they can’t kill us until they kill us

The last book I read in 2017, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, is also one of the best books I read in 2017… and probably one of the best I’ve read in the last few years, period. From the book’s jacket:

In an age of confusion, fear, and loss, Hanif Abdurraqib’s is a voice that matters. Whether he’s attending a Bruce Springsteen concert the day after visiting Michael Brown’s grave, or discussing public displays of affection at a Carly Rae Jepsen show, he writes with a poignancy and magnetism that resonates profoundly.

In essays that have been published by the New York Times, MTV, and Pitchfork, among others—along with original, previously unreleased essays—Abdurraqib uses music and culture as a lens through which to view our world, so that we might better understand ourselves, and in so doing proves himself a bellwether for our times.

Wow, you guys. Just wow. I couldn’t put it down and I didn’t want it to end. I extra love that I hadn’t heard anything about They Can’t Kill Us until I randomly saw it at my favorite bookstore and bought it on a whim in November. This collection is full of moving, insightful observations about life, culture, society, and more that touched me deeply. I identified with how clearly and specifically music has impacted Abdurraqib’s life, because it has for me, even if our tastes and the music that shaped us growing up (for me the ’90s, he writes here mostly about ’00s) are slightly different. Doesn’t matter, I’m always down to read and learn about music and life experiences outside of my own experience and comfort zone.

Abdurraqib’s essays use the music fan/listener experience as the impetus to discuss a variety of issues, not least of all is racism in America, of which he has a unique perspective as a black Muslim man. These essays aren’t strictly about politics, religion, and race, though. He also goes into depth on loneliness, grief, loss, and even hope with his own personal stories as examples, like the deaths of his close friends and his mother. And then there’s the writing. Abdurraqib is a poet, and while there aren’t any poems in the traditional sense in this collection, his prose reflects his poetic style:

The world is undoing itself & I must tend to my vast & growing field of fears. In this new country, a nightmare is nothing but a brief rental home for the mind to ransack & leave the sleeping body unharmed. (139, “There Is The Picture Of Michael Jackson Kissing Whitney Houston On The Cheek”)

But our best work is the work of ourselves, our bodies and the people who want us to keep pushing, even if the days are long and miserable and even if there are moments when the wrong side of the bridge beckons you close. (77, “Brief Notes on Staying // No One Is Making Their Best Work When They Want To Die”)

Nina Simone rode away on the troubled ocean, standing on the deck of a black ship, looking back while a whole country burned, swallowing itself. (198, “Nina Simone Was Very Black”)

There are so many pieces I loved in They Can’t Kill Us. The ones that resonated the most with me were those on grief, creativity, heartbreak, and striving for optimism. The ones I learned from most were those of his perspective on racism and religion. The one about Allen Iverson’s crossover hit on Michael Jordan was brilliant, as were so many others. I think if I have one tiny criticism, it’s that I wish there had been more women artists present… the music he filters his topics through is mostly rap and punk, which are, of course, still male dominated genres. Even so, They Can’t Kill Us a near-perfect book. It reminded me a lot of Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist and Jessica Hopper’s The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic. Read those, and read this.

Read in December 2017.

mini-reviews: milk and honey, tilting our plates, more beautiful things

Something unusual for me… I read quite a bit of poetry in the last year. In addition to Maya Angelou’s Phenomenal Woman (recently posted), I read these three collections:

Rupi Kaur’s incredibly popular milk and honey started strong enough but lost me halfway. I see why her work resonates with so many, I do. It’s familiar subject matter, accessible, and easy to “get,” unlike some other poetry. But I was completely underwhelmed by the collection as a whole. I know I’ve heard or read some of these lines before elsewhere. Other readers have compared this to Tumblr posts, and I agree. While simple, linear drawings can be effective, I wasn’t really impressed by those included here. The whole thing is way over-hyped. [Read ebook in November 2016.]

I picked up Singaporean poet Cyril Wong’s Tilting Our Plates to Catch the Light as a gift for my mom for Christmas last year, as I was getting everyone uniquely Singaporean gifts and she’s a reader. I couldn’t help but read this slim volume first before shipping it off, though! Tilting Our Plates uses musical (symphonic) metaphors and the ancient myth of Shiva (as Mohini) falling in love with Vishnu to relate the story of a couple in love, aging, and living in the shadow of a disease. Wong conveys simple poignancy in the everyday ordinariness of a deep partnership. It’s a lovely, heartbreaking collection. [Read in December 2016.]

There are a handful of striking poems in Morgan Parker’s There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé, like “All They want Is…,” “Afro,” “13 Ways,” “The Gospel According to Her,” “Welcome to the Jungle,” and “99 Problems.” There’s tension, rage, empowerment, and vulnerability simmering throughout many of the poems. But others fell flat… again it could be me—I’m starting to think that I’m not much of a poetry person in general. And I also definitely recognize that some are not meant for me—I do not personally know the black womanhood experience. But I like to learn, acknowledge, and be open-minded. I think these pieces would be more impactful performed aloud. [Read ebook in May 2017.]

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: brown girl dreaming, the hate u give

If you visit me here enough, you’ll know young adult lit is not really my jam. I have trouble with reading about teenage angst and melodrama, so I usually try to stay away from this genre. But in the last year I did end up listening to two good YA titles on audio:

Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming is the story of her childhood told in verse. I may have missed out on something in the audio, as I think seeing verse written down on paper can be powerful and give you pause as to what you’re reading, but I did enjoy the poetic performance on audio (read by the author). Her vignettes about growing up black in the 1960s–70s in New York and South Carolina give a special perspective on Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement, conveyed in beautifully rendered, accessible way for all ages. [Listened to audiobook in March 2017.]

In Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give, 16-year-old Starr balances between two worlds: living in her poor neighborhood and attending her upscale prep school. One night she witnesses the murder of her unarmed friend Khalil by a policeman. Khalil’s killing makes national news, protesting and riots start, and Starr is the only one who can say what really happened that night. It’s a good book, perhaps just a little on the long side, but at times there were conversations and scenes where I think the overall theme of police brutality against black citizens ends up in the background behind a “black people vs. white people, us vs. them” debate. Racism IS real, rampant, and a national disgrace that needs to be fixed, absolutely. As a white person, this is a hard book to objectively review. I acknowledge I don’t face discrimination like this, I don’t live the black American experience, and I know I have ingrained negative biases I actively work hard abolish in my heart (which I expect to do every day the rest of my life). And absolutely I agree that black Americans are overwhelmingly the targets of the majority of racism (just look at our shameful, horrifying history), and police brutality and racism in general needs attention and solving. But… I don’t agree that some issues and conflicts during scenes in this particular book are quite so black and white (to use the idiom) as the author portrays. I enjoyed the fact that this YA isn’t all about feelings and romance, and really appreciated the important, timely subject matter of this story. [Listened to audiobook in April 2017.]

reading recap: may 2017

I read 13 books in May! Even though several were short and several were on audio, this might be a personal record for me. I also already hit 50 books (currently sitting at 51)! I can’t believe it. I guess this is what happens when you listen to audiobooks all day while you draw.

  • The Hearts of Men (audio) … Nickolas Butler, read by Adam Verner
  • Frankenstein (audio) … Mary Shelley, read by various
  • The Leavers (audio) … Lisa Ko, read by Emily Woo Zeller
  • The Road to Jonestown (audio) … Jeff Guinn, read by George Newbern
  • What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky (ebook) … Lesley Nneka Arimah
  • There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé (ebook) … Morgan Parker
  • The Teacher Wars … Dana Goldstein
  • Men Without Women: Stories (audio) … Haruki Murakami, read by various
  • Life’s Work (audio) … Dr. Willie Parker, read by Caz Harleaux
  • The Radium Girls (audio) … Kate Moore, read by Angela Brazil
  • Drinking: A Love Story (ebook) … Caroline Knapp
  • Parable of the Sower (ebook) … Octavia E. Butler
  • Bitch Planet, Book One … Kelly Sue DeConnick with Valentine De Landro

My favorites for the month, as usual, were the non-fictions: The Road to JonestownThe Teacher WarsLife’s WorkThe Radium Girls, and Drinking: A Love Story. I was fascinated by Jonestown and Radium, while Teacher Wars and Life’s Work are important pieces to understanding where we are on the topics of education and abortion today. Drinking was personal and raw, and made me think more deeply about my own use and relationship with alcohol.

Of the fictions, The Hearts of Men and What It Means When A Man Falls from the Sky really stand out to me, as well as a few stories from Men Without WomenParable of the Sower and Bitch Planet were recent picks for my international book club with my friend Anthony, and it was so great to read these along with him.

This last month I made a detailed plan for catching up on book posts here. I want to write a little bit about everything and I WILL get to it all! I’m traveling for several weeks in June and July, so I’m not sure how many posts I can write up and schedule ahead, but I’ll try my best to keep this space active a bit while I’m away.

I’m currently listening to Going Clear on audio, the exposé on Scientology that came out a few years ago, and it’s riveting so far. I also recently purchased Van Gogh’s Ear and Pachinko, which I’ve had my eye on for weeks! I also would like to pick up Chris Haye’s A Colony in a Nation and Roxane Gay’s new one, Hunger, while I’m on the road this summer. What are you planning for summer reading?
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reading recap: december 2016

Happy new year! I hope 2017 will be better in many ways and on many levels than 2016, and I’m going to do my part here in Singapore any way I can. December was hard; being away from my family during the holidays for basically the first time ever. But it was also weird since my routine is basically non-existent and the weather is perpetually summery, so it doesn’t exactly feel like “winter” and “holidays” here to me so much.

I managed to get a little bit of reading done last month. Here are my books for December:

december-recap

  • Tilting Our Plates to Catch the Light … Cyril Wong
  • Phenomenal Woman (ebook) … Maya Angelou
  • We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation … Jeff Chang
  • A Life in Parts (audio) … Bryan Cranston, read by author
  • Children of the New World: Stories … Alexander Weinstein
  • I’m Thinking of Ending Things (ebook) … Iain Reid

Except for the Cranston memoir, everything was on the short side: essays, short stories, poetry. I liked all these, not a bad one in the bunch, but probably my favorite reads for the month were We Gon’ Be Alright by Jeff Chang and I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid. The essays in We Gon’ Be Alright include deeper looks at Ferguson, racism in higher education, the morphed definition of “diversity,” #OscarsSoWhite, growing up Asian American, Beyoncé’s Lemonade, current segregation in K-12 education, and much more. It was short, timely, and I can’t recommend it enough.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things, also very short, took a little bit to get into and was slightly plain at first, but piqued my curiosity more with every chapter that I couldn’t put it down by the end and had to read the last few pages twice. This one was a library ebook I put on hold back in October for Halloween and it finally came though!

Children of the New World was overall very good, with only a couple of sleepers in the collection. I loved the premise of the through-line—an imagined near-future where technology is even more prevalent in the daily lives of humans. The stories that stood out to me in particular were “Heartland,” “Children of the New World,” “Rocket Night,” and “Ice Age.”

Bryan Cranston’s new memoir, A Life in Parts, was another library hold come through. It was fantastic on audio, hearing the actor himself talk about his many personal and professional experiences, including his most famous roles as Hal (Malcolm in the Middle) and Walter White (Breaking Bad). Nothing too deep or earth-shattering, but a solid celebrity memoir. I was inspired to re-watch Breaking Bad after reading this one!

I’m not normally a poetry person, but I ended up reading two more collections to close out 2016! Tilting Our Plates to Catch the Light was written by a local Singaporean poet, and I picked it up as a Christmas gift for my mom, but ended up reading it first before I mailed it home. It’s a beautiful collection about love, with additional themes of time, death, and distance. Phenomenal Woman is, of course, by the indomitable Maya Angelou. I’ve read this before, it’s only four poem, but I felt after what happened in November, it was time for a revisit. “Still, I Rise” is an all-time favorite.

My “best of 2016” posts are coming soon!
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