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: heart’s invisible furies and child finder

I was really focused on non-fiction for a few months there this summer that I felt like I needed a good dose of fiction, and luckily for me there have been some fantastic new releases this year. Here are two that I listened to on audio last month:

Cyril Avery was born to a teenage mom in 1940s Ireland and adopted by a rich family who always let him know he wasn’t “really” one of them. John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies is a beautiful, engrossing story of a man’s life and his personal journey to uncover his identity and where and with whom he belongs. I’m always attracted to literature coming from and based in Ireland, and I’ve been wanting a great LGBTQ+ story lately too, so this book pleasantly scratched a few itches for me. I’ll be adding more of John Boyne’s books to my TBR list, for sure. [Listened to audiobook in September 2017.]

I loved Rene Denfield‘s last book, The Enchanted, so I knew I had to read The Child Finder when it came out. Naomi, a private investigator with a troubled past, is searching for a girl named Madison, who disappeared a few years earlier. As the plot unfolds through alternating viewpoints, you learn about Naomi’s past and why she is uniquely qualified to be the titular Child Finder, and also about Madison’s experience. It’s very dark and disturbing subject matter—child abduction and all you can expect that goes along with that but it’s not graphic whatsoever—so it’s not necessarily for the faint of heart. But the writing is just as lovely as in The Enchanted, with elements of magical realism (but still heavy on the realism), use of characters’ imaginations, and an otherworldly quality that is emotional without being sappy. I didn’t dig the narrator so much, so I kind of wish I had read on paper, but despite that I did still get pulled in to the story. [Listened to audiobook in September 2017.]

mini-reviews: i’m just a person and mo’ meta blues

Two of my favorite books read in 2016 were celebrity memoirs. I read them both after I left Kansas City, one while I was in Madison for the summer and one after moving to Singapore, but both still stand out to me a year later.

I admit I’m not a die-hard fan of stand-up comedy, but there are a select few comedians that have reached me through their work—Marc Maron, Trevor Noah—and Tig Notaro ranks highly. I watched her great Netflix special Tig in 2015, and have been following her since. While much of the material in i’m just a person is familiar to fans from Tig and her stand-up routines, this raw, personal memoir is still worth a quick read. She talks more about her childhood and 2012, her horrible year battling disease and dealing with a breakup as well as her mother’s death. I was really inspired by her tenacity through tragedy, and how she makes her painful stories and vulnerabilities relatable and entertaining. [Read in July 2016.]

I’ve loved The Roots for a long time and I had been meaning to read this one for a while, and with all my newfound free time in Singapore last year I finally got to it! I found Questlove’s Mo’ Meta Blues just a delight. Questlove is more charming, humble, and thoughtful a human being than I ever realized. He keeps this book light while still deep-diving on certain topics at the same time. His philosophical musings about the states of pop culture, hip-hop, and music criticism are intelligent and spot on. I loved that he started each chapter with a question, and I think my favorite parts were his recollections of certain critical albums in his life. [Read in November 2016.]

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.