this will be my undoing

There was a lot of hype surrounding This Will Be My Undoing by Morgan Jerkins before it came out in January, so I put it hold back then and the audiobook came through the library for me this month. Edited from Goodreads:

From one of the fiercest critics writing today, Morgan Jerkins’s highly-anticipated collection of linked essays interweaves her incisive commentary on pop culture, feminism, black history, misogyny, and racism with her own experiences to confront the very real challenges of being a black woman today. Jerkins is only in her twenties, but she has already established herself as an insightful, brutally honest writer who isn’t afraid of tackling tough, controversial subjects. In This Will Be My Undoing, she takes on perhaps one of the most provocative contemporary topics: What does it mean to “be”—to live as, to exist as—a black woman today? This is a book about black women, but it’s necessary reading for all Americans.

I’m on the fence a little bit about this one. Jerkins is a great writer, and has tons of potential for the future. But “controversial” and “brutally honest” are good adjectives for this book. I’m generally not upset by the most common content-triggering topics like sex and violence, but there are a lot here and she goes into great detail, so I guess just be prepared if you decide to read this one. Some of the essays were really good, especially those relating history to present-day black experiences, and those about her childhood. I also enjoyed the essays on Beyoncé’s groundbreaking visual album Lemonade and Michelle Obama.

However—and I completely acknowledge Jerkins’s book is not “for me,” as a white, middle-class, Oregon Trail-generation woman from the Midwest—there are some double standards and generalizations that made me sort of uncomfortable. She stereotypes white women and idealizes Japanese people. As a white woman who does not fit her narrow description of them, I’m just kind of like, well we’re not all rich, coddled, slim, beautiful Trump voters… And as an American living in Asia, I have to say, I really hate the “expat” mindset, which typically manifests itself as either the “white savior” trope or thinking that other countries and cultures exist solely for Americans to “discover” themselves, or something. So while I don’t doubt her interest in Japanese culture, I was bothered by her descriptions of Japan and its people. Remember that viral video a few years ago of a woman silently walking around New York City for hours to demonstrate frequent and unsettling street harassment of women? Jerkins weirdly defends the men in the video, while at the same time taking offense to being catcalled herself? I was confused as there being any difference.

I guess overall I was expecting something more insightful or somehow different, based on the hype and subtitle. Implicit bias exists in everyone. I respect Jerkins for putting it all out there, though, even the private, “shameful” stuff you’re supposedly not supposed to talk about.

Listened to audiobook in February 2018.

mini-reviews: you should have left and the strange bird

I’m definitely out of my reading slump! These two novellas came through my library holds on audio at the same time, and they’re short enough that I was able to listen to both in one day while drawing.

You Should Have Left by Daniel Kehlmann is a taut, unsettling psychological horror novella. Kehlmann handles classic haunted house, ghost story, and existential madness tropes well—a creeping dread is palpable here. Easily read in one sitting, too—the audiobook is just about two hours long. A couple and their 4-year-old daughter stay at an AirBnB in the mountains for vacation, but they’re also there so the husband (our narrator) can work on his screenplay. You spend the entire book in his head, as strange things start to happen (they easily get lost in the house, optical illusions and issues with depth perception abound, doors appear in places there wasn’t a door before, phrases mysteriously appear in his notes, etc., and then the nightmares start), all the while something is up with his marriage. People online have compared it to House of Leaves and The Shining, and I’d agree, although this is much, much shorter! [Listened to audiobook in February 2018.]

Jeff VanderMeer is an author I like to follow. I enjoyed his Area X trilogy (so excited for the movie adaptation of Annihilation!) and loved Borne last summer. I saw The Strange Bird on my library browse and borrowed it right away. This adds a chapter to Borne, from the perspective of another of the Company’s hybrid creatures, the Strange Bird. She is part bird, part human, part… other stuff(?). The biotech lab where she was created, the Company, has devolved into chaos and she, as well as other experiments, have escaped. The sky and land are full of creatures and technology and debris making this near-future world a very dangerous place to be, where humans are now struggling to survive. I do think you need to read Borne first, as that book does all the world-building and set up for The Strange Bird. I kind of wish I had read it on paper or ebook instead of listening to the audio, though—the narrator read in a tortured tone that could be a bit much for me at times. There isn’t quite the level of mystery and tension I felt while reading this one as I did with Borne, but it’s a great expansion of this imaginative setting. [Listened to audiobook in February 2018.]

shark drunk

Another great find from my epic audiobook hunt last week: Shark Drunk by Morten Strøksnes! It was a really pleasant surprise and I’m glad I gave it a chance. From Goodreads:

In the great depths surrounding the Lofoten islands in Norway lives the infamous Greenland shark. At twenty-six feet in length and weighing more than a ton, it is truly a beast to behold. But the shark is not known for its size alone: its meat contains a toxin that, when consumed, has been known to make people drunk and hallucinatory. Shark Drunk is the true story of two friends, the author and the eccentric artist Hugo Aasjord, as they embark on a wild pursuit of the famed creature—from a tiny rubber boat. Together, the two men tackle existential questions, survive the world’s most powerful maelstrom, and, yes, get drunk, as they attempt to understand the ocean from every possible angle, drawing on poetry, science, history, ecology, mythology, and their own, sometimes intoxicated, observations.

I like sharks. I’m not obsessed, but I’ve been somewhat interested in them since dissecting one in my ninth-grade biology class. (My teacher even fried up little pieces for us to taste over a bunsen burner! A little bit like chicken.) Last year, I saw a fantastic, eye-opening exhibit here in Singapore at the Parkview Museum called On Sharks & Humanity, a curated collection of works celebrating sharks and bringing awareness to our changing relationship with them and the ocean, including preservation and protection of these beautiful creatures.

Strøksnes basically uses the shark-hunting trip with his friend as an excuse to talk about myriad topics, so it’s a little all over the place, but it’s a delightful book that’s more about the journey than the destination. I loved all the “fun facts,” from oceanography and the mysteries of the sea, to mythology and literature and history, to life in small Scandinavian fishing villages, and more. It was a little like being in the boat with the two of them, waiting and waiting and waiting for this shark to bite, and having access to Strøksnes’s mind as it wanders across all these topics, with some philosophy and personal anecdotes thrown in.

With all the horrible news of the world right now, this book was a good mental break that also put our place on this planet back into perspective a bit for me. A little bit of everything, and it was an enjoyable, informative listen on audio.

Listened to audiobook in February 2018.

otis redding: an unfinished life

I first heard about Otis Redding: An Unfinished Life by Jonathan Gould when it first came out, close to the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, at which Redding gave an electrifying, career-high performance. I have it on vinyl and it’s stunning. As a music lover, as a soul music lover, as a Madisonian, I knew I had to read this book. From the book jacket:

Otis Redding remains an immortal presence in the canon of American music on the strength of such classic hits as “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay,” “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” “Try a Little Tenderness,” and “Respect,” a song he wrote and recorded before Aretha Franklin made it her own. As the architect of the distinctly southern, gospel-inflected style of rhythm and blues associated with Stax Records in Memphis, Redding made music that has long served as the gold standard of 1960s soul. Yet an aura of myth and mystery has always surrounded his life, which was tragically cut short at the height of his career by a plane crash in December 1967.

There’s no time in my life when I didn’t know Otis Redding and his music. I don’t remember the first time I heard his voice or his records. My dad is an avid music appreciator and soul music was a ubiquitous presence during my childhood. In fact, “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay” is a part of the soundtrack of our family history. Funny story: my dad copied down the lyrics and handed it in for a poetry assignment in high school (late 1960s); his old teacher didn’t know the song and my dad got an A! He still “complains” he hasn’t “seen any royalties” once in a while. I love lots of musical genres, but I consistently return to and never tire of soul. I’ve been really loving this recent resurgence, “new” soul, like Sharon Jones, Charles Bradley (RIP both), and all the Daptone Records artists, etc.

Of course, my fascination with Redding goes deeper than simply enjoying his music. The plane he was in crashed into Lake Monona, in my hometown, Madison, Wisconsin. (Here’s an article in The Isthmus noting the 50th anniversary of the crash.) My folks were still teenagers when Redding died, so they hadn’t moved to in Madison yet and weren’t planning on attending his Factory gig of course, but as long as I can remember, my dad has had (a reproduction of) the gig poster hanging in our living room. I eventually got a small copy of my own. I remember when a plaque was erected at the Monona Terrace Convention Center in 1997 in Redding’s memory. I know his connection to Madison is negligible, but it’s nevertheless tragic and real.

Now for the book! I can’t exactly say I was hooked from the start—it took me maybe around 100 pages before something clicked and I couldn’t put it down. This could have been my problem, not the book. I was in a slump when I started reading this at the end of January. But I was absolutely enthralled for the rest of it. I was so excited by everything I was learning, relating facts to my husband at the end of the day. I didn’t realize how badly I’ve been craving to read about music, and of course this particular subject matter is near and dear to me.

Gould’s book is so much more than a biography of Otis Redding. In fact, if you are just looking to learn about the man, you’ll probably be disappointed. What Gould does here is place Redding’s life and career in context of the time, place, and people. Presenting a rich social history of the politics and culture of the South in the 1960s (and prior) gives the reader a deeper understanding and appreciation of where Redding and his music came from, and why his legacy endures and his music resonates fifty years later. You learn about how racial tensions, boundaries, and politics impacted the music business, bands, and artists. You learn a little bit about other notable musicians and their music, like Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, and Aretha Franklin; how Redding’s brand of soul evolved from gospel and blues; about the formation and operation of Stax Records; and how beloved soul artists and famous record companies of the 1960s are all connected. My synapses were firing with each page!

If I have one quibble, I think I would have liked more photos. A few appear at the start of selected chapters. There are descriptions of album cover art, etc., but no accompanying image. BUT—as soon as I thought to myself, oh I wish there were more pics, I realized DUH I can look online and DUH AGAIN should definitely be “listening along” while I read this. There are sooo many great songs and albums mentioned page after page. I spent a lot of my reading time in front of my laptop, concurrently playing videos of Redding’s (and others’) performances and recordings. It became a fantastic, immersive reading experience.

I have no doubt this will be the definitive biography of Otis Redding for the foreseeable future, and is a must-read for anyone interested in 1960s soul music and how popular music and race in America are and have historically been indelibly entwined. I stayed up all night finishing the last few chapters and even though I knew the ending, I still cried reading through the crash. This book gave bold, technicolor life to Redding, as musician and man, for me.

Read in February 2018.

so you’ve been publicly shamed

Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed has been on my TBR pretty much since it came out a couple years ago. I’m not exactly sure what compelled me to read it now in particular…? But I decided to borrow the ebook from the library just because. Edited from Goodreads:

For the past three years, Jon Ronson has travelled the world meeting recipients of high-profile public shamings. The shamed are people like us—people who, say, made a joke on social media that came out badly, or made a mistake at work. Once their transgression is revealed, collective outrage circles with the force of a hurricane and the next thing they know they’re being torn apart by an angry mob, jeered at, demonized, sometimes even fired from their job. Simultaneously powerful and hilarious in the way only Jon Ronson can be, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is a deeply honest book about modern life, full of eye-opening truths about the escalating war on human flaws—and the very scary part we all play in it.

We’ve all done things that we’re not proud of in our lives—honest, stupid mistakes because (surprise!) we’re all flawed human beings. Imagine having your life ruined because of something you did or said, thinking it was just harmless, silly, and trivial in the moment. Remember Justine Sacco, the woman who tweeted, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” to her ~100 followers, got on an 11-hour flight, and found upon landing that her tweet had gone viral… and not in a good way? She meant it as a mockery of white ignorance and privilege, but the joke was tasteless and fell flat. Twitter ruthlessly destroyed her, so much so that she lost her job and social life, and embarrassed her family. Only recently has she gotten her life and reputation back on track.

What does such a brutal public shaming do to a person? How does one recover from such profound humiliation? Ronson’s book covers Sacco’s story, as well as a handful of others to varying degrees of disgrace, to illustrate the point that pitchfork-wielding angry mobs are still alive and well—they (we) tar and feather the “offender” behind the anonymous safety of the internet now instead of in the streets. Some people were afraid to leave the house after their shamings, some felt no shame at all and were practically unscathed. Why do we do this? Simply put: because we can. But Ronson shows yes, it’s because we can, but also much more.

Was I experiencing some schadenfreude by reading about these people’s shamings in this book? Maybe? I wanted to find out if their professional and personal lives survived, though—I wanted them to come out the other side with a new life. I never bullied anyone, I don’t participate in dragging people online or get into heated debates. But still. I’m aware of them. I lurk and I read through them sometimes. I have opinions on what perpetrators of certain offenses deserve (like the sexual harassment/assault stories recently exposed in Hollywood and, well, every industry and field). Why do we derive pleasure from hearing about and witnessing others’ misfortunes? How has public online shaming become a new kind of social justice system, and why do we feel entitled to dole out the punishment?

There’s a lot of psychology to unpack, a lot of questions to ask yourself after reading So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. I would have liked more insight and depth to the fact that today’s public shamings are overwhelmingly misogynistic, in that women get violent threats of rape and death almost immediately when they transgress whereas men do not. It’s more difficult for women to rebound from a shaming, both personally and professionally. This sexism is mentioned, but Ronson doesn’t elaborate. (Maybe follow up reading this one with Sady Doyle’s Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why).

Regardless of that minor criticism, this is just the kind of accessible research I like, in the same vein and as interesting as anything Mary Roach has written. Even though this book ultimately contains more questions than answers, it’s a thought-provoking book worth a read.

Read ebook in February 2018.

broad strokes

During my epic hunt the other day for audiobooks, I came across Broad Strokes: 15 Women Who Made Art and Made History (In That Order) by Bridget Quinn in the non-fiction section and was immediately intrigued. Edited from Goodreads:

Historically, major women artists have been excluded from the mainstream art canon. Aligned with the resurgence of feminism in pop culture, Broad Strokes offers an entertaining corrective to that omission. Art historian Bridget Quinn delves into the lives and careers of 15 brilliant female artists in text that’s smart, feisty, educational, and an enjoyable read. Replete with beautiful reproductions of the artists’ works and contemporary portraits of each artist by renowned illustrator Lisa Congdon, this is art history from 1600 to the present day for the modern art lover, reader, and feminist.

I absolutely LOVED this book! I was totally engrossed in Quinn’s way of telling these women’s stories through their incredible art. The narrator, Tavia Gilbert, does a wonderful job setting a warm, enthusiastic tone for the audiobook reading. My only regret, which I realized about a third of the way through, was that I didn’t have this as a hardcover or paperback copy, as I’m sure there are reprints of the individual artworks discussed throughout the book. However, I was so taken with the women and Quinn’s friendly, descriptive writing brought everything to life for me anyway. She inserts herself in this book a lot, taking the reader along on her journey of following her dream (writing about art) and discovering these artists, but I didn’t mind that. I really love art but admittedly I have only a small base knowledge of any sort of art history, so I found this really fascinating and I learned a lot.

Besides art history, this is also a great piece on feminist history, as many (if not all) of these artists rebelled against the traditional expectations placed on women, like how you dress, keeping your last name after marriage, remaining devoted to your passion (in these cases, creating art) regardless of whether you’re married or have children, choosing NOT to marry or have children, or being an out lesbian. I appreciated that Quinn looked at this part of these artists’ lives as well—it really fleshed them out as real, 3-dimensional human beings for me and made them memorable.

This past year I’ve returned to one of my earliest loves, pencil drawing. Last month I was in such a bad slump—just couldn’t focus on hardly anything, and I had virtually no motivation to draw. Listening to Broad Strokes as I was trying to finish up a portrait of my parents helped so much to continue working—these women artists were so inspiring to me. I’m sure I’ll be recommending this book all year!

Listened to audiobook in February 2018.