They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us

By Hanif Abdurraqib

They_Cant_Kill_UsHanif Abdurraqib is very smart and funny on twitter and instagram, but I was unprepared for just how deep his collection of essays would go. When Rebecca asked what it was about, I said “essays discussing different musicians and albums,” which is such the tip of the iceberg as to be completely misleading.

Abdurraqib is first and foremost a poet, and it shows in these essays. Every word is carefully chosen, which leads to very dense and evocative prose, and slow but engrossing reading. Just about every essay starts with a musician or album (ranging from Carly Rae Jepsen to Future*), and uses that music as an access point to discuss something about humanity or society that the music is trying to address.

As a black boy growing up in Ohio and super into the punk scene, and then an esteemed music critic trying to sell all his friends on Jepsen, Abdurraqib is well experienced in finding his own place in scenes that are not often created with people like him in mind. He talks about the tension that often exists between the artist, the art, and the audience, any of which can be alternately be welcoming or alienating. The funny thing is that Abdurraqib talks about music in such a way that I got all excited to actually listen to it, but then it inevitably wasn’t as interesting or complex as his analysis. So, while I didn’t get introduced to any new favorite musicians, I’m definitely keeping tabs on Abdurraqib’s future writing.

*It took me a good five minutes of flipping through the book to select two, since I kept being like, oh, I should mention The Weeknd; no, My Chemical Romance; no wait, Migos; or Fleetwood Mac, etc. etc. Abdurraqib has an awe-inspiring range of interests!

A Perfect Union of Contrary Things

By Sarah Jensen with Maynard James Keenan

A_Perfect_UnionRebecca referred obliquely to this book in her comment to my previous review, saying that she guessed I had lost all perspective of writing quality while in the middle of this book. We all have books that we are too embarrassed to review on this site, and thus admit to reading. I was torn about this one, but I think it is time for me to admit my love for Tool. I am a 40-year-old, mild-mannered woman, and yet I just love Tool’s music. I try to ignore the general Tool fanbase as much as possible, and honestly I’m super conflicted about frontman Maynard James Keenan – I have so much admiration for his music, but every time he stops singing and starts talking, my admiration steadily falls.

Still, when Keenan partnered his long-time friend Sarah Jensen on an official biography, I was certainly interested (though still a bit embarrassed).

The Forward opens with “Maynard James Keenan is a mysterious fountain of constant creation. From his soul-searching lyrics, and extraordinary music in multiple bands to his astoundingly delicious wine, he has permeated our culture like no other artist. He straddles guises and genres and makes us wonder what could fuel such original superhuman output.”

Uh oh, I thought.

Skipped the rest of the Forward to the Prologue: “He sings of the fire’s spirit, of the taste of ashes on the tongue, of the truth on the other side of the mirror. He sings of the desert that is no desert place but a land breathing, flying, crawling, dying—alive with spirits of ancestors and the untold tales of children to come.”

Oh, nooo.

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Bellweather Rhapsody

I’ve talked before about how I like reading seasonal books–scary things at Halloween, spring-time-ish books as winter is ending–and I think Bellweather Rhapsody by Kate Racculia would be an excellent addition to an autumn/winter reading list. It’s creepy, sort of dark, and definitely wintery–the kind of book that makes you want to wrap up in a blanket with a cup of hot chocolate.

The story takes place over a few days in the Bellweather, an once glorious but now shabby upstate New York that is hosting a high school all-state band event. Over-achieving teenagers, their tired chaperones, ambitious conductors, and harried hotel staff are already bracing for the event when things get derailed by a blizzard and the mysterious disappearance of a student. Hanging over this is all is the hotel’s past–it was once the site of a tragic murder-suicide where a bride killed her new husband and herself on her wedding day.  Rather than seeing all this from one point of view, the action is narrated by a whole list of characters including, but not limited to, twin high school student named Alice and Rabbit Hatmaker who each have their own talents and secrets, their music teacher who has a complicated past of her own, the hotel caretaker who cannot quite believe what is happening to his beloved Bellweather, and a guest who has come to the hotel to face her demons.

Racculia manages a neat balance in that the book feels big and sprawling with all the character threads weaving in and out, but at the same time has a sense of claustrophobia as everyone is trapped in this one old hotel that does not feel particularly welcoming. But this isn’t a horror novel, as much as the trapped-in-a-hotel piece makes it sound like The Shining, and it’s not a traditional mystery, even if the central question of the book is what happened to the disappeared student. Instead, it felt more like reading a modern Dickens novel. Characters and back stories and coincidences and problems kept piling up and up and I kept getting more nervous, trying to figure out how it was all going to resolve. But I did find the ultimate ending gratifying, maybe because I was surprised by the outcomes of many of the characters–narrators I thought were reliable turned out not be, people I initially hated started to endear themselves to me, someone I was desperately worried about pulled herself through and out the other side, that sort of thing.

It’s not exactly heartwarming, and it’s not exactly funny, and it’s not exactly scary, but it sure made me want to keep reading to figure out how it was all going to end.

Kinsey’s Three Word Review: Quirky, creepy, and satisfying.

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This reminded me of Skippy Dies and The Lonely Polygamist, although Bellweather Rhapsody is kinder than either of those. But more than anything else, this made me think of Fargo–both the original movie and the recent TV series adaptation. They all share something in the matter-of-fact way that bizarre people and things are presented.

Coal to Diamonds

By Beth Ditto with Michelle Tea

Book CoverSigh. One would think that I would eventually learn my lesson, and not go off completely half-cocked, but I never do learn and I actually do this far more often than one would think.

So, when I first saw the Dior perfume commercial with Charlize Theron juxtaposed with Marlene Dietrich, Grace Kelly, and Marilyn Monroe, I was promptly hugely offended because I vaguely remembered that Theron had once said something derogatory about Monroe’s size years ago, and didn’t think that she should then profit by the juxtaposition. But, of course, once I actually double-checked before writing this review (at the very least, I have learned to do that, on occasion), it was actually Elizabeth Hurley who said that (in my defense, I had forgotten that Elizabeth Hurley was even a thing).

Anyway, in this one case, my own misinformation actually worked in my favor, because it made me pay more attention to the commercial, which made me realize how very catchy the song is. I downloaded* the song and added it to my current mix of music, and then didn’t think much more about it.

A couple months later, I read Buzzfeed’s Best YA Books of 2013, and decided that I wanted to read Mermaid in Chelsea Creek by Michelle Tea. My library system doesn’t have that book (I requested that they buy it), but they did have a memoir she helped Ditto write. I wasn’t sold right away because I don’t really like memoirs to begin with, and Ditto seems awfully young to have one anyway, but my curiosity got the best of me.

It is quite short, only about 150 pages, which makes sense given that Ditto is only now in her early 30s. But, what I was kind of banking on, her life has been chock full of crazy. Her childhood in rural Arkansas is so retrograde that I have trouble wrapping my mind around it. It was a truly terrible place to grow up and truly terrible things happened to her, but Ditto (and Tea) has such an incorrigibly upbeat voice that the story never gets bogged down in the grimness.

So, that was pretty much the first half, and I was quite pleased with both Ditto and Tea as authors, feeling that this was a surprisingly lighthearted memoir about an upbringing of poverty, neglect and abuse. However, the second half surprised me by being quite educational. I like listening to music a lot, but I don’t really know anything about it, and I don’t really like punk music at all. I have always been a little in awe of the punk movement, though: I would have loved to be a punk sort of person, but I’m really not, and I don’t even really understand the movement. Ditto does understand it, however, or at the very least, has her own strong interpretation of what punk means. She does an excellent job of describing what drew her to the late-90s punk scene coming out of Washington in the aftermath of the grunge movement.

I was fascinated and also a little embarrassed at my ignorance. Ditto and the band Gossip had a fairly meteoric rise for an indie punk group, and I only hear about them from a television commercial. One doesn’t get much less punk than that, I think. They even toured with Sleater-Kinney, which I had heard of, but only through an interview with Carrie Brownstein about Portlandia.

The vast majority of the short book takes place before Ditto’s big success, with the last few pages zipping through her gold, and then platinum, records, her television appearances, and her clothing line. The pacing seems to reflect her own experience of everything suddenly coming together at once, but after reading so much about the titular “coal,” I would have liked to spend some more time on the “diamonds.”


* Downloaded legally, though I also didn’t pay anything. Rebecca introduced me to Freegal Music, a music downloading service through a network of libraries. They have a kind of random selection of music, but someone there is a apparently a big Gossip fan.