best albums of 2016

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This was another challenging year in many ways, but one indisputably good thing that happened was my renewed love of vinyl in late 2015. My husband and I discovered a new favorite store in Kansas City, Mills Record Company, where we quickly became regulars. I had my mother’s early-1970s Dual 1019 turntable in my bedroom through my teen years and I just loved it. I didn’t bring it to the dorms, of course, and didn’t think it would be smart or feasible to move it to any of my apartments. But last year I decided to hell with that, and I finally got my turntable set up in Kansas City. I’m sad it was so short lived—we had to bring it and all our records back to my folks’ house when we moved to Singapore. But this experience got me into listening again, really listening, and falling back in love with discovering new music. Here are my top 10 favorite albums released in 2016, in alphabetical order by artist:
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• Lemonade … Beyoncé
My #1 anyway. A bold, experimental, aware, and emotionally raw masterpiece. I had this on repeat for weeks after I first got it. I’m still in awe of this album, its unabashed statements on race, women, society, culture, and more. The whole thing is just stunning and important on multiple levels.

• Are You Serious … Andrew Bird
My favorite since his debut, The Mysterious Production of Eggs. Less pretentious, more personal than most of his catalog. I loved seeing him perform live in Kansas City (April 21, The Midland).

• Blackstar … David Bowie
Dark, strange, haunting, bleak, brutal. It took me a few listens to fully appreciate this avant-garde art-pop album, with each track more unexpected than than the last. A beautiful magnum opus from a legend.

• Changes … Charles Bradley
There’s something warm and familiar about Bradley’s sound, no matter what he’s singing. The pain he emotes on Black Sabbath’s “Changes” twists your heart.

• You’re Dreaming … The Cactus Blossoms
A timeless alt-country sound by Minneapolis brothers. Their songs are clean, simple, and refined. Those harmonies! Sigh. They put on a great concert at Knuckleheads in Kansas City (June 11).

• Black America Again … Common
My favorite since Be. I love Common’s poetic, socially conscious way of commenting on the political landscape today, as well as themes of love, and social justice. It reminds me of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On in a lot of ways. I still get goosebumps when I hear “Letter to the Free.”

• Hardwired… To Self-Destruct … Metallica
It’s long, but this album is a fun composite of what people have loved about Metallica for the past 35 years. It’s not the “old” Metallica, but Hardwired feels like Metallica refreshed.

• A Sailor’s Guide to Earth … Sturgill Simpson
An ambitious country album with soul, psychedelia, southern rock, and more, Sailor’s Guide breaks free of any one genre label. It’s striking and memorable not only for that reason, but its intimacy and authenticity, too.

• Emily’s D+Evolution … Esperanza Spalding
This album blew me away the first time I heard it. Spalding blends jazz, folk, funk, and rock into this ambiguous style that’s wholly all her own. She’s been one of my favorite artists for a long time, and Emily’s is a prime display of her creativity and originality.

• The Suffers … The Suffers
This feel-good old-school R&B-meets-ska debut album is damn irresistible. Kam Franklin’s voice is one of the best and most soulful I’ve heard in years. There’s a lot of infectious joy on here. I can’t wait to hear more from this band.

Honorable Mentions:
The Last Hero … Alter Bridge
A Seat at the Table … Solange
Weezer (The White Album) … Weezer
Victorious … Wolfmother

There are a few albums I wanted to listen to in 2016, but haven’t had a chance yet: A Tribe Called Quest’s We Got it From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service, Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker, Kendrick Lamar’s untitled unmastered., Angel Olsen’s My Woman, Nick Cave and the Bad Seed’s Skeleton Tree, Iggy Pop’s Post Pop Depression, and Frank Ocean’s Blonde. I’ll get to them!

I only have a vague inkling of what’s on tap for new releases in 2017, but the ones I’d be interested in hearing are those from Ani Difranco, The Roots, Justin Timberlake, Tool, Nine Inch Nails, St Vincent, Jay Z, and Zack de la Rocha (and more than that, I’m sure, once I know about them!). I hope I can hold on to this drive to discover new music, even without my turntable here in Singapore. For now I’m just getting excited to see Metallica perform here next weekend, and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam right after that (playing Debussy and Bruckner 4), Then, in February, we’ll go to the Periphery and Guns N’ Roses (with Wolfmother) concerts!

best reads of 2016

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This year was a whirlwind for me. I honestly can’t believe that I finished the year having read 45 books, with an international move taking up a lot of time and energy most of the year. I originally set my reading goal to 60 books but lowered it to 45, and just ended up making that a week or so before the end of the year. I’m disappointed I lost the motivation to write posts for each and every book I read, which left with being so busy and preoccupied with the move. I was glad to get back to doing monthly recaps at least, which may be how it goes for the foreseeable future. Or not! I’m still deciding. I would actually love to catch up on each book individually on the blog here, but I’m not sure I have it in me to sit at the computer very much. I admittedly did enjoy letting go of the pressure to post, but I miss having the archive of my thoughts.

Here are the top ten books I read in 2016, in alphabetical order by author’s last name:

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• Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl
+++… Carrie Brownstein (2015)
• We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation
+++… Jeff Chang (2016)
• Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City
+++… Matthew Desmond (2016)
• League of Denial
+++… Mark Fainaru-Wada, Steve Fainaru (2013)
• The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic
+++… Jessica Hopper (2015)
• I’m Just a Person
+++… Tig Notaro (2016)
• Station Eleven
+++… Emily St. John Mandel (2014)
• One of Us: Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway
+++… Åsne Seierstad (2015)
• Mo’ Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove
+++… Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and Ben Greenman (2013)
• The Fire This Time: A New Generation Talk About Race
+++… Jesmyn Ward, ed. (2016)

Honorable Mentions:
No god but God … Reza Aslan (2005)
Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman … Lindy West (2016)
Dead Mountain … Donnie Eichar (2013)
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee … Dee Brown (1970)
The Underground Girls of Kabul … Jenny Nordberg (2014)
The Argonauts … Maggie Nelson (2015)
Notorious RBG … Irin Carmon and Shana Knishnik (2015)
My Life on the Road … Gloria Steinem (2015)

761-1Only ONE fiction! Everything else (in both top ten and honorable mentions) are non-fiction books. There was some good fiction I read, but most of it just didn’t stick out to me this year much. To see my Goodreads “Year in Books” analysis, click here. But I kept my own stats which may be a little more accurate. By my count I ended up with:

• 45 books read total
• 7,598 pages read
• 170.93 hours of audiobooks
• 42.2% paper books, 42.2% audiobooks, 15.6% ebooks
• 57.8% non-fiction, 42.2% fiction
• 57.8% library borrows, 42.2% own books read
• 2010: average publishing year of books read
• 3.75 books read per month

I did track author genders, nationalities, and race… but I’m not sure it serves me and my reading much to share it here. I still feel sort of squicky about tracking those, although I am compelled to continue to keep an eye on them so I can make sure I’m continually seeking out books by authors of color, women, LGBTQ+, and authors from many parts of the world. All I know is I want to expand my worldview, learn, and empathize through books—I always have, but especially now more than ever.

reading recap: december 2016

Happy new year! I hope 2017 will be better in many ways and on many levels than 2016, and I’m going to do my part here in Singapore any way I can. December was hard; being away from my family during the holidays for basically the first time ever. But it was also weird since my routine is basically non-existent and the weather is perpetually summery, so it doesn’t exactly feel like “winter” and “holidays” here to me so much.

I managed to get a little bit of reading done last month. Here are my books for December:

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  • Tilting Our Plates to Catch the Light … Cyril Wong
  • Phenomenal Woman (ebook) … Maya Angelou
  • We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation … Jeff Chang
  • A Life in Parts (audio) … Bryan Cranston, read by author
  • Children of the New World: Stories … Alexander Weinstein
  • I’m Thinking of Ending Things (ebook) … Iain Reid

Except for the Cranston memoir, everything was on the short side: essays, short stories, poetry. I liked all these, not a bad one in the bunch, but probably my favorite reads for the month were We Gon’ Be Alright by Jeff Chang and I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid. The essays in We Gon’ Be Alright include deeper looks at Ferguson, racism in higher education, the morphed definition of “diversity,” #OscarsSoWhite, growing up Asian American, Beyoncé’s Lemonade, current segregation in K-12 education, and much more. It was short, timely, and I can’t recommend it enough.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things, also very short, took a little bit to get into and was slightly plain at first, but piqued my curiosity more with every chapter that I couldn’t put it down by the end and had to read the last few pages twice. This one was a library ebook I put on hold back in October for Halloween and it finally came though!

Children of the New World was overall very good, with only a couple of sleepers in the collection. I loved the premise of the through-line—an imagined near-future where technology is even more prevalent in the daily lives of humans. The stories that stood out to me in particular were “Heartland,” “Children of the New World,” “Rocket Night,” and “Ice Age.”

Bryan Cranston’s new memoir, A Life in Parts, was another library hold come through. It was fantastic on audio, hearing the actor himself talk about his many personal and professional experiences, including his most famous roles as Hal (Malcolm in the Middle) and Walter White (Breaking Bad). Nothing too deep or earth-shattering, but a solid celebrity memoir. I was inspired to re-watch Breaking Bad after reading this one!

I’m not normally a poetry person, but I ended up reading two more collections to close out 2016! Tilting Our Plates to Catch the Light was written by a local Singaporean poet, and I picked it up as a Christmas gift for my mom, but ended up reading it first before I mailed it home. It’s a beautiful collection about love, with additional themes of time, death, and distance. Phenomenal Woman is, of course, by the indomitable Maya Angelou. I’ve read this before, it’s only four poem, but I felt after what happened in November, it was time for a revisit. “Still, I Rise” is an all-time favorite.

My “best of 2016” posts are coming soon!
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reading recap: november 2016

Well… that happened. You know what I’m talking about. I think based on the books I read and love you can probably guess my political views. It has been surreal watching it all unfold from here in Singapore. Just surreal and frustrating and infuriating. Someone here recently asked me how I was doing after the election, and being crappy at hiding my feelings, I responded, “Oh, boiling over with rage.” “Still?” YES STILL, ALWAYS. Anyway. Needless to say, the election results didn’t exactly change my TBR entirely, as I have consistently been interested in learning more about social movements and justice, race, religion, history, politics, and culture. But the result certainly bumped certain books to the top of my list, and I did look up more books to add to the list. The result also stalled my book reading for about a week. I’m back into it though. Reading, educating myself, practicing empathy and understanding, and listening (and donating, writing emails, and signing petitions) are what I can do from abroad.

Here are my books for November:

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  • Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (audio) … Matthew Desmond
  • milk and honey (ebook) … Rupi Kaur
  • Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman (ebook) … Lindy West
  • No god but God (audio) … Reza Aslan
  • Mo’ Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove … Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson

I gave up participating in Non-Fiction November… sort of. Now looking at my list, I realize I read all non fiction except one. All these books were fabulous except for the the one fiction.

My favorites were Evicted and Mo’ Meta BluesEvicted and also No god but God are absolutely essential reads right now. Evicted follows several families in the Milwaukee area, trapped in the vicious cycle of poverty exacerbated by addiction, disability, unemployment, and more impossibly cruel circumstances. It is extremely well written—intimate portraits of these very real people and their very real problems. Desmond humanizes an epidemic and makes clear that welfare and housing assistance reforms are necessary immediately.

Mo’ Meta Blues was just a delight—Questlove is just a charming, humble, thoughtful human being. I’ve loved the Roots for a long time so this has been on my list since it came out in 2013. In his memoir, Questlove keeps it light while going deep at the same time, which is a real feat. Important moments in his own personal and Roots’ histories are referenced with cultural progression in the U.S., and his philosophical musings about the states of pop culture, hip-hop, and music criticism were intelligent and spot on. I wish I had kept a list going of all the songs and records he mentions in order to listen to them all later. I loved it.

No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam is an accessible and informative book—Aslan brings to life the intricate, sprawling history of Islam and expands on its current varieties as well as how the religion has existed and relates in the world, including in the U.S. in the twenty-first century. This was an illuminating and fascinating book for me, especially right now.

Shrill was so much fun! I went from laughing out loud to feeling enraged to uplifted and empowered, often all in the same chapter. West didn’t come off as shrill at all to me, she’s insightful and self-aware of her own self and society. An excellent feminist read, I loved it—read it all in two days. Milk and honey was just okay. It started strong, but lost me halfway through. Only a few poems were truly striking, but many I breezed right over. Some were trite and some lacked originality—I know I’ve heard or read a few of the lines before in some of these poems. I was pretty disappointed in this poetry collection, it’s been sadly over-hyped in my opinion.

Here’s hoping for a better month to close out the year…
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reading recap: october 2016

I had a great month of reading in October! As you can see, I was mostly consumed by Halloween-appropriate books, with a few library holds that just happened to come through:

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  • The Fire This Time (ebook) … Jesmyn Ward, et al
  • House of Leaves … Mark Z. Danielewski
  • The Troop … Nick Cutter
  • Men Explain Things to Me (ebook) … Rebecca Solnit
  • Dead Mountain … Donnie Eichar
  • Black Earth (audio) … Timothy Snyder, read by Mark Bramhall
  • Stories from Night Shift (audio) … Stephen King, read by John Glover
  • ‘Salem’s Lot … Stephen King

I have to say, as someone who is generally chunksters-averse, I’m pretty proud of myself for getting through three (!) this month: House of Leaves (709 pages), The Troop (507), and ‘Salem’s Lot (653). Black Earth is pretty much a chunkster too, but since it was on audio it felt less daunting. Something about seeing the bulk of it intimidates me, so it usually takes a lot of pep talk to get myself to read anything longer than about 350 pages.

While I enjoyed House of Leaves overall, I may have bailed/DNF if I didn’t have so much free time at the moment—getting through this one is a real time commitment, and you have to pay close attention with all the different tangents and footnotes. It had a great premise and some genuinely creepy moments, but generally didn’t quite live up to the mythical hype for me. The Troop and ‘Salem’s Lot were perfect to get me in the Halloween mood—between the contagious gore in Troop and vampire mischief in Lot, I felt the spirit here in Singapore despite the hot, sunny weather. The audio for Stories from Night Shift was an impulse borrow from the library, to finish out the last few hours of Dewey’s 24 Hour Readthon, the first time I’ve been able to participate! Next time, if I can join again, I’ll plan ahead more (joining this time was also on last-minute impulse).

Men Explain Things to Me and Black Earth were my library holds that came in. Both were excellent, but very real and heavy material. Neither was quite what I was expecting, but I learned a lot from them and both were thought-provoking. I’m glad I was able to finally get these two books.

My favorite books of the month were The Fire This Time and Dead Mountain. EVERYONE should read The Fire This Time. This anthology is full of powerful, moving essays by several writers in a variety of styles, all different perspectives on the experience of being black in America. I will read anything Jesmyn Ward touches. Dead Mountain interested me because I’ve had a fascinating with this case for a while, ever since I saw the movie it inspired, Devil’s Pass. What exactly happened to these nine young hikers in a remote area of Siberia, resulting in their mysterious deaths?? Donnie Eichar has a compelling investigation here.

I’m thinking I might try to go back and do full reviews of the books I’ve read since my last real review post, all the way back in March! Or maybe I’ll just continue the monthly posts. We’ll see. Otherwise… I think I’ll be able to meet my 50 book goal for 2016, with only 16 books left to go. And now that it’s November, I’m going to focus on non-fiction to hopefully jump in on some Non-Fiction November fun.

What were the best books you read in October?
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reading recap: september 2016

We’re almost through October all of a sudden! Time is a little weird for me here in Singapore, firstly because I’m on “temporary unlimited vacation” (code for job-free) right now, and secondly because the weather is such that it’s basically perpetually August. So I sort of feel like every day is an August Saturday, and it’s tough to make myself get on the computer these days when I have pretty much zero routine. But when I realized October is almost over, I figured I should put up my September books and try to get myself back on track! Here’s what I read in September:

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  • My Life on the Road … Gloria Steinem
  • Station Eleven … Emily St. John Mandel
  • The Vegetarian … Han Kang
  • We Were Liars (audio) … E. Lockhart, read by Ariadne Meyers
  • Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (audio) … Dee Brown, read by Grover Gardner
  • The Underground Railroad (ebook) … Colson Whitehead
  • Yes, Chef (audio) … Marcus Samuelsson, read by author

My two best reads of the month were Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and Station Eleven. I’d been wanting to read Bury My Heart forever, maybe since high school, and it was just as devastating and infuriating as I knew it would be, but so important and one that every American should read. I bought Station Eleven almost right after it was first released, but kept putting it off—that whole thing where you’re worried a book won’t live up to the hype or expectations. But luckily it totally did live up to the hype (for me). I loved how it was a different look at society’s not only practical but also cultural needs after a collapse, and that the reader is shown the process of and reason for the collapse rather than just the aftermath (as in so many future-dystopia books I’ve read).

The Vegetarian was brief but interesting and strange, and I thought about it quite a long time after finishing. We Were Liars, also a brief read, was kind of predictable and reminded me (once AGAIN) that I should not pick up YA lit. But I do understand the appeal, no judgement here of those who love YA. I love a good food memoir, and Yes, Chef was enjoyable enough and he certainly has had a incredible life and career, even if I didn’t “click” with Samuelsson so much on a personal level like I did with other memiorists. Like I did with Gloria Steinem in My Life on the Road. I shamefully didn’t know much about her life before reading this book, and I really enjoyed “tagging along” on her travels and speaking engagements (so to speak). Her insight on the 2008 democratic race between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama was illuminating, especially at this moment eight years later.

And here’s my unpopular opinion of the month: Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad didn’t really do it for me. While the subject matter is extremely important and timely even today, the characters fell flat and the plot felt disjointed for me. I’m the odd one out it seems, looks like the majority of readers were blown away, so don’t let my feelings stop you from reading it if it’s on your list.

October recap coming next week (on time!)
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