Wednesday, January 25, 2017

BOOKS! (Mo' Meta Blues + God Is Not Mad At You)

Rather than buying any new books during the first half of this year, I'm attempting to power through as many of my to-be-read books as possible so I can stop putting them off and feeling stressed about all the reads I have piling up. So let's cut to the chase!

Mo' Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove by Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson

This is one of the last books I bought when I worked at a bookstore after graduating from college. I'm not knowledgeable enough of The Roots' discography to call myself a proper fan, but I've always had  great respect for this hip-hop band and its highly-recognizable drummer, ?uestlove (Questlove). He's branched out to producing, music directing, DJ-ing and then some, but drumming is where it started for this artist from Philly.

 Obviously this is Questlove's memoir, but he is insistent that it not be a typical one, and that his voice not be the only one featured. Mainly you have him telling most of story with Rich Nichols (the Roots' longtime manager) adding his commentary in dialogue or footnotes. Intermittently and to a lesser extent, you then have cowriter Ben Greenman and editor Ben Greenberg exchanging emails about the strategies and process for the book as it's coming together. And then throughout the book you have all the people whom Questlove acknowledges and quotes along the way. His story is about phenomena much greater than him, including hip-hop, musical genres, artistic movements/communities, "the industry", The Roots' career trajectory, and what shapes an artist's character. So for him, making Mo Meta' Blues solely about himself would have been predictable and inaccurate.

Each chapter begins with a question which Questlove attempts to answer, and each chapter is also peppered with stellar music recommendations ranging from popular to obscure. I wrote down every song and album down as I read, and now have eight and half wide-ruled pages full of listening homework for the next few months. Early on he gives us a beautifully brilliant summary of music (especially black music) history from African drums to do-woop, and then most of the book offers an extended tour through the '70s/'80s/'90s music that formulated Questlove's world at those times. As a professional working musician he also interrogates the influences of art and commerce on each other, and shifts between storytelling and intellectual inquiry quite frequently. I approached this book looking to learn from one of the modern masters, and that I did. Take advantage of this opportunity to do the same, whether you're a music nerd or not into music at all!

Favorite quotes:
"In general, I don't like to blame the creators. They are making work that appeals to them and the people in the room with them. They are making something that is, at some level, genuine... The younger me may have sat up all night with bandmates raging against Puffy or DMX or whoever, but the fact is that they were never the problem. The problem was that someone in the corporate chain of command felt that there was a need to play those songs fourteen times a day and to eliminate alternatives" (152-153).

"They go back to the beginning of recorded music, where the first break was made between performer and performed. They go back to the thin that's at the root of both Dilla and the Roots and every other inspired composition in any and every genre: it's the music in your head. That's the seed at the beginning of every artwork. How do you take what you hear and translate it to something that can be heard?" (230).

God Is Not Mad At You by Joyce Meyer

Perhaps it's a sign of maturity or progress that I didn't find this book as interesting as I did when I originally attempted to read it four or five years ago? Perhaps I am not so needy now as I was as a college freshman or sophomore? I'd originally bought this book on the NOOK that my aunt gave me as a high school graduation present, but it turns out that my ability to focus wanes considerably when using e-readers! So I made a dent in the book but didn't get far. Two years ago I erased my library and stopped using the device, and wasn't concerned about reading this book anymore. But then a few months ago I happened upon the hardcover among the bargain items in the foyer of a Barnes & Noble, and I figured it was a sign that I should give it another try. Plus it was cheap, so why not? This time around, rather than seeking reassurance or answers I merely read it to see what Joyce Meyer had to say on the topic. And to be able to say that I'd FINALLY finished it.

She basically makes the case for God as ultimately loving and benevolent, and encourages people not to load themselves with unnecessary burdens (guilt for things that aren't your fault, absurdly high or stringent expectations, baggage from the past, etc). It's pretty standard self-help fare except for the last eight chapters where she delves more deeply into Scripture. In the final chapter she briefly discusses spiritual maturity when comparing the "milk" (all the positive stuff that people love to latch onto) to the "meat" (the personal sacrifices we have to make to actually grow and do things in line with our calling) of the Christian faith-walk. I would've liked to read more on that, but I guess that's in another book for another day. I wouldn't necessarily tell people not to read this book, but I probably wouldn't read it again. If you find yourself in a particularly low place at the moment, reading God Is Not Mad At You probably wouldn't hurt, but once is more than enough.

Favorite quotes:
"Never apologize for being the person you are. That would be like an apple tree apologizing for not being a banana tree. If you're an apple tree, then produce apples; if you're a banana tree, then produce bananas! It takes all kinds of fruit to make a fruit salad... When each of us becomes the best we can at being ourselves, then God's purpose can be fulfilled" (134).

"God will never love you any more than He does at this moment in time, because His love is perfect at all times and is not based on anything that we do or don't do... Can you stand to be that blessed for no reason at all except that God is good?" (163).

Tuesday, January 17, 2017


When you're in first grade and you realize that your parents hate each other, maybe it's shocking. But when you're 24 and your parents till hate each other, it's actually hilarious.

Ma has a smidgen of ill will for only one person on earth, and she's HAD IT with that person today. Been cracking me up all morning!

Saturday, January 14, 2017

"I Learned to Tell the Sh*t from the Alfalfa" - Fences

I meant to write this two weeks ago, couldn't tell you why it's taken me so long. I've heard a lot of people say that this film is boring, too slow, has too much dialogue. But I suspect that at the root of their disappointment is their own missed opportunity to sufficiently prepare themselves. If you go into Fences with the mindset that you're about to witness a play on screen rather than a "movie" made solely as a titilating piece of entertainment, then you're already set up to have more reasonable expectations. I have another theory as to why viewers felt restless during the film, but I'll get to that in a second.

Seen Friday, December 30th, 2016: Fences

Go see the play, read the play, read my review of the play, or just look it up. Please take advantage of the myriad of resources that are already at your disposal to tell you what this film and its source material are about. 

What I really like about this film: Set design and props! In the play, all action visible to the audience takes place in the Maxsons' backyard where the titular fence is being built, whereas the film takes us not only to the back yard, but inside the house and around all sides of it, as well as to the Maxson's neighborhood, Troy's workplace, and a handful of other places. Rebecca Brown and the set department basically had to tell stories through many locations and objects that are basically figments of imagination in the play, and for some reason I can't get over the home that they crafted inside the Maxson house. The 1950s-era photos, furniture, foodstuffs, and various trinkets in that Pittsburgh house took me back to my elders' abodes: Jessie's house and Roger's basement in Louisville, Bertha's (now Gladys') hallway and living room in Henderson, Odessa's home in Rochester. The Maxson house was clearly lived-in, and it almost felt like home by proxy.

Of course nearly everyone's been raving about Viola Davis and Denzel Washington's performances, but that's kind of a given. Really, there are no poor acting performances in this film. But Mykelti Williamson is the one who truly blew me away. Perhaps best know for playing Bubba Blue in Forrest Gump, Williamson showed up as Troy's mentally handicapped veteran brother Gabriel and he. showed. out!  I don't know if it's an indicator of my ignorance or how seldomly represented they usually are in major films, but for someone reason I'm always deeply affected when an actor plays a disabled character with the heart and dignity they deserve. And Williamson as Gabriel is simply magnificent.

What I don't like about this film: Now back to what I was saying about restlessness. In addition to not sufficiently preparing themselves, I think the second major explanation for people being underwhelmed by this film has to do with attention span. But I wouldn't say this is completely their fault! I listened to a podcast episode recently in which an actor/comedian argued that Hollywood habitually substitutes plot for character development, and I think that's obviously affected the way many of us view film. We as average moviegoers are used to having dialogue broken up by action. When we sit down to watch a film, and everything about a scene or scenes is designed for us to focus on the character in front of us and what they're saying, with no convenient distraction for our eyes or ears, it will likely make us fidgety. We're not accustomed to being expected to listen to what characters say for more than a couple minutes at a time. Any longer than that and we wonder what to do with ourselves, zone out, lose track of what's going on. Perhaps that's what happened with a lot of audience members in this instance. Having read the play I was actively listening for lines that I remembered or being reminded of lines that I'd forgotten. But if I'd been attracted to Fences by, say, the lead actors rather than the source material, I can imagine how confused and dissatisfied I might be.

Would I recommend it?: Without a doubt. Fences is certainly a feast for literature and theatre buffs or students, but I'd like to hope that everyone can glean something from the bare bones of the story, which are a middle-aged black man in a precarious situation, and the family he drags along with him.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017


As far as I know, no one asks to be born. You didn't ask to be here, I didn't ask to be here. Someone, or a pair of someones, maybe even a group of someones, and let us not forget the Ultimate Someone, decided we should exist and what do you know... here we all are, existing.

Whether they mean to or not, biological parents create a human being, give it something it didn't ask for (life), and effectively say, "Here, now do something with it." Is that cruel? Generous? Selfish? Benevolent?

No clue.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

BOOKS! (Seven Guitars + The Wangs vs. the World)

Here we have the last book I finished in 2016, and the first book I finished in 2017. The former is a play that I found at a bargain bookstore, and the latter is a new novel that came highly recommended by  writers and other publishing/media industry friends of the Another Round podcast.

Seven Guitars by August Wilson

Five friends gather after the funeral of their fellow, a guitarist and singer named Floyd "Schoolboy" Barton, and through them the audience observes the last week of Floyd's life. Though often chummy and jovial when they interact with each other, nearly all members of this friend group are desperate to finally obtain something that won't be taken away from them. After a three-month stint in jail, Floyd is determined to scrap together the money to get himself to Chicago, where a potential record deal and the chance to no longer be poor await him. Vera, his on-again-off-again girlfriend, wants a love that's true and won't have her worrying about not being enough for her partner. Hedley, Vera's neighbor, wants to be a "big man", someone respected and important. Certain that black people are royal and righteous, he wants the inheritance that he believes he's owed (that by extension all black people are owed), which was supposedly passed from his father but has been held up by the interfering power of white people. Canewell, Floyd's friend and harmonica player, has unrequited love for Vera and wants to be respected as a musician, being properly paid for his talent and credited for his tactical ideas. Louise, Vera and Hedley's landlord, wants to stop being inconvenienced by other people's troubles, including those of her niece Ruby, who wants to be treated with care rather than as an object of rivalry or sex.

Only Hedley (and presumably Ruby) gets what he desperately desires, but at an unfathomable cost that none of his friends know about. Seven Guitars utilizes the rooster as an ominous metaphor for the black men, which sailed right over my head until after I read up on the play upon finishing it. It keeps people alert and they rely on it to maintain the daily pace and function of their lives, but people don't appreciate its true value, and instead mercilessly execute it for being a perceived nuisance. I've heard of lions, tigers, and panthers used to exemplify the virtues of black people (especially black men), but roosters are a new one that I'm still mulling over even as I write. This play is set in between the ghosts and autonomy-through-access dreams of The Piano Lesson (the 1930s), and the woes of black manhood and womanhood in Fences (the 1950s). As a tale of friendship and almost-stardom, Seven Guitars echoes the themes of both works.

Favorite quotes:
"'If you have to say hello before you can say goodbye I ain't never got to worry about nobody saying goodbye to me no more.' I ain't never going through one of them goodbyes again... What I'm trying to tell you is, don't let no man use you up and then talk about he gotta go. Shoot him first" (31-32). 

"Somebody have to be the father of the man to lead the black man out of bondage. Marcus Garvey have a father. Maybe if I could not be like Marcus Garvey then I could be the father of someone who would not bow down to the white man" (68).

The Wangs vs. the World by Jade Chang

When Charles Wang established a long-running makeup empire after trading exile in Taiwan for a shot at luck in the States, he probably never imagined having to drive his family and all their possessions across the country before returning to China for the first time in decades. But after taking a risk that costs him everything at the top of the 2008 recession, that's exactly where he finds himself. Ever determined to create the next opportunity where there is none, Charles departs from his Beverly Hills home with plans to reunite his family on the East Coast, and then go to China to reclaim his ancestral lands and potentially build another fortune there. Along for the ride are his spoiled fashion-blogging daughter Grace, his goodhearted college-aged son Andrew, and his childhood friend turned second wife, Barbra. Waiting for them is his oldest daughter, Sina, a successful modern artist taking refuge in the Catskills after a controversy nearly ended her career.

Charles Wang's is a Death of a Salesman-esque commitment to a pipe dream, a dogged faith in one last sure bet that will make everything alright. Unlike Willy Lohman, however, once in Beijing Charles is able to find triumphant gratitude in the fact that he took all his chances in life and that, at one extended point in time, he'd made it. Sadly I didn't enjoy this novel as much as I'd expected to given the enthusiastic reviews I heard;  it wanders to too many unnecessary places and its loose ends are slightly unfulfilling. Nonetheless it's still a fun read to pass the time, a breather with succinct summations of Chinese 20th century history, the 2008 financial crisis, the art world, and first and second generation experiences of Chinese-American immigrants. The Wangs vs. The World may not have blown me away, but it's still a delight of a debut novel. Support Asian women writers and give this book a try!

Favorite quotes:
"Makeup was American, and Charles understood makeup. It was artifice, and it was honesty. it was science and it was psychology and it was fashion; but more than that, it was about feeling wealthy. Not moneywealth. The endless possibility of it and the cozy sureness of it... Artifice, thought Charles, was the real honesty. Confessing your desire to change, being willing to strive, those were things that made sense. The fakers were the ones who denied those true impulses" (6).

"Four score and seven years ago our forefathers said good fucking luck" (256).
"For Nash's students, there were many Chinas. There was the China that was against the world, the China that was the Communist government. The China that existed briefly in Taiwan. There was the China that covered things up and the China that was gradually making things free... his homeland is at once the place it would have been to him from the inside and the place it must be to him from the outside" (298).

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Restroom Tea.

Oh, the juicy tidbits that just happen to take up residence in your ears when you're sitting silently in a restroom stall, and the person in the stall next to you doesn't know (doesn't care?) that anyone else is in the room to hear them...

The quintessentially sweet, soft-bodied, gentle-voiced, middle-aged white Midwestern mom. The simultaneous supervisor's pet and most vocal utterer of valid concerns, occassionally necessary doubts, petty complaints. The person with the most stellar on-time record on the team.  Is. Over. This. Ish. And. Has. Been. Orchestrating. Her. Escape. This. Whole. Time. And, calling out the peanuts nature of compensation around here. AND, predicting the demise of said dubiously sustainable team to boot!

I never would have imagined that someone else on this team would have flimsier patience for their occupation than I do. Everyone seems so chummy and satisfied all the time. So... settled. She seemed the most contentedly settled out of all of us! But it turns out that my colleague has a dark side, and I'm impressed. And she's in an even better position than me because apparently she's got options lined up already. Yes, plural! Options!

Sometimes God speaks to you through other people and you just have to chuckle, make note of it, and get in formation. Fourth day of the year, and here comes confirmation through an inadvertently eavesdropped phone conversation. Duly noted, Lord. Duly noted.