they can’t kill us until they kill us

The last book I read in 2017, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, is also one of the best books I read in 2017… and probably one of the best I’ve read in the last few years, period. From the book’s jacket:

In an age of confusion, fear, and loss, Hanif Abdurraqib’s is a voice that matters. Whether he’s attending a Bruce Springsteen concert the day after visiting Michael Brown’s grave, or discussing public displays of affection at a Carly Rae Jepsen show, he writes with a poignancy and magnetism that resonates profoundly.

In essays that have been published by the New York Times, MTV, and Pitchfork, among others—along with original, previously unreleased essays—Abdurraqib uses music and culture as a lens through which to view our world, so that we might better understand ourselves, and in so doing proves himself a bellwether for our times.

Wow, you guys. Just wow. I couldn’t put it down and I didn’t want it to end. I extra love that I hadn’t heard anything about They Can’t Kill Us until I randomly saw it at my favorite bookstore and bought it on a whim in November. This collection is full of moving, insightful observations about life, culture, society, and more that touched me deeply. I identified with how clearly and specifically music has impacted Abdurraqib’s life, because it has for me, even if our tastes and the music that shaped us growing up (for me the ’90s, he writes here mostly about ’00s) are slightly different. Doesn’t matter, I’m always down to read and learn about music and life experiences outside of my own experience and comfort zone.

Abdurraqib’s essays use the music fan/listener experience as the impetus to discuss a variety of issues, not least of all is racism in America, of which he has a unique perspective as a black Muslim man. These essays aren’t strictly about politics, religion, and race, though. He also goes into depth on loneliness, grief, loss, and even hope with his own personal stories as examples, like the deaths of his close friends and his mother. And then there’s the writing. Abdurraqib is a poet, and while there aren’t any poems in the traditional sense in this collection, his prose reflects his poetic style:

The world is undoing itself & I must tend to my vast & growing field of fears. In this new country, a nightmare is nothing but a brief rental home for the mind to ransack & leave the sleeping body unharmed. (139, “There Is The Picture Of Michael Jackson Kissing Whitney Houston On The Cheek”)

But our best work is the work of ourselves, our bodies and the people who want us to keep pushing, even if the days are long and miserable and even if there are moments when the wrong side of the bridge beckons you close. (77, “Brief Notes on Staying // No One Is Making Their Best Work When They Want To Die”)

Nina Simone rode away on the troubled ocean, standing on the deck of a black ship, looking back while a whole country burned, swallowing itself. (198, “Nina Simone Was Very Black”)

There are so many pieces I loved in They Can’t Kill Us. The ones that resonated the most with me were those on grief, creativity, heartbreak, and striving for optimism. The ones I learned from most were those of his perspective on racism and religion. The one about Allen Iverson’s crossover hit on Michael Jordan was brilliant, as were so many others. I think if I have one tiny criticism, it’s that I wish there had been more women artists present… the music he filters his topics through is mostly rap and punk, which are, of course, still male dominated genres. Even so, They Can’t Kill Us a near-perfect book. It reminded me a lot of Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist and Jessica Hopper’s The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic. Read those, and read this.

Read 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.]

the argonauts

After a year-long hiatus from regularly posting, I’m picking up where I left off on my little book reviews, starting with The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson! From Goodreads:

Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts is a genre-bending memoir, a work of “autotheory” offering fresh, fierce, and timely thinking about desire, identity, and the limitations and possibilities of love and language. At its center is a romance: the story of the author’s relationship with the artist Harry Dodge. This story, which includes Nelson’s account of falling in love with Dodge, who is fluidly gendered, as well as her journey to and through a pregnancy, offers a firsthand account of the complexities and joys of (queer) family-making.

The Argonauts was my introduction to queer theory and identity politics. I’m not exactly sure what I was expecting, and I don’t think I can say those sections of the book are easily accessible for everyone. She relentlessly delves into the topics of sexuality, gender, individuality, parenthood, and partnership. I appreciated this depth and how Nelson relates the words of famous theorists to her own personal story. I listened on audio, read by the author, and I think I liked it much better this way than I would have reading on paper. The book has a stream-of-consciousness feel, with no clear chapter breaks nor chronological order. However, what really stood out to me was Nelson’s relationship with Dodge and her experience with pregnancy and motherhood. The way she drew parallels between the birth of her child with Dodge’s mother’s death was heartrending, as well as comparing Dodge’s top surgery to a woman recovering from a mastectomy due to breast cancer.

I admit, writing this 13 months after reading it, my memory is fuzzy on many details, especially her commentary on theory. But this book was fundamentally a love story, and an “unconventional” one, so to speak, and this relationship at the center in all its complicated rawness and vulnerability makes The Argonauts memorable and worthy of discussion.

Listened to audiobook in March 2016.

reading recap: october 2016

I had a great month of reading in October! As you can see, I was mostly consumed by Halloween-appropriate books, with a few library holds that just happened to come through:

october-reading

  • The Fire This Time (ebook) … Jesmyn Ward, et al
  • House of Leaves … Mark Z. Danielewski
  • The Troop … Nick Cutter
  • Men Explain Things to Me (ebook) … Rebecca Solnit
  • Dead Mountain … Donnie Eichar
  • Black Earth (audio) … Timothy Snyder, read by Mark Bramhall
  • Stories from Night Shift (audio) … Stephen King, read by John Glover
  • ‘Salem’s Lot … Stephen King

I have to say, as someone who is generally chunksters-averse, I’m pretty proud of myself for getting through three (!) this month: House of Leaves (709 pages), The Troop (507), and ‘Salem’s Lot (653). Black Earth is pretty much a chunkster too, but since it was on audio it felt less daunting. Something about seeing the bulk of it intimidates me, so it usually takes a lot of pep talk to get myself to read anything longer than about 350 pages.

While I enjoyed House of Leaves overall, I may have bailed/DNF if I didn’t have so much free time at the moment—getting through this one is a real time commitment, and you have to pay close attention with all the different tangents and footnotes. It had a great premise and some genuinely creepy moments, but generally didn’t quite live up to the mythical hype for me. The Troop and ‘Salem’s Lot were perfect to get me in the Halloween mood—between the contagious gore in Troop and vampire mischief in Lot, I felt the spirit here in Singapore despite the hot, sunny weather. The audio for Stories from Night Shift was an impulse borrow from the library, to finish out the last few hours of Dewey’s 24 Hour Readthon, the first time I’ve been able to participate! Next time, if I can join again, I’ll plan ahead more (joining this time was also on last-minute impulse).

Men Explain Things to Me and Black Earth were my library holds that came in. Both were excellent, but very real and heavy material. Neither was quite what I was expecting, but I learned a lot from them and both were thought-provoking. I’m glad I was able to finally get these two books.

My favorite books of the month were The Fire This Time and Dead Mountain. EVERYONE should read The Fire This Time. This anthology is full of powerful, moving essays by several writers in a variety of styles, all different perspectives on the experience of being black in America. I will read anything Jesmyn Ward touches. Dead Mountain interested me because I’ve had a fascinating with this case for a while, ever since I saw the movie it inspired, Devil’s Pass. What exactly happened to these nine young hikers in a remote area of Siberia, resulting in their mysterious deaths?? Donnie Eichar has a compelling investigation here.

I’m thinking I might try to go back and do full reviews of the books I’ve read since my last real review post, all the way back in March! Or maybe I’ll just continue the monthly posts. We’ll see. Otherwise… I think I’ll be able to meet my 50 book goal for 2016, with only 16 books left to go. And now that it’s November, I’m going to focus on non-fiction to hopefully jump in on some Non-Fiction November fun.

What were the best books you read in October?
monthly recap image

if you ask me

I needed something short and sweet for my recent rehearsal commutes, and If You Ask Me by Betty White fit the bill in spades. From Goodreads:

Drawing from a lifetime of lessons learned, seven-time Emmy winner Betty White’s wit and wisdom take center stage as she tackles topics like friendship, romantic love, aging, television, fans, love for animals, and the brave new world of celebrity. If You Ask Me mixes her thoughtful observations with humorous stories from a seven- decade career in Hollywood. Longtime fans and new fans alike will relish Betty’s candid take on everything from her rumored crush on Robert Redford (true) to her beauty regimen (“I have no idea what color my hair is and I never intend to find out”) to the Facebook campaign that helped persuade her to host Saturday Night Live despite her having declined the hosting job three times already.

Betty White might be one of the most likable celebrities ever. Her recent memoir If You Ask Me is a somewhat random collection of brief essays touching on topics from her career to her work with animals. Though it mostly focuses on the last 10–15 years of her career, she does talk about her youth a little bit and her family life as well. The audiobook was wonderful, hearing White read her own stories was so engaging and endears her even more to the listener. I’m not sure I would say I’d have preferred the paper book over audio—honestly I probably wouldn’t have thought to pick this up on paper—but I do feel like I missed some of the experience without any photos, which I understand are plentiful in the paper book.

If You Ask Me is a fun little tome worth the couple hours (or less!) it takes to get through.

Listened to audiobook from February 19 to 29, 2016.

it’s monday! what are you reading?

It’s Monday, what are you reading? I am on a roll with the women authors this year. I finished two fantastic books, The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson (audio) and The First Collection of Criticism by a Female Rock Critic by Jessica Hopper, this week. Just excellent books, the first on gender and family and the second on music—reviews coming this week. Yesterday I started My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem, which I won in a Goodreads giveaway back in October. I’m sorry to say I haven’t gotten around to it until now because it’s great, I’m already a quarter through!

Last week I enjoyed my usual St. Patrick’s Day celebrations with Irish music and Irish food—shepherd’s pie (with ground lamb), soda bread, and this year (new) I made Guinness stout chocolate-chocolate chip cookies with Bailey’s buttercream frosting and sparkly green sprinkles. The recipe I went by yielded more than double what I was expecting so we have a ton leftover!! I also didn’t get around to making colcannon, even though I have the ingredients, and I picked up bangers at the Local Pig on Thursday with the ground lamb, so I guess I’ll be extending my St. Patrick’s celebrating into next week as well. We watched Brooklyn and Boondock Saints too.

I downloaded a couple of audiobooks for a Wisconsin trip next weekend: Get In Trouble by Kelly Link and The Underground Girls of Kabul by Jenny Nordberg.

What are you reading this week?