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: born a crime, you can’t touch my hair, and awkward thoughts

This year I read three wonderful new memoirs by comedians that are not to be missed:

My only regret with reading Trevor Noah’s brilliant memoir Born a Crime is that I didn’t have it on audio. I really enjoyed this book, especially his thoughts on the power of language and the ramifications of apartheid on the ground level. Noah was raised by his single black mother in apartheid South Africa, only seeing his white Swiss father sparingly throughout his childhood and then not at all for many years. His stories are at times hilarious, touching, and harrowing, and throughout the book he expertly balances gravity and humor. His mother is AMAZING. [Read ebook in January 2017.]

I want Phoebe Robinson to be my friend the way Phoebe wants Michelle Obama to be her friend. I want Phoebe, Michelle, and I to all be friends. I loved this book and it was well worth the wait for audio (read by the author). You Can’t Touch My Hair is a collection of hilarious, poignant, and sharp essays that tackle race, growing up, gender, pop culture, and more. The relentless pop culture references and her own unique vernacular can get somewhat tiresome, but I think it probably still works better on audio than read on paper. The chapters about hair (of course), the letter to the future female POTUS, and her letters to her niece were the best for me. The guest entries from Jessica Williams and John Hodgman were brilliant too. [Listened to audiobook in February 2017.]

To be honest, all I knew of W. Kamau Bell before reading The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell was his name and that he is a comedian; I had never heard any of his comedy or shows. But that didn’t matter because I loved this book! It’s full of funny, observant, interesting, even moving essays on his work, his interracial marriage and raising mixed-race daughters, race, being an ally to women and LGBTQ+ in show business and life, and more. There were things I related to (being a lazy kid, getting excited about random things) and lots of things I learned from his life experience. [Listened to audiobook in October 2017.]

reading recap: september 2017

This year, I swear. I can’t believe it’s October already. In September I read 10 books. (Bear with me while I figure out a new collage system for these posts, the program I was using doesn’t work for me anymore!)

  • ZeroZeroZero (audio) … Roberto Saviano, read by Paul Michael
  • The Heart’s Invisible Furies (audio) … John Boyne, read by Stephen Hogan
  • The Butcher (audio) … Philip Carlo, read by Dick Hill
  • Pandemic (audio) … Sonia Shah, read by author
  • Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows … Balli Kaur Jaswal
  • Kill ‘Em and Leave (audio) … James McBride, read by Dominic Hoffman
  • The Bell Jar (audio) … Sylvia Plath, read by Maggie Gyllenhaal
  • Made for Love (audio) … Alissa Nutting, read by Suzanne Elise Freeman
  • The Child Finder (audio) … Rene Denfield, read by Alyssa Bresnahan
  • What Happened … Hillary Rodham Clinton

Still almost everything on audio… I would like to change that starting this month. I was pleased though to read five books published in 2017, plus one classic, plus a couple related to music and the mafia (it’s been a long time!). I’m happy to be in a good routine again with posting short reviews here. I still have a long way to go to catch up but I think if I can keep up this pace and on a schedule I’ll be back on track by the new year.

My favorite non-fiction books I read in September were What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s new memoir about the election, and ZeroZeroZero, Roberto Saviano’s 2013 sophomore book exposing the global cocaine trafficking industry. My favorite fictions were The Heart’s Invisible Furies, my first Boyne, and Made for Love by Alissa Nutting, which was my 75th book read of the year, meeting my Goodreads goal and marking a personal record. Reviews on those coming soon!

I also finished two drawings and got ridiculously excited for football season and my Green Bay Packers during September. All in all though, it was a pretty mellow month. I’m glad it’s October even though I don’t get “fall” here in Singapore. I’m looking forward to seeing Dream Theater in concert next week and watching a ton of scary movies all month!

monthly recap image

difficult men

I recently started re-watching The Sopranos, one of my all-time most favorite shows ever, which compelled me to borrow Difficult Men by Brett Martin from my library on audio. I remember seeing it make the blog rounds a few years ago. Edited from Goodreads:

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the landscape of television began an unprecedented transformation. No longer necessarily concerned with creating always-likable characters, plots that wrapped up neatly every episode, or subjects that were deemed safe and appropriate, shows such as The Wire, The Sopranos, Mad Men, Deadwood, The Shield, and more tackled issues of life and death, love and sexuality, addiction, race, violence, and existential boredom.This revolution happened at the hands of a new breed of auteur: the all-powerful writer-show runner.

Combining deep reportage with cultural analysis and historical context, Brett Martin takes us behind the scenes of our favorite shows, delivering never-before-heard story after story and revealing how cable TV has distinguished itself dramatically from the networks, emerging from the shadow of film to become a truly significant and influential part of our culture.

Difficult Men definitely lets you know what it’s all about with its title, but I still wanted something a little different that what Martin delivered. I think I wanted more about the complex characters of Tony Soprano (The Sopranos), Don Draper (Mad Men), and Walter White (Breaking Bad)  themselves and their cultural impact. Difficult Men is mostly about David Chase and behind the scenes of The Sopranos, which of course I enjoyed learning about, as well as how James Gandolfini handled (or rather, struggled with) his iconic role. I guess I expected a broader look at what Martin calls the “Third Golden Age of Television.” Martin gives short shrift to regular network shows (no love for Lost?? I loved that show) and you don’t read much about women in the business here (well, that could and should be a whole book unto itself).

The process from writing to production was really interesting, as well as how the show runners were given freedom to see their vision through and push the boundaries of televised storytelling thanks to the development of the 60-minute episode and 10–13 episodes-per-season format. It’s worth a read if you want to know more about the background of The Sopranos for sure, and some background on a few other revered cable dramas.

Listened to audiobook in August 2017.

mini-reviews: kill ’em and leave and metallica: back to the front

As a musician I always have my eye out for great books on music and other musicians, and two books I read this year on the subject did not disappoint.

I’ve had James McBride’s Kill ‘Em and Leave on my radar ever since it came out last year, and finally decided to get to it this month. It wasn’t a typical biography, and I would have liked more about Brown’s experiences touring and more from/about some of his personal relationships, but this is a great book outlining James Brown as a real man. McBride doesn’t sugarcoat Brown’s flaws, but drives the point home how Brown was a powerful influence on generations of Black Americans and musicians. There was more of McBride present than I expected (he complains about his own divorce as the impetus to taking on this writing project, for example), but it bothered me less as I got further into the book. [Listened to audiobook in Sept. 2017.]

I read Metallica: Back to the Front by Matt Taylor to get myself amped for Metallica’s January concert here in Singapore, which was amazing and just what I needed at that time. I waited in line for eight hours and got a spot right up front close to the stage. I moshed for the first time in probably 20 years (still got it!) and was sore for three days afterwards. Anyway! This book is definitely a must for die-hard (and probably even cursory) Metallica fans. It reads like an oral history from all the important players (the band, managers, engineers, road crew, family, friends) about the making of and tour for its seminal 1986 album Master of Puppets. It also serves as a poignant tribute to founding bassist Cliff Burton, who tragically died during the tour in a bus accident. The book itself is beautiful, with tons of gorgeous professional and candid photos. I loved it. [Read in January 2017.]

reading recap: august 2017

August was a good month! I went to Thailand, had a friend visit here in Singapore, saw Kronos Quartet for the first time, finished my first-ever commissioned drawing, and read seven books:

  • Difficult Men (audio) … Brett Martin, read by Keith Szarabajka
  • The Monster of Florence (audio) … Douglas Preston, read by Dennis Boutsikaris
  • The Fact of a Body (audio) … Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich, read by author
  • Borne … Jeff VanderMeer
  • A Fine Balance (audio) … Rohinton Mistry, read by John Lee
  • It (paper and audio) … Stephen King, read by Steven Weber
  • Flowers of the Killer Moon (audio) … David Grann, read by various

I still want to start moving away from so many audiobooks for a while and focus back on paper soon. It felt great to read a couple books on paper this month (well, one and a half—I went half-audio, half-paper with It). I think I need to just slow down and set aside some time every day to sit with a physical book. My visit home in June–July, the Thailand trip (where I met up with a bunch of old friends from Kansas City), and another friend coming here to Singapore way overstimulated me and now I’m having trouble sitting still!

All the non-fiction I read this month was great, but my favorites were the novels A Fine Balance and BorneA Fine Balance is one of my favorite books anyway—I read it on paper in 2012 so this time on audio was a re-read. It’s just a beautiful, heartbreaking book. Bleak, but I loved it. I’m not sure I could write a better review now than I did in 2012 (link), but the audio was just as good. I really enjoyed Borne for it’s straight-up weirdness. I really liked VanderMeer’s Annihilation so I had Borne on on my radar when it was announced. Post-apocalyptic city terrorized by a building-sized flying bear? Yes. Yes, please. It was strange and fantastic.

I finished IT just in time! I’m looking forward to seeing the first movie when it comes out soon. To get prepped, I also re-watched the 1990s miniseries version. Just terrible! Except for Tim Curry, he’s perfection as Pennywise, but other than his performance that version can go float in the sewer. Yikes.

My non-fiction reads were mostly about murders, and one about TV show production. I recently started re-watching The Sopranos again, so Difficult Men was a great companion to that, but it was more about the creators of The Sopranos and shows like it rather than what I was expecting, the rise of the anti-hero protagonist in popular media and culture. That’s okay, it was still an interesting behind-the-scenes look at one of my favorite shows. The Monster of Florence and The Fact of a Body were similar in that they were investigations into mysterious real-life murders, while weaving in the authors’ personal stories as well. Flowers of the Killer Moon was my favorite of these non-fictions from August. It was also an about true murders—the 1920s killings of members of the Osage Indian Nation of Oklahoma, and how the FBI arose from the investigation of these murders. I enjoyed David Grann’s The Lost City of Z a few years back so I was excited to read this one, too, and it was just as compelling as Z. The amount of American history left out of the history books and our general educations is staggering, and Killer Moon is just one more example. We need these books and acknowledgement of our true, shameful past in America.

For September, I’m going to get through my Best Friends International Book Club’s current picks (A Colony in a NationThe New Jim Crow, and Bitch Planet, Book Two), as well as Killing Pablo (too late for the release of Narcos season 3 on Netflix, but it’s a real page turner! I’ll be through it quickly) and Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, by Singaporean writer Balli Kaur Jaswal and loaned to me by a friend here. On audio, I have to finish up ZeroZeroZero (also a good companion to Narcos and Killing Pablo), and I just got The Heart’s Invisible Furies off hold. It’ll be another good month, and I’m sure I’ll surpass my Goodreads goal of 70 books for the year.

monthly recap image