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.

courage is contagious

As soon as I saw Courage is Contagious, and Other Reasons to Be Grateful for Michelle Obama come across my Instagram feed I knew I had to read it. Edited from Goodreads:

Michelle Obama’s legacy transcends categorization; her cultural imprint is as nuanced as it is indelible. She used her time in the White House to fight for women, minorities, and health and education advocates. At the same time, her own genre-busting style encouraged others to speak, to engage, even to dress however they wanted. Editor Nicholas Haramis assembles twenty original essays from a stunning array of prize-winning writers, Hollywood stars, celebrity chefs, and politicos who have been moved and influenced by her extraordinary grace in power.

This slim collection was a much-needed uplifting read for me right now. With the clear and present danger the current administration poses to Americans and humanity in general across the globe, it was refreshing to listen to others who are equally inspired by the inimitable Michelle Obama.

Some of the essays were a little too similar to each other in tone and there’s some repetition of well-known Michelle Obama facts and quotes (her bold fashion choices, “When they go low…,” etc.). I wish I would have skipped Lena Dunham’s introduction; I thought it was trite, verging on disrespectful, and I can’t stand her anyway.

There are several stand-out essays to me, though, including those from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Jason Wu, Gabourey Sidibe, Charlamagne tha God, and Issa Rae. The best essays are definitely the two by the ninth-grade girls Adasendis De La Cruz and Laura Camacho, reminding the reader that beyond Mrs. Obama’s tangible accomplishments as first lady, her life-long tenacity and achievements above and beyond her humble origins have shown young people, especially young women of color, that they can accomplish their dreams while still being true to themselves.

Michelle Obama is a national treasure and we’re lucky beyond imagination that she was introduced to us. I really hope she writes a memoir or autobiography someday.

Listened to audiobook in December 2017.

mini-reviews: men explain, shrill, trainwreck, win at feminism

I’m always interested in reading books by and about women and our cultural and societal experiences. These four books caught my eye over the past year or so, and I was happy to learn more from different perspectives than my own on beauty standards, feminism, misogyny, and more:

Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me was on my radar as soon as it came out a few years ago, but I finally got around to reading it last year. I had not read any of her essays before, but I’d definitely heard of her. Of course, I’ve experienced mansplaining in work and life. Solnit’s collection here starts off with the titular essay recounting a time she was at a party where a man was telling her all about this excellent book he recently read… only to have to tell him that she wrote that book, which flabbergasted him. The rest of the book’s essays aren’t all quite so anecdotal; they cover a range of feminist issues and topics that can be familiar. It starts off and finishes strong, but there is some repetition throughout the essays (not Solnit’s fault, the essays weren’t written all with the intention of being published together in one volume), and unfortunately it was missing and acknowledgement or discussion of intersectional feminism, but the issues covered here are very real and depressing. Solnit does have a dry humor and an optimism that keeps you engaged. I was pretty fired up after reading this. [Read ebook in October 2016.]

Excellent read! I loved Lindy West’s Shrill, read it in two days. Her collection is all about her experiences coming of age in our beauty-obsessed society, fat shaming, harassment, sexism, and more. She sharply points out absurdities in our culture when it comes to what makes women visible and valued by society (be quiet, be pretty, etc., STILL), with hilarious essay titles. The essay about the limited (and flawed) list of fat women role models available to her as a child was pure gold. I went from laughing out loud to feeling enraged (during a piece about receiving death/rape threats on Twitter) to uplifted to empowered, often all in the same chapter. West is not shrill at all—she’s funny, insightful, and self-aware, and espouses loving yourself more than anything else. [Read ebook in November 2016.]

I already know how hard it is to be a woman in the world. Little things needle at us constantly all day, every day, telling us that we’re “less than,” not good enough, attractive enough, perfect enough, etc. etc. But Sady Doyle’s Trainwreck opened my eyes to how we as a society (even fellow women) destroy women who are in the public eye. It’s a thought-provoking study and in some instances even shocking exactly how far we’ll tear women down. There are some obvious examples, like Hillary Clinton, Britney Spears, and Miley Cyrus, but some others I never considered, historical examples like Sylvia Plath and Mary Shelley. As a musician, I have loved Billie Holiday for years and I knew her tragic, sad life story, but not from this sociological perspective. It was a fascinating, illuminating read on how we love to watch women crash and burn and we’ll blacklist them and label them negatively while we celebrate men who behave similarly. [Listened to audiobook in July 2017.]

I’ve been a fan of Reductress for a while on Facebook—the headlines are killer! There are lots of funny bits in its new book How to Win at Feminism but I think it’s best digested in small doses over time. It takes the jokes pretty far, sometimes farther than comfortable, veering out of satire and into shaming (mostly of privileged white straight women feminists). When the jokes are on point and land just right they’re hilarious, but more often the snark can be overwhelming to my taste. That probably happens because it’s too long overall, but it’s good for some laughs. [Read in October 2017.]

favorite albums of 2017

2017 was not a great year. Even though I had some good times, overall it was tough, for myriad reasons that this post is not about. Music, however, is always there for us, something we can always count on to soothe, evoke, and inspire in good and bad times. I was nervous about being in Singapore without my turntable and losing my interest in seeking out new music but luckily that didn’t happen. I know a few of these albums were released in late 2016, but I listened to them a lot this year and it’s my list! It was hard selecting favorite tracks, which can and do change all the time, but I liked challenging myself to choose for the purpose of this list. Here are my favorite albums released (mostly) in 2017, in order by release date:

***Links on album titles take you to the full album stream on Youtube, Bandcamp, or Soundcloud. All these links go to videos or posts uploaded by the artist or their record label. If you like it, buy it! 🙂

Soul Jazz Fridays … Chris Hazelton’s Boogaloo 7
Funky as shit, son. Reminiscent of old-school 1960s–70s soul; it really transports you to that musical era thanks to Hazelton’s phenomenal jazz organ playing and his stellar crew. Bonus: Kansas City! Listening to this makes me feel like I’m at the Green Lady. I really wish I had this on vinyl. Favorite track: “Theme for Theo

• Darkness and Light … John Legend
Smooth and groovy as usual. Legend’s not necessarily the most adventuresome artist, but I’ve been hooked since Get Lifted and his music almost never lets me down. Favorite tracks: “Love Me Now, “Surefire

Run the Jewels 3 … Run the Jewels
RTJ’s third album straddles a line between rage and humor, with commentary on politics, somewhat archaic pop references, and sex jokes. That seems like it wouldn’t work, but Killer Mike and El-P play off each other lyrically so well and the hooks are so memorable that it weirdly does. Great guest spots by Zack de la Rocha and Kamasi Washington. Favorite track: “Down

Fin … Syd
A simultaneously cool and hot, sensual neosoul debut dripping with pleasure and confidence. Syd’s songs here convey the affections of one woman for another, and it’s awesome. Favorite track: “Smile More,” “Got Her Own

Drunk … Thundercat
The whole thing is a genre-defying, idiosyncratic masterpiece. I’m pretty convinced Thundercat is from another planet—this technicolor music seems to exist on another plane and follow zero rules, and I love it. DYING to see him perform live. Favorite tracks: “Uh Oh, “A Fan’s Mail (Tron Song Suite II)

The Mood … Maurice Brown
I found this album randomly on Youtube and kept coming back to it for weeks, finally bought it, and discovered my friend Solomon is the bassist! Brown’s album is a seamless fusion of jazz, blues, and hip hop with impeccable melodic phrasing throughout memorable, soulful tunes. I love the guest appearance by Talib Kweli. Favorite track: “On My Way Home

• DAMN.Kendrick Lamar
Despite declaring “I’m not a politician, I’m not ’bout religion” (“Yah”), this is deeply political, theological, and intimate. It’s scathing critique of conservative news media and racism in America; philosophical and personal; contradictory, conflicted, and complex. The double-play concept is genius. Favorite tracks: “FEEL.,” “LUST.,” “LOVE.,” “FEAR.”

Made in America … Bobby Watson
This makes me feel like I’m home in Kansas City. I love the theme of paying tribute to notable black Americans from history, some well known and some obscure. You know it’ll be good, too, when he collaborates with Curtis Lundy, Lewis Nash, and Stephen Scott. Bobby’s such a gifted composer, and every time I listen to his solos I hear something new. I feel privileged to count Bobby as a friend! Favorite tracks: “The G.O.A.T. (for Sammy Davis, Jr.),” “The Entrepreneur (for Madam C.J. Walker),” “The Real Lone Ranger (for Bass Reeves)”

Voyager … Moonchild
Dreamy, laid-back neosoul in the vein of Sade and even Stevie Wonder. Maybe not the most original music out there or here on my list, but I still played this album a lot when I needed to chill out. Favorite track: “Cure

Live at High Noon … Phat Phunktion
Another great live album on my list! I love all these classic Phat tunes. Live albums can be tricky, but this one manages to make you feel like you were there at the show. It brings up great memories from back home in Madison when I listen to it. Seeing them play live again last month during my visit home was a major highlight of the trip. Favorite tracks: “Untitled (Weekend Special), “Miss Madison

• Binary … Ani DiFranco
Ani’s music is always wise, inspiring, and on point. I’ve enjoyed her more mellow approach to sharing her political and humanitarian messaging in her music the last several years, and this album is no exception. Her signature funk-soul-folk style is here serving as foundation for topics like reproductive rights, nonviolence, and empathy. Maceo Parker and Justin Vernon have welcome supporting cameos. Favorite track: “Play God

Ctrl … SZA
SEXY AF, holy shit. Love and sex and relationships are amazing and messy and complicated. So is feeling like an adult (or not) and sexual freedom and dating in the modern age. Expectations vs. perceptions. Damn. This is a stunning album. Favorite tracks: “Love Galore, “The Weekend,” “Broken Clocks

The Nashville Sound … Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
Thanks to Isbell’s deft songwriting on relatable subjects that are both introspective and turn a critical eye on society, this is just the kind of Americana/country rock that hits me right in the feels. I need a whiskey and a good cry after a couple of these songs. Favorite tracks: “Tupelo,” “If We Were Vampires

• 4:44 … Jay-Z
Jay-Z’s response to Beyoncé’s Lemonade (my #1 favorite album from 2016) is perfection and perfectly complementary. His humility and maturity here are revelations, not to mention his sharp commentary on our current sociopolitical and cultural realities. Favorite tracks: “Kill Jay Z,” “The Story of O.J.,” “Family Feud

Royal Mint … The Cash Box Kings
What can I say, I’m a sucker for my hometown bands. The original tunes here are especially good and timely, even cheeky at times. Oscar Wilson (vocals) and Joe Nosek (harp and vocals) are a dynamic pair, backed by several excellent local musicians from Madison and Chicago, including Joel Paterson, Al Falaschi, Alex Hall, Mark Haines, and Mel Ford, among others. Favorite tracks: “Build That Wall,” “Blues for Chi-Raq

• Southern Blood … Gregg Allman
I cried the first time I heard “My Only True Friend,” a meditation on life on the road and mortality written from the perspective of Allman’s late brother, Duane. This isn’t all about death, however. There are several covers due to Gregg’s health, but they’re selected in a way that are meaningful and reflective of his life and experiences. What a poignant, soulful final album for his fans and the world. RIP to a true master. Favorite track: “My Only True Friend

• Masseduction … St. Vincent
Hot hot hot HOT. Her guitar work is not as prominent here as usual—more textural than lead—but the album is full of bold, forward, and personal lyrics on top of awesome, catchy beats. This was solidly on repeat for a long time right after I got it. Favorite tracks: “Hang On Me,” “Masseduction,” “Los Ageless

Soul of a Woman … Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings
I was in love with Sharon Jones’s music the moment I first heard it. Vintage-sounding soul at its finest thanks to Sharon’s singular voice, which retains its strength and personality on Soul of a Woman despite her cancer treatments during recording. I feel so fortunate to have seen her perform in Kansas City in 2016. I still can’t believe this is her final album. Rest in power, Queen. Favorite tracks: “Matter of Time,” “Pass Me By,” “Call On God

If All I Was Was Black … Mavis Staples
Mavis Staples is angry about the political unrest and racial climate in our country right now, but her delivery of these songs (by Jeff Tweedy) is patient, compassionate, dignified, and even hopeful. Favorite tracks: “If All I Was Was Black,” “We Go High

Hi-Fi Christmas Guitar … Joel Paterson
I can’t believe I have a holiday album on here. Joel is magical and turns everything he’s involved with to gold. His meticulousness in overdubbing so many flawless guitar parts on each track is staggering to me. Super fresh take on old classics. Favorite tracks: “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” “Christmas Time is Here”

Honorable Mentions from 2017 (alpha by artist):
Pikes 244–273 … Buckethead
Vignettes … Damu the Fudgemunk
Big Fish Theory … Vince Staples
Far from Over … Vijay Iyer Sextet
Harmony of Difference … Kamasi Washington
One Room Blues … Oscar Wilson

Honorable Mention “Hangovers” from 2016 (alpha by artist):
Coloring Book … Chance the Rapper
“Awaken, My Love!” … Childish Gambino
Everybody Has a Plan Until They Get Punched in the Mouth … Charlie Hunter
Become Zero … Helen Money
The Olympians … The Olympians
Periphery III: Select Difficulty … Periphery

mini-reviews: fire shut up in my bones and drinking

I’m a big fan of memoirs, and this past year I’ve been reading some really excellent ones of all kinds of different lives. These two were powerful, personal, raw, and will stay with me a long time:

Charles M. Blow’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones was a pick for my Best Friends International Book Club with Anthony earlier this year. In this memoir, Blow recounts his childhood not quite belonging in a rural small town in Louisiana, where slavery’s legacy still loomed large and violence was commonplace, as well his deep connection to his mother, and years of confusion and anguish following sexual abuse by a family member, and finally his escape from this life into college (where he endured brutal fraternity hazing) and, later, success as a journalist. Blow’s writing is expressive and I found his descriptions of places and scenes beautifully constructed. I was let down by the book’s blurb, which is a little misleading, but I was still certainly intrigued and hooked anyway, especially by his personal introspection and revelations about his sexual orientation. I thought the book ended abruptly—I would have loved to read more about his career path after college—but maybe that could be another book altogether. I find Blow to be an impassioned and eloquent writer, and this was a wonderful, insightful, inspiring memoir. [Read in February 2017.]

Caroline Knapp’s painful, honest memoir of her alcoholism and related struggles, Drinking: A Love Story, really touched me and made me take a deeper look at my own relationship with alcohol. Knapp was a successful journalist from an upper-class family, and also a functioning alcoholic for 20 years. She used alcohol to escape her daily realities and relationships, until personal crises and family issues force her to examine her lifestyle and quit drinking. She doesn’t glamorize her addiction—her downward spiral into alcoholism is chronicled in a clear way and you understand better how it can happen to anyone. She makes it clear that this is a disease, one that is possible to flow through families for generations. She has some interesting insights about her complicated relationships with her parents and partners. Though it can be a little repetitive at times and contains a few generalities about alcoholics, this was overall a great book. [Read ebook in May 2017.]

sing, unburied, sing

Jesmyn Ward has become one of my new favorite writers. Her work is eloquent and powerful, and she deserves all the awards and accolades she’s received lately for her latest book, Sing, Unburied, Sing. Edited from Goodreads:

Jojo and his toddler sister, Kayla, live with their grandparents, Mam and Pop, and the occasional presence of their drug-addicted mother, Leonie, on a farm on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. Leonie is simultaneously tormented and comforted by visions of her dead brother, which only come to her when she’s high; Mam is dying of cancer; and quiet, steady Pop tries to run the household and teach Jojo how to be a man. When Michael, the white father of Leonie’s children, is released from prison, she packs her kids and a friend into her car and sets out across the state for Parchman farm, the Mississippi State Penitentiary, on a journey rife with danger and promise.

I initially had trouble getting into this book. I agree with some of the criticisms I’ve seen online—it’s a slow-moving burn, too much vomit (sorry, ever-so-mild spoiler), and I wasn’t entirely convinced of the ghosts until about halfway through. While an alternating first-person narrative doesn’t typically bother me, I found Jojo and Leonie’s voices a little too similar in tone. It too me far too long to get through; I started in October and didn’t read it at all in November (I was traveling… I barely read anything when visiting family!)

Ward’s esoteric, delicate writing as well as an excellent ending that made everything click for me ultimately made Sing, Unburied, Sing one of the best books I read this year. She builds tension describes situations and scenery so vividly you can easily become wrapped up in the story (at least, I did when I finally committed and settled into reading the rest of it this month). The characters were heartbreaking in their struggles and suffering, from Leonie’s addictions (to drugs and Michael) to Jojo’s protective instincts and loss of innocence, to Pop’s burdens as patriarch of this family and as an older Southern black man with his own personal demons. Ward powerfully illustrates many of America’s ills (specifically those that have historically and disproportionately effected black Americans)—poverty, parental neglect, disease, racism, incarceration, addiction, premature death, violence—with a multi-generational, mixed-race family in the deep South and a good dose of magical realism. It’s a Southern Gothic tragedy, one that is all too typical (ghosts notwithstanding) and familiar these days.

Read in December 2017.