Book Review Time: birds of california

With the waning days of summer upon us, this is an excellent time to venture poolside, or perhaps, visit your local beach. And the perfect companion for such activities is a light(ish) novel. I find romantic comedies often fit the bill. Therefore, if you are so inclined, may I recommend birds of california by Katie Cotugno.

a good cup of coffee requires no adornment

The main character, Fiona St. James, is living a relatively quiet life in L.A. She works in her family’s print shop, which pays the bills but provides very little personal satisfaction. Added to that, are the various headaches that accompany customer service work. When Fiona’s not at the print shop, she spends part of her time with her teenage sister and their flamboyant neighbor, and the other part with an obscure community theater group in which she acts and directs. With the latter group, Fiona has assumed a pseudonym, which begs the question…why? The answer to that lies in Fiona’s past. A past she’s desperately trying to distance herself from. Since Fiona has worked hard to achieve this quiet life, the less recognition and attention she attracts, the better.

Nearly a decade prior, Fiona was a child actor. She starred in a popular TV show called Birds Of California, which garnered her immense fame. But as the show neared the end of its run, the wheels began to come off for Fiona. At the time, her self-destructive behavior was well documented by tabloid media. Fiona’s spectacular fall from grace fed the hungry viewing eyes of the public. But it left her severely damaged and even required a stint in a mental health facility. So, for Fiona, if it’s a choice between fame and fortune or hiding within the safety of the print shop, she’ll choose the print shop everytime.

But as we all know, with any novel, there must be conflict. Some disturbance in the normal flow of events. In this case, that disturbance is Sam Fox. Sam was one of Fiona’s co-stars on Birds Of California, and he’s been recruited to convince Fiona to sign on to star in a reboot of the show. Sam is desperate to get his acting career back on track. So the idea of a reboot is welcomed news. But he’s going to have his hands full trying to get Fiona on board. Sam is a man on a mission. Yet, missions can get complicated. Things don’t always go to plan. And when the relationship between the former co-stars begins to heat up, revelations, both unexpected and all too familiar, rise to the surface.

birds of california is not without its flaws. The fact that Fiona remains in the L.A. area despite it being the scene of so much of her heartbreak, created some head-scratching moments for me. Another point of frustration was the ending. There were so many loose ends. Cotugno made sure to resolve the romantic conflicts, but there were several interesting subplots involving mental illness and parental abandonment, that I would’ve appreciated further exploration of. However, the reader is provided with a fairly fleshed out portrait of the Hollywood industry and workplace gender politics, where women have very little agency, and those who are most vulnerable often succumb to the will of powerful men, or risk their professional reputations. What immediately struck me about this story is how frequently Fiona says “no” to men, in various ways, for various reasons. Sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly. But that initial “no” is rarely accepted or taken seriously. This idea that we as women don’t know what we really want, that we don’t mean what we say, that somehow we can be forced into compliance, is one of the more disturbing aspects of society. birds of california is primarily a rom-com, but I appreciated that Cotugno makes a point of unmasking these destructive beliefs, and spotlighting their prevalence. 

In spite of some heavy moments, I do believe birds of california is a good read to wrap up the summer season. There’s witty banter that provides a bit of comedy. And if you love romance, this novel definitely has it. Beware, it is for mature audiences only.

A slightly flawed but entertaining love story with striking depictions of post-#MeToo Hollywood. birds of california has my endorsement.

~G


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microfiction, episode 4-hinges:

Smoke and mirrors. Bells and whistles. Nuts and bolts. Doors and hinges?

It started with a small squeak. And only when the door was opened abruptly. Quickly. The sound was akin to that of a surprised mouse. Barely registering as a minor annoyance, Ky purchased a can of WD40, and assumed the problem was solved. But it wasn’t. A month later, the squeaking returned. This time it didn’t matter the speed at which the door was opened. And the sound had developed complexity. The original small squeak upon opening was quickly followed by a longer, higher-pitched, squeak when closing. Two mice. Two mice conspiring. After doing some research on her phone, Ky discovered that although WD40 can provide immediate results, over time it could also increase the problem. WD40 reminded Ky of her ex-boyfriend. 

What followed was 3 months of trial and error based on website advice. Silicone lubricants, olive oil, petroleum jelly. Each produced temporary relief. But ultimately the squeaking returned. Ky’s final DIY attempt (hair spray) only worked for a week. By that point, the door’s hinges rendered a cacophony of mouse sounds, sending Ky nearly over the edge. She imagined the pupils of her eyes spiraling like those of animated characters, who’ve been bonked on the head.

When the door installation professional arrived on a raining Tuesday, Ky could barely contain herself. A quick assessment revealed the underlying problem. According to Malcolm (the door installation professional), the door itself was hung incorrectly which in time led to the premature breakdown of the hinges. 

Malcolm, you don’t even know the half of it.

~G

microfiction (episode 3-vines, parts 1, 2 and 3):

  1. Ky has a recurring dream. She’s standing in Aunt Katherine’s house. It was the house she was raised in, after her parents died. She’s in the front room. There’s a display case containing glass figurines and tchotchkes. And there’s a white sofa set, no one was ever allowed to sit on. As she walks through the hallway, a tall well-dressed man coming from the opposite direction, acknowledges her as he glides by. It’s the same man she sees every weekday morning at a local cafe on her coffee run. Ky then checks all of the bedrooms. They are immaculate. Beds made, and the carpets have just the right amount of vacuum marks. A quick look in the bathroom reveals spotless surfaces, and the toilet is a spectacular shade of pink (Aunt Katherine’s favorite color). Ky can hear two voices coming from somewhere in the house. The sound leads her to the kitchen, where she finds her boss, Judith, rummaging through the refrigerator.  Also in the kitchen is Neil, Judith’s assistant and the office snitch. Ky does not like Neil. It is quickly ascertained that neither Judith nor Neil can see Ky. It’s strange to be invisible in one’s own dream. After an exhaustive search, Judith finds what she is looking for in the freezer. A frozen dinner. She removes the packaging, and places the meal in Aunt Katherine’s prehistoric microwave. She sets the timer for 5 minutes and presses the start button. Ky feels that Judith has greatly overestimated the capabilities of this particular microwave. As they wait for the dinner bell, Judith and Neil resume the conversation they were having before Ky entered the kitchen. Judith looks spent. She’s complaining about the staff, in general. And Ky, specifically. Judith criticizes Ky’s lack of ambition. Her tendency to be so easily distracted. And of course, her tardiness. Neil nods aggressively, affirming Judith’s assessment. Ky really does not like Neil. From the kitchen, the sound of the television in the living room can be heard. Ky decides to let Judith and Neil have at it. She’d prefer to check out what show is on. 
  1. Sure enough, it’s The Price Is Right. All blazing colors and reckless enthusiasm. Ky smiles and looks at the cushy sofa chair positioned up against the center of the east-facing wall, allowing for a perfect view of the tv. This is where Aunt Katherine would sit. It was her chair. But now it’s empty. Ky spots a framed photo of her son on the side table next to the chair. He’s younger in this picture. Sun-kissed skin, and a mass of curls atop his head. His smiling eyes glisten. Ky misses that age. She then sits in the chair. A bookshelf on one side of the living room holds more potted plants than it does books. And one plant stands out from the rest. Its draping green vines fall loosely from the wooden shelf, like the hair of a forest nymph. But there’s something strange about this plant. It appears to move. On the tv, a bespectacled woman has just won a new car. Ky wonders if this contestant knows she will have to pay taxes on her winnings. Ky’s attention is drawn back to the plant. It has grown even more. However, one tendril outpaces the rest. It doesn’t take long for Ky to realize that it is headed straight for her. She tries to leave, but she can’t get out of the chair. Her body is paralyzed. The tv is blasting a commercial for probiotics formulated for women with “menopause tummy.” The vine makes its way to the chair, curving up the side and onto the armrest. It reaches for Ky’s right wrist, encircling it with green leafy fingers. The vine squeezes tightly. Ky tries to break free, but this only serves to spur on the brother and sister vines closing in on her. Ky’s screams are accompanied by the opening music to a daytime soap opera. Menacing green tendrils come towards her from every direction. But before they can make contact, Ky awakes.
  1. Later, after she has relayed this story to her therapist, Ky states that she believes the dreams are a sign to donate more to environmental causes.

~G

Book Review Time: Standard Deviation

On rare occasions, I experience what I call “novel dilemma.” This happens when I reach the end of a book, and I have no idea how I feel about it. Did I like it? Did I hate it? There’s no clear verdict. Sometimes novel dilemmas can arise from mediocre stories with compelling characters, or stellar plots that epically crash towards the end. As a reader, you just don’t know what to make of these experiences. In the case of Katherine Heiny’s Standard Deviation, incredible writing, immersed in humor and heart, feels weighed down by the often obnoxious behaviors of its characters.

matcha latte with oat milk, three pumps of vanilla, and a foamy heart on top.

The story is told from the perspective of Graham Cavanaugh, a married father living in New York City. It is quickly established that Graham’s current marriage is not his first. In fact, Graham left his first wife, Elspeth (interesting name) for his current wife, Audra (interesting personality). The story begins with Graham and Audra several years into their family life together, which includes their 10 year old son, Matthew. They seem to have their routine down pat. When Graham isn’t at work as a venture capitalist, he’s planning and preparing meals for the family, helping with homework, or attending to some other parental duty. Audra, a freelance graphic designer, appears to work sparingly but spends much of her time involved in their son’s school and extracurricular activities. Graham and Audra enjoy nights on their own as well, dinner dates and meet-ups with close friends. From the outside, everything seems on the up and up. But there’s a hitch. It’s Audra’s forceful personality. She socializes on a scale unimaginable to the average human being. Audra can literally talk to anyone about anything, eliciting deeply confidential intel from mere acquaintances. Audra’s mind contains a vast catalog of intelligence and secrets garnered over time, and she’s not above dropping a bit of gossip at the most awkward of moments. And it’s this aspect of Audra’s personality that I found infuriating at times. Graham seems to as well. And things really kick up a notch when Audra decides to befriend Graham’s first wife, Elspeth, a woman who doesn’t suffer fools lightly. She is the exact opposite of Audra. Reserved and tightly-wound, Elspeth would happily suffer in silence if it meant keeping every strand of her perfectly coiffed hair in place. Graham is befuddled by Audra’s sudden interest in his ex-wife, but eventually he concedes to her plan. As Graham starts to form a new type of relationship with Elspeth, he finds himself questioning past decisions made, and actions taken. He also begins to see strains in his current marriage to Audra. There’s a rocky road ahead.

Standard Deviation has so much going for it; a unique premise, great writing, laugh out loud moments. But what I kept coming up against were characters that I didn’t really like. The steady stream of dinner and house guests, some of whom were extremely annoying. The eccentric and aversion-prone members of Matthew’s origami club. And of course, that Rottweiler kid, (Psst, you’ll understand all of these references if you read the book.) But in the end, the ones who bothered me the most were Audra and Graham. Audra basks in her irrepressibility, recounting stories of past affairs and seedy encounters with relish. She’s inappropriate and has absolutely no filter. But her presence is such that no one ever checks her on these lapses in social etiquette. Graham, on the other hand, is pent up. In his attempts to offset the whirlwind that is Audra, he becomes an inactive bystander, a man quick to deliver knowing looks and uncomfortable coughs, but terrified of confrontation. Often it feels like Graham is observing his life from the outside. Not an enviable position to be in. 

Katherine Heiny tries to balance these character traits out with truly heartfelt moments. There is no denying Graham and Audra’s love for their son, Matthew. Throughout the novel their dedication as parents to a special-needs child is evident. I applaud Heiny for her sincere and moving depiction of a family that has to operate a little differently than most.

Standard Deviation is a story of how people navigate through the ups and downs of life, and maintain a sense of humor. It’s a story of how we manage and keep moving forward, even through the most trying of circumstances. Some take refuge in guarded fortresses. Others keep their doors open, come what may. There are even a select few who lose themselves within the folds of a paper crane. Yes, the characters are flawed. But, at the end of the day, no one’s perfect. Certainly not Graham and Audra. They’re just human, like the rest of us. And their story proves that love can be mind-numbingly complicated and supremely simple, all at the same time.

Yea or Nay on this title? The final verdict…

It’s a yea for me. A soft yea.

~G

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microfiction (episode 2-cracks)

The cracks are beginning to show. Just around the eyes. And slight furrows trace the sensitive skin between the lower forehead and the bridge of the nose. While examining her face in the bathroom mirror, several thoughts come to mind. Why do we always seem to be out of milk? What exactly is a NFT? Who was that one really good actor in that shitty Netflix series? Is Vitamin C serum all hype?

Ky gently touches the signs of age that now reside on her face, and she is reminded of a road map. So many directions. So many destinations. Once upon a time, she drove through the whole state of Kansas without stopping. The lack of topography was unnerving. Bladder full, she rushed to find the nearest rest stop, after crossing the border into Colorado. She wonders if she’ll ever do something like that again. 

Staring into the mirror, a distant sound can be heard coming from the kitchen. It’s the refrigerator door opening. Ky will definitely need to buy more milk in the morning. She then carefully removes a secret stash of Milano cookies from a drawer beneath the bathroom sink. As she quietly chews, she makes a mental note to also buy more Milano cookies.

~G

microfiction (episode 1-pilot)

Ky was habitually late. To weddings. To funerals. Parent-teacher conferences. Dental appointments (scurrying to make the grace period cut-off). And after encountering 3 consecutive red lights, she knows she’ll be late yet again. Ky bangs her fist against the car’s steering wheel in frustration. This is done more as a performance than a genuine show of emotion. Who is she performing for? It’s anyone’s guess. Perhaps it’s for the strangely attractive androgynous human driving a teal Toyota Corolla in the lane adjacent. Or maybe it’s for the traffic camera just above the stoplight. Ky always believed she’d make a fine screen actress. But opportunities are scarce. As she and her trusty vehicle idle, Ky conjures up an image of the person in charge of watching traffic footage taken from the intersection of 12th and Montgomery. She becomes so lost in thought, she barely registers the sound of the car horn just behind, alerting her to the fact the light had changed.

~G

Book Review Time: The Secret Life Of Albert Entwistle

I’m sure it is obvious to most that I write under a pseudonym. Ginny Malbec sounds about as authentic as a 3 dollar bill. Yet, in spite of the name, the message I deliver is 100% the real deal. It took me quite a bit of time to find my voice. My authentic self. I tried on different hats for various reasons. Nothing ever fit as it should. So, I spent most of my adolescence and young adulthood wildly uncomfortable. It probably wasn’t until I was solidly in my forties that my truest self took the reins. There are few experiences in life more freeing. In The Secret Life Of Albert Entwistle, the eponymous main character undergoes a similar realization.

Though it was presented in a plastic vessel posing as a wineglass, the Malbec was just as lovely as it always is.

Albert is just shy of his 65th birthday when he receives word from his employer that forced retirement is imminent. Working as a mail carrier makes up a significant part of Albert’s cloistered life. That and taking care of his cat, Gracie. Otherwise, his existence is rather small and subdued. Dancing to show tunes in his living room, with the curtains drawn lest he be seen, is an extremely subversive act in Albert’s estimation. But with retirement looming, a small flicker of light is ignited. And oh, how it will grow! Over time, and taking the concept of “baby-steps” to a whole new level, Albert will begin to open himself up to the world, and the people in it. In the process he will find acceptance, community, and the possibility of love rekindled.

The Secret Life Of Albert Entwistle by Matt Cain, is a beautiful story. Albert is a man who has spent most of his life hidden away in plain sight. Yet his decision to live out the third act of his life, with the artifice removed, distinguishes him as a valuable and worthy literary hero. At the very heart of Albert’s truth is his suppressed sexuality and the childhood trauma he faced because of it. As an older man, Albert recognizes a society that is far more accepting. Love is love. But obstacles remain in his path, as well as the guilt of hurting someone he cherished profoundly.

If you decide to venture on this literary journey of self-discovery, forgiveness, and love, know that you will feel Albert’s pain. It is deep and inescapable. But rest assured that you will also feel the immense joy of a life fully unveiled and the beauty drawn in by its light.

Better late than never, right?

Inspirational.

~G

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Book Review Time: Lessons In Chemistry

Elizabeth Zott, the protagonist of Lessons In Chemistry, is a literary heroine for the ages. In early 1960s America- an America that had yet to feel the full force of the feminist movement-Zott stands as a vanguard. A reluctant television personality with a super-successful cooking show, Zott would just prefer to be recognized as a chemist. She is a highly educated scientist by trade and by passion; her natural habitat, a lab with beakers and bunsen burners. Yet her life is over-burdened with the struggle to be taken seriously. She has been the victim of research theft and workplace harassment, as well as, assault from men in positions of power. In spite of it all, she maintains an unwavering resolve. Because if anyone is up for a challenge- if anyone is willing to take a sledgehammer to patriarchy- it’s Elizabeth Zott.

microfiction by ginny malbec: a day filled with challenges ends in success, which means a glass of french 75 is in order. a votre sante.

It’s common knowledge that men are praised for being ambitious. The same cannot be said for the opposite sex. Women with Zott’s drive are often viewed as hard-edged, subversive, and icy. Their professional achievements are questioned and microscopically analyzed. In the case of Zott, and many women like her, the credentials, skills, and intellect are evident. It’s just difficult to find a seat at the table (or lab) when it’s filled with unqualified men. So she’s really left with no choice, but to take her message of female empowerment (as well as, the concepts of ionization and osmosis) to the airwaves. After all, cooking is chemistry. Zott’s national impact is not only unexpected but revolutionary.

It is of the utmost importance to note that Elizabeth Zott is far from icy. She has a history of childhood trauma and abandonment. If one detects coldness it is likely due to tragedy, loss, and a fair share of disappointments. Yet when she loves, she loves deeply. In the beginning of the novel, we learn of Zott’s greatest romance and the consequences stemming from that relationship. Later, there are multiple twists of fate that enable her to cultivate, what I believe to be, a beautifully unique and rich family life, centered around her comically inquisitive daughter, Madeline, and an English-fluent rescue dog called Six-Thirty. Yes, that is, indeed, his name. As a single mother, Zott learns to rely on the help and guidance of others, and as a result increases her circle of loved ones. 

In addition to all of her accomplishments, Elizabeth Zott is a dedicated athlete. A rower, with natural acumen, her exercise regime is not only a testament to her physical strength but her emotional resilience. She might be described by some as a “tough cookie.” But I suspect Zott would rightly take umbrage with the use of that terminology.

Lesson In Chemistry is a fabulous novel, and definitely in the running for my favorite novel of 2022. Bonnie Garmus has perfectly captured a moment in time. The avenues of existence that half of the population was excluded from (even more, if you account for race.) The lack of resources and opportunities for women who may have wanted a working life outside of the home. The harassment endured by those women who dared to enter professional spaces dominated by men. Hell, women couldn’t even have credit cards in their own names in the 1960s. As difficult as that is to contemplate, one cannot ignore the fact that still, in 2022, we are far from anything resembling gender equity. But, I’m not without hope that one day we’ll get there. Lessons In Chemistry solidifies that sentiment.

A novel of humor, wit, passion, and provocative commentary, with a profound message and a call to action, Lessons In Chemistry is absolute perfection.

~G

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Book Review Time: Open Water

Amid the smooth rhythms of hip-hop, soul, and R&B, a love story emerges. Two artists (a photographer and a dancer) meet. Their connection is immediate. Their movements are in tempo. Their conversation flows to a place beyond words. But what’s a love story without conflict? In the case of the couple depicted in Open Water, the conflicts are many. Their timing is just a tad off, as she happens to already be in a relationship. However, once that issue is resolved, others quickly reveal themselves. There is a physical distance to contend with which gives cause for hesitancy. As a consequence, their relationship proceeds with caution. Yet there is always a strong sense of ambiguity. These intimate moments when the couple reaches the border into new territory, and they stop just shy of the crossing. Blurred lines lead to misunderstandings, and the two struggle to find sure footing. It doesn’t help that they must negotiate rocky terrain in the form of institutionalized racism. There are no misunderstandings about the society in which they live. A society that assigns threat, aggression, and criminality based solely on skin color. And if a young man finds himself in the wrong place and the wrong time the results can be fatal. The systemization of racism is maddening not only in its absolute absurdity, but also in its ironclad hold on society. For the narrator, and main character, of this provocative love story, the racism he and other black men in his London community face, begins to take a toll. Unsurprisingly, these encounters bring about mental health issues and further threaten his blossoming, yet fragile, relationship.

It’s a sign of true talent when a writer can deliver such an impactful work at a mere 166 pages. When I reached the end of Open Water, the emotions ran deeply. I have no reservations in revealing that I did shed a few tears. Just a natural response to incredible writing. Caleb Azumah Nelson presents the narration in the second-person which struck me as a unique and daring approach. The narrator is, in essence, talking to himself. It’s the language of an individual working through what it means to love, what it means to grasp beauty, when surrounded by darkness and destruction. It’s riveting in a way that is difficult to encapsulate.

Nelson’s appreciation for Black culture and artistry is also on display in this novel. The narrator highlights the work of literary giants such as Zadie Smith and James Baldwin. He credits Black cinema, films like Moonlight and Boyz N’ The Hood, for proving that there are spaces in which he is truly “seen.” And of course, there’s the music. Even when there is no mention of music, you still hear it. The soundtrack of the tragic pain and the resilient pleasure of the Black experience.

A magnificent debut novel. Open Water.

~G

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Book Review Time: Cassandra At The Wedding

Oh boy, was this an intriguing selection. Cassandra…found its way to me via the podcast, Backlisted. I’m quite pleased that it did. As is the case with fictional works that lean heavily on character study, the analysis within the pages, at times, becomes unnerving. As a reader, there is the edgy consciousness of the voyeur, as one witnesses raw humanity exposed. Cassandra freely leads you there as she “wail(s) at the gates of Troy.”

The story begins with Cassandra Edwards, in the throes of composing her graduate thesis, deliberating on when (or if) she should head out on the 5 hour drive from Berkeley to Putnam, her hometown. Her twin sister, Judith, after several months spent in New York, has returned to the central California town, where she intends to marry her fiance in a swift ceremony. Only immediate family members have made the guest list. Cassandra having suffered the emotional strain of her sister’s absence, is relieved to have her back but equally disturbed by Judith’s seemingly rash decision to wed Dr. John Thomas “what’s-his-name”. Once it’s decided that she will in fact make the long sweltering journey back home, Cassandra begins to cook up an impetuous scheme of her own. She will convince Judith of the errors of her ways, and prevent her from making the biggest mistake of her life. Marriage is the stuff of convention. And according to Cassandra, she and her twin are an unconventional pair. Two halves of one whole. Inseparable. Cassandra will go to extreme lengths to prove this point.

This novel was such a literary delight. Straddling the razor thin line between dark humor and looming tragedy, Dorothy Baker constructs a fictional tale that feels entirely too real. Cassandra narrates a majority of the novel. But, mid-section, the reader is treated to a shorter rendition of events, seen through the eyes of Judith. This alternate perspective adds a layer of complexity to the story, and demonstrates the malleability of truth.

Cassandra is a troubled woman, no doubt. She is selfish, reckless, and far too attached to her twin. But she’s also quite funny. Disarmingly so. She’s a character who in spite of her prickly nature inspires the desire to protect. Her armor is so easily weakened by the slings and arrows of this world. Yet Cassandra is like many of us. Desperately afraid of change. Luckily, she has an exceptionally devoted psychotherapist. But you have to read the book to learn more about that.

A dark, introspective comedy that will have you on edge throughout, Cassandra At The Wedding is an entertaining (and slightly alarming) read.

~G

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