the first collection of criticism by a living female rock critic

With the ubiquity of online shopping, I really miss wandering into a bookstore and “discovering” a new book for which I’ve never seen a review, never heard of before, and just picking it up on a whim. Do you miss that sometimes? I know I can still do that, but still. It’s somehow not the same. Anyway, The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic by Jessica Hopper was a rare pleasant bookshop discovery for me last year. Edited from Goodreads:

Jessica Hopper’s music criticism has earned her a reputation as a firebrand, a keen observer and fearless critic not just of music but the culture around it. […] Through this vast range of album reviews, essays, columns, interviews, and oral histories, Hopper chronicles what it is to be truly obsessed with music. The pieces in The First Collection send us digging deep into our record collections, searching to re-hear what we loved and hated, makes us reconsider the art, trash, and politics Hopper illuminates, helping us to make sense of what matters to us most.

I was initially attracted by the cover and assertive title when I came across it at A Room of One’s Own, my favorite bookstore in Madison, Wisconsin, which I have to hit up every time I’m in my hometown for a visit. I admit I had never heard of Hopper before, not so much because she’s a critic that is a woman but because I don’t read Pitchfork or other music ‘zines—not regularly anyway, not enough to follow or even become acquainted with the names of certain writers. As a music reviewer in Kansas City myself at the time, I simply couldn’t resist buying The First Collection. I’m so glad I did because not only did this collection speak to me as a reviewer and critic, but also as a feminist and a woman whose adolescence was shaped during a certain period of popular music history covered here by Hopper.

Right off the bat, Hopper clarifies that she is, of course, not the first female music writer. The title serves as a call to recognize those who came before her and question why women aren’t more visible in this field. Hopper’s writing throughout the essays in The First Collection is pointed and distinctive, and I especially enjoyed her personal musings on her relationship with music. I wasn’t a Riot Grrl in the ’90s and punk isn’t my taste per se, but the feminist messaging certainly spoke to me then and Hopper’s insights on this subject affected me now, too. I don’t remember every essay (there are many), but the ones that still stand out to me a year after reading The First Collection are those about Miley Cyrus, the commercialism and corporatization of punk and alternative music festivals (Vans Warped Tour, Lollapalooza), the making of Hole’s Live Through This (even though I can’t stand Hole!), and her trip to Michael Jackson’s hometown after he died. The best and most thorough piece, though, is her interview with Jim DeRogatis about R. Kelly’s sexual misconduct and assault of underage black girls, who received no justice and whose lives were basically ruined (DeRogatis is the one who originally broke the story).

The First Collection was one of the best books I read in 2016, and I sure hope this book, Hopper, and her predecessors inspire a new generation of women music writers in the future.

Read in March 2016.

misery

This month, Care at Care’s Online Book Club hosted a readalong of Stephen King’s Misery. Edited from Goodreads:

Paul Sheldon, author of a bestselling series of historical romances, wakes up one winter day in a strange place to unspeakable pain (a dislocated pelvis, a crushed knee, two shattered legs) and to a bizarre greeting from the woman who saved his life: “I’m your number one fan!”

Annie Wilkes is a huge ex-nurse, handy with controlled substances and other instruments of abuse, including an ax and a blowtorch. A dangerous psychotic with a Romper Room sense of good and bad, fair and unfair, Annie Wilkes may be Stephen King’s most terrifying creation.

What a fun, creepy, genuinely scary story! I read a few of King’s books in high school, then two more a couple years ago (Under the Dome11/22/63), and couldn’t resist this readalong when I found it. Somehow I always forget how much I enjoy King’s books and writing. And of my limited experience with King, Misery is probably the freakiest of what I’ve read.

CGXdaIvUkAAZmMbI probably never thought to read this since I’ve seen the movie several times—it’s one of my favorite horror flicks. The cast is absolutely perfect. And while I still love the movie, the book was better (as books tend to be), and goes well beyond the terror found in the movie. I listened to Misery on audio while at work (it was a quiet week at the office) and squirmed and squealed through many parts that were particularly gruesome and sadistic. On audio, though, some of the Misery sections (where we’re reading Paul’s new story about Misery, the character in his romance series) were hard to follow and tiresome. I looked through those parts in my hardcover copy and they made much more sense on paper.

miseryralbutton

What makes Misery special of King’s work is that it’s horror but without the supernatural—more of a psychological thriller. You read about dangerous, lethal psychopaths like Annie in the news all the time. King is a master at creating interesting, memorable characters, and Annie and Paul in Misery are no exception. More so, even, being basically the only two people in the entire story. King delves deeply into both of their psyches. Annie must rank right up there as one of the most strange and terrifying cockadoodie villains in literature. Awesome book!

Listened to audiobook from June 9 to 11, 2015.

brain on fire

I know it’s only the first month of the year, but I’m on track so far for my 2015 TBR Pile Challenge! The first book I decided to read from my list was Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan. From Goodreads:

When twenty-four-year-old Susannah Cahalan woke up alone in a hospital room, strapped to her bed and unable to move or speak, she had no memory of how she’d gotten there. Days earlier, she had been on the threshold of a new, adult life: at the beginning of her first serious relationship and a promising career at a major New York newspaper. Now she was labeled violent, psychotic, a flight risk. What happened? In a swift and breathtaking narrative, Susannah tells the astonishing true story of her descent into madness, her family’s inspiring faith in her, and the lifesaving diagnosis that nearly didn’t happen.

In August 2013 I actually attended Cahalan’s appearance in Kansas City for an author event sponsored by Rainy Day Books. She was bubbly and personable, and there was a particularly sweet moment when, during the Q&A, a mother expressed her gratitude at Cahalan’s book raising awareness for neurological diseases such as these, of which her young daughter suffered as well. The girl was there too, and Cahalan took her up on stage to sit with her.

Brain on Fire is an interesting read—her descent into “madness,” to the bafflement of many doctors, was harrowing and shocking. The best part is that Cahalan brings to light the prospect that perhaps those with undiagnosed “mystery” illnesses, or illnesses such as schizophrenia or autism, say, may actually have a disease that’s treatable and curable. How many people have died in situations like the one Cahalan faced? The brain is a fascinating and enigmatic subject.

While I do think the pacing and layout was done well, the writing lacked in places for me. Some of it was repetitive and some of it felt like trying to hard to be literary, like the book couldn’t decide whether to be a narrative memoir (too many adverb…) or an investigative scientific research piece—admittedly I glazed over many of the scientific descriptions. I also didn’t get a great sense of who Cahalan was before the onset of the disease. A bizarre behavior manifests seemingly out of nowhere, and we just take her word for it that it was uncharacteristic? I mean, yeah, I guess so… I just wish we would have gotten to know Cahalan better beforehand so the unusual symptoms could carry more cause for alarm. I didn’t feel emotionally invested or connected to her.

But, if you like the TV show House and have an interest in books about science, health, and mysteries, I think this one is worth a read.

Brain on Fire is my first of twelve books read for the 2015 TBR Pile Challenge.

Read from January 23 to 25, 2015.

men we reaped

Here’s another I put on hold at the library, which came through this week. I considered buying a copy of Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped a while back, but was nervous it was going to be emotionally tough to read. I was right, but it was worth it. From Goodreads:

In five years, Jesmyn Ward lost five young men in her life—to drugs, accidents, suicide, and the bad luck that can follow people who live in poverty, particularly black men. Dealing with these losses, one after another, made Jesmyn ask the question: Why? And as she began to write about the experience of living through all the dying, she realized the truth—and it took her breath away. Her brother and her friends all died because of who they were and where they were from, because they lived with a history of racism and economic struggle that fostered drug addiction and the dissolution of family and relationships. Jesmyn says the answer was so obvious she felt stupid for not seeing it. But it nagged at her until she knew she had to write about her community, to write their stories and her own.

Men We Reaped left me a little breathless. Ward’s grief is raw and palpable… practically oozes off the pages. It just hurt my heart, reading about her brother—I almost dreaded reading the final chapter dealing with his death. I too have fierce, unshakable feelings of love, pride, and protectiveness for my brother. I’ve often said I can’t imagine who I would be without him. I just cannot even imagine the agony of losing a sibling. Ward eloquently describes these important, special people in her life that tragically left this world all too soon. Her articulate prose is full of pain, love, and grace.

I ended up rating this a 5-star on Goodreads because I found it so affecting, and of course timely considering the recent national attention to deaths of young black men like these in Men We Reaped. This was an excellent complement to The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, which I read earlier this month—urban and rural, Northeast and South. Men We Reaped was even more potent for me, though, probably because it was written in first-person by someone who was born into these race and socioeconomic issues. While she does state these issues have a damaging effect on so many lives and communities, it’s kind of treated as a given, not too deeply examined… but perhaps that’s for a different, more research-based book to accomplish. Men We Reaped is for the heart.

Anyway, I was so moved by this beautiful book, a testament to love, loyalty, community, family… and a heartbreaking account of some of the harsh, tragic realities of life for millions of Americans, particularly in the rural South.

Read from January 19 to 22, 2015.

letter to my daughter

Last week I needed a short audiobook for my last few commutes to and from rehearsals for our holiday concerts, before taking a break for the rest of the month. I settled on Letter to My Daughter by Maya Angelou, perfect at a brief 2.5 hours, and also because I love Angelou and have wanted to read more of her work for years. From Goodreads:

Dedicated to the daughter she never had but sees all around her, Letter to My Daughter reveals Maya Angelou’s path to living well and living a life with meaning. Told in her own inimitable style, this book transcends genres and categories: guidebook, memoir, poetry, and pure delight.

I enjoyed Letter to My Daughter a lot, but didn’t quite love it. It is too brief, perhaps, or perhaps it deserves a read on paper, too, to fully absorb her writing and advice. But I absolutely loved listening to Angelou narrate on this unabridged audio version. Her words and voice are just so comforting, so welcoming, so endearing. I felt like she was speaking right to me through a lot of this.

Some chapters resonated more with me, especially those in which she recounts major events in her life, and finding a personal-professional life balance. She also spends a good deal of the book on her experiences with faith, family, and race. This is only the second book of Angelou’s that I’ve read, but I did learn that several of the personal anecdotes were covered in previous books.

Letter to My Daughter is one I would recommend to all women, especially those new to Angelou, and those in their 20s, finding their way into adulthood. Her brilliance, wisdom, and humility are beautiful and abundant in this short volume.

Listened to audiobook from December 9 to 13, 2014.

tiny beautiful things

The second audiobook I listened to on my road trip to Wisconsin over Memorial Day weekend was Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed. From Goodreads:

Life can be hard: your lover cheats on you; you lose a family member; you can’t pay the bills—and it can be great: you’ve had the hottest sex of your life; you get that plum job; you muster the courage to write your novel. Sugar—the once-anonymous online columnist at The Rumpusnow revealed as Cheryl Strayed, author of the bestselling memoir Wild—is the person thousands turn to for advice. Tiny Beautiful Things brings the best of Dear Sugar in one place and includes never-before-published columns and a new introduction by Steve Almond. Rich with humor, insight, compassion—and absolute honesty—this book is a balm for everything life throws our way.

So many great reviews (and enjoying Strayed’s Wild last year myself) prompted me to add this to my listening queue. I liked how Strayed tackled a wide variety of issues, from dysfunctional divorces to “does he like me?” queries, from deaths of children via drunk drivers to high school love triangles, and pretty much everything in between—it was a good balance between soft and hard.

As many other reviews I read mentioned, Strayed more often than not regales her readers with stories of her own life, making this much more of a memoir than a self-help book. It’s better that way, in my opinion, because Strayed’s advice usually boils down to “just do it,” in so many words. To her credit, she does admit she is not exactly qualified to dole out traditional advice, but says she offers more of a “alternative perspective” to her letter writers.

Because her replies are long and meandering, you lose yourself in her straight-forward yet warm and elegant prose, and more than once I completely forgot she was answering a letter. Her writing is sharp, lovely, rich, and stays with you—not afraid to get down there with the ugliness of life and work through it. I love the honesty and compassion in her responses, which was enhanced greatly in the audiobook version, read by Sugar herself.

Listened to audiobook from May 26 to 31, 2014.