radical hope

Radical Hope: Letters of Love and Dissent in Dangerous Times edited by Carolina De Robertis on my holds for a while, and it just came through! Edited from Goodreads:

Radical Hope is a collection of letters—to ancestors, to children five generations from now, to strangers in grocery lines, to any and all who feel weary and discouraged—written by award-winning novelists, poets, political thinkers, and activists. Provocative and inspiring, Radical Hope offers readers a kaleidoscopic view of the love and courage needed to navigate this time of upheaval, uncertainty, and fear, in view of the recent U.S. presidential election.

I thought this was a pretty solid collection. The letters are powerful, drawing on personal experiences of discrimination and other social and economic hardships, and explain fears and hopes for the present and future of the United States. Many letters make note of America’s dark history, illustrating the point that there’s no real “great” for everyone to go back to and highlighting all the progress we have made thanks to the struggle and tenacity of the Civil Rights Movement. I loved how inclusive the collection is, covering race, queerness, immigration, poverty, and more. “Dear Millennials” by Aya de Léon was my favorite entry.

The letters can be a little repetitive, though—a through-line of comfort during the Obama administration, like the writers were only shaken awake to reality in November 2016. Radical Hope is a good read to ground yourself in reality; a reminder that the results of the 2016 election aren’t apocalyptic (I sure hope not, at least…) but that doesn’t mean we have the luxury of inaction. Wake up and do the work to get progress back on track so we really can make America great, for all citizens.

Listened to audiobook in March 2018.

book club: homegoing

Anthony and my latest read for Best Friends International Book Club was Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. Bonus: Homegoing was also on my 2018 TBR Pile Challenge list. Edited from the book jacket:

Two half sisters, Effia and Esi, are born into different villages in eighteenth-century Ghana. Effia is married off to an Englishman and lives in comfort in the palatial rooms of Cape Coast Castle. Unbeknownst to Effia, her sister, Esi, is imprisoned beneath her in the castle’s dungeons, sold with thousands of others into the Gold Coast’s booming slave trade, and shipped off to America, where her children and grandchildren will be raised in slavery. One thread of Homegoing follows Effia’s descendants through centuries of warfare in Ghana, as the Fante and Asante nations wrestle with the slave trade and British colonization. The other thread follows Esi and her children into America. From the plantations of the South to the Civil War and the Great Migration, from the coal mines of Pratt City, Alabama, to the jazz clubs and dope houses of twentieth-century Harlem, right up through the present day, Homegoing makes history visceral, and captures, with singular and stunning immediacy, how the memory of captivity came to be inscribed in the soul of a nation.

WHY why why didn’t I read this right when I bought it, right when it came out? This is a BEAUTIFUL book. I was really fascinated by the subject matter so that’s why I originally picked it up, but I usually struggle with narratives that are set too far in the past. But Gyasi’s research for her debut novel is so extensive and her writing is so vivid that I became completely immersed within the first few pages. She managed to give three-dimensional life and personality to every character despite our only spending one chapter with each of them. Each chapter felt like its own short story but woven together created a rich, captivating tapestry.

I really enjoyed learning about Africa’s parallel timeline over the last 250 years to America’s (even if through a fictional novel). America’s past (and lots of its present…) is horrific and shameful regarding its treatment of its black citizens. But  Homegoing doesn’t play the “grass is greener” game. There’s turmoil in Africa’s past, too—wars, corruption, complicity in slavery (kidnapping and selling fellow Africans to British slave traders), cultural and social upheaval due to colonization and missionaries, ostracizing members of your own community, etc. No place, no country, no group of people on Earth is perfect. There are upsetting scenes throughout and Gyasi doesn’t sugarcoat, but does have a sensitive touch handling difficult material.

Anthony pointed out some excellent quotes that illustrate how wonderfully Gyasi connects everything in the book: the countries, the family’s separate generations, and real history. As I’ve grown as a life-long learner, I’ve definitely noticed this looking back on my grade school education (which I do feel was excellent, but there’s so, so much missing from textbooks and curriculum, between factual events and different perspectives):

“We believe the one who has the power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you study history, you must always ask yourself, Whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too. From there, you begin to get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture.” (Yaw, to his students; 226–27)

I’m continuously sickened by the audacious privilege white people have enjoyed for centuries, in their feeling of entitlement to control everything and benefit, but are absolved from responsibility for any of the “bad stuff” resulting from their actions. These two quotes stood out to us:

“White men get a choice. They get to choose they job, choose they house. They get to make black babies, then disappear into thin air, like they wasn’t never there to begin with, like these black women they slept with or raped done laid on top of themselves and got pregnant. White men get to choose for black men too. Used to sell ’em; not they just send ’em to prison like they did my daddy, so that they can’t be with they kids. … Alls I can think is this ain’t the way it’s s’posed to be.” (Willie, to Sonny; 262)

Originally, he’d wanted to focus his work on the convict leasing system that had stolen years off of his great-grandpa H’s life, but the deeper into the research he got, the bigger the project got. How could he talk about Great-Grandpa H’s story without also talking about his grandma Willie and the millions of other black people who had migrated north, fleeing Jim Crow? (Marcus; 289)

This last quote from page 289 continues, connecting the Great Migration to Harlem of the 1960s, to the “war on drugs” of the 1980s, to the Prison Industrial Complex… basically what you could learn all about in more detail in The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander (another excellent BFIBC pick). It’s just a very succinct look at how the racial disparity and discrimination in the U.S. didn’t just “happen.” The system has been purposefully designed and re-shaped along the way to continue to operate in this function, but behind a more palatable facade.

In addition to the snapshots of very real history placed in the context of this one family’s parallel journeys, the family itself is compelling. There is a family tree at the start of the book, which beyond being helpful to the reader, it also struck me how unfair it is that I get to see this family tree stretch back to the matriarch, Esi and Effia’s mother, but the current generation, at least Marcus, the twenty-first-century American, will never be able to trace his lineage back to her, no matter how much research he does. His family has been broken and separated far too many times to get the full, clear picture. And I was so heartbroken by this knowledge, and even more saddened and outraged knowing for a fact that this travesty happened to countless families in America during slavery. I can’t imagine the feeling of simply not knowing, of finding that at a certain point in the past, the path of your lineage just… vanishes. What does that do to your sense of identity? Reading Homegoing, both the America and Africa parts, I was reminded of articles of recent studies I’ve seen floating around online about how we carry trauma of our ancestors, close and distant, with us—it is psychologically transmitted across generations.

I loved this epic family saga, and I loved reading it with Anthony for our book club. Ok if I have one tiny complaint it’s that the ending is a little tidy but whatever, I still cried. Homegoing is one of the most affecting and thought-provoking pieces of historical fiction I’ve read in a long time. I can’t encourage readers enough to pick up this book.

We also discussed They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us (I’ve read it, Anthony was almost finished) and both LOVED it, and decided on our next BFIBC pick: The House of Impossible Beauties by Joseph Cassara. We’re on a fiction bender for book club lately!

Homegoing is my third of twelve books read for the 2018 TBR Pile Challenge.

Read in March 2018.

an american marriage

I had to see what was up with An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, the very hyped latest pick for Oprah’s book club. Heavily edited from Goodreads:

Newlyweds Celestial and Roy are the embodiment of both the American Dream and the New South. He is a young executive and she is an artist on the brink of an exciting career. But as they settle into the routine of their life together, they are ripped apart by circumstances neither could have imagined. Roy is arrested and sentenced to twelve years for a crime Celestial knows he didn’t commit. Though fiercely independent, Celestial finds herself bereft and unmoored. As their time apart passes, Celestial is unable to hold on to the love that has been her center. After five years, Roy’s conviction is suddenly overturned, and he returns to Atlanta ready to resume their life together.

There’s a lot to unpack in this story, which is fictional but undoubtedly all too real for many families. It’s a love story at its core, but through the lens of a tragically common situation black Americans face today. I’m not surprised Oprah (and probably many others) picked this for book club—it makes for excellent discussion. How can black Americans achieve the American dream when they have to be twice as good and work twice as hard for it, when their achievements don’t protect them at all from persecution and discrimination? What about loyalty, or conditional vs. unconditional love? How do partners handle life-altering, stressful, major life events in their marriage? Does absence truly make the heart grow fonder? And more, like dealing with the stigma families deal with when one of their own is or has been incarcerated, nature vs. nurture, fathers and sons, etc.

I’m happy I listened on audio. The actors, Sean Crisden and Eisa Davis, did a fantastic job performing these characters and giving them depth, especially during the epistolary first half of the novel. Their delivery and emotion gave Roy and Celestial life; I felt almost like I was experiencing a play in person rather than listening to a book. That’s also a testament to Jones’s wonderful storytelling. My one tiny complaint is that the ending was just a touch too tidy for me, but it (along with the rest of the story) was completely believable.

An American Marriage lived up to the hype for me. Life isn’t strictly black and white, people are complex and flawed and both good and bad. It’s a powerful story about love, being human, being black in America, familial relationships, friendships, and reacting/recovering after the universe unexpectedly slaps you in the face and upends your life.

Listened to audiobook in March 2018.

reading recap: february 2018

I’m pretty sure I’m out of that slump and funk now, by the end of February. I had a great month of reading, much better than January. Almost all of these were audiobooks. Since I knew the end of my membership to my library back home in Kansas City was ending in February, I wanted to capitalize on using it as much as possible. I was pretty pleased to get some highly anticipated new releases, as well as discovering some new gems I hadn’t heard of before.

My favorites were easily Dark MoneyOtis Redding, and Broad Strokes, with Shark Drunk close behind. I’m happy I stuck with writing up posts after finishing books here throughout the month too!

Other bookish stuff… I started The Left Hand of Darkness for my Best Friends International Book Club and quickly DNF’d. It’s just not for me. I have trouble getting into high sci-fi fantasy in general, and I could barely follow the story. I didn’t know who was who or what was happening most of the time. Anthony, my book club buddy, DNF’d too, saying, “So many words I don’t know how to say, let alone keep track of. And the narrative voice doesn’t resonate with me; I can’t understand where I am in almost any given sentence.” Some people have the right kind of mind for elaborate, made-up words and worlds, some don’t. Our first-ever BFIBCDNF! I also bought two new Singaporean small-press books, SQ21: Singapore Queers in the 21st Century and The Infinite Library.

Right now I’m reading Homegoing (for BFIBC and the TBR Pile Challenge), The Summer That Melted Everything (TBR Pile Challenge), and SQ21.

Otherwise, I’ve been spending time drawing and trying to get out of the apartment more. I went to see the Museé d’Orsay impressionism exhibit at the National Gallery of Singapore last week, which was fantastic, saw the amazing  Black Panther movie, and also bought a new bass!! It’s a Fender American Elite Jazz Bass. I’m in love.

monthly recap image

this will be my undoing

There was a lot of hype surrounding This Will Be My Undoing by Morgan Jerkins before it came out in January, so I put it hold back then and the audiobook came through the library for me this month. Edited from Goodreads:

From one of the fiercest critics writing today, Morgan Jerkins’s highly-anticipated collection of linked essays interweaves her incisive commentary on pop culture, feminism, black history, misogyny, and racism with her own experiences to confront the very real challenges of being a black woman today. Jerkins is only in her twenties, but she has already established herself as an insightful, brutally honest writer who isn’t afraid of tackling tough, controversial subjects. In This Will Be My Undoing, she takes on perhaps one of the most provocative contemporary topics: What does it mean to “be”—to live as, to exist as—a black woman today? This is a book about black women, but it’s necessary reading for all Americans.

I’m on the fence a little bit about this one. Jerkins is a great writer, and has tons of potential for the future. But “controversial” and “brutally honest” are good adjectives for this book. I’m generally not upset by the most common content-triggering topics like sex and violence, but there are a lot here and she goes into great detail, so I guess just be prepared if you decide to read this one. Some of the essays were really good, especially those relating history to present-day black experiences, and those about her childhood. I also enjoyed the essays on Beyoncé’s groundbreaking visual album Lemonade and Michelle Obama.

However—and I completely acknowledge Jerkins’s book is not “for me,” as a white, middle-class, Oregon Trail-generation woman from the Midwest—there are some double standards and generalizations that made me sort of uncomfortable. She stereotypes white women and idealizes Japanese people. As a white woman who does not fit her narrow description of them, I’m just kind of like, well we’re not all rich, coddled, slim, beautiful Trump voters… And as an American living in Asia, I have to say, I really hate the “expat” mindset, which typically manifests itself as either the “white savior” trope or thinking that other countries and cultures exist solely for Americans to “discover” themselves, or something. So while I don’t doubt her interest in Japanese culture, I was bothered by her descriptions of Japan and its people. Remember that viral video a few years ago of a woman silently walking around New York City for hours to demonstrate frequent and unsettling street harassment of women? Jerkins weirdly defends the men in the video, while at the same time taking offense to being catcalled herself? I was confused as there being any difference.

I guess overall I was expecting something more insightful or somehow different, based on the hype and subtitle. Implicit bias exists in everyone. I respect Jerkins for putting it all out there, though, even the private, “shameful” stuff you’re supposedly not supposed to talk about.

Listened to audiobook in February 2018.

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.