mini-reviews: heart berries and educated

These two striking memoirs were hyped up a lot earlier this year and for the most part, they’re interesting, worthwhile reads that met my expectations.

Terese Marie Mailhot’s Heart Berries is brief, but packs an emotional punch. Through dreamy, poetic essays, she recounts her dysfunctional upbringing on an Indian Reservation in the Pacific Northwest. She has two sons, she reconnects with her abusive father, she has tumultuous love affairs, she ends up hospitalized for PTSD and bipolar disorder. It’s an unsettling read about love, memory, pain, mental illness, abuse, and more. I struggled a little bit with her changes in tone—part of the prose is poetic, part stream-of-consciousness, sometimes affecting, sometimes stoic. This diminished the impact somewhat for me, but I still appreciated the sharp observation she makes here about race and privilege. It’s important for sure, I’m glad she lays it all out here especially as we need more literary voices from the indigenous community. Her writing can be incredible so I wouldn’t write her off in the future, but this memoir didn’t entirely jive for me as a reading experience. [Read ebook in April 2018.]

Educated by Tara Westover also came out in February this year, and it looked right up my alley. I’m always interested in reading about survivalists and off-the-grid living; I find it fascinating. And throw in an underdog story: the author discovers a deep love for learning and gets herself educated, despite the odds? Sign me up. It wasn’t the survivalist story I was expecting—the family has money, TV, phone—but it is an excellent portrayal of familial mental illness and abuse. I was confused as to how and where the family had money, and while her academic achievements are pretty incredible and unusual as I was reading it sort of seemed like she breezed through the traditional education system once she passed one test (ending up with advanced graduate degrees from Harvard and Cambridge). Here again is where memory can be tricky in a memoir. I would have liked more about her struggles adapting and adjusting to the traditional education system after no formal experiences. But maybe the book is actually less about her quest for an education than about growing up in a patriarchal, fundamentalist religious home and dealing with mental illness and abuse in the family. Educated would certainly be a great companion read to The Glass Castle. [Listened to audiobook in April 2018.]

mini-reviews: the recovering and everything is horrible and wonderful

I had planned on reviewing these two later/separately, but they’re related in dealing with addiction, I just finished both so they’re fresh in my mind, and I had very different reactions to them.

The Recovering by Leslie Jamison was getting a lot of attention in the book world before its publication this year, and alcoholism is a subject that effects me, so I was very curious about this one. I was only able to read about half of it as an ebook before my borrowing period expired. I waited a couple weeks before it came through my Libby app on audio and finished it up that way. I agree with reviewers that it’s too long; maybe this is two books in one. I think Jamison’s writing style is excellent and raw—she acknowledges both her demons and her privilege as a white, middle-class, highly educated and acclaimed woman. But it had some repetition during her memoir sections that came across as somewhat indulgent. There’s also a lot going on here aside from recounting her own experience with alcoholism and journey towards sobriety: literary history (stories of famous addicts, mostly writers), socioeconomic and political commentary (addicts viewed/treated as criminals, etc.), vignettes of other “normal” alcoholics’ stories, as well as a history of AA. This is a tough one to review. I wonder if I would have liked it better if it was just her own memoir? If it was just on the topic of creativity and addition? It’s interesting and well written and very readable (if dense). Just know what you’re getting into when you pick this up. [Read ebook/listened to audiobook in April–May 2018.]

In Everything is Horrible and WonderfulStephanie Wachs writes about her younger brother Harris Wittels: their upbringing and relationship, his drug addiction and untimely death at age 30 in 2015, and the aftermath of his death. He was a brilliant comedic mind who achieved notoriety as a writer and producer for Parks and Recreation and Comedy Bang Bang, as well as the person who recognized and coined the term “humblebrag.” This book, you guys. It’s more about a family’s experience with one member’s addiction than a straight-up biography of Harris, though it is a lovely tribute to him and his extraordinary life and accomplishments. I ugly-cried through the final chapters. I don’t think I’ve read anything before that so acutely describes the deep, fierce, singular bond between two close siblings. I completely identified with her feelings for her brother. I wouldn’t know who I am without him—being his sister is a huge part of my identity. I haven’t lost my sibling, but death certainly effects everyone and every family, so I understand the despondency and utter hell people go through when they lose a family member, especially when they are so young (we lost my cousin to a motorcycle accident when she was 19. It was horrible and still hurts.). But my brother… I’d be absolutely gutted. Your sibling is supposed to be your ultimate counterpart, your accomplice, your life-long partner in more ways than a parent, spouse, child, or friend ever could be. I’ve often said to my brother that we have more in common with each other on a molecular level than anyone else on the planet. He’s my soulmate. This book left me gutted. Wachs really takes you through what it feels like to love an addict with your whole being and all the worry, anger, fear, helplessness, and hope that goes along with that love, as well as the particular responsibility an older sister feels for a younger brother. She’s honest about her unrelenting grief and the utter nightmare she and her family have been through. I can’t recommend it enough; I’m sure it’ll be one of my top reads this year. [Read ebook in May 2018.]

mini-reviews: in the kingdom of ice and the lost city of the monkey god

I fell very behind on my book thoughts here due to some annoying computer issues! I’ve still been reading a lot, as well as my usual bass playing and drawing… just haven’t felt like trying to deal with this dilapidated, 8-year-old laptop much. A new laptop is definitely a top priority later this summer. But I’d like to get all caught up on my book posts before my five-week visit home next month! Here are a couple recent audiobooks about adventure and exploration I really enjoyed:

In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides is another book I’ve been curious about for a while because I love adventure, exploration, and survival stories, but the length scared me off for too long. I’m happy I saw this become available on audio now and experienced it this way. I could barely put it on pause! The tragic 1879–1881 voyage of the USS Jeannette was truly “grand and terrible,” as the subtitle suggests. Set off originally on a mission to discover more about the polar arctic and prove or disprove some theories, like whether warm currents existed past the extensive ice barrier, this U.S. naval expedition quickly turned harrowing when the vessel was trapped in an ice pack and drifted for two years. The ice pack finally shifted and crushed the ship, leaving the crew stranded a thousand miles north of Siberia in uncharted icy territory. What followed was an epic attempt to save themselves by marching through this barren, mysterious part of the world. The descriptions of the deadly conditions and dangers they faced, from frostbite to unsteady ice to starvation, were palpable. The letters from one of the leaders’ wives gave this story a personal, human touch. The whole book left me breathless and rooting for them to make it out alive. I’m glad I didn’t know anything about the outcome beforehand. I’ve added Dan Simmons’s The Terror to my list to read eventually now! [Listened to audiobook in April 2018.]

The Lost City of the Monkey God is my first read by Douglas Preston and it did not disappoint. Deep in Honduras’s Mosquitia jungle lies the ruins of the Lost City of the Monkey God, sometimes called the “White City.” It’s an ancient civilization that vanished around 1500, similar to the Maya, but unlike the Maya, this civilization has hardly been studied at all—the site is near impossible to find and physically reach. Preston was invited to join a 2012 Lost City expedition, which he chronicles in this book, along with extensive research about the history of the city, its legendary curse, and the aftermath of the trip. Indigenous tribes warn that visitors to the Lost City will be cursed and die. One man reportedly found the city in 1940, only to commit suicide shortly after his return—his knowledge and secrets about the site died with him. Curse of the Monkey God? Preston’s expedition included an expensive technology called lidar, which projects lasers to the jungle floor from an airplane or helicopter and bounces images back. Two sites were discovered with the lidar machine, but controversy surrounded its use in the archaeology and academic fields. The team had the most state-of-the-art technology and equipment, but still dealt with danger and discomfort, from insects to bad weather to poisonous snakes, specifically the terrifyingly deadly fer-de-lance snake. Later, the team discovers mysterious sores on their bodies… curse of the Monkey God?? Preston poses credible theories as to why this civilization collapsed and disappeared, from greedy leadership (ahem) to foreigners arriving and carrying disease. This book reminded me of Grann’s The Lost City of Z! [Listened to audiobook in April 2018.]

darkness visible

I put William Styron’s Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness on hold a long time ago on the library app and it just came through this week. I wasn’t really interested anymore, but it’s so short I decided to go ahead. Edited from Goodreads:

A work of great personal courage and a literary tour de force, this bestseller is Styron’s true account of his descent into a crippling and almost suicidal depression. Styron is perhaps the first writer to convey the full terror of depression’s psychic landscape, as well as the illuminating path to recovery.

I think I probably should have skipped this. It’s not bad per se, and I certainly acknowledge depression as a serious illness, something that is complex and different for everyone who experiences it. However… Styron’s language didn’t really reach me here. It felt too intellectual and not very emotionally raw. He described his illness in rational, cold terms. I just felt kind of alienated from him and what he was going through because his language came off as pretentious to me. I get that perhaps (likely), since depression is different for everyone, there may not be words all the time to adequately describe what one goes through. But Styron’s a writer and doing so here. I don’t know much about Styron’s life or personal beliefs, but—and this is just me how I’m feeling at this moment in history—I’m not sure I needed to hear about the suffering of a privileged white man at this time. I don’t doubt Styron’s depression and I empathize with him. But yeah. When I logged this as “read” on Goodreads, I noticed that Darkness Visible started as a lecture, which makes much more sense than as a full-on memoir, as stated in the subtitle. My interest was piqued with his mention of literary and artistic greats afflicted with depression—I’d be interested in reading more on that. Darkness Visible just wasn’t for me.

Listened to audiobook in April 2018.

i’ll be gone in the dark

I’d been really looking forward to reading I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara since I first heard about it. I’m sure this would have been on my radar anyway even if McNamara hadn’t been married to a celebrity. I bought it the week it was published, and it will definitely be one that I recommend all year to true crime fans. From the book’s jacket:

A masterful true crime account of the Golden State Killer—the elusive serial rapist turned murderer who terrorized California for over a decade—from Michelle McNamara, a gifted journalist who died tragically while still writing and researching her debut book. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark offers a unique snapshot of suburban West Coast America in the 1980s, and a chilling account of the wreckage left behind by a criminal mastermind. It is also a portrait of one woman’s obsession and her unflagging pursuit of the truth, three decades later, in spite of the cost.

I had a little trouble focusing at first on reading this book (my problem at the time, no fault of the author or subject) but I ended up having a cold last week and reading was about all I could concentrate on. I devoured the majority of this one laid up sick in bed in just a couple of days. I have an interest in true crime—read or seen documentaries on Zodiac, Jack the Ripper, etc.—how could I not have heard of this guy before?

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is meticulously researched and completely immersive—one tip or piece of evidence leads to multiple threads to follow, and just when you think “this is the guy, they’ve got him,” he’s eliminated. I had to keep reminding myself he’s still at large (right now, in 2018), is frightening in itself. Is he still alive? Dead? Imprisoned for something else, but hasn’t had his DNA sampled? He’d be in his mid–late 60s right now. Why did he abruptly stop his reign of terror in 1986? I’m just sickened by the depths of his diabolical actions. The victims and their loved ones deserve justice. After reading this book, I’m confident McNamara’s tireless efforts will have played no small part in his capture.

McNamara was not only a relentless researcher but also a gifted, natural writer. She invited you to experience her process, come along on her frequent trips to the crime scenes, and listen in on her conversations with the victims and professional investigators both past and present. I’m impressed and grateful for the dedication of these officers of the law tirelessly investigating this case, no matter how seemingly fruitless the past few decades. McNamara makes sure that every person is real to you, including the GSK. Her incredible skill at suspenseful writing is illustrated in the way she describes the GSK’s horrific crimes without fetishizing or sensationalizing. You absolutely sense her empathy for the victims and their families, even the investigators whose lives have been consumed by the case, and her intense desire for the GSK to be brought to justice. For McNamara, it became personal—less a writing assignment than a mission.

Michelle McNamara was a brilliant, passionate writer and I was totally swept up in the emotional rollercoaster of her hunt for the Golden State Killer. It’s a thrilling, fascinating, and frustrating read, knowing this monster hasn’t been caught, and so tragic that Michelle died midway through writing it, way too young. I teared up reading the end of her husband’s afterword, and her strong sense of resolve and determination rubbed off on me in her own epilogue to the book, “Letter to an Old Man.” I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is just a really excellent piece of narrative true crime journalism. I don’t usually like to predict so early in the year, but this might end up being one of my best reads of 2018.

Read in April 2018.

soundtrack of my life

I saw this meme going around social media lately and it looked like a nice subject to ruminate on and reminisce over, but I’m not feeling posting on Facebook much anymore, so I decided to do one big post here. I know I’m tweaking the rules a little bit: more than 10 albums, these stretch before and after my teen years, and of course I’m offering a little explanation. But who cares! It’s been a fun, if challenging, activity!

Stevie Wonder, Stevie Wonder’s Original Musiquarium I (1982)
My parents have this thing where they “assigned” us kids songs when we were born. When I was born, they “gave” me Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely,” so it’s “my song.” (Aww.) It originally appeared on Songs in the Key of Life from 1976, but I still get warm family-love fuzzies when I hear this song and this compilation from 1982 is the album I remember my parents playing all the time when I was a kid. Plus, I just got a new bass so I’ve been having a lot of fun learning bass lines off this album lately.

Stray Cats, Built for Speed (1982)
One of the first vinyl records I “borrowed” (read: took) from my dad’s extensive record collection. As a young teenager and new guitarist I learned Brian Setzer’s guitar parts from the album top to bottom, using the vinyl!! Kids these days will never know.

Sir Neville Marriner, The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, Amadeus (Original Soundtrack Recording) (1984)
Whenever I stayed home sick from school as a kid, Amadeus was my go-to movie. I had this album on vinyl too, and when I was a budding composer in high school I drew a lot of inspiration from the movie and the soundtrack. Maybe basic, but what can I say, I’m pretty sure it was a catalyst for me to start composing.

Smashing Pumpkins, Siamese Dream (1993)
This was legit on repeat for pretty much the entirety of my teen years. It’s another album from which I learned all the guitar parts (almost… I couldn’t achieve Corgan’s psychedelic soloing and didn’t have all the gear anyway). Beyond Siamese Dream being one of the most quintessential albums of the 90s and no doubt influential for many people, I also latched on to this one because its producer, Butch Vig, was one of my idols at the time. He embodied my first dream “career:” musician, record producer, studio owner. Bonus: Vig’s from Wisconsin and his iconic Smart Studios was just a couple blocks away from my house where I grew up.

Weezer, Pinkerton (1996)
Ah Pinkerton, the nostalgia runs deep despite the problematic sentiments. I still love it, so what. This is another album I had on repeat throughout high school, and again I learned all the guitar parts. Not to mention it was on the Pinkerton tour when my epic and notorious “Weezer Tour Bus Incident” took place. In eighth grade, I hung out with the band on its tour bus before its January 1997 show at the Barrymore Theatre in Madison, during which guitarist Brian Bell dedicated “In the Garage” to me. My parents were not pleased with me!

Dee Dee Bridgewater, Prelude to a Kiss: The Duke Ellington Album (1996)
I was just starting to listen to and learn about jazz in ninth grade, and this is one of the first (if not the first) jazz records I ever bought. I remember really loving the saxophone parts, only to realize years later that it was Bobby Watson playing, whom I met when I moved to Kansas City for college. He was on faculty at my school, and it’s an honor to call him a friend and former colleague! Serendipity.

Phat Phunktion, Here We Go! (1999)
Phat Phunktion is a local Madison group that my high school band teacher knew from Summer Music Clinic (I participated one summer as a jazz guitarist). My teacher invited the band to play a gig at my high school when I was a junior. I don’t remember if it was for a fundraiser or just for fun, but I was very involved in the promotion of the show. I sold tickets at lunch for weeks and interviewed them for the school paper. This may have sparked my interest in writing about music, which was one of my side hustles after college in Kansas City. Besides that, Phat was my introduction to funk music (at least of which I was cognizant, if you don’t count my folks’ excellent collection of 70s funk played when I was little) and I’ve been a fan ever since.

Grant Green, Born to Be Blue (1962)
In high school I was pretty serious about jazz guitar—I took lessons from a respected local veteran of the Madison and Milwaukee jazz scenes, I was in the big band at school, I had my own jazz combo for fun, and I wrote a few jazz charts (yes they’re recorded). I listened to A LOT of jazz guitar recordings. Obsessed. It was very hard to narrow this down, between Les Paul and Wes Montgomery and Joe Pass and Kenny Burrell and Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt and Freddie Green and Tal Farlow and and and… But I decided ultimately on Grant Green’s Born to Be Blue because it’s just a great album and I love the version of “Someday My Prince Will Come” on it.

Ani DiFranco, Little Plastic Castle (1998)
Here’s where the boys come in. My high school sweetheart dumped me around sophomore/junior year—my first love, my first heartbreak—and this new Ani DiFranco album affected me on several levels. Yes there are songs mired in angst which was perfect for me at the time, but also I loved her unabashedly introspective lyrics and killer guitar playing. Ultimately this isn’t my favorite album of Ani’s, but after that devastating breakup, this one helped me feel like myself again.

Charlie Hunter Quartet, Natty Dread (1997)
And here’s the one that reminds me of my college sweetheart. He introduced me to this album, and Charlie Hunter, and I love him for it. Charlie Hunter arranged Bob Marley’s 1974 Natty Dread track-for-track as a soul jazz album, and it is executed perfectly. I adore this version of “No Woman No Cry.” Nothing but good feelings when I listen to this record, still in semi-regular rotation for me.

Slash featuring Myles Kennedy and The Conspirators, World on Fire (2014)
My husband asked me to tack this onto an Amazon order I was making one time in 2015, and when it arrived he happened to be away on a summer residency. So I decided to give it a listen and basically it was the only thing I listened to for the entire summer. When he got home I had all the lyrics memorized. There were some depressing life things that happened in 2015, and World on Fire was a great emotional outlet for some of my bottled-up feelings.

Beyoncé, Lemonade (2016)
2016 and 2017. What can I say. So much happened, so much didn’t. Excitements, difficulties, adventures, terribleness, boring times, discoveries, stresses, identity examinations. Lemonade got me through some shit.


I have innumerable honorable mentions. For jazz, it was nearly impossible to pick out just one album from a guitarist—I also drew much inspiration from Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, and Nina Simone in high school when I was into jazz. I also went through an intense Buddy Holly phase. When I was a kid, music was always playing in our house, from soul and Motown to Allman Brothers and Grateful Dead to Carole King and Joni Mitchell to Michael Jackson to Tom Waits and more. We’d listen to rock n’ roll on Saturday mornings and classical music on Sunday mornings—it’s tradition. Switching from guitar to bass in college was life transforming for me, that could be a whole post all to itself. And of course now I have tons of musician friends I love to support, and my music world has opened up immeasurably as an adult. This has been so much fun to think on! What are some important albums that have been the soundtrack to your life?