Amplifying Voices With Jodi Picoult

small-great-things-hc-400wWriter Jodi Picoult (My Sister’s Keeper, The Storyteller) is traveling the country on a book tour for her newest novel Small Great Things. Timely and poignant, Picoult’s novel explores issues that demand discussion – ethics, racial conflict, and personal prejudices. More than a signing and promotion tour, Picoult has chosen to use her voice to bring the conversation to even small towns that normally get overlooked and to fans who may not have a broader understanding of social issues that are currently defining the country.

On her website, Picoult posted a transcript of the speech she gave on the 21st of January at the New Hampshire Women’s Day of Action and Unity, an event coinciding with the Women’s March on Washington. In her speech, Picoult stressed the importance of giving a microphone to those whose voices need amplifying. For those who are unfamiliar with her work, it’s evident her skill and passion for telling human stories comes from a person with an empathetic heart who strives to learn outside of her own experience. Seeking out information and education over blissful ignorance (or perhaps, in this age, willful ignorance) has led Picoult to use her intimate storytelling style to raise awareness of social issues through the diversity in perspective within the pages of her books.

It seems Picoult has recognized in her audience the people she still has to reach and in herself an ever-growing need to use her own voice to reach them. Sunday, October 22nd in Greeley, Colorado, Jodi Picoult met with a room full of fans, mostly women, in an event presented by the High Plains Library District. Picoult asked the audience to set aside personal politics and search for the ethical and just by reaching out to those whose experiences are different from our own.

As a young writer, she recognized her limited scope and threw away the literary mantra of write what you know. Instead, she decided to research and speak to people whose experiences were outside of her understanding and over the years has sought to boost those stories. Picoult said she decided to “write what I was willing to learn,” a decidedly important aspect of her character. If you know only one thing about this author, it should be her impressive motivation to put herself in a position in which she can learn about people and cultures to which she had no previous experience. From the Amish to the Lakota-Sioux, the perpetrators of school shootings to the life of a black nurse facing extreme prejudice, Picoult truly puts in the work.

During her talk, Picoult cited some of the statistics she learned from FBI reports on school shootings. She asked what would happen if the media chose to focus on victims instead of analyzing every aspect of the shooter’s life. Speaking about bullying in the era of social media, she reminded us that because of the technological wall, “bullying has become divorced from responsibility.”

In regards to race, a topic in which the author tackles in Small Great Things, Picoult said, “It is my job to talk to white people.” She said in no way did she want to write for the voice of others with this book – instead, she got together with a group of POC women and listened to stories of what their reality is. “Ignorance is a privilege,” she said. When praised by a book club comprised of black women for getting their voices right, Picoult gave all the credit to the women she spoke with who taught her how to capture that voice to do the character of Ruth, and her POC readers, justice.

Before she ended her talk and moved on to questions from the audience, Picoult laid out some truths for her white readers. She gave dos and don’ts on how to approach the discussion of race and asked us to learn what it means for a society to be equal versus equitable. She asked us to take on our relatives who are casually racist at awkward Thanksgiving dinners. She asked us all to do better. As we all should.

Reaching out to people through fiction, Picoult has continued to use her platform to give people who feel invisible the stage and to present the human being, good or bad, rather than a stereotype. Extensively exploring the human aspect of each character she writes, Picoult has raised the bar for writers who are wavering on whether or not they should make the effort to include diverse voices or be willing to make their readers uncomfortable in order to learn how to be mindful of their own prejudices.



Dystopian Non-Fiction

I’ve always loved dystopian fiction. There’s something in the issues of conscience and levels of government interference with the individual’s being and rights that really gets me. One of the stories that truly hooked me on the genre was Harlan Ellison’s “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman”. I was reading the short story for a college-level literature class in high school and used it as a tool to help me with my diction for a speech competition, reading aloud as I walked around the house – the only way to read this story in my opinion, particularly the passage about jellybeans. In the years since I first studied the dystopian gospels of 1984 and A Brave New World, there had been an uptick in the amount of and interest in this end of the world as we know it-fiction, most notably displayed by the popularity of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games and its sequels (that were turned into movies and created real-life protests against authoritarian governments who violated human rights). While in college, I wrote a papers on that YA post-apocalyptic novel as well as The Road by Cormac McCarthy. While doing so, I started watching the television adaptation of the graphic novels The Walking Dead. The various visions of the future and ways of telling the story of how the world as we knew it was changed, if we’re even granted that information, still fascinate me in their complexity and perhaps most importantly, their relevancy.

The questions dystopian fiction pose to the reader are harrowing but not best left ignored. What kind of person would you be in this horrible future? Would you cause disruptions that were absurd but effective in throwing off a strict government entity knowing your life could be on the line? Could you stand quietly by while others suffer, grateful that your own life isn’t affected? That question is relatable and applicable to our current political and social climate. But then you have your darker quandaries: What would your mindset be if your way of survival was escaping those who used women like cattle and hunted others like game?

Unsettling to think about, at best. When given slim odds and a situational moral compass, how you fair ethically could change how you see yourself. Could you act when no one else would? Would you make an effort to reach those who have let complacency erase their ethics? Would you be the hunter or the hunted? Dystopian fiction has a way of reaching into your core and telling you who you truly are. No one else has to know the answers; your truth stays within you with the belief that you’ll never have to answer those questions with actions. But what happens when these ethical issues face you in real life?

Continue reading

Book Review: We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas

When it started getting cold this fall, I found a book with a slightly warped cover and missing its jacket while digging through a box looking for winter clothes. The bottom was a bit marred by what looks to have been a zipper, likely the result of being the passenger of a firmly packed suitcase, and a joker from a deck of playing cards was peeking out above the pages, stuck somewhere around the middle. I smiled as I realized what book I was holding. How apt it was that this book had been lost to me the past two years and it’s discovery perfectly timed to finish this year with it.

I started reading Matthew Thomas’ book We Are Not Ourselves two years after being wrecked by the death of someone close to me, my husband’s best friend. I was beginning my Bachelor’s degree and had decided to change my major to something I had a passion for, English Language and Literature, rather than something my father would deem practical. My mother was financing the gas and hotel money for a trip halfway across the country for her daughter and grandsons to be home for Christmas, and along the way I was to attend a book launch of an anthology I was published in to read my piece. It was on the homeward bound part of this journey that the book became lost to me, and after two moves and a completed degree, I found it again.

we are not ourselves, matthew thomasThomas’ story speaks of the dreams, regrets, and fears that haunt our lives continuously. The expectations of our parents, the desire for our children to have better and more fulfilling lives than the ones we lost decades ago, the disappointment of failing to be more than average – these things are universal to human nature, the fuel to our frequent existential and quarter- to mid-life crises. We Are Not Ourselves, an ambitious 620 page tome, is not only a novel that explores the American familial experience but also studies life through different lenses. The book follows the story of Eileen Tumulty, the daughter of Irish immigrants growing up in the 1940s and 50s, her husband Ed Leary, and their son Connell. Thomas takes the reader through decades of the Leary family’s life, reflecting moments, both the impactful and the mundane, that fill their days and make them each who they are as well as who they are as a family. Through Eileen’s desire for some grand appearance of stature, Ed’s unremitting stagnancy and solitude – both desired and inflicted, and Connell’s uncertainty about life and what his is supposed to mean to himself and others, we can understand our own families. If we don’t see this family reflected directly in our own generation, we can certainly begin to wonder about the lives and sacrifices the generations before us went through to give us everything we have, and if any of us had lived our lives putting the importance of giving and receiving love above any other marker of worth.

This book is not for the faint of heart who need action or high drama to keep their attention, but if you enjoy characters, their stories, and the events that drive their actions, We Are Not Ourselves is a book that will leave you contemplating who lives within you and where you go from here.


Book Review: Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief

When you hear about a book being indescribably brilliant, it automatically goes on your to-read list. There’s also a bit of wariness about cracking the cover, as you desperately want the book to live up to its praise – because you desperately want to read an indescribably brilliant book. The good news is, Markus Zusak‘s The Book Thief goes above and beyond expectations.

markus zusak, the book thiefReaders enjoy being drawn into a book by the means of storytelling they haven’t quite experienced before. While this attempt at reinventing the wheel is made by writers all the time, it’s rarely so incredibly effective and successful as what Zusak has accomplished. The narration is poetic and dynamic, and despite our narrator telling us time and time again what we’re to expect, you’ll find yourself begging for the fates of the characters to change. As hope arrives, a gentle reminder of what the future will bring is set down before you to deny and continue to mourn as you wait for something, anything to step in and change the inevitable ending.

I’ve shed tears over books before and experienced my fair share of intense emotional response to the characters’ experiences, but The Book Thief was something else entirely. I found myself unable to put it down toward the end, except to place it on my chest and wait for the tears to stop so I could see to read again. A continuous stream of tears kept me company past midnight the last few chapters, and I had to restrain myself from letting out some sobs that caught in my throat so I wouldn’t wake up my husband and have to explain that yes, a book was making me cry again. This kind of experience when reading a book always tells me two things; first, becoming connected to characters and stories when having an emotional regulation disorder is punishing, and second, this writer has effectively used their skill of drawing emotion from their reader and should be proud of every frustrating moment they had as they revised and rewrote drafts of their work, because it has been artfully crafted.

The Book Thief is certainly a book that I can set aside in a category of its own, as the indescribable brilliance of the storytelling stands up to all the praise the book has received from critics, writers, and readers alike. So if it is laying somewhere in your stacks of books you plan on reading eventually, go ahead and pick it up and open the cover. You won’t regret it.

Writings by American Warriors

Friday, October 7th, I flew out to Kansas City to read at the Missouri Humanities Council‘s new office at 1800 Baltimore. It was First Friday – an event I ashamedly had never heard of, let alone participated in, but I saw the hashtag proliferating on Twitter and Instagram in cities across the country. First Fridays, in both large metropolitan areas and smaller towns, host events on – you guessed it – the first Friday of every month, featuring art walks displaying physical art in galleries, music, improvisational theater, craftsmanship, and anything else you can imagine, accompanied by food and drink to celebrate.

The Crossroads Art District of Kansas City was nearly impossible to navigate well before 6pm. Frustrated motorists tried to make their way through the streets as pedestrians took over the sidewalks and edged out into the road. Whether crossing with no attention paid to the Don’t Walk warnings (spoken to you in a robotic voice that I may have talked back to after being told to “Wait!” when I was already waiting), or with an apologetic wave as they weaved through cars stuck at an intersection, the streets in the Crossroads were packed with people from all walks of life. Doors were open throughout the district where you could slip in and view a gallery, stand outside and peer through windows, or venture up narrow staircases to find yourself in a restaurant or a theater. It was really a toss of the dice in some places. I saw some great paintings, was invited to learn to code with Code Koalas, and enjoyed some interesting art!improv (improvart?) from BeMused at the Fishtank Performance Studio with a friend.

After arriving at the MHC office, I was met at the door by Lisa Carrico (or re-met, as I think we had been introduced her first week in the position in 2014 during the readings for the third volume of the Proud to Be anthology at the Focal Point in St. Louis), who is the Director of Family & Veterans Programs (and has a degree in zoology – how cool is that?). Ashley D. Wallis, Gerardo Mena, Missouri Humanities Council, Proud to Be, Kansas City First FridayI had been corresponding with Lisa in regards to participating in this event, and was thrilled to be invited to read my work. I was pleased to meet Mark Livengood, Ph.D., who is the Director of Education and heads the newest Kansas City branch of the charity organization, and also the adorable and enthusiastic Director of Public Relations, Maura Gray, who instantly won me over with a smile and exclaiming, “I love your hair!” Thanks, Maura!
I love it too. It’s purple.

Continuing my evening of meeting delightful people, fellow Veteran (but way more awesome) Gerardo “Tony” Mena read some poetry from his new book as well as his gut-wrenching poem “So I Was A Coffin” which has an accompanying video and commentary on the Poets&Writers website. Passionate about drawing attention to the high rate of suicide among service members, Tony begins all of his readings with the names of men who he had served with who were killed in action or after they returned home. After a quick Q&A, we spoke with audience members, drank a few beers, and it was over too soon. People who didn’t attend the reading itself wandered in and out, checking out what the Missouri Humanities Council has to offer (including awesome free tote bags that Maura used to attract attention to the office) and looking at the Proud to Be books for sale. Now that I’ve had the pleasure of working with the MHC in a closer capacity, I need to write some more upbeat material so the next time a surf band starts playing loudly outside the front door, it won’t be so much of a dramatic contrast my sometimes terribly depressing stories. Luckily for the audience, Tony is charismatic and funny and I’m an awkward nerd, so as long as you have idiots like one of us around, our personalities balance out the heaviness of the work. I mean, right before I read my personal essay “Inconsequential” about my identity struggles, physical issues and mental illness, as well as my experience with sexual assault and rape, I broke a podium (sorry, Mark, but thank you for fixing it – that’s why you have a Ph.D. and I merely have a BA).

Nothing pleases me more than working with an organization like the Missouri Humanities Council for everything that they do, and Southeast Missouri State University Press for putting on this annual writing and photography contest for Veterans (or work about Veterans) and for publishing the anthology. In addition to events like these, the free writing workshops give people the ability to hone their craft whether it’s a hobby or if they’re working toward a bigger project. Surrounded by people who have similar stories, writing workshops for Veterans help them work through their experiences in war and at home and translate that into art, while creating a safe space to express themselves and get constructive feedback on their work. Before I flew out, I was happy to be able to attend the final workshop in a series of four that the MHC put together held at the Kansas City Public Library’s Plaza Branch. I was able to hear what Veterans from Vietnam and the Gulf War were writing, and thoroughly enjoyed taking part in the last workshop – I would love to see finished products whenever the writers complete their works.

If you have the opportunity to attend one of the MHC events, or even your local First Friday event, I highly recommend it. If you’re a Veteran or a writer who would like to conduct an interview or compose a piece about Veterans, be sure to check out SEMO’s University Press website for the anthology’s call for submissions.

All Hallow’s Read

Author Neil Gaiman, who I just spoke about in my American Gods book review (as well as my anticipation of the series based on this novel), promotes a Halloween tradition that I’ve participated in during previous years, and will be again. It’s a simple concept – while you’re handing out candy, give out a book as well. A scary book. Or any book, really.

books, all hallow's read

A few of the books I handed out in 2014, via my instagram.

I’ve picked up books from the Dollar Bin at Target (I’m not sure what its official name is, but that’s what I call it) like Frankenstein and Sleepy Hollow, and also dug through the wares at a local used book store to find some treasures to have displayed outside my house while I hand out candy, giving the kids an option to grab a book as they leave. Almost every single trick-or-treat’er I’ve served candy to has picked up a book on their way off my porch, and I’ve received thanks from parents and even a hug from a neighbor for giving out books.

This year I bid on eBay for Goosebumps books to start off my All Hallow’s Read collection, and I keep checking the Target bins for books to show up. Soon I’ll be having joint and back pain from squatting and leaning over to read the spines of books at used book stores to find some must-reads for various ages. I also make a bookmark and place it in each book as well. For funsies.

Listen to Neil Gaiman explain the simplicity of this tradition in the video below, and be sure to check out the event website with downloadable posters, book recommendations, and contest information.

American Gods, Neil Gaiman, Author's Preferred Text

Book Review: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

I’d been excited to read this book for years, but like so many on my To Read list, it took me a while to crack the cover. I had American Gods on my Kindle, which I rarely use, and I knew that having a copy in-hand was the best way to make me get around to reading it; nothing gives me more guilt than an unread book sitting on my shelf. When I attended the Tattered Cover’s signing event for Felicia Day’s memoir I had reviewed earlier this year, I saw a copy of American Gods displayed on the shelf. It called out to me – a hard copy of a book I knew I wanted to read, with a lovely cover and a few words that jumped out: author’s preferred text. I probably have the exact same text on my Kindle version of the book, but there it was as I stood in line with four copies of Felicia Day’s book in my arms, and I stacked it on top of my pile.

The book quietly and deservedly shamed me for not reading it for months over a busy summer until I moved it to the top of my To Read list and berated myself for not reading it years ago before the first chapter was finished. While still in the first few chapters of American Gods, I was given another reason to read it -and faster. Starz announced a series based on the novel to be released in 2017 written by Bryan Fuller (Dead Like Me, Pushing Daisies, Hannibal) and Michael Green, who will also serve as showrunners. When a movie based on a book is announced, even if I like the book, I groan knowing that it’s likely that the movie will make me one of those terrible people who pick apart what was left out and what was changed. But, like many readers, when a book is announced to be made into a series, I scream silently in excitement because of the potential for the material to be treated in the best possible way. Then the trailer was released in July, and I was filled with an intense amount of excitement.

I love characters and I love story. To be able to see these fascinating characters and this intense, very visual story to be played out on screen will be a book lover’s dream, and I look forward to seeing what direction the series takes this epic tale. And as it seems we’re getting more than one season, the story will have the opportunity to expand the universe Gaiman created, which is something the characters and story of American Gods are well deserving of.

Neil Gaiman is an amazing writer.  With Good Omens being one of my favorite novels (a book he wrote in collaboration with the late Terry Pratchett), the premise of American Gods caught my interest immediately. I’m intrigued by stories of gods and humans, demons and angels, and the potential for an end of days scenario. If you know me personally and my occasional fangirling persona, this comes as no surprise. American Gods, Neil Gaiman, Author's Preferred TextIn this novel, we’re introduced to Shadow Moon, a man who is about to be paroled from prison when he finds out his wife has been killed in a car accident. Meeting a man named Wednesday on his plane home to the funeral, Shadow is offered a job as a bodyguard and as a kind of errand boy. Reluctant at first, he realizes that with no wife, no future, and no other options, Shadow has to accept the offer. From there, everything is strange and nothing is quite right with the world in both explicit and inexplicable ways. Within the pages of American Gods, you’re introduced to characters and situations for which you must know what happens next. The layers of this story are highly imaginative with intriguing characters that struggle with free will, sacrifice, and the magical laws of belief. The protagonist Shadow is ripped from the world he understands and thrust via tragedy into a reality that can barely be believed. Once the veil is lifted, Shadow is suddenly privy to the inner workings of the lives of the gods. As a war is mounting between the old gods and the new, the reader is left to contemplate how the gods made their way to America in the first place, the way immigrants passed along the old country’s mythology to new generations, and what we put our faith in today. American Gods investigates what cultural beliefs have continued to be passed down, how our own mythologies have evolved over the years, and what gives our gods their power. Gaiman has taken the kind of questions that people have a tendency to wonder about in existential crises and created characters that embody the questioning, the indifferent, and the desperate to survive.

If you have wanted to read this novel or have heard of it but haven’t picked it up yet, let me tell you that you’re missing out. I plan on reading it again, as I am absolutely sure that a second read-through will give me a deeper insight into the story and love for the characters. Pick it up, bump it to the top of your To Read list, and let that unopened cover guilt you into diving into this battle between reality and fantasy in a world where gods exist – if our belief allows them.

Interviews, a Road Trip, and a Reminder of Myself

This past week has been a surreal experience.

Monday I boarded a flight from Denver to New Hampshire, prepared to interview in Boston with companies that might need a creative mind like mine on their payroll. Unfortunately, the interviews I thought I was going to have didn’t happen – but another did, with an organization that is a far better fit than the other companies would have been, with a great group of people. I left New Hampshire officially a freelance writer – but that interview was only one of the many experiences this trip afforded me.

Normally a bit isolated the past few years due to moves, I don’t get out too much. As for evening activity these days, a hoodie and pajama pants suit me just fine while I write or read. I had another interviewee on the trip with me, and thankfully that first night I didn’t wind up in my room nervous and endlessly worrying about how the next day was going to go. Apparently I’m not too bad at trivia and definitely relax after a few beers. After my first Uber rides and a ton of high fives, I went to bed a lot less worried than I normally would have been before a big day and felt a lot more like myself.

That feeling likely helped me through the next day, as despite what felt like a hundred different wardrobe malfunctions, I enjoyed a tour of one of the organization’s buildings and met the people who worked there. My interview mostly felt like a conversation between like-minded individuals, which is the best experience someone seeking employment could ask for. I settled into my hotel room that night with pizza, bad television, and social media, smiling despite being exhausted both physically and emotionally. But, in the spirit of being myself – responsible while having fun – when my room phone rang at 10pm, I got up and fixed my makeup, put on real clothes, and went out for a few drinks and conversation.

It didn’t take long for this trip to feel different to me. By Monday night I had decided to extend my trip by a day, feeling that I had to take advantage of being in New England for the first time. After such a great Tuesday, how could I do anything else? So instead of flying back to Denver on Wednesday, I rented a car and decided to road trip, which is decidedly the most me thing I could do.

nubble lighthouse, maine, seascape, lighthousesBy noon on Wednesday I was in Vermont. Mid afternoon I found myself unexpectedly (and feeling quite under dressed in my road trip clothes and wind-thrashed hair) wandering the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts taking in history and art from all over the world. Early that evening, I realized why a seaside cottage in Maine was an ideal retreat for writers. I was back in my hotel room in New Hampshire before dinnertime. Four states in an afternoon, driving through mountains, country, city, and a small coastal town.

I’m not sure what this trip did for me, but I feel as if it was vital, especially at this point in my life; not only for the professional reasons, but for the personal reasons. I think I made some friends, some great connections, experienced a part of America I had previously not known, spent some quality alone time, and was invigorated by stepping out of my day-to-day, which is always refreshing.

Sometimes we find ourselves in unique situations, and following your gut can lead to a quiet adventure that you didn’t know you needed so very badly. The timing of this trip was everything, from the disappearing interviews opening me up to a fantastic opportunity to the spontaneous road trip – including my return flight home, because the day after I landed, Denver was hit with a snowstorm that closed the airport. There’s almost two feet of snow on the ground in April, but I can’t help but smile because at this moment, I feel up for anything.

#E4k and Kindness Cards

Every year I participate in Endure4Kindness to raise money for Random Acts, a non-profit organization that helps fund random acts of kindness internationally, from small acts such as assisting local residents with starting a garden to huge acts such as building a school in Nicaragua. It’s an organization that has honestly changed my life as a member of the RA community, and I believe wholeheartedly in their mission to change the world one act of kindness at a time.

Last E4K I was injured and couldn’t walk as I had planned, so I met with the clerk of the small town I lived in and found out what they needed and made six knot blankets in 13 hours – two for the elementary school nurse’s office and four for a family in need. This year I had planned to hike in Golden Gate Canyon State Park, but of course in Colorado style, a huge winter storm is coming over the Rockies this weekend. Since hiking up the side of a mountain at 8200+ feet in elevation with up to 12 inches of snow on the ground doesn’t seem like the safest idea, I came up with an alternative (although I will be making the trek when it’s not so treacherous).

I’ll be making as many Kindness Cards as I can this weekend with a goal of making cards for 13 hours on Saturday the 16th, both e-cards and physical cards with customization available. If you know someone who needs a little reminder of how wonderful they are or some well wishes to let them know you are thinking of them, fill out this form to order a free card to pass along a kind word to your friends and family, and if you can – because the point is kindness and helping Random Acts fund even more acts in the next year – please consider donating $10 or more to Random Acts to fuel more acts of kindness worldwide here.  I’m only at 17% of my fundraising goal of $300 as I write this, so any donation is greatly appreciated.

Go forth and do great things!