mini-reviews: fire shut up in my bones and drinking

I’m a big fan of memoirs, and this past year I’ve been reading some really excellent ones of all kinds of different lives. These two were powerful, personal, raw, and will stay with me a long time:

Charles M. Blow’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones was a pick for my Best Friends International Book Club with Anthony earlier this year. In this memoir, Blow recounts his childhood not quite belonging in a rural small town in Louisiana, where slavery’s legacy still loomed large and violence was commonplace, as well his deep connection to his mother, and years of confusion and anguish following sexual abuse by a family member, and finally his escape from this life into college (where he endured brutal fraternity hazing) and, later, success as a journalist. Blow’s writing is expressive and I found his descriptions of places and scenes beautifully constructed. I was let down by the book’s blurb, which is a little misleading, but I was still certainly intrigued and hooked anyway, especially by his personal introspection and revelations about his sexual orientation. I thought the book ended abruptly—I would have loved to read more about his career path after college—but maybe that could be another book altogether. I find Blow to be an impassioned and eloquent writer, and this was a wonderful, insightful, inspiring memoir. [Read in February 2017.]

Caroline Knapp’s painful, honest memoir of her alcoholism and related struggles, Drinking: A Love Story, really touched me and made me take a deeper look at my own relationship with alcohol. Knapp was a successful journalist from an upper-class family, and also a functioning alcoholic for 20 years. She used alcohol to escape her daily realities and relationships, until personal crises and family issues force her to examine her lifestyle and quit drinking. She doesn’t glamorize her addiction—her downward spiral into alcoholism is chronicled in a clear way and you understand better how it can happen to anyone. She makes it clear that this is a disease, one that is possible to flow through families for generations. She has some interesting insights about her complicated relationships with her parents and partners. Though it can be a little repetitive at times and contains a few generalities about alcoholics, this was overall a great book. [Read ebook in May 2017.]

hunger: a memoir of (my) body

I have been waiting with bated breath for Roxane Gay’s memoir Hunger for a year! The day it came out in June this summer I was in Madison and promptly picked it up at A Room of One’s Own, one of my favorite bookstores. Edited from Goodreads:

With the bracing candor, vulnerability, and power that have made her one of the most admired writers of her generation, Gay explores what it means to learn to take care of yourself: how to feed your hungers for delicious and satisfying food, a smaller and safer body, and a body that can love and be loved—in a time when the bigger you are, the smaller your world becomes.

This memoir wrecked me. It’s about body transformation, but not in the typical way you might expect. It’s about rape culture, race, societal expectations and pressure, familial expectations and pressure, addiction, body image, self preservation and acceptance, gender and sexuality, relationships, and more. This is not a feel-good tome, and Gay doesn’t want your pity or to be called a “survivor.” She doesn’t pull punches or tug at heart strings in Hunger. She is self-aware and brutally honest about the way things are for a person her size, which is technically categorized as the horrible term “super morbidly obese.”

Although I have never experienced the same kind of specific hardships and trauma that Gay has (in fact, I’d say I’ve been blessed to live a fairly charmed, happy life), her personal experience of wanting to hide from the world and finding a way to do that with her body resonated with me in my own way. Even though I was (and am) slender and “normal” weight, I was very self-conscious and protective of my body when I was a kid and teenager. I wanted to be noticed, but I also didn’t… and either way certainly not for my body. Thank goodness for grunge—baggy flannel was my armor in the 90s. It was still years into my adulthood before I felt okay about wearing a bikini and also realized that I have had advantages in society because of what I look like (sometimes I’ve heard this called “pretty privilege”). I wish the world weren’t like this, but I think acknowledgment is better than denial and can help people (me) work towards changing it. I cannot sit here and honestly say I’m ugly or unattractive, certainly not by current societal and cultural standards. This privilege has been magnified a thousandfold to me after living in Singapore for a year, where I’m experiencing a strange mix of benefiting from white privilege (which I know I had in the States, of course) and also being a minority. It’s an uncomfortable, conflicting feeling of which I’m hyper-aware, which I think is a good thing.

In Hunger, Gay’s writing is unapologetic, and while she says she is not brave for putting out this memoir and speaking her truth, I have to disagree. Laying bare her rape and its physical and mental consequences, and then the consequences and daily issues of her resulting weight gain after that trauma, share with the reader and emotional rawness I’ve rarely encountered in any other book, if ever. I think releasing a book like this in today’s image-obsessed society and rape-apologist culture is brave as hell.

Read in July 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?

Happy Pi(e) Day! Happy St. Patrick’s Day Week! (Yes I know it’s “just a day” but I can’t wait to listen to my Irish music and cook shepherd’s pie, colcannon, and soda bread). Anyway, the last week or so during my orchestra commutes I’ve been listening to The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson. It’s a really fantastic memoir about Nelson’s experience creating a non-gender-normative family with her artist-husband Harry Dodge, who is gender-fluid. Some of the language might be graphic, but it’s real and true life. I’m enjoying it and already about 70% finished. I also started reading Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel before bed, but only a few pages in so far! I can already see why everyone raved about it last year.

Side note: I’ve noticed that in 2016 so far I’ve only been reading books written by women. Not a bad trend! I could probably keep it up for a while longer this year, I have a bunch more on my shelf that have been sitting and waiting to be read.

What are you reading this week?

hmc + mafb

KCMetropolis.orgI can’t believe we’re halfway through December already! I’ve been wrapped up in holiday concerts for a couple weeks now, with two of my own via the orchestras I’m in and reviewing two for KCMetropolis.org. It just so happens that I ended up covering two of Kansas City’s major LGBT arts groups, Heartland Men’s Chorus and the Mid America Freedom Band. HMC is one of my favorite choirs in town—its shows are so much fun, with a lot of humor, heart, and awesome production value. MAFB is growing by leaps and bounds itself, adding shows and break-out factions of the group all the time. What I appreciate the most about these two shows I saw, though, is that while they were holiday concerts, the programming was adventurous and creative enough to warm even my semi-grinchy heart. As a musician, the performing arts offerings can become mind-numbingly repetitive this time of year—the same carols, the same arrangements, the same Handel’s Messiah, the same the same the same—so to hear some interesting, uncommon arrangements and programming themes that stray from the usual was the best, and these two groups didn’t disappoint on that front.

Read my full reviews at KCMetropolis.org:

heartland men’s chorus: baby, it’s cold outside

KCMetropolis.orgThe holiday season is in full swing here in Kansas City! In this week’s issue of KCMetropolis.org I have a new review:

On Friday after work I ventured into the frigid temperatures for a night out. First, I had drinks and snacks at chef Celina Tio’s Collection downtown with my friend Karen before we went to our respective shows. It was great and I’ll definitely be back! I had a signature cocktail and the mac n’ cheese. MMMM.

Heartland Men's Chorus

After that I headed over to the Folly Theater to review the Heartland Men’s Chorus‘s annual holiday production, this year titled Baby, It’s Cold Outside. I always enjoy HMC’s concerts because they are usually so uplifting, high energy, and silly, not too saccharine, and with just the right amount of heartstring-pulling. This one was bittersweet in particular though due to it being artistic director Joe Nadeau’s final production with HMC (he accepted the post of AD at the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles recently). The touching tributes and looks on the faces of the HMC members made it clear he will be fondly remembered and sorely missed.

Read my full review at KCMetropolis.org:

(Photo credit: Heartland Men’s Chorus courtesy of Susan McSpadden Photography, provided by HMC)