Brave by Rose McGowan

Brave  by Rose McGowan, is not a “tell-all” but instead a “tell-it-like-it-is” memoir of growing up in a cult in Italy, moving to the United States, living life as a runaway, eventually becoming a Hollywood starlet, and then leaving it all behind to pursue art and activism. At times, I felt like an eavesdropper who was listening to things she probably shouldn’t be listening to; but I definitely confirmed my suspicion: that sexual assault victims will often be shamed for coming forward with accusations, especially about powerful or influential people. I think I’ve always known that victims risk public shaming and humiliation for choosing to speak out; but if you read the comment section on any of the videos or press releases that discuss Brave, you’ll see how cruel and dismissive people are behind the veil of the internet. McGowan discusses the cruelty of humanity and makes a special point to discuss how hurt she was to read such corrosive comments about herself online. Breaking the culture of silence and speaking openly and honestly about society’s elephants in the room (addiction, abuse, and mental illness come to mind) is truly heroic.

Maybe it’s not a totally shock that the Hollywood entertainment industry is exploitative at its core, but the kind of depravity and darkness that live there is probably unfathomable for outsiders. As consumers,  we need to be especially aware that what we consume – and what often appears glamorous, seductive, or exciting oftentimes conceals a dark underbelly of  disillusionment. For example, if you’ve ever seen Quentin Tarantino’s “Planet Terror”, you might not be aware that some of the movie plot bears an uncanny resemblance to some of McGowan’s personal life, and that she was made to perform feats of athleticism that would be unattainable for most women in tip-top physical condition. A more disturbing insight is that the cinema that we pay for and consume employs rape in order to tell a story, which is part and parcel of how violence, largely against women, becomes normalized. Oh, it’s just a tv show, or a movie, we say: but the unspoken truth is that it reflects social and cultural attitudes about the roles of men and women, largely that some men take what they want from women through “power” and domination. One of McGowan’s most incisive and profound questions: why are we still using rape as a method of storytelling in cinema at all?

As many people know, McGowan was one of the first women to come forward among more than 90 other women and accuse Harvey Weinstein of  rape. When she recounts her experience, she describes “depersonalization”, which occurs when you feel like you’re a stranger in your own body, viewing your life as though from the sidelines as an observer.  McGowan refers to the notoriously fallen movie “mogul” as “The Monster,” and her refusal to write or say his name, all the while spelling out other contextual details of her story, was her deliberate attempt at dethroning him. It is apparent from the tone of her voice and her unease when being interviewed on this subject that having to recall that day makes her physically ill.

McGowan has of course also been accused of being an “attention seeker” which is, in my opinion, a nasty and trite way of trying to shame her. Critics of McGowan fault her on the one hand for “telling it like it is” but in the same sentence shame for taking “hush money” and not calling Weinstein out immediately.  “Why did you wait until now to speak out?” they’ll taunt her. “You took the money,” they’ll say, without regard to any nuance or respect for her unique situation, as though the harrowing and psychologically damaging act of rape could possibly be boiled down into a black and white scenario that critics of McGowan would themselves navigate perfectly. McGowan poignantly makes her point when she says: “The only perfect rape victim is a dead rape victim and that’s a fact and it’s sad.” The simple act of speaking  is apparently so risky that it can earn you a scarlet letter; but McGowan won’t be deterred. As she says, she’s been called every awful name in the book, and worse. And still, she has the nerve and the conviction to keep her head up . I also try to keep in  mind that celebrity thrusts individuals into the line of fire and under the scope of public scrutiny.

I personally found McGowan’s candid commentary refreshing because she offers a no-holds-barred approach to honesty. In my estimation, it clearly sounds that she has spent many years thinking through these issues and can articulate herself masterfully. Brave is written by a woman who has accepted the past and wants to use her platform of celebrity to  help others, especially women, to recognize their value and to speak out when a predator is approaching.

Scheduling Time To Think

Even though I could have named this blog post “Here’s Another Cool Thing Ariana Huffington Shared On LinkedIn”, this article  by Shane Parrish entitled “Your First Thought Is Rarely Your Best Thought: Thoughts On Thinking” makes compelling points about carving out a time to think. Ain’t nobody got time for that, you might say. But we are mistaken, my friends.  Our hyper-tasking tendencies only create the illusion that we’re accomplishing multiple tasks simultaneously; but in reality, we are not completing any one task fully or even partially. I think the point is that if we slow down and do a little bit more contemplative work on the front end, we will save ourselves time and more importantly learn how to honor our own authentic voice above the noise of the crowd.

If you’re like me, you haven’t scheduled “Time to think” on your calendar lately but you know that twentieth-century living is marked by a type of frenetic energy and pace of “being busy”. We’ve all heard our friends, family members, teachers, doctors, significant others, servers, and others repeat the exasperated expression “I’m so busy”, or “I’m too busy to … ” and we ourselves have likely uttered these words, too. But isn’t it odd we don’t even have much “proof” of our busy-ness except for rapid heart-rates and elevated cortisol and blood pressure levels? I mean, that might be a little bit hyperbolic, but what do we have to show for scurrying about like we’re completely mad? With what, exactly, are we busying ourselves? Most of the time, and I’ll speak for myself here, the sense of urgency I feel and convey to others about my busy-ness is self-imposed. Oftentimes, we would be far better-equipped to make life’s easier and more difficult decisions if we just took the time up front to slow down and think. Parrish, the author of the article I linked to earlier, says succinctly:

“I actually schedule time to think. It sounds ridiculous, I know, but I protect this time as if my livelihood depended on it because it does. Sometimes I’m in the office and sometimes I’m in a coffee shop. I’m not always thinking about a problem that I’m wrestling with. I’m often just thinking about things I already know or, more accurately, things I think I know. Setting aside time for thinking works wonders, not only for me but also for most of the people I’ve convinced to give it a try. The problem with not having time to think is nailed by William Deresiewicz, who said: ‘I find for myself that my first thought is never my best thought. My first thought is always someone else’s; it’s always what I’ve already heard about the subject, always the conventional wisdom.'”

Pretty insightful, right? How well do you know your own thoughts? Have you ever taken the time to sort through your own tendencies and thought processes? Although a yoga or meditation practice is different from penciling in time to think, I would guess that the outcome is similar. In making time for yourself, you begin to know yourself more deeply, and what is more profound than that?

Bringing awareness to your thought processes, tendencies, and patterns enables you to be an active agent in your life without living merely at the mercy of your reactions and impulses. Contemplating how you think negates living as though you’re a hamster in a wheel. And maybe the better point is that patience and time are required to arrive at your authentic and original thoughts. Some things simply cannot be done well if they are done rapidly.  Maybe it’s just that there are no shortcuts to arriving at a well-conceived answer and you owe it to yourself to find out what you really think, desire, and need in your own life. What might scheduling time to think actually look like for you? Would you allow yourself that time, and if not, why?

Ali: A Life by Jonathan Eig

I absolutely cannot wait to get back into my car and drive from Davenport, IA to East Moline, IL across the frozen tundra that is the Quad Cities. You might think I’ve lost my mind, and perhaps I have a little bit; but let me tell you that the Ali audiobook, narrated by Kevin R Free, and based on author Jonathan Eig’s “definitive biography” is absolutely stunning. Although my experience with audiobooks is relatively limited, I have to say this one makes me want to read all 623 pages of the biography. Free, who also considers himself a storyteller,  narrates the larger-than-life biography of Muhammed Ali (Cassius Clay) with conviction and eloquence, the perfect example of a well-executed audiobook and also a testament to author Eig’s finely-crafted prose.

Normally, it’s easy for me to snooze on audiobooks and lose focus in the middle of a chapter (or worse, a sentence). In fact, listening to audiobooks has proven to be an act of meditation: I’m consciously directing my attention to the narrator and, sometimes painfully attempting to stay focused on the developing story. Too often, like a child who loses interest in a new toy just moments after receiving it, I lose interest in the storyline unless the narrator is particularly emotive, funny, or engaging. But every chapter Free narrates makes me feel like I’m watching an award-winning film. The imagery, writing, and narration are that good. I’ve read a few reviews, and one commenter noted that he felt like he was “ringside” during the fight descriptions because the writing truly is that good.

Cassius Clay, who died in 2016 at the age of 74, endured 200,000 punches throughout his career. I cannot possibly conceive of what that would feel like. He was wildly inspired by Sugar Ray Robinson, a famous boxer well known for being particularly outlandish, flashy, and bold. Ali was single-mindedly focused on becoming the greatest boxer who ever lived; yet he was insanely complex as well as he came into his own in the context of segregation, The Blood of Emmett Till, and the Little Rock Nine. One might simply state that Ali was a fighter in every sense of the word: you can be sure he fought fiercely against racism and injustice that plagued the post-war United States.

I’m nowhere near finished with this book, but I can only imagine it gets better. Check out this article with Author Eig who concludes, after 500 hours of interviews with Ali that “no biography is complete. There’s always more to explore.” Here is what NPR , the Washington Post, and The New York Times had to say. Of course not all the reviews are shining. This particular article claims that Eig did not shed light on the last 30 or so years of Ali’s life and that the book provides “a somewhat perfunctory account of how his story fits into the larger arc of race in America.” As someone who is only about ten chapters in, I appreciated the historical backdrop that Eig establishes early on in the book; although it’s not like a few measly chapters could possibly address the terrible blight of racism on our collective history, so I will wait to see if maybe Eig delves more deeply into issues of race in America. One hopes that a “definitely” biography has earned its heavyweight title, just like the greatest boxer of all time.

A Library of Things

 If you’re anything like me, and you favor a minimalist lifestyle that prioritizes access over ownership, the prospect of a Library of Things may interest you. A Library of Things (LOT) is a most magical and sensible space where libraries, innovation, and sharing economies intersect. When you visit a LOT, you can borrow items you don’t want to commit to purchasing before you can prove the purchase is truly warranted. Not sure if you’re a fan of camping? Don’t sweat it: check out a tent before dropping the cash on new gear. Wondering if you’re likely to develop a serious interest in cake decorating but hesitant to shell out your hard-earned dollars? Check out some cake pans and decorating accessories. Ready to serenade your cat with ukulele music for any occasion? Stop by the LOT and check out a ukulele.

Since libraries are already perfectly structured to lend non-traditional items such as power tools, cake pans, outdoor/adventure gear and equipment, musical instruments and accessories, ties, seeds, and lawn kitchen appliances, it makes perfect sense that innovative libraries have already added many “things” to their circulating collections. At the Hillsboro Public Library in Oregon, for example, patrons can check out a chocolate fountain, popcorn machine, and karaoke machine among many other practical and unique things. At the Shirley M Wright Memorial Library in Wisconsin, patrons can check out bird-watching kits. The Stark County district library partnered with Stark Parks to launch a bicycle sharing program!  As you can see, the possibilities are endless. In California at Sacramento Public Library, patrons can check out yard equipment like hedge-trimmers and a lawnmower, among many other things.  In this article, Director of the Sacramento Public Library, Rivkah Sass describes libraries as “the original sharing economy” and that when developing a LOT they “were looking at the generation coming up that doesn’t necessarily want to own things. They don’t need a pressure cooker to store on a shelf and gather dust.” Can I get an Amen, people?  You don’t have to be a Millennial to appreciate the benefits of a clean, open space that isn’t crowded by a surplus of material possessions you’re likely to use a handful of times before banishing to a lifetime in your kitchen cabinets. Not only does a LOT save you money, but it also saves space, enables access, and encourages discovery and innovation.

Come visit Davenport Public Library to see the “Tech-Know Library” and view a full list of the technologies available for checkout including but not limited to:  graphing calculators, a light therapy lamp, eReaders, a Go Pro, blue-tooth blood pressure monitor, and Snapchat spectacles!

What kinds of items do you think the public library should make available for checkout?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mercy For Animals: One Man’s Quest To Inspire Compassion and Improve the Lives of Farm Animals

Nathan Runkle, author of Mercy for Animals: One Man’s Quest to Inspire Compassion and Improve the Lives of Farm Animals is just one of those people whose passion is apparent from the moment he opens his mouth. Like his speaking voice, Runkle’s writing style is remarkably elegant and concise. I was shocked that he struggled with reading and writing as a young student because he is a remarkably articulate speaker and writer.

Like the farm and dairy investigation transcripts contained in its pages, this book is not for the faint-of-heart. In creating transparency within the culture of American food production practices, Runkle and his team pull the curtain back, so to speak, to reveal the brutality inherent in factory farming operations. In short, this book is about how Runkle founded Mercy for Animals, a non-profit organization devoted to raising awareness about the lives of sentient farm animals and the system of which they are a part. At the core of this book lies the fundamental belief that the lives of all beings deserve respect and dignity.

Anyone who has been on the receiving end of bullying or oppression will sympathize with the plight of Mercy for Animals. The sickness, disgust, and perhaps solidarity you will feel when you go behind the scenes at a factory farm will empower you to make changes in your lifestyle and better yet, how you relate to and think about animals. In short, this book spotlights Runkle, his twenty-year career, and the other investigators who obtained jobs in hatcheries and slaughterhouses across the United States and abroad in order to spotlight what goes on behind closed doors. Their work created the pressure necessary in order to affect change even at the level of national policy. The exploitation and commodication of animals and workers in a billion-dollar industry forms the bedrock of modern animal agriculture as it’s impossible to pack 60,00-100,000 chickens into a warehouse without grave consequences. Opposition to this industry was established alongside the industry itself, and you can bet Runkle smartly contextualizes his book alongside Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle published in 1908, among others.

As Runkle learned, investigators document every minute of footage with objective language rather than evocative language. For example, when the book discusses what “thumping” means in the pig-farming industry, investigators refrained from using “emotional” language. Instead, undercover investigators might describe “thumping” as a “standard practice” entailing slamming “defective” piglets into the concrete to kill them rather than saying “workers grabbed helpless piglets by their legs and swung them violently into the concrete to crush their skulls” (which is exactly what happens). In other words, investigators are not permitted to purposefully appeal to the emotions of readers and must instead focus on relaying facts and behaviors. But as Runkle knew, there really is no nice, flowery way of making a lifetime of suffering sound like standard operating procedures (even though euphemism and secrecy lies at the heart of the animal agriculture industry). As many consumers know, myself included, the majority of meat and dairy foods we consume are produced not by “humane” family farms peppered with “happy cows” grazing in green pastures but rather from massive mechanized farming operations deliberately located in remote areas out of sight…and out of mind. I’d say slaughtering 12,000 pigs per day constitutes massive AND industrial –the opposite of humane family farms. Although that seemingly innocuous cellophane-wrapped animal product in the grocery store reveals only the end product of factory farming, the animals on our plates endured a lifetime of suffering. Floors caked with excrement, dust, blood, and decaying animal bodies is commonplace–not some grotesque bit of propaganda created by bleeding-heart, tree-hugging hippies to get you to care about animals. The respect we extend to our beloved family companion animals is virtually non-existent in the lives of farm animals. After a delve into the animal liberation literature, try singing “Old MacDonald” in the year 2018 and hearing it as more nursery rhyme then pantomime.

This post isn’t the equivalent of a virtual finger-wagging, either. It has taken me decades to finally come to terms with–to accept–that the lifestyle choices I made every day absolutely matter. If you’re not particularly “sold” on animal rights, you might then take note that Runkle’s book also illuminates how the poor and people of color are particularly vulnerable fodder for the meat, dairy, and egg industries. While Runkle is more immediately concerned with the plight of farm animals and the suffering they endure at human hands, the suffering is not theirs alone as workers labor in harrowing conditions enduring illness and injury alongside the animals. I cannot help but speculate that the implications of killing and processing suffering animals in order to make a living are devastating–physically, emotionally, spiritually. But as gruesome as the reality of farming operations is, Runkle remains optimistic and steadfast in his mission to help people reconnect to the compassion they already have in their hearts for animals.

Runkle’s optimism is key as the work of Mercy for Animals isn’t for nothing: this organization and others like it are disrupting market forces and supply & demand chains that mask injustice and exploitation. Overall, this book was very well-written and executed. A powerful, animal ethics movement is gaining momentum, changing the way we relate to animals, to our environment, and each other. From a local standpoint,  I’m also excited that “plant-based” and vegan lifestyles have arrived and are celebrated more every day here in the Quad Cities, as evidenced by the Quad Cities own first Veg Fest, to be held August 11th, 2018 at Schwiebert Park on the Rock Island riverfront.

 

 

Bright Futures and Nikki Grimes’ Bronx Masquerade 10th Anniversary Edition

Nikki Grimes’ Bronx Masquerade is deserving of the 2003 Coretta Scott King award and would be a welcome addition to classroom reading lists because it would foster understanding  and self-expression while encouraging us to celebrate our differences. While it has been a long time since I was in junior and high school, I’m pretty sure school (which is not nearly as beautiful of a word as library) and my teachers conspired to make me hate reading.   At least, that’s what I felt at the time, and still do to this day in many ways.  Not only could I not  identify with my teachers or parents or the books on our assigned reading lists, but I was really winging it when it came to being a teen. And being a teen was brutal at times: I was an incredibly intuitive person with so much to say yet I lacked the language proficiency to fully communicate my emotions and experiences with the people who guided me.

But that’s where art, poetry, and amazing teachers come into play.

When you’re not legally an adult, you rely on the adults in your life–parents and teachers, mainly–to help you through this thing called life. You rely on them to provide you a platform to share your story, and you hope they don’t drop the ball.   And then there are the teachers–the good, the bad, and everything in-between. Hopefully you had the kind of teacher movies like Dead Poet’s Society, Dangerous Minds, Mr. Holland’s Opus, and School of Rock celebrate. In my experience,  “good” teachers facilitate self-directed learning opportunities, foster curiosity, and help students identify and build upon their strengths. That’s a tall order, since much of the work good teachers do is an extension of what good parents do. In Bronx Masquerade, Mr. Ward is one of those teachers who deeply impacts his students in ways they can only begin to understand. He makes his entrance early on when he assigns a lesson about The Harlem Renaissance and other works by popular and lesser known African American authors. The classroom environment begins to take on a life of it’s own: students no longer shame their peers for wanting to read and feed their intellects. Eager to relate hip-hop and rap to the rhymes and rhythm of poetry, students begin writing and sharing original poetry.  The act of writing and the resulting community they find in Mr. Ward’s class profoundly changes them.

In terms of format, Bronx Masquerade  introduces you to a cast of characters, most of whom are Black and Latino with a White and Asian minority, whose lives intersect around poetry and Mr. Ward. Each subsequent chapter introduces you to a new character: Diondra, Amy, Art, Raul, Natalina, Porscha,  Mai Tren, Wesley. Aside from Poetry itself, Tyrone is the central character around which all of the characters revolve.  By the end of the book, Tyrone’s life has changed for the better, and “Open Mic Friday” is at the center of the positive change. As other students begin to read and perform their poetry, sometimes in the style of a poetry slam and often incorporating musical rhythms and beats, Tyrone’s guard begins to come down.And most notably, for the first time, he can envision  a real future for himself and his peers, a future that seemed distant and dismal at the beginning of the book.

By the end of the book, it is clear that through poetry and community, Tyrone has developed a new understanding of himself and his peers. Most remarkably, the opportunity to create and share his writing under the wing of Mr. Ward has literally changed the course of his life that now includes a bright, beautiful future.

The Reason You’re Alive by Matthew Quick

I basically wanted to quit life for two days so I could do nothing other than read The Reason You’re Alive  by Matthew Quick. Apparently Quick wrote this gem in part as an homage to his late uncle, a Vietnam veteran who may have inspired elements of this novel’s “anti-hero”, David Granger.  The novel takes off right from the beginning, and amazingly, Quick sustains the momentum through to the end. I mean, check out this for an opening sentence: “They were giving me the mushroom treatment: keeping me in the dark and feeding me bullshit”. That just has to rank up there with the best opening lines of all time, right? I mean, talk about coming outta’ the box swingin’.

David Granger, main protagonist and narrator of the story is not supposed to be likeable, let alone loveable. But he is just that. After waking up in a hospital after brain-surgery, David rants about the evasive “Clayton Fire Bear” and how doctors are all corrupt scumbags who are either “pill pushers, needle pokers, or people cutters”. He’s right, though, isn’t he? I mean, who hasn’t had a negative experience with a doctor? But of course, he is wrong, too; and for every thieving people-cutter out there you will find a warm, compassionate civil servant who wants to take care of sick people. The truth may lie somewhere in between.

Throughout the course of this book, you’ll be amazed at the things that David says: and believe you me, he has something to say about everyone. And you’ll find that he’s right: why else would you be laughing SO HARD?  But he’s also wrong because, let’s be honest, it’s easy to stereotype and generalize entire groups of people without a second thought. And that’s where things get tricky, which is to say, human. David reserves a certain disdain for his son, Hank, his “mostly ignorant”, “ball-less”, cry-baby liberal son who wouldn’t cut it for a second in the jungles of Vietnam. And just wait until you meet Femke, Hank’s philandering wife, and their sweet daughter, Ella, who David notes is in the unfortunate position of having two complete morons for parents. All of the characters who fade in and out of David’s life are intriguing and memorable and will teach you something new about life.

This book beautifully reminds us that we see other people through the lens of our own experience. I think you’ll find, by the end of the book, when tears unexpectedly start welling in your eyes, that David strived to shield his family from suffering and pain, even at his own expense whenever possible (even when he was essentially shielding them from himself).This book is about loving and understanding your family and your friends on their own terms. This book is about war, madness, art, family, grace, and ultimately redemption. I dare you not to cry when you discover the rich meaning behind the title of the book, how David wrote it for his late wife, Jessica, and their son, Hank, the two most beloved people in his life. And then I dare you not to cry when it dawns on you that David was shielding you, too, as he had his family, from the heartache of having to let him go after finding out he was  good as gold all along.

 

 

 

The Most Dangerous Place On Earth

As someone who devours non-fiction, biography, and memoir, I was surprised to have finished this work of fiction in just shy of two days. To be fair, the book is a quick read (even for self-professed slower readers such as myself).  The Most Dangerous Place on Earth is the debut novel of Lindsey Lee Johnson with impeccable prose and superb character development.  I could even see the book being turned into a film. In a nutshell, the book is broken into  time periods: Eighth Grade, Junior Year, and Senior Year. Within those general time periods, each chapter is further subdivided with titles such as: The Note, The Lovers, The Striver, The Artist,  The Dime, The Ride, The Dancer, The Pretty Boy, and The Sleeping Lady.  Each chapter spotlights each of the core characters whose lives revolve around a tragic incident involving Tristan Bloch, an awkward but brave outcast with an overbearing mother. Over the course of four years, we follow each protagonist as s/he navigates the tough terrain of junior high and high school, further complicated  by  parents, teachers, and digital culture. In many cases, each of these young people–although living in million-dollar beach homes–is forced to establish his or her individuality and navigate adolescence while also living in the shadows of abuse, neglect, and addiction at the hands of the grown ups who are supposed to protect and guide them. As is the case with many young people, these characters can sense when things are awry at home and school; but they lack the agency to be able to articulate those experiences, sometimes in a healthy way. Always looming in this novel is what lies unspoken–what is between the lines.

At the center of this story is Molly Nicholl, a newbie teacher and transplant from central California who is hired on in the English Department at Valley High in the affluent city of Mill Valley in Northern California, roughly a 6-hour drive from Los Angeles. As Molly begins to feel out the culture at Valley High, she finds herself at odds with the other seasoned faculty who are  burnt-out on their jobs, presumably after many years teaching. As Molly reconfigures her classroom into two concentric circles (note, also, the circular themes throughout the novel) so as not to carry on her predecessor’s tradition of an authoritarian, old-school classroom, she endures pushback from teachers who believe she is crossing the line with regard to her relationship with the students. After a car crash and the exploitation of a female student on social media, Molly is questioned about the inappropriate nature of her commenting on her student’s social media threads–even though her comments stemmed from genuine concern about the well-being of her students . Early on in the book, Molly is eager to dig deeper into the lives of her students–to see them not merely as students but also as human beings who have complex lives and much promise.  Molly once asks “Isn’t it our job as teachers to help our students?” She was quickly put in her place when her co-worker says: “No, your job is to teach.” But what does it mean “to teach”? What does teaching–truly teaching–entail?

I think my teacher and parent friends would enjoy this book, especially because it sheds light on a number of questions–namely: What is the role of the teacher? How can teachers truly effect change and the lives of their students if they are forced to keep students at arm’s length? Can teachers truly be effective if they relate to their students on only the most basic, superficial levels? Is it the role of teachers to dig beneath the surface to enable students to identify and pursue their interests? Are teachers supposed to protect and help their students? How can parents and teachers be better aligned for the benefit of the student?  Must there always be such a deep and wide chasm between young people and adults–one in which “adultness” itself is often dishonest, distrustful, and cynical? I have to say that by the end of the book–and yes, it’s just the idealist in me–I feel like Molly compromised too many of her ideals in an effort to play it safe. I mean, on one hand, I can certainly see why she would opt to play it safe, given the events leading up to her transition from newbie mover-and-shaker to cautious, jaded professional.  In one particular scene, Molly receives an essay from Callista who has accepted and processed, through the therapeutic act of writing, her role in the tragedy of Tristan Bloch. This was the moment that Molly had been waiting for the past three years: to play an encouraging and inspiring role in helping  students reconcile their places in the world and hopefully help them tap into their potential. I mean, here was Callista sharing a deeply painful experience with her teacher and in a sense, looking for encouragement and validation. But Molly, perhaps afraid to assume a role other than “superior” or “teacher” misses the opportunity entirely. Instead, she writes Callista a typical response that an English teacher–not a mentor–would write. However, the implications of Callista’s writing–how she knew the fine details of the path Tristan took to the bridge–were curious, troubling. Again, the power of the unspoken demands attention.

This books asks far more questions than it answers; so if you’re ok with ambiguity, you’ll love this book. I’m still wondering about these characters–what becomes of them, if they ever get to realize their true potential. Reading this book also forced me to look back on my own experiences in junior high and high school, which, like most young people, was a mixed bag of good, bad, and ugly. When I was young, I did not have vast social networks at my fingertips and cyber bullying wasn’t yet a thing. So much happens to young people online–entire worlds exist out of the reach of unwitting adults. While I tended to despise the parental and authoritarian figures in this book, I was nonetheless sickened by how these students treated each other. But unfortunately, I also got the sense that Emma, Damon, Callista, Ryan, Elisabeth, Nick, and others were just on their own, abandoned even. I certainly found fault with the parents: what is the role of the parent in providing guidance and support to their children? How can effective parenting provide a more equitable, just world? In essence, how can effective parenting be the anti-thesis to bullying, suicide, sexism, and abuse? How should parents be meaningfully involved in the lives of their children without being overbearing and suffocating? These are just some of many, many questions I have after finishing this fantastic debut by Lindsey Lee Johnson, which has drawn some comparisons to Thirteen Reasons Why.

The Girl Who Thought In Pictures: The Story of Dr. Temple Grandin

Written by Julia Finley Mosca and illustrated by Daniel Rieley, The Girl Who Thought In Pictures: The Story of Dr. Temple Grandin, is a children’s biography told in rhyme about the inimitable Temple Grandin. If you’re not familiar with Temple, she has single-handedly created more awareness around animal welfare (specifically the lives of farm animals) than just about any other person. She is practically a household name and tours the country giving talks and presentations. There’s even a movie about her starring Claire Danes! Grandin has long advocated  for “humane slaughter”, a phrase animal liberation advocates would argue is contradictory; but she nonetheless prescribes standards for facilities design and proper restraint and stunning techniques  that are intended to cause the least amount of pain and suffering in the animals being slaughtered. You can check out Temple’s website to learn more about the extensive work she has done in the field.

In The Girl Who Thought In Pictures: The Story of Dr. Temple Grandin, author Mosca discusses Grandin’s childhood as a person with autism and her deep connection with animals. Temple did not speak until age three or after, and, apparently, doctors initially told Temple’s mother they suspected she had “no brain activity”. Soon after being kicked out of school, Temple moves out west with her aunt, an owner of a ranch, and it isn’t long before Temple serendipitously embarks on her lifelong journey as an animal scientist and public speaker. She has worked tirelessly to create change in the practice of animal agriculture that is in compliance with the highest ethical standards after many years of communing with and studying the behavior of animals. Additionally, her persistence helps to create and foster an understanding of people who fall along the autism spectrum and to demonstrate that being autistic should not hold you back from a life of happiness and success.

The takeaways in this book are many: 

  • Humans are dismissive of what we don’t understand
  • We can learn to listen to others who speak a language that is different than our own
  • We nonetheless still have a myopic and narrow view of human intelligence and cognitive ability
  • Animals feel emotion and pain
  • We should not be defined by others but instead strive to live an authentic life
  • We can and should advocate for those whose voices are not heard
  • We should leave things better than how we found them

And last but definitely not least: persist, persist, persist! There are certainly many, many more morals of the story, but you’ll have to read the book to see for yourself. Personally, I was inspired while reading this picture book and think children would also find this an uplifting story. Plus, children are often more sensitive and receptive to the plight of animals than many adults–so we have much to learn from them!

Kesha’s Kaleidoscopic Album”Rainbow” is a Work of Catharsis and Transformation

At first, Old Flames (Can’t Hold A Candle To You)” was my favorite song on the album. In a waltz with the one and only Dolly Parton, Kesha’s resonant vocals are set against a meandering pedal steel guitar which is decidedly “country”; yet the underlying  near heavy-metal downpicking and tambourine on the chorus elevates the tune to “not your grandmother’s”  country shuffle. Kesha and Parton’s vocals complement each other beautifully as a faint doo-wop piano adds to the nostalgia of unparalleled love. Lyrically, love is likened to a flame, of course; but embers, fires, and candles are also invoked to describe the type of love about which singer-songwriter Patricia Rose Sebert and Hugh Moffatt wrote in 1978. “Old Flames (Can’t Hold a Candle to You”) is the only cover song on the album: Kesha does her own writing, which is another reason to love this deeply-personal album.

As it turns out, “Spaceship”, track number 14, is my absolute favorite song on the album.  Kesha’s voice is paired with a banjo (and also a mandolin?) on the verses as she sings:  “I always said when I’m gone, when I’m dead / Don’t lay me down with the dirt on my head / You won’t need a shovel, you don’t need a cold headstone / You don’t need to cry, I’m gon’ be going home.” Due to the minimalism of the song, I am able to hear the beautiful timbre in her voice which is not buried (but instead enhanced) by the stripped-down instrumentation. “Spaceship” is essentially a dirge about how the narrator wants to be treated at the time the she departs the earth. I can think of no creative act on par with the self-penned elegy that is perhaps the penultimate act of staking one’s little claim on this spinning earth. The elegy song is basically akin to a living will for artists and one of the greatest works they can write.  The narrator of the song laments her life on Earth and states that she’s from another galaxy and will one day return home. Note the ethereal backing vocals on the chorus and how they creates a ghostly ambience that is not quite of this world. In my lil humble opinion, “Spaceship” is the best song on the album, because in a really beautiful, inventive way the artist confronts her mortality, contemplates her place in the world, and explores her interest in what lies beyond. The existential lyrics contemplating one’s mortality on “Spaceship”  immediately liken the mundane verse in “Tik Tok” to mere fodder for some otherworldy sacred cow.

“Woman” is a righteous, feisty song and gives voice to female empowerment and staking your ground,  dominant themes of Rainbow.  A saxophone full of attitude paves the way for the famed Dap-Kings horn section (who backed the inimitable, late Sharon Jones). Kesha sings: “I buy my own things/ I pay my own bills / These diamond rings / My automobiles /  Everything I got I bought it / Boys can’t buy my love/ Buy my love, yeah / I do what I want / Say what you say / I work real hard everyday / I’m a motherfucking woman, baby alright.” The song is part cabaret, part pop, and all sass, and Kesha sprinkles in some expletives for good measure (and I’m not mad at her for it). In fact, I love her for it because artistic integrity is not sanitized and flawless. Kesha is the antithesis to the Insta-world where all things appear perfect but are far from it: she is the raw and the real. In other words, beauty lies in imperfection. Sometimes, what is most real is disheveled and rough-around-the-edges. Check out “Boots”, which is a little bit like the “answer” to “Woman” and “Hunt You Down”, a pantomimic ballad about murdering a lover who has done you horribly wrong. Either way, this kaleidoscopic genre-bending album showcases Kesha’s dynamic vocal ability and range.

Forgiveness, prayer, and redemption from suffering (at the hands of loved ones) are also major themes of Rainbow. You’ve likely heard “Praying” at this point, which was released with a stunning,  video depicting a narrator who is letting go of the pain of all of those who have wronged her. If you haven’t seen her late night television performance of “Praying”, it is an awe-inspiring performance. The use of repetition andguttural belting of the lyrics “praying” and “changing” make it the centerpiece of the album, no doubt. But “Rainbow”the song after which the album has been named–has quickly become another of my absolute favorites. Kesha wrote “Rainbow” when she was in rehab  for an eating disorder, so this song both embodies and symbolizes healing, growth, and survival.  “Rainbow”–with its swelling string arrangements–evoke the magic of a Disney scene in which the lead character performs her triumphant soliloquy in a sunlit forest. Kesha sings: “I used to live in the darkness / dress in black / act so heartless / but now I see that colors are everything.” Thematically, colors  are a key vehicle for communicating personal transformation, and if you’ve seen the album artwork, you know what I mean. “Rainbow” signifies a new beginning or a re-birth while “Spaceship”–a song contemplating mortality–is the perfect final cut.

And that leaves “Bastards” which was described in the Rolling Stone review as a “ballad ripe for a campfire singalong”. And I couldn’t agree more. In fact, “Bastards” echos the sentiment my father still eschews to his kids today. This pep-talk of a title track is Kesha’s inner dialogue turned outward: ” Don’t let the bastards get you down, oh no / Don’t let the assholes wear you out /Don’t let the mean girls take the crown / Don’t let the scumbags screw you ’round / Don’t let the bastards take you down.” And that’s pretty solid advice.

I haven’t heard much of Kesha’s work aside from her 2010 album, Animal; but after listening to Rainbow, I’d count myself among the ranks of her adoring fans. After just a few spins of the album, there are some standout tracks that I would say are “great”, due either to the result of her collaborations with other (great) artists, her emotive shapeshifting vocals, or how content/lyrics, vocals, instrumentation, and overall production quality culminate in beautifully-crafted songs. As it turns out, the punchy, poppy dance tunes are my least   favorite songs but are catchy in their own right.  The songs I am drawn to and that have the most substance, in terms of lyrical content, also happen to be the most minimally arranged.

In general, Kesha really shines when her emotive voice gets to take center stage without competing with a spastic instrumental backdrop (“Boogie Feet” comes to mind). It’s easy to pass judgement on an artist like Kesha who has achieved the all-too-evasive super-stardom; but check out some of her live performances from “Rainbow” and if you’re like me, you’ll be moved by how she has completely lived the experiences about which she sings. “Spaceship”, “Old Flames (Can’t Hold a Candle To You)”, “Rainbow”, “Bastards”, and “Praying” are beautiful and honest songs that I will return to again and again. If you’re the least bit privy to the legal battles and alleged abuse she suffered at the hands of her former producer, “Dr. Luke”, it’s not difficult to see that Rainbow  is a work of catharsis and metamorphosis. It’s fantastic to witness her return to her country roots because, yes, she isn’t merely a manufactured pop-star: not only does she write her own songs, but she can really sing. Check her out!