the first collection of criticism by a living female rock critic

With the ubiquity of online shopping, I really miss wandering into a bookstore and “discovering” a new book for which I’ve never seen a review, never heard of before, and just picking it up on a whim. Do you miss that sometimes? I know I can still do that, but still. It’s somehow not the same. Anyway, The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic by Jessica Hopper was a rare pleasant bookshop discovery for me last year. Edited from Goodreads:

Jessica Hopper’s music criticism has earned her a reputation as a firebrand, a keen observer and fearless critic not just of music but the culture around it. […] Through this vast range of album reviews, essays, columns, interviews, and oral histories, Hopper chronicles what it is to be truly obsessed with music. The pieces in The First Collection send us digging deep into our record collections, searching to re-hear what we loved and hated, makes us reconsider the art, trash, and politics Hopper illuminates, helping us to make sense of what matters to us most.

I was initially attracted by the cover and assertive title when I came across it at A Room of One’s Own, my favorite bookstore in Madison, Wisconsin, which I have to hit up every time I’m in my hometown for a visit. I admit I had never heard of Hopper before, not so much because she’s a critic that is a woman but because I don’t read Pitchfork or other music ‘zines—not regularly anyway, not enough to follow or even become acquainted with the names of certain writers. As a music reviewer in Kansas City myself at the time, I simply couldn’t resist buying The First Collection. I’m so glad I did because not only did this collection speak to me as a reviewer and critic, but also as a feminist and a woman whose adolescence was shaped during a certain period of popular music history covered here by Hopper.

Right off the bat, Hopper clarifies that she is, of course, not the first female music writer. The title serves as a call to recognize those who came before her and question why women aren’t more visible in this field. Hopper’s writing throughout the essays in The First Collection is pointed and distinctive, and I especially enjoyed her personal musings on her relationship with music. I wasn’t a Riot Grrl in the ’90s and punk isn’t my taste per se, but the feminist messaging certainly spoke to me then and Hopper’s insights on this subject affected me now, too. I don’t remember every essay (there are many), but the ones that still stand out to me a year after reading The First Collection are those about Miley Cyrus, the commercialism and corporatization of punk and alternative music festivals (Vans Warped Tour, Lollapalooza), the making of Hole’s Live Through This (even though I can’t stand Hole!), and her trip to Michael Jackson’s hometown after he died. The best and most thorough piece, though, is her interview with Jim DeRogatis about R. Kelly’s sexual misconduct and assault of underage black girls, who received no justice and whose lives were basically ruined (DeRogatis is the one who originally broke the story).

The First Collection was one of the best books I read in 2016, and I sure hope this book, Hopper, and her predecessors inspire a new generation of women music writers in the future.

Read in March 2016.

hunger makes me a modern girl

I have been really attracted to rock memoirs lately (Gregg Allman, Slash) and I knew I had to get to Carrie Brownstein‘s highly acclaimed, recently released memoir, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl. Edited from Goodreads:

Before Carrie Brownstein codeveloped and starred in the wildly popular TV comedy Portlandia, she was already an icon to young women for her role as a musician in the feminist punk band Sleater-Kinney. The band was a key part of the early riot grrrl and indie rock scenes in the Pacific Northwest, known for their prodigious guitar shredding and their leftist lyrics against war, traditionalism, and gender roles. Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl is the deeply personal and revealing narrative of Brownstein’s life in music, from ardent fan to pioneering female guitarist to comedic performer and luminary in the independent rock world. This book intimately captures what it feels like to be a young woman in a rock-and-roll band, from her days at the dawn of the underground feminist punk-rock movement that would define music and pop culture in the 1990s through today.

I initially borrowed Hunger from the library because I wasn’t sure whether I’d like it, since I’m not a fan of Sleater-Kinney and never have been. Punk in general has never resonated with me. I listened to a few of the albums she talks about while reading Hunger, but yeah. Not for me. The bass is really missing for me, and the singing style just isn’t to my taste. Oh well! This absolutely did not diminish my enjoyment of the book whatsoever. I ended up buying a copy to own.

Brownstein’s journey from quirky, performance-driven child to ultimate music fan to inadvertent rock star was instantly engaging and I found it hard to put down. She’s erudite and introspective, not gossipy or too self-indulgent, and it’s clear she’s in awe of her fellow musicians. Her gratitude for the people in her life and experiences shines through, but she’s honest about the stress and pressures she faced with her rising fame. I loved the parts on her creative process and reflections on being a woman in the music business. I think I would have really enjoyed this on audio too, but there were so many excellent points and quotes that I ended up reading and re-reading them over a second time. You’ll only read about her pre-Portlandia days here—save for a little bit about her family in the beginning and her pets at the end, it’s all about the music.

Bottom line: Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl is essential reading if you love music, feminism, and creativity. Fans of Portlandia will enjoy learning about its star’s past, and even those who aren’t into Sleater-Kinney will appreciate and enjoy this captivating and charming memoir. I have a feeling this will be one of my best reads of the year.

Read from January 1 to 8, 2016.

jurassic park

Hold on to your butts… I just re-read Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton! From Goodreads:

An astonishing technique for recovering and cloning dinosaur DNA has been discovered. Now, one of mankind’s most thrilling fantasies has come true. Creatures extinct for eons now roam Jurassic Park with their awesome presence and profound mystery, and all the world can visit them—for a price.

Until something goes wrong…

Thanks to the new Jurassic World movie coming out this summer, I was inspired to find my old copy at my parents’ house during a recent visit and give it a reread. When the original 1993 Jurassic Park film was released, my mother wouldn’t let me see it until I had read the book. Fair enough, but then she actually ended up reading the whole thing to me on a road trip from Wisconsin to Quebec and back! And then after the movie came out, maybe a year or so later, I decided to read it again and I distinctly remember being in the “little bedroom” at my grandparents’ house in Green Bay, which was at the front of the house on the first floor. I remember the compys making an impact on me—I read and imagined compys getting in through the window and biting my toes. Reading Jurassic Park again just now transported me back to those times; I love how books do that!

Anyway, there was a lot that had stuck with me (like Grant having a beard, the compys being more prominent in the book, the lengthy science-y scenes, and some deaths) but a lot that felt fresh again. The first quarter of the book is a lot of build up, but once the action starts it really takes off—thrilling and tough to put down! Some scenes were so exciting and suspenseful (the river, hatchery, and raptor nest, to name a few) I wonder why they weren’t included in the film. It was great to come across dialogue that made it to the film verbatim.

Of course, it’s impossible not to compare. As far as the characters go, they are all so much better in the film. Grant comes off as smarter in the movie than the book, if you can believe it (everyone kinda does…) Malcolm on film is iconic and has an appropriate attitude shift when the [ahem] hits the fan; Malcolm on paper is all snotty arrogance and an unfazed “just as I predicted” to every terrifying event right to the very end. The kids! They were THE WORST in the book. I remembered they were flipped for the movie (so that Lex is the older computer “hacker” and Tim is the younger sib), but I forgot how relentlessly annoying they both are in the book. Lex, ugh. I so badly wanted a raptor (or anything) to bite her. Jurassic Park is an awesome film for girls to watch—you get to see Ellie be a kick-ass brilliant feminist just as intelligent, strong, and vital to the story as the men and Lex basically saves the day at the end with her computer smarts.

I’m glad I went back and read the book again. It was perfect for summer, a lot of fun action and adventure, and brought back great memories. Because the world building and story is so incredible and memorable, I can overlook the characters being less than stellar in the book, especially when I have their endearing, fleshed-out film portrayals to enjoy.

Read from July 28 to August 2, 2015.

i am malala

I had this I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai on hold at my library for a while and it came through this past week. From Goodreads:

Malala Yousafzai was only ten years old when the Taliban took control of her region. They said music was a crime. They said women weren’t allowed to go to the market. They said girls couldn’t go to school. Raised in a once-peaceful area of Pakistan transformed by terrorism, Malala was taught to stand up for what she believes. So she fought for her right to be educated. And on October 9, 2012, she nearly lost her life for the cause: She was shot point-blank while riding the bus on her way home from school. No one expected her to survive. Now she is an international symbol of peaceful protest and the youngest-ever Nobel Peace Prize nominee.

I’m sorry to say I didn’t know about Malala until after she was shot by a member of the Taliban in Pakistan. I honestly had no idea about her activist efforts for education and girls rights before the shooting, and she is even more inspiring now to me. Somehow I feel like this could be the first of several books about (or by) Malala to come in the future.

The copy that I borrowed was the young readers edition, and so, as an adult, the writing was simplistic and sometimes repetitive, but I think that might be a positive attribute for this edition—it read in Malala’s voice and she is quite an endearing “normal” teenager. This edition glosses over Pakistan’s history and the uprising of terrorism there (“One day, a man announced on the radio…” etc.) but there is a helpful timeline in the appendix. If you want more history and analysis, I’m sure there are plenty of other books on the subject; I’ve even seen online that the “adult” version of I Am Malala delves more deeply into history, and her father’s work and background.

Anyway, Malala is a charming, bright, wise-beyond-her-years person and I look forward to following her career in human rights. This is a perfect, important book for young teens around the world to read.

Read from July 28 to August 2, 2015.

behind the beautiful forevers

Two years after it first came out I finally got around to reading Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo, a fascinating, heartbreaking exposé of a Mumbai slum and its residents. Edited from Goodreads:

A bewildering age of global change and inequality is made human through the dramatic story of families striving toward a better life in Annawadi, a makeshift settlement in the shadow of luxury hotels near the Mumbai airport. With intelligence, humor, and deep insight into what connects people to one another in an era of tumultuous change, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, based on years of uncompromising reporting, carries the reader headlong into one of the twenty-first century’s hidden worlds—and into the hearts of families impossible to forget.

I’m embarrassed this took me so long to get to, and then so long to read. I think I was just too busy this past month, because a book like this is right up my alley and wouldn’t normally take me so long. When I was able to catch moments with this over the past month I was spellbound. Boo crafts this narrative non-fiction with compassion, grace and objectivity, exposing what life is like for these hardworking individuals at the bottom of the ladder in one of the world’s wealthiest cities, taking into account social and economic context. Annawadi could be any slum in any large city in the world with substantial economic inequality.

The families on these pages came alive to me, especially the children. Education is basically nonexistent. They compete with each other in garbage trading to scrape together a little money for their families. They endure beatings and witness suicides, often contemplating it themselves. But some we learn about in Beautiful Forevers are tenacious and hopeful, striving for a better life.

The struggles of Annawadi’s residents are wide-ranging, from unemployment to addiction to disease to suicides to corrupt police and government to fear of their homes being bulldozed. The fact that they are fundamentally no different from anyone else—needing to provide for their families, hopes and dreams for a better future for their children—is made crystal clear. Beautiful Forevers is a powerful, tragic, affective glimpse at the daily lives of these spirited people in abject poverty.

Read from June 18 to July 26, 2015.

pilgrim’s wilderness

I saw Pilgrim’s Wilderness by Tom Kizzia pop up a couple years ago when it first came out and decided to give it a listen on audio when it became available at the library.From Goodreads:

Pilgrim’s Wilderness is the bizarre and utterly fascinating story of how Robert “Papa Pilgrim” Hale and his 15-child self-named Pilgrim family came to settle deep in one of the most remote parts of Alaska, motivated by a belief that a simple pioneer life could be lived there in the twenty-first century. Celebrated by locals for his anti-establishment ways, Hale was eventually exposed as a cult leader-like sociopath with an extraordinary criminal past who brutalized his wife and children and kept them isolated, ignorant, and under his control.

Whoa, what a fascinating read! I could barely stop listening, it just became more and more twisted as components of Hale’s life fell apart. It went from bizarre to icky to downright frightening. The story is interesting on many levels, from the in-depth look at this family’s interpersonal dynamics to the external factors working against their lifestyle. I loved how McCarthy, Alaska was basically another “character” here. I’m not sure I dug the author’s infusing himself into the story, but, with investigative journalistic non-fiction, I understand it. Just maybe didn’t work for me so well in this case.

Pilgrim’s Wilderness is a great read for anyone interested in off-the-grid lifestyles, religious extremism and cults, environmentalism, small town community, and more. At first blush it does seem like an unbelievable tale, but it’s all darkly true. It was complementary to a recent novel I read, too, Our Endless Numbered Days.

Listened to audiobook from June 25 to 29, 2015.