nonfiction

How Does It Feel to Be Unwanted?: Stories of Resistance and Resilience from Mexicans Living in the United States- Eileen Truax

There were a lot of great choices on the New Nonfiction shelf at the library during my last trip, but the first thing that ended up in my bag was How Does It Feel to Be Unwanted?: Stories of Resistance and Resilience from Mexicans Living in the United States by Eileen Truax. It’s a timely, important read that will expand your knowledge of why so many of our neighbors to the south come here to live and work, why they need to, and the difficulties they face everyday regardless of their immigration status.
Each chapter is dedicated to two or three people who live in the United States who were either born in Mexico or born in the US to parents who were born in Mexico. You’ll get to know labor organizers, translators and interpreters, business owners, asylum seekers, US college graduates who can’t legally work here, a high ranking police officer, and even a practicing lawyer who remains undocumented. There are stories of triumph, to be sure, but the overall sentiment is more of frustration, anger, and occasionally heartbreak, as in the case of Cirila Balthazar Cruz, who had her newborn daughter taken away from her and placed in foster care, solely because she spoke no English. 
Another example:
‘In Texas, there have been documented cases of agents stopping ambulances to check the immigration statuses of patients. In 2015, the New York Times reported an account of a Brownsville pediatrician who stated that a child had died en route to Corpus Christi and the parents had not accompanied him because they were undocumented and were afraid to cross at the checkpoint.’

Heartbreaking. And so utterly unnecessary.
Just as Helen Thorpe does in Just Like Us: The True Story of Four Mexican Girls Coming of Age in America, Ms. Truax expounds the complications of mixed-status families, where some members have legal status and others don’t. Nine million people in the US share this uniquely frustrating situation, some with no hope of improving their circumstances, living in fear that they or their families will be deported at any point in time and the family member or members with legal status will be left to fend for themselves (as happened to Diane Guerrero, whom you might recognize from such shows as Orange is the New Black and Jane the Virgin. She details her life story in the book In the Country We Love: My Family Divided). These are agonizing situations, and far too often, there’s no good solution for these families. Sometimes there’s no solution at all.
This is a heavy book. And if it’s heavy to just read, imagine what it’s like to live it. Imagine what it’s like to flee the country of your birth, of your culture, your language, and your history, because your husband has been kidnapped not just once but multiple times, traveling to the only safe place that offers you opportunity, only to have every door slammed in your face and to hear that you’re nothing but a rapist and murderer from that place’s president, of all people- even though it was the rapists and murderers you were fleeing. Imagine working 72 hours a week on your feet, only to be called lazy and greedy by people who refuse to even try to understand what you’ve been through. Imagine the fear you would feel if at any moment, you could be sent to live in a place you don’t even remember being, a place where you don’t even speak the language. Imagine being a child and having to grow up with the fear of one or both of your parents being sent away; imagine what that would do to your ability to learn, to focus in school. Imagine knowing that even if you’ve lived 17 of your 18 years in one country, you’ve gotten straight A’s in school, you’ve earned a perfect SAT score and have unlimited potential for success, that country still doesn’t want you. This book, along with the two others I’ve linked to in this post, will further your appreciation for what Mexican immigrants live with.

I don’t think I can do justice to a book like this in such a short review; it’s such a necessary read in these terrible times. I’ll never fully understand the depth of the struggles faced by the people from Mexico who choose to seek a better life here. For all its issues, my life has been a privileged one; my parents never came close to having to contemplate leaving the country in which they were born. But I’ll always keep trying and adding to my understanding; these days, compassion and understanding are imperative, and it’s only through embracing not only our own humanity but that of our neighbors- ALL our neighbors- will we truly become that shining city on a hill.

Follow Eileen Truax on Twitter here.

fiction · middle grade

The Adventures of a South Pole Pig: A Novel of Snow and Courage- Chris Kurtz

To be completely honest, I’m not a fan of animal stories. Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White kind of gutted me as a child, and any book featuring an animal as a main character (or even a beloved sidekick) has me on high alert, waiting for the moment where tragedy strikes and the animal dies. Even in adult literature, I’ve been known to flip through to the end to make sure the dog/cat/house goat, etc. makes it through to the end. So you’d think I would’ve been a lot more wary when we came across this copy of The Adventures of a South Pole Pig: A Novel of Snow and Courage by Chris Kurtz in a Little Free Library a few blocks away, but the cover and premise were so charming (and the story so perfect for our cold, snowy weather!) that I couldn’t resist. We took it home with us, and I planned on making it a bedtime read-aloud.

Flora looks like your average farm piglet, crammed into a pen with her mother and pile of brothers, but she was born with a sense of adventure. Surely, this small life can’t be it, right? An introduction to the barnyard cat enlightens her to the possibility of more. A venture into the wider barnyard, where she makes the acquaintance of the sled dogs being trained on the property, whets her appetite for adrenaline, and Flora begins a similar self-imposed training regimen, disguised as games with her brothers. Her routine pays off when she’s chosen, so she thinks, to be a sled pig on an Antarctic expedition…until she’s unceremoniously dumped in the hold with the food-stealing rats. Maybe adventure isn’t quite all it’s cracked up to be.

But Flora’s not one for giving up, instead teaming up with the haughty ship’s cat to take down those thieving rats, earning her the respect of both the ship’s boy and captain. But the unthinkable- a shipwreck- turns everything upside down, and that’s when the true adventure, and danger, begin. Will Flora end up food, or can this plucky pig dig deep and save the day?

I was right not to worry. The Adventures of South Pole Pig is a true delight. Flora is a charming character, endlessly optimistic and bent on achieving her goal of being a sled pig, and the cast of supporting characters- Sophia the cat, Oscar the lead dog, Aleric the plucky ship’s boy, even Amos the ham-loving cook- provide endless amusement, grit, and drama. The overarching fear of Flora ending up on a plate doesn’t show up until about the last third of the book (although I think most readers will suspect early on. Flora doesn’t recognize her status as potential dinner fodder until that point, and only when it’s pointed out to her), and it’s a plot point that’s eclipsed by straight-up survival in such a dangerous environment.

If you’re like me and have shied away from animal stories in the past, this is a good one to start with. We could all learn a thing or two about optimism and determination from Flora; her boundless energy and determination are what truly make this story the engaging work that it is. We read a chapter, sometimes two, to my 4.5 year old daughter every night at bedtime, and while at times there’s more prose than dialogue, it worked decently well as a read-aloud for a wiggly preschooler who sometimes struggles with sitting still and listening, even at bedtime.

I definitely need to read more middle grade novels. The genre has changed so much from when I was younger, and even in the years since I stopped homeschooling my son when he was 9 (he’s 16 now; why yes, there is a large age gap between my children!). It’s a genre I always manage to overlook but shouldn’t, because there are so many gems there. The Adventures of a South Pole Pig is one of them.

Check out Chris Kurtz’s website here.

fiction

A Crazy Kind of Love- Mary Ann Marlowe

I am a massive sucker for celebrity-falls-for-regular-gal books. MASSIVE. If extremist cults and escaping secretive religious groups is my favorite flavor of nonfiction, this is my favorite kind of fiction. Despite not really following any of Hollywood, this is a genre I’ve always loved (I’m going to go ahead and blame Just a Summer Romance by Ann M. Martin– yes, she of my beloved Babysitters Club- for this. That book was probably one of my first real YA titles as a tween and is fully responsible for my starry-eyed devotion to celebrity-dude-as-love-interest novels). So when I saw A Crazy Kind of Love by Mary Ann Marlowe on the New Fiction shelf, a quick scan of the back cover and I was hooked.

In order to pay the bills and keep her health insurance, fine arts major Jo Wilder has taken a job stalking celebrities as a member of a paparazzi crew. It’s not her style at all; she’d much rather snap pics of normal people, doing normal things, but that’s not exactly a major source of cash. Problem is, she’s not great at what she’s been hired to do. Too much heart. Too much seeing celebrities as people and not as product.

A missed photographic encounter with Maggie Gyllenhall leads her straight into the life of Micah Sinclair, the uber-gorgeous frontman of the rock band known as Theater of the Absurd. Micah’s a known flirt and major manwhore…but Jo’s definitely feeling the attraction too. Sparks burst into flames, and suddenly Jo’s in front of all those paparazzi cameras, not just behind them. With her jerk of a boss demanding seriously unethical stuff, Jo’s got to figure out what’s real, who she can trust…and who trusts her.

God, this was a fun read. Jo and Micah’s blossoming romance was both sweet and steamy, and despite his bad boy rep, Micah was an utter charmer. Building off of my last review, though, my favorite part of the novel was the fact that Jo has Type I diabetes. She tests her blood sugar often, experiences a few scary lows, and is often hunting down appropriate food or digging into her stash of snacks, but with the exception of informing Micah of the ins and outs of her condition, it’s just part of the story, something Jo lives with, takes care of, and goes about her life. It’s her normal, and although she occasionally shows her displeasure with it, it’s not treated as A Major Deal, and that’s something I really appreciated reading. My father has Type I diabetes, and everything Ms. Marlowe wrote about here, I grew up seeing and hearing about. Jo is never represented as anything other than just a normal person; her best friend and roommate, Zion (whom I absolutely adored) does a good job of caring for and about her without crossing the line into being hovery. There’s also the inclusion of a transgender character, which made my heart smile. Representation absolutely matters, and Ms. Marlowe has done a fantastic job. This was truly a fantastic escapist read on a weekend where my pain levels were ridiculous (seriously, how have we gone to the moon and figured out how to transplant hearts and do brain surgery, but the human back and SI joint are still a nebulous mystery???) and I needed that mental getaway.

Peeking around on Goodreads, I see that my library has her other book, Some Kind of Magic, so that’s exciting news. And her next novel, Dating By the Book, sounds amazing and comes out in June. I’m going to need to borrow Hermione Granger’s time turner here…

Visit Mary Ann Marlowe’s website here.

Follow Mary Ann Marlowe on Twitter here.

fiction

Switch and Bait- Ricki Schultz

In my quest to fill my life with more fiction, I decided to wander through the New Fiction section at Library #2 (my card works at four; I’m extremely lucky to live in an area where so many libraries offer reciprocal borrowing privileges) and nearly punched a hole in the shelf reaching out to grab this copy of Switch and Bait by Ricki Schultz. I couldn’t get enough of her sharp wit and snappy prose in Mr. Right-Swipe and knew a few chapters in that I’d follow her anywhere, literarily-speaking. Switch and Bait didn’t disappoint.

By day, Blanche Carter (a girl of the south, natch) manages Literature and Legislature, a DC bookstore; by night, she’s side-hustling her way to freedom from student loans by helping desperate women clean up their online dating profiles and posing as them in order to attract the right sort of guy (buzz off, douchebros). Her own dating life is a bit…emptier. There was the one-night-stand with her terminally ill best friend’s delicious (but Republican!) brother-in-law Henry a few years back, but other than that, nah. Blanche is better off alone. She’s seen what love can do to a gal and she’s sworn it off entirely.

When she signs a new client who has all the grace of a vertigo-afflicted elephant on oiled ice, Blanche figures she’s got her work cut out for her, but she’s thrown for a loop when said elephant, aka ridiculously gorgeous Ansley, matches with- who else?- Henry. Hot, best-friend’s-brother-in-law, entirely-way-too-shaggable Henry. Breaking her #1 rule of never getting involved in a relationship of someone she knows, Blanche forges ahead, meeting someone new in the process…but all roads, it seems, lead back to the same place, the very guy she swears she’s over.

Ricki Schultz has an instantly recognizable style. Her characters teem with sarcasm, acerbic wit, and up-to-date slang, all things I absolutely adore about her books. Switch and Bait had me laughing out loud several times, just as Mr. Right-Swipe did. I enjoyed reading a story set in DC that wasn’t specifically about politics (politics are, of course, mentioned, but only in a more generic sense). Blanche and Isla, the best friend who has Huntington’s disease, disagree on politics but still remain friends, and I admired how Ms. Schultz handled that. Isla’s failing health and Blanche’s grief over it also made an intriguing side plot. As someone who suffers from chronic pain, it’s gratifying to see disabilities and major health conditions represented in literature, and I hope this is something that continues, not just in Ms. Schultz’s work, but in fiction in general.

Switch and Bait is a fun read that sneaks in a message of honesty, loyalty, and being true to yourself and those around you. If you haven’t read Ricki Schultz yet, question every decision you’ve made about your life up to this point, then head to your nearest library/bookstore/electronic device with online bookstore access and grab yourself a copy of either (or both!) of her books, because she’s utterly fabulous. I can’t wait to read whatever she writes next.

Check out Ricki Schultz’s website here.

Follow Ricki Schultz on Twitter here.

nonfiction · parenting · simplifying

Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids- Kim John Payne with Lisa M. Ross

Every once in a while, I read a book that makes me reconsider my position on certain things; the very best books are ones that make so strong a case that I implement changes because of them. Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids by Kim John Payne with Lisa M. Ross is one of those books.

I learned of this book a few weeks ago from a post on the Frugalwoods blog, about the challenges of parenting small children through the hectic holiday season. I could relate to *so* much of that blog post; my own daughter is 4.5 and has always been on the more intense side of ‘spirited,’ and adding long days with multiple car trips, far too many sugary treats, overstimulating presents that beep and sing and flash, and no nap does not make for an easy-to-parent child. I did a quick search, and as luck would have it, my local library had a copy of the book. I picked it up that night.

When I opened the book as we were sitting in the library, I was wary. This might end up being one of those parenting manuals that bore me ten pages in; I had another book with me in case I decided this book wasn’t for me. But within several pages, I was hooked. The author’s premise is that too much of anything- too many toys, too much stimulation, etc- can cause kids to quickly become overwhelmed, and it shows in their behavior in different ways. ‘Okay,’ I thought, ‘I’m listening.’ And as I read on, I recognized my daughter in Mr. Payne’s many examples, one of which was quite jarring. He tells of a set of siblings whose house overflowed with toys. The boy responded to this overstimulation by getting violent with the toys, throwing and breaking them. The girl reacted by organizing the toys, lining them up, gathering them in piles that made no sense. Neither one seemed to play in appropriate ways with the massive amounts of toys that surrounded them.

And with that, I sat back and went, ‘Ohhhhhhh.’ Because right there? My daughter is that girl. I was constantly finding Hello Kitty and fuzzy Halloween bags full of odd collections of toys: pieces of play food, a sock full of items from her rock collection, Barbie doll clothes, a headband, three crayons, a plastic cow. After reading this particular paragraph, I realized that maybe my daughter wasn’t having all that much fun playing like this. Her favorite thing EVER is toy kitchens. Whenever we go somewhere that has one (several libraries, friends’ houses, set-ups at stores), she makes a beeline for it and doesn’t want to leave, and I realized I hadn’t seen her play with her own in ages.

And with that, I began making plans to pare down the toys in her room, just as Mr. Payne suggested.

Before:

It’s a lot of toys, and you’re not even seeing them all. (This was after a major clean-out and weeding out a bunch of toys, as well!!!)

And after:

I hadn’t even finished tidying up after the overhaul when my daughter exclaimed excitedly, “I LIKE my room like this!” Since we made the change three days ago, she’s used that table for coloring, for Play-Doh, and for a tea party (none of which she had ever done in her room, as the table had been previously covered in Little People toys she never played with). She’s done somersaults in her room, and we pulled out her bowling set and bowled multiple games- my 16 year old son even joined in on this. There hadn’t been enough space for us to do that in there before. She’s been cooking up a storm in her play kitchen and has used a stool to set up a lemonade stand. Her imagination is flourishing with more space and less demand on her attention. I’m in love with everything about this, including the fact that cleaning it takes about two minutes once or twice a day, instead of half an hour four or five times a week.

Mr. Payne also discusses the importance of simplifying a child’s diet, which wasn’t my direct concern, as I cook the vast majority of everything we eat; simplifying screen usage (I’ve cut down on the amount of television my daughter watches- not that I really had to say anything, since she’s been so enthralled with her new room that she asks me to turn the TV off so she can go play. But I would’ve done it anyway!); and simplifying adult talk and stressors around children (I’ve begun playing the local classical music station in the car in order to minimize my daughter’s exposure to the news; she in turn has invented what she calls her ‘invisible piano,’ which she uses to play along with the radio. “Hey, turn that back up, I’m playing!” she complained when I turned it down once).

Simplify everything, he states, and the results will be clear. For us, they couldn’t possibly be clearer. For the past three days (and so far, this morning as well), the only misbehavior we’ve had has come at bedtime, and my husband and I have already discussed pushing bedtime back 15 minutes because her behavior then was obviously due to exhaustion. We’ve had no tantrums from my little Queen of Scream. She listens better, she’s in an overall better mood, I’ve found no bags of random, mismatched toys, and I’m much less cranky because I’m not dealing with poor behavior and giant messes. The only time we’ve had such docile behavior from her, it was because she had a nasty upper respiratory infection and a double ear infection- not exactly something you want to replicate. Mr. Payne’s methods, however, are sustainable, and I’m loving the results we’re getting.

For now, her extra toys live in the basement, and she knows she can visit them and switch them out at any time, trading a toy in her room for a toy down there. Eventually, we’ll donate or sell the ones she’s fully lost interest in (and just as I was typing this, she asked if we could pare down her toy food as well). Less really is more when it comes to children, and if you feel you and your child could benefit from a calmer, more relaxed environment (and really, who couldn’t?!?),  pick up a copy of Simplicity Parenting. This book has made all the difference in the world for us.

Visit the Simplicity Parenting website here.
Follow Kim John Payne on Twitter here.

fiction

Movie Star by Lizzie Pepper by Hilary Liftin

If you’re looking for a fun Hollywood read without the guilt of actually prying into the lives of real people, Movie Star By Lizzie Pepper, written by Hilary Liftin, is pure entertainment.

Lizzie Pepper wants you to know the truth about her marriage. What you’ve seen in the tabloids about her whirlwind marriage to Rob Mars, king of Hollywood and member of the secretive One Cell meditation group, wasn’t the whole truth. Now she’s written a tell-all exposé of the *real* story: their first meeting, which ended up being more of a set-up than anything; their lightning-fast courtship and that scene where Rob serenaded her, surrounded by paparazzi; her introduction to the tight-lippped One Cell group that has been responsible for so much of Rob’s success; Rob’s proposal and Lizzie’s surprise pregnancy; and, of course, where it all fell apart and how Lizzie escaped.

This is obviously a fictionalized imagining of the Tom Cruise/Katie Holmes saga, close enough to the original story that I was constantly wondering, when reading details that were unfamiliar to me, if the author was taking creative license or if she knew something about Holmes and Cruise that I didn’t. I’m not much of a celebrity watcher in general, but I did follow that mess. Katie Holmes is about my age and I grew up watching her on Dawson’s Creek, so seeing her get caught up with someone so much older, someone with eyeball-deep involvement in Scientology, was kind of horrifying. Add in creepy details like Tom’s couch jumping stunts on Oprah and reports of Katie having a Scientology minder following her at all times, and it was a situation that freaked me out on Katie’s behalf. While everything seems to have worked out for Katie in the end (that we know of; she has custody of Suri and no further involvement with Scientology, from what I can see), I’m sure it didn’t tie up as neatly as it did for the fictional Lizzie Pepper.

Anyway, this is a really fun read, whether you’re on the beach or huddled up under a pile of blankets, listening to the snowplow scrape the road in front of your house (*raises hand*). It was close enough to the real story that I found myself Googling Cruise and Holmes to see the parallels while I was reading. In checking out the author’s Goodreads page, I was surprised to find that I’ve read two of her other books: Dear Exile: The True Story of Two Friends Who Were Separated (for a Year) by an Ocean and Candy and Me: A Girl’s Tale of Life, Love, and Sugar. I read both quite some time ago, hence the surprise, but out of all of them, Movie Star by Lizzie Pepper is the most enjoyable.

fiction

The Magdalen Girls- V.S. Alexander

My first fiction of the year, and it was everything I look for in a novel.

The best kind of fiction, in my opinion, makes me feel something. It entertains, of course, and it educates, but above all, it stirs up deep emotion. The Magdalen Girls by V.S. Alexander does all of that.

Narrated by several characters, The Magdalen Girls is set in Ireland in the early 1960’s. Teagan Tiernan is 16, navigating life with an alcoholic father and a doormat mother, only to find herself the object of the new parish priest’s lustful attention. Nora Craven, a more headstrong teenager, throws herself at the boy who just dumped her, meeting the wrath of her sharp-tongued parents when they walk in on her. Through no real fault of their own, both girls end up tossed away like so much garbage at the Magdalen Laundry of the Sisters of the Holy Redemption, forced to slave away in silence in terrible conditions, with no pay, inadequate food, where every last bit of their identity is stripped away and they are reminded of their status as sinners at every step. Teagan and Nora befriend each other, bringing another girl, Lea, a favorite of the nuns, into their confidence as well.

Escape plans are hatched, implemented and foiled; the entire community and all of society views them the same way as the Sisters do, as irredeemable trash whose only hope is to work themselves to the bone in order for God to forgive them. They’re starved, beaten, burned, sprayed with freezing water, all in the name of God and redemption. Tragedy follows the girls at every corner, and while redemption does finally come for one, it’s at a terrible, terrible cost.

The Magdalen Girls brought tears to my eyes and made my hands shake with rage. I’d known about the laundries before I read this book, but not quite the full extent of their horror. Full disclosure: I was raised Catholic and attended Catholic school growing up, but- shocker- we were never taught about these. I first learned of them when they were discussed on a parenting messageboard I participated in in my early 20’s (at that point, I hadn’t considered myself Catholic for some time), and was horrified. And my horror has only grown the more I’ve learned about them.

Apparently, sexual sin in Ireland at this time was akin to murder, and even sexual thoughts were enough to condemn a young girl. While some of the women forced into the laundries were prostitutes, others were rape or incest victims; still others were so pretty that they were considered at risk for sexual sin and were locked away on that charge alone. Pregnant women were forced to give their babies up for adoption- there was no other option- and some women were imprisoned in the laundries for life. Those who were allowed out found themselves ill-prepared for life on the outside, with no education, no job skills, and no social skills, since the nuns forbade talking. Many, if not all, left more damaged (physically, sexually, and emotionally) than when they first entered.

When I was twelve, Sinead O’Connor performed on Saturday Night Live and ripped a picture of the Pope at the end of her song, and it was all anyone could talk about at school the next day. She was universally condemned by the elders who surrounded me, but even back then I had questions about her motives. And once I learned that she had spent time in a Magdalene laundry, suddenly, it all made sense.

This book is everything I look for in fiction. It sent me down a path, Googling everything I could find about the laundries. I watched one documentary, Sex in a Cold Climate, and bookmarked another for when I get time, The Forgotten Maggies. I read article after article after article after article, tearing up, shaking with unabashed fury at the injustice of it all, at a Church so quick to condemn women simply for the sake of being female, and at the utterly complicit society who bought into it all. For a work of fiction to do that, to give voice to so many who were silenced for far too long, that’s a powerful thing, and this is absolutely a book that needed to be written.

V.S. Alexander is a pen name of author Michael Meeske; you can visit his webpage here and follow him on Twitter here.

cults · nonfiction · religion

The Cult Files: True Stories from the Extreme Edges of Religious Belief- Chris Mikul

Sometimes, books that come to me via interlibrary loan are loaded down with cover-obscuring official paperwork!

The Cult Files: True Stories from the Extreme Edges of Religious Belief by Chris Mikul is a good book to look into if you’ve never read anything about extremist groups but your curiosity is piqued. After a brief introduction about what a cult is (and there’s some argument about the term), Mikul begins a chapter-by-chapter peek at an odd mix of groups who engaged in theft, intrigue, and murder under the guise of religion, some more seriously religious than others.

Some of the groups were well-known: the Manson Family, Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple, Aum Shinrikyo, the Branch Davidians. Others, I’d known only because this area is an interest of mine, like the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, Jeffrey Lundgren and the Kirtland Cult, Nation of Yahweh, the Church of the First Born of Lamb of God. Still others were new to me: Mankind United/Christ’s Church of the Golden Rule (interestingly enough, Wikipedia has no page for this), MOVE, Roch Thériault and the Ant Hill Kids, Thuggee. Honestly, this book kind of makes it seem like the potential for the existence of extremist groups is endless, and that’s a little scary!

Each chapter is a brief look into a different group. It’s too short of a book to really go into any deep discourse, but if you’re looking to expand your knowledge on religious extremism (or at least groups who claim religious belief and then do terrible things in the name of said religion), this isn’t a terrible place to start. Personally, this is a subject I’ve been interested in for years, so the majority of this book didn’t cover any new territory for me, but it wasn’t a disappointing read.

memoir · nonfiction · religion · religious memoir

This Dark World: A Memoir of Salvation Found and Lost- Carolyn S. Briggs

I’m a sucker for a good memoir about leaving a religion or religious group. It’s always been my favorite genre of books, and I’ve been known to shove one of those books to the front of the line whn it comes to what I’m reading next. I’m contemplating the why of it; there’s something about belonging to a community and suddenly (or gradually) finding oneself not merely embraced, but suffocated by it, that draws me in. I’m not particularly religious, nor have I ever truly belonged to a group, religious or otherwise, so maybe it’s just the intrigue of the unknown. Whatever the reason, This Dark World: A Memoir of Salvation Found and Lost by Carolyn S. Briggs was right up my alley.

Ms. Briggs grew up in Iowa, a late bloomer who lived in the shadow of her younger sister until puberty caught up with her and she blossomed at age 16. By 17, she began dating the lead guitarist in a popular local band, and the two married not long after they graduated high school, since Carolyn had become pregnant. When a close friend finds Jesus at college, Carolyn and her husband Eric begin seeking as well, and before long, their entire lives are centered around their new faith. They pass out Bibles everywhere they go, include tracts with the bills they mail out, and pepper their speech with “I’ll pray for you” and “Praise Jesus!” Within this intensely religious way of life, Carolyn finds a passion, one that she doesn’t feel for her husband, and the identity she left behind to become a married teenage mother and housewife.

As the years pass, her doubts and sadness over her lack of longing for her husband only increase, and it’s only when Carolyn returns to college in her 30’s that she’s finally able to shed the burden her faith and way of life had become. It’s clear that she’s outgrown not only the stringent beliefs and restrictive lifestyle her religion had stuffed her into, but her marriage as well, and she begins down a new path, one full of intellectual curiosity, where she’s allowed to seek happiness and fulfillment in all corners of the earth.

The bulk of this memoir focuses on Carolyn’s life as a “Jesus freak,” as she called herself, and later on, a fundamentalist (although she never seems to stray into some of the practices commonly associated with fundamentalists; there’s no mention of skirts/dresses only or homeschooling, for example, though she does mention that some of the families in the church refuse vaccines because God will protect their children). I found the descriptions of her day-to-day life and how she lived out her faith- and her doubts- interesting; I find great satisfaction in learning about the lives of people who are different from me, and I very much enjoyed reading about the many different versions of Bible study she attended, the growing number of children Carolyn’s fellow church sisters kept producing, how deeply she struggled with her doubts about her faith, and the sorrow she experienced over the complete absence of desire she felt for her husband. Her story is not dissimilar to Leah Lax’s Uncovered: How I Left Hasidic Life and Finally Came Home. Both women who came to fundamentalism in their teens, who filled their lives with religion and babies and who struggled with doubt and truly loving their spouses, until they realized they were living a lie and had to make serious changes, despite the difficulty doing so presented. And, obviously, both really great reads.

I enjoyed this. I enjoyed getting a glimpse into the struggles of a young woman substituting religion for so many other things in life, watching her grow and change and finally outgrow and move on from her earlier choices. I’d love to read more of what Ms. Briggs’s life has been like since she left fundamentalism behind.

Apparently there was a movie made based on this book, called Higher Ground. I vaguely remember hearing about it years ago and looking it up, but I had no idea it was connected to this book until I scrolled through the Goodreads reviews. I’ve now got it cued in my Amazon Prime watchlist, although who knows when I’ll get to it- we’re currently finishing up season 10 of Supernatural, so we’ll be spending a little more time with that. If you’ve seen this movie, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Follow Carolyn S. Briggs on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea- Barbara Demick

How jarring is Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick? When I finished it, I set it down and turned over in my oversized chair to doze for a bit on this cold, gray, snowy day. I jolted myself awake just before a snowplow dropped in front of my house…because I’d been dreaming about North Korea.

Truly, I’d had no idea of the horrors citizens of North Korea live with every day of their lives. I’d heard the news reports calling North Korea the perpetrators of the worst human rights violations in the world, and I knew there were problems with food shortages, but otherwise, I knew very little about the country itself, and that was what moved me to pick up this deeply unsettling book.

North Korea is more 1984 than 1984 itself. Ms. Demick’s writing paints a picture of a dystopian society where neighbor is encouraged (and sometimes paid by the government) to spy on neighbor, family on family. “By the accounts of defectors, there is at least one informer for every fifty people- more even than East Germany’s notorious Stasi..” she writes, a chilling look into a society where everyone must be glancing over their shoulders and no one lets even the slightest hint of doubt show.

Consequences for individualism and free speech are severe. A joke against the leader, overheard by the wrong person, led to one man being imprisoned for life. Writing the wrong thing in her own diary earned another woman a similar life sentence. Selling rice was an automatic prison sentence; selling DVDs led to several people’s executions. Even earning money for performing any service was at one point considered a crime. But even more brutal than these sentences were the descriptions of starvation.

Even in the best of times, North Korea is only able to produce about 60% of what it needs to survive, and after fuel shortages forced the factories to shut down, even the twice-a-day-for-an-hour-each bouts of electricity and water ended. Workers stopped being paid (although some were still expected to show up at their jobs), no one had any money, and the rations of food handed out by the government- the only source of food other than not-quite-legal gardens and definitely-illegal-black-market-food- trickled to a halt. The population began starving to death. At best estimates, between 600,000-2 million people died due to lack of food, and up to half of all children who survived show signs of stunted growth due to the extreme malnutrition they suffered. Citizens began eating grass and weeds, picking pieces of undigested corn out of animal feces they found on the road, and in 1997, the government began executing people who stole food or who stole materials they could sell in order to purchase food. The hospitals, which lacked heat or food, admitted ill people, but eventually patients stopped coming. Why bother, when the doctors could do nothing for them?

Ms. Demick tells the story of North Korean brutality through the stories of several people who eventually ended up defecting, which isn’t as common as I would have thought- but now that I have a clearer picture of just how merciless the regime truly is, I understand both why escaping would be so daunting, and why so many might not want to escape. The propaganda is endless, woven into every aspect of life in the country, right down to children’s math problems about killing American and Japanese soldiers. Knowing that your neighbors are listening in on your every word, even thinking the wrong thought probably feels terrifying.

This is a deeply heartbreaking book, but I don’t regret reading it at all, and if anything, I regret that I hadn’t read it sooner. If you know little about the country other than the alarming nuclear threats that pop up in the news from time to time, I highly recommend Nothing to Envy. This is a book that will stick with me.

Visit the book’s website.

Follow Barbara Demick on Twitter.