nonfiction

This Land Is Our Land: An Immigrant's Manifesto- Suketu Mehta

Immigration has been a hot topic the past few years, and I think we’ve all seen how ugly that conversation can get. I’ve mentioned many times on this blog (I think…) that I’m married to an immigrant (who is also a citizen, and a veteran, thankyouverymuch); his family moved to this country when he was three, and I spend a lot of time thinking about how difficult a move this must have been on my mother-in-law. Three children, one of whom was a baby, a new language (that she’d studied in school, but the difference between learning in school and actual spoken language is pretty major), a husband who traveled more often than he was home, I’m not sure I could have managed all of that, but she did, and I’m in awe of her. I do my best to include marginalized voices in my reading, and that very much includes immigrant voices, so I knew I had to read This Land Is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto by Suketu Mehta (Vintage Digital, 2019) when I learned about it.

Bursting with pages upon pages of footnotes and sources to back up the argument that immigration is necessary and beneficial, This Land Is Our Land covers all facets of immigration: the who and the why (they’re here because we- our country- were most likely there, in their country, exploiting it until a living could no longer be made and its citizens were forced to leave in order to provide for their families), the many wheres and the how (and the dangers of that how). This is world history- England’s brutality in India, Belgian’s brutal, bloody rule over the Congo, the United States overthrowing the government in Guatemala and funding death squads in El Salvador (and, once again, they’re here because we were there. Mr. Mehta describes this as, “You break it, you buy it,” and I think that sums it up perfectly). There are stories that escaped my previous learning, such as Chiquita Brand’s (yes, the banana company) involvement in supporting paramilitary and drug trafficking groups in order to protect their workers, and stories that I’d learned about years ago (if you’ve never read anything about Belgium’s involvement in the Congo, I highly, highly recommend King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild). There’s a lot of heartbreaking, infuriating information in this book that will have you stopping to take a deep breath and wondering why and how we can continue to perpetuate such atrocities against our fellow man.

But this is also contains great beauty, offering statistics and anecdotes (more statistics than anecdotes) of how societies flourish when we open our doors and welcome the stranger. In almost every case and in every way, society is made stronger and more economically powerful when immigrants join us. The benefits are not always immediate, and there are instances where it’s a long-term investment, but the research is overwhelmingly clear: immigrants are beneficial to societies and we need more immigration, not less.

Despite the heavy subject and often painful examples of the horrific maltreatment of immigrants, this is a quick read that will present any native born citizen of any country with a more nuanced take on their immigrant neighbor than they may have had before. It would be nice to see this book appear as required reading in high schools, college classes, book clubs, and community reads, because frankly, we as a society and as a world have a lot to learn in the way of compassion for those who have left their homelands behind.

Visit Suketu Mehta’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Made From Scratch: Discovering the Pleasures of a Handmade Life- Jenna Woginrich

I have hobbies other than reading. (I hear you all gasping. I know. It’s scandalous.) I knit- nothing fancy, but hats and mittens and scarves and baby blankets and whatnot are all in my arsenal. I do a little crocheting- I’m still slowly plugging away at that giant blue blanket. I’m working on a cross-stitched table runner that my grandma had started before she passed away. I do a little sewing, we’re planning on expanding our garden this year, I cook almost everything we eat from scratch, I bake, I play a few different musical instruments (I mean, not professionally or anything, but I do okay). Basically, I enjoy a lot of the same things my great-grandparents did, aided by lightning-fast internet videos to grow my skills, and it’s because of this that Made From Scratch: Discovering the Pleasures of a Handmade Life by Jenna Woginrich (Storey Publishing, 2008) ended up on my TBR. One of the greatest pleasures of my life is reading books by or about people who are different than me in some way, but sometimes it’s nice to read books by or about people with whom I share something in common.

Mostly memoir but partly how-to, Jenna Woginrich moved to northern Idaho for a job, but also in search of a more handmade life, one where her food, her clothing, and her entertainment were more of her own creation and not store-bought or piped directly into her house via internet or cable. Gardening, baking, chickens, rabbits, bees, musical instruments, all of these and more became part of her daily routine. Leaning on neighbors and new acquaintances for help, Jenna learned new skills and the hard lessons that come along with living closer to the land (look away for a few minutes during the chapter on rabbits, animal lovers; all-natural lives aren’t always pretty. Though never delving in to gory details, Jenna has to put a rabbit down and it’s obviously not easy for her).

I’m not allowed to keep chickens where I live (and I’m not totally sure I’d personally want to- I have enough living creatures in my house to stress out about already, thank you) and I have no desire to keep rabbits or sled dogs, but I enjoyed this book, both the chapters that resembled my life and the ones that weren’t necessarily pertinent to my interests. Ms. Woginrich is very thoughtful and deliberate about her journey towards a more authentic life, never foolishly jumping in too deep, always venturing step by step down every new path, seeking the advice and tutelage of others who have gone before her. If you’re just starting out, wanting to learn what a more simple life might look like, this is a lovely introduction. I’ve been engaged in a lot of what’s included in this book for years, so while I didn’t necessarily learn anything new, it’s always nice to take a peek into what someone else’s life looks like, and to remember that all these things I’m doing have value. It can be hard to remember that when I’m stressing about what to make for dinner or putting off that pile of mending in order to get more reading done, but those are worthy projects as well, so I’m grateful that these books exist to help me remember that.

Some of the links in her section on research are now outdated and non-existent, but I’m sure anyone looking for more information can spend a few minutes on Google, sorting through links on whatever topic it is you need.

One important note: Ms. Woginrich began her journey to a more simplified life as a single woman with no kids (but employed full-time). Her free time and ability to learn, for example, to play fiddle and garden, is going to look very different than someone who has a spouse and a toddler and older child and all the errands and responsibilities that come along with that. I’m assuming she could do whatever housecleaning she needed and then her house would stay clean and not look like a Category 5 hurricane blew threw every time she turned her back for more than three seconds (LOOKING AT YOU, FAM), and thus had more time to spend enjoying her chickens and playing the dulcimer in the backyard. I’m on a pretty tight schedule around here and spend more time yelling at my daughter to PLEASE FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS HOLY FOR THE LAST TIME PUT YOUR SHOES ON OR YOU CAN GO TO SCHOOL BAREFOOT EVEN THOUGH IT’S NINETEEN DEGREES OUT (actual conversation we had last week), which seriously eats up any free time I could be spending to spin yarn, so my life looks a little different than hers. Don’t feel bad or like you’re not doing enough if you read this and wonder how you’re going to shoehorn in *more* things to do. Do what you can, when you can, and realize that you and the author may be at different places in your lives right now, and there’s nothing wrong with that. (I mention this because there was a time in my life where I would have needed to hear this message. My mom and I went on a tour of local houses once when my son was about two and I was super busy all the time. One of the houses had on display the wife’s collection of quilts that she had sewn, and it was a large, large collection. She wasn’t that much older than I was, and I was feeling horrible about myself, wondering how on earth she had time to DO all of that, and when I said as much to one of the people running the tour, that person happened to mention that the homeowners didn’t have children, and I nearly sobbed with relief, because THAT’S why they had that kind of free time. I felt like I’d totally been mismanaging everything up to that point because I didn’t have stacks upon stacks of homemade quilts!)

This is a lovely little book, a quick read about what a slower life might look like. If you need a little inspiration, you might find some in between these pages. 🙂

Visit Jenna Woginrich’s farm’s website, Cold Antler Farm

Follow her on Twitter

nonfiction

The Newish Jewish Encyclopedia: From Abraham to Zabar's and Everything In Between- Stephanie Butnick, Liel Leibovitz, and Mark Oppenheimer

My current podcast obsession is Unorthodox, the world’s leading Jewish podcast (as the opening goes, and available on whatever app you use to listen to podcasts; Podbean works well with my devices, although it takes up a LOT of space…), by Tablet Magazine. It’s funny, it’s fascinating, it’s at times reverent and irreverent in the best ways, and I love it so much that not only have I been listening to it at night, I also listen to it when I’m cooking and cleaning (well, not so much when the kids are home. It’s hard to listen to anything when I’m interrupted every six seconds to pull something down from a closet shelf, load the WiFi password into another device, cut a string off a sock or an itchy tag off a new shirt, and answer yet another question about the location of some random item). I’ve learned so much from it and added so many books to my TBR because of it, and I look forward to every single new episode (new episodes are out on Thursdays; I listen to those as they come out, but I’m also making my way through the back episodes). And the hosts don’t necessarily always agree with each other on everything, and I don’t always agree with them, but they seriously make it feel like there’s room for disagreement, and I love that. Those hosts, Stephanie Butnick, Liel Leibovitz, and Mark Oppenheimer, have come out with an awesome book, The Newish Jewish Encyclopedia: From Abraham to Zabar’s and Everything in Between (Artisan, 2019), and a few episodes in, I slapped that baby on my TBR, requested it via interlibrary loan, and squealed loudly when it came in.

The Newish Jewish Encyclopedia is history, culture, food, religion, sadness, and joy. Its entries stem from religious figures- biblical, historical, and current- to pop culture (I had zero idea that Michael Landon was Jewish! His given name at birth was Eugene Orowitz), to history (biblical, Israeli, world) and beyond. It covers all aspects of life, because wherever life happens, Jewish people are there, too, changing the world and managing to not just survive, but flourish despite the odds.

You’ll learn Yiddish terms (shpilkes describes my inner state about 99% of the time, LOLSOB), read about horrifying incidents in history (the MS St. Louis, anyone? Babi Yar?), piece together a picture of the founding of Israel and some of its struggles to survive, and be jonesing for a really good bagel by the time you reach the acknowledgements. My sole complaint is that the book came to an end! Fortunately, the authors included in the entries many, many titles to books by Jewish authors and about Jewish subjects, along with movies and documentaries that cover everything from agunot to the Holocaust, that my ravenous appetite for more knowledge will have plenty to feast upon.

This is yet another book that I’ll probably end up buying in the future. Quite a few of the entries had me laughing out loud, and at other times, I was flipping back and forth to reread an entry or glean more information. Having a copy of this on my own shelf to refer back to whenever I want (and I can imagine that I’d pick it up again and again, both because it’s interesting and because my memory tends to be a little Swiss-cheese-ish…) definitely makes sense for me.

If you’re at all interested in any aspect of Judaism, or even if you’re just a student of history and culture, The Newish Jewish Encyclopedia deserves a place on your reading list and your bookshelf.

fiction

Dating by the Book- Mary Ann Marlowe

Diving into a new book by an author you’ve read and enjoyed in the past is like coming home, getting out of your uncomfortable work clothes, and putting on your favorite pair of sweats and a pair of fuzzy slippers. It’s cozy, it’s relaxing, it’s just what you’ve been dreaming about all day long. That’s how I felt about finally being able to dive into Dating by the Book by Mary Ann Marlowe (Kensington, 2019). This book went on my TBR list long before its release date, since I had read Ms. Marlowe’s A Crazy Kind of Love and very much enjoyed it, then subsequently followed her on Twitter and very much enjoyed her as a person as well. Dating by the Book came out in June, but it was available only at the library in the next town, and finally, finally things matched up so that the book was available there and I needed books! (Of course, as soon as I got all those books home that I checked out, literally everything I’d requested via interlibrary loan, even the book I suggested my library BUY and that I wasn’t expecting them to get in until at least January, came in at the same time, so now I’m entirely swamped. Best problem in the world, right?)

Maddie’s a struggling bookstore owner (is there any other kind?) whose problems don’t only stem from the shop, her favorite childhood store which she bought from the deceased owner’s son, and which she’s desperately trying to keep afloat in her tiny hometown. Her own book, the one she actually wrote herself, is due to be released soon, and she’s both excited and nervous. Six months ago, however, her fiancé didn’t show up at their wedding, and Maddie’s still stinging over Peter’s betrayal. She hasn’t been able to date yet, but things may be changing…or at least, Maddie’s trying to change them. Her old boyfriend-turned-rock star is back in town for a bit, attending her store’s book club, and beyond him, there may be sparks with Charlie, another book club member and regular customer. But none with Max- NONE, DID YOU HEAR THAT- her best friend’s brother and Maddie’s childhood friend (whom she once kissed, but nevermind that either), who keeps trying to squeeze his way into her business and her life.

When a three-star review of an early copy of Maddie’s novel hits a nerve, she finds herself unable to walk away and writes the reviewer, a male blogger who goes by the moniker ‘Silver Fox’ an irate (and also drunken) response. Thus begins a correspondence that slowly turns into friendship. Maddie’s able to be more open and honest with Silver Fox than anyone in her life, and his tough questions and commentaries (along with what she’s been learning about her ex-fiancé, who’s still part owner in her struggling bookstore) have her questioning her life choices. The drama is high, both in regards to Maddie’s love life and the dilemma of her barely-limping-along store, but when Silver Fox’s true identity comes out, Maddie will realize what it is she’s really been wanting- and needing- all this time.

Maddie’s far from a tragic figure, but she’s majorly down on her luck at this moment in time, and thus she makes for an easy character to root for. She’s also easy to identify with- how many of us have followed a dream or two, only to have them backfire on us? Ms. Marlowe’s style is so friendly, so easily readable, that reading Maddie’s words were like listening to an old friend chat. And with the book centering around Maddie’s bookstore and book club, literary references and conversations abound. Book lovers rejoice!

I had to laugh when I turned to the page where Maddie goes full-on Author Behaving Badly and types out a drunken hate-mail to Silver Fox when he picks apart her novel on his book blog. In that moment, she’s the epitome of What Not To Do to a book blogger, and it’s obvious that Ms. Malone has done her research and kept her ear to the ground in terms of author-blogger drama (well done!). Maddie’s response is a total cringefest, which made it super fun to read, being on the Silver Fox side of things (I haven’t received hate mail, fortunately, but I’ve received author comments on negative reviews in the past, and that’s uncomfortable enough). It had been so long since I’d added the book to my TBR that I’d forgotten there was a blogger component at all (although Ms. Marlowe does mention us in the dedications! See photo below), so this was a seriously fun surprise.

Maddie’s a little confused, romantically, about what she wants and where she should end up, ping-ponging back and forth between her attraction to different guys. While this did bother me initially, the more I thought about it, it makes sense. Maddie’s trying to rebuild emotionally after having what she thought was her perfect future crushed to bits. Everything had been mapped out perfectly (or what she’d thought of as perfectly at the time), and when Peter didn’t show up at their wedding and subsequently moved back to the city, leaving her to struggle with the bookstore alone, everything that she thought had been set in store became far more precarious. Add this to the fact that Maddie’s been looking for a place to belong since she was young. Adopted by a couple where the father died almost immediately after she joined them, Maddie spent a lot of her childhood at the neighbor’s, a warm, welcoming family who made her feel at home (her mother does make appearances in the book and is a lovely character. She and Maddie have a great relationship, but obviously Mom hadn’t expected to be raising her as a single mother). She’s trying to figure out what she wants and is viewing the men in her life as stand-ins for the male romantic leads in the books she loves, but at this point, it’s a distractionary technique in order to avoid taking a harder look at what Peter’s destruction has wrought upon her life, what his control and manipulation did to her, and what she truly wants and needs.

Maddie returned to live in her hometown as an adult, and with the exception of one character, the town seems to have aged particularly gracefully, something I appreciated, because I cannot say about my own hometown; my best friend and I have discussed whether the people there were always terrible or if that’s been a new development. After close scrutiny, it’s easy to see that the racism and misogyny was always there and we weren’t always aware enough as young children to see it for what it was. It’s just more obvious these days thanks to social media. Maddie’s hometown, however, is home, warm and friendly and supportive. It plays a huge part in the conflict between Maddie and her ex, so the town being as accessible and welcoming as it is makes it a lot easier to root for Maddie despite her yikes-please-don’t-hit-send behavior with Silver Fox.

There are shades of You’ve Got Mail, the Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan rom cot set in a book shop and over email, so if you’re a fan, Dating by the Book may be right up your alley. Reviews are mixed on Goodreads; some people thought Maddie was too passive, others found her selfish (if you can’t be a little selfish after being dumped at the altar, when can you be?), while still others wanted more from the male characters. For me, this worked just fine, and it was a nice, light read. Every book isn’t right for every reader, and that’s okay! 🙂

Check out Mary Ann Marlowe’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Guest House for Young Widows: Among the Women of ISIS- Azadeh Moaveni

You ever go into a book thinking you’re getting one thing and then you wind up with another thing entirely? It’s kind of like ordering a pizza, but when the deliveryman knocks at your door, instead of a large with extra cheese, you get a platter of oysters. Now, plenty of people enjoy oysters; they’re served at some of the finest restaurants in the world, but when you were expecting a hot, gooey, cheese-covered pizza, that oyster platter may leave you puzzled.

That’s how I felt about Guest House for Young Widows: Among the Women of Isis by Azadeh Moaveni (Random House, 2019). With a title like that, I was very much expecting the book to be focused entirely on the women of ISIS. What inspired them to travel to Syria, what their lives were like before they arrived and after, what kept them there and what made them leave (if they could or did). And while Ms. Moaveni does include these stories, they’re more like brief interludes into the story of the conflict of Syria and the creation of ISIS. It’s a complex story, to be sure, and this book is very well-written; I would expect nothing less from Ms. Moaveni, who is a Pulitzer Prize finalist. But the text of the book is overwhelmingly about the conflict itself; the stories of the women are briefly wedged into a larger narrative about the war in Syria. Some chapters have a few paragraphs about a woman’s story or her situation, and the rest follows the story of the war.

I kept waiting for the focus to be more on the women, and in the last twenty pages or so, it finally turns that way, only to introduce women not mentioned at all through the rest of the book. I’d really been hoping to get a better, deeper look into the mindset and daily life of these women who left behind fairly normal lives (albeit some poverty-stricken, others depressing), often in Western countries, to join ISIS, and while the brief pictures painted show bleak ones, I was expecting quite a different book based on the title and the blurb. So while this is absolutely a masterful piece of writing, it wasn’t at allwhat I expected it to be.

One thing that really stood out in the book was the story of the British teenagers (known as the Bethnal Green trio) that ran away from home to Syria, in order to become ISIS brides. The police knew they were trying to leave beforehand, but didn’t inform the girls’ parents. Related incidents at school also weren’t mentioned to the families. The parents had no idea of the girls’ plans; they were all good students with no issues at school, and religious parents generally don’t think to question increased piety and modesty in their children. How three fifteen year-olds were able to purchase plane tickets and get on planes, unaccompanied, and fly to foreign countries is beyond me. It seemed like there were a lot of times the story could have been stopped before it started, but too many people dropped the ball.

That said, these girls were fifteen when they left. Not legal adults, below the age of consent, at the age where society knows they’re still apt to make terrible, illogical decisions, and there’s some scary vitriol thrown their way by certain commentators, calling the girls ‘whores’ and demanding that any attempts by the government to return the girls to their parents (the police and the government didn’t seem to be doing much, if anything) be dropped. I’m by no means excusing their actions; leaving their families to join ISIS is obviously deeply horrifying, with terrible consequences for them (two of the girls are dead; one has watched all three of her children, which she gave birth to by the age of nineteen, die) and for the world. But I’m also far more reluctant to call fifteen year old girls whores and throw their entire lives out like trash than others, apparently. I hadn’t heard of these girls before this book, so this particular story was an eye-opener.

So tell me, dear readers: have you had this happen before, that a book turns out to be quite different from what the back cover or inside flap portrays it as? I’m pretty sure this has happened to me in the past, though not anytime recently. The reviews for this book on Goodreads are quite high, and I almost feel like I’m missing something, because my takeaways are so different from everyone else…

Visit Azadeh Moaveni’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

Mini reviews

Mini-reviews: Part II of Catching Up

Here we are again, folks! I’m catching up on reviews before the end of the year, and while I’d much rather that each book had its own individual post, sometimes we have to cram in our reviews any way we can. After this post, I’ll be caught back up, so that’ll be nice. (Until I’m behind again, which wouldn’t happen if people would stop needing me to do things other than read and blog…)

Let’s get this wrapped up!

The Chai Factor by Farah Heron (Harper Avenue, 2019). This is what I was reading when my hellacious migraine struck, so it took me longer than I wanted to get through. Amira Khan has moved back in with her grandmother, mother, and much younger sister to finish up her final paper for engineering grad school. She wasn’t expecting to have to share the basement with a barbershop quartet, nor was she expecting to get caught up in their drama. This is a lovely multicultural romance; Amira is Indian-Canadian and Muslim, and the book has a lot of great scenes that deal with issues from and which expose the reader to her particular community (and will have you scrambling to place an order from your favorite local Indian restaurant, because Ms. Heron’s constant mentions of food did exactly that for me. I’d rather eat Indian than any other cuisine in the world). Amira and Duncan’s relationship is super cute, and while Amira is kind of a prickly and defensive character, the reasons for that are entirely valid. I enjoyed this.

Before They Pass Away by Jimmy Nelson (teNeues, 2013). This is a stunning book of photography, with a little bit of text in multiple languages, about isolated cultures that are struggling to survive and exist as the world encroaches on them. The photos are intense and beautiful, showcasing different traditions of dress (and occasionally lack thereof; keep this in mind if you have curious children to whom you’re not ready to explain differences in genitalia and cultural expectations of who should keep what covered and when) and bodily decoration, as well as the landscapes, some of them daunting, where these groups each live. This is an utterly enormous book, to the point where it was somewhat painful to carry, so maybe have an extra set of arms or a wagon if you’re going to check this out of your local library.

Becoming Eve: My Journey from Ultra-Orthodox Rabbi to Transgender Woman by Abby Chava Stein (Seal Press, 2019). Abby Chava Stein grew up in a Hasidic community in Brooklyn, one of the most gender-segregated communities out there. Born a boy, she knew from a young age that she was actually a girl, but she received the message early on that acting anything other than what was considered typical for a boy in her community was unacceptable. She struggled her whole life, trying to cram herself into the role her community demanded of her, but ultimately made the decision to live as the person she is and not who others wanted her to be. This is a very life-affirming book; I was in awe of her strength, both to survive in such a constricting community for as long as she did, and for finally making the painful choice to leave. The book covers more of her early life, while only briefly alluding to how she left and what the aftermath of that looked like, so I’m extremely hopeful that there will be a follow-up memoir.

What the Wind Knows by Amy Harmon (Lake Union Publishing, 2019). A time travel romance set against the backdrop of Ireland’s struggle for independence from England in the 1920’s. I didn’t know much about this subject, so this was a delight, and I’m absolutely in awe of Ms. Harmon’s research skills. Ireland is as much of a character as anyone else in the novel, and I love that Michael Collins is a large presence in the book. This would make for a fabulous book club read; the romance is never explicit, and the focus of the novel is far more set on the historical aspects of the story and the complex emotional relationships between all of the characters, past and present. I’m very curious about Ms. Harmon’s other novels after reading this!

And that’s it! I’m now caught up and will *crosses fingers* hopefully stay that way, although no promises! The treadmill of life just keep speeding up and I can’t quite manage to keep up the pace…

reading life

AND HALT!: The Things That Get Us to STOP Reading

As book bloggers, bookworms, and book lovers, there are so many things that cause us to pick up a book (or twenty): a gorgeous cover, a new title from a beloved author, that next book in the series we adore, a novel that features our favorite trope or a nonfiction title about a favorite subject, a recommendation from a friend or fellow book blogger, a title with an upcoming in-theaters film, the list goes on and on.

But we all know far too well that there are just as many things that cause us to throw the brakes and our reading comes to a screeching halt, most of the time unwillingly, and today, I want to talk about all the reasons why we might put those books down.

(I’m cringing even thinking about it, to be honest.)

Let’s do this!

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PAIN

This comes first, because I’ve dealt with this this year, and it was the cause of my longest period of not reading. Right now, my diagnosis stands at degenerative disc disease, sacroiliac joint dysfunction, and spinal arthritis. There might be more, but digging for answers (and then the ensuing treatment for those answers) is prohibitively expensive here in the US, so right now, I’m letting it stand at that.

A massive chronic pain flareup, like the one I experienced in October this year, wreaks absolute havoc with reading time. On normal pain days (because there are no pain-free days!), reading helps me escape, but during an acute flare, the pain demands so much of my attention that trying to focus on anything is like trying to watch the television with a radio blasting behind you at full volume. Keeping your mind focused on the television- or your book- takes an exhausting amount of mental energy, a difficult feat when you’re already worn from being in pain all day.

So what’s a chronic pain sufferer to do? If you can stay awake for them, audiobooks might help here; I simply read a few chapters at a time, and then lost myself in a podcast until I fell asleep. Eventually the flare passes, but not having an end date in sight makes it tough…Hang in there, my fellow pain warriors!

****

Real Life

This is probably the #1 reason that keeps us all from reading. Real life. School. Family. KIDS. Chores. Work. Places to go, people to see, things to do, all those obligations outside of the house that you just can’t weasel out of and end up spending the entire time there longing for your book and cozy reading chair.

These are rough times, my friends. While some situations can be audiobook-appropriate (work commutes, time spent maintaining the lawn or doing solo chores like running for groceries), if you’ve got small children that require constant supervision, you can’t always plug in and tune the world out. What’s a reader to do, beyond weeping in frustration?

Long stretches of uninterrupted reading time is obviously our ideal, but when life gets busy, the best you can do is to steal snatches of time here and there in order to get any reading done. Read on the kindle phone app while you’re waiting in line at the store. Read a paragraph here and there while you’re waiting for the noodles to boil during dinner prep. Read five minutes, a chapter, a PAGE, before you fall asleep at night.

(Read while you’re using the bathroom. Let’s just admit that that’s something we all do and there’s no shame. If Paul McCartney can play his guitar in there, we can get our reading on in there!)

This too shall pass-kind of the motto in regards to no-reading situations, amirite???- although never quickly enough for those who love nothing better than getting lost in a good book.

Social Media and Other Technological Timesucks

Twitter. Facebook. Instagram. YouTube. NETFLIX, for pete’s sake.

“I’ll just go on and check a few posts, scroll for a few minutes, watch one episode, search for one thing,” we say to ourselves, that book we’ve been dying to get to nestled by our side, just waiting for us to pick it up and dive right in. “No biggie. Just a few minutes.”

Five hours later, we’re arguing with a racist grandmother from Sheboygan.

Social media and the glory that is Netflix are awesome for so many reasons. Connecting with people who share our interests, listening to voices that have been marginalized in the past but can now be amplified if we choose to do so (and we should!), learning fascinating new things (and, uh, sometimes things that aren’t entirely useful but still interesting, because we’ve all fallen down a rabbit hole of searching for one particular thing, like a certain Harry Potter spell, and coming up for air two hours later on a website about, say, medieval tool usage and its affect on modern day pop music),that movie we missed with friends, there are so many reasons to enjoy the many websites and apps that allow us to forge new connections with each other.

But unfortunately, these sites are also a MAJOR time suck, and when reading time is already at a minimum, blowing forty minutes scrolling through Twitter is a LOT of that reading time down the tubes.

It’s hard to stash the social media and back away from binge watching, and everyone’s method will look different- turn off your phone? Leave it in another room? Read away from the computer?- but the constant pull we all feel towards keeping up-to-date every single second is something every reader needs to learn to deal with.

Books That Don’t Do It For Us

It happens to the best of us. We grab our next great read off the shelf, one that’s come highly recommended or that we’ve been anticipating for ages, only to find…it’s not great.

It might even be awful.

It’s a terrible feeling of disappointment, occasionally of anger, maybe even a little grief in there if the book came from the desk of a favorite author (and especially if that author has written something at odds with our sense of morality). Whatever the reason, putting down a book you’d hoped to enjoy often leaves us with conflicting emotions.

But there’s no shame in DNF-ing; we’re all readers who are strong in our opinions and what we love in our books, and if something isn’t working for us, it’s always okay to put that book down and move on to the next one.

And there’s always a next one!

Unless…

*cue ominous music*

…you find yourself in…

The Dreaded Reading Slump

We’ve all been there. We dive into our latest read, ready to get lost in its world, and…

MEH.

It’s not grabbing us, and we *know* it’s not the book, we can tell the writing is tight, the plot is fast-paced, so we try another book…and another…and another.

All MEH.

MEH, MEH, MEH.

Our brain has quit, our bookworm has burrowed deep into a tight cocoon, and our reading mojo is out the door, leaving us desolate, desperate, and grasping for something, anything to do to fill the hours previously taken up by our most favorite of all hobbies. We don’t even FEEL like reading right now, and it’s a feeling completely alien to us as readers. WHO EVEN ARE WE WITHOUT BOOKS???

So many blog posts and articles have been written (great ones, too!) on how to avoid or pull oneself out of a reading slump. I don’t know that there’s a one-size-fits-all remedy, and it may be that every slump is different and what works for this year’s slump may not work for next year’s. But reader friends, when you slump, you’re not alone, and you’re still part of this brilliant, beautiful community of book bloggers that we’ve all created (and that goes for being on posting hiatus as well!). We’re still here to support you, and who knows, maybe a fellow blogger’s post is what will strike a chord in you and get you excited about turning pages again!

And then there’s the scary one…

BOOK INTIMIDATION

Have you ever walked by a book on a shelf and wished you HAD read that…but you’re too intimidated to actually read it?

This happens a lot with hefty nonfiction tomes and novels of classic literature, things we feel we should read but worry we won’t be able to get through. Maybe we expect the book to be too dry or the style too difficult. Maybe we worry we’re not smart enough to ‘get’ it. Remember all those times in school when we learned that the blue curtains in a novel symbolized the author’s depression and weren’t just blue curtains because the author liked the color blue, and we all sat there going, “…seriously? They can’t just be blue curtains?” Experiences like these prime us for a lifetime of literary self-doubt, and instead of deciding that books can be read on multiple levels, we think, “Well, this stuff clearly isn’t for people like me,” and we turn tail and run. And in doing so, who knows what life-changing books we might be missing out on?

How many books do you have on your shelves right now that you’re scared of?

This is a problem I’ve been tackling in my own life for years. When my son was young, I used to read out loud to him while he played, like his own personal audiobook, except instead of solely reading Dr. Seuss and Margaret Wise Brown, I’d read Charles Dickens and Mary Shelley while he drove toy cars around the living room. He was five when he started interrupting me to ask what a word meant or why a character did something so foolish (this was during a reading of Great Expectations); don’t ever underestimate how much a child can absorb! Reading aloud helped me to get through a large number of classics that I never would’ve felt smart enough to read silently on my own, and in doing so, I greatly increased my reading confidence.

My daughter was a little too screechy for me to do this (and believe me, I tried!), so now that she’s in school and things are a little quieter here, I’m tackling some harder books, reading a single chapter or a small number of pages per day. Because when it comes down to it, these books, the ones that have us shaking our heads and going, “I don’t think I can…”

They’re just words. Words on paper.

And we’re not going to let words scare us, are we? We’re book bloggers and book lovers. We’re a pretty fiesty, determined bunch. It’s time to face those fears head on and tell them, “You know what? I can do this. Getting those huge books read slowly is still getting them read. TAKE THAT, BOOK INTIMIDATION!”

****

Logic would hold that for people who love books so much, one might have to pry each and every book out of our cold, dead hands, but sometimes, our reader brains aren’t all that logical (case in point: how many of us have gleefully purchased a much longed-for book, only to have it collect dust on our shelves for years? *raises hand, waves it wildly*). There are times for all of us when our reading grinds to a complete stop, and while it’s often an uncomfortable situation, it’s absolutely normal.

We may be readers, but we’re a lot of other things, too, and that’s what makes us such an interesting bunch.

What stops you from reading???

Mini reviews

Mini-reviews: a catch-up post!!!

ARGH!!! I told myself I would never do this, but I’ve been a terrible mixture of swamped and exhausted lately. The migraine I had at the beginning of December had me feeling terrible for a week, and I’ve been running around like crazy trying to get things done for the holidays and by the end of the year (which of course means that my daughter is home sick today!). All that has put me so many reviews behind that there’s no way I’ll catch up by the end of the year, but I don’t want to ignore those books entirely. Thus, a mass post of tiny reviews!

Ready? Let’s get this post started.

Love Thy Neighbor: A Muslim Doctor’s Struggle for Home in Rural America by Ayaz Virji (Convergent Books, 2019). This was a beautiful, moving book. Dr. Virji had a pretty good life as a doctor in a big city, but with rural towns in dire need of medical professionals, he felt called to serve humanity and his fellow Americans by moving his family to rural Minnesota and setting up practice there. And in doing so, he found both a sense of home and fierce racism and bigotry.

This is an absolute must-read; Dr. Virji’s perspective is absolutely eye-opening on what Muslims face, especially when they’re the only Muslims in the area. It’s a beautiful and heartbreaking book and should definitely top your TBR list.

No Laughter Here by Rita Williams-Garcia (Amistad, 2003). Akilah and Victoria have been best friends for a few years. Akilah loves Victoria’s accent and her stories of world travel, but when Victoria comes back from her summer in Nigeria, something’s terribly wrong. She won’t smile, she won’t laugh, she won’t even speak to Akilah, who can’t figure out what she did wrong. Little by little, Akilah works to gain her friend’s trust again, only to find out that in Nigeria, Victoria’s family forced her to undergo female genital mutilation, and she’s been massively traumatized by it.

This is a middle grade novel and it’s devastating and unfortunately necessary. The author points out at the end that while this might seem like a too-sensitive subject to bring up to middle school-aged girls, it’s girls of those same ages that undergo genital mutilation, so yes, this is exactly the book for girls that age. This would make for a fabulous mother-daughter read, or a mother-daughter book club, especially one looking to expand cultural awareness and issues that affect women and girls the world over.

Jesus Girls: True Tales of Growing Up Female and Evangelical, edited by Hannah Faith Notess (Cascade Books, 2009). This is a collection of essays, written by various authors, on their varying experiences of growing up as evangelical Christians. Their experiences run the gamut; for some, it worked out well and they remained in the fold, and others found their connection with the sacred in other ways and in other places. I didn’t find this particularly riveting, to be honest, but it was a pleasant-enough weekend read.

To Life! A Celebration of Jewish Being and Thinking by Harold S. Kushner (Grand Central Publishing, 1994). This is a reread for me; I don’t often reread books, but it’s been a few years and I was curious as to how my perspective of it had changed. It’s a great primer if you’ve never read anything on Judaism before and are curious. The reread taught me that I still indeed enjoy this book very much; Rabbi Kushner has a lovely perspective on religion and God that I can often relate to. He’s probably best known for his bestseller, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, which he wrote in the aftermath of his teenage son’s death from progeria. It’s also worth your time if you’re struggling with some of the darker aspects of life.

An Unorthodox Match by Naomi Ragen (St. Martin’s Press, 2019). I’d tried one of Naomi Ragen’s novels years ago and ended up DNF’ing it, but this sounded interesting so I figured I’d try her again. Leah (called Lola by her flighty, hippie mother) is dissatisfied with all of her life and decides to leave everything behind and join an extremely insular ultraorthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn. Almost immediately, she begins helping in the home of Yaakov, a widower with five children (including a deeply angry teenage daughter), whose life has been upended after his wife’s untimely death. Even though they’ve never actually met, they start to fall in love, but their community and family aren’t so sure about this match.

The premise of this book sounded fascinating, but every single character in this book (minus maybe the grandmother, after a while) engaged in such singular black-and-white thinking that I was annoyed almost from the start. Things are either this way or that, and ZERO in-between. Leah, for all her pious leanings, treated her mother terribly and engaged in constant judgment of others whilst bemoaning that they were judging her. Yaakov was ready to toss his teenage daughter out like yesterday’s spoiled food; Leah’s mother was a mere parody of a person, and there are multiple shocking incidents of racism and an uncomfortable-at-best depiction of autism that are casually included by the author and that nearly made me drop the book. This book had such potential to be interesting, but I don’t feel like I can recommend it at all.

Here All Along: Finding Meaning, Spirituality, and a Deeper Connection to Life- In Judaism (After Finally Choosing to Look There!) by Sarah Hurwitz (Spiegel & Grau, 2019). I absolutely adored this book. It’s brief parts memoir, but mostly more nonfiction about Judaism. There are a few write-ups and breakdowns of holidays and practices, but moreso it’s a theological discussion of the differing Jewish perspectives of what God is and isn’t, what that means and looks like in practice, and how belief doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing thing. I deeply appreciated Ms. Hurwitz’s take on things; she presents ideas and thoughts about God that made a lot of sense to me. Some were her own; others came from current rabbis and rabbis throughout the ages. I took down multiple pages of notes from this book, and it gave me a lot to think about. Highly, highly recommended if you’re interested in reading about religion!

Okay, I’ll wrap this up here, so as to not make it a MEGAPOST that no one will read, and I’ll continue on with a second post of mini-reviews on Monday. Happy reading, friends! 🙂

fiction · YA

Love From A to Z- S.K. Ali

Look what was FINALLY in at the library, you guys! I could have put it on hold, but I had plenty of other books to read in the meantime, but finally, FINALLY I went and Love From A to Z by S.K. Ali (Salaam Reads, 2019) was on the shelf! SQUEEEEEEEEE!!! I really enjoyed her Saints and Misfits this summer and was really looking forward to reading this one. The two books are quite different, but Love From A to Z didn’t disappoint one bit.

Zayneb is headed to Qatar to spend time with her aunt after being suspended from school after an incident with a racist, bigoted teacher. Adam is heading home to Qatar after leaving university, a fresh diagnosis of multiple sclerosis- the disease that killed his mother- taking up the majority of the real estate in his brain. Their brief encounter in the airport and on the airplane sets the tone for what becomes a friendship, because- surprise!- Adam’s family and Zayneb’s aunt know each other. It really is a small world.

Things are always more complicated than they seem, though. Adam’s terrified to tell his still-grieving father and adoring younger sister about his diagnosis, and his condition seems to be worsening. Zayneb is struggling to deal with the fallout of the racism and bigotry she left behind at home (and which seems to have followed her to Qatar as well). Both of them are trying to appreciate the marvels and oddities of life, while learning how to be honest with their parents and with each other, and taking life one step at a time.

(Content warnings for Islamaphobia, racism, bigotry, microaggressions, death of a parent, chronic illness, death of a grandparent, a few mentions of some grisly world events, and grief.)

This? Is a lovely, lovely book. Entirely heartfelt, with characters who seem so very real. Adam is sweet, charming, and grappling with what his diagnosis will mean for his family and for his future. He so badly wants to protect his sister and father from more pain and hates that he can’t. Zayneb is angry at the unfairness of her hideous teacher (who really is a jerk) and hates how powerless she feels, but along with her friends back home, she’s working to take back some of that power. She’s also exploring new aspects of her personality with the new friends she meets in Qatar, while still remaining entirely dedicated to her Muslim faith (her “Of course not, scarf for life” quip made me grin).

This book is representation to the max for Muslim readers, which I love, both for Muslim readers and for readers like me who get to learn and see Muslim characters as the heroes. (And sometimes cringe heavily at the racism, bigotry, and cringeworthy questions, comments, and microaggressions directed their way. There’s a scene where Zayneb wraps her childhood baby blanket around her when she’s sad over the loss of her grandmother and is answering the door with no time to ‘scarf up,’ as she puts it, and a non-Muslim character asks if that was something she had to wear when people die, ostensibly for religious reasons. *cringe* It’s better to ask than to assume, but I feel like it’s my responsibility to learn as much as I can in order to not necessarily be asking questions…like that one.) Qatar is a fascinating place to set a novel and I loved being able to see it through the eyes of two teenagers.

I got to thinking as I was reading the novel… Zayneb and Adam are both religious and very dedicated to their shared Muslim faith (Adam’s father converted when he was young, and Adam eventually followed in his father’s footsteps, which gave the novel a really interesting perspective), but this novel absolutely shines in ways that the Christian fiction I’ve read (most of it, anyway) hasn’t, and I’ve been pondering why these two types of novels, where faith is a major player, feel so different. In Ali’s novels, there’s no proselytizing; there’s no shaming for lower or different levels of observance. Faith is up to each character personally and is portrayed as their own private journey and not something that their neighbor is watching in on, ready to pounce and point them back to the right path. There’s no overall message of having to be or do or believe in a certain way; faith just is, but isn’t pushed. This is fiction where the characters are religious, but whose author has no religious agenda and that’s something I appreciated. It’s been a few years since I’ve read any Christian fiction (Always the Baker, Never the Bride by Sandra D. Bricker was pretty good and, from what I remember, is a good example of Christian fiction that isn’t at all pushy in its message), so maybe the genre has changed since then? Love From A to Z felt like a breath of fresh air in that regard, though, and it’s something I’m still considering.

S.K. Ali goes onto my list of authors I’ll automatically read, and I’m very much looking forward to whatever it is she puts out next. Her characters are vibrant, and she makes them come alive, flaws and all. She’s such an exciting voice in YA fiction and I’m absolutely hooked on her writing.

Today only- that’s December 12, 2019- this book is available FOR FREE on RivetedLit.com, so what are you waiting for? GO GET IT!!!!!!!!!

Visit S.K. Ali’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Unfollow: A Journey From Hatred to Hope- Megan Phelps-Roper

The second I learned about Unfollow: A Journey From Hatred to Hope by Megan Phelps-Roper (riverrun 2019), I went running to Goodreads and smashed that Want to Read button. I’ve been a rubbernecker at the nightmare that is the Westboro Baptist Church for years, and I’ve also read and enjoyed both Girl on a Wire: Walking the Line Between Faith and Freedom in the Westboro Baptist Church by Libby Phelps with Sara Stewart, and Banished: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church by Lauren Drain. So it was only natural that I read what Megan had to say, and as luck would have it, Unfollow appeared the next day on my library’s “These books are coming out next week, reserve them now!” shelf. I did indeed reserve it immediately, and I was the second person on the list (who ARE you, other cool local person??? We could be such good friends!).

Megan Phelps-Roper was born into the Westboro Baptist church, famous for their signs with foul statements about who or what God is currently hating, used to picket such occasions as funerals of dead soldiers. Despite the family’s constant spewing of hatred making international news, Megan’s upbringing seemed this side of normal. Her extended family lived mostly on the same block, she and her siblings were pushed to excel in school, and she never longed for company, as she was one of many children. And Megan had no reason to question her family’s aggressively hateful messages: she loved and trusted her parents and grandparents. Why wouldn’t they be telling her the truth about God? She happily and eagerly participated in their protests that caused so many others such pain.

Her story of growth and escape aren’t an immediate one. Through her use of social media to spread the church’s message, she gets to know her followers on Twitter and several of them plant seeds of logic that begin to germinate in her mind. Things begin not sitting quite right over a period of time, and eventually, Megan and her sister find their way out, striking out on their own in a world they’ve never really lived in. It takes time, but eventually she finds what she truly believes and how wrong her church was. Through it all, though, she never loses sight of how much her parents loved her, and how difficult this very necessary break is for everyone.

Megan Phelps-Roper has written what I think is the strongest so far of the post-Westboro memoirs. She shies away from nothing, including the more hideous parts of Westboro’s protests and her eagerness to take part in them, and for that, I give her a lot of credit. It’s really not easy to admit when you’ve been so wrong about something that has hurt so many people, and she makes it obvious that she’s done the work to extricate herself from the hurtful beliefs she grew up with (also something that’s not easy). Her pain at losing almost her entire family is obvious, and it was easy to feel compassion for her. Her writing really does an amazing job of separating the parents we know from TV interviews and footage (her mother is Shirley Phelps-Roper), and the mother who cared for her when she was sick and lovingly answered her many questions. That takes some serious writing skill to pull that off, as I’m obviously no fan of Shirley’s.

Her exit from the church and from her family is really the most intriguing part of this. The relationships she developed over Twitter and the thoughtful replies from these people were the beginning of the end for her, although she never would have thought of it that way when she first began connecting with them. It made me think about how I respond to those with whom I disagree on social media (usually with facts and pointing out the gaps in their logic; sometimes snark leaks through…), because without these people (and no spoilers, but there are two really interesting ones!), Megan might never have left. That’s pretty huge.

What a fascinating book. Is it okay to say you’re proud of someone you’ve never met? Megan Phelps-Roper seems like a genuinely decent person who was born into a bad situation and never had any reason to question it until just the right people came along and threw up some flashing neon signs that her brain wouldn’t let her forget. I’m proud of her for having the courage to be true to who her heart and soul told her she really was, and for taking the time to learn all that she has once she left. Leaving the majority of her family behind was no easy choice, and I’m proud of her for choosing truth and integrity despite the cost.

Follow Megan Phelps-Roper on Twitter here.