Tuesday, October 24, 2017

NOMADLAND :: Jessica Bruder

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

In preparation for writing Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, journalist Jessica Bruder immersed herself in a new American subculture: the houseless. These "vandwellers" are individuals and families who for myriad reasons have ended up on wheels. Far from carefree RVers, these are folks for whom the American dream has been proven a con, and they make ends meet by doing itinerant work across the country.

The practice of giving up real estate for "wheel estate" has increased exponentially in recent years, following stock market crashes, the housing crisis and increasing economic risks faced by American families. Having to choose between food or electricity, health care or warm clothes, these nomads live in converted vans, campers, even Priuses. Many thrive while surviving day-to-day, but being a "workamper" is no easy ride.

Skewing older (many are in their 60s or 70s and have lost their retirement funds) and subject to "harsh migrant labor treatment," they are nevertheless sought-after workers due to their experience and reliability. Amazon has unsurprisingly taken advantage of this shadow economy, setting up company towns and recruiting its own "Camperforce," for whom long, difficult hours and low pay are the reward.

Joining them in Halen--a converted van (the subculture is strong with vehicle puns)--Bruder became intimately knowledgeable about this often heartwarming mobile community that blurs class lines. She writes with a steady and thoughtful hand about the frightening consequences when long-held social contracts are breached and upheaval becomes the new American normal, and exposes their underbelly with grace and heart.

STREET SENSE:  A well-written and researched look at a microcosm of Americans who have taken up a life on wheels in order to survive national economic crises. High recommended.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  [F]or them--as for anyone--survival isn't enough. So what began as a last-ditch effort has become a battle cry for something greater. Being human means yearning for more than subsistence. As much as food or shelter, we require hope. And there is hope on the road. It's a by-product of forward momentum. A sense of opportunity, as wide as the country itself. A bone-deep conviction that something better will come. It's just ahead, in the next town, the next gig, the next chance encounter with a stranger.

COVER NERD SAYS: This cover is perfection in my book. The art work, the color palette, type face and spacing are all pleasing to the eye and give the viewer an at-at-glance idea of what they might get inside. Although the whole does not address the community many nomads experience on the road, the constant shift and upheaval does provide an overwhelming sense of solitariness that is exemplified in this image. This is one of my favorite covers of the year.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

BAD KANSAS :: Becky Mandelbaum

A version of this review previously ran in Shelf Awareness and is reprinted here with permission. Bad Kansas published on September 15, 2017 and is available in paperback now.

The first stories in Becky Mandelbaum's Flannery O'Connor Award-winning collection Bad Kansas ingeniously lay the foundation for the yearning and disconnect that weave through the compilation. In the openers, California is seen as nirvana, superior to Kansas in every way. Being in Kansas is akin to missing a better life; better food, politics, weather and people.

In her insightful and sometimes darkly comic pieces on loving and being loved, trying desperately to attain love or deal with its elusiveness, Mandelbaum uses disparate geography as a metaphor for the interpersonal divides love can't always conquer. A Kansas couple's incompatibility is only highlighted by a move to the supposed Golden State; a teen new to Wichita learns cliques are universal and flyover states not immune to class structure; and a man who relocates to be with a woman discovers his Kansas self isn't who either of them wants.

With an assured style, mixing in lyricism, wit and black humor, Mandelbaum dissects the mindset that "nicer" places bring nicer things and unhappiness is tied to where rather than who you are. The author also slyly works in moments that turn the initial premise on its head: a Kansas woman disenchanted with California's "perfect" weather likens mountain snow to a museum relic: "I want it to actually snow…I want the sky to do something." Another Kansan, familiar with a multitude of insects, is undone by a "Kafkaesque" California cockroach.  Engaging from start to finish, Bad Kansas is a smart, insightful debut.

STREET SENSE: A smart and pointed debut story collection about love and happiness viewed through the geographic lens of Kansas, its inhabitants and transplants.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  Take it from a born and bred California girl who had to spend a few years in Kansas. I had no choice but to share this oh-so-true gem:

The old man laughed. "You can't take a girl from California and stick her in Kansas. It'd be like putting a fish in a tree."

COVER NERD SAYS:  I asked to review this book based on the title and cover alone and it turned another of those occasions where my gut paid off. Then this weird thing happened. I was sitting outside reading it and, having not seen a grasshopper in over a year (at least), this guy kept following me around. You'll have to take my word for the fact that there's a grasshopper in that little circle there. Creepy.

Monday, October 9, 2017

INHERIT THE BONES :: Emily Littlejohn

A version of this review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness and is reprinted here with permission. The paperback edition comes out on October 24, 2017.

"This town loses more good boys than it keeps."

Fair warning: this book includes a clown. The clown is good and dead, if that helps, and it's Deputy Gemma Monroe's job to figure out who killed him in Emily Littlejohn's fantastic debut mystery, Inherit the Bones. When the identity of the traveling circus performer is discovered, the small town of Cedar Valley, Colorado is rocked by secrets that have been buried for decades.

In the summer of 1985, young cousins Tommy and Andrew McKenzie disappeared. That same summer, a woman's body was found dumped on a riverbank. Neither mystery was ever solved. More recently, the mayor's son slipped off a cliff and vanished into the raging water below, there one minute and gone the next. The dead clown is simply the newest addition to Cedar Valley's tragic history:

When tragedy strikes a small town, it leaves a scar that never heals. Months and years may pass and the scar may fade, but it never goes away. It becomes part of the town, marking it as different, a permanent reminder of what may have been, what could have been.

Along with a partner she doesn't fully trust and a freshly minted recruit, a very pregnant Gemma must mine the town's past crimes in order to solve its most recent. There's always danger to be had when digging up old secrets in a small town, and the investigation will heap more misfortune on everyone attached to them before it's over.

Inherit the Bones is a super debut that will leave readers wanting more from Littlejohn's impressively diverse cast of characters (including a Native American deputy, a female medical examiner of Iranian descent and a Latino Chief), each presented with intriguing depth without distracting from the action. Littlejohn's prose deftly moves the investigation forward, yet is often laced with moments of insightful beauty:

Most of what remained of the posters were small corners and narrow strips of paper, the glue and tape pressed so hard to the telephone poles and storefront windows you could feel the panic and urgency with which they had been plastered up.

The story arcs grow perilously in number, and I was a bit concerned the whole was going to lose its boundaries and get muddled. Although a few plot lines still felt a bit extraneous, as if setting the stage for further installments in the series, Littlejohn did pull the mysteries together in fine fashion. This a group of characters I am anxious to revisit.

STREET SENSE: Debut mysteries are like mysteries inside mysteries. Is the author's writing style going to speak to me? Will the plot hold up substantively while keeping me interested? Will I want to invest in the characters? The answer to all of these questions in this instance are a resounding "Yes." Emily Littlejohn is an author that stays on my list.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  The poster quote above is actually my favorite, but this one is also a good'un (maybe simply because I hope it's true):

"The world is full of monsters. It always has been. For every monster, there are a hundred heroes. Mankind simply could not survive if the bad guys outnumbered the good guys; you know that, you live that truth every day in your chosen field."

COVER NERD SAYS: This was a rare instance where I didn't pick the book by its cover. I hadn't seen the cover when I received it, but I think it's one that would have caught my eye. There's not much unique about a person/woman standing in the woods (the woman running from behind is actually getting a little tiresome in cover land), but I like the lack of focus in the image that evokes movement--not just movement, but urgent or frantic movement. It's the kind of touch that can turn a simple picture of a person in the woods into something interesting, making me want to crack the cover and see what's inside.

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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