Monday, September 16, 2019

THE BIRD BOYS :: Lisa Sandlin

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

Tom Phelan is painting over the remains of a bloody crime scene in his office as the second Delpha Wade and Tom Phelan mystery begins. The Bird Boys picks up where Lisa Sandlin's debut, The Do-Right, left off, with Delpha bloodied and under investigation for another act of violence. Vietnam vet Tom is six months into his private investigation practice. Delpha is even more tragically layered, lucky to get the secretarial gig following her release from Gatesville prison after serving 14 years for killing a man.

Xavier Bell hires Tom to find his estranged brother, with little more to go on than ancient family history and a 40-year-old photograph. Bell's strange story gets more questionable as Delpha and Tom pry into his past. The Bell investigation and a few minor cases keep things hopping, but the highlights are Sandlin's characters and their constant striving and growth. Delpha is sharp and resourceful and, as Tom's reliance on her grows, so does the trust each gives so reluctantly.

Sandlin's writing is Chandler-esque, her descriptions divine ("a comet's-tail of trouble," "a hem that would ride up to her crank case if she sat down"). Set in 1970s Beaumont, Tex., the surroundings are wonderfully suffused with Watergate, pay phones, Selectric typewriters and a little Cajun flavor. With phrasing to linger over but pacing that presses forward, The Bird Boys will have readers racing to grab the first book and crossing fingers for more of the dynamite characters inhabiting this noir series.

STREET SENSE: This one caught me unawares when I received the assignment blind. Had no clue what to expect. I'm not all that keen on dropping into an existing series. But damn if this one did hit me square and I'll both continue on and go back and hit up the first in the series. Seriously, "ride up to her crank case." How do you not love that?

A FAVORITE PASSAGE: See said crank case. There are some fabulous turns of phrase in Sandlin's work. That alone would keep me coming back.

COVER NERD SAYS: I'll be honest, this one creeped me out. Which is very interesting, because (1) I love dark; (2) I love birds; and (3) the image really isn't all THAT creepy. I'm glad I wasn't left to my own devices, because I would have passed this one up if I saw it on the shelf. Swing and a miss for me. This really is a case of "It's not you, it's me."

Friday, September 13, 2019

THE BLESSING :: Gregory Orr

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

"Do I dare say my brother's death was a blessing?" Decorated poet Gregory Orr was 12 when he accidentally killed his younger brother. His memoir, The Blessing, begins with an uppercut that keeps stinging despite stunning language and insight. Ill-equipped to deal with the new reality he was trapped in forever, Orr was set adrift by his parents' emotional abandonment and an ingrained familial response of denial.

Orr struggled with his destroyed understanding of the world: "Peter's death wiped out all the easy meanings I had lived by until that day, as if a giant hand swept the counters and dice of a child's game off the board."

Like Cain, Orr wandered in despair as a fugitive from society. The accident was one of a "flurry of catastrophes" that defined Orr's youth and marked a dark trajectory. Salvation began in a soda fountain shop where Orr discovered comics, cheap paperbacks and, ultimately, "POEMS!"

"Enthralled by the possibility of making my own paths out of language," writing became a way out of the labyrinth.

Originally published in 2002, these essays feel fresh, as if the wound remains raw on the page. Orr became a poet and professor, spending much of his life compelled to probe "silence-shrouded events and their consequences"--torment, guilt and desire to survive. Orr sprinkles glorious bright spots through this haunting collection, like school buses pulling into a parking lot, "each its own distinctively faded shade of orange or yellow... gathered like old carp at the edge of an autumn pool."

STREET SENSE:  A blessing and a curse, this lovely memoir has some beautiful language worthy of a reprint.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  I was enthralled by the possibility of making my own paths out of language, each word put down like a luminous footstep, the sentence itself extending behind me in a white trail and, ahead of me, the dark unknown urging me to explore it.

COVER NERD SAYS:  The silhouette images of two young boys, one below the color and one above, is dazzling. Are they two silhouettes or one? Is Orr trapped below with his brother or able to rise above? Or is one rising above the clouds? So many interpretations for such simple visuals. Stunning work.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

SHULA :: Mark Ribowsky

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

When Don Shula was in junior high school, his hardworking Hungarian-immigrant parents refused to let him play football after he tore his nose open in a game. Undeterred, Shula forged his parents' signatures on the permission slip, and kept playing. The determined 11-year-old didn't become the priest his family hoped he would, but not even he imagined playing and achieving Hall of Fame status as a coach in the National Football League.

Mark Ribowsky, biographer of sports and music personalities (Dreams to Remember), details the "lantern-jawed" stalwart's five decades of football in Shula: The Coach of the NFL's Greatest Generation. Shula's career had more than adequate peaks to overshadow the valleys, but Ribowsky does not gloss over the "failures" that provided grist for the success mill and forged Shula's process of gritty, old-school discipline and grinding. An undefeated season coaching the Baltimore Colts went famously sideways in Super Bowl III, when the heavily favored Colts fell prey to Broadway Joe Namath's outlandish guarantee that his Jets team would win.

After losing another championship coaching the Miami Dolphins in 1972, Shula finally got a Super Bowl ring, and an as-yet-unmatched perfect season, in 1973. Ribowsky provides superb particulars about that game (and many others), including Shula's wife cold-cocking a rude fan and his watch being stolen off his wrist as his players hoisted him in victory. Comprehensive and straight-shooting about Shula's persona and career, touching on cultural influences of race, drugs and politics, Shula is a treasure trove of insight on one of the game's greats.

STREET SENSE: I love a biography that doesn't universally glow about the subject. We all have our shittiness. Ribowsky does a great job of that here. Shula was a big part of the football I watched as a kid and back in my day we rarely saw or knew much about the "off-the-field" persona (at least vastly diminished from today). I came away from this book with mixed feelings about Don Shula. His was a different age in so many ways, making it hard to "judge" by today's standards. No one can doubt he was driven and to many a great coach. I balked at some of the religion and (of course) resultant hypocrisy. But complex human beings are fascinating and Ribowsky kept me fairly riveted.

COVER NERD SAYS:  Simple, but I like it. When you have a face as recognizable as Shula's you don't have to get very fancy to hit/find your audience. A good, old-timey photo and font in Dolphin colors. Done. If there's any doubt, the well-placed yet still unobtrusive subtitle does the trick (even though I take issue with the subtitle's text, which doesn't really compute when you sit and think about it - so don't).

Monday, September 9, 2019

LAST ONES LEFT ALIVE :: Sarah Davis-Goff

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

Sarah Davis-Goff's view of dystopian Ireland is vividly displayed through fierce adolescent protagonist Orpen. As Last Ones Left Alive begins, Orpen is boldly pushing toward potential salvation. She's alone save for her dog and her birth mother's partner, Maeve, bound and ambiguously lifeless in a wheelbarrow.

The narrative compellingly alternates between Orpen's perilous quest and what necessitated it. Portentous flashbacks paint solitary yet idyllic beginnings on an abandoned island with her mothers Mam and Maeve, where the state of the world was a mystery and death seemed far away. The existence of the zombie-like skrake, "real enough to kill you dead," is also tantalizingly revealed.

Orpen's childhood ends abruptly at seven when she's given a set of knives and a punishing training regimen under Maeve's tutelage. When disaster strikes, Orpen takes her warrior ways on the road, trying to find a mysterious city mentioned by her mothers. Warned not to trust others, Orpen fights a longing for people, one thing she has in common with skrake, and an encounter with other survivors hurls her plans along an even more dangerous path.

In her debut novel, Irish author Davis-Goff, co-founder of Tramp Press, writes Orpen's apocalyptic world in a compelling cadence and shines at the bleak details--a road is "barely a path, a rough line, like a finger drawn across dry dirt." Her fight scenes hit the sweet spot and help highlight the natural feminist bent of the work. Despite the grim surroundings, there is beauty in Orpen's world, where she was taught to survive, but also how to live.

STREET SENSE: A dystopian future filled with zombie-like creatures and a strong young girl trying to make her way to salvation. Some minor hiccups involving the folks she meets on the road, but overall this was a cool read.

COVER NERD SAYS: I like this cover quite a bit. I'm a sucker for a road to nowhere (I'm living that metaphor), but I really dig the red X. A simple addition to the art that adds more than two simple lines to the mystery. I can't take much issue with the cover blurb since the text was kept very small, but if you're going to use a blurb, is "A riveting novel" enough to use cover space? Ivey's full blurb is on the back and the rest of it is much more powerful.

Monday, August 19, 2019

STATE :: Melissa Isaacson

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

Melissa Isaacson spends the evening before her Niles West High School basketball team's 25th reunion with her parents, both long suffering from Alzheimer's-induced memory loss. As she reconnects with her teammates, they implore her to delve into their own recollections and document the team's story. For more than a decade, she turns her sports journalist's eye to the tale of a remarkable group of girls from Skokie, Ill.

State begins shortly after the 1972 inception of Title IX, prohibiting sex discrimination in federally funded education activities. Isaacson was one of many "tomboys" who wanted to play sports and were running out of patience. Given the opportunity, her teams made spectacular runs at the state championship, ultimately winning it all in 1979, only five years after the school's inaugural season.

State is a treasure trove of personal reporting at the "squeak and rubber" level of shoes on the court. Significantly, looking back as an adult allows a view of the glory days through varying lenses of school, family and societal experiences and traumas that lay hidden under the surface for these suburban teenage girls. Details emerge about the coaches and administrators who fought for and supported them, and parents who sometimes did not.

Isaacson, the Chicago Tribune's first woman columnist and beat writer, artfully shifts voice between youthful naiveté and seasoned veteran. Her pre-game poems have evolved into great storytelling, imbued with warmth and, quite often, hilarity--a testament to the game that shaped the lives of the girls who played it.

STREET SENSE: Fans of sports, camaraderie and feel-good stories will enjoy Isaacson's recollections. The writing is insightful and often hilarious. As a fellow tomboy who came of age just after Isaacson, I recognized so many elements of her history. Many maddening, but some sweet. I particularly loved Isaacson's relationship with her father, who, when he learned how nervous she was about getting her new warm-up suit dirty, came home with a suit bag from the dry cleaners for her to keep it in. He then went back and got 13 more for the rest of her team. Her descriptions of him were some of my favorites, such as his running "with painful-sounding pants" from the "30 dollars of excess change in each pocket." Lovely stuff.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  Our relationship with the sport was one that we coveted and pursued, then was allowed to grow and deepen over time. Basketball was, in many ways, one of our best friends, dependable and fulfilling and intoxicating in its unpredictability. It gave us a feeling of belonging and security and confidence we so desperately needed during the angst of adolescence. Unlike the average high school social group or clique, we had a common goal that would not shake us, withstood petty bickering, and deterred all the usual grounds for rejection like the wrong hair or body type.

Also, this one. Because while there are many who focus on the glory of offense, one of my favorite things in the world is stopping someone else from doing something (this will surprise no one who knows me). There is nothing better than throwing someone out at the plate from center field. Isaacson is a kindred spirit: "Aside from basketball, I was never happier than when I was diving for sinking line drives in the outfield, then bouncing up and firing the ball home to nail an unsuspecting base runner." Preach, sister.

COVER NERD SAYS: I'd be lying if I said this cover is fancy, but I can't help but be won over by it nonetheless. It doesn't get much better than an old black-and-white photo of some tough ladies cutting down a net in celebration. The font is very "amateur sports/collegiate" looking, which is both awesome and appropriate. The colors and curve of the text, like the arc of a jump shot or as if the words are resting on the top of a ball, are super nifty. I can't even argue with the blurb, which sits pretty nicely out of the way and, despite being off to one side, doesn't ping my OCD-meter. Plus, motherfuckin' Steve Kerr. Most of these are changes from the ARC and all pay off. 

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

KANSAS CITY VS. OAKLAND :: Matthew C. Ehrlich

As a young sports junkie born and raised in the Bay Area of California with some roots in Kansas, I grew up with Oakland and Kansas City baseball and football. While I had a sense of the rivalry when it came to athletics, I remained mostly clueless as to the real history and depth of the two cities' connections until I read Matthew Ehrlich's Kansas City vs. Oakland: The Bitter Sports Rivalry That Defined an Era. An in-depth look at the franchises and the cities that support (and sometimes don't support) them, Kansas City vs. Oakland is recommended for anyone who is a fan of either team, lives in the surrounding areas, or has an interest in the impact of sports on a city (and vice versa).

I find the history of sports franchises fascinating in general, but you'd be hard-pressed to find an ownership foursome more colorful and intriguing than Charles O. Finley (owner of the Kansas City A's who moved them to Oakland--and named the mascot after himself), Al Davis (owner/GM of the Raiders), Lamar Hunt (owner of the Chiefs and a founder of the AFL), and Ewing Kauffman (who established/owned the Royals and brought baseball back to KC).

Ehrlich charts the rise and fall of each team through the years from dream to fruition to present day, along with the rises, falls and championships along the way. Views of sportswriters, broadcasters and social figures of the times add insight, and the interplay of the teams and cities with stadium building, political strife, race, economic turbulence, and fandom evidences the many layers of impact sports have had on both locales.

Ehrlich organizes the book in chronological sections alternating between baseball and football in each chosen period of time. With the addition of the stories of the two cities, I sometimes found myself wishing there was just one chronology for each team. However, with the interplay and rivalry factors, along with some of the city and cultural parallels, I think Ehrlich made the right call on organization when he had so much information to present and relationships to mine.

STREET SENSE: A detailed history of two cities and the sports teams that helped define them. Recommended for fans of sport and its impact on culture and urban "progress."

A FAVORITE PASSAGE: The Oakland Coliseum was different. In the fond words of the Raiders' Ken Stabler, it was a "little ol' bullring filled with blue-collar crazies" consisting of "everyone from bikers to longshoremen." Rather than sip cocktails, Raiders fans "drank out of the same bottle," according to one fan: "And when they were done, they threw it at somebody."

Also: "Holy Toledo!" (Because there was no one better than the great Bill King.)

COVER NERD SAYS:  I don't want to be too hard on this cover, because I don't expect a University Press to have a huge art and marketing budget and there's really nothing wrong with it. When I see it, I'm confident in what it's about. The colors, fonts and image have good interplay. The subtitle in a standout color gives it an added boost. But the book packs more punch than the cover might indicate. There's not much to separate this look from the many sports books or fantasy magazines on the shelves. It's a solid cover that lacks a little emotional oomph.

Monday, August 12, 2019

DOTTIR :: Katrin Davidsdottir

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

CrossFit combines elements of all sport disciplines with tests borrowed from Navy SEAL training, creating workouts performed by the "world's largest fitness community." The CrossFit Games are the Super Bowl of that community, crowning one man and one woman the "Fittest on Earth." Katrin Davidsdottir has won twice.

Iceland is tops in the world for gender equality and celebrating strong women, despite its patronymic custom (a father's first name prefixes his children's surnames). An athletic competition that values female participation and prizes Viking traits of power and fortitude seems perfectly crafted for Icelandic women, borne out by their dominance since the Games began in 2007. "Thorisdottir, Sigmundsdóttir, and Davidsdottir. One country. Three hundred and thirty thousand inhabitants. Ten podiums. Four Championships. Two silver medals. Four bronze. All Dottirs."

A blend of personal, familial memoir and training chronicle, Dottir follows Davidsdottir's "out of the womb hypercompetitive" path to the champion's podium and her struggle to keep her title in an increasingly challenging contest that airs on ESPN, recently boasting more participants than the population of Iceland.

Rife with CrossFit terminology, Dottir remains inclusive, conveying messages with mass appeal. Davidsdottir trains under the valuable principle "win or learn," freeing her from the mental stigma of failure. Embracing mistakes while pushing her limits facilitates mental toughness when it counts. Davidsdottir also addresses the pressures of society and media, particularly meaningful to youth and girls. Reading Dottir is no guarantee of a gold medal, but its empowering themes reach beyond athletics to everyday life.

STREET SENSE: Judgey McJudgerson wrote this off as just another fitness book, but I was really drawn in by Davidsdottir's story, background, work ethic and principles. I ended up a huge fan and want to visit Iceland more than ever. The 2019 Games were recently held and Davidsdottir finished fourth, with Aussie Tia-Clair Toomey taking the crown. Also, just for a taste, here's one of the workouts, performed for time and while wearing body armor:

1-mile run
100 pull-ups
200 push-ups
300 squats
1-mile run

A FAVORITE PASSAGE: Icelanders believe they are the best at everything. When it comes to the CrossFit Games, it's a matter of fact...One thing is obvious: Icelandic women are worthy of the hype. Despite the fact that only 1 percent of the total women's field is from Iceland, one in four female podium finishers is Icelandic and one in 2.5 female champions is Icelandic. That means we win the CrossFit Games about 160 times more often than you would expect us to win by chance. Those are staggering odds.

COVER NERD SAYS: I liked this cover more in hindsight. Despite my love of clean black-and-white art work, there was something about the angle of this image that was off-putting at first. For some reason, maybe my greater affinity for Davidsdottir, I kind of dig 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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