Thursday, January 25, 2018

BRASS :: Xhenet Aliu

Brass /bras/ Def: Brazen self-assurance. Syn: audacity brashness cheek chutzpah confidence effrontery gall impertinence impudence insolence presumption.

I've been so effusive about the 2018 titles I've read thus far my curmudgeonly street cred is taking a hit. All of them, however, have been deserving of the praise, none less so than Xhenet Aliu's striking debut, Brass.

 Aliu hales from Waterbury, Connecticut, a town that attracted large waves of Eastern Europeans while its brass factories were humming along in the late 20th Century. Her father was Albanian, her mother Lithuanian American.

The author's background heavily informs the characters in Brass, set in Waterbury after the economic downturn of the 70s and 80s. A two-fer on the kickass coming-of-age front, Brass opens with 19-year-old Elsie, who lives with her alcoholic Lithuanian mother and younger sister. Desperate to rise above in a town no one seems able to escape, Elsie works as a waitress at the Betsy Ross Diner, owned and operated by a local Albanian family. There she is drawn to Bashkim, with his sweet talk and money-making schemes, despite the wife he has back in his homeland.

The second timeline belongs to Elsie's 17-year-old daughter Luljeta, "latest in a line of fatherless daughters." Luljeta lives with her mother and longs to get out of Waterbury just like Elsie before her. As Brass opens, Luljeta finds herself at a crossroads, having failed to get into NYU and feeling rage at the world. Her life was supposed to be about proving she's unlike her loser father and over-bearing mother and NYU's rejection serves as a stark reminder she can't beat nature.

Within these themes of difficult mothers and fatherless daughters, Aliu writes in two strong and brassy female voices I will not soon forget. Whether intentional or not, I adored the fact that I would occasionally have to remind myself who I was listening to, Elsie or Luljeta. As much as we try to break free and as hard as we may rail against our mothers, are we destined to become them? If this was on purpose, I found it genius. If not, then I may be a bit of a maroon, so I prefer to think the former.

Aliu's language is whip-smart whether it's inducing laughter or scooping out innards like a melon-baller. I had great appreciation for the title symbolism, the prose is full of more brass than Waterbury's factories ever produced. My favorite writing is a mix of short bursts of beauty or snark and well-crafted run-ons. Aliu nails that style. I had so many f'ing book darts in this one I'm going to make it easy on myself and give you some snippets from just the first thirty or so pages:

Some people won't be surprised at the fuckery of which you're about to prove yourself capable.

Your mother, of course, is the one who rails, because she's the railer, the kind of tough broad represented exclusively by natural brunettes in the movies. She could have a second career as the before picture in Botox ads, because even when she smiles, which she manages to do occasionally, the parallel lines etched between her eyes remain, making it clear which of the emotions dominate her life.

On the NYU rejection letter:

...the email you now understand as the universe's final hint you are not what you have been promised  by aspirational posters in the public library you could someday be...

After a school fight:

He remains behind in the nurse's office to bring down his blood pressure after you've been ice-packed, ibuprofened, and shuffled along to the assistant principal, where you sit alone for twenty minutes, hallucinating you're sitting behind one-way glass, waiting to point out Margarita to Jerry Orbach, who'll send her along to Sam Waterston, who'll get her to break down on the stand and confess to her theft of your math work sheet and her multiple abortions and her hate crimes against European camel jockeys, yelling that she would've gotten away with it, too, if not for you meddling kids. By the time you realize you're conflating Law & Order with Scooby-Doo, two syndicated shows you watch in succession every time you stay home sick from school, you're joined not by any members of New York's finest but by the assistant principal and your own mother. It's then that the warm opiate blanket covering your body's pain receptors is snatched off, and the fact of Margarita's practiced fist on your eye socket is fully realized. 
Seriously, kids, this is just stellar, stellar stuff. I read and reread and grinned like an idiot throughout. Don't get me wrong, the story is serious and difficult and thought-provoking, but it's done with such a sly grin on the side you can't help but enjoy the ride to the fullest. Brass is the debut of an astounding new voice in fiction.

STREET SENSE: If you like your writing strong and smart with an edge, you can't go wrong here. Plus, anyone who sneaks great pop culture references into their works gets extra points from me.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE: I cheated a bit by using a few above, but I really did use almost a whole tin of book darts to mark passages. I once again took the easy way out and randomly turned to a marker at the back of the book, which turned out to be perfect:

I'm sure she also said something like I hope someday you have a daughter just like you, and I probably rolled my eyes about it, that oldest of curses that, it turns out, is also the only one you need to be afraid of.

COVER NERD SAYS:  I almost made a fatal error. I saw the cover of Brass on NetGalley and it immediately caught my eye as a book that, if the cover art was on point, would be right in my wheelhouse. But my review schedule was busy, so I didn't request a copy. Then The Book Gods smiled on me and the publisher sent me a copy and you've seen how that panned out. I can't even really tell you exactly what it is about this cover that speaks to me. Maybe nostalgia. The dated cars and clothes (which are actually probably back in style by now, but that knowledge is above my fashion pay grade), the sepia tone, the body language of the young woman pictured. It all screams both soft and gritty, beauty and hard times. Most importantly, it is true to the content and I love everything about it.

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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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