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.

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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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