Tuesday, November 28, 2017

BREAKING BAD 101 :: Alan Sepinwall

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

A television drama with a ludicrous premise (a dying chemistry teacher cooks and sells methamphetamine to build a nest egg for his family), Breaking Bad was rejected by major networks and shuffled off to cable. From humble beginnings, it became not only a critical darling but a top-rated, multi-Emmy-winning water cooler sensation. In Breaking Bad 101, longtime television critic Alan Sepinwall (The Revolution Was Televised) dissects a show so successful at captivating an audience that Sepinwall watched "the greatest hour of dramatic television ever made" (Ozymandias, S5, E14) from a hospital bed after nearly dying from a burst appendix:

By that point in the series, though, the only thing that would have prevented me from covering 'Ozymandias' (and the two concluding episodes that followed) live would have been something worse than appendicitis. It wasn't just professional dedication making me do it, but a kind of fever equal to the one that, because the appendix burst before doctors removed it, kept me hospitalized for almost two weeks.

From its focus on the "in-between moments" to its use of cinematography to show rather than tell, Breaking Bad is a model of successful storytelling. Many plots would crumble from the fragile framework upon which creator Vince Gilligan and his crew built their masterpiece, but this one grew to epic proportions on the strength of its foundation--the writing (and some admittedly happy accidents). Sepinwall reveals how the writing held millions of viewers in suspense while a year of real-time story was spread over several often glacially-paced seasons of television in a masterful display of craftsmanship. This is even more staggering when you learn how often the writers were "winging it." Says Gilligan:

We actively try to paint ourselves into corners at the end of episodes--at the end of seasons, at the end of scenes, sometimes--and then we try to extricate ourselves from those corners.
The book includes updated show recaps supplemented with insightful details about all 62 episodes, interspersed with sidebars of insider facts and backstories, commentary from the actors and creators, and brilliant black-and-white comic-style artwork that exemplifies the show's dark humor. Breaking Bad 101 is incredibly fun, but truly shines when Sepinwall explores the elements that elevated an impractical story to awe-inspiring success.

STREET SENSE: An episode-by-episode companion to arguably the greatest television drama of all time, with content to satisfy artists, casual fans and series aficionados. If you haven't watched yet, doing so along with reading this book would be a great way to dive in. If you have watched, five'll get you ten this will make you want to start all over again.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE: This is a toughie, both because so much of the writing is spoilerish if you haven't watched the series and because great writing about great writing is so infinitely quotable. There's the bit about how Sepinwall's fixation and fever over Breaking Bad is all the more amazing because at first he wasn't even sure he would like the show, which is exactly how I felt on both ends. There's a great piece on growth, decay and transformation. I almost took from the fantastic Foreword by Damon Lindelof, who praises Sepinwall's craft and soul despite Sepinwall's oft-times less than positive reviews of Lindelof's own show, Lost. In the end, this heavily redacted bit won out, mostly because it perfectly describes the breath-holding experience of watching Breaking Bad, which feels both slower and faster than real time, turning the process into something otherworldly:

Nearly twenty minutes of screen time pass from the moment [redacted] to the closing credits.  More than fifteen minutes pass from the moment Walt arrives at [redacted] to the closing credits, and more than ten minutes pass from the moment we return from the final act break and Walt is prepared to [redacted]. I know this only because I went back, multiple viewings later, to clock it all. In the moment, the action seemed to be simultaneously taking place in an instant and over an eternity. A parade could have gone by my window and I wouldn't have noticed. I'm sure I inhaled and exhaled, if only because I'm alive right now writing these words that you're reading, but I'll be damned if I was aware of any contracting or expanding of my lungs as [redacted] all converged on the spot where [redacted]--the same spot where the arrival of [redacted] made it clear to both Walt and us that nothing on Breaking Bad would ever go as expected. 

Tuesday, November 21, 2017


Celeste Ng is pretty good evidence in support of reincarnation. How else is it possible she writes so many varied characters with such remarkable insight without having lived their lives and walked in their shoes? Having grown up in the locale of which she writes provided Ng a base of realism, but the character profiles in Little Fires Everywhere are up there with the best I've read, and that's all hard work and talent.

The Richardson family of Shaker Heights, Ohio, is outwardly living a life that exemplifies the Utopian principles established by the town's founders. As part of that sought-after perception, Elena Richardson has historically rented the family's second home in a less perfect part of town to someone she feels is in need. It makes Elena feel good to think she's giving people a helping hand. Most recently, the Winslow Road residence is occupied by Mia Warren, an itinerant artist, and her fifteen-year-old daughter, Pearl.

Little Fires Everywhere grabbed me from the get-go with the Richardson home ablaze, thanks, according to Elena, to youngest daughter and Richardson black sheep, Izzy:
It struck her that she had not looked for Izzy, as if she'd known already that Izzy was to blame. Every bedroom was empty except for the smell of gasoline and a small crackling fire set directly in the middle of each bed, as if a demented Girl Scout had been camping there.

Book titles vary in their actual relation to the text and I appreciated how Ng made hers absolutely relevant on two levels. Following the immediate literal interpretation, Ng goes back in time to explore the many metaphorical fires that burned the Richardson and Warren families and singed those around them. As the characters' lives became increasingly intertwined, new and old secrets mixed with judgment and assumptions, straining their relationships. When prominent family friends of the Richardsons set out to adopt a Chinese-American baby, the ensuing custody battle breaks those already fragile bonds and has far-reaching consequences.

STREET SENSE: Little Fires Everywhere is a brilliant look at broadly important issues (race, culture, privilege) through the lens of two very different families in a small town founded on the premise of perfection. If you're a fan of deep character profiles, this is your jam. All of the characters were well-drawn, but Elena Richardson really grabbed me as one of the most fascinating. That may be because I've known people like her, but the psychology of the self-proclaimed do-gooder is one I find particularly intriguing.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE: Mornings, Mrs. Richardson sailed into the kitchen in high-heeled pumps, car keys and stainless-steel travel mug in hand, saying, "Pearl, so nice to see you again." Then she click-clacked down the back hall, and in a moment the garage door rumbled open and her Lexus glided down the driveway, a golden pocket of coolness in the hot summer air. Mr. Richardson, in his jacket and tie, had left long before, but he loomed in the background, solid and impressive and important, like a mountain range on the horizon. When Pearl asked what his parents did all day, Moody had shrugged. "You know, they go to work." Work! When her mother said it, it reeked of drudgery: waiting tables, washing dishes, cleaning floors. But for the Richardsons, it seemed noble: they did important things.

COVER NERD SAYS: This one was so good I already raved about it in the body of the review. A+.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

THE SAVAGE :: Frank Bill

When Frank Bill writes something new I pay little attention to what it is, I just sign up and strap in. When I cracked open The Savage, I was immediately taken aback and gleefully entranced. Frank Bill, master of the nitty-gritty here and now of working class America is taking on the nitty-gritty of a future gone horribly awry. It's a very timely look at an America that might have seemed untenable a mere year ago, but now feels like an all-too-near fork in the road.

A follow-up to the bare-knuckled badassery of Donnybrook (currently being made into a motion picture, praise 9 pound, 8 ounce sweet baby Jesus), The Savage is set only several years on but light years away. The U.S. dollar is worthless, the power grid useless and power-and-land-hungry hordes are savaging what and who remains.

Against a kill-or-be-killed backdrop, Bill explores the competing interests of (mostly) men living in the madness and how they survive in light of their histories and what type of men their respective fathers taught them to be. One of the things I love about Frank Bill is the reverence he pays to those who work with their hands and ply a trade. The theme of how sad and dangerous it is to continue to destroy and leave that part of us behind runs deep in his writing.

The Savage is soaked in vengeance and unapologetic violence, and Bill easily holds the World Record for the number of different ways to describe a bullet separating mind from matter. His form and cadence vary like jabs and hooks and stray gloriously from the "norm," always with a sure foot beneath them. As cliche as it is to say Bill has a unique voice, I have a hard time describing his style. The best I can do is to liken it to watching Ali fight or listening to him speak. It is a savage ballet that twists your brain with its creativity and leaves you in wonderment. 

STREET SENSE: If you're a fan of the grit lit, do not hesitate, Frank Bill is a master.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  I really want to list a few of my favorite bullet-meets-bone descriptions, but those should not be spoiled. I used almost a full tin of book darts marking passages in this book, and to avoid having to make a difficult choice I'm going to quote from the opening, which provides a look at what goes down for the next (almost) 400 glorious pages.

They wanted change, so they'd taken out the grids, the world's power switch, eliminating lights, sounds, and anything that warranted electricity and what followed was the images of men being kneeled in front of women and children, homes besieged by flame, a pistol or rifle indenting a face enraged by fear, hurt, and anger. Trigger pulled. Brain, skull, and hair fertilizing the soil with departure. One man's life taken by another without mercy.

COVER NERD SAYS:  I was pulled to this cover at first sight. It's simple yet piques the curiosity. I'm always a fan of clean, stark imagery, and this cover does that superbly while also pairing well with the paperback cover of Donnybrook. I might have been able to nail this as a Frank Bill book just by looking, and that's a good thing.


Wednesday, November 1, 2017

I CAN'T BREATHE :: To Review or Not Review?

I Can't Breathe is an expose that details the before and after of Eric Garner's murder at the hands of the NYPD. The author delves into myriad issues impacting police culture in New York in general and Staten Island in particular. Politics, culture, race and money all worked together to create a perfect storm of injustice that cost Eric Garner his life.

It's an even-handed account--Garner is not portrayed as a saint. He was as flawed as any man, but one who was almost universally liked and non-violent. Garner worked hard to provide for his family (often to his own detriment) and was a neighborhood fixture on Bay Street where he sold smuggled cigarettes. It's an important story, impressively researched and very well written considering the scope it undertakes.

So what's the problem? The problem is that as I sat down to write a review I saw this article about the author, who worked as a journalist in Russia many years ago. He was apparently also a ginormous asshole, misogynist and perpetrator of sexual assault (and maybe more) against women and perhaps underage girls. His antics are all proudly documented in a memoir he wrote with another journalist about their time in Russia.

He may now claim the memoir was satire, but I'm not sure I care and I'm not buying it regardless. Even as satire it was a supposedly non-fiction work that glorified the assault and denigration of women and children. A quick look-see on Twitter evidences a history of harassment and misogynistic behavior on the author's part since the memoir's publication, which pretty much brings the lie to the satire claim, methinks. So. Here I sat, stuck between the rock of promoting the work of an asshole and the hard place of not promoting an important piece of non-fiction.

I had decided to do nothing, but as I sat with that decision, the inaction bothered me. If this was a work of fiction, the answer would be easy. But it's not. It's an in-depth investigative report on a state of affairs in this country that is costing lives. What I decided to do is this: I am strongly encouraging you to read the book. I'm also encouraging you, even more strongly, not to buy it. Support your local library and borrow a copy instead.

It's no mistake I don't mention the author's name in this "review." That was intentional. Probably silly, particularly since it's right there on the cover image, but it's my own minor protest. In the end, we're all adults and you can make your own determination as to whether you want to put your money into the furtherance of this author's work. On my scorecard, he is a special kind of heinous that shouldn't be rewarded. Once again Eric Garner deserved better.

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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