otis redding: an unfinished life

I first heard about Otis Redding: An Unfinished Life by Jonathan Gould when it first came out, close to the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, at which Redding gave an electrifying, career-high performance. I have it on vinyl and it’s stunning. As a music lover, as a soul music lover, as a Madisonian, I knew I had to read this book. From the book jacket:

Otis Redding remains an immortal presence in the canon of American music on the strength of such classic hits as “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay,” “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” “Try a Little Tenderness,” and “Respect,” a song he wrote and recorded before Aretha Franklin made it her own. As the architect of the distinctly southern, gospel-inflected style of rhythm and blues associated with Stax Records in Memphis, Redding made music that has long served as the gold standard of 1960s soul. Yet an aura of myth and mystery has always surrounded his life, which was tragically cut short at the height of his career by a plane crash in December 1967.

There’s no time in my life when I didn’t know Otis Redding and his music. I don’t remember the first time I heard his voice or his records. My dad is an avid music appreciator and soul music was a ubiquitous presence during my childhood. In fact, “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay” is a part of the soundtrack of our family history. Funny story: my dad copied down the lyrics and handed it in for a poetry assignment in high school (late 1960s); his old teacher didn’t know the song and my dad got an A! He still “complains” he hasn’t “seen any royalties” once in a while. I love lots of musical genres, but I consistently return to and never tire of soul. I’ve been really loving this recent resurgence, “new” soul, like Sharon Jones, Charles Bradley (RIP both), and all the Daptone Records artists, etc.

Of course, my fascination with Redding goes deeper than simply enjoying his music. The plane he was in crashed into Lake Monona, in my hometown, Madison, Wisconsin. (Here’s an article in The Isthmus noting the 50th anniversary of the crash.) My folks were still teenagers when Redding died, so they hadn’t moved to in Madison yet and weren’t planning on attending his Factory gig of course, but as long as I can remember, my dad has had (a reproduction of) the gig poster hanging in our living room. I eventually got a small copy of my own. I remember when a plaque was erected at the Monona Terrace Convention Center in 1997 in Redding’s memory. I know his connection to Madison is negligible, but it’s nevertheless tragic and real.

Now for the book! I can’t exactly say I was hooked from the start—it took me maybe around 100 pages before something clicked and I couldn’t put it down. This could have been my problem, not the book. I was in a slump when I started reading this at the end of January. But I was absolutely enthralled for the rest of it. I was so excited by everything I was learning, relating facts to my husband at the end of the day. I didn’t realize how badly I’ve been craving to read about music, and of course this particular subject matter is near and dear to me.

Gould’s book is so much more than a biography of Otis Redding. In fact, if you are just looking to learn about the man, you’ll probably be disappointed. What Gould does here is place Redding’s life and career in context of the time, place, and people. Presenting a rich social history of the politics and culture of the South in the 1960s (and prior) gives the reader a deeper understanding and appreciation of where Redding and his music came from, and why his legacy endures and his music resonates fifty years later. You learn about how racial tensions, boundaries, and politics impacted the music business, bands, and artists. You learn a little bit about other notable musicians and their music, like Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, and Aretha Franklin; how Redding’s brand of soul evolved from gospel and blues; about the formation and operation of Stax Records; and how beloved soul artists and famous record companies of the 1960s are all connected. My synapses were firing with each page!

If I have one quibble, I think I would have liked more photos. A few appear at the start of selected chapters. There are descriptions of album cover art, etc., but no accompanying image. BUT—as soon as I thought to myself, oh I wish there were more pics, I realized DUH I can look online and DUH AGAIN should definitely be “listening along” while I read this. There are sooo many great songs and albums mentioned page after page. I spent a lot of my reading time in front of my laptop, concurrently playing videos of Redding’s (and others’) performances and recordings. It became a fantastic, immersive reading experience.

I have no doubt this will be the definitive biography of Otis Redding for the foreseeable future, and is a must-read for anyone interested in 1960s soul music and how popular music and race in America are and have historically been indelibly entwined. I stayed up all night finishing the last few chapters and even though I knew the ending, I still cried reading through the crash. This book gave bold, technicolor life to Redding, as musician and man, for me.

Read in February 2018.

book club: the glass castle and the power

It’s the latest edition of Best Friends International Book Club! To the left is a screenshot I snapped, that’s me laughing in the lower corner at Anthony’s antics. I love our little club!

Anthony and I had a lively discussion over Skype last week. In addition to our two main books, we talked a little bit about Into Thin Air, which I had read twice already and loved, and Anthony had just finished for the first time. And we actually stayed on topic pretty well! I’m really happy we chose a fiction. I’ve been in a slump lately, and for some reason reading a novel snapped me out of my funk just a little bit and I’m grateful. Maybe I just need an outlet for mental escape at the moment and I’m more in a TV mode lately than reading. Anyway! On to our thoughts on these two fantastic books:

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls has been on my list for a very long time. I think at one point in grad school I even “borrowed” (read: stole) my mom’s copy for a while… only to return it eventually, unread, during some apartment move. With the new movie version out this rocketed back up to the forefront of my radar. I found it hard to put down, despite many emotionally difficult parts, mostly dealing with Walls’s neglectful parents. She recalls some truly disturbing moments from her poverty-stricken, nomadic childhood, including lack of adequate food and shelter. Glass Castle is an affecting look at addiction and mental illness. It’s clear throughout that her parents loved their children, but her father’s alcoholism and her mother’s manic depression dictated their lives. I found Walls’s writing to be even-tempered, coming across as almost neutral to her upbringing. She seemed (publicly in this memoir, at least) to be rather non-judgemental of her parents, and I think this may have helped the narrative. I was never put off by having to read through self-pitying diatribes or complaints, because there wasn’t any here. Anthony posed some excellent questions we ruminated on: What do you think is the larger takeaway The Glass Castle? Maybe it’s overcoming adversity, maybe a message about addiction and mental illness, maybe familial bonds, maybe reading a tough, depressing story like this makes us feel better about ourselves, maybe everyone has a story to tell? Or maybe nothing, it just is? Also, we wondered about Walls’s privilege to be able to tell her story, softly comparing it to another BFIBC book we read earlier, Charles Blow’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones (brought up in rural poverty, overcomes odds to become journalist), although we both agreed we liked Glass Castle a little better in general. I watched the movie adaptation a couple months ago and liked it, Woody Harrelson is brilliant, but it does change and dramatize some things to achieve a standard Hollywood storyline, as adaptations do. [Read in December 2017.]

I can’t remember exactly how I found out about Naomi Alderman’s The Power… maybe when it won the 2017 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. The story is incredibly clever: what would happen if all of a sudden gender roles were reversed and women, not men, were the ones who held physical, political, and social power? Alderman explores this concept filtered through a handful of main characters as they navigate this new world where women and girls have discovered an newly awakened deadly, electric physical ability. It covers rape culture, religion, terrorism, politics, and more, all while turning gender norms and expectations upside down. At first, I felt empowered reading about these women finding a strength within and taking charge, but after a while I became uncomfortable rooting for them.”Absolute power corrupts absolutely,” as the saying goes. Don’t get me wrong, I hate the stereotype/expectation that women are supposed to be pure, innocent, perfect little angels. Women are not necessarily less corrupt or violent than men, generally speaking. Anthony had a great point about how “the power” in this book wasn’t always about the obvious evolutionary electric power in girls and women, but also different kinds of power like political power, physical beauty, and manipulation. There are some striking statements, though, like when the power was first becoming known, boys are advised to go out in groups and not to walk alone at night, boy babies are being aborted, etc. Yes of course you don’t walk alone at night! As a woman I’ve been indoctrinated to this. But I never thought of the possibility of men having to live in fear for their bodily safety no matter where they are or what time it is, and being taught to take these kinds of precautionary actions. It made me angry that this never occurred to me before. Anthony also posed the question: Who is Alderman’s intended audience, women? Men? Both? Because it was really interesting to read and discuss this with a person of the opposite-identifying gender, for both of us. This would be an amazing movie, or long-form episode of Black Mirror! [Read in January 2018.]

Our next choices for BFIBC are The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin, which we chose after hearing of her death last week. I’m a few chapters in already and to be honest, I have no idea who anyone is or what the hell is going on. I really struggle getting into this kind of deeply complex sci-fi fantasy, it’s not really my thing, so we’ll see how it goes. I might have to DNF. Our second choice is pending at the moment… we both happen to have copies of David Bowie Made Me Gay by Darryl W. Bullock, but in February I’d like to consciously choose books written by black authors (I’ll finish whatever I’m in the middle of, but for my new reads for the month). Stay tuned!

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: ending things, fever dream, white tears, vegetarian

I’m getting more into weird fiction. I love strange, mind-bending stories that have the power to shock me and make me think about them hours (days, weeks) after finishing. I still have quite a lot of wonder to me and an overactive imagination, so OMG twists in books usually manage to surprise me! In 2016 and 2017 I read these four unusual, dark books:

I put Iain Reid’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things on hold before I saw mixed reviews, so I didn’t have high expectations when it finally came through for me from the library. But wow, what a mind fuck! A young couple visit the man’s parents at their rural farmhouse for dinner one night, and the girlfriend is internally ruminating on their relationship and how she might end it soon. Things get progressively creepier and more odd during dinner. On the way home, they are stalled by a snowstorm and end up at a local high school to wait it out… no spoilers! Reid does an effective job creating a menacing atmosphere, and building tension that releases only at the very end. I thought it was a great, short psychological horror! [Read ebook in December 2016.]

Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream was getting tons of raves this year, but unfortunately for me it didn’t quite live up to the hype… but I think maybe it was me—I had a hard time following exactly what was happening, especially towards the end, listening on audiobook. A woman wakes up in a hospital bed with a young boy beside her, and he urges her to recount how she ended up there, what happened to her daughter, and a day she spent with his mother. The boy pushes her to stay focused on what’s important as she searches her memory. “Fever Dream” is a perfect title; it’s surreal and unsettling with a palpable sense of dread and I really, really wish I had been able to get into it. I think maybe in 2018 I’ll try it on paper or ebook. [Listened to audiobook in February 2017.]

Two young men meet in college and bond over their shared love of music and records in Hari Kunzru’s White Tears. One of them explores New York City recording sounds, and one day encounters a blues song being sung by a man playing chess in the park. He and his friend “authenticate” the song, making it sound vintage, give the “artist” a fake name, and list it on record collecting websites. A veteran collector meets up with them and insists the song and singer are real, and at this point the story takes a dark turn sending the boys on a disorienting and disturbing journey to discover the truth. It has some mixed reviews—people either love or hate the new direction in the second half—but I thought it was a good, thought-provoking book on a number of issues including race, privilege, and cultural appropriation and exploitation. Plus a little bit of supernatural mystery/thriller thrown in. [Listened to audiobook in April 2017.]

I read this interesting, short book over the course of one day. Han Kang’s The Vegetarian is eerie, sad, provocative, and Kafkaesque. Yeong-hye and her husband live a normal, uneventful life. But one day she starts having dark, violent, gory thoughts and nightmares and decides to stop eating meat. After this decision, Yeong-hye’s sanity starts a descent into madness, where she wants to become one with plant life and transition into being a tree. The story is told from three perspectives: Yeong-hye’s husband, sister, and brother-in-law. We never actually have an inside glimpse into Yeong-hye’s interior thoughts. The blurb says it’s an allegory for modern-day South Korea… but I admit I can’t speak to that accuracy as I’m not familiar with the country’s social and cultural state at the moment. However, my interpretation of Yeong-hye’s decision to take control of her body on her own terms and the negative, sometimes hostile reactions to her decision from men (and women) in her life smack of the infuriating social construct of beauty standards and the archaic “woman’s place” in patriarchal society. I guess there were issues with the translation from Korean, and I’m not quite sure how to feel about that because it was an impactful and interesting story for me in English anyway. [Read in September 2016.]

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.]

sing, unburied, sing

Jesmyn Ward has become one of my new favorite writers. Her work is eloquent and powerful, and she deserves all the awards and accolades she’s received lately for her latest book, Sing, Unburied, Sing. Edited from Goodreads:

Jojo and his toddler sister, Kayla, live with their grandparents, Mam and Pop, and the occasional presence of their drug-addicted mother, Leonie, on a farm on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. Leonie is simultaneously tormented and comforted by visions of her dead brother, which only come to her when she’s high; Mam is dying of cancer; and quiet, steady Pop tries to run the household and teach Jojo how to be a man. When Michael, the white father of Leonie’s children, is released from prison, she packs her kids and a friend into her car and sets out across the state for Parchman farm, the Mississippi State Penitentiary, on a journey rife with danger and promise.

I initially had trouble getting into this book. I agree with some of the criticisms I’ve seen online—it’s a slow-moving burn, too much vomit (sorry, ever-so-mild spoiler), and I wasn’t entirely convinced of the ghosts until about halfway through. While an alternating first-person narrative doesn’t typically bother me, I found Jojo and Leonie’s voices a little too similar in tone. It too me far too long to get through; I started in October and didn’t read it at all in November (I was traveling… I barely read anything when visiting family!)

Ward’s esoteric, delicate writing as well as an excellent ending that made everything click for me ultimately made Sing, Unburied, Sing one of the best books I read this year. She builds tension describes situations and scenery so vividly you can easily become wrapped up in the story (at least, I did when I finally committed and settled into reading the rest of it this month). The characters were heartbreaking in their struggles and suffering, from Leonie’s addictions (to drugs and Michael) to Jojo’s protective instincts and loss of innocence, to Pop’s burdens as patriarch of this family and as an older Southern black man with his own personal demons. Ward powerfully illustrates many of America’s ills (specifically those that have historically and disproportionately effected black Americans)—poverty, parental neglect, disease, racism, incarceration, addiction, premature death, violence—with a multi-generational, mixed-race family in the deep South and a good dose of magical realism. It’s a Southern Gothic tragedy, one that is all too typical (ghosts notwithstanding) and familiar these days.

Read in December 2017.