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. 

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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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