an american marriage

I had to see what was up with An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, the very hyped latest pick for Oprah’s book club. Heavily edited from Goodreads:

Newlyweds Celestial and Roy are the embodiment of both the American Dream and the New South. He is a young executive and she is an artist on the brink of an exciting career. But as they settle into the routine of their life together, they are ripped apart by circumstances neither could have imagined. Roy is arrested and sentenced to twelve years for a crime Celestial knows he didn’t commit. Though fiercely independent, Celestial finds herself bereft and unmoored. As their time apart passes, Celestial is unable to hold on to the love that has been her center. After five years, Roy’s conviction is suddenly overturned, and he returns to Atlanta ready to resume their life together.

There’s a lot to unpack in this story, which is fictional but undoubtedly all too real for many families. It’s a love story at its core, but through the lens of a tragically common situation black Americans face today. I’m not surprised Oprah (and probably many others) picked this for book club—it makes for excellent discussion. How can black Americans achieve the American dream when they have to be twice as good and work twice as hard for it, when their achievements don’t protect them at all from persecution and discrimination? What about loyalty, or conditional vs. unconditional love? How do partners handle life-altering, stressful, major life events in their marriage? Does absence truly make the heart grow fonder? And more, like dealing with the stigma families deal with when one of their own is or has been incarcerated, nature vs. nurture, fathers and sons, etc.

I’m happy I listened on audio. The actors, Sean Crisden and Eisa Davis, did a fantastic job performing these characters and giving them depth, especially during the epistolary first half of the novel. Their delivery and emotion gave Roy and Celestial life; I felt almost like I was experiencing a play in person rather than listening to a book. That’s also a testament to Jones’s wonderful storytelling. My one tiny complaint is that the ending was just a touch too tidy for me, but it (along with the rest of the story) was completely believable.

An American Marriage lived up to the hype for me. Life isn’t strictly black and white, people are complex and flawed and both good and bad. It’s a powerful story about love, being human, being black in America, familial relationships, friendships, and reacting/recovering after the universe unexpectedly slaps you in the face and upends your life.

Listened to audiobook in March 2018.

altamont

I’ve been craving reading about music lately, and I was really pleased to come across Altamont: The Rolling Stones, the Hells Angels, and the Inside Story of Rock’s Darkest Day by Joel Selvin, which I had never heard of before finding it randomly on Libby. Edited from Goodreads:

In the annals of rock history, the Altamont Speedway Free Festival on December 6, 1969, has long been seen as the distorted twin of Woodstock—the day that shattered the Sixties’ promise of peace and love when a concertgoer was killed by a member of the Hells Angels, the notorious biker club acting as security. While most people know of the events from the film Gimme Shelter, the whole story has remained buried in varied accounts, rumor, and myth—until now.

The product of twenty years of exhaustive research and dozens of interviews with many key players, including medical staff, Hells Angels members, the stage crew, and the musicians who were there, Altamont is the ultimate account of the final event in rock’s formative and most turbulent decade.

I’ve been to some poorly organized shows in my life. Just last year, here in Singapore, the Guns n’ Roses concert was quite the debacle, starting with complicated transportation options: the venue was way out past the airport with only one 2-way street in and out. Then the fans were left to bake in the hot equatorial sun for hours before the concert started. There was a giant air-conditioned warehouse there for the merch tables, but the stage was outside. There was only one merch station. There weren’t enough food or beverage stands, and the organizers insisted on a rip-off, chip-bracelet “cashless system” for purchases. People were fainting from dehydration and heat exhaustion. Sound was bad. The back half of the venue had a view of a giant black screen with nothing on it for much of the show, which blocked the view of the stage. Getting out of there was chaotic. I loved seeing the band and we’re experienced concertgoers so we mostly avoided the bad stuff, but whoo boy I’ll definitely never go to that venue again, and I was even hesitant to see another concert hosted by that promoter.

Regarding the Altamont festival, I honestly didn’t know more than “someone was killed at the show” before reading this book. Wow. This entire event, from the planning stages to well afterward, was a disaster. Basically, the Rolling Stones had a wicked case of FOMO and wanted to cash in on the “free festival” trend, after not participating in Monterey Pop or Woodstock. The vibe at the time was that musicians felt that the music was their priority and they were not so interested in money, but that couldn’t be further from the truth (except maybe in the Grateful Dead’s case). The Stones’s career was flailing and they needed money so it decided to do a U.S. tour (despite being out of touch with America’s music scene in the late ’60s), invited a film crew along, and finish the tour with a free concert in California. Everything that could go wrong did—there were shady, major characters involved in the planning, the execution was lazy, and no one anticipated any violence after such a peaceful showing at Woodstock just months earlier.

I had no idea how much the Grateful Dead was involved. After playing several successful free park concerts, it was the Dead that suggested to the Stones to end with the free festival-style concert, for which the Dead also signed on to play. The Dead also suggested hiring the Hells Angels as security, after using them multiple times without issue. Pretty much no one in the Stones’s entourage took the time to handle with care or precision each intricate detail of putting on such an epic event. Everyone wanted to do things the easy, free (or at least cheap) way. Altamont was located in an area with a faction of Hells Angels unknown to the Dead. Violence was brewing from the beginning, and there was bad acid floating around. The stage was shoddily set up, only four feet off the ground, without proper space or barriers between the band and the 300,000 fans, with only about 40 Hells Angels for security. It seems like everyone was tripping on bad LSD. There weren’t enough medical tents or toilets or food/beverages available. I was dismayed (but not surprised) to learn the Stones stiffed almost everyone along the way and afterward, damages to the land, hotels, car services, etc. Reading this was like watching a car crash in slow motion.

I watched Gimme Shelter the day after finishing the book, and while I appreciated that it added images and sound to the words I’d just listened to, it wasn’t a true documentary. Major people involved were left out of the picture, two members of the Grateful Dead were on screen for maybe thirty seconds, the prevalence of dangerous drugs wasn’t shown, and it looked like the Hells Angels were to blame for the violence. It was disturbing to see the Stones keep playing their set (granted they stopped a couple times to try to quell the violence), but especially disquieting to see the look on Mick Jagger’s face as he watched the footage of one fan stabbed mere feet from the stage, and subsequently have pretty much no reaction. His greed is partly the reason for the violence and tragedy at Altamont.

Four people died—one by drowning, two by vehicular manslaughter, and one right in front of the stage, Meredith Hunter, stabbed by a Hells Angel. It was interesting and sad to read about a concert where violence broke out like this, after the gun massacres at concerts in the last few years. This is a shocking and upsetting read, just yet another example of the worst in people coming out. But it’s one of the best cultural histories I’ve read—I highly recommend if you’re into the music scene of the 1960s.

Listened to audiobook in March 2018.

the making of the godfather

Here’s another I borrowed on a whim from the Libby app! I’m fascinated by Italian-American mafia culture and stories, and The Godfather is one of my favorite movies (and II). I couldn’t pass up the chance for a little bit of the behind-the-scenes in this essay, The Making of the Godfather by Mario Puzo. Edited from Goodreads:

In this entertaining and insightful essay, Mario Puzo chronicles his rise from struggling writer to overnight success after the publication of The Godfather. With equal parts cynicism and humor, Puzo recounts the book deal and his experiences in Hollywood while writing the screenplay for the movie. Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Evans, Peter Bart, Marlon Brando, and Al Pacino all make appearances—as does Frank Sinatra, in his famous and disastrous encounter with Puzo. First published in 1972, the essay is now available as an ebook for the first time. A must-have for every Godfather fan! Featuring a foreword by Ed Falco, author of The Family Corleone.

I was slightly hesitant to even count this since it’s a long-form essay and not a book (not even a novella). But this was so delightful and it’s my blog so whatever. This essay is more like the beginning of getting the movie made (heh) from the book and his feelings on writing the book, not so much about the actual making of the movie(s). I really enjoyed this essay—Puzo had a great sense of humor! I loved his stories about his writing process and family life, as well as casting and signing on Francis Ford Coppola. This is a short review because the essay is so short, I think it was only about an hour and a half on audio. I’m sure there’s a treasure trove of even more stories out there; I only wish this was longer!

Listened to audiobook in March 2018.

the mountain story

I first put The Mountain Story by Lori Lansens on my TBR a few years ago, after it came out… I think I entered a Goodreads giveaway for it? But didn’t win. I became distracted by other books (as you do) but this came up again in my big audiobook search last week and I decided to go for it. I’m a sucker for survival stories, fiction or non-fiction! Edited from Goodreads:

On his 18th birthday, Wolf Truly takes the tramway to the top of the mountain that looms over Palm Springs, intending to jump to his death. Instead he encounters strangers wandering in the mountain wilderness, three women who will change the course of his life. Through a series of missteps he and the women wind up stranded, in view of the city below, but without a way down. They endure five days in freezing temperatures without food or water or shelter, and somehow find the courage to carry on. Wolf, now a grown man, has never told his son, or anyone, what happened on the mountain during those five days, but he can’t put it off any longer. And in telling the story to his only child, Daniel, he at last explores the nature of the ties that bind and the sacrifices people will make for love. The mountain still has a hold on Wolf, composed of equal parts beauty and terror.

This was a solid, compelling story, with several thrilling sequences and a satisfying ending. Maybe this is because I listened on audio (which was narrated well), but I had just a little trouble telling the women apart from each other, they’re pretty one-dimensional. I’m also not sure I bought Wolf, as an 18-year-old kid, being mistaken for a wilderness guide and mountain expert. Last quibble—I didn’t feel as immersed in the natural setting or as much a sense of perilous urgency as I have in other survival books I’ve read. The delivery and believability factor was just almost there for me. So, I think I was surprised this was more character-driven than I expected, which is ridiculous on my part, because obviously, just read the blurb! Still, I did enjoy the book—Lansens is an engaging storyteller. I liked how the sections were separated by days and how it’s told as a letter to the protagonist’s son much later. Wolf was fleshed out well with emotional depth and an unsettling backstory.

Listened to audiobook in March 2018.

sq21: singapore queers in the 21st century

I recently took advantage of a sale at local indie shop Books Actually here in Singapore, and one of the books I picked up was SQ21: Singapore Queers in the 21st Century by Ng Yi-Sheng, edited by Jason Wee. I was interested in learning about LGBTQ culture in Singapore. Unedited from the book’s back cover:

First published in 2006, this groundbreaking collection of coming out stories was the first affirming non-fiction volume accompanied by real names and faces. Written in light, clear prose, SQ21 shows an unabashed straightforward honesty and finds inspiration in the lives of these ordinary Singaporeans. Though a bestseller that won acclaim as The Straits Times nonfiction book of that year, SQ21 remained out-of-print for nearly a decade. This new reprint comes updated with fresh material – a new interview by Ng Yi-Sheng, and a new foreword by the editor Jason Wee.

I want to get my main criticism out of the way. I couldn’t help notice several typos and inconsistencies throughout the book. The blurb has some examples: “non-fiction” and “nonfiction,” missing commas, hyphens instead of em-dashes, and (maybe just my preference but) I wouldn’t have hyphenated “out of print” since it’s following the noun it modifies. Some missing prepositions, some repeated words. Maybe I’m being way too picky, and I realize this is supposed to be conversational, in the subjects’ voices, but when you notice enough easily correctable grammatical errors it bugs, especially in a new, republished edition. Some of the footnotes were redundant as well.

Anyway! That gripe aside, which has nothing to do with the content, I did enjoy the stories in this book. They made me feel both sad and hopeful. I was sad about how deeply ingrained some misconceptions and stereotypes of homosexuality and bisexuality existed within the subjects themselves. I had to keep reminding myself that this is only from about a decade ago, and while there has been some progress for acceptance in Singapore, it still seems like it has a long way to go. And some things confound me a bit, like the Pink Dot festival—foreigners are not allowed to attend, participate, or even watch from a distance. It oddly goes against the core messaging of gay pride festivals: inclusivity and acceptance. From what I’ve gleaned living here for a couple years, Singapore is patriarchal, conservative, and oppressive in a general, subtle sense—things appear “perfect” on the surface, but no place is perfect. There’s no country on Earth that doesn’t have shameful, dark parts of its past (and present). We are a deeply flawed species.

But I am left more with a hopeful feeling, especially reading about the gay men accepted by their fellow military servicemen, the majority of parents either understanding or coming around, and that there has been a growing number of LGBTQ groups and organizations in Singapore. Religion is a big part of many of these stories… I’m sure there are entire books devoted solely to the oppressive, hostile attitude of religions against LGBTQ people. It’s infuriating, to be honest.

There’s also insight into LGBTQ Singaporeans in the context of race, age, nationality, societal expectations, and more. I appreciated that the afterward bemoans the lack of workplace stories and accounts from the older LGBTQ generation (hopefully for the next edition!). Maybe the next edition could include some gender identity representation, that would be awesome. In one chapter, the storyteller mentions a fellow student whose “parents were a woman and an FTM,” which is footnoted as “FTM: female-to-male transsexual; a person who was born in a woman’s body but lives as a man” and I wondered if that could have gone into more depth. The term “transgender” isn’t mentioned.

I really admire the people profiled in SQ21—their courage in relaying their personal experiences with coming out, whether difficult or smooth, is inspiring. This is an important piece of Singapore’s history and social progress.

Read in March 2018.

astrophysics for people in a hurry

I downloaded the audio version of Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson on a whim. It’s not exactly my wheelhouse, but I’m generally curious about the larger workings of the world and how we all fit and are connected. Edited from Goodreads:

What is the nature of space and time? How do we fit within the universe? How does the universe fit within us? There’s no better guide through these mind-expanding questions than acclaimed astrophysicist and best-selling author Neil deGrasse Tyson. But today, few of us have time to contemplate the cosmos. So Tyson brings the universe down to Earth succinctly and clearly, with sparkling wit, in digestible chapters consumable anytime and anywhere in your busy day. While waiting for your morning coffee to brew, or while waiting for the bus, the train, or the plane to arrive, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry will reveal just what you need to be fluent and ready for the next cosmic headlines: from the big bang to black holes, from quarks to quantum mechanics, and from the search for planets to the search for life in the universe.

Well, it both was and wasn’t exactly what I was expecting. Some of it was accessible for non-sciencey people like me and I could sort of follow along, and deGrasse Tyson’s narration was certainly engaging—he does a good job explaining complex subject matter for the masses. But there is A LOT of information in this slim volume that overwhelmed me at times. I also can’t say I retained much of the information… of course that could totally just be me and how my mind works. I think you have to be able to grasp big, abstract concepts to “get it” all. I did figure ahead of time that some of this would go over my head and I was fine with that. I would not have been able to get through this on paper, but I pushed through the audio since it’s so short. I can see why so many people love this book, but it just wasn’t for me. I think I’ll stick to just staring at the stars for the pure existential beauty of the experience, and that’s okay! 🙂

Listened to audiobook in March 2018.