they can’t kill us until they kill us

The last book I read in 2017, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, is also one of the best books I read in 2017… and probably one of the best I’ve read in the last few years, period. From the book’s jacket:

In an age of confusion, fear, and loss, Hanif Abdurraqib’s is a voice that matters. Whether he’s attending a Bruce Springsteen concert the day after visiting Michael Brown’s grave, or discussing public displays of affection at a Carly Rae Jepsen show, he writes with a poignancy and magnetism that resonates profoundly.

In essays that have been published by the New York Times, MTV, and Pitchfork, among others—along with original, previously unreleased essays—Abdurraqib uses music and culture as a lens through which to view our world, so that we might better understand ourselves, and in so doing proves himself a bellwether for our times.

Wow, you guys. Just wow. I couldn’t put it down and I didn’t want it to end. I extra love that I hadn’t heard anything about They Can’t Kill Us until I randomly saw it at my favorite bookstore and bought it on a whim in November. This collection is full of moving, insightful observations about life, culture, society, and more that touched me deeply. I identified with how clearly and specifically music has impacted Abdurraqib’s life, because it has for me, even if our tastes and the music that shaped us growing up (for me the ’90s, he writes here mostly about ’00s) are slightly different. Doesn’t matter, I’m always down to read and learn about music and life experiences outside of my own experience and comfort zone.

Abdurraqib’s essays use the music fan/listener experience as the impetus to discuss a variety of issues, not least of all is racism in America, of which he has a unique perspective as a black Muslim man. These essays aren’t strictly about politics, religion, and race, though. He also goes into depth on loneliness, grief, loss, and even hope with his own personal stories as examples, like the deaths of his close friends and his mother. And then there’s the writing. Abdurraqib is a poet, and while there aren’t any poems in the traditional sense in this collection, his prose reflects his poetic style:

The world is undoing itself & I must tend to my vast & growing field of fears. In this new country, a nightmare is nothing but a brief rental home for the mind to ransack & leave the sleeping body unharmed. (139, “There Is The Picture Of Michael Jackson Kissing Whitney Houston On The Cheek”)

But our best work is the work of ourselves, our bodies and the people who want us to keep pushing, even if the days are long and miserable and even if there are moments when the wrong side of the bridge beckons you close. (77, “Brief Notes on Staying // No One Is Making Their Best Work When They Want To Die”)

Nina Simone rode away on the troubled ocean, standing on the deck of a black ship, looking back while a whole country burned, swallowing itself. (198, “Nina Simone Was Very Black”)

There are so many pieces I loved in They Can’t Kill Us. The ones that resonated the most with me were those on grief, creativity, heartbreak, and striving for optimism. The ones I learned from most were those of his perspective on racism and religion. The one about Allen Iverson’s crossover hit on Michael Jordan was brilliant, as were so many others. I think if I have one tiny criticism, it’s that I wish there had been more women artists present… the music he filters his topics through is mostly rap and punk, which are, of course, still male dominated genres. Even so, They Can’t Kill Us a near-perfect book. It reminded me a lot of Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist and Jessica Hopper’s The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic. Read those, and read this.

Read in December 2017.

mini-reviews: stranger in the woods, teacher wars, new odyssey, pandemic

I missed Non-Fiction November… but for good reason: I was in Wisconsin visiting family and without my computer. Catching up on posting now! Although these four books are on totally different subjects, I thought that they’re all interesting, gripping, and worth a read:

The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel was a great book. When Christopher Knight was 20, he abandoned his conventional lifestyle and retreated to the deep woods. For the next 27 years, he lived the solitary life of a hermit… except for the numerous burglaries he committed for supplies. I read the original GQ article about Christopher Knight which Finkel expanded here, so some information was familiar. I think I would have liked a little more depth to the historical and cultural info on hermits in general. But wow, some of the details here—his family didn’t look for him or report him missing? He didn’t use a fire or see a doctor for all those years? I was really interested in how he constructed and maintained his compound. How did no one find it, mere yards away from populated camping areas? Overall it was an enjoyable, fascinating look into the mind and experience of a man who left civilization behind (well… almost) for nearly 30 years. [Listened to audiobook in March 2017.]

Dana Goldstein does a wonderful job of outlining the turbulent history of teaching and education in America over the past two centuries in The Teacher Wars. She shows the origins of often controversial topics, like teacher tenure and charter schools, as well as the creation of Teach for America, and how politics has always clashed with education (the disdain for unions, as a major example). I was really interested in the teacher strikes of the 1960s and 70s, and her coverage of teacher evaluations. As a musician and artist, and someone who has advanced degrees and worked in higher education for nearly a decade, I’ve had many discussions with my friends and colleagues who teach in the arts—their own objective vs. subjective metrics, and how does the State evaluate educators in a subjective field like the arts? It’s usually complicated and often not logical or applicable to arts and music education. I gave this book to my mom (a teacher) right after I finished, and she loved it too. [Read in May 2017.]

The New Odyssey by Patrick Kingsley is an eye-opening book about the refugee crisis happening now in Europe. Kingsley traveled extensively and interviewed countless people about their experiences and reasoning for fleeing, helping those who flee, or pursuing those who flee. Homes are destroyed in these war-torn countries— there’s nothing left, no infrastructure, jobs, schools, homes—so families abandon their homelands in order to survive and hopefully secure a better, safe life for their children. It’s a harrowing, dangerous journey but they’re left with no choice but to go. The other side of this is that after landing in a new country (if they survive the journey), now the refugees face culture shock, as well as rejection, suspicion, racism, and sometime violence from their new communities. I was moved by many of the stories in this important book. [Listened to audiobook in July 2017.]

Sonia Shah’s Pandemic was a really fascinating, easy-to-follow book for a non-sciencey person like me. She mostly uses the development and history of cholera to drive the point home that there will be another pandemic that devastates the population. I’d like to have faith in human ingenuity to do all we can to combat it! But Shah also covers all sorts of factors that contribute to how and why pandemics happen and are largely unpredictable, including medical treatments and Big Pharma, habitats and environment (and the destruction of and/or industrial developments of these), animals and cross contamination, worldwide travel, population growth, and more. Her engaging, narrative style almost makes the contagions themselves “living” characters (well, I suppose they are living). Also, human beings are stupid and disgusting. [Listened to audiobook in September 2017.]

the last black unicorn

First book of the new year! I was so excited to get The Last Black Unicorn by Tiffany Haddish through through my library app on audio. Edited from Goodreads:

From stand-up comedian, actress, and breakout star of Girls Trip, Tiffany Haddish, comes The Last Black Unicorn, a sidesplitting, hysterical, edgy, and unflinching collection of (extremely) personal essays, as fearless as the author herself.

Growing up in one of the poorest neighborhoods of South Central Los Angeles, Tiffany learned to survive by making people laugh. If she could do that, then her classmates would let her copy their homework, the other foster kids she lived with wouldn’t beat her up, and she might even get a boyfriend. Or at least she could make enough money—as the paid school mascot and in-demand Bar Mitzvah hype woman—to get her hair and nails done, so then she might get a boyfriend. None of that worked (and she’s still single), but it allowed Tiffany to imagine a place for herself where she could do something she loved for a living: comedy.

I admit I never heard of Tiffany Haddish before November, when I was hanging out with my friend in Kansas City and we watched the recent episode of SNL she hosted. She was incredible and it was one of the best episodes of SNL I think I’d seen in a long time. Haddish is sharp and hilarious, and has an interesting perspective on her place in the world as a black woman and as a black woman in comedy.

Experiencing this book on audio with Haddish narrating is definitely the way to go. Her excessive energy and observant nature make her an extremely engaging storyteller. The parts of her life she recounts here are ridiculous, laugh-out-loud funny, sometimes cringe worthy, and sometimes frustrating and serious. Her childhood was bleak, full of neglect, abuse, and disappointments. She has been plagued by abusive, troubled romantic relationships, and encountered plenty of misogyny as a comedian. But through all this, she has retained her willful spirit and remained true to herself.

If I have a minor complaint, it’s that this doesn’t exactly read like a memoir, with the stories sometimes feeling rushed and the structure of the book could be considered choppy. It’s more like a collection of stories from her life rather than a linear narrative. But oftentimes celebrities don’t go into as much depth as you’d like them to in their memoirs. I can see how readers may be sensitive to her handling of a differently abled coworker (about whom she felt positively, but still) and there are some instances of stereotypes about black women in the book. But overall, Haddish is a comedian to watch for sure. She was delightful to listen to and learn more about, and I can’t wait to see Girls Trip! I’m sorry I missed it this summer when it came out!

Listened to audiobook in January 2018.

mini-reviews: ending things, fever dream, white tears, vegetarian

I’m getting more into weird fiction. I love strange, mind-bending stories that have the power to shock me and make me think about them hours (days, weeks) after finishing. I still have quite a lot of wonder to me and an overactive imagination, so OMG twists in books usually manage to surprise me! In 2016 and 2017 I read these four unusual, dark books:

I put Iain Reid’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things on hold before I saw mixed reviews, so I didn’t have high expectations when it finally came through for me from the library. But wow, what a mind fuck! A young couple visit the man’s parents at their rural farmhouse for dinner one night, and the girlfriend is internally ruminating on their relationship and how she might end it soon. Things get progressively creepier and more odd during dinner. On the way home, they are stalled by a snowstorm and end up at a local high school to wait it out… no spoilers! Reid does an effective job creating a menacing atmosphere, and building tension that releases only at the very end. I thought it was a great, short psychological horror! [Read ebook in December 2016.]

Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream was getting tons of raves this year, but unfortunately for me it didn’t quite live up to the hype… but I think maybe it was me—I had a hard time following exactly what was happening, especially towards the end, listening on audiobook. A woman wakes up in a hospital bed with a young boy beside her, and he urges her to recount how she ended up there, what happened to her daughter, and a day she spent with his mother. The boy pushes her to stay focused on what’s important as she searches her memory. “Fever Dream” is a perfect title; it’s surreal and unsettling with a palpable sense of dread and I really, really wish I had been able to get into it. I think maybe in 2018 I’ll try it on paper or ebook. [Listened to audiobook in February 2017.]

Two young men meet in college and bond over their shared love of music and records in Hari Kunzru’s White Tears. One of them explores New York City recording sounds, and one day encounters a blues song being sung by a man playing chess in the park. He and his friend “authenticate” the song, making it sound vintage, give the “artist” a fake name, and list it on record collecting websites. A veteran collector meets up with them and insists the song and singer are real, and at this point the story takes a dark turn sending the boys on a disorienting and disturbing journey to discover the truth. It has some mixed reviews—people either love or hate the new direction in the second half—but I thought it was a good, thought-provoking book on a number of issues including race, privilege, and cultural appropriation and exploitation. Plus a little bit of supernatural mystery/thriller thrown in. [Listened to audiobook in April 2017.]

I read this interesting, short book over the course of one day. Han Kang’s The Vegetarian is eerie, sad, provocative, and Kafkaesque. Yeong-hye and her husband live a normal, uneventful life. But one day she starts having dark, violent, gory thoughts and nightmares and decides to stop eating meat. After this decision, Yeong-hye’s sanity starts a descent into madness, where she wants to become one with plant life and transition into being a tree. The story is told from three perspectives: Yeong-hye’s husband, sister, and brother-in-law. We never actually have an inside glimpse into Yeong-hye’s interior thoughts. The blurb says it’s an allegory for modern-day South Korea… but I admit I can’t speak to that accuracy as I’m not familiar with the country’s social and cultural state at the moment. However, my interpretation of Yeong-hye’s decision to take control of her body on her own terms and the negative, sometimes hostile reactions to her decision from men (and women) in her life smack of the infuriating social construct of beauty standards and the archaic “woman’s place” in patriarchal society. I guess there were issues with the translation from Korean, and I’m not quite sure how to feel about that because it was an impactful and interesting story for me in English anyway. [Read in September 2016.]

favorite reads of 2017

I had a hard year. It’s strange to be here on the other side of the world away from my loved ones, especially during such a volatile time in my country’s history. I felt helpless, lonely, and frustrated a lot in 2017. Books and music, as always, provided much comfort, as well as entertaining and educating me.

I read 97 books total in 2017. Ninety-seven! I can’t believe that; doesn’t seem real. Is it weird that even though I wildly exceeded my goal and read more than ever before in a single year, I’m a little mad I didn’t hit 100?? I’m a competitive person. A lot of them were in the form of audiobooks listened to while I was spending hours drawing. Reading on paper is still my favorite method, though, and I want to get back to reading more of my physical books in the new year.

• 97 books read total
• 9,599 pages read
• 407 hours (approx.) of audiobooks (that’s 17 days!)
• 27.8% paper books, 58.8% audiobooks, 11.3% ebooks, 2.1% paper/audio
• 61.9% non-fiction, 38.1% fiction
• 64.9% library borrows, 32% own books read, 2.1% audible free trial, 2% borrow
• 2007: average publishing year of books read
• 2017: publishing year of most books read (38 of 97)
• 8 books read per month average

I did track author gender (identifying as), POC or not, and whether they were from the United States or not. I ended up about half-and-half on gender and POC/white, but disproportionately more American writers than other nationalities. I’d like to read even more books by women, writers of color, and non-Americans in 2018… although I admit I usually just go with what looks good and interesting to me first and foremost before taking these other items into account. But I’m glad I started tracking this to be more aware of my reading choices and to diversify it further.

Here are my favorite books I read in 2017, separated by non-fiction and fiction, in alphabetical order by author’s last name (links go to my individual posts):

The New Jim Crow … Michelle Alexander (2010)
What Happened … Hillary Clinton (2017)
Hunger … Roxane Gay (2017)
Janesville: An American Story (audio) … Amy Goldstein (2017)
Killers of the Flower Moon (audio) … David Grann (2017)
When Breath Becomes Air … Paul Kalanithi (2016)
• The Glass Castle … Jeannette Walls (2005)
• They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us … Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib (2017)

What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky (ebook) … Lesley Nneka Arimah
The Heart’s Invisible Furies (audio) … John Boyne
The Hearts of Men (audio) … Nickolas Butler
Bitch Planet, Vol. 2: President Bitch … DeConnick / De Landro
Difficult Women … Roxane Gay
Made for Love (audio) … Alissa Nutting
Borne … Jeff VanderMeer
Sing, Unburied, Sing … Jesmyn Ward
**all fiction here published in 2017

Honorable Mentions from 2017 (alpha by author’s last name):
The Teacher Wars … Dana Goldstein (2014)
The Road to Jonestown (audio) … Jeff Guinn (2017)
A Colony in a Nation … Chris Hayes (2017)
A Thousand Splendid Suns (audio) … Khaled Hosseini (2007)
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (audio) … Ken Kesey (1962)
The New Odyssey (audio) … Patrick Kingsley (2017)
The Lathe of Heaven (audio) … Ursula K. Le Guin (1971)
The Radium Girls (audio) … Kate Moore (2017)
The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer … Siddhartha Mukherjee (2010)
Born a Crime (ebook) … Trevor Noah
ZeroZeroZero (audio) … Roberto Saviano (2013)

 

unbelievable

I generally have zero interest in reading anything about Donald Trump, but Katy Tur’s Unbelievable  intrigued me enough to borrow a copy from the library. I’m really glad I did… but it still might be the only book I read on that person ever. Edited from Goodreads:

Called “disgraceful,” “third-rate,” and “not nice” by Donald Trump, NBC News correspondent Katy Tur reported on—and took flak from—the most captivating and volatile presidential candidate in American history. Unbelievable is her darkly comic, fascinatingly bizarre, and often scary story of how America sent a former reality show host to the White House. It’s also the story of what it was like for Tur to be there as it happened, inside a no-rules world where reporters were spat on, demeaned, and discredited. Tur was a foreign correspondent who came home to her most foreign story of all.

I started in November, had to return to the library, re-borrowed and finished this month. Despite my break in reading it due to travels, I flew through this book when I was able to sit down and devote some time to it. It’s a compulsive page turner, even if you know the main events and outcome. It’s not an insider’s tell-all of the running of Trump’s campaign or packed with juicy untold scandals, but rather a pro reporter’s experience covering the most bizarre and disorganized campaign ever.

Tur does a great job making you feel like you were by her side through this utter horrifying madness. She goes into detail of what it was like covering Trump from beginning to end of the last election season, more than 500 days—sleep deprivation, competition, frustrations, personal and professional sacrifices, constant traveling, the readiness to be on-air with commentary at a moment’s notice, and professionally handling Trump’s incessant lies and attacks every day.

Tur’s shifting timeline from chronological campaign coverage to ending each chapter with vignettes from election night at Trump’s headquarters helped add depth and (for me) a palpable sense of dread, because obviously you know how this book ends. I never attended a Trump rally—I only know what was reported on them in the media—and Tur deftly describes the hostile, toxic atmosphere found at his rallies. I was genuinely worried about her and her fellow reporters’ safety reading this; they were held in pens and verbally attacked by Trump onstage, leading to threats from the crowd… not to mention Trump’s confusing, seemingly personal (both negative and positive) focus on Tur herself.

I appreciate that Tur gives Trump supporters the benefit of the doubt in her book—I didn’t have a sense of “us vs. them” here—however, I personally think she might be a bit too generous to them. But, discussion of American society’s racist, bigoted, misogynistic underbelly is hefty enough for several other books and not the purpose of this memoir. Tur is a skilled and shrewd journalist and this is another great political memoir to come out this year.

Read ebook in November–December 2017.