mini-reviews: phenomenal woman and mom & me & mom

I simply adore Maya Angelou. I read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in 2008 just as I was finishing grad school and was awestruck by her tenacity and wisdom and way with words. And then inexplicably, I didn’t read any more of Angelou’s books until 2014, with Letter to My Daughter.That’s crazy! She’s amazing. This year I made time to read two more of her works:

I was already familiar with two poems in Phenomenal Woman: the titular poem and “Still I Rise,” which is one of my all-time favorite pieces of writing ever. But the other two, “Weekend Glory” and “Our Grandmothers,” were new to me. Angelou awakens an empowerment in women with these poems, acknowledging women’s complexity, depth, and strength with an inimitable level of passion and wisdom like only she can. I read a library-borrowed ebook version, but I think I need a paper copy of my own. These are timeless and meant to be savored time and again. [Read ebook in December 2016.]

I guess I’m going out of order with Angelou’s autobiography series, having started with book 1 (Caged Bird) and moving on to book 7, Mom & Me & Mom, next! Oh well. I’m not sure they need to be read in order, necessarily, because from what I can tell, both these books stood on their own. This book chronicles Angelou’s complex relationship with her mother, Vivian Baxter, throughout her life. She loved and respected her larger-than-life mother, but it was ever-changing and sometimes turbulent. The writing wasn’t quite as excellent as I was expecting based on what I remember from Caged Bird, and there some jumping forward and backward in time with the events described. But this was still a fascinating relationship and life to learn about. As always, it was a pleasure listening to Angelou narrate her own words on the audiobook version. I look forward to reading more from her autobiography series in the future! [Listened to audiobook in March 2017.]

mini-reviews: life in parts, wishful drinking, i know i am

Following up on yesterday’s post, here are three more memoirs by funny people!

Bryan Cranston‘s A Life in Parts shows that he’s much more than his roles Walter White from Breaking Bad or Hal from Malcolm in the Middle. He does cover his time playing these parts, and I loved the behind-the-scenes glimpse at these shows, but I think I might have enjoyed his ruminations on the craft of acting even better. Cranston has many memorable stories in this memoir, formatted as different “parts” he’s embodied in his life: as a son, brother, husband, father, employee, and finally actor. It’s not the deepest, most revelatory memoir ever, but it is equally funny, touching, sad, and interesting. It’s specially good on audio with Cranston himself narrating. [Listened to audiobook in December 2016.]

I had Carrie Fisher’s Wishful Drinking in my iBooks app for a few months when she died last December. I decided (a couple months later) that it was time to finally get to it—and I read almost the whole thing while standing in line for a concert. Wishful Drinking was a fun, quick read! It rambles and goes off on tangents at times (reading like her HBO special on which the book is based, I suppose), and I think I was expecting more depth and reflection regarding her mental health and addictions. But I did enjoy this irreverent, funny collection of anecdotal pieces from a Hollywood lifer. I’m sure this is way better on audio! [Read ebook in February 2017.]

Samantha Bee’s I Know I Am, But What Are You is hilarious! And delightful, snarky, relatable, a little raunchy, and everything I could ever hope for from a Samantha Bee memoir. I loved the audio—I was laughing and looking like a fool anytime I listened out in public. It’s not inspirational like Amy Poehler or Tina Fey’s memoirs, if that’s what you’re into. This is purely autobiographical full of meandering musings about her own life and times. I Know I Am was published in 2010; I hope she writes another one in the future! [Listened to audiobook in October 2017.]

slash

Of COURSE I had to read Slash by Slash last month! I tried to finish before going to his concert in Denver for our anniversary, but ended up finishing just in time for Halloween. Blurb from Goodreads:

For the first time ever, Slash tells the tale that has yet to be told from the inside: how the legendary band Guns N’ Roses came together, how they wrote the music that defined an era, how they survived insane, never-ending tours, how they survived themselves, and, ultimately, how it all fell apart. Slash is a window into the world of the notoriously private guitarist and a front seat on the roller-coaster ride that was one of history’s greatest rock n’ roll machines, always on the edge of self-destruction, even at the pinnacle of its success. Slash is everything Slash is: funny, honest, ingenious, inspiring, jaw-dropping… and, in a word, excessive.

This book is a little nuts. I was expecting more, I guess, based on the near-500 page length—more insight into his addictions and interpersonal relationships, more about his guitars and development as a player. His Guns N’ Roses anecdotes, when he goes on tangents about his guitars, and the touring are definitely the best, most engaging parts of the book. It was great to listen along to GNR’s Appetite for Destruction and the Use Your Illusion discs as I was reading about their process in writing those songs and recording the albums. Time and again Slash didn’t seem to be deeply affected by his demons, especially his drug abuse. “I OD’d and was dead for a few minutes which sucked, but then I kicked again, NDB.” That’s how some of those stories read to me. There are a few weird moments where Slash repeats or contradicts himself (saying he doesn’t “remember exactly” what was said, and then not five words later claiming “but I’ll never forget” what was said. Huh? Maybe co-writer Anthony Bozza dropped the ball on that, or the editors).

Slash is personable and down-to-earth, considering his fantastic journey and rock n’ roll lifestyle. Slash was a fun book that was compulsively readable. The chapters are lengthy, but the sections in each chapter are not, making it easy to pick up and read a bit here and there easily. Any fan of Slash, GNR, old-school rock, or rock music biographies and memoirs would enjoy Slash. Of course, Slash has accomplished a lot since its publication (2007), and continues to write, record, and tour. Despite my wanting a little more depth in general, in the end, I felt like I was hanging out with Slash and he was telling me his stories from life and the road, which is just what you expect from a rock memoir. It was an awesome warm-up to get me pumped for the concert last month!

Read from October 1 to 31, 2015.

my cross to bear

I was turned on to My Cross to Bear by Gregg Allman when it first came out and I bought a copy for my dad for Father’s Day… only to find he had already gotten it for himself! I exchanged it for a different gift, but then couldn’t resist when I saw it on sale on iBooks a while ago. From Goodreads:

As one of the greatest rock icons of all time, Gregg Allman has lived it all and then some. For almost fifty years, he’s been creating some of the most recognizable songs in American rock, but never before has he paused to reflect on the long road he’s traveled. Now, he tells the unflinching story of his life, laying bare the unvarnished truth about his wild ride that has spanned across the years.

I had fun reading My Cross to Bear. Sure, it’s not the most eloquently written, but it is authentic to Allman’s conversational voice and I think it would be even better on audiobook, if he’s the narrator! You get more of a feeling of kickin’ back with Allman and him telling you stories from his life he feels like telling. He comes across as salt of the earth, humble, and a bit mystified at his dumb moves and astounding luck. Allman was, is, and forever will be a Good Ol’ Boy who just wants to play music, man. The chapter on his brother Duane Allman’s death was heartbreaking. I loved when he talked about his songwriting, recording iconic albums and some of the stories behind them, and playing gigs both small and large. He’s honest about his shortcomings and a father, and his drug and alcohol abuse, however…

Since he went there, I found myself wanting more depth on recounting his drug abuse and rehab. And while I wasn’t shocked or surprised by Allman’s experiences with women (lots of girls, lots of wives, etc.—it’s totally a boy’s club throughout the whole book), I would’ve appreciated more introspection here, too, especially on his six failed marriages, which he basically attributes to the wives all being crazy or expecting him to change. It doesn’t matter that the marriages ended, it happens, but I mean, who’s the common denominator here, bud? You’ll take no responsibility for what went down here? Just sayin’.

One thing I made sure to do as I read the book was to listen to the albums he talked about. It was wonderful to have them as background to the stories, especially the early stuff—Idlewild SouthAt Fillmore EastEat a PeachBrothers and Sisters. My dad loves the Allman Brothers—Duane is his all-time favorite guitarist—so listening along brought back great memories of our shared love for music. I forgot how much about these albums and Duane I already knew thanks to my dad!

Bottom line—not the most in-depth account of the history of the Allman Brothers, but a great, easy summer read after which you’ll feel like you just hung out with one of America’s living rock legends, which is pretty damn cool.

ETA: Fun facts I just remembered to include—I share a birthday with Gregg Allman (Dec. 8) and I saw The Allman Brothers Band in Madison, Wisconsin, August 2000! Awesome.

My Cross to Bear is my sixth of twelve books read for my Ebook Challenge.

Read from June 29 to July 29, 2015.

just kids

I’m on a rock bender lately! Maybe it’s my awesome new turntable stereo I just got set up. In addition to reading Gregg Allman’s My Cross to Bear (almost done!) I started reading Just Kids by Patti Smith on my iPad. From Goodreads:

In Just Kids, Patti Smith’s first book of prose, the legendary American artist offers a never-before-seen glimpse of her remarkable relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in the epochal days of New York City and the Chelsea Hotel in the late sixties and seventies. An honest and moving story of youth and friendship, Smith brings the same unique, lyrical quality to Just Kids as she has to the rest of her formidable body of work—from her influential 1975 album Horses to her visual art and poetry.

I am in the middle on this book. While I loved the illuminating look at life of the starving artist in New York City in the 70s, and I can totally identify with being in an artist-artist relationship, being each other’s muses, supporting each other, etc. There’s a lot of name-dropping—Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol, and numerous other artists, poets, and musicians—but that’s part of the allure of this book. Just Kids was a beautiful, loving tribute to Mapplethorpe. The last section about their last conversations and his death were intimate, poetic, and heartbreaking.

There is a lot to love about this book, however at times it felt weirdly sincere AND contrived at the same time. Does that make sense? I feel like, I can forgive her romanticism of New York and her relationship with Mapplethorpe, but that she was so naive about the lifestyle (drugs, mostly) and 70s NYC arts scene in general is hard to believe. There was a lot of “this happened, then this, and I did that, and he did this.” Her language is just a little too antiquated for me too, trying to hard to be poetic maybe. On one hand, I enjoyed listening to this on audiobook better, read by Smith (I split it up this time between audio and ebook), but I had to speed it up to 1.5x because it was a slog at normal speed.

If you can get past the quibbles I had, then I’m sure you’d like Just Kids. I do think it’s a must-read for fans of Smith and Mapplethorpe, or who want to live vicariously through two gifted artists in 1970s New York City.

Just Kids is my fifth of twelve books read for my Ebook Challenge.

Read/listened from July 22 to 24, 2015.

i never had it made

I had all these plans to write and publish blog posts over the holiday weekend (and after work this week) but couldn’t bear to be on the computer. Instead, I read, hung out with my husband and friends, and visited the Liberty Memorial at the National World War I Museum on Memorial Day. I also finished reading I Never Had It Made by Jackie Robinson on my e-reader. Edited from Goodreads:

Before Barry Bonds, before Reggie Jackson, before Hank Aaron, baseball’s stars had one undeniable trait in common: they were all white. In 1947, Jackie Robinson broke that barrier, striking a crucial blow for racial equality and changing the world of sports forever. I Never Had It Made is Robinson’s own candid, hard-hitting account of what it took to become the first black man in history to play in the major leagues. Originally published the year Robinson died, I Never Had It Made endures as an inspiring story of a man whose heroism extended well beyond the playing field.

I was reminded I had this in my e-reader when I was watching the Royals game on April 15—all the players (on all teams) wear #42 in honor of Jackie Robinson Day. (April 15 was opening day in 1947, Jackie’s first season in the majors.)

Jackie’s autobiography was surprising to me in a few ways, namely that it was less about baseball and more about other aspects of his professional life in business and politics. I also found it rather relevant to our current racial tensions and issues—I wonder what Jackie would have to say today.

The first freedom for all people is freedom of choice. I want to live in a neighborhood of my choice where I can afford to pay the rent. I want to send my children to school where I believe they will develop best. I want the freedom to rise as high in my career as my ability indicates. I want to be free to follow the dictates of my own mind and conscience without being subject to the pressures of any man, black or white. I think that is what most people of all races want. (96)

While I’m glad I read Never Had It Made and enjoyed getting a better idea of who Jackie was beyond his time on the field as a Brooklyn Dodger. He didn’t deeply analyze events or his feelings much, except for the very moving chapter about the death of his oldest son and throughout you can tell his love for his wife and family was palpable. But he recounting several hardships he faced growing up and “breaking the color barrier” in sports and business (being the first black corporate VP), and spats he had along the way with sports journalists and politicians alike.

I do wish he had covered his baseball career more extensively. I can’t be alone in that being the main interest for readers of this book, although his remembrance of his days in Montreal Royals was great—clearly he loved his time there! I admit to glazing over during the business sections a bit, and I also would have loved to learn even more about his role in the Civil Rights Movement. The prose is straightforward but rather blunt and dry, and can sometimes not feel so natural. But, Jackie was not a writer and from an era of strong-but-silent types, and I think the co-author here did a good job of conveying Jackie as a person and what concerned him during his lifetime.

On a personal note, this reminds me that I should stop by the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum here in Kansas City soon! It’s been quite a while since my last trip. Jackie played for the Kansas City Monarchs in 1945. (Just a fun fact from the biography project I did on Jackie Robinson in elementary school! 🙂 ) I’ll have to check out 42 soon, the movie that came out a couple years ago based on parts of I Never Had It Made.

I Never Had it Made is my third of twelve books read for my Ebook Challenge.

Read from May 9 to 23, 2015.