hmc + mafb

KCMetropolis.orgI can’t believe we’re halfway through December already! I’ve been wrapped up in holiday concerts for a couple weeks now, with two of my own via the orchestras I’m in and reviewing two for KCMetropolis.org. It just so happens that I ended up covering two of Kansas City’s major LGBT arts groups, Heartland Men’s Chorus and the Mid America Freedom Band. HMC is one of my favorite choirs in town—its shows are so much fun, with a lot of humor, heart, and awesome production value. MAFB is growing by leaps and bounds itself, adding shows and break-out factions of the group all the time. What I appreciate the most about these two shows I saw, though, is that while they were holiday concerts, the programming was adventurous and creative enough to warm even my semi-grinchy heart. As a musician, the performing arts offerings can become mind-numbingly repetitive this time of year—the same carols, the same arrangements, the same Handel’s Messiah, the same the same the same—so to hear some interesting, uncommon arrangements and programming themes that stray from the usual was the best, and these two groups didn’t disappoint on that front.

Read my full reviews at KCMetropolis.org:

top ten tuesday: best books of 2014

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, a fun way to get yourself thinking and sharing about books and bookish things.

December 16: Top ten books I read in 2014

I feel like this is so early! I’m in the middle of one that I’m totally loving (Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng) that would absolutely make this list, but I’m not sure I feel right about putting it down when I’m not finished yet. Maybe the ending will change my mind about it! Who knows. Also I have three on deck to close out 2014 (Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine, We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel) that could have a shot at being a top-ten favorite. Here’s my tops of 2014 as of December 16, in alphabetical order by author’s last name (click titles for review):

best of 2014_1

Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood
Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi with Curt Gentry
The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey
Bird Box by by Josh Malerman
When Pride Still Mattered by David Maraniss

best of 2014_2

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (review)
The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America by George Packer (review)
Yes Please by Amy Poehler (review)
Unintimidated: Wisconsin Sings Truth to Power by various (review)
A Fighting Chance by Elizabeth Warren (review)

HONORABLE MENTIONS:
MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood
Moloka’i by Alan Brennert
The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld
The Hot House by Pete Earley
The Round House by Louise Erdrich
Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed
Annihilation by James VanderMeer
The Martian by Andy Weir

What’s the best you read in 2014? Did you also have a hard time choosing only ten?

the end of your life book club

I picked up a copy of The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe several months ago when it was making the book blog rounds, but put off reading it in the wake of both my grandmothers’ recent deaths. I just thought it might cut too deep at the moment, but finally I decided to give it a read, despite my tender heart right now. From Goodreads:

This is the inspiring true story of a son and his mother, who start a “book club” that brings them together as her life comes to a close. Over the next two years, Will [Schwalbe] and [his mother] Mary Anne carry on conversations that are both wide-ranging and deeply personal, prompted by an eclectic array of books and a shared passion for reading. Their list jumps from classic to popular, from poetry to mysteries, from fantastic to spiritual. The issues they discuss include questions of faith and courage as well as everyday topics such as expressing gratitude and learning to listen. Throughout, they are constantly reminded of the power of books to comfort us, astonish us, teach us, and tell us what we need to do with our lives and in the world. Reading isn’t the opposite of doing; it’s the opposite of dying.

I enjoyed The End of Your Life Book Club overall. It beautifully demonstrated how books can bond people together and open up a dialogue about the world, culture, events, and more that we experience in this life, and how books act as a bridge between the past, present, and future. I admired Mary Anne’s humanitarianism and accomplishments, even though she seemed like a pretty intense person in general (and some of her achievements and personality seemed too good to be true). I interpreted this memoir as a loving tribute, detecting nothing but love and respect from Will for his mother, if sort of extra carefully, from arm’s length.

There are a few parts of the book that made me raise an eyebrow. I didn’t personally need to know about Mary Anne’s struggle to decide what to do with her money, who was getting her frequent flier miles, etc. The privilege and elitism of this family was too much sometimes; it reminded me of the beginning of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking (I DNF’d because of the elitism), which is also a book discussed in EoYLBC. However I think that Schwalbe described his family’s privilege much more delicately than Didion, palpable but easier to swallow. I also perceived Mary Anne as a person needing to be in control and have things go as planned, which was a bit off-putting for me.

Apparently, EoYLBC is a fairly polarizing memoir. It’s pretty specific and narrow in its focus—more about the relationship of Will and Mary Anne, the book club, Mary Anne’s life and less about books, which disappointed many readers. On one hand I agree with that sentiment, but on the other I wouldn’t want spoilers.

The ending resonated with me most of all, though, even prompting a few tears—the part when the family stands vigil by Mary Anne’s bedside in her last hours. I just went through this with one of my grandmothers last year, and it was an experience I will never forget.

Read from December 1 to 11, 2014.

the girl with all the gifts

The last month and a half (yeesh) I have been listening to The Girl With All the Gifts by M. R. Carey during my rehearsal commutes. I started it mid-October as something to put me in the mood for Halloween, and despite the long period it took for me to get all the way through, I really enjoyed it. From Goodreads:

Not every gift is a blessing…

Every morning, Melanie waits in her cell to be collected for class.

When they come for her, Sergeant Parks keeps his gun pointing at her while two of his people strap her into the wheelchair. She thinks they don’t like her. She jokes that she won’t bite, but they don’t laugh.

The Girl With All the Gifts is a groundbreaking thriller, emotionally charged and gripping from beginning to end..

I think that everyone by now knows the “spoiler” on this one—”jokes that she won’t bite” is basically the giveaway that Melanie is a zombie. Or is she? This character was so much more, and this book was not what I was expecting at all, in the best possible way.

The Girl With All the Gifts unfolds beautifully and terrifyingly from a limited view of the world (through Melanie’s eyes, her cell and makeshift classroom in a bunker at first) to how we have come to this point in human history. I loved that Carey has a carefully thought-out, original explanation as to what wiped out humanity, when most zombie stories omit such details. The four main characters aside from Melanie—Justineau, Caldwell, Parks, and Gallagher—begin as broad stereotypes but as the story progresses, each reveals individual personalities and self-histories that create tangible depth in each of them. Melanie’s innocence, above all, is fascinating and kind of horrifying at the same time. And I loved the ending! It went further and expanded to more than I could have ever guessed.

I really wish it hadn’t taken me so long to get through. I feel like I missed a few parts on audio, and that very well is just my own fault for taking so long. I suspect that if I had been reading it on paper instead of listening on audio, I could have (ahem) devoured The Girl With All the Gifts in about a week. I will probably end up buying a paper copy and rereading eventually. It’s a thrilling, fast-paced, engrossing novel and I definitely recommend to fans of post-apocalyptic horror!

Listened to audiobook from October 18 to December 9, 2014.

top ten tuesday: 2014 new-to-me authors

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, a fun way to get yourself thinking and sharing about books and bookish things.

December 9: Top ten new-to-me authors I read in 2014

Same as last year (and every year, basically)… I have some tried-and-true favorites, but almost everything I read is by a new author to me! The best new author discoveries I made in 2014, in alphabetical by last name:

Alan Brennert (Moloka’i)
Rene Denfeld (The Enchanted)
Louise Erdrich (The Round House)
Roxane Gay (Bad Feminist)
Hannah Kent (Burial Rites)
Josh Malerman (Bird Box)
David Maraniss (When Pride Still Mattered)
George Packer (The Unwinding)
Jeff VanderMeer (Annihilation)
Sarah Vowell (Assassination Vacation)

What great authors did you discover for the first time in 2014?

it’s monday! what are you reading?

It’s Monday, what are you reading?—a weekly blog meme hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.

Happy Monday, everyone! Today is my birthday, and I’m celebrating by watching the Green Bay Packers’s Monday Night Football game after work at my favorite restaurant here in Kansas City, McCoy’s. (Yes, I am wearing my Aaron Rodgers jersey at work today. Proudly!) My dad will actually BE at the game, which is so awesome! I wish I had been able to go up for this one! Anyway, it’ll be great to watch them WIN tonight, no matter where I am :)

I’m still working on The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe (just over halfway through), and I only have 5% left of the audio for The Girl with All the Gifts by M. R. Carey (certain I’ll finish it tomorrow night on my drive to rehearsal), so after these are done this week I’m going to go with Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. The Ng will be my 50th book of 2014!

What are you reading this week?

ebook challenge 2015

ID-10093750I don’t know about you, but I am becoming notoriously bad at resisting the cheap ebook deals online now that I have an ereading device, but I just have the worst trouble making myself read on my iPad—I do prefer paper books to electronic. Maybe it’s because I sit at a computer all day at work (and often work on my home computer in the evenings), I love how a paper book really forces me to unplug and unwind. But that doesn’t mean I don’t love the idea of ebooks! It’s fabulous to carry a slim tablet around rather than a chunky hardcover, for sure, and to have myriad reading options at the tip of your finger.

My goal with my 2015 Ebook Challenge is to read at least twelve (hopefully more) ebooks I have downloaded to my iPad but haven’t read yet. Any genre, any release year, free or purchased—doesn’t matter as long as it’s an ebook I already have downloaded.

This is a very casual, low-pressure challenge for myself. I’m going to go at my own pace (with the loose goal of one ebook per month), and go with whatever strikes my mood when I’m choosing what to read next on my iPad. If you want to join along and tackle your own ebook collection, that’s awesome! But at this time this is just for self-accomplishment and pride purposes, no plans for a monetary award or “winner.”

As I finish ebooks, I will list them and link review posts to my master page in the Book Challenge tab here. I’ll use the hashtag #2015ebookchallenge on Twitter.

Part of this challenge is not downloading (many ;) ) more ebooks in 2015, too! Here’s are snapshots of my iBooks and Kindle collections (as of 7 Dec 2014):

ebook library

tbr pile challenge 2015

2015tbrbuttonThird year’s the charm?? I have failed the TBR Pile Challenge twice in a row now (6/12 in 2013, 5/12 in 2014). I feel like I could do this challenge forever. I will always have books waiting to be read! I have high hopes for this year’s challenge, though. I ended up on a major book-buying binge in 2013 but never got around to them. This is the year: 2015 TBR Pile Challenge!

Here are the rules: in twelve months, read twelve books that have been sitting on your shelves unread for at least one year (so, nothing published on or after January 1, 2014). Adam of Roof Beam Reader (the challenge’s host) allows for two alternates in case you find you don’t like/can’t finish one of your chosen twelve. (Note: it doesn’t have to be in any particular order and you can go at your own pace.)

As I finish the books I’ll write a review post here on the blog, and then check them off and add the review post links on my master list page under the Book Challenges tab in the menu here.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena … Anthony Marra (2013)
Blood Meridian … Cormac McCarthy (1985)
Brain on Fire … Susannah Cahalan (2012)
Columbine … Dave Cullen (2009)
Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation … Michael Pollan (2013)
Flags of Our Fathers … James D. Bradley (2000)
In the Heart of the Sea … Nathaniel Philbrick (1999)
The Painted Girls … Cathy Marie Buchanan (2012)
Someone Knows My Name … Lawrence Hill (2007)
The Son … Philipp Meyer (2012)
Transatlantic … Colum McCann (2013)
We Are Water … Wally Lamb (2013)

Alternates
Packing for Mars … Mary Roach (2010)
Zone One … Colson Whitehead (2011)

the unwinding

In the aftermath of the disappointing (to me) November midterm elections, I thought there was no better time to finally read The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America by George Packer, which I picked up earlier this year. From Goodreads:

American democracy is beset by a sense of crisis. Seismic shifts during a single generation have created a country of winners and losers, allowing unprecedented freedom while rending the social contract, driving the political system to the verge of breakdown, and setting citizens adrift to find new paths forward. In The Unwinding, George Packer, author of The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq, tells the story of the United States over the past three decades in an utterly original way, with his characteristically sharp eye for detail and gift for weaving together complex narratives.

Reading The Unwinding produced a lot of complex emotions in me. It’s been a long time since a book made me feel sad, helpless, and angry all at the same time. Packer presents the lives of several individuals—a factory worker-turned-community organizer, a biodiesel fuel entrepreneur, an equal-parts hopeful and cynical political operative, a poverty-stricken family—which expose the downward spiral the United States has been on for the last four decades. Mixed in are portraits of wildly successful people (Oprah, Jay-Z, Sam Walton), which stand in stark contrast to the lives of the “normal” folks. He also brings up the housing bubble, Great Recession, rapid decline of the once-thriving Rust Belt industries, Occupy Wall Street, and how Wall Street and Washington have become greed- and power-hungry bedfellows. An important person only briefly mentioned is Elizabeth Warren, and I HIGHLY recommend reading her memoir A Fighting Chance (my review) after this one if you have the opportunity.

I appreciate that Packer doesn’t overtly express his own opinions, though it’s fairly clear from his careful wording. He doesn’t share solutions or analysis of how the playing field of our nation has become so grossly disparate—the stories here are enough of an indictment themselves, with prosperity being wildly skewed in favor of the top 0.01 percent. This could easily be expanded with a sequel exposing other massive issues the United States is facing, like climate change, income inequality, race relations and the rise of apparent militarized police state, and religious beliefs pervading government policies, for example.

Though as I mentioned, the lives laid out here in The Unwinding often made me upset and incensed, I haven’t lost hope for my country. I have a little trouble articulating my feelings exactly, since we’re still in this mess… I wonder what it might be like to read this one in 20 years from now?

Read from November 6 to 30, 2014.

reading recap: november 2014

monthly recap image

I can’t believe it’s December already—where did November go?? Here’s what I read last month:

nov recap

I felt like I was reading more than just enough to finish three books, but it was a pretty hectic month and with a week out of town (I never manage to read much on family vacations/visits), I guess this is about right. Even though it took me the longest to get through, The Unwinding was my favorite (review post coming soon).

Although I didn’t finish it in November, I was also listening to the audiobook of The Girl with All the Gifts by M. R. Carey a lot (as of today I’m 84% complete, pretty sure I’ll finish it in the next week).

I was also happy to participate in Non-Fiction November for the first time ever! My three books above are all non-fictions, and here are my posts (I missed week 4):

Also! I’m only three books away from reaching my goal of reading 50 books this year! And after completing The Girl with All the Gifts and The End of Your Life Book Club (which I just started this week), that’s only one left. Whoo! I’d love to get through five books this month, though.

What was your favorite book you read in November? I hope we all read a lot of good stuff this month to close out the year!