The Intern’s Handbook by Shane Kuhn

Interns handbook coverUnpaid intern discontent was surely going to give rise to the dark thriller Shane Kuhn has written. In fact, it’s surprising that something similar has not already played out on one of the many serial crime shows. The book outlines the last assignment of an intern who is really a hired assassin sent to kill one of the partners at a prestigious New York law firm.

As 25-year-old John Lago prepares to retire his role as assassin, he outlines everything he learned from founder of Human Resources, Inc. (HR, Inc.), Bob and the countless assignments John completed in seven years. HR, Inc., posing as an office intern placement agency, is really a training organization and source for hired assassins.

John writes this handbook partly for nostalgia and partly as a service to the assassins just beginning their careers. Though “not part of the new hire welcome packet . . . there’s a good chance this handbook will save your life.” Through the novel readers discover just why John became an assassin, and what is driving this last assignment to be so unusual.

While at first the book seems like an unpaid interns fantasy written after hours, fueled by Top Ramen and Red Bull, the story line works because of Kuhn’s diligence to maintaining a semblance of probability. For example, why does John have to retire?

“According to Bob, (25) is the cutoff point at which people begin to question anyone who would be willing to work for free. And I quote: ‘even if people believe you are still an intern at twenty five, you will call attention to yourself as a loser who is way behind in his or her career path. And calling attention to yourself is a death sentence.’”

While some of the rules in the book work toward the assassin’s favor, of blending in and becoming like the many other forgettable interns, these same rules could be a probable list of do’s an don’ts for real world interns. Kuhn even spends time outlining the rules of clothing choice, “. . . brown sparks the smallest neurological response of any color in the spectrum. It also elicits feelings of reliability and security, traits that are critical to gaining access and trust.”

The realism doesn’t stop at his choice of LensCrafters or how to make the best cup of coffee; he delves deeply into the psyche of why John Lago and the other interns were selected for HR, Inc. Many of the people who work for HR, Inc., like John, have a history of neglect and violence.

“All the social workers, corrections counselors, and psych doctors . . . have classified you as dangerously anti-social . . . but at HR, Inc., everything that made you a pariah will now make you a professional.”

This description perfectly sets up the relationships John forms in the book and how he even narrates with a semi detached stoicism, sprinkled with stories of previous assignments, hinting at the thrill of the kill developed over the years.

The fight scenes, while a bit clunky in their style, are not nearly as gruesome as scenes in the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series. The level of violence mixed with personal intrigue strikes a great balance for readers who want a thrilling ride in the world of assassins, without the kind of images that make you stop sleeping.

– I originally published this review on The NY Journal of Books.

Author(s): Shane Kuhn
Release Date: April 8, 2014
Publisher/Imprint: Simon & Schuster
Pages: 288

Rebel Music by Hisham D. Aidi

Rebel Music CoverHisham D. Aidi presents over a century of evolution in Muslim culture around the world, tracking both the local variations in the organic environments and the transnational movement of ideas.

Rebel Music is a dialogue between disciplines and fields generally kept separate in public conversations. This dialogue creates the necessary space to examine the interplay between music and religion, especially for Muslim youth, both having been used to explain and blame community unrest.

“Music has long been used by youth to protest, proclaim identity, build community, and interpret the world.” Through extensive interviews and retracing of musical trade routes, Aidi reminds readers how artists, theologians, and politicians at their best are distillers of public discourse, giving definition to conversations and constructing new community visions. Once that vision is constructed and distributed either through new policy, a sermon, or a hot new beat, it defines and again shifts the public discourse.

With strong links to Moorish Spain, Brazil frequently revives the cultural icon of the mythical mooress. In the first section of Rebel Music, the threads he weaves between continents and time periods is striking and sometimes surprising.  In just three pages, Aidi connects Lebanese-Colombian pop star Shakira, Salvador Allende, Hugo Chavez, and Donald Rumsfeld’s as each contributing to the post 9/11 discourse. Vignettes also verge on the surreal when Aidi tells how “in Kyrgyzstan, where Islam was suppressed for seventy years of Soviet rule, viewers saw O Clone [a Brazilian telenovela] as an introductory course on Islam.”

Rebel Music then moves north, tracing the many connections made through the leaders and music of the American civil-rights movement, the mass conversion of African Americans to Islam, and the development of the Nation of Islam. Aidi includes how the movement was influenced by foreign born African Muslims, adding a rich layer to an otherwise well known narrative. He deftly tracks the many routes the movement created during the forties, fifties, and sixties through today.

When the conversation remains within globally recognized movements, the reader is fixated on exactly where Aidi is about to draw the next narrative. However, when the conversation turns to lesser-known movements, as in the section evaluating Gnawa music, readers can be lost in the specifics and long narratives. For this reason, the last third of the book takes some work to move through. By blending and creating a conversation between otherwise unconnected fields of global music, religion, and politics readers without knowledge in one or more fields may also be lost in the complexity of the cross overs.

Aidi omits in-text citation, obscuring whether his conclusions are based on well-supported evidence or his personal conclusions. This dramatically decreases the effect of Rebel Music to be used as a primary source for people working in the field. Further, by using whole page citations he obscures the source of claims made as facts. If he is presenting the book as academically sourced, listing key terms in the index, why did he chose not to do the same for his citations. If authors continue to use endnotes without in-text markers, notes will lose their usefulness and it will be harder to hold author’s accountable for their claims.

Rebel Music does offer the field of religious studies, politics, and anthropology, clear examples of how a community is shaped by the local atmosphere to either become militant or not. In doing so he avoids creating values based comparison and instead attempts to illustrate the various local and global factors of each community. For example, he draws an important distinction between European and North American Muslim communities. “It’s debatable whether the situation of European Muslims, a largely rural and working class-migration, is even comparable to that of an affluent American Muslim migration; a more apt comparison would be Latino immigration to the U.S.”

Aidi parallels the diversity of thought and development of global Islam, with the globalizing effect and diversity of music as a vehicle for youth discourse. By comparing Brazilian engagement with European, North American and North African engagements, Rebel Music exemplifies how the community is as much impacted by religion, music, and politics as the community impacts them.

Rebel Music’s density begs for multiple readings yet can be a great read for people who are simply curious about the interplay of music, Islam, and local and global politics. The clear narrative thread never leaves readers stranded, bringing us through a global overview of race, empire and the new Muslim youth culture.

I originally published this review on the NY Journal of Books

Release Date: March 27, 2014
Publisher/Imprint: Pantheon
Pages: 432

Hip Hop Heals

IMG_2586It seems music will be a major player in my year. Every month since January I have attended a live music show. The first was a local 90’s cover band, White Ford Bronco. They were a ton of fun, with everyone singing, it seemed more like a huge singalong, live karaoke then a concert. In February I saw Greg Laswell at a tiny basement venue. He created a sweet quiet cave of music. In March I attended the amazing South by Southwest (SXSW), a riot of music from all over the world. That brings me to April. I saw an event listing for a global hip hop festival hosted at the Kennedy Center. The artists were a collection of artists who’s faith plays a significant role in their music.

As hosts of the event, the Berkley Center published my report about the event.

Hip-hop fans filled the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower stage for an evening on Faith, Hip-Hop and the Common Good. They weren’t disappointed.

Record producer Russell Simmons opened the night speaking about his work on meditation and his recent book Success through Stillness.“With music,” he said, “you look inside. You draw from your experience.” “For me,” he concluded, “Hip-hop and spirituality have always been together. It’s so much easier to get poets and artists to see the sameness in each other than [it is for] politicians.”

It proved true at this event as a lineup of hip-hop emcees and DJs of various faiths and nationalities joined forces from across the globe. Nomadic Wax curated a show featuring Talib Kweli, with artists from as far away as Hong Kong, London, and Iraq and as near as northern California, New York City, and Washington, DC including MC Jin, Poetic Pilgrimage, Am Koullel, Mandeep Sethi, DJ Boo, and the Narcicyst.

Artists were chosen for the concert, presented in cooperation with Georgetown University and the One Mic showcase, because of the role faith plays in their work and how hip-hop interacts in that faith. Sakina Abdool Noor, of Poetic Pilgrimage, a British Muslim duo, grew up in London. She explained how, for her, rap is spiritual, “Music is an ecstatic expression of our Creator. Hip-hop has always been uplifting.”

All described hip-hop’s ability to act as a cathartic force in their lives, as both performers and listeners. DJ Boo, New York City born and raised, reminded the audience, “Hip-hop is a means to share when (the community is) in despair.” He said, “Whether in Detroit or Capetown, every community can say, ‘I’ve experienced that.’”

Opening act Am Koullel, a Muslim emcee from Mali, rapped with a Malian drummer and a track produced by DJ Boo. Performing mostly in the language of Bambara, which is spoken in west Africa, he rapped about uplifting his country through the unifying spirit of music. Nomadic Wax describes Koullel as “the charismatic leader of the Hip-Hop movement in Mali,” explaining on their website how for Koullel hip-hop is “a medium for consciousness and awareness and to defend the disenfranchised. It’s also very festive and quite unique.”

A post-performance discussion moderated by Georgetown sociology professor and author Michael Eric Dyson, with all the artists on stage, illustrated the seamless blending of the international hip-hop movement with the local and personal expressions presented by the artists. Poetic Pilgrimage’s lyrics drew on the oneness of humanity:

“Release the shackles of your soul/ There is no me/ there is no you/ there is only us.”

While the Narcicyst rapped:

“Without you it’s just silence/ We’re just talking to ourselves.”

Many of the artists also blended the local with global by the communal slant to their lyrics. They made it personal, rapping about current issues in their respective cities, and about refugees and voting in Syria, Iraq, Brooklyn, and London.

Several artists described how the music they perform can be misinterpreted with stereotypes. Muneera Rashida, with Poetic Pilgrimage, described how “it sometimes takes people three tracks to move past their [physical] appearance.” Rashida narrated the experience of first time listeners, saying, “Wait, they’re women, they’re Muslims, and they’re wearing hijabs.” Until the listener ultimately arrives at “They’re amazing emcees.”

The artists each talked about their skills as emcees, DJs, poets. and singers to bridge differences. For Mandeep Sethi, aka SETI X, he spoke of music as a way “to elevate the other person’s understanding, to elevate your own understanding. Sikh means student, which means your testament to God is to be a student, is to learn.”

During the panel discussion, Dyson asked Kweli about a viral Twitter debate that trended after he tweeted the words, “Hip-hop heals.”

Referencing tweets which pointed towards hip-hop’s reputation as a source of misogyny and violence, Kweli explained, “Hip-hop has been a healing force for me, but maybe that’s more unique than I thought.”

Even as some of the artists acknowledged how hip-hop still struggles with a negative connotation, each performer said they use rap as a way of healing their communities and themselves.

For Professor Dyson, and the artists gathered, “The real obscenity is what the music is pointing to.”

The original posting on the event can be read at the Berkley Center website IMG_2590

Pastrix by Nadia Bolz-Weber

Pastrix CoverJust glancing at the tattoos on her arms you wouldn’t notice anything in particular. You may wonder why a person wearing a clerical collar has tattoos, or you may wonder why someone with tattoos is wearing a clerical collar. Either way the first glance is a bit jarring.

Look further, and the tattoos aren’t of mermaids, butterflies, or even flames; they are one of the oldest Christian art forms, iconography showing Byzantine images of Christian saints. One in particular of Mary Magdalene seems somewhat faded.

Describing the tattoos and bumpy faith journey in her recent book Pastrix: The Cranky Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint, Nadia Bolz-Weber, Lutheran pastor and author, claims Mary Magdalene as her personal teacher and guide in her life.

Mary Magdalene was saved when Jesus cast out her demons and is someone who shows up in the moments of Jesus’ life and death, when the others cowered in fear. The title itself Pastrix is an insult by conservative critics defining female pastors. By claiming Mary as her teacher, she further redefines herself in opposition to the conservative church of her childhood, which refused to allow female leadership.

Pastrix is not a typical narrative of a tattooed addict who found Jesus and rose above her ashes to become a respected and much-loved pastor. It is the story of an addict who reluctantly found sobriety, stumbled into Christianity and fell in love with the Lutheran church. Her tattoos are not from her life before recovery. Rather, they are the spiritual lessons of recovery engraved on her heart, revealed in the beautiful collection of icons now tattooed on her arms.

Living into the growth of leaders who are allowed and encouraged to share their vulnerabilities, Pastrix mixes the anticipation of a mystery, a comedy, a book of prayer, and a confession.

Lightly seasoned with profanity, the book literally begins with “shit” and ends with alleluias. She tells her story with a lens only bestowed upon survivors who have wrestled with addiction—a lens that allows its users to face the human vulnerabilities, failings and everyday victories with grace and deep humility.

Bolz-Weber conveys this beautiful duality of sinner and saint by setting the tone with humor, sometimes irreverence and disappointment, and with the brashness of an urbanite who has managed to turn a tattoo into a sacred art.

The book is a reminder of just how messy resurrection and recovery can be, and how it deeply changes the way life is viewed.  At the heart of Pastrix, the author retells a conversation with a church member about recovery and resurrection: “The Hold Steady . . . describes a girl who crashed into the Easter mass with her hair done up in broken glass and tell(ing) the priest, ‘Father can I tell your congregation how a resurrection really feels?'”

Without being heavy-handed, Bolz-Weber frequently returns to her recovery as a source of strength and as a constant reminder of her frailty. As many people have confessed after the recent death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, addiction is a demon they wrestle with every day. It is why the phrase “one day at a time” is the source of strength for so many. Pastrix reminds people that faith and humanness is an act of recovery, living one day at a time, between moments of victory and moments of failure—each beautiful reminders of life, with each moment capable of resurrecting them.

Pastrix is a collection of vignettes, retelling moments when Nadia was struck with the contradiction of her humanness and the calling to be a minister. Some chapters give you a glimpse of her former career as a comedian, while others still raw, describe her friends who didn’t find recovery or of Bolz-Weber struggling to preach about forgiveness on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, when she wasn’t really sure what it meant.

Those moments reveal her vulnerability, compelling the reader to slowly read each word, carefully turning the page and allowing the words room to breath, to heal, as if by reading the book you are participating in her resurrection.

This is the tale of so many conservative Christian refugees recovering from restrictive theology. It is the tale of an addict recovering from self-medication, facing the rawness of life. It is the tale of someone falling in love with a 500-year-old tradition, drawn into its deep ritual waters. Pastrix is also a reminder to people who have lived in that tradition of the beauty and call to face their vulnerabilities.

I originally published this review on the NY Journal of Books

Author(s): Nadia Bolz-Weber
Release Date: September 10, 2013
Publisher/Imprint: Jericho Books
Pages: 224