book club: parable of the sower and bitch planet

This week, my friend Anthony and I held another meeting (online) of our Best Friends International Book Club! I have so much fun reading and discussing books with him. Anthony put it sweetly in a comment on my Instagram:

You encourage me to think deeper and wider with each selection, and I love how this keeps us connected—with each other and the world around us! 😍 [link]

That’s how I feel about him and our club! It means a lot to me to stay connected to my beloved Kansas City family. And although we’re in different countries and drinking different beverages when we have our book club Skype dates, we actually do stay on topic! Mostly! We keep it loose as far as timing our meetings go; we chat when we’re both done with the books and when we’re available.

First, we read Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler. It was the first Butler book for either of us. In 2025, society is descending into a chaotic collapse. Headstrong teenager Lauren’s family is killed and her home is destroyed, so she and a few neighbors journey north to a rumored safe haven. Along the way they encounter dangers and new people, and Lauren reveals her plans for a new religion. Lauren also has a condition called “hyperempathy,” which allows her to physically feel the pain of others. I was struck by how prescient and insightful Butler was in her description of this near-future America: privatization, climate change, gender and race issues, religion, the opioid crisis, and more. It’s an important addition to the science fiction genre for these reasons, plus being written by a woman of color. Unfortunately, the book didn’t entirely live up to the hype and rave reviews for me. The religion aspect turned me off, as did the hyperempathy. I always have trouble with epistolary novels, too—Sower is basically Lauren’s diary. I’d rather be shown the action than be told about it after the fact. I think this may actually be a YA book, too, which are usually hard for me to get into. I was interested in the The Road-like journey the crew takes north, though. I wonder if I would have liked Sower better if the religion and hyperempathy had been cut? These parts bothered Anthony less, but overall he felt the same. We decided this first book in Butler’s Earthseed series was enough for us. But! I’m not writing off Butler entirely; I’m looking forward to reading Kindred one day. [Read ebook in May 2017.]

Bitch Planet, Book One by DeConnick and De Landro was our second pick for this discussion. In another near-future dystopia, if women don’t comply with the behavioral and beauty expectations placed upon them by the patriarchal leadership, they are arrested and sent away from Earth to a prison planet. The plot (so far) involves the “non-compliant” women being forced to compete in an all-male game called Megaton in order to “spice up” the event, and there’s corruption in the government and prison, etc. I love how in-your-face this graphic novel is, and how the women are non-apologetic and kick-ass. I’m really interested in seeing where this is going. I do wish there was more backstory, and I felt it drag when the focus shifted to men on Earth just talking about Bitch Planet. Otherwise, I think Bitch Planet has a great premise and is an excellent, creative way to get readers thinking and talking about intersectional feminism, the prison industrial complex, sexism, societal expectations of women, and more. Anthony felt the same way, so we chose Bitch Planet, Book Two for our next discussion. He also mentioned the best part: the hilarious fake ads at the end of each issue! [Read in May 2017.]

Our next choices for BFIBC are Bitch Planet, Book Two, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, and Chris Hayes’s A Colony in a Nation. I’m excited!

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.

farewell reflections on 15 years in kansas city

I wrote a retrospective of my time in Kansas City for my last issue (June 29, 2016) with KCMetropolis.org, for which I’ve been a writer and editor since 2010. I will always hold Kansas City and my dear friends there close in my heart!


_mg_9277_595 - CopyAs I look back on the countless performances and events I’ve attended in Kansas City as a KCMetropolis.org writer over the past six-and-a-half years, I’m a bit in awe at how fortunate I’ve been to see the distinguished Aretha Franklin, Willie Nelson, Buddy Guy, Aaron Neville, Bobby McFerrin, Regina Carter, Dr. John, and more. I discovered a new favorite in DanĂș, experienced a breathtakingly moving Jordi Savall performance, and witnessed intimate recitals by Yo-Yo Ma, Gil Shaham, Ana Vidović, Joshua Bell, Audra McDonald, and the TakĂĄcs, Harlem, Jasper, Chiara, and Artemis Quartets, among others. I’ve had the chance to see inspiring symphony orchestras, notable world music bands Los Lobos and The Chieftains, and jazz icons Ellis and Wynton Marsalis, Christian McBride, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Arturo Sandoval, and Esperanza Spalding, to name a few. The quality that our local arts organizations present is truly astonishing. But beyond being a critical observer of this unbelievable roster and many excellent local acts for KCM, more than anything, I’m humbled and honored to have been a part of the Kansas City music scene as a bassist, composer, and advocate of the arts for fifteen years.

When I think about my time in Kansas City, my mind automatically goes back to when I was a college student at the UMKC Conservatory. I remember the endless hours spent in the PAC practice rooms, learning my parts for the Conservatory Orchestra and Chamber Orchestra concerts (and enjoying “chair time” in the lobby). I remember playing PĂ€rt’s Fratres and Stravinsky’s L’histoire du soldat with the Conservatory Wind Symphony after learning my grandfather had had a heart attack earlier that day up in Wisconsin. kristin mafb concert 6.27.16Tagging along on the Concert Jazz Band’s European tour in 2006. Powering through Andriessen’s Workers Union on bass with Musica Nova, the group I co-directed, during a random fire alarm in White Recital Hall. I remember meeting Nick Omiccioli, now my husband, when we were master’s students in the composition program. I remember him conducting my thesis during our last Musica Nova concert, and having profound feelings of elation, pride, and accomplishment as a composer. I knew I wasn’t ready to leave Kansas City after graduation. To keep up with playing bass, I joined the Kansas City Civic Orchestra. Our metro is lousy with community groups, and I had the pleasure to serve as principal bassist not only for Civic, but also for Heritage Philharmonic (the oldest such ensemble in the area, based in Independence) and Kinnor Philharmonic (the “youngest” at five seasons, based in Overland Park).

The local scene has really blossomed since I moved here in 2001, and I must admit it’s hard to leave the city at this moment in its artistic and cultural evolution, a moment in which many groups I love and friends of mine are flourishing. Fountain City Brass Band consistently takes home international prizes. Clint Ashlock has done an outstanding job at the helm of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra. Check out Mrs. Jones perform alongside her fellow immensely entertaining drag queens at Hamburger Mary’s. Pianists Jeremy Watson and Angie Fullerton Benson, usually in the role of musical director, make any theatre production they’re in exceptional beyond measure. Victor and Penny, fine purveyors of Prohibition Era-style jazz, always put on a great show, and Ensemble IbĂ©rica has filled a global music niche that we were missing here in town. New music still has some growing to do, but Mnemosyne Quartet is doing its part with its rare instrumentation, live electronics, and performances in novel venues. If you have the chance to catch Narong Prangcharoen’s Phenomenon performed by Kansas City Symphony next June or Nick Omiccioli’s newly commissioned heavy metal guitar concerto with the Conservatory Wind Ensemble next spring, take it. And if one of Kansas City’s premier bassists Brian Wilson, Rick Willoughby, Jeff Harshbarger, or Johnny Hamil are involved—in anything—don’t miss it. Trust me.

kansas city loveMy final performance of my fifteen-year tenure in Kansas City was on Monday night while sitting in with the Mid America Freedom Band, led by my esteemed colleague and beloved friend Lee Hartman, in a benefit concert for the survivors of the Orlando massacre. We finished our set with the Arlen/Harburg classic “Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz. It brought me full circle and was simply the most perfect last piece for me to play here, as I was obsessed with the film as a child. Although the concert was a response to a tragedy, I couldn’t have wished for a more appropriate way to conclude this chapter of my life, in the city where I musically “grew up,” than making music alongside my friends for an event that aptly illustrated the elements so prevalent in Kansas City’s music scene that I will always cherish—harmony, community, and a lot of heart.

Top photo by Richard Leaf; Middle photo by Andrew Schwartz; Bottom photo by Kristin Shafel Omiccioli
Reprinted with permission from KCMetropolis.org, © 2016 [Original article link]

 

a little life

After seeing many, many rave reviews and landing on numerous best-of lists at the end of 2015, I decided to give A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara a try despite my reservations due it to being a major chunkster. From Goodreads:

When four classmates from a small Massachusetts college move to New York to make their way, they’re broke, adrift, and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition. There is kind, handsome Willem, an aspiring actor; JB, a quick-witted, sometimes cruel Brooklyn-born painter seeking entry to the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their center of gravity. Over the decades, their relationships deepen and darken, tinged by addiction, success, and pride. Yet their greatest challenge, each comes to realize, is Jude himself, by midlife a terrifyingly talented litigator yet an increasingly broken man, his mind and body scarred by an unspeakable childhood, and haunted by what he fears is a degree of trauma that he’ll not only be unable to overcome—but that will define his life forever.

I will agree with most reviewers: A Little Life is an emotionally taxing book; the story is affecting, complicated, and distressing, to say the least. I found the word “devastating” in a lot of comments, however, I’m not sure if it’s because I’m naturally attracted to dark, disturbing material sometimes, but I wasn’t so upset and “destroyed” as some readers were after finishing.

My issues with A Little Life are less with the bad stuff that happens (and I agree they are truly horrid, unspeakable, unfair abuses). Let’s be honest—these (and worse) things really happen to people every day all over the world. The characters’ unwavering commitment to and deep, often unrequited love for Jude baffled me at times. I also had trouble buying that all four friends became rich and wildly successful in their highly competitive careers. And fair warning: apologies occur frequently in this book. The words “I’m sorry” appear pretty much on every single page. I started rolling my eyes at each utterance after a while. Despite being 720 pages, the vagueness throughout the story must have been intentional, too: how are 9/11 and HIV never once mentioned in a book set in New York City spanning several (seemingly recent/current) decades featuring gay characters? It bothered me while reading but on reflection I suppose to give the story a timeless atmosphere.

Much of Yanagihara’s writing is lovely, though, even hinging on poetic at times. You do get a sense for the trauma and sorrow the characters experience, as well as their happy times. I really enjoyed the backstories for JB and especially Willem in the first part of the book. I think she does a fantastic job of making these relationships all feel tangible. While there is a lot of writing here, it never felt too dense or difficult to pick up wherever I left off. Bottom line: I would recommend A Little Life to anyone interested. Give it 100 pages and see what you think at that point.

Read from January 9 to February 18, 2016.

it’s monday! what are you reading?

It’s Monday, what are you reading? I kind of can’t believe we’re at the end of January already, and I’ve only finished one book. That’s not to say I haven’t been reading, though; I’m really trying hard to get back into a groove after hardly having the motivation, attention, or energy for it for several weeks. I’m about halfway through A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara at the moment, and hoping to finish by the end of this week! My feelings about it are a little torn, though, more than I was expecting. It’s had the greatest reviews, but there are a few stylistic things that are working against my Loving it (capital L). No spoilers! I am enjoying it a lot, though, and will definitely finish.

Other than that, the holidays are officially over (winter break ended, rehearsals starting back up) so I’m back to my usual, busy routine! I’ve missed playing bass… and so glad the holiday concerts are OVER 🙂

What are you reading this week?