mini-reviews: fates and furies and before the fall

I’ve been so engrossed in non-fiction the last few months that I decided I should read some fiction that’s been on my shelf and neglected for far too long. I had really been looking forward to these two dramatic stories, only to end up somewhat disappointed in the end.

I read Lauren Groff‘s Arcadia a few years ago and absolutely loved it, so I was really excited to get Fates and Furies right when it came out. Of course and uncommonly, I set it on the shelf and promptly forgot about it. I wish I had added this to my TBR Pile Challenge! Unfortunately, Fates didn’t work for me as well as Arcadia. Fates is the story of Lotto and Mathilde, a couple who married spontaneously and faced challenges through their decades-long union, some typical and some extraordinary. I liked that the book was split in half and readers got to hear both “sides” of the story, first from Lotto and second from Mathilde. Groff is also a beautiful writer. Some of the prose is just stunning and a pleasure to take in. I think she’s very inventive and imaginative with her characters as well. As for those characters, I personally wasn’t crazy about them. Not that characters have to be likable for me to like the book. In this case, I guess I’m not really into stories of privileged elites right now, or of successful men carried by women. The names were just awful too, Lotto (short for Lancelot), Chollie?? Lotto and his sister call their mother “Muvva.” I thought at first Chollie and Muvva were just the accent of the narrator but nope. Ugh. Pretentious. Well they are pretentious characters. There is a composer character in the book whose portrayal I completely hated and wasn’t even a shred of close to realistic. I get that the book is supposed to sort of be Greek mythology but it was just too much for me. Mathilde had a very compelling story though, I really enjoyed her part and perspective, which is the “furies” second part of the book. I’m sure this kind of epic character-driven drama full of secrets is right up some readers’ alleys, just not mine. I’d still like to read more by Groff though! [Listened to audiobook in June 2018.]

I ordered Before the Fall by Noah Hawley right after it was released because I’m a huge fan of the TV show Fargo, for which he is a producer. The premise is great: a private plane carrying eleven people—a Fox News-esque mogul, his family, and their security guard; a rich couple; the crew of 3; and an artist—crashes off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard shortly after takeoff. 40-something artist Scott survives the crash, and rescues one of the children, the four-year-old son of the TV mogul. Everyone else perishes. The book alternates between Scott dealing with the event’s aftermath, being an unwilling hero figure in the spotlight, and backstories on each of the plane passengers. How did the plane crash when all systems checked out before takeoff? What happened? Why? Was there a conspiracy to take down these rich and powerful people aboard? Who exactly is this Scott guy, and why was he aboard? It starts off as a good mystery and survival story, and most of the characters are rendered well (except the women, sadly, are one-dimensional). The ending though… yeesh. Too convenient and I think won’t hold up well over time… it’s hard to say much without spoiling. Despite the lame ending, there are a lot of great ruminations here on hero worship, wealth, power, media consumption, art, and luck. [Read in June 2018.] ***Before the Fall is my fourth of twelve books for the 2018 TBR Pile Challenge.

mini-reviews: heart berries and educated

These two striking memoirs were hyped up a lot earlier this year and for the most part, they’re interesting, worthwhile reads that met my expectations.

Terese Marie Mailhot’s Heart Berries is brief, but packs an emotional punch. Through dreamy, poetic essays, she recounts her dysfunctional upbringing on an Indian Reservation in the Pacific Northwest. She has two sons, she reconnects with her abusive father, she has tumultuous love affairs, she ends up hospitalized for PTSD and bipolar disorder. It’s an unsettling read about love, memory, pain, mental illness, abuse, and more. I struggled a little bit with her changes in tone—part of the prose is poetic, part stream-of-consciousness, sometimes affecting, sometimes stoic. This diminished the impact somewhat for me, but I still appreciated the sharp observation she makes here about race and privilege. It’s important for sure, I’m glad she lays it all out here especially as we need more literary voices from the indigenous community. Her writing can be incredible so I wouldn’t write her off in the future, but this memoir didn’t entirely jive for me as a reading experience. [Read ebook in April 2018.]

Educated by Tara Westover also came out in February this year, and it looked right up my alley. I’m always interested in reading about survivalists and off-the-grid living; I find it fascinating. And throw in an underdog story: the author discovers a deep love for learning and gets herself educated, despite the odds? Sign me up. It wasn’t the survivalist story I was expecting—the family has money, TV, phone—but it is an excellent portrayal of familial mental illness and abuse. I was confused as to how and where the family had money, and while her academic achievements are pretty incredible and unusual as I was reading it sort of seemed like she breezed through the traditional education system once she passed one test (ending up with advanced graduate degrees from Harvard and Cambridge). Here again is where memory can be tricky in a memoir. I would have liked more about her struggles adapting and adjusting to the traditional education system after no formal experiences. But maybe the book is actually less about her quest for an education than about growing up in a patriarchal, fundamentalist religious home and dealing with mental illness and abuse in the family. Educated would certainly be a great companion read to The Glass Castle. [Listened to audiobook in April 2018.]

soundtrack of my life

I saw this meme going around social media lately and it looked like a nice subject to ruminate on and reminisce over, but I’m not feeling posting on Facebook much anymore, so I decided to do one big post here. I know I’m tweaking the rules a little bit: more than 10 albums, these stretch before and after my teen years, and of course I’m offering a little explanation. But who cares! It’s been a fun, if challenging, activity!

Stevie Wonder, Stevie Wonder’s Original Musiquarium I (1982)
My parents have this thing where they “assigned” us kids songs when we were born. When I was born, they “gave” me Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely,” so it’s “my song.” (Aww.) It originally appeared on Songs in the Key of Life from 1976, but I still get warm family-love fuzzies when I hear this song and this compilation from 1982 is the album I remember my parents playing all the time when I was a kid. Plus, I just got a new bass so I’ve been having a lot of fun learning bass lines off this album lately.

Stray Cats, Built for Speed (1982)
One of the first vinyl records I “borrowed” (read: took) from my dad’s extensive record collection. As a young teenager and new guitarist I learned Brian Setzer’s guitar parts from the album top to bottom, using the vinyl!! Kids these days will never know.

Sir Neville Marriner, The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, Amadeus (Original Soundtrack Recording) (1984)
Whenever I stayed home sick from school as a kid, Amadeus was my go-to movie. I had this album on vinyl too, and when I was a budding composer in high school I drew a lot of inspiration from the movie and the soundtrack. Maybe basic, but what can I say, I’m pretty sure it was a catalyst for me to start composing.

Smashing Pumpkins, Siamese Dream (1993)
This was legit on repeat for pretty much the entirety of my teen years. It’s another album from which I learned all the guitar parts (almost… I couldn’t achieve Corgan’s psychedelic soloing and didn’t have all the gear anyway). Beyond Siamese Dream being one of the most quintessential albums of the 90s and no doubt influential for many people, I also latched on to this one because its producer, Butch Vig, was one of my idols at the time. He embodied my first dream “career:” musician, record producer, studio owner. Bonus: Vig’s from Wisconsin and his iconic Smart Studios was just a couple blocks away from my house where I grew up.

Weezer, Pinkerton (1996)
Ah Pinkerton, the nostalgia runs deep despite the problematic sentiments. I still love it, so what. This is another album I had on repeat throughout high school, and again I learned all the guitar parts. Not to mention it was on the Pinkerton tour when my epic and notorious “Weezer Tour Bus Incident” took place. In eighth grade, I hung out with the band on its tour bus before its January 1997 show at the Barrymore Theatre in Madison, during which guitarist Brian Bell dedicated “In the Garage” to me. My parents were not pleased with me!

Dee Dee Bridgewater, Prelude to a Kiss: The Duke Ellington Album (1996)
I was just starting to listen to and learn about jazz in ninth grade, and this is one of the first (if not the first) jazz records I ever bought. I remember really loving the saxophone parts, only to realize years later that it was Bobby Watson playing, whom I met when I moved to Kansas City for college. He was on faculty at my school, and it’s an honor to call him a friend and former colleague! Serendipity.

Phat Phunktion, Here We Go! (1999)
Phat Phunktion is a local Madison group that my high school band teacher knew from Summer Music Clinic (I participated one summer as a jazz guitarist). My teacher invited the band to play a gig at my high school when I was a junior. I don’t remember if it was for a fundraiser or just for fun, but I was very involved in the promotion of the show. I sold tickets at lunch for weeks and interviewed them for the school paper. This may have sparked my interest in writing about music, which was one of my side hustles after college in Kansas City. Besides that, Phat was my introduction to funk music (at least of which I was cognizant, if you don’t count my folks’ excellent collection of 70s funk played when I was little) and I’ve been a fan ever since.

Grant Green, Born to Be Blue (1962)
In high school I was pretty serious about jazz guitar—I took lessons from a respected local veteran of the Madison and Milwaukee jazz scenes, I was in the big band at school, I had my own jazz combo for fun, and I wrote a few jazz charts (yes they’re recorded). I listened to A LOT of jazz guitar recordings. Obsessed. It was very hard to narrow this down, between Les Paul and Wes Montgomery and Joe Pass and Kenny Burrell and Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt and Freddie Green and Tal Farlow and and and… But I decided ultimately on Grant Green’s Born to Be Blue because it’s just a great album and I love the version of “Someday My Prince Will Come” on it.

Ani DiFranco, Little Plastic Castle (1998)
Here’s where the boys come in. My high school sweetheart dumped me around sophomore/junior year—my first love, my first heartbreak—and this new Ani DiFranco album affected me on several levels. Yes there are songs mired in angst which was perfect for me at the time, but also I loved her unabashedly introspective lyrics and killer guitar playing. Ultimately this isn’t my favorite album of Ani’s, but after that devastating breakup, this one helped me feel like myself again.

Charlie Hunter Quartet, Natty Dread (1997)
And here’s the one that reminds me of my college sweetheart. He introduced me to this album, and Charlie Hunter, and I love him for it. Charlie Hunter arranged Bob Marley’s 1974 Natty Dread track-for-track as a soul jazz album, and it is executed perfectly. I adore this version of “No Woman No Cry.” Nothing but good feelings when I listen to this record, still in semi-regular rotation for me.

Slash featuring Myles Kennedy and The Conspirators, World on Fire (2014)
My husband asked me to tack this onto an Amazon order I was making one time in 2015, and when it arrived he happened to be away on a summer residency. So I decided to give it a listen and basically it was the only thing I listened to for the entire summer. When he got home I had all the lyrics memorized. There were some depressing life things that happened in 2015, and World on Fire was a great emotional outlet for some of my bottled-up feelings.

Beyoncé, Lemonade (2016)
2016 and 2017. What can I say. So much happened, so much didn’t. Excitements, difficulties, adventures, terribleness, boring times, discoveries, stresses, identity examinations. Lemonade got me through some shit.


I have innumerable honorable mentions. For jazz, it was nearly impossible to pick out just one album from a guitarist—I also drew much inspiration from Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, and Nina Simone in high school when I was into jazz. I also went through an intense Buddy Holly phase. When I was a kid, music was always playing in our house, from soul and Motown to Allman Brothers and Grateful Dead to Carole King and Joni Mitchell to Michael Jackson to Tom Waits and more. We’d listen to rock n’ roll on Saturday mornings and classical music on Sunday mornings—it’s tradition. Switching from guitar to bass in college was life transforming for me, that could be a whole post all to itself. And of course now I have tons of musician friends I love to support, and my music world has opened up immeasurably as an adult. This has been so much fun to think on! What are some important albums that have been the soundtrack to your life?

sq21: singapore queers in the 21st century

I recently took advantage of a sale at local indie shop Books Actually here in Singapore, and one of the books I picked up was SQ21: Singapore Queers in the 21st Century by Ng Yi-Sheng, edited by Jason Wee. I was interested in learning about LGBTQ culture in Singapore. Unedited from the book’s back cover:

First published in 2006, this groundbreaking collection of coming out stories was the first affirming non-fiction volume accompanied by real names and faces. Written in light, clear prose, SQ21 shows an unabashed straightforward honesty and finds inspiration in the lives of these ordinary Singaporeans. Though a bestseller that won acclaim as The Straits Times nonfiction book of that year, SQ21 remained out-of-print for nearly a decade. This new reprint comes updated with fresh material – a new interview by Ng Yi-Sheng, and a new foreword by the editor Jason Wee.

I want to get my main criticism out of the way. I couldn’t help notice several typos and inconsistencies throughout the book. The blurb has some examples: “non-fiction” and “nonfiction,” missing commas, hyphens instead of em-dashes, and (maybe just my preference but) I wouldn’t have hyphenated “out of print” since it’s following the noun it modifies. Some missing prepositions, some repeated words. Maybe I’m being way too picky, and I realize this is supposed to be conversational, in the subjects’ voices, but when you notice enough easily correctable grammatical errors it bugs, especially in a new, republished edition. Some of the footnotes were redundant as well.

Anyway! That gripe aside, which has nothing to do with the content, I did enjoy the stories in this book. They made me feel both sad and hopeful. I was sad about how deeply ingrained some misconceptions and stereotypes of homosexuality and bisexuality existed within the subjects themselves. I had to keep reminding myself that this is only from about a decade ago, and while there has been some progress for acceptance in Singapore, it still seems like it has a long way to go. And some things confound me a bit, like the Pink Dot festival—foreigners are not allowed to attend, participate, or even watch from a distance. It oddly goes against the core messaging of gay pride festivals: inclusivity and acceptance. From what I’ve gleaned living here for a couple years, Singapore is patriarchal, conservative, and oppressive in a general, subtle sense—things appear “perfect” on the surface, but no place is perfect. There’s no country on Earth that doesn’t have shameful, dark parts of its past (and present). We are a deeply flawed species.

But I am left more with a hopeful feeling, especially reading about the gay men accepted by their fellow military servicemen, the majority of parents either understanding or coming around, and that there has been a growing number of LGBTQ groups and organizations in Singapore. Religion is a big part of many of these stories… I’m sure there are entire books devoted solely to the oppressive, hostile attitude of religions against LGBTQ people. It’s infuriating, to be honest.

There’s also insight into LGBTQ Singaporeans in the context of race, age, nationality, societal expectations, and more. I appreciated that the afterward bemoans the lack of workplace stories and accounts from the older LGBTQ generation (hopefully for the next edition!). Maybe the next edition could include some gender identity representation, that would be awesome. In one chapter, the storyteller mentions a fellow student whose “parents were a woman and an FTM,” which is footnoted as “FTM: female-to-male transsexual; a person who was born in a woman’s body but lives as a man” and I wondered if that could have gone into more depth. The term “transgender” isn’t mentioned.

I really admire the people profiled in SQ21—their courage in relaying their personal experiences with coming out, whether difficult or smooth, is inspiring. This is an important piece of Singapore’s history and social progress.

Read in March 2018.

reading recap: february 2018

I’m pretty sure I’m out of that slump and funk now, by the end of February. I had a great month of reading, much better than January. Almost all of these were audiobooks. Since I knew the end of my membership to my library back home in Kansas City was ending in February, I wanted to capitalize on using it as much as possible. I was pretty pleased to get some highly anticipated new releases, as well as discovering some new gems I hadn’t heard of before.

My favorites were easily Dark MoneyOtis Redding, and Broad Strokes, with Shark Drunk close behind. I’m happy I stuck with writing up posts after finishing books here throughout the month too!

Other bookish stuff… I started The Left Hand of Darkness for my Best Friends International Book Club and quickly DNF’d. It’s just not for me. I have trouble getting into high sci-fi fantasy in general, and I could barely follow the story. I didn’t know who was who or what was happening most of the time. Anthony, my book club buddy, DNF’d too, saying, “So many words I don’t know how to say, let alone keep track of. And the narrative voice doesn’t resonate with me; I can’t understand where I am in almost any given sentence.” Some people have the right kind of mind for elaborate, made-up words and worlds, some don’t. Our first-ever BFIBCDNF! I also bought two new Singaporean small-press books, SQ21: Singapore Queers in the 21st Century and The Infinite Library.

Right now I’m reading Homegoing (for BFIBC and the TBR Pile Challenge), The Summer That Melted Everything (TBR Pile Challenge), and SQ21.

Otherwise, I’ve been spending time drawing and trying to get out of the apartment more. I went to see the Museé d’Orsay impressionism exhibit at the National Gallery of Singapore last week, which was fantastic, saw the amazing  Black Panther movie, and also bought a new bass!! It’s a Fender American Elite Jazz Bass. I’m in love.

monthly recap image

this will be my undoing

There was a lot of hype surrounding This Will Be My Undoing by Morgan Jerkins before it came out in January, so I put it hold back then and the audiobook came through the library for me this month. Edited from Goodreads:

From one of the fiercest critics writing today, Morgan Jerkins’s highly-anticipated collection of linked essays interweaves her incisive commentary on pop culture, feminism, black history, misogyny, and racism with her own experiences to confront the very real challenges of being a black woman today. Jerkins is only in her twenties, but she has already established herself as an insightful, brutally honest writer who isn’t afraid of tackling tough, controversial subjects. In This Will Be My Undoing, she takes on perhaps one of the most provocative contemporary topics: What does it mean to “be”—to live as, to exist as—a black woman today? This is a book about black women, but it’s necessary reading for all Americans.

I’m on the fence a little bit about this one. Jerkins is a great writer, and has tons of potential for the future. But “controversial” and “brutally honest” are good adjectives for this book. I’m generally not upset by the most common content-triggering topics like sex and violence, but there are a lot here and she goes into great detail, so I guess just be prepared if you decide to read this one. Some of the essays were really good, especially those relating history to present-day black experiences, and those about her childhood. I also enjoyed the essays on Beyoncé’s groundbreaking visual album Lemonade and Michelle Obama.

However—and I completely acknowledge Jerkins’s book is not “for me,” as a white, middle-class, Oregon Trail-generation woman from the Midwest—there are some double standards and generalizations that made me sort of uncomfortable. She stereotypes white women and idealizes Japanese people. As a white woman who does not fit her narrow description of them, I’m just kind of like, well we’re not all rich, coddled, slim, beautiful Trump voters… And as an American living in Asia, I have to say, I really hate the “expat” mindset, which typically manifests itself as either the “white savior” trope or thinking that other countries and cultures exist solely for Americans to “discover” themselves, or something. So while I don’t doubt her interest in Japanese culture, I was bothered by her descriptions of Japan and its people. Remember that viral video a few years ago of a woman silently walking around New York City for hours to demonstrate frequent and unsettling street harassment of women? Jerkins weirdly defends the men in the video, while at the same time taking offense to being catcalled herself? I was confused as there being any difference.

I guess overall I was expecting something more insightful or somehow different, based on the hype and subtitle. Implicit bias exists in everyone. I respect Jerkins for putting it all out there, though, even the private, “shameful” stuff you’re supposedly not supposed to talk about.

Listened to audiobook in February 2018.