summer 2017 in wisconsin

I just finished a five-week visit back home to Wisconsin, and it may have been the best summer I’ve had… ever? I had more fun than a person should be allowed to have. I didn’t want it to end!
Early in the trip Nick and I spent a weekend in Chicago, where we had burgers at the metal-themed Kuma’s Corner with a cousin of mine and his girlfriend. After that, we stopped by Chicago Music Exchange to drool over all the amazing guitars, and later had cocktails at Reno where another cousin of mine works, to say hi to her. The next day, we brought our nephew to the Shedd Aquarium. He loved the sharks best! And of course we had to have Lou Malnati’s deep dish pizza while we were there. I also hung out in Chicago later, the day before I flew back to Singapore, visiting the American Writers Museum and Museum of Contemporary Art, which had an amazing Takashi Murakami exhibit, The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg.

It’s really, really hard to beat summer in Wisconsin, specifically Madison. I’m honestly not sure there’s anything better. (I realize I’m completely biased!) I don’t think I was bored for even one minute. I went for a hike around Devil’s Lake, something I haven’t done in years, as well as biked around Madison a lot, including the Monona Lake Loop twice. I played my own bass again; I missed it so much!! I spent a bunch of time on State Street and at the UW Memorial Union Terrace, went to the Dane County Farmer’s Markets and Concerts on the Square, and had a great time reconnecting with high school and best childhood friends. Not to mention enjoying all the Wisconsin food I’ve missed terribly—cheese curds, fish fry, dumplings and sauerkraut, ice cream, brats, the beer!! The gloriously cheap local craft beer. Sigh.

My dad retired the last day of June, and I was so happy to be there for him. His coworkers pulled out all the stops, throwing a big party and making special shirts, “baseball cards” with my dad’s “career stats,” a huge poster with all his signature workplace sayings, and a 10-minute farewell video that had my mother and me in tears. They gifted him a very nice new bike and two sunburst chairs you see at the UW Terrace. It’s just heartwarming to see someone you love so appreciated and loved by others.

Another highlight of my trip was framing and delivering three of my drawings to their new owners, my cousin, nephew, and niece. I’ll write another post about my drawings soon, but it was a pleasure to pick out a spot in my nephew’s bedroom for his transformer drawing, and my niece lit up when she saw the horse drawing, even “petting” it and giving it a kiss on the nose. D’aww. 

My best friend Lee and his husband Thomas came to see me in Madison, and they were a sight for sore eyes! We did all sorts of classic Madison stuff, including checking out the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, having a boot at the Essen Haus, and making a little trip down to the New Glarus Brewery, which is something I’ve wanted to do forever!

Two of the best weekends I had back home were in Green Bay and Antigo, for my family reunions. In Green Bay, I went to the Packers Hall of Fame and took the Lambeau Field tour, which I had done before but the HoF was all updated and redone—it’s incredible. I could do a whole post alone on Lambeau Field. Also in Green Bay, I visited the farm one of my cousins manages, and of course went to my mom’s side’s family reunion. I talked to extended family I hadn’t met and/or seen in a long time, and some great stories were shared. I hadn’t been to this side’s reunion in several years (I always had a gig in Kansas City the same weekend) so it was wonderful to finally make it this time.

My dad’s side’s family reunion is held at my grandparents’ farm just north of Antigo, which is a small city in the north-central part of the state. My dad’s immediate family (my dad and mom, his siblings and their spouses, my cousin and her son, and me) went to the farm a couple days early to enjoy some “us together” time and prep for the reunion. We biked around the country roads, went berry picking, had a fish fry, went swimming at Jack Lake, and of course held our reunion. This year’s theme was Disco (for the adults) and Toy Story (for the kids). I wore my new “Disco Demolition Night” shirt and played two songs on guitar for the skit show, ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” and my own original “Back to Antigo,” which I sing every year now. People go all out with costumes, we crown a new “Potato Queen,” and sometimes roast a family member. We always finish up the festivities with a softball game, bonfire, and fireworks.

I really needed to see my family and feel like I’m at home where I belong after all these months abroad. I just felt awake and alive, and I got a vital dose of love and attention that I’d been craving. Singapore is nice and I’m happy for the adventure, but it can be a little lonely for me here sometimes; I’m not used to being apart from family for so long. And besides, there’s no place else on Earth quite like Wisconsin. I already can’t wait to return.

the hearts of men

I’ve had my eye on Nickolas Butler ever since reading his debut, Shotgun Lovesongs, a couple of years ago, and put The Hearts of Men on my list as soon as it came out. And of course I’m going to read another book set in Wisconsin! From Goodreads:

Camp Chippewa, 1962. Nelson Doughty, age thirteen, social outcast and overachiever, is the Bugler, sounding the reveille proudly each morning. Yet this particular summer marks the beginning of an uncertain and tenuous friendship with a popular boy named Jonathan.

Over the years, Nelson, irrevocably scarred from the Vietnam War, becomes Scoutmaster of Camp Chippewa, while Jonathan marries, divorces, and turns his father’s business into a highly profitable company. And when something unthinkable happens at a camp get-together with Nelson as Scoutmaster and Jonathan’s teenage grandson and daughter-in-law as campers, the aftermath demonstrates the depths—and the limits—of Nelson’s selflessness and bravery.

The Hearts of Men is a sweeping, panoramic novel about the slippery definitions of good and evil, family and fidelity, the challenges and rewards of lifelong friendships, the bounds of morality—and redemption.

I have some of the same feelings I had about Shotgun Lovesongs. I really like how Butler dismantles the stereotypical notions of manhood and masculinity in his stories. And he is a fantastic storyteller. I never felt the pace lagging or any unnecessary meandering in The Hearts of Men. Each section is purposeful to the overall story and message. That said, the beginning is stronger than the end, mostly because the main characters, Nelson and Jonathan, seemed so fully realized and lively as children but became flat and somewhat generic in later sections as adults. Perhaps that was intentional, though? Is Butler trying to make a point that we lose something, some spark, as we age? I’m not sure—possibly, or it could possibly have been the narrator’s interpretation didn’t handle the jumps forward in time so well for me. I liked Rachel, Jonathan’s daughter-in-law, but I would have liked her to have been more realistic and more three-dimensional—Butler had a similar issue developing women characters in Shotgun. In this story, women are central to the hearts of these men, after all.

Ultimately, The Hearts of Men is a story about boys becoming men, fathers and sons, bravery and decency, how both romantic and platonic relationships affect you, and the ubiquity of being a flawed human. Butler has a sensitive voice and his storytelling is immersive, and I’ll definitely look forward to his next book.

Listened to audiobook in May 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.

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?

our souls at night

Over Labor Day weekend, I decided to have a mini-readathon with the three short books that all happened to come through at the library for me at the same time. First up was Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf. From Goodreads:

In the familiar setting of Holt, Colorado, home to all of Kent Haruf’s inimitable fiction, Addie Moore pays an unexpected visit to a neighbor, Louis Waters. Her husband died years ago, as did his wife, and in such a small town they naturally have known of each other for decades; in fact, Addie was quite fond of Louis’s wife. His daughter lives hours away in Colorado Springs, her son even farther away in Grand Junction, and Addie and Louis have long been living alone in houses now empty of family, the nights so terribly lonely, especially with no one to talk with.

A lot of other reviews use the words “bittersweet” and “sad” to describe this book, and I definitely agree. Haruf does an amazing job of bringing out the feelings of loneliness, and our innate need for intimacy and companionship. The prose is spare and simple, but beautifully constructed. It was a perfect little book (only about 170 pages) for a readathon, and a touching story about not giving up on your future and really living, no matter your age. Their conversations were heartbreaking sometimes, but their bravery in starting a new chapter at their age was inspiring.

I think though, I had trouble with how quickly Addie and Louis’s relationship moved—just didn’t find it all that believable. I also struggled with the behaviors and attitudes of their adult children… if you read it you’ll see what I mean.

Our Souls at Night was worth reading for me, though, but probably because it was so short. This was my first and only Haruf read, and I’m not sure it affected me so much to want to read more of his books. Maybe you need to be an established fan to appreciate this one more than I did. I also think I’m riding a non-fiction wave right now and fiction just isn’t doing it for me in general at the moment.

Read from September 4 to 5, 2015.

an untamed state

After reading Bad Feminist and seeing this one all over “best of” lists last year, I knew I had to read Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State. From Goodreads:

Mireille Duval Jameson is living a fairy tale. The strong-willed youngest daughter of one of Haiti’s richest sons, she has an adoring husband, a precocious infant son, by all appearances a perfect life. The fairy tale ends one day when Mireille is kidnapped in broad daylight by a gang of heavily armed men, in front of her father’s Port-au-Prince estate. Held captive by a man who calls himself The Commander, Mireille waits for her father to pay her ransom. As it becomes clear her father intends to resist the kidnappers, Mireille must endure the torments of a man who resents everything she represents.

What a powerful, harrowing book. The brutal violence during Miri’s captivity took my breath away—it reads like a bona fide thriller. Scenes flashing back to Miri’s childhood and marriage are interspersed throughout the first part, letting the reader get to know all the players better and Miri’s mindset before her 13-day ordeal began. (That’s one shining light for the reader—you know she will be freed after 13 days. Miri does not, though.) The second half of the book covers the aftermath of the event—Miri’s fragile, volatile mental and emotional health as a result of the physical and psychological trauma she endured. Not only Miri suffers during and after her kidnapping, her family does as well. They all have to reconcile with what happened to her and find a “new normal” somehow.

I do believe An Untamed State lives up to the hype—it makes a mighty impression and is not a story you’ll soon forget. However, for me personally, I found the characters to be generally unlikable. I don’t need all my protagonists in entertainment to be likable, I just got the impression we’re supposed to like Miri and her husband. They’re supposed to be great star-crossed soulmates or something, but their overall mutual unkindness to each other and immaturity was unappealing to me. I think I would have liked more insight into the socioeconomic, political, and cultural context within this story—Miri’s privilege over her captors and Haitians living in abject poverty is mentioned but not discussed in depth.

An Untamed State delves deep into the very real issue of rape and violence against women that are rampant in societies all over the world. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything so thoughtfully bold on the subject. The sheer terror and fear Miri felt, both during and after her kidnapping, were palpable. Gay doesn’t hold back on the shocking sexual and physical atrocities committed on Miri, which may be more than some readers can stomach, but sticking through the whole book is worth it.

Read from August 7 to 23, 2015.