nonfiction

Book Review: People Love Dead Jews: Reports from a Haunted Present by Dara Horn

A good title draws a reader in immediately. A provocative title makes the whole world sit up and take notice. And it was a provocative title that had me clicking the want-to-read button on Goodreads last week immediately, without even needing to learn more about the rest of the book. I’ve heard of Dara Horn before, but hadn’t read any of her writing before this. But when someone in one of my Facebook groups mentioned her latest book, People Love Dead Jews: Reports from a Haunted Present (W.W. Norton Company, 2021), I knew it would have to go on my list. Because that title…it’s true, isn’t it?

Dara Horn is a writer, professor, and scholar, often known for her essays on Judaism and Jewish-themed topics. But she came to the realization that she was always asked to write about dead Jews, never living ones. And this became the topic for her latest book: the world has a fascination with dead Jews, but rarely affords the same respect to living Jews. How many Holocaust novels are out there, often with a happy ending, often with a Gentile rescuer as the main character? How often do you think those happy endings happened in real life? How much do you know about the trauma suffered by survivors, the anger, the refusal of governments to help those who had lost everything, the many survivors who were murdered after leaving the camps? How many Jewish heritage sites exist around the world with no mention as to why there are no Jews living at those sites anymore? Why is The Merchant of Venice still one of Shakespeare’s most-performed plays, despite its blatant antiseminism (and what do you think that says to the Jews in your life)?

Our country’s education does a lot of things right, but it fails to instruct our students on so much of world history, and even when it does, it misses the mark in a big, big way. (Props to my daughter’s class, which is currently looking at various cultures around the world, and including a glimpse into both the history and the religions of those areas.) So many students are only exposed to the existence of Jews when they’re mass-murdered (as often happened throughout history, and continues to happen today), and they learn only what Hitler thought and taught about them- not what Jews actually are, what Jews actually do, what Jews have contributed to the many, many societies that have been home throughout the centuries. And that leads to people only appreciating and sometimes fetishizing dead Jews, and not appreciating live ones.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen, in one of my online book groups, someone mentioning that Holocaust fiction is a favorite genre. (I think I actually recoiled from the computer at the last post I saw. Their post and tone were so…cheery.) Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying books about the Holocaust shouldn’t be written. They should. The Shoah was a devastation that shouldn’t ever be forgotten, and writers should engage with it in order to demonstrate again and again, the horror of it all, and why such devastation and the attitudes that lead to it should be cut off before they begin. BUT. There’s definitely a trend of Holocaust rescuer books, of happy ending stories, of Nazi-guard-with-a-conscience stories. And those just aren’t reality. And we need to ask ourselves why we need those stories so badly as a society. What are we trying to convince ourselves of here? Whose stories are we leaving out when we pile on the ones with a lovely rainbow arc of redemption?

This is not an easy book to read- not for me, as a Jew; hopefully it won’t be for you, either- it’s not meant to be. It’s meant for people to take a hard look at why our world sets up Holocaust museums (which are absolutely necessary) but won’t deal with the growing wave of antisemitism spreading wider and wider. Why we’re so eager to blame Jews for their own demise, as Ms. Horn points out after yet another antisemitic murder; why newspaper articles on other murder victims don’t talk about the murderer’s frustration with Jews who had moved into the area (where the murderer didn’t even live. Imagine an article that said something like, “Understandably, Steve’s frustration only grew when his neighbor didn’t put away the dinner dishes away in her own house as quickly as he thought she should do. After a series of social media posts where he documented his unhappiness, police weren’t surprised to find her murdered body on the front lawn the next morning.” People would rage! But the article Ms. Horn quotes from, about murders at a kosher supermarket, isn’t much different).

People Love Dead Jews is a tough, thought-provoking read that is beautifully well-written (I wish I had half of Dara Horn’s brainpower). If you’ve ever looked forward to the release of a favorite author’s upcoming novel set during the Holocaust, or if this mass tragedy is the only Jewish history you’ve ever learned about, this is probably the book you need to read. (A good companion read would be Antisemitism: Here and Now by Deborah E. Lipstadt.)

Visit Dara Horn’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: The Cult of Trump: A Leading Cult Expert Explains How the President Uses Mind Control by Steve Hassan

If you’ve read my blog for any length of time, you know I’m fascinated by cults. Not just the cults themselves, though; I’m also fascinated by the mindset that it takes to join and stay in a cult: the beliefs and ties to reality that followers must suspend, the excuses they need to make, and the misbehavior that must be dismissed in order to continue to defend and remain within the group. What makes all that happen? What kind of perfect storm has to take place in order for a single person to convince themselves that this group above all others has it right, despite glaring evidence to the contrary? In the past few years, we’ve been able to watch- and still watch- this play out on a massive scale in real time, and when I learned about The Cult of Trump: A Leading Cult Expert Explains How the President Uses Mind Control by Steve Hassan (Free Press, 2019), I was interested. I’d heard interviews with Steve Hassan before on the topic of cults, and I had long before made the connection between the many, many cults I’ve read about and the behavior of Donald Trump’s most ardent followers. Onto my list it went.

Steve Hassan had once been a member of the Moonies, the colloquial name for members of Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church. His family recognized early on that he had been pressured into a cult; it took him several years to leave (with the help of his family, who were not members; it’s obviously much, much harder for people raised in these movements to extract themselves), and he went on to become a mental health expert who specializes in treating people who leave high-control groups. He’s well aware now of the tactics that the Moonies and other groups use in order to pressure people to join and stay in their movements, and he recognized early on that Donald Trump and his entourage have engaged in all of the same tactics in order to build their own movement.

Step by step, Steve Hassan breaks down how Donald Trump engages in the same mind control techniques that cults use, using specific examples not just from Trump and his entourage, but showing how those same techniques played out in other high-control groups (such as NXIVM, Jonestown, Waco, etc). (And this isn’t mind control like in cartoons, where people’s eyes spin around; these are psychological tactics designed to manipulate how a person thinks, to break ties with a person’s prior life and beliefs and instill new, mostly fear-based beliefs that encourage the potential convert to join the group, because the group or the group’s leader alone can fix this. Sound familiar?). The parallels are disturbing.

I enjoyed a lot of the content here. Seeing the tactics used by various cults and the Trump campaign broken down step-by-step is definitely eerie, especially seeing it all in one place. Mr. Hassan isn’t the only one to notice this; the podcast Behind the Bastards has noted this in multiple episodes, and if you’ve ever listened to the podcast Cults on Parcast, you’ll recognize the same patterns of behavior and control over and over again, used throughout all the various groups. There’s no doubt that the Trump campaign used and continues to use these unfortunately effective tactics. They work, yes, but they work by manipulation and fear. If you can’t convince people of your message without manipulation and fear, your message isn’t worth propagating.

The book did get a little dry for me at times, and there were several instances where the text veered into speculation. “Many people believe…” “Some people think…” I didn’t care for that and felt that it weakened his argument. In a book that is making such big claims (claims which I think are unfortunately accurate), I want every claim to be backed up with hard evidence. There’s no room for conjecture when you’re penning nonfiction about a presidential administration that engaged in devastating acts, and God knows there’s enough hard material to base these claims on. The speculation turned me off quite a bit, and I felt that it lessened the effectiveness of the rest of the book. It also strayed into straight-up political discussion more than I expected; I was looking for more of hard look at the Trump administration’s cult-like tactics in engaging its followers and keeping them coming back for more despite this often not being in their best interests (something we’re still seeing today throughout this pandemic, though there are definitely signs that the monster he created is beyond his control, what with his encouraging his rallygoers to get vaccinated, only to have them boo him). While it did contain some of that, it wasn’t as much as I had expected when I put this book on my list.

It’s definitely an interesting perspective, but not as in-depth of an examination as I had hoped for.

Visit Steve Hassan’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction · true crime

Book Review: Unspeakable Acts: True Tales of Crime, Murder, Deceit, and Obsession by Sarah Weinman

A few years ago, I read The Real Lolita: The Kidnaping of Sally Horner and the Novel that Scandalized the World by Sarah Weinman, which only made sense thanks to my earlier reading of Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. It (the first book!) was a fascinating and compelling read, and it put Sarah Weinman on my radar. So when I learned about her new true crime anthology, Unspeakable Acts: True Tales of Crime, Murder, Deceit, and Obsession (Ecco, 2020), I slapped that bad boy onto my list.

I went into this anthology expecting the book to continue as it starts, with stories that recap true crime tales like a finely-tuned episode of Dateline (which I occasionally listen to as a podcast). The anthology starts out strong, only to get even better. Beyond delving into stories of murder and deception, this book also takes a hard look at the true crime genre as a whole. Whose stories are told- and whose aren’t, and why? What does it mean that we as a society are so fascinated by these real-life stories of terrible, violent death? What happens in the aftermath of these stories? And what does cleanup look like after someone picks up a gun?

This is a lot more than whodunnit, than a voyeuristic peek into blood-spattered rooms and chilled interrogation chambers. This is intriguing reporting that asks hard questions and demands that we ask ourselves hard questions. What are we getting out of this ethically dubious genre? Look harder at the aftermath of these crimes, at the broken families plagued by grief and the unknowns, at the hospitals struggling to keep up with the trauma victims and the survivors whose wounds stay with them long after the gun stops smoking and the knife is cleaned off. Think a little harder; examine what pulls you so strongly to this genre and why, and what you can take from it in order to make our society a more just place for everyone.

My goodness, this was incredible. There’s some powerful writing in this book, both in terms of narrative ability, and in terms of straight-up journalism that strikes all the right chords. There’s an article about a trauma surgeon tasked with repairing gunshot victims; you may be surprised at how not-linear their recoveries often are. A piece on the impact of the band Soul Train’s early 90’s video for their hit song ‘Runaway Train’ is deeply moving; I had actually read this article before but appreciated coming back to it, as the song and its accompanying videos (plural) of missing and exploited kids, still tugs at my heart. And a story of a murdered mother who turned out not to be who she said she was fascinated me- it’s near the beginning, and I bet it’ll pull you in as well.

If you enjoy the true crime genre, this is truly an anthology you cannot miss. I blew through the whole book in one afternoon and am sorry that there aren’t 23748324032 other volumes to accompany it. This was phenomenal.

Visit Sarah Weinman’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction · memoir

Book Review: My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me: A Black Woman Discovers Her Family’s Nazi Past by Jennifer Teege and Nikola Sellmair, translated by Carolin Sommer

My library sends out a quarterly newsletter to everyone within its service area, informing the community about scheduled programs, updates on the new library building currently under construction (completion scheduled for late fall of next year!), book clubs, activities for kids (still lots of virtual storytimes and take-and-go-crafts), and new services they’re offering. I look forward to this newsletter at the dawn of each new season. I learned about My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me: A Black Woman Discovers Her Family’s Nazi Past by Jennifer Teege and Nikola Sellmair, translated by Carolin Sommer (The Experiment, 2013) from one of these newsletters, as it was a book club pick. While I wasn’t able to make the book club discussion centered around this book, I still wanted to read it, and onto my list it went.

Jennifer Teege, a German woman of mixed-race descent, grew up as the adopted child of a white family. She spent the first three years of her life in an orphanage, with her biological mother visiting her on occasion, and spending time with her maternal grandmother. At age three, she became the foster child of the family who eventually formally adopted her at age seven- and after the adoption, as was the norm for the time, all contact with her biological family ended. Jennifer struggled with feelings of abandonment and trauma; trust wasn’t easy for her. And in her late 30’s, she happened upon a book about a woman grappling with her father being Amon Goeth (as it’s spelled in the book), one of the most vicious Nazis and head of the  Kraków-Płaszów concentration camp. That woman was Monika Goeth, Jennifer’s biological mother.

Already suffering from depression and struggling to define her life, Jennifer was thrown into the depths of despair. Who was she, if that’s what she came from? What did this mean for her life, for her two sons, for her relationship with her adoptive family, for her relationship with her Israeli friends? How much of ourselves can we assign to those who came before us? Jennifer struggles terribly with the implications of this discovery, and it takes a lot of work, soul-searching, therapy, and thousands of miles of travel and years of research to come to terms with who her biological grandfather was.

Whew. This is obviously a heavy topic and a compelling story, likely an adoptee’s worst nightmare. Jennifer is legitimately distressed, as would most people be. Her biological grandfather was a horrible, horrible person, responsible for the murder of thousands; her biological grandmother, whom she absolutely loved, was far more supportive of him than Jennifer would have expected, and this also caused her a great deal of strain. As someone who is a dedicated traveler, who spent years living in Israel and who is fluent in Hebrew, being a woman of mixed-race, she’s completely certain that her grandfather wouldn’t have treated her any different than the Jews he shot from his balcony at the camp he presided over.

I had some issues with this book. While it’s an intriguing story, I disagreed a lot with how the author handled some of the situations she found herself in. She obviously had very fond memories of her maternal grandmother, who had never been anything but kind and loving to her. Even after learning about her grandmother’s romance with and lifelong support of and defending of Amon Goeth, she still chooses to cling to those memories and defend her grandmother. That is absolutely not the choice I would have made. People who are nice to you but not nice to people who are different from you…are not nice people. People who defend bad people are not nice people. I could have respected if she had said, “I have very fond memories of my grandmother, but it disturbs me greatly to learn of her support for this Nazi murderer and I cannot look at her the same way anymore.” I realize I’m seeing this in a more black-and-white fashion, but something things ARE black and white, and defending Nazis is one of them.

I also really struggled with the way she treated and referred to her adoptive family (some of this may be due to social and cultural differences; adoption was looked at very differently back then. And there may also be translation issues as well- not with content, but more along the terms of differences between how Germans refer to adoption and how it’s talked about here). It seemed almost as if the moment Jennifer learned about her Nazi grandfather, that biological family became her sole family and her adoptive family ceased to exist, ceased to matter to her. This may be due to her underlying trauma that hadn’t yet been addressed, but there were a lot of places here that made me feel really bad for her adoptive family in terms of how she spoke about them (and I’m absolutely NOT of the mindset that adopted kids need to be grateful their whole lives to the family who chose them. Eff outta here with that gross BS; we’re the lucky ones for those kids being in our lives and we need to honor the trauma they’ve experienced by losing their biological family). I’m definitely willing to cut her a lot of slack in regards to this, especially as she does write about having a better relationship with her family these days, but I wish that would have been covered a little more. So this book is a wild ride that has a lot of issues. I felt terrible for Jennifer throughout quite a bit of it; she was very obviously deeply distressed on learning such shocking information. I hope she’s since figured out she’s not responsible for her grandfather’s crimes, and just because she shares a few segments of DNA with him doesn’t mean…anything, basically. We get to be our own people; we don’t have to be anything at all like the people who came before us, if we don’t want to be. That’s the beauty of it all. 🙂

nonfiction

Book Review: Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster by Adam Higginbotham

I was too young to remember anything about Chernobyl, only being five at the time of the accident, and information was slow to leak out in the days after the explosion (and news didn’t move as fast back then, anyway). But it’s become something that fascinates me as an adult. I read Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster by Svetlana Alexievich in 2019, but I realized I really didn’t know much of the specifics of what happened, and in order to more fully understand, I would need to read on. A friend mentioned Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster by Adam Higganbotham (Simon & Schuster, 2019) after I’d read Voices, and so onto my list it went. I held back from reading it for a while, intimidated by the 538 pages, but fear not; a lot of that is footnotes, and the text in my ebook copy ended at around 50%. It’s not actually *that* huge of a book.

Adam Higginbotham has created a masterpiece here, weaving a story of incompetence, shame, national pride, and suffering that takes the reader back to the early days of Soviet nuclear innovation, where anything was possible and the USSR was large and in charge (if only in its own propaganda). The desperation of the Soviet Union to appear as a major force in nuclear power on the world stage required its architects, builders, and engineers to cut corners at every turn in order to keep up with the pace demanded by its leaders. What happened at Chernobyl was inevitable, caused by a major design flaw; if it hadn’t happened there, it would have eventually happened at another Soviet nuclear plant.

At every turn, Mr. Higginbotham shows how the wrong decision was made that cost lives and increased human suffering and environmental damage to the extreme. The truth was hidden for ages as unsuspecting citizens were exposed to massive amounts of radiation. Those in charge were loath to admit that mistakes had been made (by themselves or anyone else); what mattered more was how the Soviet Union appeared in the eyes of the rest of the world. The dangers of nationalism and pride are illustrated on every page of this remarkable book about a disaster that opened the public’s eyes to the dangers of nuclear power plants.

This book is a LOT. A lot of history with which I wasn’t familiar (I was born in 1980; I vaguely remember learning bits and pieces about the USSR when I was growing up, but I very much remember having a class discussion after the USSR fell and what that meant), a lot of explanation about the science behind nuclear power that I will admit flew right over my head, a lot of Russian names I struggled to keep straight (part of this is due to the fact that I read it as an ebook; I have a harder time reading nonfiction on my kindle. There IS a handy guide to who’s who in the front of the book, and I would really have liked to have been able to flip back to that!), a lot of anxiety-inducing scenes where the radiation levels were off the charts, and days upon days where leaders failed to evacuate anyone and instead let them marinate in radiation in order to save their own stupid pride. While I couldn’t explain anything about nuclear physics or engineering, I definitely have a better sense of the story of Chernobyl: what happened, what was covered up and lied about, and why.

This has all left me with a massive disdain for nuclear power, although Mr. Higginbotham is clear that things have gotten safer since then, with better design and different sources of power that are much less likely to melt down. But that’s still not zero danger, as Fukushima has shown us, and I’m not sure I’ll ever feel totally relaxed when it comes to the subject of nuclear power plants at all. I’m definitely glad I read this, though, because I absolutely feel better informed about the disaster and tragedy that was Chernobyl.

Visit Adam Higginbotham’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear: The Utopian Plot to Liberate an American Town (And Some Bears) by Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling

Sometime late last winter or early last spring, one of my online friends posted an article discussing A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear: The Utopian Plot to Liberate an American Town (And Some Bears) by Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling (Public Affairs, 2020). The premise sounded wild, and I added it to my list, and there it was at the library on my latest trip. I only have forty-some books left on my TBR that are available at my local library branch, so it’s less mood-reading these days and more reading-what’s-available-at-this-particular-moment in terms of my list. Which is usually fine (although there are certain things I know I can’t handle at the moment, so those sit a little longer on my list).

The town of Grafton, New Hampshire became the focus of a group of Libertarians (an American political party that emphasizes freedom above all, oftentimes without the corresponding responsibilities. Wikipedia article on Libertarianism here). They chose this town as the site they were going to ‘liberate’ from the tyranny of taxes (I hope you can hear my eyeroll) and began to move there in sizeable droves. They liberated a lot of things, including the town from fire protection, road repair, and wildlife management.

Bears began to become a huge menace in the town, aided by certain residents actively feeding them. Bear attacks, uncommon even in the worst of times, took place on several occasions, including bears coming into people’s homes (many townspeople looked for any reason to blame the victim; apparently, cutting up meat in your own kitchen makes you responsible for being mauled by a bear). Houses burned down because the fire department had been so gutted. Roads crumbled. The library suffered, both in terms of the hours it was able to operate and the building itself. The libertarians fought amongst themselves, and the town continued to suffer. To only certain people’s surprise, a higher-taxed town not too far away continued to thrive and grow, while Grafton crumbled and its population shrank.

While nothing in this book was surprising, in terms of outcome, it still made for an interesting, if occasionally slightly dry (more due to subject than the writing style, I think; I don’t necessarily find Libertarianism all that interesting and definitely not appealing, since the thought processes of its adherents is just a whole lot of cringe for me. The book intrigue me because of the strong consequences of seeing this line of thinking through). Mr. Hongoltz-Hetling does a good job of digging down into the essence of the psyches of the libertarians who took over the town, showing their goals and thought patterns and their expectations for Grafton’s eventual tax-free utopian status under libertarian rule. A rule-less (or nearly rule-less) society depends heavily on its citizens always making the morally correct choices, and as this book shows (and common sense dictates), that’s just not something that happens. People are people; they quite often make terrible decisions that are entirely against even their own self-interest, not the mention the interest of the community around them (see: pandemic), and in case after case, this is illustrated throughout this book.

This is a fairly entertaining, occasionally amusing, and often face-palm-inducing read that I think serves as interesting reading material to readers who understand that this particular philosophy makes for a great ideal, but that put into action, the outcome will never match up with its prior vision. Will it convince anyone already married to the ideals of Libertarianism? Having known a few people that prescribe to that particular philosophy, I doubt it; I think they’d be more along the lines of assuming that the Grafton crowd made mistakes that they wouldn’t, that “That wouldn’t possibly happen to me because REASONS,” entirely discounting the fact that living without regard to the society around you makes for a very dangerous society altogether (see: pandemic).

I enjoyed this, and while I assume that it was at least partly written to serve as a warning, I think it’s more of a warning for people to be on guard against these ideals from taking hold and destroying their communities. Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling has painted a picture of a community turned into a pretty bleak place to live; it should serve as a warning to everyone who doesn’t want to end up being mauled by a bear in their own kitchen, and struggling to call for help afterwards due to collapsed town services.

Visit Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Fixation: How to Have Stuff Without Breaking the Planet by Sandra Goldmark

I’m a big fan of frugality, and also a big fan of taking care of the environment, whether that means consuming less, consuming better and/or smarter, or taking care of what you already have. So it’s no surprise that Fixation: How to Have Stuff Without Breaking the Planet by Sandra Goldmark (Island Press, 2020) ended up on my TBR. Even when you’re fully committed to something, it helps to have a reminder every so often of why you became committed to that ideal in the first place, and this book certainly served as the kick in the pants that I needed.

Sandra Goldmark has a background in theater, and in the design and creation of many theater sets and costumes, she’s learned many skills in the repair of various items that have brought her shows to life with minimal budgets and objects that have been used, reused, and reimagined in many ways. Those skills helped fuel the repair pop-ups she and her husband and a work crew ran around New York City, taking in broken items (everything from toys to furniture to appliances and clothing, and likely far more) and doing their best to repair them. And along the way, Ms. Goldmark learned a few things.

A lot of what we own is poorly made, with plastic parts that break easily and aren’t easily repairable. Spare parts for quick repairs are often entirely unavailable, and thus whole items, for want of a tiny, tiny part, become complete trash. Often, items are legally unrepairable by the consumer; even when they are able to be fixed, it’s often cheaper (but not a better use of our resources) to throw the whole item out and buy a new one. How many broken items do you have sitting around your house, waiting for the day when you finally decide to try to fix them? Our throwaway culture is a massive problem, affecting the climate and the environment in ways we’re only beginning to pay for, and while darning our sweaters and replacing our worn bike gears isn’t going to solve the problem that is climate change, when we pay attention to even the little problems, the big problems begin to fall in line, or at least make more sense. Repairing our broken items, taking better care of what we own, buying used (and better!) when we can, and ensuring that the items we no longer need get into the hands of people who do need them are all things we can do that make a difference when done on a large scale.

This is a quick read, but it’s also a swift kick in the pants if you’re looking for some motivation. My repair skills are limited, but I’m continually learning and I use the skills I do have when necessary. That said, things back up and I put them off, but this week, I stitched holes in a pillow, a blanket, a pair of pants, and a shirt, and I crocheted a rip in a seam of a store-bought blanket, all because of this book. Ms. Goldmark is right that we need to take better care of the things we own, that creating new things is great, but that there’s a limit to what we need, and that repairing the things we own needs to be a bigger focus than creation.

She has a lot of great ideas of what companies can do in order to become leaders in this movement- what would it be like if Ikea dispatched on-the-go furniture repair people to come fix your table or bookcase, or if they had places in their stores where you could bring in your lamp or duvet cover for a quick fix? Some companies such as Patagonia or REI are already working to close the loop, as she puts it; more need to follow in their footsteps, but we can help by supporting the companies who are already participating in these more sustainable business practices.

I liked this a lot. It got me thinking about the things I can do to better care for what I own, and the skills I need to learn to better repair. My husband is pretty awesome at this and has learned to fix a LOT of broken items around our house (he repaired a backpack strap this week- the plastic part had broken and he mended that, saving the entire backpack. I was impressed); I’m more in charge of things like basic sewing repairs, but I definitely have room for improvement- I’m wanting to learn how to darn socks, because that’s such a useful skill. That’s on my agenda soon, and I’m looking forward to it.

Follow Sandra Goldmark on Twitter.

memoir

Book Review: Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed by Lori Gottlieb

I’m not one to go out and read bestsellers and books that are super popular just because everyone else does. It’s usually pretty rare for me to run out and get something that was just published; I’m much more of a ‘comfortably wading through the backlist’ kind of a reader (a lot of this comes from reading off my TBR, but I’ve never been one to check the bestseller lists for new reading choices. End-of-the-year lists, however, are a massive weakness!). But sometimes I read things for a certain purpose, and occasionally those reads have a deadline to them- book clubs, for one, and author talks, like this one. Our local parent education group announced this past summer that Lori Gottlieb, author of Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed (Mariner Books, 2019), would be appearing virtually with their program this year, and I was like “Nice! Guess this means I’ll have to read that book of hers that I’ve been seeing all over the place.” It always looked interesting, but again, my TBR beckoned. Her visit later this month, however, has forced my hand, and I picked up a copy from a library display of staff picks two weeks ago.

Seemingly out of nowhere, Lori’s boyfriend up and dumps her, stating that he doesn’t want to live with a kid for the next ten years (a major problem, since Lori’s son is only eight). This causes somewhat of an existential crisis for Lori, and as a therapist herself, she needs to get things figured out and get back on her feet, in an emotional sense. In between her own sessions with clients struggling with various things in their lives, from facing their own death, to the death of a child, and how to rebuild a life in the twilight years, Lori sits on Wendell’s couch and tries to make sense of what went wrong with her boyfriend.

As a therapist, Lori seems deeply insightful and is able to pinpoint just the right question to ask to make her clients think. As a client, she even recognizes her own problem patterns but can’t seem to step outside of them without Wendell’s help. She recounts her own journeys through life while describing those of her clients (no HIPAA violations here, though!), picking apart the intricacies of human behavior with wisdom, understanding, and deep sympathy. Every story in the book wraps up with a decently neat little bow- obviously not how therapy always works, both for the client and the therapist- but it makes for some satisfying reading and provides a deeper look into what great therapy can be and should entail.

This is really a lovely read with an awful lot of insight. Lori reminds us that suffering isn’t a competition; just because someone else has a problem that seems bigger doesn’t mean that yours is nothing or insignificant, and that’s something I think we all need a reminder of (especially thanks to the barrage of those gross social media memes that portray someone suffering from a terrible illness or a major loss, and then it says something like, “Your problems don’t seem so bad now, do they?” STOP THAT. Stop trying to make everyone compete in the Suffering Olympics). Her ability to connect with her clients is remarkable, especially with the client she refers to as John, an arrogant, self-centered narcissist who uses barbs and sarcasm to deflect from the grief and pain he’s been carrying around for years. It would be easy to write him off completely and immediately, but Lori keeps trying until she’s able to find the way to getting John to open up. I don’t know that I would have the patience.

This is a moving story, full of other moving stories. Heads up for a lot of references to death, including death of a child and its entailing grief, and death from terminal illness, and learning to let go. Thinking about all the painful stories therapists listen to makes me wonder how any of them do such an intense job, and how busy they’re all going to be listening to healthcare providers process the trauma they’ve endured throughout this pandemic. The academic community is going to be researching, writing, and developing new methods of trauma treatment for decades to come after this.

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone is both intense and gentle at the same time; it’s a memoir that reads like a novel, but you’ll also learn a lot about what it takes to become a therapist, and a few important lessons about human nature as well.

I’ve been through a few therapists myself in the past; the best one I ever had was also named Lori, and I still hear her voice in my head quite often, despite leaving her office for the last time in 2004. I looked her up after finishing this book, wondering what she was up to, only to find that she passed away in 2017 after a bout with leukemia. May her memory be for a blessing.

Visit Lori Gottlieb’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

Monthly roundup

Monthly Roundup: August 2021

AUGUST, AMIRITE???

This has been a MONTH. Not a horrible one, just busier than I’ve been used to for a long time. Back to school and all its surrounding chaos (AND STRESS) has been kicking my butt, and with the little bit of extra free time, I’ve been using all that to work on house projects that you can’t necessarily get done when your kiddo is home all year doing remote learning. So there hasn’t been much free time to blog or even to read; reading is done in little snatches here and there, but that’s okay. Sometimes life is like that, right?

I’m working hard at getting all my projects completed so that I can have more time to read and update my posts, but in the meantime, bear with me! I’m doing my best. 😊

So let’s get this monthly roundup started, shall we?

Books I Read in August 2021

1. Majesty (American Royals #2) by Katharine McGee

2. The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America by Carol Anderson

3. The Family Next Door: The Heartbreaking Imprisonment of the Thirteen Turpin Siblings and Their Extraordinary Rescue by John Glatt

4. Flunk. Start.: Reclaiming My Decade Lost in Scientology by Sands Hall

5. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (no review; read out loud to my daughter)

6. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg (no review; read out loud to my daughter)

7. Inconspicuous Consumption: The Environmental Impact You Don’t Know You Have by Tatiana Schlossberg

8. This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation by Alan Lew (the unreviewed books I read for myself were discussed in this catch-up post)

9. Emily’s Runaway Imagination by Beverly Cleary (no review; read out loud to my daughter)

And that’s it! Like I said, not a fantastic month for reading (but other things got done, so I’m pleased). It’s been so long that I’ve had the house to myself that I’m almost not sure how to handle it when I’m home alone, but I’ve been settling down to work almost every school day and organizing everything. Soon, I’ll be able to curl up in a nice, clean, organized house and read the day away. Hopefully.

Little Women wasn’t as fun of a read this time around as it was the last time I read it, when I was 15. I really loathed Professor Bhaer (just let Jo write whatever she wanted to write and back off!), though I did appreciate that Amy and Laurie were fairly well-matched. From the Mixed-Up Files was just as fun this time around as it’s ever been, and my daughter really loved it as well.

Six of these came from my TBR!

Reading Challenge Updates

Not currently participating in any reading challenges.

State of the Goodreads TBR

SO. 164 books last month, and with this month not being great at doing many bookish things, I’m still right there at 164. Which is actually okay! I’m glad it didn’t explode in this month of so little reading!

Books I Acquired in August 2021

You know, I don’t think I got any new books this month. Which is fine, because I really, really need to read some books from my own shelves!

Bookish Things I Did in August 2021

I actually did something seriously bookish things month! I mentioned last month that I had a meeting with the new rabbi at my synagogue, and that I was really excited about that. I met her, she’s lovely, we had a great chat, and she mentioned that the synagogue library was being reorganized and the books needed to be reshelved. Long story made short, I found myself masked up and helping to reshelve box after box of wonderful Jewish books in the synagogue library last week! It was hot, sweaty, dusty work (and I was thankful for a good day with my back!), but we tackled it all and got everything back on the shelves! It’s nice feeling useful like that, and I appreciated the chance to socialize with the two women working with me (especially since I’ve barely been out of the house for the last year and a half!!!!) and check out the synagogue’s books. 😊

Current Podcast Love

At night, I’m just listening to BBC World Service Radio, but during the day, as I organize and clean, I’m listening to Leaving Eden Podcast, about leaving and deconstruction from the Independent Fundamental Baptist Church. Fascinating stuff; Sadie is so open about everything she’s been through and the hard work and self-examination it’s taken to move past the indoctrination she received about who she is/should be and what the world is about, and Gavriel is surprisingly insightful for as young as he is (which isn’t THAT young, but I definitely wasn’t that insightful when I was his age). It’s a really interesting podcast.

Stephanie’s Read Harder Challenge

This will start back up again soon! When my house projects are done, I’m planning on picking up something to read during the schoolday, something I need quiet time with no interruptions so I can focus. Looking forward to doing this again!

Real Life Stuff

What a month!

The beginning of August was, I’m not going to lie, really, really stressful. My daughter, who is seven and in the second grade, was at home, learning remotely, all last year. This year, there IS no remote learning, so it was either send her back to school in person, or homeschool her, and she is NOT a good candidate for homeschooling- though I would have done it if I felt it was my only option. Her district mandated wearing masks really before it became any kind of a drama (I wouldn’t have even hesitated a second to pull her out if they hadn’t), but not all districts around us did. Thankfully, the governor stepped in and basically WTF’ed the ones who didn’t and mandated it- I’m so grateful. That still left the school’s lunch policy, however, and I was an absolute wreck thinking of my kiddo being unmasked in a cafeteria with other kids, with the Delta variant having such a higher viral load and being so much more contagious. Like, we’re talking serious, serious wreck. I was ready to pull her out just over that.

I ended up emailing her principal, who outlined the school’s lunch policy for me, and who also let me know that parents are allowed to check their students out every day for lunch. I cried. I wept with complete and utter relief. So every day, I heat up lunch and truck over to the school, where I sign my happy-to-see-me kiddo out, and we have a picnic by the pond behind the school. It’s a nice break in both of our days. She eats quickly enough that she’s able to head back for the post-lunch recess, which also makes her really happy, since she’s finally able to hang out with her friends for the first time since kindergarten, and I feel better knowing she’s getting less exposure. Win-win all around, and so far the school year is off to a good start. My county has the highest vaccination rate in the state, so things aren’t as scary as they could be. I feel for those of you who have children in schools that aren’t masking, where the community isn’t highly vaccinated and whose members aren’t taking this seriously. I’ve been watching the consequences of this in my old county in Tennessee, where a teacher died of Covid this past week, and it’s infuriating.

And now that my daughter is at school all day, I’ve been systematically tearing the house apart. I’ve almost got the kitchen done (still need to clean the fridge), and I have a few things left to do in the living room, but that’s not bad at all since I was able to do a few of the bigger projects over the summer. Next up is my closet, which hasn’t been organized since before the pandemic, and the bathroom, which basically just needs a good hose-down. And then my poor laundry room. That’ll be a project, but I’m looking forward to it. It’s all slow-going, since I have to get dinner pulled together in there, as well as my lunch trip to the school and any errands that have to happen during the day (groceries, runs across town to pick up school forms from the doctor, etc), but I’m definitely making good progress, and I’m happy about it!

What’s next in September? Another year of virtual High Holidays, which…isn’t ideal, but we do what we have to, and I’ll be tuning in to my synagogue’s services from home. I’ll also be attending virtual presentations by authors Wes Moore and Lori Gottlieb, both of which I’m very much looking forward to (and both offered by the local parent education group, for which I’m very grateful!). It looks like another busy month, so who knows who much reading I’ll get done, but we’ll see. It’s all good work.

Hang in there, friends. It’s rough out there again and who knows when it’ll get better again. So much death and suffering. Do your part to safely ride this terrible wave out; my heart breaks for our healthcare workers who see so many terrible things each day, things that could have likely been prevented. Our society is going to be suffering from the ramifications of all of this for years…

Wishing you all a peaceful, healthy September. Be well, my friends.

Mini reviews

A catch-up post of mini-reviews!

Phew.

It’s been a month!

With school starting back up (STRESSSTRESSSTRESS), the house projects I’ve been working on, my back flaring up AGAIN, and bunch of other stuff, I haven’t had much time to read, let alone time to blog. I apologize! I hate doing these catch-up posts; books deserve their own full reviews, but life happens and sometimes I just get too busy. But small reviews are better than no reviews, right? I can at least do that. 😊

Here’s what I’ve been reading the past few weeks.

Flunk.Start: Reclaiming My Decade Lost in Scientology by Sands Hall (Counterpoint, 2018). I’m not huge on reading ex-Scientology memoirs- I still do from time to time, but I don’t find Scientology as fascinating as other religions. To me, it’s just so…boring. Clinical. Soulless. Ms. Hall spent a decade mostly in Scientology (though not super, super committed, it was still a huge part of her life), until she left and had to come to terms with the time she spent there. Lots of heavy emotion here, especially dealing with a disabling accident her brother suffered. There’s not a ton of detail, and Ms. Hall left Scientology pre-Internet, so the story is quite different than if she had recently left, but it’s still an interesting read.

Inconspicuous Consumption: The Environmental Impact You Don’t Know You Have by Tatiana Schlossberg (Grand Central Publishing, 2019). If you like science writing with a dry, sarcastic edge, this is your book! You’ve heard of the butterfly effect, where a butterfly flaps its wings in China and causes a monsoon on the other side of the world. This effect is true for environmental effects. You stream a video in Sheboygan; it contributes to a power surge in Virginia Beach. You buy a dress in south Florida; it contributes to the desertification of Mongolia, gives a job to someone in Viet Nam, and contributes to an oil spill in the South Pacific. The same goes for that salmon you ate last night, the car you drive to work every day, and how long you keep the lights on and run your air conditioner. Everything is connected and Ms. Schlossberg will show you how (and keep you laughing with her witty asides!).

This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe As a Journey of Transformation by Alan Lew (Little, Brown, and Company, 2003). This has been on my list for ages, and with the High Holidays fast approaching, I knew it was time to finally read it. This is a book about going deeper in our lives, our thoughts, about taking a good, hard look at ourselves (which is what we Jews are supposed to do at this time of year!), apologizing for the things we’ve done wrong and making them right, and examining who we are and who we should be, and how we get there. It’s a deep, thought-provoking book, one that I wouldn’t mind owning and rereading every year at this time. (And if you have a rabbi, cantor, or Jewish professional in your life, be kind at this time of year. They’re extremely busy and overworked! Don’t bother them until after Sukkot. 😉 )

And my daughter and I finished two books, but I’ll talk about those in the monthly roundup post. Sorry to post and run, but my goodness, things are crazy lately!!!