights both what I get (the words) and what I don't (the format). It's called Yesterday I thought winter had given up:

Yesterday I thought winter had given up
all its images: white worn out, utter glut of neutral.
       But today, weird mitt-ruts. Snow-bank etchings from kids dawdling
their hands to school;
overhead another storm
isn't breaking but is moving on: the elm-edge and the cloud-edge slotting
into each other.
       As if the tree picked up the sky secondhand, and wears it--
       a sapphire heavened hoodie in the black and white film of early
March.
Then,
expertly, the elm-clutch
       lets loose, disrobes. A sliver of blue expands, becomes a sluice, a
gorge, becomes the whole
damned naked winter
       flouncing down a side street shoving her hands
knuckle-deep
in the bank.

I adore the image of the different "ruts" and "etchings" from the mittened hands of kids on their way to school. That was one of those "Yes!" poetry moments. I would love input on the format. As an anal-retentive with OCD, I usually find these formatting choices jarring. They disturb the natural order of things I'm used to. Which is good, but it also makes me want to understand and find a reason, when there really may be none other than what the poet felt in the flow. Maybe I'm trying to force too much reason into things (unsurprising). I'm trying to use poetry to loosen up a bit, but I also welcome all input into format from those who know much more about poetry than I. So comment away.

"One Thing--Then Another is a collection of poetry divided into three unique sections: "East" explores the constraints of living under the poverty line in a have-not province. "And" is a long poem about moving in a U-Haul across the prairies during an ice storm. "West" considers what it meas to live in the have-est of have provinces and trying to acclimate to that alongside an ever-present drought. The poems are largely about contrast: east to west, flood to aridity, poverty to comfort, small town to city."

This is a collection I now have on my list to buy for the shelf. It came out on April 19, 2019 from ECW Press. Claire Kelly's first full-length collection of poetry is titled Maunder and it's now on my list. Hope you'll give her a gander.



Wednesday, May 1, 2019

MY CONEY ISLAND BABY :: Billy O'Callaghan

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

Two lovers, Michael and Caitlin, fight against the frigid weather as they walk along the bleak, deserted Coney Island boardwalk. The skyline is "a bullying slob of grey running into grey, slaughtering detail and definition." The air, "mean with cold," highlights their intimacy as they brace together against the wind, draw close and speak into each other's breath. Then Michael softly says, "Barb's got cancer," and realization breaks through the veneer--Michael and Caitlin are married to others, carrying on an illicit affair.

Billy O'Callaghan begins My Coney Island Baby with a lyrical struggle of a couple against nature, allowing the reader to invest in their relationship before providing any opportunity to drop the hammer of judgment. He then winds through Michael and Caitlin's histories--separately, within their respective marriages and through their monthly meetings over the course of their 25-year relationship, fleshing out the humans that underlie the indiscretions.

O'Callaghan won the Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Award for his short fiction, and his prose displays minute attention, finding beauty and meaning in the smallest of details, every page a goldmine of life reflected in its elements, even those that are worn down and busted. The work is infused with musicality, from the jazz saxophone scoring Michael and Caitlin's first meeting to the resonant sounds of an infant on life support. Over the course of the day, Michael and Caitlin's secret but sustaining relationship must bear up to new facts and long-denied decisions.

STREET SENSE: I went into this one blind (because I picked it by the cover) and was very pleasantly surprised by the writing. I marked more passages than I could ever hope to need. I was highly impressed with how O'Callaghan invested the reader in Michael and Caitlin before allowing them to be judged and continued to humanize them after landing the blow that they were adulterers. Until you've walked in someone's shoes down a stormy boardwalk, judge not.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  When she spoke, she did so in a voice low enough to steam, and as Coltrane or Parker or Ornette Coleman or whoever it was dragged soul and then spirit squealing across the barroom ceiling, he could do nothing but lean in to catch what she was offering, to hear her words and breathe of her.

COVER NERD SAYS: Score another point for cover gut. Lone couple forging their way down an ocean boardwalk? Beautiful image and color scheme? Check and check. For some reason, this cover evoked difficulty to me rather than romance, which is I'm sure why I picked it. There are almost more romantic  elements of this than anything else - the title rings a little of romance, the author font, the colors, the 'couple against the world' imagery, the delicate ironwork of the structures. I'm not altogether sure what offset that enough to intrigue me, but I'm happy it did.

Monday, April 29, 2019

THE ACCIDENTAL VETERINARIAN :: Philipp Schott

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

Like most children, Canadian Philipp Schott was fascinated with animals. Other than "Bobo the Christmas Gerbil," however, he didn't grow up with pets. He had never even set foot in a clinic when electing studies at University of Saskatchewan. Yet proceeding through the catalogue, he eliminated courses until left with the last on the alphabetical list, Veterinary Medicine.

Two decades into his "chosen" vocation, Schott has a second somewhat accidental career as a writer. The Accidental Veterinarian shares Schott's stories of getting past his self-consciousness dealing with people to create a thriving practice of his own (clearly and empathetically communicating with owners being an axiomatic prerequisite--sometimes frustrating, often hilarious--to a vet helping the creatures they love).

Originally writing about travel and whiskey as an outlet from work, Schott found veterinary medicine "a story machine" and eventually began a blog in which many of these pieces originally appeared. Separated into four parts (the making of a vet, the art of veterinary medicine, its science and "peculiar tales"), Schott covers a vast range of practical, funny, difficult and gross elements of practice and pet ownership.

Schott's writing is engagingly conversational and showcases his colorful sense of humor ("chocolate vomit holds a special place near the apex of the devil's perfumery"). Importantly, he does not gloss over the vast emotional costs, delving into "black coat" (euthanasia) days and high suicide rates. Educational, entertaining and compassionate, this confluence of happy accidents is a must-read for anyone who is, loves or works with a veterinarian.

STREET SENSE: This set of short anecdotes is warm, funny, poignant and educational. Any animal lover will be pleased.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  A routine part of small animal practice is recommending dental work and then having the pet owner react as if you have just recommended Spanish guitar lessons for their dog or a set of encyclopedias for their cat. Some people view veterinary dentistry as evidence that we've gone too far in treating pets like people. These people (thankfully increasingly a minority, but a very annoying one) put it in the same category as pink leather jackets for chihuahuas and spa days for cats.

(See? Funny and informative. Preventive dentistry is important, yo!)

COVER NERD SAYS: A cover after mine own heart. stark, clean, orderly (all antithesis to veterinary practice, interestingly), pretty palette and adorable puppy. This cover perfectly captures the fact that this book is serious yet impish. Perfection.

Friday, April 26, 2019

TINY AMERICANS :: Devin Murphy

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

"In the fall of 1978, our father brought home a stack of books from the library on activities to do with kids as an attempt to get himself sober." Terrance Thurber educates Jamie, Lewis and Connor about the outdoors--listening to trees with stethoscopes and making casts of animal tracks, trying to teach them self-sufficiency. He's also getting them away from their mother, whose haunting sadness has a "firm grip on her ankles." When Terrance abandons the family, the betrayal permeates their futures with insecurities and doubt.

In Tiny Americans, Devin Murphy (The Boat Runner) charts the lives of the Thurbers in short, chronological excerpts from 1978 to 2018. Jamie, who sought solace in childhood trysts in the local cemetery, questions her marriage when her military husband is catastrophically injured. Lewis escapes to the steadfast routine of the navy. Connor struggles to connect with his risk-taking son, who is so reminiscent of Connor and Lewis at that age, with their efforts to numb themselves through brutal games of childhood football.

As his kids try to fill their adult lives with love and stability following their tumultuous upbringing, Terrence gets his act together and tries to reconnect with weekly letters. Though permeated with melancholy, the narrative is buoyed by exquisite details and the sense that forgiveness may be possible even if redemption is out of reach. A collection of vignettes more than a novel, the time gaps sometimes work against the deep story arcs, but the whole is a satisfying chronicle of fraught family dynamics. 

STREET SENSE: If fractured family stories are your jam and/or you like multi-perspective novels or short collections, give this one a try. Not all of the pieces hit me square on, but as a whole I loved some of the insight here and the way redemption was handled.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE: We'd race one another to find millipedes, crickets, grasshoppers, and potato bugs, which I secretly envied for their ability to curl up in their instant armor.

* * *

I'd listen for the call-and-response of their tiny mood swings and the endless surrenders they required of each other. I'd lurch into fitful sleep wishing I could stretch my arms out the window, down the side of the house, and rest a hand on each of their shoulders to calm them--to let them feel how much I loved them both.

COVER NERD SAYS:  I'm not sure what this color palette speaks to--whether it's a bit sepia or a sunrise/sunset, but it drew me to the cover regardless. I'm also a bit of a sucker for a picture of a kid, so despite the "view from behind" images that have become so popular, there is enough detail in this one (the slightly disheveled hair and clothing collars) that it snagged me. I wanted to know more about this Tiny American.   

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

THE GOOD DETECTIVE :: John McMahon

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

The Good Detective, John McMahon's debut spin on the detective-tortured-by-grief theme, is the first in a planned series featuring P.T. Marsh. He is an up-and-comer in the Mason Falls, Ga., police department, until he loses his wife and son and turns to alcohol. Uncertainty over his father-in-law's potential role in their fatal accident continually gnaws at him.

Off the clock, P.T. visits the abusive boyfriend of a local stripper to give him a warning. The house becomes a crime scene when the man is found dead in his chair, leaving P.T. flummoxed, almost certain he left the jerk beaten but alive. Things go downhill fast when a black teenager is lynched and burned and evidence ties the two killings together.

P.T., partner Remy and former partner Abe dig into both crimes, and the clues fly at a furious clip while P.T. secretly tries to avoid being suspected of the first murder. A few of the numerous plot arcs are extraneous, some leaps in logic are made and police procedure often goes by the wayside, but McMahon is a fine storyteller and his characters are intriguing.

McMahon's fluid writing highlights the dark and emotive themes, with P.T.'s bulldog Sweet Purvis, all he has left, used as a tender emotional touchstone via P.T.'s subconscious. The beautiful small touches McMahon "shows" (e.g., the overgrown shoe ruts in the dirt under P.T.'s son's swing) are more powerful than the "telling," but The Good Detective is fast-paced, compelling and a good start to a promising series.

STREET SENSE:  McMahon has the start of what might be a good series here. The character work is great, and the core mysteries kept me engaged. I hope the second entry takes that foundation and relies on it.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE: "Wade moved like a chicken thief." "I was five counties from fine." McMahon has some gems like these that sometimes get lost in the shuffle. Yes, I'm a fan of short prose, but if you can write it well, write it.

COVER NERD SAYS:  I dig this one, despite the seeming run on "person from behind in a dark forest" covers that are becoming so tiresome. I like how the image feels like a tunnel (with some light at the end) and also like an eye (with the figure as the pupil - just go with me here). In a sea of covers like this, it stands out as a good one with more depth to it.

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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