Monday, May 3, 2021

EVERYTHING IS FINE :: Vince Granata

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

Vince Granata was four when his parents brought triplets home from the hospital. As the family legend goes, thrilled to have siblings, Vince stuck his head in his father's open car window and declared, "This is the best day of my life." Granata was 27 when he got the call that his brother Tim had killed their mother.

Granata's heartbreaking memoir, Everything Is Fine, recounts the years leading up to Claudia Granata's death at her son's hands and the aftermath that left Vince, his siblings and his father with differing scars from the same horrific wound. It is the story of a warm, loving family, yet also one of American tragedy. Granata demonstrates how woefully inadequate mental health care and historically deadly clashes between law enforcement and the mentally ill left his mother fighting for her son's life, yet afraid to call authorities for help.

Granata deals with his traumas through the memoir, but also uses it to educate readers on a misunderstood disease process. Signs of Tim's schizophrenia began in high school, "on an atomic level, a single cell, something misfiring, an electron hitting the wrong synapse, a chemical imbalance slowly putrefying his brain." The progression to demonic delusions is harrowing in hindsight, but in order to inform readers about the terror of the disease, Granata had to "show... the horror it wrought" and the boy it swallowed. Painful on a multitude of levels, Granata's work is thought-provoking and important. It elegantly humanizes a man who has done the most inhumane thing to those he loves most. 

Saturday, May 1, 2021

LITTLE AND OFTEN :: Trent Preszler

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

Trent Preszler, born and raised on a farm, longed to live in New York since watching The Muppets Take Manhattan in a 1986 Faith, S.Dak., theater. He made the dream a reality: he earned two degrees at Cornell and, then, as CEO of Bedell Cellars, created the merlot served at Barack Obama's inauguration. Yet his successes were haunted by his estranged father Leon's words, "You ain't never gonna be man enough." In Preszler's superb memoir, Little and Often, the improbable happens--the non-craftsman builds a canoe from scratch and makes peace with his demons. 

Disowned 14 years earlier, Preszler is stunned when his dad has nice words for him during a rare trip home. Leon dies shortly thereafter, oddly leaving Trent his toolbox. Recalling a fond memory of a time in a fishing boat, Preszler somewhat inadvisably decides to build a strip canoe, following directions from a decades-old paperback he discovers at the lumberyard.

The build begins about as well as expected as Preszler, whose friends think macramé might be more appropriate, rushes in and learns on the fly. But using his father's tools and discovering more about the churchgoing Vietnam veteran and championship rodeo rider helps Preszler understand his life's traumas. Readers learn along with Preszler as he works; he thoughtfully doles out historical details over the course of the boat's construction, as he reveals the family's background. Insightful and humorous, Preszler's memoir is a deep dive to find the father he longed for and the confidence to be his own man.

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

TWO-CENT TUESDAY

Below are a few somewhat brief $.02 opinions about books I've read or listened to recently but don't have time, inclination, or opportunity to review in full. Their appearance in this recurring piece generally has little to nothing to do with merit. Many of these books I enjoyed as much or more than those that got the full court press. I hope you'll consider one or two for your own TBR stack if they strike your fancy whether they struck mine or not.



BOOKS THAT BEAT MY PANDEMIC BRAIN

Winter Countsby David Heska Wanbli Weiden

Winter Counts is a knockout piece of crime fiction featuring a Native American protagonist written by a Native American author. Which is reason enough to pick this up, since Native authors are vastly under-represented and under-appreciated. Weiden's debut has been shortlisted for the Edgar Award for Best First Novel, and I wouldn't be surprised if he took home the prize. Set on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota, Winter Counts centers on local enforcer Virgil Wounded Horse and his efforts to combat a local drug issue and save a family member in the process. Fantastic stuff and I can't wait for more DHWW and Virgil.

Group, by Christie Tate

For whatever reason there has been a spate of therapy books in the non-fiction realm lately and I am here for it. Others I've read (and greatly enjoyed) were written from the psychologist/psychiatrist perspective, so this was a fresh take. Told by Christie Tate, it was a story I related to in many ways, as Tate was a top student in her law school yet plagued by sadness and thoughts of her own death. Her wonderful therapist, Dr. Rosen, semi-forces her to join a psychotherapy group, and the result is a fabulous and often hilarious read.

Dear Child, by Romy Hausmann

A nifty take on an abduction story, Dear Child begins with a young woman unconscious and hospitalized in Munich following a hit-and-run. With her is a small child, Hannah, who tells a fairly creepy story of their existence and calls the woman "mama." But is the woman her mother? What of the brother Hannah says they left behind to clean stains on the carpet? And is "mama" really Lena, a girl who went missing 13 years ago? Told from alternating perspectives, Dear Child is a super fun ride. 

Little Cruelties, by Liz Nugent

Liz Nugent rocks. And that's not a pun on Ted Nugent, because we all know he's a moronic dick. Little Cruelties is told from the perspectives of three brothers--William, Luke and Brian Drumm. They are all present at a funeral. The catch is that one of them is in the casket and you don't find out which one until the end. Nugent is masterful at setting forth their intertwined lives and intimacies, each with his own version of events, strengths and frailties. Full of mind games and psychological maneuverings, it's a fast-paced gem.




PANDEMIC-BRAIN VICTIMS

Where The Edge Is, by Grainne Murphy

Gosh this one started out great, and I think I will eventually go back to it. A road in Ireland subsides, trapping five people inside a bus. As the rescue goes forth, we begin to learn about those involved. I was transfixed. Then all of a sudden I wasn't. One section started getting deep into historical issues and my pandemic-riddled brain just wasn't in for it at the time. But I love the cover and the premise and the beginning, so I will give this one another go one day. 


Between Two Kingdoms, by Suleika Jaouad

Oh boy. I was really looking forward to this memoir, mostly for the roadtrip-with-dog that was to follow the author's devastating cancer diagnosis when she had just graduated from college and was on the precipice of a new love and dream career. I hated that I wasn't enjoying it. I kept plugging along, thinking I was being an asshole for judging this woman who was going through such hell. But then. An event relating to her dog. Huh. Maybe I'm not off-base. But I'll give her yet another benefit of the doubt. Then, NOPE. A second event with animals, this one I couldn't overlook, even when someone went through what she did. She's a self-absorbed jerk who spent most of the book proving it and in the end didn't really replace that sentiment with anything redeeming. Bummer. (Of course, your mileage  may vary.)


Saturday, April 24, 2021

THE FUTURE IS YOURS :: Dan Frey

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



Dan Frey (The Retreat) does a bang-up job imagining a scenario in which computers can communicate with their future selves and the impact that could have on society on a variety of levels. Cleverly told entirely via documentation (e-mails, blog posts, texts, reports, etc.) to avoid spoilers,
The Future Is Yours
is an "opposites attract" tale of friendship set in the thought-provoking and cutthroat world of technology.



Ben Boyce, a confident connection-maker with a gift for wooing venture capitalists, and Adhvan "Adhi" Chaudry, an intellectual genius with woeful people skills, become best friends while rooming together at Stanford University. The story begins with an e-mail sent by Ben to Adhi from a year in the future--immediately proving Stanford whiffed by not backing Adhi's Ph.D. thesis proposing communication with the future using quantum computing.



The engrossing road from college to rolling out their product, a computer-type unit called The Future, is centered around the transcript of a 2021 congressional hearing where the legality of The Future is to be decided. Despite a subpoena, Adhi is mysteriously absent from the hearing. Frey ups the suspense by putting limitations on The Future: it can see only into a one-year future window, to a reality that cannot be altered.


Unsurprisingly, data from The Future becomes problematic. As Adhi struggles with morality issues, Ben drives passionately ahead, their friendship, relationships and the future of the world at risk. Frey's work as a screenwriter shines through in form and substance in this gripping work of science fiction

Friday, April 23, 2021

SPITE :: Simon McCarthy-Jones

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

A "strong" definition of the word spite, an act "where you harm another person and harm yourself in the process," does not leave much room for positivity. Yet the subtitle of Simon McCarthy-Jones's fascinating new work, Spite: The Upside of Your Dark Side, more than hints at how spite can be a constructive force. An associate professor of psychology and neuropsychology at Dublin's Trinity College, McCarthy-Jones has multiple degrees, papers and books to support his ideas about spite. That doesn't mean he declines the use of cinema's Terminator or Batman for occasional help explaining them.

Spite "runs deep," found in ancient myth and folklore, and most of us are familiar with its negative connotations. Yet if spite has no purpose since everyone loses, why was it not weeded out by natural selection long ago? McCarthy-Jones uses plain language, movies, humor and several economic "games" to "shine a light" on what he convincingly puts forth as an important tool for preventing injustice.

In the Ultimatum Game, player one is told player two in the room next door has $10 to share as they see fit. Player one can accept or reject player two's offer, but a rejection means both players get nothing. This seemingly simple game and its variations (the Dictator Game, the Joy of Destruction Game, etc.) are used ingeniously by McCarthy-Jones to explain both valid and improbable human behaviors, including voting against one's own best interests. Entertaining and illuminating, Spite explains how a society that depends on cooperation requires spite to thrive. 

Thursday, April 15, 2021

BROKEN HORSES :: Brandi Carlile

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



Cross-genre musical artist Brandi Carlile seemed to burst on the scene following a multiple Grammy-winning evening in 2019. The most nominated woman at the 61st annual awards (six), Carlile blew audiences away with her Song of the Year performance, "The Joke," an anthem for those who struggle to fit into the world's divisive molds. Thanks to Carlile's intimate memoir, Broken Horses, the story of how the "overnight sensation" struggled and strived for years can be known beyond the fans who have followed her religiously even prior to her first studio album in 2005.



Carlile's childhood in Washington State was marked by alcoholism, poverty, religion, health problems, instability (14 different homes) and, as the first-born grandchild, her own "inflated sense of self-importance and burden of perceived responsibility." That said, her family was warm, close, musical and filled with characters that lay a good storytelling foundation. But it is Carlile's sense of self and her ability to be deeply vulnerable and introspective before an audience that allow her to plumb the depths of her upbringing and forge her trail to center stage.



A brilliant lyricist, Carlile adapts her gift to the long form without missing a beat. Her style is conversational, whether the topic is music, charity work, motherhood (Carlile and her wife have two daughters), LGBTQ+ rights, Barack Obama or Carlile's beloved "gay pen pal father figure," Elton John. Overflowing with thoughtfulness, wicked humor, photographs and song lyrics, Broken Horses is an epic sit around the campfire. 

Sunday, April 11, 2021

A MOST REMARKABLE CREATURE :: Jonathan Meiburg

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

If a bird can be said to have inappropriately flown beneath the radar of public fascination, that is the caracara. Jonathan Meiburg's fabulously epic account, A Most Remarkable Creature, sets the record straight. Meiburg is frontman for the band Shearwater (named after a long-distance marine bird); in 1997, he received the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, which awards a year's travel to remote communities, sparking his enchantment with islands, birds and natural history.  

In the falcon family, caracaras are unlike other birds of prey, who focus on hunting. Caracaras, innately curious and "disarmingly conscious," seek out interaction regardless of food. Calling a caracara a bird of prey, says Meiburg, "feels like calling the painters of the Italian Renaissance a group of unusually gifted apes." Caracaras fascinated Darwin, who wrote more about them than any other bird.

Caracaras will "pluck the cap from your head, tug at the zippers of your backpack, and meet your eye with a forthright, impish gaze." This "earnest, playful quality" is what spurred Meiburg's research, yet A Most Remarkable Creature is much more than a scientific profile. It is a grand intellectual adventure involving dinosaurs, DNA, naturalists, exploration and survival. Meiburg is a gifted storyteller, and one can't help but fall under the same spell he did, daydreaming about "keeping a striated caracara in my apartment. It would be the world's most exasperating roommate, but watching it build a nest of shredded T-shirts, LP jackets, and guitar strings in my bookshelf might be worth 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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