mini-reviews: evicted, janesville, and how to speak midwestern

It’s no secret I’m very homesick here in Singapore. There is no place better or more beautiful on earth to me than my beloved home state, Wisconsin. I somehow manage to find connections to the Dairy State in almost everything—an actor in a random movie I know is from Green Bay, for example, or a singer of a song playing on the radio is from Milwaukee. And I love to celebrate all the great, wonderful things about Wisconsin: natural beauty, excellent sports, delicious food and beer, progressive political history, and more. That’s not to say I don’t recognize flaws and shortcomings in some Wisconsin systems, and I’m always interested in learning more about them and what can be done. Two new books in the last year along these lines were very high on my list, plus another one just for fun:

Evicted by Matthew Desmond won the 2017 Pulitzer in General Nonfiction this year. It follows the author as he delves into destitute neighborhoods of Milwaukee and shares the intimate stories of a few poverty-stricken families living there on the brink, forced to spend the majority of their meager earnings on rent. They are adults raising kids, differently abled persons, drug addicts, and those mired in crushing debt, living in constant fear that one tiny mishap will destroy everything, and they’ll be evicted for falling behind on rent payments (because it has happened to them time and again), and may have to move to shelters or more dangerous areas… or end up homeless. Desmond outlines how people across the country find themselves in these precarious situations, and how the cycle viciously continues with virtually no relief in sight. It’s a personal, eye-opening look at the housing crisis, and how evictions, crime, segregation, and more are connected. I admired the tenacity of the tenants—they just want a normal, safe life, like everyone does. Of course they do! I’m just at a loss sometimes as to how the system so horrifically fails its people and turns a blind eye. This is an important, devastating work totally deserving of the Pulitzer, and one of the best books I read in 2016. [Listened to audiobook in November 2016.]

Amy Goldstein’s Janesville is an excellent companion piece to Evicted, but instead of the housing crisis, Goldstein examines the job crisis during the Great Recession, using the example of the closing of Janesville’s GM plant in December 2008 and its aftermath to today. She does a masterful job immersing the readers in this small industrial city during this time, following several families through the shock, frustration, and humiliation of losing good jobs these men and women thought were stable and were relying on until their retirement… and even seeing pensions disappear. Then being told to retrain in another field, only to find those fields weren’t hiring either, or hiring hundreds of miles away (can’t move, their homes have lost value and can’t sell)—finding themselves in impossible, no-win situations. How does this economic devastation divide a community? How does it try to heal and build again? This is an excellent look at the American dream and how difficult it will be to rebuild the middle and working classes after the upheaval of the Great Recession. [Listened to audiobook in June 2017.]

I read Edward McClelland’s How to Speak Midwestern in June last year to myself in the mood before my big trip home last summer. This is a fun, short book about the subtle differences in Midwestern accents and dialects. It also covers the history of how each regional way of speech developed—a blend of slight changes from the East Coast with adaptation of Scandinavian and North Germanic languages to English. I identified with some of all of it, but of course mostly with the parts about Wisconsin! [Read ebook in June 2017.]

summer 2017 in wisconsin

I just finished a five-week visit back home to Wisconsin, and it may have been the best summer I’ve had… ever? I had more fun than a person should be allowed to have. I didn’t want it to end!
Early in the trip Nick and I spent a weekend in Chicago, where we had burgers at the metal-themed Kuma’s Corner with a cousin of mine and his girlfriend. After that, we stopped by Chicago Music Exchange to drool over all the amazing guitars, and later had cocktails at Reno where another cousin of mine works, to say hi to her. The next day, we brought our nephew to the Shedd Aquarium. He loved the sharks best! And of course we had to have Lou Malnati’s deep dish pizza while we were there. I also hung out in Chicago later, the day before I flew back to Singapore, visiting the American Writers Museum and Museum of Contemporary Art, which had an amazing Takashi Murakami exhibit, The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg.

It’s really, really hard to beat summer in Wisconsin, specifically Madison. I’m honestly not sure there’s anything better. (I realize I’m completely biased!) I don’t think I was bored for even one minute. I went for a hike around Devil’s Lake, something I haven’t done in years, as well as biked around Madison a lot, including the Monona Lake Loop twice. I played my own bass again; I missed it so much!! I spent a bunch of time on State Street and at the UW Memorial Union Terrace, went to the Dane County Farmer’s Markets and Concerts on the Square, and had a great time reconnecting with high school and best childhood friends. Not to mention enjoying all the Wisconsin food I’ve missed terribly—cheese curds, fish fry, dumplings and sauerkraut, ice cream, brats, the beer!! The gloriously cheap local craft beer. Sigh.

My dad retired the last day of June, and I was so happy to be there for him. His coworkers pulled out all the stops, throwing a big party and making special shirts, “baseball cards” with my dad’s “career stats,” a huge poster with all his signature workplace sayings, and a 10-minute farewell video that had my mother and me in tears. They gifted him a very nice new bike and two sunburst chairs you see at the UW Terrace. It’s just heartwarming to see someone you love so appreciated and loved by others.

Another highlight of my trip was framing and delivering three of my drawings to their new owners, my cousin, nephew, and niece. I’ll write another post about my drawings soon, but it was a pleasure to pick out a spot in my nephew’s bedroom for his transformer drawing, and my niece lit up when she saw the horse drawing, even “petting” it and giving it a kiss on the nose. D’aww. 

My best friend Lee and his husband Thomas came to see me in Madison, and they were a sight for sore eyes! We did all sorts of classic Madison stuff, including checking out the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, having a boot at the Essen Haus, and making a little trip down to the New Glarus Brewery, which is something I’ve wanted to do forever!

Two of the best weekends I had back home were in Green Bay and Antigo, for my family reunions. In Green Bay, I went to the Packers Hall of Fame and took the Lambeau Field tour, which I had done before but the HoF was all updated and redone—it’s incredible. I could do a whole post alone on Lambeau Field. Also in Green Bay, I visited the farm one of my cousins manages, and of course went to my mom’s side’s family reunion. I talked to extended family I hadn’t met and/or seen in a long time, and some great stories were shared. I hadn’t been to this side’s reunion in several years (I always had a gig in Kansas City the same weekend) so it was wonderful to finally make it this time.

My dad’s side’s family reunion is held at my grandparents’ farm just north of Antigo, which is a small city in the north-central part of the state. My dad’s immediate family (my dad and mom, his siblings and their spouses, my cousin and her son, and me) went to the farm a couple days early to enjoy some “us together” time and prep for the reunion. We biked around the country roads, went berry picking, had a fish fry, went swimming at Jack Lake, and of course held our reunion. This year’s theme was Disco (for the adults) and Toy Story (for the kids). I wore my new “Disco Demolition Night” shirt and played two songs on guitar for the skit show, ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” and my own original “Back to Antigo,” which I sing every year now. People go all out with costumes, we crown a new “Potato Queen,” and sometimes roast a family member. We always finish up the festivities with a softball game, bonfire, and fireworks.

I really needed to see my family and feel like I’m at home where I belong after all these months abroad. I just felt awake and alive, and I got a vital dose of love and attention that I’d been craving. Singapore is nice and I’m happy for the adventure, but it can be a little lonely for me here sometimes; I’m not used to being apart from family for so long. And besides, there’s no place else on Earth quite like Wisconsin. I already can’t wait to return.

reading recap: june 2017

I’m back in Singapore after the most wonderful, fun visit to see family and friends in Wisconsin last month. I’ll post about that soon, but in the meantime here’s my (late) monthly reading recap for June:

  • Going Clear (audio) … Lawrence Wright, read by Morton Sellers
  • How to Speak Midwestern (ebook) … Edward McClelland
  • The Emperor of All Maladies … Siddhartha Mukherjee
  • Janesville: An American Story (audio) … Amy Goldstein, read by Joy Osmanski

Not much because of my trip, which was expected. I hardly ever get much reading done while visiting family. But these four books were all really interesting and enjoyable. I’m not sure I can even choose a favorite or stand-out; I would recommend them all. The Emperor of All Maladies was on my list for a very long time, though, followed by Going Clear. I’m really happy I finally read them; they were long but worth every minute. I knew as soon as I heard about it I had to read Janesville, about the economic fall of the formerly booming industrial town in my home state, and luckily I was able to get the audio from the library without a wait. How to Speak Midwestern is a fun, brief look at the subtle differences in Midwestern accents, and was a really nice way to get in the mood for my trip back home.

I finished reading Roxane Gay’s phenomenal memoir Hunger on the plane ride back a few days ago. Next on my list are It by Stephen King in anticipation of the new movie coming out in September, as well as Al Franken, Giant of the Senate and Chris Hayes’s A Colony in a Nation. I also hit 80% of my reading goal for the year already… maybe time to bump it up once more?? Possibly! No matter what I feel good that I’m going to have a record year for reading.
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it’s monday! what are you reading?

It’s Monday, what are you reading? What am I NOT reading, is more like it! I’m having attention issues. And just busy—it’s the holidays after all, and for musicians that means lots of gigs. And I’m excited about some new developments, more on that at a later date. Anyway, as for reading, I was having a lot of trouble committing to anything for the last month or so but finally buckled down with my latest borrow from the library, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein. It’s really great so far, I’m about a third through it and can already recommend it.

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Last week for Thanksgiving I went up to Wisconsin with my husband to spend the holiday with my family. My mom’s side celebrated up in Green Bay, and I was lucky to go to the (nasty wet, cold) Packer game on Thanksgiving night! It was an ugly loss to the Chicago Bears but my dad, brother and I had a lot of fun anyway, as always. It was the night that Brett Favre‘s number was officially retired and unveiled in the stadium, so he was there, and Bart Starr was in good enough health to attend, too, so it was a really special, once-in-a-lifetime experience for us. The game was so bad that we teased: Brett Favre’s up in the box, suit him up! Haha 😉

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My husband and I had a great time tooling around Madison for a couple of days, too. First, we got old fashioneds and fried cheese curds at The Old Fashioned on the Capitol Square, hung out on State Street and shopped at Ear Wax Records, stopped by the Wonder Bar to say hi to my uncle and One Barrel Brewing Co. and Karben4 Brewery, a couple of newer joints. The next day, we played putt-putt at Vitense Golfland, shared flights at Capital Brewery in Middleton, and hit up my old stomping grounds on Willy Street, including Weary Traveler and Crystal Corner Bar.

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Now for the final stretch of the semester at work, holiday gigs and parties here in KC, and then back up to Wisconsin for Christmas.

What are you reading this week? Happy December!

shotgun lovesongs

Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler made the rounds on book blogs last year, and it came up as available on audio through my library last month. I didn’t realize it until I was almost finished, but this book is a great fit for the KC Library’s Love on the Rocks program. From Goodreads:

Hank, Leland, Kip and Ronny were all born and raised in the same Wisconsin town—Little Wing—and are now coming into their own (or not) as husbands and fathers. One of them never left, still farming the family’s land that’s been tilled for generations. Others did leave, went farther afield to make good, with varying degrees of success; as a rock star, commodities trader, rodeo stud. And seamlessly woven into their patchwork is Beth, whose presence among them—both then and now—fuels the kind of passion one comes to expect of love songs and rivalries.

There was a lot I liked about Shotgun Lovesongs. First, yay Wisconsin! It’s not everyday that you experience literary fiction set in Wisconsin (my home state), especially with it being another subtle, accurately portrayed character in itself. I’ve since learned that Butler is a Wisconsin resident, so that obviously makes the setting click, with its spot-on references. I was easily taken by the five friends and immersed in their world, as I have first-hand experience of small, rural Wisconsin towns myself. Their interpersonal relationships and struggles were realistic and easily relatable. Though Little Wing is fictional, I love the nod to Stevie Ray Vaughan (who died in a helicopter crash in Wisconsin) and Jimi Hendrix. Beyond that, with basing his main protagonist on Bon Iver’s leader Justin Vernon (a Wisconsin native), obviously music is a big inspiration for Shotgun and I loved that aspect of this book.

While I said the Wisconsin references were spot-on (and they were), occasionally they were a skosh heavy handed (John Deere and Leinenkugels [almost no one says the full name] and Carhartts oh my!), and the women didn’t feel fully fleshed out for me. Butler shatters some stereotypes with the men, but sadly plays right into others with the women of his fictional rural town (babies on the brain, frumpy clothes for farmer’s wives? come on). I thought it was great that on the audio each character was read by a different actor in the alternating-viewpoint chapters. The actors didn’t sound like they were from “up-nort” (forgivable) but thinking back, the characters all “spoke” in sort of the same voice… their inner monologues were rather similar.

I enjoyed Shotgun Lovesongs very much, though—it was just the right kind of escapism I’ve been needing lately. I’ve also found out that the movie rights have been secured; I can see this translating to film quite well!

Shotgun Lovesongs is my fourth book of five for the KC Library’s Love on the Rocks Adult Winter Reading Program.

Listened to audiobook from February 14 to March 15, 2015.

driven

The paper book I decided to bring along with me on my trip to Wisconsin last month was Driven: From Homeless to Hero, My Journeys On and Off Lambeau Field by Donald Driver. What else! I was in the mood for something light and uplifting, and I was heading home for a long weekend, so it was a perfect choice.

In Driven, Driver recounts his family’s struggles with poverty during his childhood, his drug-dealing adolescence, and his career in professional football, as well as his winning turn on Dancing with the Stars.

Who doesn’t love Donald Driver? He has consistently been a fan favorite for years, and is definitely one of my faves. He just has a bright, good-natured persona, and is bursting with charisma, which was upheld in this memoir. I didn’t really know much about his past, especially the extent to which his family suffered and his drug dealing and car stealing days. Driver’s a very fortunate person and it’s clear he doesn’t take it for granted, and it’s wonderful his tenacity and patience has paid off.

It was a real thrill to read about a player’s view of some Packers games that I remember watching or attending, and I was touched by Driver’s close friendship with Brett Favre. This book made me super excited for football season to start up again! Every fan of the Packers would love this memoir. I think it would also be fantastic to experience on audio, if Driver was the narrator of course, because it reads very conversationally, like he’s just hanging out with you telling you about his life.

While I really enjoyed it as a Packers fan, as a reader it has its share of flaws, mainly in the editing. I did find a tiny handful of spelling errors, and there was much repetition. Every time Favre is mentioned, it is reiterated that they were close friends, or that he was the quarterback. (Not verbatim, but you get the idea: “Packers quarterback Brett Favre, my close friend…” “My close friend Brett Favre (who was quarterback at the time) and I…”) This also happened with mentions of his wife Tina. I found the writing during the football chapters much more exciting and engaging than other chapters, not that the parts about his personal life and Dancing with the Stars weren’t interesting, they just didn’t go as deep (ha! get it… he’s a WR…#nerd) as the football writing.

An absolute recommend for Packers fans! Driver’s memoir is heartwarming and truly conveys how much he loves Green Bay, the game, the players, the community, and the fans. (I will admit to tearing up during his retirement ceremony, which I watched live online at my work desk. My boss walked in and was like, “What’s the matt— oh! You’re silly!” haha)

Read from July 8 to 17, 2014.