sq21: singapore queers in the 21st century

I recently took advantage of a sale at local indie shop Books Actually here in Singapore, and one of the books I picked up was SQ21: Singapore Queers in the 21st Century by Ng Yi-Sheng, edited by Jason Wee. I was interested in learning about LGBTQ culture in Singapore. Unedited from the book’s back cover:

First published in 2006, this groundbreaking collection of coming out stories was the first affirming non-fiction volume accompanied by real names and faces. Written in light, clear prose, SQ21 shows an unabashed straightforward honesty and finds inspiration in the lives of these ordinary Singaporeans. Though a bestseller that won acclaim as The Straits Times nonfiction book of that year, SQ21 remained out-of-print for nearly a decade. This new reprint comes updated with fresh material – a new interview by Ng Yi-Sheng, and a new foreword by the editor Jason Wee.

I want to get my main criticism out of the way. I couldn’t help notice several typos and inconsistencies throughout the book. The blurb has some examples: “non-fiction” and “nonfiction,” missing commas, hyphens instead of em-dashes, and (maybe just my preference but) I wouldn’t have hyphenated “out of print” since it’s following the noun it modifies. Some missing prepositions, some repeated words. Maybe I’m being way too picky, and I realize this is supposed to be conversational, in the subjects’ voices, but when you notice enough easily correctable grammatical errors it bugs, especially in a new, republished edition. Some of the footnotes were redundant as well.

Anyway! That gripe aside, which has nothing to do with the content, I did enjoy the stories in this book. They made me feel both sad and hopeful. I was sad about how deeply ingrained some misconceptions and stereotypes of homosexuality and bisexuality existed within the subjects themselves. I had to keep reminding myself that this is only from about a decade ago, and while there has been some progress for acceptance in Singapore, it still seems like it has a long way to go. And some things confound me a bit, like the Pink Dot festival—foreigners are not allowed to attend, participate, or even watch from a distance. It oddly goes against the core messaging of gay pride festivals: inclusivity and acceptance. From what I’ve gleaned living here for a couple years, Singapore is patriarchal, conservative, and oppressive in a general, subtle sense—things appear “perfect” on the surface, but no place is perfect. There’s no country on Earth that doesn’t have shameful, dark parts of its past (and present). We are a deeply flawed species.

But I am left more with a hopeful feeling, especially reading about the gay men accepted by their fellow military servicemen, the majority of parents either understanding or coming around, and that there has been a growing number of LGBTQ groups and organizations in Singapore. Religion is a big part of many of these stories… I’m sure there are entire books devoted solely to the oppressive, hostile attitude of religions against LGBTQ people. It’s infuriating, to be honest.

There’s also insight into LGBTQ Singaporeans in the context of race, age, nationality, societal expectations, and more. I appreciated that the afterward bemoans the lack of workplace stories and accounts from the older LGBTQ generation (hopefully for the next edition!). Maybe the next edition could include some gender identity representation, that would be awesome. In one chapter, the storyteller mentions a fellow student whose “parents were a woman and an FTM,” which is footnoted as “FTM: female-to-male transsexual; a person who was born in a woman’s body but lives as a man” and I wondered if that could have gone into more depth. The term “transgender” isn’t mentioned.

I really admire the people profiled in SQ21—their courage in relaying their personal experiences with coming out, whether difficult or smooth, is inspiring. This is an important piece of Singapore’s history and social progress.

Read in March 2018.

one summer: america, 1927

I remember seeing One Summer: America, 1927 when it first came out and being somewhat interested, but at the time I was intimidated by it’s length and I had mixed feelings about the one other book I had read by Bill Bryson before, A Walk in the Woods. But I’m less freaked by long books now, and this seemed like a great one to listen to on audio. Edited from Goodreads:

The summer of 1927 began with one of the signature events of the twentieth century: on May 21, 1927, Charles Lindbergh became the first man to cross the Atlantic by plane nonstop, and when he landed near Paris, he ignited an explosion of worldwide rapture and instantly became the most famous person on the planet. Meanwhile, Babe Ruth was beginning his assault on the home run record. Al Capone tightened his grip on the illegal booze business through reign of terror and municipal corruption. The first true “talking picture,” Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer, was filmed and forever changed the motion picture industry. All this and much, much more transpired in that epochal summer of 1927. In that year America stepped out onto the world stage as the main event, and One Summer transforms it all into narrative nonfiction of the highest order.

Bryson was matter-of-fact with the events, with a little bit of observational humor thrown in but not interjecting his own views, and not sugarcoating the bad stuff. As a reader in 2018, I couldn’t help but notice it’s largely about white men… however, yes, this book is about a very specific span of a few months of one particular year. And the major achievements and events that took place then were certainly carried out by white men. However! I appreciated that Bryson exposed these men for who they were—Lindbergh wasn’t the American hero the press made him out to be. He was bland, rude, and had secret mistresses (and children) in Germany. Coolidge couldn’t be bothered to do much, if anything, during his presidency. Henry Ford was a stubborn anti-Semite. And I loved learning about Mabel Walker Willebrandt, the U.S.’s second-ever woman assistant attorney general, and first woman to head the Tax Division. She came up with the idea of investigating tax evasion as a way to prosecute major criminal figureheads, which was used to bust Al Capone in 1931.

I learned a lot from this book. One thing leads to another. For example, I had no idea about the anarchist movement at the time, the example used here was the 1927 electric-chair executions of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, convicted of murder and armed robbery. Bryson profiles the executioner, Robert Elliot, who was basically America’s most prolific killer, if you want to look at it that way, and you learn about the rise of the electric chair. He also executed Ruth Snyder in 1928, convicted of killing her husband the summer of 1927. So then you learn about Snyder and her case… which made headlines in the brand-new type of news magazines, tabloids…

There’s so much more. The season of arguably the best baseball lineup ever, the 1927 Yankees’ Murderer’s Row, as well as the rivalry between Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth. The development of tabloids and the popularity of barnstorming (wild stunts that enthralled huge crowds, like flag-pole sitting). The rise of cinematic “talkies” just at the peak time of Broadway. The first national radio broadcasts and the invention of television. The beginnings of Mount Rushmore. Jack Dempsey’s historic boxing career and his final fights in 1927. Eugenics and the horrifying, unnecessary (but, at the time, totally legal) sterilization of tens of thousands of Americans.

I was especially captivated by the baseball (I had a mild obsession with Babe Ruth as a kid), organized crime and Al Capone, and the achievements of early aviation. Bryson does a wonderful job placing everything in context so you understand exactly how monumentally historic and important this time was, setting up what led to the events of summer 1927 (showing how America was woefully behind Europe regarding flight innovations, for example) and then laying out their lasting effects. This is a fascinating, engaging book!

Listened to audiobook in March 2018.

the summer that melted everything

Another pick for my 2018 TBR Pile Challenge! I’ve had  The Summer that Melted Everything by Tiffany McDaniel on my shelf since it came out—even traveled to Singapore with me in the move. From the book jacket:

Fielding Bliss has never forgotten the summer of 1984: The year a heat wave scorched Breathed, Ohio. The year he became friends with the devil. Sal seems to appear out of nowhere—a bruised and tattered thirteen-year-old boy claiming to be the devil himself answering an invitation. Fielding Bliss, the son of a local prosecutor, brings Sal home, where the Bliss family welcomes him, assuming he’s a runaway from a nearby farm town. When word spreads that the devil has come to Breathed, not everyone is happy to welcome his self-proclaimed fallen angel. Murmurs follow him and tensions rise, along with the temperature, as an unbearable heat wave rolls into town right along with him. As strange accidents start to occur, some in the town, riled by the feverish heat, start to believe that Sal is exactly who he claims to be. While members of the Bliss family wrestle with their own personal demons, a fanatic drives the town to the brink of a catastrophe that will change this sleepy Ohio backwater forever.

I was initially drawn to this book by the title and cover. And the title sort of aptly describes how I feel in the perpetual Singapore heat—the never-ending summer that’s melting me. I was pretty excited seeing a mention of Wisconsin on page 7 (“But did you know that in Wisconsin, there is a lake, a wondrous lake, called Devil?”), and I love Devil’s Lake! It is beautiful and clean with wonderful hiking trails and camping. So, I figured this will be right up my alley. Even though it wasn’t quite what I was expecting, I did enjoy this debut novel. This is a Southern Gothic novel and it is dark, definitely not a feel-good, summery story, despite the title and cover art.

When I say it wasn’t what I was expecting, I mean that I thought there was a supernatural element to the book, that Sal really was the Devil. But he wasn’t. But actually no wait, was he? See, I’m still thinking about it after finishing. That’s always a good sign. More magical realism then, but the story was entirely real. I thought McDaniel did a great job of giving individual personalities and life to her characters, especially the Bliss family and Sal. I was captivated throughout, wondering what was going to happen by the end (because it’s pretty clear something major will happen).

I do have this in hardback, but I ended up listening to the audiobook on a whim since it was available. I really enjoy Mark Bramhall’s narration, but for this one it was a little too Southern for me—yes, ultimately this is a Southern Gothic story, but it was set in Ohio. I’m not sure why the accents were rendered as so deeply “South,” like an Alabaman or Georgian dialect. It’s very folksy and distracted me a bit.

I said this wasn’t what I expected, but it ended up being more. McDaniel incorporates social issues that were (and are still) super relevant—racism, homophobia—which gave Summer a depth I didn’t see coming. And classic, good-vs-evil kind of parables. Even though the premise of the actual devil accepting an invitation may seem out there, the rest of the story was sadly and upsettingly believable. While the plot is dark and unsettling, it’s also a novel about acceptance and love. I’m glad I finally got to it!

The Summer that Melted Everything is my second of twelve books read for the 2018 TBR Pile Challenge.

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.

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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.

so you’ve been publicly shamed

Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed has been on my TBR pretty much since it came out a couple years ago. I’m not exactly sure what compelled me to read it now in particular…? But I decided to borrow the ebook from the library just because. Edited from Goodreads:

For the past three years, Jon Ronson has travelled the world meeting recipients of high-profile public shamings. The shamed are people like us—people who, say, made a joke on social media that came out badly, or made a mistake at work. Once their transgression is revealed, collective outrage circles with the force of a hurricane and the next thing they know they’re being torn apart by an angry mob, jeered at, demonized, sometimes even fired from their job. Simultaneously powerful and hilarious in the way only Jon Ronson can be, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is a deeply honest book about modern life, full of eye-opening truths about the escalating war on human flaws—and the very scary part we all play in it.

We’ve all done things that we’re not proud of in our lives—honest, stupid mistakes because (surprise!) we’re all flawed human beings. Imagine having your life ruined because of something you did or said, thinking it was just harmless, silly, and trivial in the moment. Remember Justine Sacco, the woman who tweeted, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” to her ~100 followers, got on an 11-hour flight, and found upon landing that her tweet had gone viral… and not in a good way? She meant it as a mockery of white ignorance and privilege, but the joke was tasteless and fell flat. Twitter ruthlessly destroyed her, so much so that she lost her job and social life, and embarrassed her family. Only recently has she gotten her life and reputation back on track.

What does such a brutal public shaming do to a person? How does one recover from such profound humiliation? Ronson’s book covers Sacco’s story, as well as a handful of others to varying degrees of disgrace, to illustrate the point that pitchfork-wielding angry mobs are still alive and well—they (we) tar and feather the “offender” behind the anonymous safety of the internet now instead of in the streets. Some people were afraid to leave the house after their shamings, some felt no shame at all and were practically unscathed. Why do we do this? Simply put: because we can. But Ronson shows yes, it’s because we can, but also much more.

Was I experiencing some schadenfreude by reading about these people’s shamings in this book? Maybe? I wanted to find out if their professional and personal lives survived, though—I wanted them to come out the other side with a new life. I never bullied anyone, I don’t participate in dragging people online or get into heated debates. But still. I’m aware of them. I lurk and I read through them sometimes. I have opinions on what perpetrators of certain offenses deserve (like the sexual harassment/assault stories recently exposed in Hollywood and, well, every industry and field). Why do we derive pleasure from hearing about and witnessing others’ misfortunes? How has public online shaming become a new kind of social justice system, and why do we feel entitled to dole out the punishment?

There’s a lot of psychology to unpack, a lot of questions to ask yourself after reading So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. I would have liked more insight and depth to the fact that today’s public shamings are overwhelmingly misogynistic, in that women get violent threats of rape and death almost immediately when they transgress whereas men do not. It’s more difficult for women to rebound from a shaming, both personally and professionally. This sexism is mentioned, but Ronson doesn’t elaborate. (Maybe follow up reading this one with Sady Doyle’s Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why).

Regardless of that minor criticism, this is just the kind of accessible research I like, in the same vein and as interesting as anything Mary Roach has written. Even though this book ultimately contains more questions than answers, it’s a thought-provoking book worth a read.

Read ebook in February 2018.